8 leadership lessons I should have already learned if only I listened to my mother

We often say that we want to help our students develop “leadership skills”, and indeed as academics we’re often sent on various sorts of leadership training. While pondering my own forays into leadership, I realised that most of the lessons I was still trying to learn were things that I have been told since I was a child. So, in honour of Mother’s Day, International Women’s Day, and my very own lovely Mum, here are my 8 leadership lessons that I would have already learned if only I listened to my mother when I was little…

1) Don’t fill yourself up with bubbles We weren’t allowed pop very often, so at parties I would drink lots of fizzy drinks, and then would be too full to eat my tea. I’ve realised I do this in leadership too – I get over excited and want to do lots of really interesting and valuable things, and I really have to consciously stop myself and think, will this opportunity or idea actually help me achieve my long term goals? Is it really important? Or am I just filling myself up with bubbles?

2) Put the last toys away before you get out more My bedroom was always a mess, and Mum would always tell me to just leave a bit of time between finishing one game and starting another one, so that you could put things away as you go along. The same is true in leadership – if like me you’re inspired by new challenges, it’s easy to start something fresh before you’ve yielded all the outputs and concluded all the actions in your existing projects. Trying to remember to bring things to full fruition and to be able to evaluate and demonstrate what we’ve achieved is so important, that’s it’s worth making sure you leave time for it, before the next project comes along.

3) Be nice to your sisters! Now generally I don’t find being nice (to my sisters or anyone else) particularly difficult, but there were times when I would say that if they just shut up and did what I told them, that we’d ALL have so much more fun! As you can imagine, that didn’t always go down well! At work, it’s similar – I get on with people well, but when I’m busy or stressed, and things need doing in a particular way, I do resort to just telling people what to do, rather than taking the time to bring them on board in a more supportive way. It’s ironic – I read a fantastic article about how women are generally very good at these softer skills and that these are often unfairly undervalued in the workplace – but I think many leaders would be more effective if they spent MORE time thinking about how their team are feeling, rather than just what needs doing.

4) Sometimes just shut up and do what you’re told As a child, I was incapable of letting adults say something that I disagreed without telling them that they were wrong and exactly why they were wrong. I was a delight! Mum supported my feistiness, but would say that sometimes you just need to let it go. Although I still agree that challenging ideas should be encouraged, I do understand a lot better the importance of picking your battles. Is it important? Is it part of your remit? If not, sometimes as a leader, the best thing you can do is say “you know what, I disagree with this, but let’s just get it done and not waste any more time arguing about it”.

5) Have a sit down, you’re over excited At my birthday parties, I’d be in the middle of it all talking, organising, laughing, screaming, and sometimes it all got a bit much. Mum would always encourage me to come and have a little sit down, watch the others play for a minute until I’d calmed down, and then she’d let me go back and join in. In leadership, I’m really starting to see the value of stepping back, and watching what’s going on for a while. It gives you a much better perspective than always being in the middle without time for reflection. By seeing the bigger picture, you can make better decisions when you get back involved.

6) You’ll feel better after a good night’s sleep Mum would often listen to me being upset about something patiently, and then reassure me that it’ll be better in the morning. And to be honest, she was almost always right. As leaders, this reminds me of two things. Firstly, the importance of looking after ourselves in terms of exercise, diet and rest so that we can be as strong as we can be; this is emphasised in Stephen Covey’s 7th habit about “sharpening the saw”. Secondly, it reminds me not to reply to frustrating emails or difficult issues until after I’ve had a good night’s sleep, so that I can respond in a way that I would be proud of, rather than an immediate (and ill-thought through) reaction.

7) Stop being a baby, you’re a big girl now This sounds harsh! My Mum is an absolutely darling, but she also wanted me to be strong and independent. Even now, I will say to her “I’ve got so much to do and I just don’t know how I’m going to get it done” and she’ll just say “well you better get on and do some work then”. For all the advice about being kind to ourselves, which certainly does have an important role, sometimes we have to just accept that we need to suck it up and get on with what we need to do.

8) No, we’re not nearly there yet You’ll all remember car journeys that went on forever, and the constant refrain from my sisters and I was “are we nearly there yet?” I would be terribly excited about the beginning of the journey and terribly excited about the end of the journey, and hated the slow progress in between. It’s made me realise that from a leadership perspective, we need to make sure that everyone understands where we’re going, and that it’s going to take small steps to get there. Leadership is about the long game, and I’m learning to enjoy and value every part of the journey

To conclude on a lighter note though, I once saw a meme on Facebook that sums this up entirely. It said “if at first you don’t succeed, try doing it the way your Mum told you to in the beginning”. What do you think? What leadership lessons did you learn as a child, and what do you still have to learn?

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