Leadership lessons from Mom

Wisdom to remember

Karen Vernal and her mother, Helen.

Too often, we get stuck believing that there is a “How To,” or “Five Steps” or “7 Qualities of Leadership,” that if embraced, will guarantee the making of a great leader.

We may believe great leadership means successfully running a company or a country, managing people, negotiating deals and winning big. While there is something to be said for each of these beliefs, we often miss important leadership lessons from our own lived experience.

Karen Vernal and her mother, Helen.
Karen Vernal and her mother, Helen.

In recent weeks, I have had the opportunity to consider another lens of leadership. Helen E. Vernal, age 92, died Sept. 19. Helen is my mother. She never led a company or a country. She never managed people, unless you count her four children and husband. She didn’t negotiate deals beyond chores and curfews. And yet, there are significant lessons I have learned from her that I think make a difference for leaders.

Mom’s Leadership Lesson No. 1:  Transform challenges into possibilities

As a young child growing up in Wheeling, West Virginia, I never knew my parents struggled financially. My father was a novice salesman and Mom, a stay-at-home mother with four children.

A month before Christmas for three or four years, my sister’s and my favorite dolls would disappear. Mom would assure us that they had gone to Santa’s workshop and would return Christmas morning. To add to our anticipation, she taught us a song about a little doll that was dropped and broken, that went to Santa’s workshop and returned on Christmas Day.

And, sure enough, Christmas morning, under the tree were our favorite dolls! They were scrubbed clean, hair combed and they were wearing new dresses made from scraps of material my grandmother gave mom. Magic!

A question we invite leaders to consider is a reflection of this lesson.

The question is: “What can we make possible when…”

Mom’s Leadership Lesson No. 2: Believe in yourself

My sisters and brother and I don’t remember when Mom taught us the poem “Thinking” by Walter D. Wintle (1905). We often tease that it was before we were born!

As children and adolescents, when our self-confidence began to erode, or when we were preparing for a test or tryouts for basketball, cheerleading, etc., Mom would have us recite a poem that begins:

“If you think you are beaten, you are;
If you think you dare not, you don’t.
If you’d like to win, but think you can’t,
It’s almost certain you won’t.”

There are three more verses, ending with: “Life’s battles don’t always go, to the stronger or faster wo/man. But sooner or later, the one who wins is the one who thinks s/he can.”

One of the most important roles for any leader is to name and invite the best in those he leads. There are times when a leader needs to believe in others, even when she may not believe in herself.

Mom’s Leadership Lesson No. 3: We only have the moment

In the past several years, Mom lived with Alzheimer’s disease.

Joan Chittister, author of “The Gift of Years” suggests that as we age, we lose our memories so we have the heart space to be present in the moment. I remember sharing that wisdom early on with Mom, when she realized that her memory was fading. We pledged to each other that we would be present to one another in the moment. That would be enough. For five years, we did, and it was!

What is it like when we are in the presence of a leader who is truly present in the moment? What is it like when, in the moment, we are the whole world for the other?

Mom’s Leadership Lesson No. 4: Joy is contagious

It was Easter two years ago. My son, Jonathan, and I took Mom to a lovely Easter brunch.

I had Easter baskets for both Jonathan and Mom. We delighted in her delight as she took each item out of the basket, held it and remarked, “How beautiful” or “This looks delicious.” Once Mom enjoyed examining chocolate eggs and commenting on the foiled rabbit, she returned each to its rightful place in the basket and set the basket down on the floor.

After a few sips of coffee, Mom looked down and saw the basket and exclaimed, “Karen, look! There’s an Easter basket.” She was seeing the basket for the “first” time and repeated the ritual of examining each piece.

Joy. Her joy was contagious. She taught us that you can see the same thing over again and see it for the first time, and repeat joy.

Leaders who live with joy inspire others. Leaders who see the same thing from a different viewpoint expand possibilities.

There are many among us who do not consider themselves leaders. My mother was one of them. Yet we have the possibility of noticing and naming for others what they may not be able to name for themselves.

Thanks, Mom. Thank you for the profound leadership lessons you taught us.  We will remember.

Karen Vernal is the president of Vernal Management Consultants LLC, a Milwaukee-based leadership and organizational firm dedicated to “igniting the spirits and skills of leaders.” The company is one of two firms in the nation to be certified in Emotional Intelligence through the Institute for Health and Human Potential. For more information, visit www.vernalmgmt.com.

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Karen Vernal is executive vice president and chief dreamer for Vernal, LLC (www.ccvernal.com), a Milwaukee based leadership and human resource firm, dedicated to “igniting the spirit and skills of leaders.” As an executive coach/consultant, she was recognized by the Green Bay Packers for her guidance in their organizational planning process. She was also the recipient of the 2011 Marquette University Leadership Excellence Award.

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