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Leadership Lessons I learnt in my journey as a mother

Connecting the dots across parenting and leadership

Originally published at www.linkedin.com

I was brought up to believe, that all that is wise in this universe, speaks from a child’s mouth and if we choose to listen, we hear it. My learning, when I chose to hear, has been immense. I am sure, we are all aware of most of the things I have said below. But sometimes, we need to hear those things again for them to come back to life, not just become a memory.

Get up and walk

My daughter (will call her S) started walking when she was 8.5-month-old. I remember feeling proud and yet, scared at the time. Her legs were not strong enough. She would fall countless number of times. Yet, she never gave up. She also never crawled. She was prepared to fall, she was prepared to get up and walk, every waking moment of her life back then. That is when I realized, that my pride for her achievement, was equally about what held me back as it was for her spirited insistence that she wanted to walk before she could crawl.

I learnt to literally, just do it. She taught me, that I didn’t have to, either. She taught me, that I had to learn to be an entrepreneur, just as she was learning to walk. No one is born with this- you fall, you get up, you try and you learn.

I am mine.

I love playing with my daughter, before she goes to bed. That is a magical time for she is not sleepy yet, but has burnt off enough of her immense energy to slow down to my pace. A few months ago, I took her Bobo (a once bright pink care bear soft toy, now a pillow, human replacement and her absolute favorite person in the world. Did I say person?) and hugged it. She asked me why I was taking her Bobo and I replied that I wanted a hug and because it was hers and she was mine. At that point, she looked me in the eye and said “No mamma, I am not yours. I am mine.” Surprised, I laughed at her and asked what she meant, fully expecting some sort of a “give it back now!” response. But, what she said to me instead, brought together my journey since she was born. “I belong to me, mamma, to S” she repeated.

I belong to me. I am more than the company I work for, the salary I draw, the nationality, the gender or the clothes I wear. I belong to me- my life, my choices, my thoughts are important to me. I owe it to myself to listen and respect me and believe that I am more than the sum of all the adjectives that describe me.

If this sounds simple, think about it, the next time you introduce yourself. Usually, most people say their names, what they do for a living and where they work. You may be saying it because you truly enjoy what you do and where you work. But, if that is not the case, if you sense an awkward pause after you have said your name, find a new line that comes after your name. You might see what I mean.

Life is made of discrete moments.

“S”can giggle, throw a tantrum and fall asleep in spans of five minutes. She usually doesn’t remember what she was sad or angry or happy about, beyond that moment. She moves on. Quickly. She lives in the moment. Yes, that makes her a toddler with attention span of a wink but, when she is giggling, she does it with all her heart and when she throws a tantrum, she does it with all her might. As I experienced unemployment for the first time in many years while I waited to set up my company, I realized, I could choose to feel exhilarated or terrified. And then, I discovered, that just like her, I could feel those and many more emotions, one moment at a time and that it was OK to be that way. She taught me to differentiate between delaying gratification (for a better tomorrow) and fictional finalisms (which is a perfectionist’s quest to find, well, perfection). What we call a past, was full of moments, discrete, beautiful and never empty. It is up to me, to observe them, live them and love them.

It is a new story when you change the old one.

As an avid reader, I took immense pride in making new bed time stories for “S” every day. I thought, stories will bind us together, that I will get her to imagine a whole new world of magic and possibilities. I enjoyed the feeling of being able to come up with new scenarios each time. It made me feel creative and well, clever. What I learnt was that she wanted the story I told her yesterday to remain that way. Even when I thought, I was making it better and more magical, she, enjoyed listening to the same story, told the same way.

I learnt, that I had to make sure that if I was changing the story, setting an additional target, talking about a new way of looking at the old vision, I still had to call it a ‘new story’. No matter how good your intention behind doing it, if you have additional information or a new idea, call it out. Stories are for the audience and are a piece of the storyteller, but still, they are for the people who hear them. I also learnt that storytelling, begins much before you start telling it. It is beautiful to create the characters, think about their lives, color them. That, is where the storyteller creates magic. Before, she tells the story.

If you give them fear, they will be afraid.

Two months ago, I gave ‘S’ her first villain. It is a naughty car that picks up naughty children and takes them to the doctor. This was my frustrated attempt at getting her to sleep at 2 am, instead of wanting more stories or playing. She learnt to anticipate fear that day. I realized, that while it was easy to terrify her into listening to me, it didn’t really help her, or me. If I scare her into doing something, because I say so, she will learn to be afraid. She will not learn why I want her to do it and she will rebel at some point.

I was still feeling guilty about this, when she found herself a new villain- a monster. I realized that this was part of an active imagination and some shadows at play. We play with shadows all the time now. I have realized that I can’t scare her out of her fear. I can only be there for her and cheer her each time she peeps into a dark room or looks under the bed. And, I want to make sure she knows that if there could be a monster, she could make it disappear.

I learnt that, as someone responsible for others performance, it is my job to explain things in a way that makes sense to them. Being dictatorial, will only teach them to fear me and I will always have to be the one to turn on the lights in every dark room for them. 

If you don’t like it. Change it.

‘S’ heard the story of Red Riding Hood a few months ago at a friend’s place. That night, she told me to tell it to her again. In my story, Red Riding Hood, saved the hunter from the wolf. Yes, I know, typical feminist. But, ever since she has come in my life, I have realized just how much discrimination women face ever since they are born. I don’t want her to grow up thinking of princes as charming or kiss a toad because she was told he was sure to be a prince. I want her to be curious and find out if that was really the case and choose her way forward. Once the story was over, she looked at me with sleepy eyes and told me she liked this new story better.

When I was contemplating setting up my own consulting practice, I battled with several thoughts. Will I be a diversity statistic? That woman who leaves her job because she no longer wants to have to choose? A trailing spouse, who does something to keep herself occupied? Fundamentally, there is nothing wrong with this either. But, something did not sit right and I was not sure what it was.

As ‘S’s’ mother, I knew that I did not like the story that I was telling myself and I could change it. My definition of success has changed- it now means that I want the power to choose my work, my legacy and most importantly, the power to write my own story of work and life.

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