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Leadership Lessons From Mom


By Henry S. Givray Another Mother's Day is here, and I can't help but reflect upon how much my mom has been a source for my leadership growth over the years. From that statement you might conclude that she has held a formal leadership position or a management job. Nothing could be further from the truth.

My mom, Stavroula Givray, rigorously studied music while growing up in Greece and was on track to become a concert pianist when she graduated from the National Conservatory of Music in Athens. But at age 22, she married my dad and over the next two years gave birth to my brother and me. At that point, she put on hold her lifelong dream of a career in music to raise her two sons.

Mom was 31, and I was 6 when my family immigrated to the U.S. in 1960. She didn't speak a word of English. To help support the family, she leveraged the sewing skills she had developed as a child and began doing custom seamstress work. For 15 years she delivered high-quality, creative solutions to what were often challenging and seemingly impossible sewing tasks. Then in 1976, Mom began teaching piano. Demand for her instruction grew quickly as word spread of her special ability to motivate and inspire children.

Today, Mom is a nationally recognized piano teacher whose students consistently take top honors in regional and national competitions. She has accomplished all of this while facing diabetes and high blood pressure for most of her adult life, and she successfully battled advanced-stage breast cancer.

I've often thought about Mom's instinctive actions and the leadership lessons she unknowingly imparted to me. To this day, when I tell her this she looks at me with surprise. Here are three of those lessons:

OFFER HOPE

When I was 15, I was diagnosed with cancer. Doctors said there was little chance I would survive beyond nine months. My father and brother could barely contain their despair and would often cry in front of me. But my mom, always smiling and in good cheer, would continually reference the future. Seeing my mom "up" bolstered my spirits and gave me hope and strength. Without a doubt, Mom's abiding optimism had a profound impact on my recovery. Years later I found out that late at night she would go somewhere in the house, and -- with a picture of her mother by her side -- break down and weep uncontrollably. Reflecting on Mom's actions when I was ill, I learned that during trying times a leader's optimism and courage lift spirits, give hope, and build strength in others.

HEAR THE UNHEARD

When I was growing up, my mom always had an uncanny ability to listen deeply not only to what my brother and I would tell her but also to what we weren't saying. As a result, she was able to be proactively responsive and attentive to our needs. A leader who hears concerns and hopes left unsaid inspires trust and confidence and is able to meet people's true needs.

CELEBRATE SMALL WINS

When I became captain of the safety patrols in sixth grade, Mom celebrated as if I had become President of the United States. When I placed fifth in a state track and field event in eighth grade, she celebrated as if I had won an Olympic gold medal. My mom instinctively knew that by celebrating small achievements, she was building confidence, self-esteem, and the courage to take risks. She never falsely built me up by inventing or exaggerating achievements, but she always encouraged the positive. Mom taught me that celebrating small wins emboldens you to achieve big ones. Likewise, through celebratory events and positive reinforcement, leaders build confidence, spotlight desired outcomes, and help others envision what's possible.

In my judgment, my mom's greatest achievement is the lasting influence she has had on others. Her selfless devotion, boundless patience, gentle guidance, unfaltering values, and unconditional love have taught, influenced, comforted, healed, and strengthened so many people. In the end, isn't making an enduring difference in the lives of people by inspiring and enabling them to do great work and reach their utmost potential what leadership is all about?

Views expressed in Outside Shot are solely those of contributors.

Henry S. Givray is chairman and CEO of SmithBucklin Corp., the world's largest association management company


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