Leadership, Change, and My Mom

In early 1999, shortly after the death of my mother, I was asked to write an article on leadership and change for The Magazine of Sigma Chi. In my grief it basically became a eulogy for my mom. Today the grief is gone, although the pain remains; and the thoughts below still ring true for me.

Everything I learned about change and leadership I learned from my mother.

In the sense that the word is commonly misused, my mother was not a leader. She was not an elected official, fighting city hall, pushing with sheer tenacity a massive reform initiative through a recalcitrant legislature. She was not a military hero, storming hills, orchestrating attacks, and accepting with grace the accolades of a grateful nation. She was not the chief executive officer of a major corporation, radically restructuring a failing business around an innovative new product line. She was not a sports superstar, using her charisma and athleticism to mold a rag-tag group of misfits into a championship team.

My mother had no direct reports, no subordinates, no charges; she authored no bills, no laws, no texts, no new philosophies. And before she died of cancer two months ago, I never would have never called her a leader. But now that my family and I begin to understand the enormity of the void her absence leaves for us, we realize, at least dimly, that she truly had more claim to the title of elected official, military hero, CEO, and superstar than any of us.

Mom held us together. She made the weekly phone calls to ask us how we were. Sorting through my letters after her death, I found dozens that served no practical purpose whatsoever. She wrote to say “hello” a lot; the weather is still cold, your father is working on a new project, the cats are fine. She connected my sister and me, separated by a continent, with news and gossip, and provided us plenty of fuel for our inside jokes on just how “fine” the cats were. Mom facilitated communication.

Mom was the first to know when one of us had had a wonderful day—or a rotten one—and she made sure the rest of us knew as well. She had a way of making you feel better than you probably deserved to — but had a way of making you feel like you deserved to, as well. Mom celebrated our accomplishments.

When we were cold, or sick, or sad, she made hot cocoa—not instant hot cocoa with water, but real hot cocoa with milk. Mom took care of her people.

When my sister and I fought over Legos or about who should climb the tree first, she made us share. Mom mediated conflict. She created coalitions. She delegated. She empowered.

In short, Mom was a leader. She never asked for credit, for praise, or for reward — and because she never asked, she never received any, save the undying admiration, love, and loyalty of those she led. Like all true leaders, she operated behind the curtain, leaving for the rest of us the center stage.

Cancer, like most diseases, is cruel. But cancer has a certain evil mystique around it, an ugly reputation: If cancer were a football team, it would wear a black uniform. And when it attacks someone who has taken care of you your entire life, when it attacks your whole frame of reference, cancer seems particularly cruel.

When Mom started fighting her cancer, our lives changed — and hers, obviously, changed more than any of ours. Watching her, our peacemaker, our communicator, our fan, our leader, navigate her cancer taught me much about change and how real leaders channel it.

Change can be painful. Cancer is a change in the body’s structure. The addition of even a few of the most microscopic of cells caused my mother incredible pain in her back, her legs, her abdomen. To counter the change it causes, cancer is fought with a combination of lethal drugs and radiation, which also manifest change and pain in the body.

Mom taught me that correcting a problem can sometimes be as painful as leaving the problem alone. But usually, leaving the problem alone has much more dire consequences than dealing with the pain of change. Leaders realize this fact and are willing to make short-term sacrifices for long-term gain.

Change can be subtle. Recently I had some pictures developed from Christmas. I was shocked and deeply troubled to see how ill Mom appeared. She was gaunt and tired. I didn’t notice it at the time because I was in the situation, in the context, and had no ability to step back and see the bigger picture.

Mom, however, knew what was happening — she began saying the things she needed to say, having the difficult conversations that were worth having. We thought she was crazy. Looking back, I understand that she was looking ahead the way good leaders do. Oftentimes we don’t realize change is occurring until it is already upon us. Change doesn’t always demand that we notice it — leaders, therefore, demand that change notices them. They are intuitive and aware, and understand that small shifts in dynamics can be the signal for massive change ahead.

Change perpetuates change. By the end of her battle, Mom was taking medications to counter the effects of medications taken to counter the effects of the radiation and chemicals used to fight her cancer. Mom realized and dealt with this implication tree without missing a step, never losing sight of the core change driving the others, and never losing sight of her objective. Change creates seedlings, so leaders must see the forest and the trees.

Change is best faced with a willing and positive attitude. During one of my last conversations with Mom, she said, “I’m not ready to die. But if this is how it’s supposed to be, then this is how it will be.” Mom approached her many changes with an attitude that shamed the rest of us. She never complained, and never feared. Leaders understand and embrace change. They realize that their job is to steer the boat along the best current, not push it upstream.

Positive change requires a team. As I look back on our last few months, I’m amazed at how much effort Mom put into keeping the rest of us encouraged and motivated. The number of letters, phone calls, and visits increased substantially. At a time when she had every reason and right to ask someone else to take the lead, Mom actually increased her efforts to keep us together. Leaders understand that precisely because change is difficult, it demands extra effort be put to maintaining the welfare of the team.

But now, the leader is gone, and we try to cope with another change ourselves. We wish for things. With every new morning we revise our wishes; we recalculate our hopes and lower our expectations.

“Today I hope that I don’t cry until mid-afternoon.”

“Today I hope that no well-intentioned but misguided person will share with me their own horrifying cancer story.”

“Today I hope that I only think of the funeral three times.”

I’ve noticed a shift in those wishes, though. They have gradually become more positive. The good days are more frequent — maybe two or three a week now.

As for change, more and more now I understand its biggest attribute: Change isn’t easy — just inevitable. You can harness it or it will harness you. So lately I wake up and make a new wish: “Today I hope that I will embrace change.”

True leaders leave a positive legacy. Thanks Mom.