Leadership Begins at Home

The September 15, 2016 issue of TIME Magazine includes the cover article by Charlotte Alter titled, “The Secrets of Super Siblings – Nine families raised children who all went to on to extraordinary success. Here’s what they have in common.”

It’s a fascinating read of how six factors (Immigrant Drive; Parent/Teachers; Political Activism; Controlled Chaos; Lessons in Mortality; and a Free Range Childhood) shaped all of the kids in these families in ways that set them up for an unusual degree of professional achievement as adults, almost without exception.

While some of the elements simply can’t be replicated (e.g. you can’t suddenly become a family of first- or second-generation immigrants if your ancestors were all born on US soil; or if there are no teachers in your family, you can’t suddenly be parented by one), but the overarching themes are clear reinforcement that leadership is first learned at home.

The article reminded me of my own upbringing (with several of the six cited factors present) and of others I know who have achieved tremendous success regardless of what obstacles may have been present in their lives.  This “model” has provided a powerful lens through which to look at human development and the notion of where leadership is first formed.

As children of what was then a traditional “working Dad / homemaker Mom” household, my siblings and I sat around the dinner table at the same time every evening once Dad came home from work. Dinner was always a series of stories. Sometimes it was us kids sharing our daily events at school, accomplishments in sports, or challenging interactions with fellow students (and, if truth be told, sometimes the challenges were with teachers … while we were required to always demonstrate respect, we were definitely not taught to yield to hierarchy simply for the sake of hierarchy, so you can imagine the occasional “run in” three kids might have with those in charge).

Very often, the table talk revolved around our parents’ stories of their own childhoods – my Dad was raised in the south of Ireland with six siblings before arriving in the US in 1954 at 27 years old. My Mom was the youngest of three kids born to Polish immigrants, living on Chicago’s north side. Their lives as children, as you can imagine, were vastly different from ours back in the 70’s and 80’s, so it felt like a nightly adventure to hear them talk of their upbringings.

Corporate America was a frequent topic, too. My Dad was in sales handling executive relocations and therefore met a wide variety of leaders, along with their families, from many walks of life. He brought home warm and inspiring anecdotes, as well as shocking stories that could have rivaled the storyline of Dallas or Dynasty back in the day! My Mom had spent almost 20 years in coordination and office management roles prior to marrying Dad and starting a family, so she had no shortage of tales to tell, either.

Their individual experiences and insights ran the gamut, and often, the conversation would turn to subjects children don’t always get to hear about – workplace inequality, discrimination, social and class injustices, favoritism, and the like.

How much insight and how many life lessons I gleaned from around that dinner table! In the moment, I didn’t have an inkling that what we were discussing was fertile ground for my future career or for learning how to operate as an adult. Those conversations steered me onto a path that would later enable many academic and professional achievements, but more importantly, gave me perspective and guided my personal integrity – both of which have served me in every aspect of my life.

Of course, there were difficult lessons in the mix – sad, heart wrenching ones at times. I watched my Dad’s deep drive to succeed and elevate into leadership get cut short by workplace nepotism and stymied by his fear of risking a change in jobs – choosing stability for his family over his own career progression, for fear he might not achieve both. We knew he was doing that – he shared his crossroads and decisions with us as a lesson plan for our own lives. Constantly, consistently, he and my Mom encouraged us to dream big and believe in ourselves, then follow it up with education and hard work.

Amidst it all, I witnessed grace, compassion and partnership between my parents even when under incredible duress. I saw them comport themselves with dignity, resilience and faith in the face of many a challenge. And I remain inspired by how they always looked ahead with optimism and confidence that they – that we – could and would surmount any setback. We would always be alright together, whatever shape that took.

Those conversations cultivated my personal motivation to work hard, learn as much as I could from those willing to share their knowledge, and to set my sights high. The dinner table talk impressed upon me values that define who I am today professionally and personally. And I know I’m far more effective in my job because of this.

The TIME article also had me recalling one of my very first professional colleagues, Veronica. She grew up in Cabrini Green in Chicago. For those who don’t know it, this “neighborhood” was a collection of Section-8 housing, infamous for drug dealing, gangland warfare, teenage pregnancy, and overall rampant crime. As one of seven children, with only a mother to raise them, it would have been easy – expected, probably – for Veronica and her siblings to follow the same path as many of their neighbors. They did not.

Their mother required them home immediately following school and forbade them from leaving the house for the rest of the evening while she worked her second job. They each had their list of age-appropriate chores, followed by homework time – with the older kids expected to assist their younger siblings when needed. Bath time, prayer time and then their mother would be home from work to put them to bed. But before they could drift off to sleep, their mom issued feedback to the children on their completion of chores, then homework was reviewed, and then the day’s happenings were discussed.

What did they learn? How did they behave in class? Were there any dust ups with other kids at school? No doubt, her discerning eyes and ears picking up on any cues of a story behind the story, probing deeper when she had a hunch.

Veronica’s mom, while present with her children for what must have felt like sparse morning and evening moments, left a powerful imprint on her children. She set an expectation – explicitly and implicitly – for personal responsibility, hard work, teamwork, family, and excellence. She demanded they set their aspirations high and not fall prey to their environment.

All but one of these siblings went on to college. The one who didn’t, still remained gainfully employed. I came to know Veronica because I was hired as her replacement due to her own promotion into management. Her investment in my training and success was extraordinary. It was evident that she took the same level of ownership for my onboarding and performance as she must have taken in shepherding her siblings through their homework.

I share these stories not to sensationalize her and her family, nor as a tribute to my own parents (although they deserve that and much more!), nor to assert any of these three parents as perfect – since no one fits that title.

This is a reminder that our education on leadership starts early – we all have life lessons from early

childhood through young adulthood that have shaped who we are today as leaders.

While in vastly different environments, Veronica and I were fortunate to have received the parenting we received. There are many who, perhaps reading this blog, never had that gift.

Still, we can all reach back, examine our personal history, and understand how those early experiences may have influenced our present leadership, propelling us forward or holding us back. We are each in a position to learn from the past, apply these insights and intentionally direct our futures if we wish to do so.

For those of you who have children in your lives in whatever capacity (be they your own, your nieces or nephews, friends’ children, or through volunteer work), you have an opportunity to cultivate the next generation of leaders. I would encourage you to share your own stories of success, failure, character growth and experience. Create opportunities for that “dinner table talk” – wherever it may take place – and know that you are preparing them for their futures. You may never know the impact you’ve had, but you can trust that you will have made one.

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