Over the course of her life, my mother taught me more about leadership than any class I ever took on the subject, or any one boss I’ve worked for. The lessons were usually prompted by life experiences that she seized on as teachable moments. Her last lesson for me, now permanently seared into my being, took place in the nursing home where she resided, about six months before her death.
For about seventeen years, my mom, and my dad as her ever-faithful caregiver, dealt with the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease. No matter what, he visited her daily, cared for her, and kept the nursing home staff on their toes with respect to her care.
Nearly every waking minute of her time in the nursing home was spent in a “merry walker”, a wheeled contraption made of PVC that allowed her mobility, but afforded protection against falling. Anyhow, mother was famous (6 years in one of those places allows someone to become famous) for scooting around the home in and out of public spaces and various other folks’ rooms, befriending and talking with them. As time wore on and her disease progressed, the “talking” was reduced to something that gave every appearance of being gibberish. The contents of her “hard drive” had been pretty well erased back to early childhood as the result of cognitive erosion caused by the disease.
One early fall Sunday afternoon, dad and I paid her a visit. Having a visit with mom wasn’t exactly a simple process, as it first involved doing a complete sweep of the building just to locate her. After a twenty-minute search, we finally found her in a hallway not far from one of the nurse’s stations. During our “conversation”, in which it was impossible to decipher anything she was saying, my mom kept pointing at me, more specifically toward my feet. Frankly, I had pretty well written off the entire exchange as gibberish until finally, something made me look down to where she had been pointing, and to my complete shock, noticed that my left shoe was untied. All along she had been trying to tell me that!
The lesson I came away with is that listening, really listening can be hard. It takes work, and it takes suspending judgment if you really want to absorb and comprehend what someone is trying to tell you. The people who work on our teams deserve no less effort and attention in that regard than our mom’s do.
I’m no longer able to tell my mom thank you for all the lessons she taught me over the years. If you have that opportunity, take it… today and every other day.
A pathfinder in the arena of leadership and employee engagement, Bill Catlette is a seminar leader, keynote speaker, and executive coach. He helps individuals and organizations improve business outcomes by having a focused, engaged, capably led workforce. He is co-author of the Contented Cows leadership book series, and Rebooting Leadership. For more information about Bill, his partner Richard Hadden, and their work, please visit their website, or follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/ContentedCows