Career Guide

What motherhood taught me about leadership

Women can also give birth to effective management practices

Becoming a mother 17 years ago, completely changed my world. I was neither prepared nor felt capable for what was in store for me.

Having my daughter, Shriya turned out to be the best thing in my life as I was forced to acquire and apply life lessons and competencies that I may have otherwise missed out on.

Upon closer reflection, a significant number of these learnings hold the same value for me as I lead others in the workplace as well.

Being a working mother in a demanding field of people development and management consulting, I am always on the lookout for ideas and insights to make my life easier.

Here are some of the things I have discovered along the way that may be useful to others.

1.How to eat a humble pie

Every mother knows you can never say never, because as soon as you do, whatever it is you said you would never do, invariably happens. Whether itís inadvertently using swear words while driving my young daughter to school, or being caught out in a white lie, I learned pretty early on to tolerate regular servings of humble pie.

And as a result of being ďthereĒ time and time again, Iíve developed a lot of empathy for those around me struggling to live up to values they hold dear. In managing others we are all striving to demonstrate the right values, but there are times we falter and need to cut each other some slack.

2.Itís not about me

Of course, I need to take care of myself and look into my needs but being a mother is really about putting my child first. Thereís this sentiment floating around that warns women they will lose themselves to motherhood. Theyíre right! But the woman I ďfoundĒ as a result of ďlosingĒ myself to motherhood is someone I like much better.

Making sacrifices of self for another human being is not a bad thing. As managers, most times itís about the team standing out and receiving the credit rather than the individual.

3.Itís not a competition, itís a commitment to improvement

Motherhood is not about who makes the best chocolate cake for canteen day or, who can help with costume design and choreography for concert day or, who has the contact details for the best Bahasa Malaysia tuition teacher or, who can lobby the guru besar for better exposure for her child.

Sometimes the environment your child is in can trigger such behaviours. Especially, if you see other mothers ďget aheadĒ in the game by doing some of these things.

Personally, I gave up the battle for ďMother of the UniverseĒ a long time ago. Save your mental and physical energy for things that really matter and that is within your control, like a good long talk with your teenager or an evening at the playground with your toddler.

Sometimes at work, others play the political game and carry favours to gain mileage but at the end of the day if you remain focused on your teamís needs, you canít really go wrong.

4.I canít control others

Yes, I brought her into this world, but I didnít really create her. She is her own person on her path to discovering herself. Itís become increasingly clear to me that I am not supposed to control or manipulate my daughter to do what I want her to do.

My role is to facilitate her growth process to become who she is meant to be by her own definition of what fulfills her, even if thatís totally different from what I had originally imagined!

As leaders, each of our team members bring unique strengths and abilities to the table and our role is to observe and harness it and align it to their own ambitions. The more we attempt to lay out the path, the less they grow as individuals.

5.Itís better to laugh than cry (or scream)

Motherhood has got to be the worldís most aggravating and frustrating job at times. The relentless nature of the work can drive a person to tears. Laugh instead. What other job can make you wonder about that odd smell and result in you finding another personís vomit stains on your nice office clothes?

In todayís world where work is unrelenting and ever changing, sometimes the best way to cope is having some perspective and seeing the humour in things that donít always turn out as expected.

6.This too shall pass

There are so many stages of motherhood, and they all have their challenges and blessings. When Iím in the middle of a particularly tough one, I try to remember that it is just that (a stage) and that today is not forever.

On the flip side, itís more important to stop and savour the beautiful moments for the exact same reason: because today is not forever.

At work, when things get particularly challenging and Iím kept awake at night due to my inability to see a solution, I just tell myself that in time it will be ok and this too, shall pass and inevitably it does. I sleep a lot better now.

7.The best things in life really are free

Forget about exotic vacations, roadshow like birthday parties and designer wear for your child. Smiles, cuddles, companionship, conversation, a sense of belonging, a reason to get up, the satisfaction of watching another person grow under your care. These are the best things of motherhood, and they are all free. Free!

The same goes for nurturing team relationships. Itís the lunch time conversations, banter, humour, teasing and learnings that we make from one another that fill us as human beings. Well okay, the big bonuses help too but at the end of the day, we all like to come to work where we are interacting with each other as friends.

Happy people are free to be themselves

Of course I appreciate structure and order in my home as much as the next person, but Iíve learned that when our family is really doing what families do best, our house can be quite noisy and messy and thatís okay.

These are just temporary circumstances that allow us to be natural and open with each other.

Similarly, at work sometimes things can get off script and plans donít always pan out as intended. The idea is to remain true to the purpose and adapting as we go along. Itís about finding the balance between moving forward and being happy.

Motherhood has also given me the ability to focus and be fearless in going after what I want. Seven years ago, I wrote an e-mail after reading an article in The Star written by Leaderonomics chief executive officer Roshan Thiran about leaving a legacy.

I am where I am today because of it. The old me would not have had the guts to be so bold but I felt the need to build a better Malaysia for my daughter.

With motherhood and leading others, for me the joy is in the journey. Youíll never do anything so hard and yet so gratifying.

The greatest work any of us will ever do will be within the walls of our homes and our workspace. The idea is to make it worthwhile so that we can be proud of the impact we have made.

Rupa Sivanoli is a faculty member of Leaderonomics who believes in transforming the nation to create a better future for the next generation. If youíd like to share your thoughts on this article with Rupa, e-mail us at