Mumma Bear Leadership

Today I watched on as one of my staff pored over her To-Do list for the rest of the week. The list was long, it was detailed and it was overwhelming. It became evident that it was a little too long for the three days left of our working week.

In my mind I asked the questions: Will her workload be completed? Will we be ready for our events next week? Can she get through this week without needing sick leave for the flu I can hear hanging in her voice? Should I have taken those two days leave this week? Do I not pay enough attention to her workload? Am I doing enough to support her? Does she feel confident in the work I give her?

The main question on repeat in my brain wasn’t whether the work would get done, but whether I had done enough to protect her from burn out? Did I empower her to conquer that list successfully? Does she know I have confidence in her and want to see her flourish?

Six months ago I was offered a three-month contract for a role I was probably too young for, possibly not quite qualified for and potentially under-experienced for. At the ripe old age of 22, I walked into a middle level management position in an organisation of 600+ people, replacing a young man in his early thirties who had a Finance and Economics Degree, a tour of duty in Iraq and many years of management positions and experience under his belt. With this incredible opportunity came the leadership of a tiny, somewhat dysfunctional team in a remote office that had been hit with so much change that they didn’t quite know whether they were up, down or inside out anymore.

Was I ready for a new job? Yep! But was I ready for that? Absolutely not!

Walking into this I would honestly say I felt I was given the opportunity to really grow and develop my management style. I would have told you that I was so lucky to have been given that management position at such a young age to help me really identify and develop my management style, and that I feel like I would be able to establish myself as a strong leader within this workplace.

Now, even reading those comments make me cringe! Because, as God would have it, I have had some lessons to learn about ‘myself the person’, which subsequently meant I had some lessons to learn about ‘myself the leader’.

My mum would tell you I have always had a really strong maternal instinct. I loved (and still do love) cuddling babies. I had a Baby Born doll you had to feed at least twice a day, and I loved strapping her into the stroller to take a walk, or rocking her right to sleep. Even now as a “grown up” (although, can someone please tell me when the magic age is that you all-of-a-sudden “grow up”? I want to avoid it and stay young forever, like Peter Pan.) I just love hanging out with little humans! Little did I know how much this new season of leadership would teach me about using that maternal instinct in my leadership roles.

There’s something profoundly raw, strong and stunning about women’s maternal instinct. It puts others’ needs before our own, wiring our thinking around them and what we can give them. It’s an instinct for nurturing, seeing something grow under your protection and care.

And most of the time, whether we like it or not, we care so much that it hurts. We become emotionally connected to the thing our instinct drives us to protect and grow. I believe it’s this maternal instinct that gives women some of the most beautiful leadership characteristics in whatever context they are leading. A good leader inspires you, guides you, corrects you and includes you. Sometimes they think for and with you, helping you find solutions, and solve problems for you.

There are a few things about the leader, whether they be boss, pastor or mentor, that we don’t even realise.

  • They are concerned about whether you’re happy, sad, overwhelmed, inspired, challenged, moving on.
  • They have plans for you and seek opportunities for you to thrive and grow.
  • They dream for you, visualising all the incredible things you might do with the skills and talents you have.
  • They protect you from things that might derail your journey.
  • They defend you when anyone criticises you.

This morning, as I watched my team member pore over her list, I didn’t want to scold her for not planning ahead, or do half her list for her. My concern was for how she was feeling, and to guide her using my own experience with really long To-Do lists, giving her some of what I already know, which is mostly that lists don’t do themselves!

Over the last six months I’ve learned that the Rhiannon who left her last job was probably a little too self-assured and confident, but more than that, I have a new appreciation for the Mumma-Bear characteristics that many female leaders have almost naturally. It’s an instinctive connection with those we lead that can often feel effortless, allowing us to bring direction to our followers in a way that causes them to flourish under our leadership.

Many people think of nurturing as a beautiful, fluffy word, but I think this is literally one of our biggest leadership challenges. To nurture is to protect and care for someone or something while it grows, and while something is growing, it’s in its most vulnerable state, most susceptible to influence, damage and climate.

But my favourite part about this lesson I learned? It’s not something brand new. I didn’t learn about women’s ability to nurture and care by reading through studying. It was something I learned because I looked inward. You don’t learn about mumma-bear leadership by reading a book on it. It’s about learning through experience what it looks like for us to apply this beautiful innate quality into our leadership in a way that’s raw and powerful. We all have a mumma-bear inside of us; it’s time to find her!