Archive for the ‘ family stories ’ Category

She was the office manager in an engineering firm. Every time something would break – whether a toilet or a fax machine – they would call out to her. “Betsy, the ____ is broken!” No request, just a statement. Quickly, she would arrive at the scene of the malfunction, ponder and repair the offending apparatus.   And is 
frustrated that she was always expected to do everything.

One day I asked her, “Why does everyone depend on YOU to fix things, when everyone around you has an engineering degree?” Without hesitation, she responded, “That’s how I was raised.” One of 4 children, she was always the “key holder” – the one entrusted with the key to the house. What an honor. And what a responsibility. Respected as the wisest and the most accountable, she held possession of the keys. And she was also in charge of knowing where everyone was, that everyone was safe and making sure that everything was in its rightful place.  
And yet we wonder why we end up in the same family roles and same relationship dynamics (dilemmas) that we have had in our early formative years, regardless of where we are, who we are with and how old we are. It’s really not a mystery. We are most comfortable in these default roles and relationships because it is “who we are” - and we repeat our parts in each similar situation we confront over and over. We re-enact our old pattern and we subconsciously train others to respond to us in the same comfortable ways.

It is important to be aware of what we get and what we want. Alice Walker advises, “Look closely at the present you are constructing: it should look like the future you are dreaming.”   Betsy is working on sitting still when those around her act helpless.  While it frustrates her to be the “fixer”, she isn’t sure what she will become next.  Our family and our history are where we begin….how we move forward is up to us. Making changes to old roles and responsibilities can be challenging, BUT we have to give ourselves permission to dream and change

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Why do we do things the way that we do?  What was the initial source of those habits and methods?  And are they relevant today?  And why ask this question in the context of leadership?

A brief story may help to explain this:

A young woman is preparing a pot roast while her friend looks on.  She cuts off both ends of the roast, prepares it and puts it in the pan.  “Why do you cut off the ends?” her friend asks.  “I don’t know”, she replies.  “My mother always did it that way and I learned how to cook it from her”.

Her friend’s question made her curious about her pot roast preparation.  During her next visit home, she asked her mother, “How do you cook a pot roast?”  Her mother proceeded to explain and added, “You cut off both ends, prepare it and put it in the pot and then in the oven”.    “Why do you cut off the ends?” the daughter asked.  Baffled, the mother offered, “That’s how my mother did it and I learned it from her!”

Her daughter’s inquiry made the mother think more about the pot roast preparation.   When she next visited her mother in the nursing home, she asked, “Mom, how do you cook a pot roast?”   The mother slowly answered, thinking between sentences.  “Well, you prepare it with spices, cut off both ends and put it in the pot”.     The mother asked, “But why do you cut off the ends?”     The grandmother’s eyes sparkled as she remembered.   “Well, the roasts were always bigger than the pot that we had back then.  I had to cut off the ends to fit it into the pot that I owned”.

How often, do we take action and don’t even think to ask, “Why do it this way?”   Some of our behaviors were learned long ago – and come out of circumstances that may no longer be relevant and belong to another place and time.  And yet, we just keep doing the same thing, over and over.  We need to stop and ask ourselves, “Why do I do this?”   Is this an anachronism; has it outlived its relevance?  Do I need to update my repertoire?  What might I do differently and perhaps more effectively if I did not feel bound to the way I “have always done it”?  Review and change is yet  another step toward self definition.

Leadership requires flexibility and creativity.  Change is healthy and necessary for both ourselves and in our organizations.  In computers, we update our operating systems every few years (months?)!  Vital leadership requires that  we  continually question our processes and behaviors and to adopt those changes that are the best fit for these times.

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I was lucky to be “just like” my grandmother.

Now, many of us don’t think of grandmothers as role models for leadership.  They bake cookies and take us to the zoo.  But my grandmother was a family legend.   She could play a concerto on the piano after the concert – without music.  She took two years of Greek and Latin in one summer to gain admission to a competitive college.

All families have stories about the people and events in their history.  My grandmother was a slight woman but a force to be reckoned with.  And I was “just like her”.  I loved music, I was curious….and I loved custard.  Really!  Loved custard – just like her.

My grandmother was terribly disappointed when her mother, a woman from the “old country”, ultimately refused to let her go to college.  “College is for your brothers and I need you here”.   A blow to be sure.  As the years went on, my grandmother grew into the role of matriarch but never saw her academic or professional goals achieved.

It can be difficult and challenging to follow in someone’s footsteps.  But it can also be a gift.  I am grateful to have been inspired to finish her “unfinished business”.  I reached higher than I might have, with the desire to fill her shoes.

Who have you been compared to in your family?  How has this impacted your achievement and success?

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