Mom-isms. You remember those standard phrases you could always count on when you were a kid—some funny, some intended to put you in line, some exaggerated or inexplicable:
“You’d better wipe that smile off your face before I do it for you.”
“You are getting on my last nerve.”
“Little pitchers have big ears.”
“If everyone else jumped off a cliff, would you jump, too?”
“There’s enough dirt in those ears to grow potatoes.”
“Don’t stick your elbow out too far—it might go home in another car.”
Perhaps some phrases that come to mind were unique to your mom, but it’s likely she pulled out a few classics that somehow still work generations later. The reason there are classic sayings—or clichés—is that some phrases or ideas continue to resonate across time and place. Heard enough, a phrase or a concept becomes internalized, especially when it is reinforced through relevant context.
For a number of years, I reported to a senior leader in a corporate setting who started every quarterly multi-state functional team meeting the same. He would get us all settled, let us work through a little social catch-up, banter a bit—and then he’d sit quietly until everyone was silent and ready to begin. He would look around the table at each person individually, and then he’d say, “Remember as we spend this day together that I don’t pay you to tell me what you think I want to hear. I pay you to think.”
The first time I heard this as a new team member, I was pretty sure I knew what he was saying, and I appreciated it. It wasn’t until the next quarterly meeting, and the next, that I began to understand he was consistently, systematically restating a core value he believed was fundamental to keeping our group high performing.
He didn’t have to tell us to be gracious in how we expressed our thoughts to each other, or how to avoid hurting each other’s feelings. Even on our worst days we were considerate and diplomatic people without having to be told—and he himself modeled that behavior. But because our team was primarily comprised of people-pleasers, the regular reminder of his expectation that we wouldn’t just spend each day nodding and agreeing boosted the courage of the group. We became unafraid to state an opinion that might run counter to others’ way of thinking. We were emboldened to believe that our leader could be convinced to change his own mind. We came to see that he would stand behind us if we spoke up thoughtfully outside of our group.
Over time, people working in all sorts of capacities for the company came to see our department as a sort of dream team. We developed a reputation outside of our own region of the country as being dynamic, creative, high performing and fun. Others recognized (and often envied) the visible loyalty between peers and to our leader. We were regularly asked to contribute to larger conversations at the corporate level because others could trust our ability to speak our minds while honoring the opinions and ideas of others. We learned to be thinkers, unafraid of sharing our knowledge, experience and insight.
Maybe, “I don’t pay you to tell me what you think I want to hear,” was a cliché of sorts. He had other, more quirky expressions we’d call “Jay-isms.” Most importantly, it was a value statement—and one that was reinforced and encouraged at every turn. We heard it, we saw it in action, and it was expected of us. Jay was a leader worth following because he worked to define a course for us. He built a culture of respect that modeled core values of honesty and authenticity, he cared about each of us as individuals and reminded us that he hired us because we were bright, capable and expected to bring our talents to the table every day.
At Milestone Leadership, we believe values matter in everything a leader does—but that stating something to be a value without actively living it out every day is disingenuous and confusing. To exemplify a value through consistent actions speaks volumes.
Kind of like mom, actually.
“It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
“The world is your oyster.”
“Never forget where home is.”
Kelly Hale Syer