May 12 , 2019 • 7 minute read • by Saeed
“Mothers who work full time – they are the real heroes.” Kate Winslet
In 1936, the US was gripped by the Great Depression and one photographer, Dorothea Lange, decided to abandon her portrait and studio work to document the suffering she was witnessing all around her.
As Lange was driving through Nipomo California on a mild March day, she passed by a pea pickers camp but continued to drive on tired from her day’s work. But something mysterious nagged at her and she turned around after initially driving 20 miles past the camp. Photographers know this nagging feeling all too well. Something unbeknownst to her was beckoning her back.
As it turned out, the image she would snap of Florence Owens Thompson, Migrant Mother, would become the most iconic photo of the Depression and arguably of the 20th century. Lange spent 10 minutes and shot six images. In the final image Migrant Mother gazes into the distance with all the suffering and weariness of poverty upon her face juxtaposed with a clear sense of dignity and grit. Her children cowering behind her for protection communicate all the strength of family, motherhood, and yes, leadership.
She is on her own.
In contemporary U.S. society, leadership continues to be viewed as a masculine activity. Yet, in a study of 60 women leaders (Erkut & Winds of Change Foundation, 2001) close to 40% of prominent women from a variety of fields spontaneously made reference to motherhood when describing a good leader or leadership training. This is not to say that fathers don’t embody some or all of these qualities or to suggest that it is necessary for women to be mothers to become effective leaders. Rather, it is simply an acknowledgement of the role of motherhood and the significance of the traits mothers exhibit universally as it pertains to leadership.
- On modeling the way: Moms lead their children every day. As the old adage goes, children follow what you do and not what you say and the same holds true for leadership. The best leaders are role models first and your first role model is your mom.
- On being a servant leader: While servant leadership is a hot topic in leadership circles today, it is actually a timeless concept practiced by mothers everywhere. The concept is rooted in the quality and trait of those leaders who want to serve first and no-one embodies this better than your mom.
- On emphasizing growth and development: Who is more invested in your growth and development than your mom? Who has coached you through your life’s struggles and always kept encouraging you to persevere and succeed? You guessed it. Mom. It is her encouragement and inspiration that has helped you grow and flourish.
- On communicating core values: The best leaders consistently communicate the core values of the organization and live those values. Values are in your DNA and they were probably passed onto to you by your mother first and foremost.
- On fostering purpose and passion: Studies have shown that people are at their best when they are passionate about what they are doing and when they have tapped into their life purpose. Leaders (and mothers) unleash the enthusiasm of their followers (and their children) with stories and passions of their own and encourage you to lead purposeful and heart-centered lives.
- On fostering health and well being: The best leaders know that people are not assets. They are human beings. Without them, there is no organization. The health and well-being of your team or organization is dependent on the health and well-being of its members. The best leaders know that and so does your mom.
- On creating communities: Collaborative leaders understand that one of their more important roles is to create communities. Leadership is the result of a social contract and only occurs in a social framework where you influence the direction people are going in and unite them in accomplishing a common goal. I am willing to bet that it’s your mom that’s at the center of the community created around your family.
- On demonstrating grit: Mothers (and the best leaders) are tough-minded on standards and tender-hearted with people. In her book, “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance” Angela Duckworth illustrates how grit matters just as much, if not more, than both talent and luck to achieving extraordinary things. This, for me, is the enduring legacy of Migrant Mother.
A Final Word:
When it was first published, the image of Migrant Mother sparked a flurry of philanthropy but no one ever knew what had happened to Florence Thompson. As it turns out, a reporter discovered her living in a trailer park outside Modesto California in 1978. She was 75 years old. She married at 17 and when she was 28 and pregnant with her sixth child, her husband died of tuberculosis. That’s why he wasn’t in the iconic picture. Thereafter, she would put her babies in bags and carry them around as she worked the fields. Maintaining her dignity throughout her ordeal, she was initially reluctant to allow Lange to photograph her and her family as specimens of poverty. In 1983 Thompson suffered a stroke and was unable to pay her hospital bills. Her children used her identity as Migrant Mother to raise the funds she needed to pay her expenses. She died soon after the stroke but her dignity always endured and does to this day as a symbol of motherhood and humanity in the face of extreme adversity.
Happy Mother’s Day!
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©2019 – All Content by Saeed H. Mirfattah, M.A., CPCC