This month marks the fifth anniversary of the passing of my mother, Mary Jane Southard. She was a hard worker and a very smart woman with several graduate degrees, held a position in public education of which she was the first Michigan woman to do so, and was responsible for launching the education of innumerable children in our community.
Even now, people in her town still recognize our shared last name and ask about her or have an endearing story to share of her seemingly unceasing generosity and kind heart. It always fascinated my sons and me when out with her that people in their fifties or sixties would approach her and ask if she knew who they were. And, like some sideshow act, she would look into these people’s eyes and without fail recognize them and call them by the name they preferred as a five-year old… and then go on to ask about their siblings by name.
Mary Jane and Charles, her husband, adopted me over five decades ago. This couple provided me with an idealized sheltered middle class upbringing in a homogenous suburban community in America’s Midwest. It seemed like everyone knew me, but now, looking back, everyone knew Mary Jane.
The most enduring lesson my mother taught me was her point-of-view about humanity. See, she believed that all human beings were fundamentally good. I heard her express this philosophy with:
- “There are no bad children, only children who have made bad choices.”
- “Give people enough time and they will do the right thing.”
I, of course, heard this at the end of every day when we sat and discussed our day. She always found time for me between the hours of her more than full-time job, school board meetings, graduate school, PTA and church activities, and caring for her ailing father.
By a strange quirk of timing, Mary Jane’s philosophy fell into alignment with my high school years that included the Summer of Love, Flower Power, and “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.”
Was Mary Jane’s message of humanism, love, and respect imprinted into my developing psyche? You bet!
One of my early bosses in health care warned me to be careful to not make myself vulnerable to everyone. I guess what he wanted me to do was to be careful of those who may want to manipulate me or, if that fails, destroy me. I’m not sure how Mary Jane would have reacted to this advice, but I continued to believe that if I provided the right role model that everyone would eventually fall into the ranks of collaboration and love for one another besides our different opinions. My reasoning continued that this would eventually lead to business success.
As my career developed and I found myself either elected or promoted to positions of leadership, I was still my mother’s child: driven yet patient about the challenges facing others; competitive yet nurturing; impatient with myself yet supportive to others who lacked my understanding: willing to forgive ignorance, but intolerant of meanness. I also wanted to connect with people, learn new things every day, and have fun in the places where I spend most of my waking hours.
I freely and frequently talk about my vision for growth and new program development with my staff. I feel that by keeping them in touch with the bigger picture that they will have a wider context and appreciation of why and how things happen. This is part of my approach to educating my teams in the ways of the business of health care and, hopefully, developing future leaders to our organization: educational fun with a purpose.
To my surprise, I have found that not all of my bosses appreciated my approach to management. It couldn’t have been because my programs and offices were not meeting their fiscal or growth goals or because my staff didn’t turn over. I know this because my leadership was making that happen. What I was neglecting was the unspoken and unwritten needs of my boss in what is an inherently uneven relationship. I was unknowingly working off an educational model once prevalent in public schools where teachers were tenured and had a kind of autonomy in their classrooms not always allowed in other work settings. Oh.
Mary Jane, however, never lost sight of the importance of establishing and maintaining her relationship with her bosses who were all men. I know this because she would often haul me along with her when she would visit them in the evening or on the weekend. I learned early on to bring a book or two when we went on “errands.” She once even helped one of her bosses move into a house down the street from our home. Regardless, I learned much about public education administration and the many details it takes to make it run for the benefit of all involved.
And Mary Jane succeeded in her profession where no women before her had. Even with numerous turnovers in bosses, principals, superintendents, and school boards Mary Jane worked in an organization in which she believed, including its culture, its mission and its management. Furthermore, she felt that her work had a meaningful impact on the lives of others. She never lost sight of her guiding principles and, an anomaly nowadays, had only one employer for almost forty-five years.
Now that I have forty-two years of being in the working world, I think that what we all aspire to is to have what Mary Jane found, loved, and nurtured. Thanks, Mom: I’m still learning.