A Leadership Lesson From My Mom

If your teams are calling you this, you are in trouble.

A Leadership Lesson From My Mom


It's Mother's Day, and I thought it would be fitting to talk about my Mom. But before we go there, here are 3 random and fun things:

  1. What was it like using a Mac in the 80s, when our parents were ruling the planet?  Here is a fully functional macOS from the past!
  2. My daughter and I are obsssed with Anime these days. This jazzy rendition of "鬼滅の刃 x 紅蓮華 (Demon Slayer) by Joyce Cheung" makes me want to dance.
  3. I love black and white stuff, especially black and white emojis! I mean, look at them 👇🏼


My Mom taught me one important lesson about work teams.

"If your staff starts calling you “Dad” (or "Mom"), you are in trouble."

For those who don’t know what I am talking about, or are confused why anyone would call their bosses "Moms" or "Dads," welcome to my little world here in Asia. I have been on various teams where team members affectionally called their managers the “papas”/“mamas” of the teams. Typically, these managers were popular. They were tight with their teams. They would always go to lunch together, bring souvenirs from oversea trips, and "take care" of each other. These teams often appeared cohesive and happy. But in reality, they were fragile.

Dads and moms don’t need to decide which of their kids deserves a promotion. They don’t put their children onto PIPs (performance improvement plans) that include a possible outcome of disownment (termination). But at the workplace, manager need to evaluate, hire, reward, and fire employees. Things aren't unconditional. It is dangerous to be confused about that.

I was once in a team where everyone called our manager "papa." Everything was hunky-dory until the day he promoted one unpopular member of the team. We didn't like this person because he was only concerned with his own performance. He was was aloof and was a poor teammate. To be fair, the manager actually made the decision objectively. He compared our performances and results, and solicited input from multiple sources before making the decision. But it didn't matter. The team was not happy because we felt he betrayed the family by favoring the prodigal son.

Another challenge with leading a family like team is communication. Managers live in the gaps between "the company," "the management," and "the team." Their ability to communicate on behalf of the company, the management, and or the team is critical. But when managers become the "parents" of their teams, they are often tilted too much towards "the family." While it is important to shower our team with the feeling of care, it is unproductive to surrogate care with the feeling of being a family. This is particularly true during times when  managers need to execute unpopular policies and changes.

One time, my company decided that it was strategically important to compete in the women's category. It changed how sales commission was calculated. The new incentive scheme rewarded the sale of Yoga related products that no one wanted, instead of easier to sell products, such as popular basketball shoes. As a manager, I had to deliver the news to the team and to convince them to embrace it. The conversation went nowhere, because whenever I tried to offer the perspectives of the company and management, they would retort, "Are you one of them now? That's all it took for you to betray us?"

The ability to know the difference between a team and a family is a leadership skill. Learn to notice when your team conflates the two, and get good at leading them out of it. So go, build real teams, and save all your unconditional love to your real family.

Happy Mother's Day.


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Thank you for reading this. I think about leadership & psychology in the showers. I know it's odd, but these topics are important and fun. I hope you find them useful too.

Work diligently. You are bound to be successful.