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  • Lauren Pappas

How Motherhood Made Me a Better Leader

Updated: Apr 8

When I became a mother, I had a serious “Oh sh*t” moment:


I suddenly had a new identity that looked very different from the pre-motherhood workplace performer, aka, “Business Lauren."

“Business Lauren” was energized, goal-oriented, and cerebral. “Mother Lauren” was intuitive, embodied, nurturing, and grounded.


It seemed like these two Laurens were totally at odds and incompatible. I feared “Mother Lauren” would hold back “Business Lauren.” After all, “Business Lauren” was the part of my identity I was most proud of, the part that received the most external validation. Being a woman in the male-dominated corporate finance world made me tokenized - which, as vulnerable as it is to share, was candy for my ego. Stories of “beating the odds” and “not letting gender hold me back” told me “I could do hard things” - all narratives I understood others valued.


Being a woman in roles that others saw as prestigious and desirable is how I experienced achievement and success. “Business Lauren” was the identity through which I experienced being special, worthy, and valued. I share all of this with such openness and vulnerability because I now have no shame around it. I believe in integrating all of this insecurity and shadow into our conscious awareness and want to spur a candid blame-free conversation about these insidious pressures.

If I disliked this new “Mother Lauren” identity, the answer would have been simple: “Let go of ‘Mother Lauren’ and revert to ‘Business Lauren!'


But there is no going back in the evolution of one’s identity. And more importantly, I liked mother Lauren. In fact, I loved mother Lauren. I wanted to know her better, explore her capacities, and be attuned to her gentle and firm strength.


But how the hell was I supposed to figure this out in time for work on Monday?


It’s no surprise this seemed overwhelming and challenging. We have all heard how the parent and the business elements of our identity are GOING to oppose each other: fighting for our time, our attention, our focus, and ultimately the bigger slice of our identity. From the “Lean In” movement and counter-response, the failure of the nuclear family, to the feminist misnomer that “you can have it all” support this narrative that our identity is fractured and will be in competition. And we all know it’s been more fragmented by pandemic strains.


What I wanted? To not be in constant opposition within myself. I longed to be one person. To be ALL of myself. My question was not “how can I create balance between the mother and business parts of my identity?”


My question was: “How can I live and lead from an integrated identity that is cohesive and natural to me in ALL stages of life: at home, in my business, in my community?”


When I looked at it this way, something shocked and amazed me: The capacities I acquired through motherhood bolstered the attributes I desired in business leadership.

Not only was it possible for these two aspects of my identity to peacefully co-exist: motherhood had actually made me a better leader.

Looking through this lens immediately created a sense of internal fortitude, peace, and cohesiveness in a time of strife and rapid change.


I also want to pause and name that I intentionally chose motherhood for this title. Both Because my experience is PROUDLY grounded in the unique experience of motherhood intersecting with business leadership.


At the same time, this is not just about motherhood. It is about humanity. About how bringing our full humanity to all of our lives – including our careers – benefits us all.

So, without further ado! Here are 7 ways motherhood made me a better leader.


Lauren Pappas with her daughter Naya. Lauren is a social change and interpersonal strategist bridging human consciousness with organizations and businesses that serve with purpose.



#1 Motherhood Helps Us Learn to be Present

Here’s my working definition of leadership: the ability to distill meaning from what is currently present and then generate forward movement toward a shared goal.

How can we lead if we don’t know where we are right now?

What are our organization’s resources and constraints?

What are our people’s capabilities?

What risks are at stake?

What are the unmet needs and opportunities?

Where is there shared understanding?

Where is there an information gap?


Asking all these questions – aka, taking inventory – is where all great leaders start.


Taking inventory of what is is quite simply the act of being present. Our ability to be present is learned, remembered, and practiced.

Being present is like any other learned skill: some skills are acquired in safe situations, and some are obtained through a drastic exogenous change, stress, or necessity.


Motherhood teaches us to be present in both ways. As parents, we snap into the present when a feisty dog lunges at your baby’s stroller or your toddler screams bloody murder protesting sharing their toy. And present moments happen when we experience the total bliss of a moment. Nothing melts me into the here and now like when my daughter throws her arms around me and snuggles her cheek against mine.


An equally true present experience I’ve learned since becoming a mother is that time seems to accelerate with children. Where has the time gone? How has my child grown so fast and learned so quickly? It was just yesterday when…


But the acceleration of time and presence are not mutually exclusive. In fact, when time is “moving fast,” our capacity to be present can be most useful and powerful. My ability to be present and lead, knowing all that is here, is greater thanks to motherhood. And it’s a skill I have had to cultivate and remind myself of activating at unexpected times. I’ve learned that the more present I am with my child’s experiences, the more I can lead her through experiencing, creating, and expressing her own reality.


Reflecting on my leadership experiences, this ability to balance time acceleration with being present allowed me to lead with steadiness when things felt uncertain. The most encouraging times came when I was able to suspend my impulse to make the present moment fit a prescribed outcome - when instead, I was able to give my colleague the opportunity to be fully themselves. I got to witness them in their abilities and problem-solving selves. When I got present as a leader, I was more willing to give them the chance to distill meaning from the situation, which supported their growth and generated forward movement towards our shared goal.


But it took motherhood for me to see that being present was a remarkable leadership skill - and motherhood strengthens that skill every day.


#2 Motherhood Makes You Give a Damn

My grandfather said it best: “You know what makes you a good leader? You have to give a damn. You have to give a damn about your people - about your customers - at a human level, you have to give a damn.”


Giving a damn is like any other muscle - we have to strengthen it. Create range and resilience.

Nothing - dare I say, NOTHING - invites you to give a damn like becoming a parent. The cliche “everything that matters to you changes when you have a kid” is well-worn with good reason.


As leaders, this capacity for care translates to looking after our employees and stakeholders. Caring extends sincere generosity that is impactful and contagious. “Giving a damn” combined with passion means caring about something bigger than ourselves. It means having the capacity to see beyond our selfish interests.


“Giving a damn” is at the root of innovation, change, and galvanizing our internal and collective resources toward a greater good. “Giving a damn” is the essence of being a better leader.



#3 Motherhood Cultivates Comfort with Uncertainty

Many of us LOVE knowing the answer and LOVE being “right.” I have been a part of MANY conversations seeking a singular and absolute answer – and seeking it NOW.


“Answer seeking” feels so good because it stimulates the brain and feeds the ego… however, hasty answer-seeking can limit our collective creative potential or lead us down a destructive path.


Here’s the schtick: “Truth” and “the answer” is ephemeral, subjective, and personal. Our best answers come when we can sit in uncertainty and allow all the nuances and complexity to reveal themselves. This requires trusting that inaction - or being still - is an equally powerful choice as acting or moving forward.


How does motherhood cultivate comfort with uncertainty? Spend one night with a colicky baby, and you will drive yourself mad, wanting the answer and knowing the answer is right. You will play mental gymnastics of “Why is this happening? What do I do about it?” The moment you think you have a grip on something that “works” (oh, it’s the pacifier! The sound machine!)… your kid is losing their mind again.


Parenthood is the ultimate lesson in uncertainty. The only medicine to insanity is to release ourselves of all that we can’t know or control. From here, we may actually have more ability to shift what we can control: our presence and our intention. And we may be pleasantly surprised, or even shocked, at how much this shift in approach positively impacts our own experience and those around us.


Leading a business is not all that different than a night (or 2 years) with a colicky baby. We think we have a product strategy mapped out, and then… a competitor comes out with a similar product. Or, one of our key employees has a family crisis and is unexpectedly brought off-line. Finding the through-line in uncertainty is BEYOND strategy and execution; it’s about posture and relationship to uncertainty itself. The pandemic has only amplified the importance of dancing with uncertainty.


My creative potential as a leader, and as a mother, has been enhanced because I have learned to follow uncertainty and allow complex nuances to reveal themselves. Knowing when I had to just be and let the answers arise - or let my daughter give me the answers - has instilled more humility and curiosity in my approach to running a business. Integrating my heightened comfort with uncertainty into my leadership role has been one of the most powerful shifts of the last three years. When I free myself from the pressure of having to know the answer, I create space to receive inspiration, insight, and collaboration from others. And that is an exciting place to be.



#4 Motherhood Brings Us to the Simple Magic of Meaning, Belonging & Joy

I believe all human behavior is motivated by universal desires, including meaning, belonging, and joy. Plain and simple. In business, how we approach culture and workplaces – how we create products and services – and relate to one another – all shift if we understand, accept, and embrace that our fundamental nature is meaning, belonging, and joy-seeking.


When we see the world through a young person’s eyes, everything glistens with the magic of meaning, belonging, and joy. A single blade of grass is a world of meaning-making: Color! Texture! Life!


A morning snuggle gives us that undeniable sense of belonging. Our kid’s first bite of a ripe strawberry - what could create more JOY than that sweet juicy bliss?


What if we could approach business with this same sense of simple wonder and magic?

If we could distill all the complexity down to the nuggets that genuinely generate meaning, belonging, and joy – for our employees, customers, and selves? We’d accomplish a lot more with fewer resources and struggle.


As a conscious leader, I’m committed to finding the simple, potent magic already there and inviting others into the same place.



#5 Motherhood Teaches Us to Prioritize

Since this one is about prioritization, I'll be economical with my words to illustrate the point :)


A business is all about deploying financial, human resources, and time in the most efficient way to achieve a goal - at a strategic and tactical level, this is an exercise of discernment and prioritization. Knowing what matters. Focus. The stuff that doesn't matter melts goes away.


This is something I heard 10,000 times and 88,000 ways and intellectually understood. I was intrigued by Tim Ferris's 4 Hour Work Week method and was obsessed with achieving a "work-life balance" (in my own confused way, I added more and more "wellness" items into my over packed schedule). I bought in, hook-line and sinker. I consciously tried to prioritize for years leading up to Motherhood. So, why did I struggle to prioritize?


I had two blocks:


First, I valued productivity and believed it was connected to my worth. When mapped in accordance with my values of well-being, prioritization would imply doing less. But it opposed how I perceived my self-worth. As long as I perceived prioritization as a threat to my worth, I simply wouldn't choose it.


Second, I hadn't experienced conditions that supported experimenting and experiencing prioritization. In fact, my previous conditions celebrated busyness.


Parenthood eliminated both blocks in a well fell swoop.


First, my value for productivity was usurped by my values for connection, presence, and well-being for myself and my babe. Yeah, I cared about the things on my to-do list - but not as much as tending to my own child or tending to my physical post-birth recovery. Crossing arbitrary things off my to-do list no longer scratched that itch - the concept of prioritization was no longer abstract.


Second, my conditions supported prioritization. Working 100+ hour weeks for 5 years was NOTHING like the experience of emotional and energetic depletion that early Motherhood gave me. When I did show up to perform work functions or care take for my daughter, past perfectionist impulses dropped away. I reexamined my "good enough," became repelled by busyness, and sought stillness. I did things with more efficiency. I prioritized from a new perspective, completed what was most important, and let go of anything non-essential.


Maybe it was hormones. Maybe it was this love for my daughter that eclipsed all else. Maybe it was sleep deprivation or induced clairvoyance. Whatever the case, the dawn of Motherhood allowed me to feel and know that I can experience greater joy and effectiveness without the crutch of busyness. Motherhood allowed me to experiment and play with prioritization in new ways and bring this learning forward into other areas of my life.


So many strategies and approaches - like employing the power of focus, setting boundaries, developing task management - begins with priorities. Motherhood gave me the embodied understanding that I literally CANNOT do it all and that this is not a problem - it is actually a huge gift.



#6 Motherhood Makes us More Empathetic

Empathy is relevant to leadership and business success in many ways. Sure, empathy can be applied to a product or a customer ("consumer empathy"), a design approach that involves connecting to consumers' experiences and needs and design from their shoes. However, empathy makes us better leaders in so many more ways. I'm an unapologetic advocate for embracing feelings in the workplace - it's the basis for creative problem solving and collaboration and a trust-based culture. Empathy is the antidote to people not being seen and hurt, a precursor for burnout and attrition. If you're not convinced, here's a 2-part article on the topic.


Let's not forget empathy starts with the capacity to feel.


Empathy literally is our ability to feel what another person is feeling. This isn't an intellectual process – it is an embodied, emotional, and energetic experience. One that requires deep vulnerability, presence, and boundaries within self (all skills we teach in Wake the Talk UP!).


Accessing feelings requires empathy, first with yourself and then with others. The basis of emotional intelligence (relating to others) is our own emotional fluency and capacities.


Ok, the link to parenthood ought to be fairly obvious: parenthood is a festival of feelings. We're re-feeling our childhood. We're feeling emotions arising through our relationships at home and beyond under the forces of shifting identity and priorities. There is so much fodder for "feeling" in parenthood - without the right support, we may numb it out or feel overwhelmed. However, if we can feel what is here and deepen our capacity for feeling, parenthood can be a Jedi training for emotional intelligence.


Having more empathy and feeling more deeply has made me a more resilient, dynamic leader with more profound capacities to relate to myself - my customers - and my employees. Greater empathy has made me a better leader.


#7 Motherhood Helps Us Celebrate Wins

In my years at corporate institutions, I didn't "celebrate wins" within myself or collectively. Sure, I acknowledged success, and yes, I partied when I thought a significant task was achieved.


But "celebrating wins" was a peak experience after some massive milestone occurred that my team and I often didn't have total control over. I'm not blaming this on anyone or any organization. "Celebrating wins" doesn't come naturally to me. Pre-parenthood, I was a hyper-critical, recovering workaholic known to escape into various emotion-numbing abysses and vices in times of stress.


The truth is that the cost of not celebrating wins is real. Our employees and partners experience lower satisfaction, higher burnout, and attrition.


Most importantly, we miss the whole point (the satisfaction, joy, and purpose) of a fulfilling career! Instead, the current corporate standard is to fill this void in inefficient (flashy corporate retreats) and expensive ways (numbing, disconnecting).


In contrast, parenthood is a constant invitation to celebrate life. Hearing them mouth out "doggy!" as they point at a horse? Their satisfying shriek when they smear peanut butter on the walls? The heartwarming, comical, and even aggravating is an invitation to celebrate - look at them LIVE LIFE so FULLY!

I used to withhold celebrating at work: I worried it would distract or lower our standards. How hilarious is that? How much would my team and I LOVE the experience if we paused to celebrate one another when we launched each workshop? Or published each blog post? Celebration doesn't need to be a 4-hour picnic (although it can be and probably sounds nice right now). Celebration is a mindset that encourages us to keep showing up - to keep enjoying our experience - to take risks, to fail, to try a different way, and to do it again.


As leaders, we have to do more than acknowledge success: we have to honor celebration and joy and how an outcome is achieved. By celebrating, we show gratitude, reinforce commitment, and emphasize integrity.

Celebrating success can look like:

  1. An expression of how the outcome aligns with the standards and values of a company

  2. Begin each leadership meeting with a 2-4 minute celebration of something one of our team members achieved

  3. Make praise personal, and tie it to impact ("I want to celebrate [Alex] for [stepping in to help me with project x] because [we were able to meet our outreach goal while learning together].


The more I encourage my team to enjoy their experiences, take risks, offer solutions, and try again, the more I know my leadership values align with a higher goal.


Once again, it took being a mother for me to see the power of celebrating the big milestones and the small outcomes. And it has been motherhood that has taught me to translate these qualities to my leadership role.


Conclusion

Sharing through the lens of my motherhood experience, I’m advocating that workplaces and cultures are designed not only to tolerate but also to embrace, celebrate, and amplify the humanity of their people. Not just because it makes for a more satisfying existence (although that would be a good enough reason)...


… because integrating our humanity into our careers actually makes us more grounded, collaborative, and effective.


My belief is that – no matter your parenting status – embracing your humanity will support a more integrated relationship with yourself and help you step into the leader you naturally are.

For a taste of how I can help you live and lead your way as an individual, a team, or an organization book a complimentary 30 minute call with me.



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