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Leadership Lessons From My Mother

Updated: Apr 17, 2022

Everything happens for a reason.

Of all of your expressions, Mom, I think this one was definitely your favorite. You used it nearly every day. Sometimes you meant it as a balm when things didn't go my way. Other times you meant it to explain the good things that were happening in my life. And there were the times where you meant it to explain some strange impactful occurences in the world like election results and such.

You collected empowering words and images the way a taxidermist collects animals. You wanted to create a visual environment that forced everyone in the space into a certain frame of mind. It's hard to stay upset with refrigerator magnets like these in your face everytime you go get something to eat:

Your life taught you that you had to bring the positivity to the table. And you passed this message on to us. Attitude wasn't the only thing, it was everything. You taught us that it was the only thing we truly controlled. And you walked the talk after your fall from that bus reduced your mobility, and your heart attack sucked your energy, and your chronic pain issues sapped your vitality, and your liver cancer tumor removal procedure kept you bed-ridden; and even in this last stage of your life where your metasticized cancer put you on your back. Throughout it all you managed to stay mostly positive and faithful that even this had a positive purpose for occurring.

The truth is, you had a rough life, Mom.

I don't know if I have the strength to get through 1/10th of what you survived. Being born a child of rape. Losing your little baby brother in that fire when he was 3 years old. Getting molested as a young girl. Becoming pregnant and having a child as a prebubescent teenager. Being forced to live on your own and survive from age 14. Losing your own mother to cancer when you were only 16. Not finishing high school. Having another child by the age of 21. Working as a maid at a motel and not eating for days at a time so your young boys didn't go hungry. Being a single mother for neary 12 years before meeting Dad. Not being fully accepted in the black community because of your mixed ethnicity.

One or two of these in a lifetime would be enough to stop most people from thinking positively about their life let alone provide them with the maturity to see all of it as a learning and growing process. You taught me that negative circumstances were meant to be overcome not dwelled upon. And that's what you did day after day while you were alive. You turned adversity into fuel for your dreams.

And oh did you have dreams! You first visualized and then manifested the future for which you'd always longed. First by finding stability in your marriage to Dad, and then methodically boosting yourself to get your GED, then bachelors degree, and finally becoming the first person in our family to achieve a masters degree - all while homemaking and working as first a social worker and then a special needs educator. In your last job as head of Headstart in Houston, TX, you became a transformative leader for an organization that desperately needed it. You were never afraid to work hard in pursuit of your dreams - something you definitely embedded in your children.

You had so much passion and zest for life. You lived to help others. I remember the marathon conversations you would have with your friends many of whom counted on you for counsel and advice. You were never selfish with your time when it came to lending a hand to someone in need. And that included the time you invested in your children.

You set clear standards for me. From my earliest memory I can recall you telling me and anyone who would listen that I would do "something great" with my life. But you didn't leave this as an empty aspiration. You made sure it happened by first feeding my love of reading and then getting me enrolled into the gifted program and then ensuring that I went to the best possible public schools and forcing me to be well-rounded by being in orchestra, athletics, and student government all the while constantly reinforcing to me that greatness did not happen by osmosis. It took hard work, passion, optimism, and resilience.

Of course, you led by example. I vividly remember you and Dad working on your college homework while we worked on ours. The whole family was on a mission to uplift ourselves through the power of education and hard work. And you somehow still had energy to spend quality time with your needy children. We could never get enough of you!

I always told you that you were the best mother in the world. I can't imagine having been born to anyone else. I am only what I am because of your diligence, leadership, and guidance especially in my formative years. But even as I started traveling the world and becoming a global citizen I always had a home with you. You reminded me that no matter how sophisticated and serious my life became, I needed to remain humble and practice service to my family, organization, and community.

So these and many more lessons are what I will carry forward with me now that you are no longer physically with me to guide and advise me. It will be so hard without you but because I too have internalized your favorite mantra of everything happening for a reason - I need to apply the lessson of your loss and not dwell on your absence. The best way to honor your legacy is to make further progress and stay on my path to transform the status quo of leadership.

Even in your last few months you were inspiring me. I wrote, edited, and published my latest mission focused book The Servant Leader's Manifesto in 4 months. I showed the book cover and dedication to you this week and that's when you spoke your last words to me.

"Lovely," you said. Yes Mom - it is. Just as you are and will forever be. I know that you are finally at rest just as I know that you will keep inspiring and motivating me from the great beyond. Thank you for being my Mom. I am the luckiest son in the world to have had you for a mother. I will always love you and you will always be in my heart!

Sameerah T. Harris - July 11, 1949 to April 17, 2020

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