What makes someone a leader?

KaraleadingSome people say that leaders are born, others say they are made. I think we are all born with the possibility of being leaders but we are also all born with the desire to follow because the desire to belong to social structures has existed in humans since the ‘hunter and gatherers’ time. We want to be part of something bigger than ourselves: an idea, a dream, a purpose.

There is a moment in life when you hear a beautiful story, a story that resonates and brings out something that was there, inside of you, all this time.  You feel that a man or woman really understands you and has a vision that you believe in. You are inspired; you follow and, suddenly see other people following as well. Together you have created … The Leader. Without you, she was just a woman with a dream.

When I was as a child, I liked stories with brave kings and princesses and I thought leading was supposed to happen from the front. I had a romantic view of leadership, one that was supposed to be inspirational and uplifting for the people. The first crack in that romantic image of leadership happened on December 22nd, 1989.

On that day, I was playing in the courtyard of our village farmhouse while my mother was doing the laundry. The radio was on playing some classical music. Suddenly, the music stopped and I heard some loud voices saying: ‘The Dictator left, we are free at last, ‘Ceausescu is gone’. In the first ten years of my life I was raised to believe that the ‘Dictator’ was the Father of the country, looking after all the children, like me. I simply could not understand why these people called him a dictator. He was kind and generous and was giving children the opportunity to be brave, learn and to become heroes of our country. He was even giving us presents and sweets at the end of the year, just like Santa Klaus did in the western world.

A year before,  at the age of nine I finally earned the honour to be the ‘pioneer captain’ of my class, a special award in the communist political ranking of school kids.  On that December day, when the music on the radio suddenly switched into shouts of the revolutionary people, I knew that I would lose my pioneer captain title. Hearing the hard truth about our ‘father leader’, who kept people in poverty and crushed the freedom of speech woke me up from my romantic leader ideal.

On that day I learned that leaders who are created through the stories they spread or control can vanish in a flash. I also learned not to trust power, because power can corrupt anyone if held in one man’s or woman’s hand. After 1989 my idea of leadership changed completely. I looked around me for role models and, fortunately, I didn’t have to look far. My grandmother inspired in me generosity for the poor; my grandpa taught me the joy of commitment and duty; my father instilled in me the power of self-confidence and self-belief; and my mother gave me the power of perseverance and discipline.

This childhood experience instilled in me a certain rebel attitude towards people who see a leadership role as a position of power, but it also influenced my deep belief that mothers are leaders, despite the perceived lack of power.

 Nature hasn’t created a single relationship as powerful and naturally strong as the one between a mother and her child. From giving life,  nurturing and raising children and up to they eventually fly the nest, mothers are often the leaders who guide and keep families and communities together.

So, if mothers are indeed leaders, how can we let the whole world see it and admit it?

Anyone who is a parent knows that the best school to develop emotional intelligence is the practice of good parenting because parenthood in itself is leadership.

Daniel Goleman, the man who brought the topic of emotional intelligence into the spotlight in the ’90s, wrote in the HBR article   ‘What Makes a Leader’ about the critical importance of being aware of oneself and of other’s emotions. He also wrote that leaders who want to be successful in today’s world need to develop five crucial skills of emotional intelligence. Adapting Goleman’s’ concepts to women and drawing on my own experience as a mother, I developed a beautiful basket of gifts, including exercises and tips that will help mothers show the world their inherent leadership skills:

  1. Awareness & Empathy: the art of recognising and deciphering your own emotions and the art of being in tune with other people’s feelings.
  2. Social Awareness: the ability to appreciate the diverse perspectives about you and to flex your approach to a situation while staying true to your core.
  3. Self-Management: the strength to recognize and regulate your disruptive impulses and moods.
  4. Social Skills: the intuition required to find common ground and build rapport with other people, balanced with the discipline for managing and harvesting relationships and networks.
  5. Ambition and Drive: to work for something bigger than money and short-term gains.

However the most important gift for any woman who becomes a mother is the inner self-belief that if you had the power to create life you have the power to do anything you set your mind on.

‘Good enough mothers can become incredible effective leaders’. Helen Murlis

What do you think makes someone leaders?


About the Author:

Steliana van de Rijt-Economu is a mother of two and a leadership consultant and coachShe believes that the world would be a better place when more women and mothers  ‘lean in’ to take formal leadership positions in society. In 2019 she published the book Mothers as Leaders.

Who was your mother before being ‘Mum’?

motherandbabyLook at this picture and imagine that one day, long time ago, that baby was ‘You’ and that woman was your own ‘Mother’. It is hard to picture what was the life of your own mother before you got to know her as ‘Mum’.
In your mind, the ‘ Mum’ image is so strong that the brain finds it difficult to process the image of a young woman who once wandered through the world without worrying or caring about your existence.  Maybe your imagination is better than mine, but I was up for a big surprise when I interviewed my own mother for my book (look for it in 2018!). I interviewed many mothers  in the past year and I didn’t expect  it would be so emotional to hear my own mum’s life story and mainly the ups and downs she had before I was there. We spend one and a half hours together, with a little voice recorder on the table, my mum telling vivid stories of her childhood, her teenager time and how she almost died while giving birth to a ‘stillborn’ baby after a second pregnancy and me really listening , listening with my heart.  

She told me about the difficulties of young women in the Romania of  the ’70s who were forbidden to end any pregnancy. The doctors  were facing criminal prosecution if there was a suspicion that they were helping women with abortions. The autocratic Ceausescu’s introduced Decree 770/1966 to stimulate Romania’s population growth and the young women were tasked to deliver it. If you were hospitalized in the last trimester but hadn’t reached the 7 months cut off date, you were put in a special ward with ten other women in pain and left to deliver that baby alive or stillborn all by yourself . No doctor or nurse wanted to take the responsibility of what could have been seen by the regime as a provoked and unsuccessful abortion. If you were lucky enough to come for delivery after seven months, you got all the attention and support of a free, state sponsored medical system. It was a tough time for women like my mum, who had no choice but to stay in full employment while encouraged to put their babies in creches after six months.

I walked away from the evening with a new image of my mum and I understood how much life changed her from that ambitious young girl who wanted to go to University because she knew she had the brains for it, to that committed Mother who decided to give up on studying after giving birth to three kids she had to care for. What I learned in that evening is that:

I never actually knew who my mother really is, until that very moment.

My mother is an incredibly powerful woman who willingly gave her power away to my father and, in some cases, to her parents-in-law in exchange for the happiness and fulfillment of her children.

Do you really know who your mother was before being your mum?

Take some time to get to know her before is too late and if you want to know what questions I used in my ‘interview’ drop me a line and I am happy to help.

I was inspired to write this article after reading a piece of daily news about Harvey hurricane in Houston and the sad story of a mother and a child who had to leave their car for safety and unfortunately they were washed away by the water just before rescue forces got there. They only managed to save the child.

Thank you ‘Mama’ for everything you have done for me!


About the Author:

Steliana van de Rijt-Economu is a mother of two young children Kara and Thomas, the wife of Sjors and in the past fifteen years she has been a HR Organizational and leadership consultant and coach.  She grew up in communist Romania, spent some of her youth in London and now lives with her family in The Netherlands. She believes that the world would be a better place when more women and mothers  ‘lean in’ to take that leadership position they are afraid of.

Her mission in life is  ‘to give people all over the world the opportunity to discover their uniqueness, their strength and the power to follow their dreams’.