Leadership Fundamentals: Lessons from a Working Mother

Sun Hwa Kim, my mother-in-law.

Sun Hwa Kim, my mother-in-law.

A wise saying goes, “a leader without followers is just a man [or woman] taking a walk.” Leadership at its core, is the ability to influence. Said another way, Leadership is doing something to get others to follow, by choice.

Simple enough, right?

In my 14 years of military service to this country, and now six years in the private sector, I’ve had my fair share of working with many leaders. My last “leader” was someone who was getting paid the big bucks (as shown by his fancy car) and had the title of “BOSS.” He had the authority to tell others what to do and set metrics to gauge performance, but he pushed people away. At the time, he probably wasn’t a leader we’re talking about.

Even in the military, I’ve seen people who were leaders because they had the rank, position, and authority to “influence” others. They were leaders to a point but outside of work, no one wanted to follow. People did what they were told, but this created a culture where lots of folks cut corners to just get the tasks done. DUI’s and trouble with the law were rampant during the weekends. The unit had constant problems with accountability and loss. Eventually, the company lost thousands of dollars in missing equipment and was ultimately taken off deployment status -- the ultimate shame of an infantry unit. 

So what is this something that leaders do to get followers? Along with a few other sources, we managed to compile a list of actions of what leaders do to enable their ability to influence. As you can see, this middle portion is the bulk of “formula.”

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But when we looked for real-life examples of this leadership, I didn’t have to look far.

My wife and I recently moved back to the Fort Bragg, NC area for a few reasons. For one, the most populated military post is Fort Bragg, and this is where MilSpec Capital can make an impact. The other major factor was that my wife’s family is in the area. For years, they managed a small business off of Bragg Boulevard that caters to the military. By starting MilSpec Capital, we had the opportunity to live close to home and also be near her family. 

At 4’11”, my mother-in-law -- Sun Hwa -- is of small stature. She’s soft-spoken and gentle, but has the kindest eyes and warmest heart. One of her superpowers is in her ability to whip up mouth-watering Korean dishes that delight your taste buds and warm your soul… the ultimate combo. Not only is she an amazing chef, but like many other working mothers Sun is also the backbone of the family. 

After immigrating to the US 12 years ago, with only a few dollars in their pocket, my wife’s family had to endure all sorts of work to survive. From working in the laundromat, chicken coops, barbershops, and now the dry-cleaners, my mother-in-law played a pivotal role for the family’s survival. Without complaint or angst, Sun worked long hours, often-times into the wee hours of the morning, to keep their business running, family clothed and fed, and customers happy. Now, her reputation precedes herself, as many of her military customers — from around the country — save their alterations when returning to Fort Bragg, NC for duty, just so ‘Sun from Jan’s Cleaners’ can fix their clothes herself!

So why mention Sun on a topic of leadership? Because she has the ability to influence the family by being herself. She does everything in the middle column naturally -- she cares and connects with her people. Now her kids and even their spouses, will bend over backwards to do as she asks, because we’ve seen her authenticity, kindness, and warmth in action. When a recent road expansion project declared plans to raze their storefront, the family bonded together and Sun helped guide the family’s decision of next steps. Ultimately, the family decided to relocate, which turned out to be a newer, better location for their business anyway. In her soft-spoken way, Sun builds a trusting environment that allows her team (her family and customers) to make progress and row together in the same direction. 

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The next time you think of a great role model and leader to emulate, you may not have to look far. Look within your own lives and find those who have sacrificed and “led” in their own right. Remember how they cared for you and connected with you, to build a trusting relationship. This may very well influence how you improve yourself, to be a better leader.