Mothers Are Leaders: An Interview with the Author/Editor

by Kate Sullivan '15

Abraham Lincoln once said, “All I am, or hope to be, I owe to my angel mother.” Mothers, in most cases, are the heart of the family, helping life run smoothly. A wildly popular YouTube video from last year, “World’s Toughest Job,” showed unknowing applicants interview for a position that had 24-hour-a-day responsibilities and no pay. That daunting job turned out to be motherhood. Indeed, a mother wears many hats—communicator, multitasker, mediator, and caregiver, to name just a few.

Mothers also possess many of the leadership qualities desired in the workplace. Kimberly B.W. Denu, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Global Studies, Sociology, and TESOL and special advisor to the president and provost, unpacks this idea in a new book titled Mothers Are Leaders (ACU Press, 2014) that she coedited with her own mother, Janet Walters.

APU: What led you to write this book? Denu: Several years ago, I had a conversation with a good friend who is an administrator at Fuller Theological Seminary. We spoke about the lack of books on women leaders, particularly those that made the connection between motherhood and leadership. Years passed, I became a wife and mother, and I rekindled my passion to research and write about this topic. After talking with my friend again, I decided to move forward with the project along with my mother.

APU: Why was this topic important to you? Empowering women and celebrating their roles is meaningful to me. In 2013, Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead , brought focus to the importance of women being at the table. The book presents many great points and attributes, but it did not focus on the role of motherhood. The power of motherhood to shape the next generation is of immense value. I want to applaud mothers and remind us that what we are doing impacts family and society. The book celebrates the inherent, powerful role of motherhood. As William Wallace said, “The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world.”

APU: Who did you collaborate with, and what diverse experiences and perspectives did they bring to the project? Eight contributors from areas of church leadership, academia, and business came together to speak to the powerful leadership skills mothers’ posses. One woman is a provost, another a vice president, a third is a dean. They bring the perspective of working in administration and teaching in higher education. Each chapter focuses on certain leadership principles that can be applied to both motherhood and the workplace. For example, my chapter talks about prioritizing what is most important, something inherent to motherhood and crucial in the professional sphere. Furthermore, I was lucky enough to co-edit the book with my own mother, drawing from her experience as an accomplished professional and wonderful mother, and mine as a mother-leader as well.

APU: How long did the book take? The process from book proposal to finished product took about two years. Once we received a contract, an ACU Press representative gave us a year to write the book, followed by a year of edits. However, ideas themselves were in process long before the proposal.

APU: Do you consider your mother to be a role model? Definitely! I have the upmost respect for my mother because she faced challenging life circumstances as a young wife and mother. My mom married and had me at 17, and was widowed at 18. Like many women, she did not have the choice to work or stay home; she had to work to provide for her family. She is definitely a hard worker who never complained. Although she does not hold a college degree, she worked her way up through Los Angeles County to become a hospital executive. When she retired, she started a business with my dad (stepfather). She always has been a mover and shaker, but most importantly, she puts God and her family first. And she raised four confident daughters who are committed to Christ.

“The power of motherhood to shape the next generation is of immense value. I want to applaud mothers and remind us that what we are doing impacts family and society.”

APU: What challenges do mothers face in leadership roles that differ from women who do not have children?

Mothers are characteristically torn with their loyalty, between professional responsibilities and the importance of family. When we are with our kids, we may wonder if we should be doing work, and at work, we may think about where we are needed at home or at a child’s event, which can leave us constantly second⎯guessing ourselves and feeling guilty. Two conflicts are at play, interrole conflict and role spill over. Interrole conflict is when competing roles are in conflict. Role spill over happens when tensions from work spill into home life and vice versa.

APU: Can mothers who don’t work outside the home be leaders? Yes. Every mother is a leader, whether or not she works full time outside the home. This connects with another important point. So often we hear of these “mommy wars,” where stay-at-home and working mothers are at odds. This book focuses on the importance of mothers not demonizing each other; rather, it is about fulfilling our God-given role as a mother. Each circumstance is different, which leaves no room for judging another woman’s decision or circumstances. It is also important to note that even though moms are leaders, no mother is perfect, just as no leader is perfect.

APU: What about motherhood changes the way a woman may lead? Katherine Ellison in her book, The Mommy Brain, conducted research that examines the effects of a woman’s brain after becoming a mother. Certain factors are heightened, such as efficiency, resilience, emotional intelligence, motivation, and perception. These skills and factors translate into the workplace. Motherhood makes us more aware of a lot of the things, for it encompasses not only producing life, or choosing life in the case of adoption, but also preserving it.

APU: What will the Common Day of Learning session address? Who will participate? My mom and I will present the themes of the book. The focus will be motherhood and leadership as overlapping concepts; we will also discuss work/family balance, and how skills used by mothers in the home are transferable to workplace settings. Finally, we also will share a little of our own lives in application to the ideas presented.

“The book does not marginalize unmarried women or women without children. This project affirms all women, while celebrating the unique leadership role of motherhood.”

APU: Any closing thoughts? Moms sometimes say they haven’t worked in so long so they don’t think they can make a difference in the workplace. We assert that this is not true. Mothers are budget experts, activity coordinators, nurses, cooks, managers and more⎯on any given day. Their fluidity, adaptability, and resilience make them valuable assets in any setting. The book does not marginalize unmarried women or women without children. This project affirms all women while celebrating the unique leadership role of motherhood.