The Very Unexpected Leadership Lesson Learned from my Very Italian Mother

A visit from Mama brought lots of excitement to the Maloney home last week.

A full-blooded Italian from New York, Mama is just as lovely and cute as they come.

Exhibit A:


She’s also got an energy that is hard to beat.  And as a direct descendent I’ve also been known to reach similar levels of enthusiasm.

In the past, that is.

Now that I am a hybrid New Yorker/Californian my energy is a bit…shall we say…quieter. Which makes Mama’s visits that much more interesting.

Take, for example, the morning she bounded into the living room where I sat working fiercely at the computer, focusing on getting work done before beginning our day of sight-seeing fun.

Mama didn’t notice the intensity of my concentration. I know this because she began chatting about the weather, about our lunch plans, about the latest political scandal she’d seen on the news.

I finally looked up at her and made the following request:

“Would you mind letting me finish up some things for a few minutes so we can officially start our day?”

“Sure!” she said, walking away, “I’ll keep myself entertained.”

And she did…by singing one of her favorite tunes. Out loud.

I looked up again and asked: “and would you mind…just being quiet so I can concentrate?”

“Okay,” she said, a bit wounded (don’t judge me). She then said to no one in particular: “I guess I didn’t read the room.”

Here’s the deal.

We have dozens – maybe hundreds – of interactions every day. We have formal meetings at the office and informal lunches with our girlfriends. We go through take-out lines and request reservations. We run into people we know and get introduced to people we don’t.

When we enter into these interactions we know where we’re coming from. We know about the day we’ve had and what’s coming up. We know our mood. We know if we’re all about conversing with others…

…of if we need a few seconds of silence to fully enjoy a special moment.


What we don’t know is any of this information about the person or people.

  • We don’t know if they had a good breakfast or a terrible night’s sleep
  • We don’t know if they just had a fight with their sister or an incredible date with their partner
  • We don’t know if they’re stressed or elated…feeling fat or fabulous…ready to take on the world or wanting to collapse on the floor

We know none of this, yet we often walk into a situation with our own objectives in mind and don’t take a second to get a sense of where others are coming from before diving in.

We don’t read the room.

And what often happens? We set ourselves up for problems.

  • We pass our boss and in the hallway and crack a joke about the copier…not noticing she was muttering angrily under her breath just beforehand
  • We enter our colleague’s office and begin whining about our terrible drive in traffic…not noticing that he’s beaming with news that he’s going to be a father
  • We walk into dinner to meet our favorite couple and begin chatting excitedly…not noticing they were clearly fighting right before we got there

None of these examples are especially serious, but others can be. Either way, they certainly don’t set us up for success. They don’t give us our best shot at a happy, pleasant experience. And in some cases they could cause damage.

The good news is there’s an easy fix. It’s often simple to learn a lot about the people in the room – and their overall mood – in just a beat or two.

Sometimes you can just feel it in the air. Many people make it clear through non-verbals. If you’re not sure, even asking a simple “how’s it going?” can tell you tons. And then you can act accordingly.

 “But Deirdre”, you might be thinking, “how is this fair?! Why do I always have to be the one to read the room? Doesn’t my mood matter?”

Of course it does. And yes, it would be a terrific thing if we all read the room.

But…you know this…that ain’t how life works. Which means it’s up to you to decide how you can make every one of your own interactions the right experience for you.

So take charge of your day. Read the room. And when those moments come that someone hasn’t read you right, decide the best way to handle it.

And know that, every once in a while, you might need to ask others to read the room as well.

Even if they’re cute, Italian New Yorkers with lots of energy.


Don’t judge me.

This week…

Mama said it best. Read the room. Take a beat to read non-verbals and feel the energy of a situation before you launch into your own needs. Then act accordingly.

See what a difference it might make for all involved. See how much better your day is because of it.

Now, go do good…and do it well.



4 responses to “The Very Unexpected Leadership Lesson Learned from my Very Italian Mother”

  1. Larry Avatar

    Dierdre-I find it important to ‘read the phone’ sometimes when a conversation has been preceded by a variety of emails or messages. The language and tone of a conversation are as important as physical presence in many instances.

    1. Deirdre Maloney Avatar
      Deirdre Maloney

      Gosh Larry that is such a great point! Because you can’t rely on visuals you need to really focus on the voice…and you’ll know if you’ve caught them at the wrong time, or just a busy time. Thanks for passing this important piece on…

  2. Patty Avatar

    Great insight Deirdre and thank you to Mama. It really speaks to me of being aware and sensitive to where people are whether on the phone or in person. Not everyone is in a singing mood!

  3. Deirdre Maloney Avatar
    Deirdre Maloney

    Thanks very much, Patty – and it’s true that we can’t all be in the mood to sing (or hear others) all of the time…though sometimes it’s the perfect music to our ears. Depends on the moment!