Dr. Leen Kawas on How Being a Mother Makes You a Better Leader

Juggling motherhood and a successful career is difficult. Just ask Dr. Leen Kawas, an innovator and leader in pharmaceutical biotech, and the mother of two children. “Motherhood is not easy. Being a parent is not easy, and having a professional life is not easy,” says Dr. Kawas.

While it’s difficult to balance children and career, the two roles aren’t always a contradiction. Motherhood and leadership have much in common. Believe it or not, parenting your children can enhance your ability to lead your team. For mothers who apologize when work isn’t the priority—or feel “mom guilt” when it is—it’s important to know that your motherhood can be an asset in the workplace.

“Being a mother has made me a better leader in many ways,” Dr. Kawas says, “and women should understand that.”

About Dr. Leen Kawas

Dr. Kawas is a leader in pharmaceutical biotech who has successfully developed a therapeutical candidate for the treatment of Alzheimer’s and other neurological diseases.

After receiving her Doctor of Pharmacy degree from the University of Jordan, Dr. Kawas moved to Washington state, where she earned her doctorate in molecular pharmacology from Washington State University. She went on to co-found M3 Biotechnology, which later became Athira Pharma.

Dr. Kawas was named President and CEO of Athira in 2014. She held this role and sat on the company’s Board of Directors until 2021. In addition to inventing the company’s leading drug candidate, she also invented several other drugs in Athira’s pipeline. Dr. Kawas led Athira to its successful completion of an initial public offering.

She is the first female CEO to take a technology and biotech company public in Washington state, and, as of February 2021, was one of only 22 female founders/CEOs to lead their company to an IPO. Today, she lives in Washington with her family, and is passionate about empowering other women in biotech.

6 Ways Becoming a Mother Makes You a Better Leader

Mothers love, care for, discipline and encourage their children. They referee disputes, gradually provide independence, foster creativity and more.

Is it really so different from leading in the office? Author and motivational speaker Simon Sinek says, “parenting is the closest thing to leadership.”

Dr. Kawas agrees, explaining how motherhood has strengthened her empathy, patience, communication skills and even her productivity.

  1. Motivation

Children give you a source of strength and motivation in the workplace. You want to succeed and build a better life not just for yourself, but for your little ones.

Many mothers also feel inspired to be the kind of leader who will make their children proud. They strive to be strong and successful, but also kind, ethical, and respectful. Thinking about how you want your children to see you, or how you would like to see your children in the future, can help shape your leadership style.

  1. Communication, Empathy and Patience

Motherhood provides the perfect example of how our own communication style impacts the growth and behavior of people around us.

Mothers must practice patience and empathy as they communicate with their children. They learn to understand what their children are thinking and feeling, then help them safely and appropriately meet their needs. They even learn to manage the very different needs and emotions of different children.

The ability to see from other perspectives is incredibly important in the workplace. When you show empathy and patience to your team, problems get resolved far more easily. People feel connected to you, so they want to follow you. Work is more enjoyable, leading to happier, more productive employees who stick around.

Dr. Kawas says, “being a mother teaches you to have patience and empathy towards others, including your other coworkers. You’re able to better understand the background of the coworkers with whom you’re working, and you develop different communication skills.”

  1. Confidence

Many women find that motherhood strengthens their confidence. If you can carry, birth and raise a child, you can do just about anything.

Think about the pressure you deal with as a mom every day. As a mom, you’re experienced in navigating stress, crises and challenges. When your five-year-old is crying because your three-year-old cut off a chunk of her hair, that presentation tomorrow seems much more manageable.

Dr. Kawas explains that if you learn to calm yourself in high-pressure situations at home, it will translate to being able to calm yourself in high-pressure situations at work too. In scenarios that may have caused panic in the past, take a deep breath and remind yourself that you can handle tough situations.

  1. Productivity and Focus

When you become a mom, you’ll want to optimize your time. As a result, you’ll have sharper focus and greater productivity than ever before.

Many moms say they want to maximize the use of every minute away from their children. Others explain that they don’t want to bring work home with them, so they’re motivated to complete all essential tasks on their to-do list.

Time becomes more precious when you have children at home. You’ll likely find that you’re able to prioritize and manage time better, so you can go home and be present with your kids.

  1. Persistence

Just as children can lend you motivation, they can make you more persistent. When things don’t work out the way you want them to, your children provide a reason to never give up. They help put your career in perspective and are an endless source of energy and strength.

Mothers are tough, gritty and resilient. Parenting will make you a leader who’s able to learn from mistakes, overcome obstacles and go back to the drawing board until your goals are met.

  1. Balance

In many ways, being a mother is a balancing act. There’s the classic work-life balance, then there’s the balance between protecting your child and granting them independence – or the balance between cuddles and fun vs. homework and naptime.

Great leadership also requires balance. As a mother, you’ll have better perspective on balancing kindness with firmness, support with independence and the varying needs and personalities of your team.

Final Thoughts: Dr. Leen Kawas on Motherhood and Leadership

Ultimately, Dr. Kawas says, “being a mother is empowering for leaders.” Motherhood lends you motivation, confidence and persistence. It makes you a more empathetic and patient communicator. It helps you become more focused, productive and balanced in your approach to leadership.

There’s no reason to feel guilty about working, or about being a mother. You can do both with strength, grace and vulnerability. Mothering your children can make you a better leader. In turn, your leadership and hard work sets a great example for your children and provides for their needs.

But Dr. Kawas wants to emphasize that there is no “right” choice for a mother. “Women should do whatever they want,” she says. “If they want to have a career, if they want to have children, or if they want to have both – they should pursue it.”