The Mothership Algorithm

The value of matriarchal wisdom in leadership

Shannon Mullen O'Keefe
10 min readJun 3, 2021

The ‘This We Believe’ Series

By Melanie Garson Ph.D. & Shannon Mullen O’Keefe M.A.L.D.

Photo by Bekky Bekks on Unsplash

Algorithms underpin our digital lives.

These recipes guide our computers and apps and are the inconspicuous super currents behind much of what shows up on our screens.

Algorithms have the power to know us intimately. They suggest what to buy, friends to know, news to read, and people to date or marry.

But there are questions about the decision-making ethics behind them. Whose ethics are they? Are they riddled with bias? Whose biases are these?

The truth is that while we can point out all the flaws in the algorithms, the problems will always originate with us — the humans.

We’re imperfect.

We’ve made that pretty obvious over time. There are flaws in the way we build things in the first place. And nowadays it’s not only our biases that show up everywhere it’s also the noise around our decisions too.

The truth is that since the very beginning humans have always looked for guidance about our decisions, insights that help us to make sense through all of that noise.

Where do we find it?

At one point in human history, it was the stars we looked to for inspiration.

But while gazing up at the sky seemed like it might be a good idea at the time, we’ve realized we need something with more conscience than that.

This is because what we decide to do matters.

Albert Camus reminded us of the weight of choices when he said, “‘Life is the sum of all your choices.’” And furthermore, “‘History, by extrapolation, equals the accumulated choices of all mankind.’”

Camus reminds us that when we make a decision it matters not only to us — but also to humankind.

Maybe this is why it’s not only the philosophers that try to get to the bottom of how we make decisions. It’s the mathematicians, sociologists, psychologists, economists and political scientists too.

So we need the decisions we make — and that our leaders make — to be based on values that will remain consistent across time and space.

The consequence is no less than the sum total of what history will say about all of us.

The Mothership Algorithm

But where do humans look for ethical nourishment?

What can be a source for wisdom, good judgement and values?

One important place, from the very beginning, is our mothership.

We go to a mothership you say?

Well, we might most often think of a mothership as a base for aircraft — where smaller crafts are launched and where they return. And after plenty of sci-fi movies, or maybe even a little Doctor Who, we can imagine what a mothership looks like — it looms large as a central entity to which smaller craft are connected on an infinite, invisible cord.

For us this means that we find a place where there are values that can tether our string.

For many this is the voice of the mothers, grandmothers, and great grandmothers that we reach for, just as we reached for their hands for assurance when we were children. In some Native American societies like the Navajo, women are the source of wisdom and protectors of ancestral teachings.

In an age when we are beginning to examine the filter bubbles by which we each process information. As we increase our awareness of our susceptibility to the algorithms that are shaping our news feeds, our book recommendations and the philosophies that we may use to underpin our decision-making, have we forgotten one of the most powerful voices in the echo chamber?

The voices of mothers in leadership. Mothers + Leadership = The Mothership Algorithm.

The voices of mothers in leadership. Mothers + Leadership = The Mothership Algorithm.

Now you might be sitting there with a wry smile on your face. This article pivoted in an interesting direction, you might say.

We hope you are smiling, but we also hope that you might be able to sense a tug on the string to your own mothership. The one to which you go and the one that you have created.

This kind of mothership is less about a large looming craft than it is about the enormous presence matriarchs can have in our lives as leaders. It is about the power and responsibility those who mother in our societies have to make a difference.

Leaders publicly return to their ‘mothership,’ all the time — synthesising the values that tether them to the ground as they exercise their decision-making authority. In this way matriarchal advice becomes our values-based skeletal infrastructure that continues to underpin our decisions small and large throughout our work and lives.

The maxims, expressions, admonishments, encouragements, warnings and words of comfort become the cartoon thought bubbles over our heads as we think out life’s greatest challenges.

What life does to you in the long run will depend on what life finds in you. . .”

Life is not a rehearsal for life….”

Good night, sleep tight, wake up bright, in the morning light, to do what’s right with all your might, good night…”

The tune that accompanies the ordinary moments of our lives. And it is in the melody that falls softly into our ears under the dull light of night as we blink our sleepy eyes during bedtime ‘tuck-ins, to do what’s right, that stays with us. Without realizing it… ‘doing what’s right,’ becomes a part of us — and it underscores our own humanity — our own values.

The gravitational pull of strands of mothership driving our actions even when those voices think they are unheard.

Leaders’ agendas are often tethered to their mothership

Joe Biden’s inaugural speech earlier this year was a clear nod to the power of mothership as a grounding force: “We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts, if we show a little tolerance and humility, and if we are willing to stand in the other person’s shoes — as my mom would say.” The Golden Rule is right there in Catherine Biden’s words that are now a part of a president’s philosophy. The New York Times points out that: “Aphorisms from his mother, who died in 2002, have been a staple of his [Joe Biden’s] campaign language for years.”

Biden’s Vice President, Kamala Harris, has also spoken about her own mother’s impact on her political values. Kamala has said of her mother, “My mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris was a force of nature and the greatest source of inspiration in my life. She taught my sister Maya and me the importance of hard work and to believe in our power to right what is wrong.”

Some mothers are aware of their mothership role. Maye Musk, mother of SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, is often asked and quoted about her parenting influence on her three children including Musk and said this in an article about it: “I brought up my children like my parents brought us up when we were young; to be independent, kind, honest, considerate and polite, to work hard and do good things.”

While we hear the influence of their mothers echoed in some leaders, others, like Jacinda Ardern, place motherhood as central to her leadership strength. Ardern, New Zealand’s most popular prime minister in 100 years, has navigated some of the worst challenges that have faced her nation with an approach centred on kindness and empathy rather than brute assertiveness. Similarly, the indefatigable Melinda Gates proactively seeks to incorporate her experience as a mother into her work attracting the most talented engineers to her team at Microsoft through staying true to herself and cultivating breakthrough ideas through a model of empathy and kindness.

The Mothership of Universal Leadership Values

In our search to understand the values required to underpin a model of visionary leadership that transcends the narrow outbidding of today’s politics, and that can also take us into the unknown future we continue to dive into Edward R. Murrow Papers at the Digital Collections and Archives, Tufts University to seek out themes — with an eye to identifying values leaders can grab on to as they shape their future narratives.

Just as we see data has emerged that shows that mothership values have facilitated women leaders’ success at protecting their citizens from Covid-19 and that incorporating female voices at the negotiating table leads to stronger peace agreements, we wanted to investigate which mothership values rooted leaders as they faced uncertainty and adversity then? What was the source of the values that tethered their thoughts and action? And as futures unfold exponentially into realms and circumstances that were previously only imagined, what values could be the basis of a mothership for all leaders across all universes?

A content analysis of the 574 interviews conducted by Murrow between 1951–1954 show some startling similarity in the mothership values that guided leadership then and closely parallel the mothership values informing leadership today.

Mothership is reflected in attitudes towards treatment of others as we see in Joe Biden’s leadership. Authenticity and honesty in life and business were lessons learned from the voice of their matriarchs for leaders such as Paul Comly French who was the executive director of CARE, the Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe. The repeated statements of “you may be able to fool others, but you’ll never be able to fool thyself” as words he returned to again and again reminding of the value of integrity. Like Kamala Harris, Frank M. Wilkes’ approaches were shaped by his mother’s lessons of “the dignity of labor, and the fact that one must work honestly if he desires to acquire any property and must give an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay, whether it be as a hod carrier or as a president of a big industry.

The reminder of treating all people as equals, was the mothership for Sidney Rosenblum, former Executive Vice-President of the Enro Shirt Company, as it has been for Maye Musk, whose mother used to remind him that “everyone in our town was our friend and that we were to respect them and always to remember that there was good in everyone.” Values that Frank Wilkes also drew out of his mothership were based on the principle of the dignity of the individual that can only be claimed as long as this did not interfere with the civil rights of other people.

But the mothership lessons that resonate the most across the spectrum of leaders interviewed by Murrow, were those that provided the guidance to be resilient in the face of adversity and staying adaptive to navigate new situations.

Mothership echoes through the values that drove the work of Floyd Starr who founded the Starr Commonwealth for boys, a private agency for young people with emotional and social problems. The lesson of “it is good to do hard things” and the satisfaction and strength that emerges in overcoming difficult situations, a guiding lesson that he learnt from his mother.

Mothership values that inspired leaders were not always those that were articulated as much as those which were exemplified. The values of personal sacrifice in order to achieve and promote achievement as demonstrated by their mothers underpinned the belief system of leaders such as Roswell Ham, who held the position of President of Mt. Holyoke College whose mother created a school system while simultaneously running a hotel, paying off mortgages, raising two boys and then being his eyes when he lost his sight for a period of time whilst at college. Similarly, Sidonie Gruenberg, author of “The Many Lives of the Modern Woman,” learned the possibilities of balancing working motherhood from being raised by a mother, left a widow with six children, with no training who went on to become a successful businesswoman.

For many of the leaders, mothership was at the heart of their ability to take control of one’s destiny and move forward. Richard McFeely, whose dreams were crushed by a case of polio as a child was forever guided by his mother’s words reminding him that “what life does to you in the long run will depend on what life finds in you. You know we can change any situation by changing our own attitude toward it” and that “one always has to make [life] worth living.” These mothership values of staying “open to change” and enjoying life in its fullness underpinned the philosophy of once director of the Cleveland Museum of Art, William M. Millikin, built on his mother’s words to “try to see the good side of things and of people, minimizing their faults, living in a positive world.”

The former University of Pennsylvania’s Dean of Women, Althea K. Hottel, built her belief system on the values of generations of mothership. Words that reminded her to stay in “the living room of life,” to “try to seize every opportunity but best don’t cry over spilt milk.”

Strategies to keep on moving forward are the mothership for Harlan Cleveland, the former Executive Editor of The Reporter magazine, who always returned to his mother’s repeated advice “never stop learning” and not to “ever get the feeling that you’ve arrived.”

So as we consider what is required for effective decision-making in an age of uncertainty, it is hard to ignore the power of the mothership algorithm. It challenges the individualism, isolationism and inward focus that has emerged in recent years.

Mothership inspires leaders across all ages to return, refuel and re-energise in order to make decisions based on the core values of kindness, treating people with honesty and recognising the dignity of every individual.

As Ruth Buffalo, the first Native American woman elected to the North Dakota Legislature said, the wisdom of women brings balance. It is the voice of generations that propels us to persevere in the face of adversity and to keep moving forward.

It is the timeless algorithm of ages past that is key to values based decision-making to protect our future on earth and beyond.

This We Believe.

This article is dedicated to our motherships who keep us anchored so we can fly, and to our daughters and sons to whom we pass this wisdom.



Shannon Mullen O'Keefe

A lover of wisdom, dedicated to imagining what we can build and achieve together. Chief Curator |The Museum of Ideas