Leadership: Lessons From My Father

As Father’s Day approaches this weekend, I have been reflecting on my late father, Harlie, one of the first leaders in my life. He was a true mentor leader – even though I didn’t fully realize it when he was alive. Here’s some lessons I learned from him and hopefully you can relate them to your work as a leader.

  1. Give what you expect from others. Harlie engaged me by first being engaged himself. Leadership is about energy, and if you want energy on your team, you must bring energy to your team. Energy – whether it’s positive or negative – is contagious. Harlie was passionate about so many things. He was passionate about learning, about growing, and about life. As a former national gymnastics champion, he kept himself in great shape. He lived what he led. If you want engagement from others, you must be engaged. We cannot give what we do not have.
  2. Be motivated by love. Great leadership is largely a matter of love. If you are uncomfortable with that word, call it caring, because leadership involves caring about people, not manipulating them. Dad was tough on me when I needed it, but I never doubted his motive: he genuinely cared. He cared more about me than the results which were a means to a higher end. Harlie was motivated by love. You can’t fabricate love; people will see right through you. What you can do is decide to care about people. People don’t care how much you know until they know  how  much you care.
  3. Live your passion. Our basement was filled with evidence of Dad’s passion: exercise equipment, a tumbling mat, weights. Every morning Dad would exercise at the crack of dawn. Although he couldn’t always get me engaged, especially in my early years, he lived his passion. He preached the importance of exercise without saying a word. When I was in junior high, Dad took me to the YMCA to teach me how to exercise on the parallel bars. I didn’t have the strength to lift myself up, much less do any maneuvers on them. After several disappointing attempts, Dad soon got the message: I was just not meant to be a gymnast. Even though I have memories of him being disappointed that he couldn’t engage me in gymnastics, he kept his own passion alive.
  4. Tune in to what drives people. When I was 14, dad was teaching me to drive our old 1954 Chevy truck. When I pulled over into a farm yard a mile from our home, dad sensed that something was wrong. We sat in silence for a few moments and I opened up about an incident in physical education class. “We ran a mile  and I couldn’t finish it without walking… I came in last, but I want to be the best miler in our zone track meet next year.” Dad knew little about running, so we went to the library and found every book we could on running. Dad became my coach, and the next spring I won the mile race in our zone track meet. Everyone has a passion. Everyone is engaged about something. The key is to create the space to listen and tune in to what matters to people. When you are committed to helping people find and express their voice – their unique gifts and passion, you’ll get engagement.
  5. Have a vision of greatness. Greatness wasn’t an external thing for my father. His life was about making a difference, not making a buck. He never had a mission statement. But he had a mission and it was expressed in how he lived his life. When you have a vision, whether it’s expressed explicitly or implicitly by your actions, it inspires people. In his “I have dream speech,” Martin Luther King did not say, “I have a strategic plan.” While plans may be necessary, it is dreams that inspire, uplift, and engage us. “If you want to build a ship,” writes Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, “don’t herd people together to collect wood, and don’t assign them to tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” Whatever your vision, live it well and you will inspire others to engage with you.
  6. Be a good gardener. Dad was a good gardener and he taught me a lot about leadership by the way he gardened. No plants ever grow better because you demand that they do so or because you threaten them. Plants grow only when they have the right conditions and are given proper care. Creating the space and providing the proper nourishment for plants – and people as well – is a matter of continual investigation and vigilance. But another reality about gardening is that you really don’t have much control over the harvest. Despite your best efforts, for a myriad of reasons, some plants simply won’t make it. You can’t engage everyone. It’s a reality we all live with.