Lessons Learned from My First Teacher: My Dad

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Forgive the very personal nature of this blog post. My Dad passed away earlier this month, and I processed my loss as I process most things: by writing.

As I reflect on my Dad’s legacy, I realized that much of what he taught to us kids applies equally well to organizations. He was a great leader who taught by example, examples that many of us can use in our everyday lives, both with our families and in our organizations. 

By “leader,” I don’t mean the person in charge. Although my parents held traditional gender roles, Dad would always tell us to “ask your mother” or “go ask the boss.” While we could debate whether or not he served as “the boss” in our family, he most assuredly set the culture, tone, and expectations which are the hallmarks of true leadership.

So, with that backdrop, here are the 7 lessons that my dad taught me.

  1. Treat each person as an individual. I have five siblings: three sisters and two brothers. We have very different interests, career paths, life experiences, and personalities. Yet Dad always treated us as individuals, especially as we got older and our differences became more evident. Although I don’t think he ever truly understood my career, he always asked about my business and my clients. We had a very different relationship than he had with the younger of my brothers, for example. Both chemical engineers, they talked science and problem-solved together. A leader sees people not as interchangeable cogs, but as individuals with their own ambitions, strengths, and weaknesses and treats them accordingly.

  2. Spend time alone with each person. As you can imagine, a house with six kids got pretty rowdy and loud with very little privacy. I cherish the time I got to spend alone with Dad. I remember Saturday mornings when he brought me along when he ran errands. Not the most glamorous trip, but because I got alone time with Dad, it was precious to me. These few stolen moments gave us an opportunity to have his undivided attention, ask him about the great questions on our mind, or for him to learn a little more about us and our lives. While many may take the easy way out – especially in the midst of a busy day, week or year – and only meet with people in groups, one-on-one time allows leaders to develop meaningful relationships because you give people your undivided attention.

  3. Listen. Growing up, dinner time meant 8 people sitting around the table. I remember vividly the conversations at those family dinners which continued even when we visited Grandma and Grandpa’s with our own kids. Dad always asked about our day, and we would go around the table and tell him – and each other – the latest happenings in our lives. I cannot imagine that he  truly had an interest in our neighborhood baseball games, vocabulary test, or the latest middle school drama, but he took the time to listen to each of us. You can learn a lot about a person when you listen with open ears and an open heart. You also tell them they matter.

  4. Put your needs last. As we sat around the dinner table, Mom served herself first – at Dad’s instance, then we passed the plates and bowls around the table, reaching Dad last. Sometimes, one of us would take more than our 1/8th portion, leaving Dad without enough food for his plate so we would pass the serving plates back around to put some back until Dad had enough to eat. Even recently, he only took seconds after everyone else had a chance. I can only imagine how many nights he ate less than he wanted, but he always put our needs first. He also got up in the wee hours of the morning to drive us to work or school or take my brothers on their newspaper routes and stayed up late until we got home after working well past midnight. As Jim Collins writes in his book, “Good to Great,” great leaders stand on the balcony and look out not in the mirror at themselves and their needs. Dad epitomized that.

  5. Lead by example not by dictate. I never remember my dad yelling. I am sure he did; he had six rambunctious, independently-minded kids who did not always see eye-to-eye with each other or him. In fact, every holiday when we asked him what gift he wanted, he replied “obedient children.” Instead of yelling, I remember Dad setting very high standards for all of us and that none of us wanted to disappoint him, not out of fear but out of respect. All six of us graduated from college, some with advanced degrees. Although I never remember those words spoken, going to college after high school was as expected of all of us as going to high school after middle school. Even as an adult, he never directly told us what to do, even when we asked. Instead, he prefaced his suggestions with “if it were me” as his subtle way to not tell us what to do while letting us know his opinion. In essence, he allowed us to take ownership of our decisions and in the process taught us independence, strength, and resilience, characteristics that help in life and any career or organization.

  6. Give people the resources they need to succeed then get out of their way. Not only did we know that we would all attend college, but that we would pay for it. As such, I began waitressing during high school. My senior year, I worked until 3 or 4 AM on Saturday only to return sometime between 1 and 3 PM on Sunday for another shift. Dad washed and dried my uniform, ready for me when I got up Sunday morning – ok, early afternoon – to return to work. Did he have to do that? Of course not, but he made sure that I had the tools I needed to succeed.

  7. Treat everyone with dignity and respect. My dad fought cancer for the last 7 months of his life. Even when he felt terrible, he took the time to joke with the people around him, give them a smile or friendly greeting. I took him to the emergency room on St. Patrick’s Day. As sick as he felt, he joked with the nurses about “drawing the short straw” for having to care for him and wished them all a Happy St. Patty’s Day. As bad as his days got, he never had a pity party but sought to leave everyone in a better mood than when he entered the room.