This is a little off-topic for me, but I’ve been looking for an excuse to write about my dad, and just found it. I was reading Conor Neil’s excellent blog The Rhetorical Journey, and was struck by a guest post he has up. The author – Eric Ronning – was thinking about the impact his grandfather’s funeral had on his development as a leader. Without giving it away, he witnessed the impact being a genuinely good human being can have on your legacy – wealth and material success don’t buy you impact. Your actions do that – and it’s usually the small ones that get repeated by you, and then others, that have the biggest ripples.
My father was a leader. For as long as I can remember, his job was leadership. His role for the bulk of my life happened to be Dean of the Undergraduate School at Bentley College (now University, but always College to me). This was a significant posting – he had control over every undergrad department, all of their staff, etc etc. After that, he essentially ran St. Bonaventure University in upstate New York, while they held an interminable search for a President (one of the “must haves” was a vow of celibacy and a set of Franciscan monk robes – pretty sure that’s what ruled him out of the top job). This was an even more significant role.
Despite all of that, my dad was one of the humblest, most down to earth people you could hope for. He was incredibly kind, sensitive to the needs of others, funny, and a skilled carpenter. That last bit is relevant – promise. The point is: he never led by force. I can guarantee that – it wasn’t something he was capable of. It’s a rare talent, and, honestly, the only way to lead. It’s the cliche from martial arts movies “bend like a willow, but never break”.
I’ve worked for a number of managers, and been a leader myself. I understand how difficult it can be to not snap, bark, or just say “get it done!” and storm off. But it’s not leadership. It’s venting to someone who’s looking to you for leadership and assistance. They’re not your psychiatrist.
Here’s a possible mantra: “My staff is not paid to listen to me bitching. We are all paid because we are working together towards a common goal. My role is to speed them on their path.”
If you are anything, you are their teacher, and they are your apprentice. It’s not enough to pay the people you work for with cash – you have to pay them with an education in your craft. They should leave your tutelage and be able to teach others. That’s how knowledge moves forward.
When my father died, it broke my heart. Almost literally. Sitting by his hospital bed, interminable hours filled with slow heavy air, watching his chest rise and fall, rise and fall, quietly begging it to rise after each fall. Watching his last breath expel, that long moment when his body lay still. Knowing the world without him for the first time. These are bad memories. I’ll carry them always.
What helped was this. One of his close friends and employees, in his eulogy, related this story: “John was teaching me about carpentry. We had gotten our hands on a bunch of raw mahogany planks from an old farmer in the hills, and were going to work with them. We worked with the wood for a bit, and I picked up some sandpaper to smooth it up. John stopped me. He said that wasn’t the right way. He said that it would work, after a fashion, but there was a better way. ‘This will take more time, but it’s worth it. Take some oil on your fingers, and work it into the wood. Keep at it. Mahogany has its own, innerlight, that over-sanding kills. Take the time, be gentle, and the wood will glow.’ John was like that with people. Anyone who worked for him, any student who came to know him will tell you the same thing. He was gentle. He worked hard to bring out the inner light in people.”
People drove from all over the country, to a remote part of upstate New York, to say their farewells.
Years later, I ran across someone who’d been a student at St. Bonaventure. He told me that his life was amazing – thanks to my dad. That he’d been about to get kicked out of school for partying too much, and was sent to Dean Burns’s office for what he thought were his walking papers. Instead, my dad had worked out a plan to help him get back on track, stay in school, and graduate on time. He’s married now, in a career he loves, with great kids.
The point isn’t that I am incredibly lucky to be reared by someone like him. It’s clear that I am. I’m twice as lucky because my mom’s just like him. What I’m getting at is that – in the end – your worth, your riches, aren’t in a bank account. It walks around in others. If you work to inspire, to bring out the best, and forgive error? You’re rich. You’re a success. And, to an extent: you’re immortal. It’s the only way to lead – anything else is just bossiness.