More powerful than any words he could have ever said, it was what my father did without saying a thing that taught me the most about what it means to be a good leader.
Today I want to share those lessons with you in hopes that his example can help us all become better leaders.
Dealing With Adversity
My Dad’s dream was crushed very early on.
Growing up he had always wanted to be a pilot. Not just any pilot; he wanted to fly for the U.S. Air Force. It’s all he thought about. He worked hard in school and did well enough in Air Force ROTC that after graduation, they sent him to pre-flight training. Everything was going great.
But it wasn’t to be. At a routine medical checkup, they told him that his eye sight was no longer 20/20. Back then you couldn’t be a pilot if you wore glasses. Yet he had still signed a commitment with the Air Force and he had to honor it.
What the Air Force said they needed was supply officers. So like it or not, he was going to be flying a desk firmly rooted to the ground.
Without the benefit of any training or preparation, they sent him to a tiny backwater radar base in Texas. In a place he didn’t want to be, in a field he knew nothing about, leading people he didn’t know, he began his career in the Air Force as a supply officer, a job he wanted nothing to do with.
His response? He decided that he was going to be the best supply officer he could possibly be.
He turned himself into a sponge. He read everything in sight, he listened and learned as much as he could a from the more seasoned members of his team He got his hands dirty, building his experience, reflecting on what he was learning and using that new knowledge to make his unit the best it could be.
The hard work paid off. Fast forward a few years and several duty stations later, and he found himself on the receiving end of an award recognizing him as the top supply officer in the entire Air Force. He was promoted ahead of his peers and sent to jobs reserved for people of high potential.
Somewhere along the way he even managed to get his private pilot’s license.
Lesson #1: Play the hand you are dealt and do the best you can.
There are lots of things you can’t control, so don’t waste your time trying. Focus on the things you can control, and do your very best with what you have. He did his best, and that opened up new possibilities.
Fast forward again to when we were living in northern Virginia, and he was serving two back-to-back tours of duty in the Pentagon. After eight years in one place, they told him it was time to move. The powers that be were talking about somewhere way out in the prairie states.
But by this time, we three kids were already in high school, and deeply involved in athletics, band, and the local Boy Scout troop. The move would be hard on the family and put us at a disadvantage when applying for college.
So we didn’t move. He retired, and we stayed. As a result we were able to finish high school in one place, do well in our activities, and get into the colleges we applied to. His sacrifice provided a great launching platform for all three of us.
But not one to sit idle, he continued to lead by example. He started his own business, stepped up to be Scoutmaster for the local troop, volunteered with the Neighborhood Watch, and could often be found involved in any number of volunteer efforts that benefited the local community.
Lesson #2: It’s not about you.
To be a father is to be a leader, and one of a leader’s first responsibilities is to take care of his team. Through his humble service to us and others in so many ways, he showed us what that looked like in real life.
I’m happy to say that today my Dad is still going strong. In fact, as he approached his 80th birthday recently, my mom asked him if there was anything special that he’d like to do. “Yes” was his answer, “as a matter of fact, there is.”
He wanted to fly.
The last time he had flown was in 1962. He stopped the day my older brother was born. To him the thrill of flying was not worth the risk of having an accident and the toll it could take on the family. It had been 54 years since he had been in the cockpit.
Mom made the arrangements with the help of a grandson who had just earned his own pilot’s wings. When the flight instructor saw my dad’s license, he did a double-take. He quipped that he was checking to see whether or not one of the Wright brothers happened to be his instructor pilot!
The flight went well – two take-offs and two landings and a pleasant cross country flight in clear conditions. I could hear the joy in my Dad’s voice as he told me about the experience over the phone.
Lesson #3: Stay positive, keep moving forward.
No matter what, maintain a positive mental attitude, stay active, and keep moving forward. We may not always get what we want, but if we keep striving we can surprise ourselves with what we are capable of.
Did I mention he’s teaching himself how to play violin now?
Leadership Lessons – The Takeaway
My father is a great leader and provider for our family. I clearly remember many of the lessons he taught us with his words.
But some of the strongest, most enduring lessons of all were the ones he taught us without saying a thing.
In our own attempts to lead, the people around us may or may not hear what we say, but they will definitely see what we do.
Perhaps his personal example of leadership by example was the most powerful lesson of all.