By Thomas H. Little, Ph.D. and SLLF Director of Curriculum Development and Research
As I think about Father’s Day, I am reminded of a card tucked in the drawer of my night stand that means a great deal to me. It is not a Father’s Day card, but instead a Christmas card given to me this past Christmas by my 18 year-old daughter. The front of the card says “If I learned anything from you dad…” and on the inside “….is that love makes all the difference.” While that is a nice and heartwarming sentiment, much more meaningful to me is the list of other things, some serious, some funny, that my daughter claimed to have learned from me.
As I read these “lessons” (including such gems as “how to keep ‘BS’ ing until something hits gray matter” and “if ignorance is bliss, I am one of the most blissful people you will ever meet”), I am reminded once again of the lessons I learned from those who raised me. Last month, I offered lessons from my mother and grandmothers. This month, in honor of Father’s Day, I offer some lessons I learned from the patriarchs of my family.
Humor is a Powerful Tool. My father and grandfathers were not public speakers, but they were story tellers. I often said of my father that he always made new friends because it was easier than making up new stories. What I have come to realize over the years is that these stories not only entertained and made us laugh, but often served to ease tensions, build bridges and find common ground where it appeared none existed. Great leaders use stories and humor in the same manner.
Servant Leadership Matters. As most of you reading this know, I have been fortunate to spend the last two decades working closely with the leaders of our nation’s state legislatures and I like to fancy that I have made a difference. For most of those same two decades my father spent his retirement years as a servant leader. On an almost daily basis, he would pick up dated and perishable groceries at local stores and deliver to various shelters, agencies and ministries. Even before his retirement, when he ran a grocery store, he helped those in need, delivering necessities to those who could not get out and extending credit to those who could not pay. As much as I enjoy and value my job, I dare say that his efforts to help people in need positively impacted more lives than I will ever touch. Isn’t that the purpose of leadership?
Great Leaders Encourage and Support Others. Leaders cannot be leaders without followers and great leaders do not belittle those followers, but build them up so that they can do great things. My father and grandfathers (and my mother and grandmothers) were great encouragers to me. Many who read this know that I walk with a limp. What you may not know is that this was due to a problem at birth. No one, including the doctors, knew my prospects for a successful life — but my family did not care. They supported me, encouraged me and did not let me use these limitations as excuses. They, especially my father, made it clear there was nothing I could not do “if you put your mind to it.” I recently reunited with a former middle school teachers who, when asked by his wife to describe me as a child, responded, “He had a handicap, but somebody forgot to tell him. There was nothing he didn’t think he could do.” When people are supported, encouraged and equipped, you never know what they can achieve!
Leadership Means Doing, Not Just Talking. I used to love to listen to my grandfathers weave the stories I mentioned above. One of my favorite’s involved my paternal grandfather’s effort to prove his worth in a new job. As a young man, he was hired as a floor manager in a “knit mill” by his older brother. While he had limited experience, he had enthusiasm and was anxious to prove he was not hired for his obvious connections to the boss. As the shift was ending one day just after he was hired, one of the workers asked him to “raise the bobbin” on her machine for the next day. Although he did not know how to do that, he promised her it would be done by morning. Staying late into the night, my grandfather took the machine apart and was finally able to reposition the bobbin. The next morning, he proudly informed the worker that the bobbin had been raised. Smiling, she noted that it was now too high and lowered it with the simple turn of a button! Although it had taken him half the night to do what she had done with a twist of her wrist, his efforts had proven his worth and gained her respect. That matters!
Leaders Don’t Make Excuses, they Make Progress. Had my maternal grandfather failed to build a successful life, no one could have blamed him. Forced to leave school in the fourth grade, he had very little formal education. Put out by his mother and stepfather at the age of twelve, he had little of the family support we all take for granted. Drafted into World War II as a father of two, he returned home from the war with no fingers on his dominant hand. Years later, while working at a VA Hospital, he contracted tuberculosis and had to spend time in a sanitarium. He had every excuse to fail. And yet he did not. He raised and provided for his family, built his own house and several others, held down a job for more than forty years and was an example of true leadership for 93 years. Leaders don’t blame obstacles, they overcome them.
Old Dogs Can Learn New Tricks. My grandfathers grew up in a different time. This was especially true of my paternal grandfather who grew up and lived most of his life in a very segregated South. Suffice it to say that his views on race were not particularly enlightened by today’s standards. When one of his twenty-four grandchildren would talk of a new girlfriend or boyfriend, he would (sort of jokingly) inquire as to his or her race. I just took this in stride (my father told me once that “If your grandfather tells you it is going to rain nickels you shut up and get a bucket because he is your grandfather”) until one day he surprised me by adding, “You know, if one of my grandkids fell in love with someone of another race (he didn’t say it quite like that!), I guess I would have to love ’em too!” True leaders change as times and situations demand it.
Leaders Need Time to Think. As I noted, my maternal grandfather did not have the benefit of much formal education. However, that did not mean he was not smart. In fact, I consider him one of the smartest people I have ever known, including most Ph.D.s (including me). I recognized his intelligence not so much for what he knew but what he knew he did not know. When posed with a serious question or problem, he would not just spout off some reactionary answer, but would instead say “I need to study on that.” At some later time, he would return, usually saying, “I been studying on……” and offer a solution that was usually reasoned and appropriate. In today’s world of immediate communication and “knee-jerk” reactions, it is even more important for leaders to take time to “study on that” before offering a solution.
Thanks dad, Pop Little and Pa-Pa Hamilton for leading by word and deed. Happy Father’s Day!