For Father’s Day, I’m posting four essays that I’ve written over the years about leadership and ways my father and grandfathers have influenced me. It is an embarrassingly insignificantly small thank you to them, and a reminder to you, that in some shape or form positive or negative, your father, or someone standing in for him, has influenced you. Today, you should thank him.
What Challenges Are You Willing to Accept?
Nearly fifty years ago, man landed on the moon. Although far too young to notice (not even a year old at the time), notions surrounding the moon have captivated me. For thousands of years prior, people would look up at it as it hung in the sky, a symbol of our collective dreams. Early on there was fear, but soon it was replaced by wonder, imagination and greater understanding. Now, for many who look at the moon, it symbolizes accomplishment. A feat our forefathers couldn’t imagine, but many a grandfather got to witness. This enormous achievement, not just for the United States in the midst of a space race, but for humanity with the creation of new technologies, possibility thinking, ingenuity and the celebration of success.
The moon program has shaped me indirectly in other ways. My father headed a group that worked on guidance systems. He was passed over for the Apollo assignment, something I did not know until many years later. Obviously, he felt disappointment. He diligently headed a less glamorous group. In time, that group grew in influence, budget, and prestige. Eventually, the Apollo program ended, and members from that team joined his organization, illustrating that sometimes the less glamorous route can be more fulfilling and rewarding in the long run, despite initial disappointments. You never know.
In 1962 President Kennedy, who helped bring out the best in people by having a clear goal, uttered one of my favorite leadership quotes.
“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard. Because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills. Because that challenge is one that we’re willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone and one we intend to win.”
Every generation of humankind had been staring up at the sky wondering about the moon. Then not too long ago, one of us says, let’s do it, let’s go there within ten years — and we did it. A fascinating feat that illustrates just about anything is possible with vision, passion, action and a deadline.
I enjoy inspiring people who in turn inspire themselves; to help others find their strengths and see what they have to offer our joint endeavors. I help others find their vision or purpose and clear the path to their achievements by tearing down obstacles that are in the way. I do this partly for selfish reasons. I like how it recharges me and gives me energy, forcing me to take the focus off myself, and put it on others. It gives me the opportunity to combat the damaging effects of poor leaders, influencers, and others who abuse their power either through ignorance or intent.
I also like measuring things. Not to see shortfalls but to see what we’re capable of doing. I love to see the charts and graphs of goals and measurements of success.; to see the results of common things in uncommon ways.
All this leads me to ponder, what current symbol surrounds us collectively, that can organize and measure the best of our energies and skills? If that is too broad, think of yourself and ask, what do you need to work on that is not easy, but will serve to organize and measure the best of your energies and skills? What challenges are you willing to accept, unwilling to postpone and intend to win and how can I help you?
Who Do You Wish More People Could Meet?
Who is the person in your life who you most wanted to introduce to other people? For me, it was my grandfather. He was of another era. His voice, cadence, and dialect were like watching an old Frank Capra or George Cukor movie from the 1940’s. He was always ready with amusing stories, riddles or a practical joke.
Growing up, we would visit nearly every Sunday, and spend a few hours with him and my grandmother. One of my favorite memories of him, and I learned one of his favorite of me too, was the day he was pitching tennis balls to my Wiffle Ball bat in the back yard. I was fairly young, and I was dismal, and I was getting frustrated with myself. Embarrassed, I collected several of the missed balls that were scattered by my feet and tossed them back to him so we could try again. A few rolled behind him and into the bushes forcing him to crawl in to retrieve them. My frustration grew; I couldn’t even toss a ball right. I was determined to hit the next pitch with all my might.
He brushed himself off, paused for a moment, asked if I was ready and then hurled the brightly colored ball at me. I concentrated and hit it perfectly on the fat part of the bat with an exploding crack. Literally, the ‘ball’ exploded into hundreds of little pieces! At first, I was scared, what had I done now? Then I was bewildered as my grandfather began laughing heartily, like Santa Claus, but much more mischievous. As we walked toward each other, he held out his hand and revealed three large unripe crabapples, the same coloring as the balls he had been pitching me. He had switched them when he was in the bushes. He was equal parts thoroughly amused with himself and proud of me for finally getting a hit squarely and forcefully, with a smaller object to boot. My expression seared itself on his memory. From that point on he would periodically begin laughing spontaneously during our visits and retell the story for the next twenty or so years.
I loved when he told stories. They could be from his childhood or a recent trip to the doctor; he always had an anecdote. During our visits, he would hold court from his leather chair in the corner of the living room, or in the dining room sitting in the only armed chair. In the den, he would faithfully watch the Red Sox or Patriots during the time when they were contenders but not yet regular champions.
One of the saddest days of my life was helping him into the car at the funeral of my aunt, his youngest daughter. His sudden sobs were unexpected, heartbreaking and profound. In time, the stories, riddles, and jokes returned even as his health began to decline. We were fortunate to have him grace this earth for nearly a century. Although he has been gone for several years now, whenever I hear a story or riddle well told or witness a prank well played, I think of him and smile. Lately, I find myself remembering him and wishing more people could have met him and benefitted from his humor and class.
Who do you know that you wish more people could meet? How many people are being introduced to you? Share your gifts freely and with great authenticity, because the world will be better for it.
Wisdom From the Father and Son
Over a decade ago I attended a seminar where the reflective question was posed, “How do you remind yourself that God is present in your workplace and how does that awareness change the way you work?”
It was an interesting question, and I must admit I wasn’t particularly happy with my answer. I didn’t think I reminded myself very often if at all, and that seemed like something I should rectify, but I wasn’t sure how.
When I returned to my office, I scoured my desktop for some icon that could act as an unobtrusive spiritual symbol. My laptop, docking station, and monitor took a vast amount or real estate. Stacks of papers to file, act on, or route, robbed even more. What little shelf space I had was committed to books and business tchotchkes. Before long, pressing matters tore me away from my search.
Later, while at home my young son, to his great amusement, continued to pick up and throw rubber balls at me. This was a fun game we had been playing for several days but in a flash, it became much more significant. As he ran after me, arm cocked and ready to catapult another ball toward me; he gleefully said, “Here Daddy, here.” At that moment, I interpreted what he was saying as, “Hear Daddy, hear.”
Instantly I recalled back a few years to a joyful family reunion. The occasion was my father’s birthday, (for that matter, my daughter’s too.) He rose to give a little speech, a recollection of what someone had shared with him as a younger man. He said words to the effect,
“In life, we find ourselves juggling any number of balls in different sizes. There is career, finances, health, perhaps new business ventures, schooling or needless worrying. All of these things are made of rubber. If one drops because of neglect or a miscalculation, it can bounce back. However, there is one ball that represents family, and it is made of crystal. This ball requires the most vigilant attention, because if it should fall due to neglect or miscalculation, it will shatter and can not be replaced.”
With moistness in my eyes, I gave my surprised son a big hug before he could pelt me with another ball.
On my desk sits a picture of my family. Alongside it I have placed a rubber ball I tend to throw or squeeze when the day turns tense. The two items work in concert to remind me that God is indeed present, and he came to me through my father and my son.
Too Poor to Afford Cheap Things
I spent time with my Dad on Cape Cod over the last couple of weeks, and somehow we got to talking about furniture. I shared my dismay over the quality of mine back home. Like many, I have accumulated a wide array of self-assembly bookshelves and dressers. I recently learned my long treasured mission style table is wrapped in veneer, and my faux leather couch, now lumpy and ripped, seemed to have been haphazardly constructed with staples and glue.
My Dad nodded knowingly and said, “My father used to always say to me, ‘We’re too poor to afford cheap stuff.’” He reminded me that when he was a kid, his family could not afford to keep replacing things that wore out or broke.
It was a casual exchange, but it has rattled in my head for several days, and it occurred to me that the sentiment is just as true now as 75 years ago. We live in a disposable society driven by a consumer economy, and it may be warping our thinking.
On one end of the scale, we confuse the appearance of authenticity with genuine authenticity. A maple finish is not always maple wood; it is often lacquered paper. We seem content with artificial flavors and pirated goods. We forget or no longer care that all that glitters is not gold. This makes us value things disproportionately higher than they are worth.
Those with money to spare, fall on the other end of the scale, and often fail to invest in craftsmanship and ongoing care. We buy immediacy, seeking a quick fix and instant gratification. When a hue fades or falls out of favor, we abandon it for something new, brighter and more shiny.
Those who have the attitude that they are “too poor to afford cheap things” are patient. They build and save their resources, investing in the best quality they can afford. Then they care for, protect and maintain it. They value it higher, so they treat it better. They also invest in repairing it if it dulls, breaks or fails to perform.
Imagine how your world would improve if you adopted a similar attitude in your life, regardless of your income? Think of the implications of this as a business owner, or the leader of an organization, someone making hiring decisions or feeding a family.
As an effective manager do you invest in the best people, and then care for, protect and maintain your relationships? If someone breaks or fails to perform to your expectations, do you invest in repairing them, or do you discard them and abandon their dignity?
Imagine putting your ego aside and being humble enough to patiently invest in the people, places, products, mission or ideals you say you value?
The market is addicted to the newest, fastest, and brightest. However, to the discerning eye, many of these purported improvements are little more than squares transformed into diamonds by a slight twist. Not nearly as revolutionary as they first appear.
I am convinced embracing this attitude brings greater rewards. You do not have to live like a pauper, or suffer from scarcity. You do need to become more discerning and reduce the literal and figurative junk in your life. Stop making excuses for shoddy craftsmanship, poor advice, negligent leadership or slipshod friendships. Be patient and realistic in what you can afford, not what you want others to think you can afford.
Life is more pleasant when you surround yourself with a few things that work extremely well, rather than a plethora of dysfunction.
Also published on Medium.