Real Life Leading #30
Responsibility and Selflessness: Two Leadership Essentials
This week, here are two more leadership principles that I learned by watching my dad operate. He wasn't perfect, but he did try to be consistent. Perhaps the most important thing he ever taught me was personal responsibility and putting others first. That's what today's blog post is about, and I hope you learn from it as I learned from him.
Principle Five: “You are responsible for you. Own up to your actions and accept responsibility for your choices.”
One of the ways in which we show love to other people is by fulfilling our obligations to them, and Dad knew this as well as anyone I’ve ever known. He was consistent in making sure that he took responsibility for his own actions and choices, even when that led to difficult consequences.
I remember hearing a few stories of his childhood about life on the farm and how each person had certain things that they were responsible for, and it seems that this set the pattern for his entire life. As mentioned in the previous chapter, throughout his childhood Dad had certain chores that he had to complete before heading to school: feeding chickens, gathering eggs, feeding other animals, etc. After school he had homework, baseball or basketball practice depending on the season, and then more work on the farm, especially during the fall when the crops were being harvested.
Dad displayed this commitment to personal responsibility to us in many different ways, but the one that I remember the most is from after he and my mom divorced. Now, you may be thinking, “If they divorced, he didn’t exactly keep up his end of the bargain.” That depends on what you mean. As far as I have ever heard from both of my parents, the divorce was mutually agreed to, though it was Dad’s idea. From all I saw for the rest of my life, it was also about as friendly and positive as a divorce situation could be.
After my parents divorced Dad moved out, and we stayed to live with Mom. However, this is where things became unusual, and this is where I really learned even more about responsibility from both parents. During the school year, Dad came to Mom’s house every morning to pick us up and take us to school; this made Mom’s schedule easier, and it also gave us the opportunity to see Dad almost every day. We typically only stayed at his new place every other weekend, but we got to see him all the time. So far as I know, Dad was never late on a child support payment, he still came to see as many of our activities as he could, and as a result of that, we children had a much easier time than others who have been through the difficulties of a divorced family.
This responsibility also extended into areas of life that are not usual for divorced couples. For example, in addition to going out of their way to make sure we got to see Dad, my parents were also very unusual in that we continued to celebrate holidays together, mainly Thanksgiving. We’d all gather at Mom’s house for a meal and then spend much of the day just sitting around and spending time with each other. This respectful relationship between divorced parents made a huge impact on me. Yet it still wasn’t the most lasting lesson; that came later.
When Dad was in his mid-sixties, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Throughout the process of chemotherapy and radiation treatments, Mom helped take care of him, as did my sister Julie. Mom and Dad had been divorced for a decade by that point, and yet Mom still helped Dad as much as she could—and because Mom had been a nurse for her entire adult life, she was a tremendous help. As Dad was getting worse, he met with my sister, my brother John, and me one afternoon with a request that I did not expect, but in hindsight I probably should have.
Dad had several different life insurance policies that he had accumulated over the course of his military and civilian careers. We had talked with him about them some, because he wanted to make sure that we knew how to go about accessing them and also to avoid any potential issues between siblings. Thankfully, there were not any of those disagreements anyway. What did occur and surprised me was that was that Dad asked us to give Mom an equal share in each of the different life insurance policies.
Again, keep in mind that my parents had been divorced for over a decade by the time of this meeting. Yes, their split had been amicable, and yes Mom had certainly helped take care of Dad over the past couple of years. But in the paperwork, the only beneficiaries named were the children. Here was Dad once again doing the unexpected by helping take care of Mom long after he had any legal reason to do so. As far as I recall, none of the children objected, and we didn’t go through the legal trouble of redoing any of the paperwork. Dad simply made his request, we agreed to see that it was done, and that was the end of the matter. Even long after divorce, and long after we were adults, Dad was still doing what he could to take care of us.
I often still experience days when I find Dad continuing to look out for me years after his death. For example, this past winter when it was freezing and frosty outside, I needed to scrape the ice off of my windshield. What I didn’t have was an ice-scraper—until I remembered that Dad had one in an old toolbox that was now in my possession. I went and got the ice-scraper, took care of the car, and said a prayer of thanks that Dad was continuing to take care of me. His lessons in responsibility certainly made an impression on me, and those lessons became even more applicable when I went through my own divorce a few years later.
Because of Dad’s example, I knew that I would need to be willing to go out of my way to help make sure my children were taken care of and that their mother was taken care of, even though she and I were no longer together. My mom’s willingness to celebrate holidays with Dad, and Dad’s willingness to do the same, inspired my now blended family to also be willing to celebrate holidays together as one large group. I know, without a doubt, that I am responsible for my choices and the consequences that come with them, and that is because of the lesson Dad taught me when I was in middle school and both parents continued to teach me as I got older.
Action Step: Ask yourself what you need to take responsibility for today that you have been avoiding. Once you have figured it out, set about making things right as well as you can, even if it is uncomfortable.
Principle 6: “Others come first—always.”
At our wedding, my wife’s father Ted said something that has stuck with me every day since, and it was the way in which he defined love. He stated that, “Love is choosing someone else’s ultimate good above your own.” This definition goes well with the scriptural definition and explanations of love, and it fits perfectly with the way that Dad lived his life in service of other people. As we saw in the previous chapter, Dad was consistent in making sure that Mom and the children were looked after. This was true both in terms of looking after his family but also in being willing to help others as part of his lifestyle.
As a child, I remember showing up early and staying late to almost every school and church event, and the reason is because Dad was always one of the people helping set up before and then helping clean after these events. I wondered about that as a kid, thinking, “Why does he always get stuck doing those things?” It wasn’t until later that I realized he was volunteering to do them, in order to serve.
Dad’s most obvious willingness to serve was in his military career; when many others chose to dodge the draft by fleeing to Canada, Dad chose to serve in the Army. Having said that, Dad also had the utmost respect for those who objected to the war legally, such as the great Muhammad Ali. Though Dad chose to serve, he didn't ever judge those who chose differently. After being drafted, Dad realized he enjoyed the military, and he made a twenty-year career out of it, finally achieving the rank of Lieutenant Colonel before he retired. After leaving the military, he continued to serve others by teaching Sunday school classes and by working with our local Boys and Girls Club as a volunteer and later as president and a board member for our county.
I can remember a couple of major examples of Dad putting my needs before his own, even after I had become an adult. Early in my teaching career, when I was still very much struggling to make ends meet, we had an automobile crisis: that is, my car had died, we could not afford a new one, and we were not sure what to do. One day, as I came home from school driving my wife’s car (leaving her stuck at home with a toddler and a new baby), I noticed a car parked in our driveway, a car I did not recognize. It was a red, four-door car, just the type of thing that would be big enough for us and still get good gas mileage.
The second thing I noticed was that it was parked facing the road; in other words, whoever drove it had backed into our driveway. And that’s when I thought of Dad since he was the only person I’ve ever met who backed into almost every single parking space. At church, at home, running errands, it didn’t matter; Dad’s saying was, “I have to back up some time, so I may as well back up first so I can just pull forward when I’m leaving.” That used to just make me exasperated, but now that I’m older, I understand it a bit more.
Back to the car in the driveway—I walked in the house, and there was Dad grinning and excited to see me. He explained that after we had talked on the phone the previous week about our car situation that he decided he would help. So he started looking in the papers for a good deal on a used car that would be big enough for my family, and when he found one, he went and bought it. Sitting in our house that day, he went on to explain that he had taken the liberty of getting the car looked at, having the oil changed, and then he drove it from his home in Alabama to our home in North Carolina, a drive of around 500 miles. “I had to make sure it ran well,” he said with a chuckle. Dad stayed with us for a couple of days, and then he took a bus all the way back home.
Again, this was part of Dad’s lifestyle in both large things and small things: put others first. Opening the door for strangers, taking care of his soldiers in Vietnam, and looking after his adult children when they get themselves into a bind were just a few of the ways he did this. Now, sometimes Dad’s attempts to help were not quite as welcome as they might have been, though they were still kindly intended. On a different visit up to North Carolina, Dad decided he would ‘help’ by rearranging everything in the kitchen. And I mean everything: pots, pans, cereal boxes, coffee, small appliances. When I came home, my wife was more than a little upset because of what she thought of as Dad’s “meddling.” She had a point, though I still mostly laugh at the memory of Dad moving things around the kitchen in order to ‘help’ us have a more organized space.
Dad really was one of those rare people who seemed to spend his life continually focused on other people, both at work and at home. In fact, this was so obvious to other people that, after Dad died, my stepfather Brian even said about him that he was amazed at how much Dad put other people’s needs ahead of his own. “Your dad truly showed grace, dignity, and putting others first, especially when it meant whatever was best for his children.” For my stepfather to recognize that and say that about my father made me feel good, and even more so because it confirmed what I already knew. Dad lived out the principle that others come first—always.
Action Step: Choose one situation today in which you consciously choose to put someone else first, even when that may inconvenience you.