Real Life Leading #29
Controlling Emotions and Getting Word Done: Two More Keys to Leading Well
As with last week, this week I'm sharing more information from my ebook '(Extra)Ordinary Leadership', and I hope that you find the post helpful, engaging, and encouraging. Let me know what you think, and be sure to share with others and sign up to get the first chapter of my upcoming book 'Inverted Leadership', due out in June!
Principle Three: “Choose to be in a good mood every morning—you can control your emotions, or you can be controlled by them.”
As I mentioned in last week's post, Dad was not terribly keen on displaying a whole lot of emotion, and in fact, when I was young, anger was one that I remember seeing more than some others. He was also quick to laugh, and as I stated earlier, I never doubted whether Dad loved me. As I got older, I remember seeing Dad go through a number of life circumstances, both positive and negative, that affected him emotionally. Through all of those situations, what I remember most is that Dad was in control of those emotions.
I was never afraid of Dad’s anger, because I knew that he would not take it out on me in a harmful way. I was also always very aware that few people were quicker to make a silly joke or laugh at a small jest than Dad was. No matter the circumstances, Dad was in control of his emotions, and as I got older, I saw more and more of them. Too many people equate “controlling one’s emotions” with “never displaying one’s emotions.” Those are most certainly not the same thing, and Dad seemed to know this. As with everything else, it was a display of love toward others to control his emotions: because love is more than just a feeling, love can supersede and inform one’s emotions. Dad showed this through not taking out his anger on others, through being kind in difficult situations, and by maintaining an unfailingly positive outlook on life, even when he was suffering from cancer.
There are a number of events that Dad went through in his life that could have caused emotions to run high and for those emotions to cause lasting damage to those around him. From losing his parents at a younger age than most, to fighting in the Vietnam War, to struggling with finding work after retiring from the military, Dad saw his share of difficult situations and yet maintained a positive outlook, because for Dad, having a positive outlook and attitude was simply part of his lifestyle, part of his being.
According to his own testimony before he died, Dad learned much about integrity from his mother and father. This is especially striking when one considers that Dad lost his mother, Olive Merriman Hawbaker, when he was a senior in high school. At a time when students are either gearing up for college or to enter the workforce, Dad, his older brother Joe, and their father were trying to figure out how to manage their lives while missing a key component, namely, their beloved wife and mother. Later, while Dad was in the military and stationed overseas, he got word that his father had also passed away. On top of these things, Dad had been drafted to fight in the Vietnam War just a year after he had graduated from college. During his eighteen months in Vietnam, Dad saw combat and was awarded three Bronze Star medals, along with numerous other commendations. After all of these things, it would not have been a surprise to find a surly, or at least bitter, adult. But that is not the father that I knew.
Rather than allow these negative and difficult events define him, Dad chose to look at the positive side of things. There can be no positive spin on losing one’s parents, but Dad chose to focus on the fact that his parents had taught him about hard work and integrity. Dad related stories about his father working through the winters--each winter taking apart one of the three family tractors and its engine, cleaning the pieces, and reassembling everything so the tractor would be ready to work again in the spring. He talked about his mom’s side of the family and how they were very musically gifted, going so far as to have a family band. Dad even had one of the now antique instruments that had been used by his family, as well as an old photograph proudly displaying the “Merriman Family Band.”
Instead of focusing on the horrors and challenges presented by fighting in Vietnam and the social stigma often associated with that even after retirement, Dad looked back on his time in the military fondly. He had not enlisted, but rather he was drafted during the heart of the Vietnam War, and because of his college degree he was able to go to Officer Training School. Until he was near death, he did not tell many stories of his time in Vietnam, but he did tell stories about being stationed in Germany and in Korea, about traveling to Australia and Alaska, and about the many great people with whom he served. On one occasion, he said, “I was just a farm boy who was able to serve with some really great soldiers.”
He spoke about the beautiful locations he was able to see because of the military, and he even was grateful that the military had allowed him the opportunity to pursue and complete a graduate degree, receiving his master’s degree from the University of Georgia. Because of that, he was able to teach at the college level at both the University of Pittsburgh and at Jacksonville State University. Any of these things would be amazing accomplishments, but taken altogether one realizes that he was able to do these things because he chose to focus on what he could do, rather than focusing on what he had lost, and on controlling his emotions rather than being controlled by them.
Action Step: Today, choose to focus on the positives in your world, and then see what a difference it makes when you run into negative circumstances.
Principle Four: “If there is work to do, do it—no excuses or reasons to avoid it—get it done.”
In a world that seems to always be in a hurry, it also often feels that there is never enough time to get everything done, especially for those of us who are gifted at the art of procrastination. This habit of mine was one that probably frustrated Dad the most, whether it was procrastinating in my school work, in regard to my chores, or in any other area. I believe this is because—with the exception of annually doing his taxes, which he put off until the last possible moment every year—Dad was always committed to getting done whatever needed to be done in as timely a manner as possible. This issue was treated not just as a good idea but as a personal trait without which every other trait lost a little bit of value; that is, whatever good you are capable of, the most good will be done by doing what needs to be done first.
To not fulfill one’s obligations would have been unthinkable, not even an option worthy of consideration. But the manner and timeliness with which one completed one’s tasks also mattered; procrastination was not acceptable. And perhaps the only way to worsen the habit of procrastination was to start to make excuses for why you had failed to get your work done. No matter the excuses given, they were unfailingly inadequate: the bottom line was whether or not you did what you were supposed to when you were supposed to, and anything short of that was not okay.
I do not have any memories of this being required in a way that caused resentment, and as I reread the preceding paragraphs, I feel it is important to make that clear, because I could see how they might come across in a way that implied a type of authoritarianism or even a tyranny in how Dad related to us, and so I want to make clear that this was not the case. He expected us to get done what was required of us, and he expected us to do so within a proper time frame, and failure to do so always carried consequences. I believe this is a result of various aspects of Dad’s life experiences, from growing up on a farm in rural Illinois to serving in the military for much of his adult life including seeing time in combat and overseas, all of which are situations that required him to get things done well and on time.
One of the things I most remember about Dad is that he was always telling me to get done with the difficult tasks first, or to accomplish a task in such a way that the more difficult aspects were taken care of first, thus making the entire task easier. For example, when loading a dishwasher, Dad always started loading from the back, so that as the dishwasher racks got full, he did not have to reach over the dishes already put in there before he could put more in. When carrying a series of items from one place to another (e.g. when unloading a moving truck), he always made the new stack of items at the farthest point in the unloading area, so that instead of each trip getting a little longer, each subsequent trip was actually a little shorter. When working on a multi-step project such as writing a paper or putting together a presentation for school, he encouraged me to do all of the difficult research first before I began to do anything else, so that I would not have to break the flow of the work to go do more research.
All of these habits have served me well in my adult life, as they were so impressed upon me that I continue to follow them. In my job as a teacher, I assign many tests which require the students to write essays. Due to the size of my classes, this means that I often end up with upwards of one hundred essays to grade for a single test. Knowing how wearisome that task can become, before I grade the essays, I take a few moments to look through them, arranging them in order from the longest essays to the shortest, so that when I am growing tired or frustrated or simply weary of grading, it is encouraging to know that the task will grow easier all the while. By the time I am nearly through, I have gotten to the shortest and thus often the easiest essays to grade, rather than grading these first and leaving myself with the longest and often the most difficult and complex essays to grade at the end.
This principle also held true when Dad would have us help out at school or church events, which often required us to set up many folding chairs and collapsible tables for banquets, church dinners, award ceremonies, and the like. Wherever the chairs and tables were stored, he would always encourage us to begin setting up the tables at the far end so that every table after that required a bit less carrying and thus a bit less time; same with the chairs. Then when it was time to break these things back down, we would again start at the back, so that as the task neared completion, the task also became easier due to the decreased distance. This may seem like a small thing, but I have continued to see its benefits in many areas of my life, from helping my daughters with school projects to taking care of things around a soccer field.
Dad grew up on a small family farm in a small town in Illinois called Paw Paw. When I first visited there as a child in the 1980s, the population was under 900 people, and the population was still under 900 when I visited there again in the summer of 2016. The local public school was the only high school in town, and it graduated classes of twelve to fifteen people most years. There were few paved roads, little in the way of public entertainment venues, one gas station, and a general store. The town was, however, full of very friendly and very hard-working people, many of whom are part of my extended family. Most people in town lived on or worked for the local farms or in the local mill/processing center. Thus Dad grew up surrounded by people for whom hard work was a natural way of life and not even something to be remarked upon.
As a child, I remember disliking the chores my parents required me to do: occasional vacuuming, washing dishes, cutting the yard, washing cars, doing laundry, cleaning my room, and other usual chores suburban children have to do. However, as I got older and heard bits and pieces about Dad’s childhood, I began to understand that, despite the seemingly-facetious nature in which he told stories about “Waking up at 4am to feed the chickens and milk the cows before heading to school,” there was a large element of truth in them. He really did have to get up and do those chores long before the sun came up, and he really did have other chores to accomplish when he got home after a day of school and then baseball or basketball practice. And as I learned those things, I began to be more and more grateful for my own relatively comfortable and easy lifestyle.
As a result of learning about Dad’s past, I also began to see that Dad’s habits of hard work were not things relegated to the past: rather, the habits he learned from growing up on a farm had prepared him to continue to work hard as an adult, both in the military and after retirement.
Action Step: Take the hardest task you have to complete today, and get it done first so that the rest of the day is easier.