RLL 29--Controlling Emotions and Getting Work Done: Two More Keys to Leading Well

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.

Grandfather and granddaughter together--what better reason to choose to be in a good mood every morning?

Grandfather and granddaughter together--what better reason to choose to be in a good mood every morning?

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.

Last year's state championship game ended in a 4-0 loss for us. Some days at work are better than others, but choosing to celebrate the good (rather than be angry at our loss) is one way to make sure that it was still an enjoyable evening.

Last year's state championship game ended in a 4-0 loss for us. Some days at work are better than others, but choosing to celebrate the good (rather than be angry at our loss) is one way to make sure that it was still an enjoyable evening.

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.

RLL 28--Respect and Anger: Two Keys to Better Relationships

Real Life Leading 28

Respect and Anger: Two Keys to Better Relationships

Happy Sunday, leaders! I hope that all is going well in your world and that your weekend so far has been both restful and productive. We’re less than two months from the launch of my upcoming book ‘Inverted Leadership: Lead Others Better By Forgetting About Yourself’, and so in the next five weeks I’ll be sharing excerpts from my previously-published ebook ‘(Extra)Ordinary Leadership: 10 Things Dad Taught Me Without Saying Anything.’ I hope you enjoy these, and I look forward to your feedback. Also, be sure to email me and let me know if you’re  interested in being part of the launch team for ‘Inverted Leadership’! Without further ado, here’s this week’s update.

Principle 1: Always show respect to others, even when they don’t extend you the same courtesy.

‘Respect’ is a practical outworking of the ‘Golden Rule’ of our childhood: treating other people the way in which we would like to be treated. It encompasses many other positive traits as well: humility, deference, trust, giving credit where it is due. At its core, respect is showing love to others in the way we ourselves wish to be loved. It is seen in the way we expect children to treat their parents, students their teachers, and young people their elders. It is the way a soldier is supposed to respond to an officer, or the way a player responds to a coach.

This is Erik, who showed me such great respect when I didn't deserve any at all. Still a mentor and a friend over 20 years later!

This is Erik, who showed me such great respect when I didn't deserve any at all. Still a mentor and a friend over 20 years later!

In all of the preceding examples, however, the respect is shown upward; that is, it is seen in a vertical relationship from one person to another person, with the second person holding a position of authority over the first. This is as it should be, as in every area of life authority figures expect to be treated in a certain way, as this helps maintain order and structure and stability. However, respect shown in the opposite direction, downward as it were, or even horizontally, as amongst colleagues, tends to be even more powerful in its impact because it is not commanded or demanded respect. There often is no punishment or negative consequence inherent in failing to show respect horizontally or downward. However, to do so, to show respect in those ways, is to do what is unusual; and because it is unusual it causes more of an impact.

The evidence for the impact of this is obvious to anyone who has been the recipient of this type of ‘undeserved’ respect. As a teenager, I received this from my high school soccer coach and youth leader, Erik, and it was this respect that caused me to have such a high regard for him. He has been, after my dad, the largest male influence in my life since I was fourteen years old. He treated all of his players well, he treated the youth group well, and I have never heard a former player or youth member say a negative word about him. This is not to say he was permissive; in fact, Erik was quite strict with us in many regards. But when he disciplined us, it was always tempered with love and respect, and therefore we knew, even when we were in trouble, that he cared about us.

It was the same way with my father, who spent twenty years as an officer in the U.S. Army. After his death, I interviewed several soldiers who had served under his command during the Vietnam War. To a man, they said that Dad was not ‘popular’ in the normal sense of the term (i.e., not everyone liked him), but every soldier I spoke to said that they respected him as an officer and as a person because he was tough but fair, and most importantly, they all knew he would do everything possible to bring them home safely. In the words of Ronnie Smith, who served under Dad in Vietnam, “We didn’t like your father in Vietnam. But later we realized what he had done. He was hard on us, and he brought us home.” In a war whose merits were dubious at best and are still debated by historians today, he went out of his way to avoid risking soldiers’ lives unnecessarily. This was done through a strict adherence to the rules and by treating his soldiers in such a way as to cause them to also be alert and attentive to their duty.

As a result of Dad’s respectful treatment of the soldiers under his command, and their combined efforts to do their jobs well, all of Dad’s soldiers (so far as I have been able to determine through research) came home alive, despite seeing combat enough and to such a degree that Dad earned three bronze stars during his time in Vietnam. And, what may be even more important and impactful, Dad continued to show these soldiers respect throughout his lifetime by keeping in touch with them and by visiting army friends on various occasions. For example, after he was diagnosed with cancer in 2007, Dad attended a reunion of some of his soldiers from their time together in Vietnam, and many of them expressed gratitude (as well as some surprise) that he, as their commanding officer, would actually care enough about them to come to such a reunion. He spoke to them individually, shook their hands, and thanked them for their service even though decades had elapsed since their service had ended. This type of respect, shown to people who were formerly under his command and authority, spoke volumes to those soldiers and, when I heard about it, to me.

Dad’s respectful treatment of subordinates was not limited to his time in the military; it was his habit to do this also to his colleagues and employees in the civilian workplace. One woman, Veda, worked with him in an army depot that refurbished military supplies, and she told me via email of how he often went out of his way to teach her extra information related to their tasks and to the items and equipment being refurbished. He would spend time answering various questions about how the materials would be used in the field, thus helping Veda to understand why her part in the process mattered and how it also thus contributed to the military effort at large. Through all their time together on the job, Dad treated her with a respect and courtesy that she remembers fondly to this day.

Dad in his dress uniform. He taught me many things just through how he lived, and he continues to teach me things even though he's been gone for 10 years.

Dad in his dress uniform. He taught me many things just through how he lived, and he continues to teach me things even though he's been gone for 10 years.

"John was our supervisor for a while at the [Anniston Army] Depot. I was the shipping clerk. So there were many occasions which he would have to go to the different buildings in search of needed parts. After a few trips to the buildings, people began to dread the thought of us coming through the door. Excuses abounded for not being on time, and your dad would clear his throat, take off his cap, and proceed to tell them, in government terms, how these things were to transpire. Never raised his voice, never used a condescending term, just as it should be. I would turn my head to keep from laughing because the looks on their faces were priceless. They didn’t even know what your dad did. It didn’t take many times until things would be coming to us, on time, and counted correctly. I never heard or saw him speak down to anyone in any way. He asked of people what they were to do, what they were capable of doing, and he expected that they do it correctly.

I learned more from talking with him about things on the Depot than I did from the people who were supposed to know. It was nice working with someone who cared about what was going on and understood the urgency of what we were all doing."

This type of regard and respect for the people he worked with made an impression, though it did not necessarily make him popular. Thus, there were times when people would treat him with less respect than either his military career or his occupational position deserved. However, according to Veda when this happened, “he never defended himself. He’d just turn and walk away.” Sometimes being respectful to others simply means refusing to respond, and Dad understood that as well.

Action Step #1: Consider who you need to show respect to tomorrow that you didn’t show respect to today, and then go and do it.

Principle 2: Control your temper—it’s yours, and only you can lose it.

Emotions are complex, often deceptive, things. This obvious understatement of the case nevertheless serves as a way to first delve into the topic of emotions, how they relate to showing love to others, and how all of these things showed themselves in Dad’s life. There are quite literally thousands of books about love, and there are probably even more ways than that to define what one means by ‘love.’ For our purposes, and as was explained in the introduction, love is not an emotion, but rather it is a choice, an action, and a habit (as opposed to a one-time act or moment).

Defining love this way immediately puts us at odds with 21st century American pop culture, but then Dad was never really one for pop culture. Also, defining love by the standards of our culture is a debatable (at best) enterprise anyway, with so many different explanations floating about. For these reasons, and as Dad demonstrated throughout his life, love is more about what you do and say, and has much less to do with how you feel at any particular moment. Later in this book we will discuss numerous other emotions and how Dad was an excellent example of how to control them. For this chapter, the focus is specifically on anger, as it is in some ways different than all other emotions.

Anger is different in large part because it has more power to destroy than any other. Joy, happiness, and other positive emotions can all destroy (in one sense) if a person pursues them at the expense of other things. However, anger is rarely, if ever, an emotion that builds others up. Rather, it is almost exclusively an emotion that tears people down. There is a time and a place for it, though that comes about much less often than most people (myself included) might like for it to. Anger is not inherently bad, however. C.S. Lewis explains in ‘Mere Christianity’ that there are no ‘bad impulses’ or ‘good impulses’. Rather, all our impulses are good at sometimes and bad at others; in other words, there is a time and a place for anger. However, anger is one impulse that is more often negative in its effects than happiness, joy, or other ‘positive’ emotions. Unfortunately for many people around me when I was a child, anger is also one of the major emotions that I displayed, especially in the area of competitive sports.

I'm very thankful that my daughters are kinder to each other than I was to my brother when we were that age.

I'm very thankful that my daughters are kinder to each other than I was to my brother when we were that age.

On numerous occasions, Dad talked with me about my anger and how it was harmful, damaging, and also just unhelpful toward my teammates, my siblings, or my family. He did not, however, articulate aloud the relationship between anger and a lack of love for others. He had displayed anger when I was young, and yet because I knew he loved me, I never saw a possible disconnect between anger and love. As I got older, however, I began to see that while Dad was great at loving people, he was also careful to not direct his anger at people in a hurtful way. I do have some memories of him doing this when I was young, especially toward my older brother. But as we got older, this happened only infrequently.

After I became an adult, I began to see that Dad was unusual in how he displayed his anger. The older I got, the less often it appeared, and not only that, but it seemed to only appear after many attempts to change the situation without anger which proved to be unsuccessful. The first incident that comes to mind was at a church league softball game that we played while I was still in high school. One of my favorite memories of that time is playing in those softball with Dad. He had been a college baseball player, and I had grown up playing baseball as well. Even into his fifties and early sixties, he was one of the most skilled players on our softball team, and it was fun to be able to share the field with him.

During one game, a player on our team who had formerly played highly competitive adult-league softball grew upset because he felt the opposing team was using a bat which failed to meet the league-mandated specifications. He grew more and more angry and began yelling at both the umpires and the other team. Throughout this, our players had been trying to calm him down and remind him that it was a friendly league, it was not a big deal, and that we should just carry on the game. Dad, in particular, tried to get things back on track. At this moment, our player made a comment to Dad, who was certainly older than most players not just on our team but in the whole league, along the lines of, “I don’t need another father to tell me what to do.”

There are numerous different responses to this that would have been unhelpful, hurtful, or which would have simply escalated the situation farther. However, as I recall, Dad did not say anything in reply to this for a few minutes. As our player continued in his loud complaints, I remember Dad finally saying back to him, because of his continued boisterousness at what was supposed to be a friendly church league game, “Maybe you do need another father.” I remember thinking, “Wow, did Dad just say that?!” because Dad was not known for getting involved in that type of altercation. I do not remember another similar incident at all, in fact. Recalling the incident now, it amazes me further that Dad did not say his response viciously or in a negative way, but rather as a simple statement of fact: if this is how you are choosing to act right now, perhaps you do need someone to show you an example of how you should act in this type of situation. No anger, some irritation, but ultimately the goal was simply to try to get things back under control and be able to move on.

I was very glad to learn how to ride a horse from two experienced riders: my wife (pictured here) and my former student Cody (who was out ahead of us, leading the way).

I was very glad to learn how to ride a horse from two experienced riders: my wife (pictured here) and my former student Cody (who was out ahead of us, leading the way).

Now, to be fair, our player who was upset was an upstanding man in his own right. He was normally even-keeled, under control, and was a positive example both to the church as a whole and specifically for our youth group. I think that on this one occasion, his own desire to win, his competitive nature, simply got the best of him. That is something I can entirely empathize with, and so I do not fault him. Rather, as I look back now, I am both glad and a little surprised to see that Dad approached this situation in the same way he approached similar situations with me. In fact, since this man was not his son, though he could probably have been, based on the age difference, it is possible that Dad showed him more patience and grace than he showed me in similar situations.

For example, within a year of this incident, I made an unintentional display of frustration at a softball game, and Dad’s reaction was definitely closer to anger. For some reason one summer my all-star baseball team had been invited to play in a slow-pitch softball tournament. There are obvious parallels between the sports, and so we decided to go and play. During the game, I struggled to adjust to the different strike zone of slow-pitch softball, and in my first at-bat, I struck out without swinging at a single pitch. I walked back to the dugout, visibly frustrated at having struck out. As I neared the dugout, I took off my helmet to toss it to a teammate who I thought was waiting for it. After I had let the helmet go, however, the teammate turned away and never made a move to catch it. As a result, the helmet crashed into the bat-rack, knocking over half a dozen aluminum bats onto the concrete floor of the dugout, making a tremendous noise.

To everyone watching, Dad included, it looked as if I had thrown my helmet in anger and frustration, causing the loud noise and demonstrating a very poor attitude. This is certainly how Dad saw the situation, and so he very quickly came over to the dugout to talk with me about my attitude and actions. He told me, in his quiet-yet-stern tone of voice, that my actions were unacceptable and that anything else even remotely close to that type of display would be my last opportunity to play sports for quite some time. And I believed him.

The older I get, the more I realized that this is one of many times when Dad would have been justified in displaying anger toward me. Now that I am a parent, I can see how one would be frustrated, embarrassed, and angered by this type of action from a child. However, Dad did not blow up at me, and he did not yell or create more of a scene that might have caused me to also respond in anger. He did talk to me very sternly, and he was very clear about his expectations for my future attitude and behavior. I understand now just how important that was, because though I do not know how easy or difficult it was for him to control his temper in that situation, I know that him doing it was the right way to go.

Action Step #2: Carefully examine yourself today to see ways in which you are allowing your temper to control you. Acknowledge these so that you can then retake control of your emotions.