RLL 36--Lessons from Dad

RLL 36--Lessons From Dad

Today is Father's Day, and as such I wanted to share with all of you the introduction to my e-book (Extra)Ordinary Leadership, which is written about my dad, as well as the list of 10 Things Dad Taught Me Without Saying Anything.

These are lessons that Dad lived and that I observed and have tried to also live out (though, admittedly, I have failed more often than I have succeeded). They form guidelines for how I try to treat others and how I try to lead. I hope that you are encouraged by them and inspired by them. I also hope that they cause you to remember with fondness lessons that your father or father-figure taught you. Happy Father's Day!

My father, John Wesley Hawbaker, was an incredible leader: educated at Illinois Wesleyan University (B.A.) and the University of Georgia (M.A.), he also went through the US Army Officer Candidate School, US Army Airborne School (where he won the Outstanding Leadership Award for his class), and the US Army Ranger School. He was a member of the famous 82nd Airborne Division, and he won three Bronze Star Medals for his service in Vietnam. 
He also was a businessman, an ROTC instructor, a college professor, and a civic club volunteer. Most importantly, he was a husband and a father. He truly followed the motto of the U.S. Army Rangers: “Lead the Way.” This is about what Dad taught me just through the way he lived. 

“Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” – St. Francis of Assisi

The cover of '(Extra)Ordinary Leadership': Dad in his military dress uniform.

The cover of '(Extra)Ordinary Leadership': Dad in his military dress uniform.

The above quote is often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, though I have not been able to find any record of him actually having said or written it. Regardless, I feel that the sentiment is true, and that St. Francis may have said it is entirely plausible based on his own life of service and love to others. St. Francis was the founder of the Franciscan order of monks, and even hundreds of years later he stands as an amazing example of a man who lived his life in such a way that he consistently put the needs of others above his own.

What does it mean to preach the gospel without using words? Actions must show the love of God to others, to the degree that the recipient cannot but wonder at your motivation. Our love must be such that it cannot be explained away by reason or ulterior motive, even by the most jaded cynic. Understood this way, love is a choice, an action, an expression of the will. This idea is addressed by C.S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters when, writing as Screwtape, he describes the demons as wondering what God is really up to when Screwtape says that “He really loves the little vermin.” To people who don’t understand the love of God, the motives of Christian love will forever remain a mystery.

The world will question Christians’ motives, and we must overcome even the strongest objections through our actions. When we do this, and when the opportunity arises for words, the words will then carry the full weight of convictions already proven, not just the often-empty promises of something postponed or alluded to. I do not know if I ever heard Dad actually share the Gospel. In fact, when he was not far from death, I asked my father about his salvation because I simply was not sure, and I was not willing to lose him without being as sure as I could be about his salvation. I knew he had been a good man of high morals, but since he was not vocal about his faith, I was not sure he was saved, and I needed to be. As it turns out, this was one of the more ridiculous worries I have ever had.

Upon reflection, it should have been obvious that Dad’s motivation was not anything other than a desire to serve God well by loving other people. When I look back at the many ways Dad served and loved others throughout his lifetime, I began to try to understand the principles behind his actions. The more I examined them, the more I have realized that all of them are rooted in love. Despite being from a generation that often frowned on males showing affection, my father never hesitated to give me a hug or tell me that he loved me.

In the same way, many people who knew Dad spoke of how they knew he cared about them because of his actions, his treatment of them. It was this ability to show love to others, to serve them and show them that he cared, that was at the center of who my father was. He was not always perfect, and he often failed, especially with my older brother, with whom he often disagreed. However, as Dad and my brother both got older, this love became more evident, it became more vocal, and it made my heart glad to see how much better my dad and brother got along before Dad died.

In talking with many people about Dad, including my mom, I have learned that Dad first learned integrity and love from his own parents, John Myron Hawbaker, a good man by all accounts, and Olive Alice Merriman, a loving and caring mother. And it is the foundation of love that is at the heart of all of the principles found in this book. For those of you who want to know where these principles came from, a brief explanation may suffice.

One of my all-time favorite pictures: Dad, my older daughter, and me, on our way to a soccer game.

One of my all-time favorite pictures: Dad, my older daughter, and me, on our way to a soccer game.

A number of years ago I was asked to give a devotional message for my fellow high school teachers at a Christian school in Alabama. In the process of thinking about that, I started thinking about my father, who had recently passed away. I was struck by a number of life principles that he embodied and yet never spoke aloud. I was also amazed that he had never actually said these things and yet they were so apparent to anyone who knew him. These principles form the core of each chapter in the book. Each principle is written out clearly and then explained using illustrations from Dad’s life. I hope that anyone who reads this is encouraged and inspired to also try to live like Dad did. I can think of no better way to honor him than to try to live out the principles he embodied.

In some ways, Dad lived an ordinary, if eventful, life: son, brother, husband, father, soldier, civilian. However, the way he lived and the principles he lived by were extraordinary, and I hope you are encouraged by him.

'10 Things Dad Taught Me Without Saying Anything'

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

  2. Control your temper--it’s yours, and only you can lose it.

  3. Choose to be in a good mood every morning--you can control your emotions, or you can be controlled by them.

  4. If there is work to do, do it--no excuses or reasons to avoid it--get it done.

  5. You are responsible for you. Own up to your actions and accept responsibility for your choices.

  6. Others come first--always.

  7. There is no person or task that is below your dignity.

  8. It’s OK if people don’t know how great you are--you don’t have to tell them.

  9. Take care of your family even if it’s hard.

  10. Always do what is right.

RLL 32--Inverted Leadership (part 1 of 4)

RLL 32--Inverted Leadership (part 1 of 4)

Starting this week and for the next month, these updates will be excerpts from my upcoming book Inverted Leadership: Lead Others Better By Forgetting About Yourself. The book will be available on June 12th on Amazon, and I hope that you are encouraged, inspired, and challenged by what you read!

From Chapter 1--Confident Humility: Leadership As Service And Art

My father is from a small farm town in Illinois called Paw Paw, with a population of less than 900 people. He was able to go to college at Illinois Wesleyan in the 1960s. A year after he graduated from college, he was drafted to serve in the Vietnam War. After that, he decided to make a career in the military, staying in the army for 20 years, eventually joining the 82nd Airborne, going through Ranger School, and winning numerous medals and commendations, including three Bronze Stars. He finally retired, having attained the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Just before he retired, though, he was up for promotion to the rank of Colonel, which would have been a significant step up in rank, in pay, and in prestige. However, because Dad knew he was planning to retire, he withdrew his name from consideration for the promotion.

This is one of my all-time favorite pictures of Dad, my older daughter, and me. If you can't tell, she's wearing a Cinderella a soccer game. She's not concerned about being judged or laughed at because she didn't know any better, and she was confident in the love of those around her.

This is one of my all-time favorite pictures of Dad, my older daughter, and me. If you can't tell, she's wearing a Cinderella a soccer game. She's not concerned about being judged or laughed at because she didn't know any better, and she was confident in the love of those around her.

I asked him about this later in his life, and I asked him why he chose to withdraw his name. Dad’s answer was an excellent example of what will be called Confident Humility. He simply said, “Because I don’t need to know.” Dad then went on to explain how, though he was curious if he would have been considered worthy of this major promotion, ultimately waiting to see if he got promoted would have been counter-productive to the Army and thus to the country. He admitted it would have been fun to wait and see if he got the promotion. But he also knew that by waiting to be promoted only to then immediately retire from the military would have benefited only himself. Therefore, he chose to go ahead and retire without ever finding out about that promotion. He just didn’t need to know.

That idea of not needing to know is exactly what this entire book is about: this concept of Confident Humility, leading others and serving others without focusing on yourself. It is self-belief that is used in the service of other people. This idea is upside down and backwards, entirely counter-cultural because it is based on what is eternal rather than what is temporal; it is based on Jesus rather than on what is good for us. We often measure success by how much we can accumulate, or how far and quickly we can get promoted--things that are self-focused and self-centered. As a result of that, we have come to a point where there is a gap between what success and leadership are and what they ought to be. This book is an attempt to begin correcting that misunderstanding by helping people rethink leadership based on an eternal perspective, beginning with the concept of Confident Humility.


Can you imagine, especially after the 2016 US Presidential election, a presidential debate that was characterized by true respect between the various candidates, rather than the passive-aggressive insults and insinuations among the candidates (even in the same party)? Can you imagine a politician ever giving a news conference to apologize for something before a scandal has broken, or in order to simply take responsibility for something that was done which he or she has now changed their mind about? Today it seems the only time people take responsibility for negative choices is when they have been outed and are now trying to save their reputation. As the old saying goes, “Success has many parents, but failure is an orphan.”

Again, Confident Humility turns that on its head, saying that our first job is to give respect to other people while taking responsibility for our choices and our actions. Confident Humility focuses on serving other people, creating good relationships between leader and audience, and on building other people up regardless of who gets the credit for accomplishments. When my wife and I got married, her father said something at our wedding about love that I believe also is very applicable in this context. He said, “Love is choosing someone else’s ultimate good over your own.” I believe this is absolutely how leaders ought to operate: by choosing the ultimate good of other people over themselves. The greatest example of this is Jesus, who through love for us and a desire to do the Father’s will, gave Himself up for us on the cross.


From Chapter 2--CEOs or Youth Soccer Coaches: Lead Where You Are

First principle of confident humility: Lead Where You Are

First principle of confident humility: Lead Where You Are

Here’s the truth about leadership: most of us will not be CEOs of multinational corporations with thousands of employees in our charge; most of us won’t be college presidents, responsible for dozens or hundreds of faculty members and hundreds or even thousands of students. Most of us will never be military commanders with soldiers’ lives in our hands; we are unlikely to be professional sports coaches, responsible for managing multi-millionaire athletes and some of their egos. But many of us will be parents, Sunday school teachers, or volunteers in local civic groups. We will be youth soccer coaches, organizers of small drama groups, or helpers at local animal or homeless shelters. Though our audience or organizations may be smaller, we will all be leaders in various ways because we have been called by God to further the ends of His kingdom while we are here on earth. The key is to remember: just because the setting and audience size are smaller, this does not mean that our leadership matters any less. In fact, the smaller our setting and audience, the more important the leadership due to the larger potential impact we can have on each individual within our audience or organization. Think of the person that has impacted your life the most: was it a celebrity or athlete or CEO? For most of us, the person who impacted us the most is someone we spent significant time with in a smaller setting: a teacher, a coach, a youth pastor, a caring adult, or someone similar.

I have an immediate family of four: myself, my wife, and our two daughters. I also have classes averaging twenty students per class, and I have an average of thirty soccer players in my program at any given time. The amount of influence I can have on my wife and daughters far outweighs the influence I can have over each student or soccer player that I have. The smaller the organization, the more influence and impact the leader can have. Thus, the first principle of Confident Humility, LEAD WHERE YOU ARE, means this: every role is either a leadership role or preparation for a future leadership role, so begin leading wherever you are right now.


I hope you liked those two teaser parts from the book! Remember, Inverted Leadership: Lead Others Better By Forgetting About Yourself is coming out on Tuesday, June 12th! If you'd like to read the whole first chapter now, come sign up at, and let me know if you'd like to be part of the launch team. Also, please be sure to share! 

RLL 30--Responsibility and Selflessness: Two Leadership Essentials

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.

Youth and high school athletics is a great venue for helping kids learn about personal responsibility. I've loved being a coach for almost fifteen years.

Youth and high school athletics is a great venue for helping kids learn about personal responsibility. I've loved being a coach for almost fifteen years.

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.

This is Dad in his dress uniform, not long before his retirement. I'm grateful to all who choose to serve in our armed forces.

This is Dad in his dress uniform, not long before his retirement. I'm grateful to all who choose to serve in our armed forces.

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.