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A Father’s Lessons in Leadership

Friday would have been my father’s 100th birthday. The reason this is so significant to me is because I learned about leadership watching and hanging around my father.

He wasn’t highly educated—in fact he didn’t graduate from high school. He was just one credit short. But that didn’t prevent him from being a leader. My earliest memories of him were as the plant manager at Pepsi Cola bottling plant in Rockford, Ill. I’d often take the school bus that went by the Pepsi plant instead of the bus that would take me home.

Dad would set me up with a makeshift desk using a wooden 24-bottle pop case as a chair and the metal slide out shelf on the right side of his desk where I could put my homework.

He died of a heart attack four days before Christmas when he was 54. I was 13. But I got a lifetime of learning in those 13 years from him. Here are just some of those leadership lessons.

Respect

My brother, Duke, who was 18 years older than me, drove one of old-style route trucks to deliver cases of pop. I was in fourth grade when Duke was training a new driver. At the end of the day I watched my brother introduce the new guy to my dad. “Pop, this is John. John, this is my old man.” With that my dad gently said, “Duke, when you can whoop me you can call me your old man. Until then, I’m your father. John, it is good to meet you.”

Since that day I’ve never referred to anyone as “his old man or old woman.” Not a parent, not a spouse, not someone over 100. Neither did my brother until the day he died.

Work Ethic

We didn’t take many vacations as a kid. Okay, we took only one or two. Dad had a job with responsibilities. He was there before his team came in and left after they left. He had a job to do and it was up to him to get it done—regardless of the hours or days. It wasn’t being a workaholic—it was simply doing whatever it took.

Being Fiscally Responsible

By the time I was in the third grade Duke already had 3 kids … and a poor credit rating. He wanted a bigger car for those kids and needed dad to cosign. Dad kept me out of school that day as we went to the First National Bank to meet Duke and the banker. Dad told me “Your brother doesn’t pay his bills on time and because of that I need to sign with him because the bank doesn’t trust Duke with their money.” I’ve never paid a bill late in my life because of that.

Giving Back of Time

Dad never made more than $10,000 a year and my Mom didn’t work. They put me in a LutheranSchool the minute I went to kindergarten. Obviously we didn’t live high on the hog. Maybe you could just call it “high on the chicken!”

Dad was very active at St. Paul church. He was on the school board and also served as an usher and a greeter at church at the 7 a.m. service on Sundays (despite my mother’s pleas that he sleep in and go to the 10 a.m. service).

He did whatever it took to help the church and school grow. He couldn’t do it with money—so he taught me the value of time and volunteering.

Empathy/Sympathy

In the bottom of my dad’s desk drawer he had a Bible. If any one of his guys on the line had a problem they would come to his office, close the door, and he’d spend whatever time needed to help that person. It would be just the two of them. It didn’t matter what the problem was—dad was there. He never wore his religion on his sleeve preferring just to wear it in his heart.

Employee Retention

For several years dad had a standing offer to leave Pepsi and join his best friend’s company. He truly believed loyalty was more important than friendship. But loyalty on the job is a two-way street.

Eventually dad was wooed away. When he quit he didn’t ask any of his team to join him. It wasn’t his style. Yet, most of the guys on the line quit and joined Dad at the new company.

That’s what leaders do—they create an environment where the people they lead want to follow them.

A Heritage

It was 1993. I applied for a job at Batteries Plus heading up franchise sales. The person interviewing me, Bob Cable, knew my parents. Remember, it is 1993 and my father died in 1967. I was hired “because I came from good stock.” It turns out Bob’s parents and my parents were best friends in Chicago in 1946. I was born in 1954. Bob knew my parents better than I did. This is amazing to me.

Twenty years later I’m more enthusiastic about the franchise world than ever before. I believe this is because of the heritage my father left me with as well as the leadership he showed to a young boy so many years ago.

Happy Birthday, Dad. Thanks.

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