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Leadership Tips from the Grave

I arrived home last week from a trip to find Mary Kay, my wife, sitting on the floor with papers strewn about her. She told me she was filing papers—stuff that had built up for several months. Not to be outdone, I got the fireproof files out and thought I’d do the same. It had been on my to-do list for some time and it was the perfect time to do so.

As I started organizing, filing and throwing away stuff, I started to read some of the papers in the hanging files. The one that caught my attention was the one entitled “Important Family Papers.”

There was the death notice from my father from 1967, my mother in 2002, my brother in 2007 and even my grandmother from the 1980s. There were awards from my youth and a variety of other keepsakes. Finally, there was a copy of a handwritten one-page letter in my dad’s distinctive handwriting that must have been addressed to some of the managers who reported to him. It read:

“Gentlemen: It has been a pleasure meeting you. I hope we can say that about each other with much more meaning at time goes by.

You and I have been given a role on a management team. We have gained this position due to the confidence our employer has in us. It is our duty to show our employer than this confidence has not been misplaced. This confidence wasn’t won easy and won’t be easy to retain.

However, there is a way of easing the load and this is if we can each forget our selfish interest and think and plan as a team toward a common goal. Teamwork in an industry is as important as teamwork in sports. No team can succeed if it depends entirely on a grandstander—and I am not one of those. In other words, I am asking for your help and cooperation as much as I hope you will feel a need for mine.

At the outset you can expect me to be asking questions more than answering your questions. My helpfulness to you is closely related to your helpfulness to me—remember, I am a new man on the team and until I learn the plays the team could make a poor showing.

It will be my constant endeavor to make this a better place to work, not only for myself and you—the management team—but for all employees.

I stand firm in the belief this can only happen through our mutual cooperation and with God’s help.”

I would guess this was written in 1964 or 1965 when my father took a new position as a plant manager. I know this because he died a couple years later when he was only 54.

I thought about my father’s life. He didn’t graduate from high school—was just one class short. And yet somehow he earned a job in management along the way and this job would be the pinnacle of his career.

I believe there are several lessons in this.

First, he compared his leadership team to a sports team. He would simply be the head coach. This must have been his first leadership job with this company. Next, he made it clear that his style was to listen and ask for input and wanted to make this clear.

Finally, he felt he had a responsibility to his superiors to be a leader and continue to earn their trust.  He also closed with a very strong phrase “with God’s help.” He lived true to his personal faith and he didn’t want to hit anyone over the head with it, rather, he wanted share it.

That was 48 years ago. As I was 14 when he died, I didn’t have a chance to learn his leadership lessons as an adult. He was just Dad. Finding this letter helped me understand him much better.

This week’s question: What is each of us doing to earn the trust of our executive management team or those people who look to us for leadership? Looks like I have some very big shoes to fill and a lot to learn in my own life to be a leader like he was. I hope my kids find something I wrote 48 years from now and have a better understanding of who I am. I guess that is what one’s heritage can be all about.

Have a great week.

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