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Columbia Business Monthly

Fathers and Leaders

May 31, 2018 03:16PM ● By Kathleen Maris
By Dr. Robert E. Ployhart
Professor of Business Administration, Darla Moore School of Business

We know that childhood experiences produce a lasting impact on how we view the world. Not surprisingly, this includes the world of work. This year, Father’s Day falls on June 17th, and as I was thinking about the holiday, it led me to reflect on my own childhood and the leadership lessons I learned from my father. I actually learned a lot about leadership from both of my parents as I saw them work together to first run a dairy farm, and later grow a tiny business into a large successful organization. However, this month is Father’s Day,  so I will focus on four leadership lessons I learned as a kid from my dad. 

1. “Avoid having to be told what to do.” 
My dad is very much a self-made man with an abundance of initiative. I remember one hot summer day dragging my feet and complaining about the yardwork we were doing. It was pretty obvious that I would sit in the shade and wait to be told what do. After a short while, my father said, “You know what needs to be done. Why would you wait to be told what to do? Just get it done.” I was, of course, annoyed by that feedback, but with some time it became apparent that it is draining for others to have to closely monitor your performance. Everyone has a job to do and if you know what to do, then get to it! Don’t be the person that slows down the team by waiting to be told what to do next. 

2. “Think three steps ahead.” 
I used to hear this advice a lot. It usually came after I had done some work far enough to realize that I had not kept the end result in mind, and thus needed to redo the entire thing. In one instance, I was bailing hay and was blindly following the windrows with the tractor and bailer. The problem was that hay was cut in such a way that the windrow followed the peak of a steep ditch. As a result, I ran the bailer straight onto the peak and it bent or broke most of the tines. This required us to fix it out in the field, knowing full well that we were missing the short window when the alfalfa was dry (as the old farmers would say, “Make hay when the sun shines”). As we worked on the bailer my father commented, “You need to think three steps ahead.” I frequently ignored this advice as a kid, but from those hard lessons of experience, I learned a lot about how to think strategically and always keep the end goal in focus. 

3. “Control yourself before you control the situation.”
Oddly enough, this advice did not come from direct experience, but from watching a movie together as a family. It was some kind of 1980’s action-adventure where the star was in a difficult situation and panicking, putting himself and others in danger. We were discussing it and my father said casually, “You need to control yourself before you can control the situation.” This line has stuck with me for decades. I frequently think of this advice before entering a stressful situation, such as presenting a controversial set of findings to a group of executives, delivering bad news, or giving an important presentation. 

4. “Leave it better than the way you got it.” 
This last nugget of wisdom was one I observed whenever we borrowed a piece of equipment from a neighbor. Small farming towns are large families, and people will loan equipment when you need it (such as when you break a bailer during the peak of alfalfa cutting). Whenever we borrowed equipment, my father and I would always clean it before returning it. In one instance, we had borrowed a Suburban from a friend to go antelope hunting, and when we returned, I was tasked with cleaning out the back—which was truly disgusting. As I complained, my Dad said “Whenever you borrow something, leave it better than the way you got it.” It didn’t make the job less gross, but the importance of the job became instantly obvious. 

These simple pieces of advice have had a profound impact on my life and career. I often give this same advice to my students, and I have uttered these statements numerous times to my own kids. Which, in turn, makes me wonder what leadership lessons they are learning from me—and are they good lessons? Think about what leadership lessons you are sending your own kids or grandkids. The little things that you say and do could be the very things that come to define your children’s leadership style. 

Hey Dad—Happy Father’s Day!