(Powerful leadership lessons are learned from everywhere. In a sporadic series of blogs, I am going to explore the people that taught me those lessons. Some will be expected, others may not. Thanks for reading!)
My father was a larger than life figure. He was monumentally successful, at times overbearing, always respectful and extremely loyal. It was an odd mix of being gregarious and contemplative. Regretfully, he died just as I was becoming an adult.
My father came to America with $22 in his pocket. He was determined to build a new life and fulfill his American dream. By the time he died he had done all he had set out to do and more.
Just a few of his accomplishments:
• Chairman of the Civil Engineer Department at IIT
• On the President’s Earthquake Council (advising the President of the US about earthquake issues)
• Established one of the first Asian Indian group in American. Was instrumental in getting Asian as a designation on the US Census.
The thing I remember about my father was how resolute he was. Often not for himself or his desires, but those of others. He was not fearless but was on behalf of others. He spoke with corporate executives, Senators, Presidents, college students and janitors with the same courtesy and respect. His friends were loyal and, I was told, even if you didn’t like him you respected him.
In the last six weeks of his life, we talked a lot about his learning and legacy. I was determined to soak it all in. Many of those lessons are unconsciously a part of who I am as a person. There are three that helped to shape what I believe and practice as a leader.
DO WHAT YOU SAY YOU WILL
“Your word is the most important thing you have, make sure you live up to it”.
For my father, reputation was everything. He felt like he had an obligation to fulfill on promises he made, regardless of the consequences.
There was a time when he promised a family friend he would loan him money to start a business. We were not rich and the money was tight. But, my father found a way to get the money together he promised. Even after he found out that the business idea was no good, he still loaned the money to his friend. Some might say it was stupid. Heck, even my Dad thought it wasn’t the best idea. But he told them he would give them the money, so he did.
“I promised them”, he told me, “When I promise that is like a guarantee. You can take it to the bank”
In the end, his friend’s idea was a bust. But, something interesting happened. My father was able to earn the money he loaned quickly with some fortuitous work. And, his friend never forgot that promise. In fact, many of my Dad’s friends never forgot that. He was repaid with good will for a lifetime.
Leaders do what they say they will. Even if it’s hard or makes them uncomfortable
BE RUTHLESSLY COMPASSIONATE
My father always gave his honest opinion, even if you didn’t want it. He used to tell me,
“If you ask me a question, I’ll give you an honest answer whether you like it or not”.
There were many times I didn’t. But, I always knew I could count on him for the truth. The funny thing about him was that he told you the truth in a way you could hear it and so it would sink in.
He was ruthless with the truth. He would tell you something didn’t look good on you or that the food wasn’t good or that idea you had was horrible. If you asked, he would tell you. But, he was always compassionate. He told the truth in a way that people would accept it and act on it.
There was a student of my father that was brilliant but brittle. My father used to say he was one of the smartest students he ever had. This student asked my father about some work he was doing on his thesis. My father told him the truth. He found flaws that the student hadn’t thought of and made it clear how disappointed he was in the student’s thinking. But, as soon as he got done giving his answer, my father smiled and said
“Let’s make this better together. You are on the right track and I know you do this. I want you do come here every day for the next week. We will work on this and make it airtight. I have faith in you”
Leaders tell the truth, but do it so that people can hear it AND take action on it.
No one would ever accuse my father of being shy. Regardless of who you were, if he wanted to talk with you he would. He was fearless, or so I thought. During those last six weeks he told me a secret about his boldness with people –
“I don’t do things for me. There are always others that I am speaking for or doing on behalf of”
Whenever my father stood up to a politician or corporate board, it was never about him. He was doing it to support someone else that couldn’t. At least that is what he believed. It gave him strength and purpose. It gave him energy and a seemingly “bullet proofness” that let him do things most people would not.
After the terrible explosion at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, my father met with the Union Carbide leadership. He worked with them to provide some restitution for the victims and their families. He never vilified the company, but also did not let them shirk their responsibility. In the end, both Union Carbide and the victim’s families thanked him. When I asked him about it, he told me, “It was never about me. That is what made me bold and gave me the resolve to carry it through”
Leaders are bold. They take action and face adversities. But, their boldness is not for them. It is always to behalf of others. Doing for others gives you strength and conviction!
I am a stronger person and more compassionate leader because of the lessons my father taught me. I am thankful for each day that I had the privilege of having him in my life.
Where did your lessons in leadership come from?
Anil Saxena is the President of Cube 2.14, an organizational development consulting firm that works with clients to increase both customer and employee engagement while decreasing turnover, improving customer retention, and increasing profitability within organizations.
Saxena is a certified High Impact coach and trainer and a Joint Application Design facilitator. He is also certified by both Rush Systems and IBM as a focus group facilitator. He is an inaugural member of Northwestern University’s Learning and Organizational Change program, and he earned his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the Illinois Institute of Technology.