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I offer you a quote that knocked me over, a manly leadership lesson from it, and a then a more universal leadership lesson. Many – from Boston, hoops nuts, and mostly my age or older – need no introduction to Bill Russell. For the rest, a thumbnail: Bill Russell is a giant – literally at six feet ten inches tall. He was so skilled on a basketball court – especially as a defensive presence – that his Celtics won eleven NBA championships in his 13 years (even Jordan’s Bulls can’t compare with six crowns). He was the first African American in the Hall of Fame, first African American NBA coach. He was also a presence in other ways, especially with his outspoken hatred of racism and his fearlessness in calling fouls, even on those – like Boston-area fans and media – who sought to befriend him. He never hesitated to speak out. Okay, that’s the background.
Tomorrow Russell, along with George H.W. Bush and a handful of others will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. When asked whether it was the greatest honor in an accolade-laden life, Russell said it was “a close second,” quotes George Vecsey in yesteday’s New York Times. When asked what was a bigger honor Russell responded thus: “When he was about 77, my father and I were talking. And he said: ‘You know, you’re all grown up now, and I want to tell you something. You know, I am very proud of the way you turned out as my son, and I’m proud of you as a father.'” Wow. To steal from Tip O’Neil, all love and pride is local.
This line bowled me over, as I was still reeling from a hit I took last Wednesday when I was reading Robert Bly’s extraordinary work Iron John: A Book About Men. Bly, who has been convening, researching, and writing about men for thirty years, says that there is one idea that he has heard from men more often than any other, and it is this: they have “a hunger for more father.”
Bill Russell’s quote suggested he was one of the lucky ones, for his hunger had been fulfilled. Bly offers countless stories of men, not so blessed, starving for fatherly attention – often late, even at the end of their lives. Like so many dimensions of men’s lives, this is not something we men talk much about, but Russell and Bly point us in a critical direction – towards our sons of whatever age, and towards our fathers. (Women, the men’s story is not intended to exclude; instead, I welcome any comparisons and contrasts, but I also offer this as cause for a closer look at the needs of your boys and men.)
So, I opened by saying there was a more universal leadership issue, and it is this: Authority figures – starting with our parents – have extraordinary power. And I suspect those relationships often leave the followers with a hunger. Imagine the immensity of what Bill Russell was saying – his father’s approbation ranked above a Presidential Medal of Honor! So, as parents, we have so much capacity to set a way forward and then to express the pride that allows – what? – what was Russell feeling? – pride, rest, ease, fulfillment, arrival? What a gift we can offer our children as they make their way and live lives of which we are proud.
I would add that bosses – and especially the big bosses – often have great unused capacity to personally acknowledge the individuals on their teams. I remember as a teenager, how I dramatically elevated my commitment to my job the day the manager expressed appreciation for my work ethic. I’ll bet every reader of this RFL could tell a story of pride about some moment when his or her work was recognized by a “higher-up.” If you want to build trust, as we’ve been talking about the last few weeks, a few attagirls and attaboys wouldn’t hurt one bit. Tell someone, “I’m proud of you” this week as you:
Lead with your best self,
Dan: That’s a great story, and I know it’s repeated in millions of families across America, if not around the world. The need to connect with a parent is also what the movie “Field of Dreams” is about, isn’t it? Being able to talk with a parent or spend time “having a catch” is so important.
Praise and condemnation circle follow our lives. When these kinds of evaluations come to us, we can be unprepared, confused or angered, over-powered or reduced. I do not think that praise compensates for condemnation, and so as I get older I try to not condemn. The damage can be permanent. While she was alive and after she died I received praise from my 8th grade English teacher,Mrs. Gleason. After Mrs. Gleason had died, her sister saw me in a public place, asked me if I was Mark Hunter. She said, “I thought so.” She introduced herself as Mrs. Gleason’s sister and said that so many times her sister had spoken about me as her best student in 20 years of teaching. I had been a student to Mrs. Gleason in her first year of teaching. She told us then that she had decided to go back to school to become a teacher after she survived a life threatening illness and, if I remember right, a risky surgery. I do not think Mrs. Gleason was in need of praise, since she was so happy being a teacher. Teaching was her second profession. I do not know what she did prior to that, but went into teaching when others were counting the last years to retirement. The last time I saw Mrs. Gleason was at a nursing home. I was there to visit someone else, but saw her name on the roster and with help from staff found her in a wheel chair in the hallway.. She was suffering from memory loss, but she held her head in an confindent way, and smiled. I told her that I had been student of hers, and she smiled. “Yes.”
It is hard to say if she remembered who I was, but she was kind and I told her she had been a very good teacher.
Dan, I try to recognize as often and as fairly as I can those I lead. Why not? It pays enormous dividends especially when the accolade is truly genuine and it is the result of someone bringing to my attention how satisfied they were with the effort a team member gave in the delivery of the service my organization provides. People appreciate the acknowledgement and find the motivation to stay energized for the next challenge. On a personal note, I cannot let pass my own experience with a higher up. Of course this person just happened to be the previous Governor of the Great State Of Michigan who recognized and thanked me personally and in the public for a task I was engaged in. The greatest honor I have ever received and one of immeasurable value since it was given by such an outstanding person with a demeanor that went beyond being Governor who interestingly had a staff that treated everyone with respect and dignity. Happy Valentine’s Day to the both of you.
In court yesterday a witness was asked to describe the victim of an alleged assault and he said: “Oh, he was an old guy with gray hair. Like Judge Schofield.” What could I say? If I’m not an old guy, then at least I am at the south end of middle age. And as an old-guy authority figure wearing a black robe I understand that in many ways I am the “father of last resort” for the young people who come into my courtroom. That means I am the one who administers consequences for poor choices but I have to remember that it also means that I am the one to encourage, support and praise. I try to notice when an offender has earned his GED, has stayed sober for a few months, hasn’t been back to see me for a new crime for a year or is starting to be the dad–or mom–that the kids have a right to expect. As Dan suggests, I tell them that I’m proud of them for those accomplishments, sometimes right before I sentence them for a new crime. Progress for them–for all of us–is not an unbroken forward line. I try to recognize the two steps they’ve taken forward even as I sentence them for the one step they’ve taken back. So, great post Dan! Keep it up.
What a great comment. I know my progress has not been “an unbroken forward line.” How great that you might be helping these young people to recognize this, and to deliver necessary consequences, but not condemn the person.
We should have more judges with such a judicious and compassionate sensibility.
Thanks for the contribution.
Dan: Thanks for these wonderful thoughts! I read the same article and it was a nice reminder of the wonderful blessing I and my siblings had in our Father. I agree, parenting and being a boss is about leading. The great ones apply a coaching style to their leadership.
Danny, great story. I think this is one of the best! Keep up the great work. I have learned in my coaching career that lifting others up is the way to go. We are doing great things at East Lansing HS…
Even in a fairly affluent district like you coach in, there are undoubtedly boys on your team for whom you are a key father figure. You’re doing much more than winning games.
Gotta see your boys plays one of these days!
DearDan, Four years at U of D high, Four at U of D , the tone was always ” A Man for Others”
but THANKS for the reminder that no matter how old I am, or my three sons, also out of the High, they still are my Sons, and I want to continue to be their DAD. My boys should be and are my “Others” at the first level. Thanks Again.
Sounds like Bill had something many of us longed for as youth. My Dad became the head of his family in 1932 at age 17 and prior to that, times weren’t the greatest for him. He meant to provide but lacked the skills to show much affection. I waited until I was 37 years old to hear him say “I love you.” and “I’m proud of you and what you do.” It erased the time without knowing and I carry it with me today as having a wonderful father who worked so hard to provide for his family. He’s been gone for 11 years now and I think of him often. My message: It’s never too late!
Thanks for sharing your story with us.
I saw The Eagle last night with Jack. It’s a story of two men who’d both lost their dads, yet were searching for them. A classic, mythic journey of discovery. My son and I both enjoyed it for different reasons.
We become men – and create our own models – in some search for the greatness that we hoped our dads would demonstrate, and which in VARYING human ways, they did.
I appreciate your ideas and thoughts. I remember a piece you did last year on men (and it disturbed me greatly) questioning whether men are needed anymore. That thought has been simmering in my head ever since. Of course men are needed now more than ever and they need to be “whole” men. Our sons, nephews and brothers need men in their lives more than ever.
I look forward to reading Iron John and learning more about myself and how we can help others become whole men.
Keep up the great work.