This iconic line from the first Star Wars movie came to mind this morning as I sat to write about the passing of the first leader I ever knew: my dad. He had an illustrious 93+ years with many public faces. College professor, marriage and family counselor, high school teacher, church elder, businessman, Marine Corps officer, fighter pilot, and Southwestern Bell lineman were amongst his private sector and civic roles, going back to his teenage years in Little Rock, Arkansas.
In our Adair family life, he was the leader who with my mom set the course, made the rules, and helmed the ship, bringing four of us kids successfully through the sometimes tricky waters of childhood into productive adult lives. Just as Obi-Wan Kenobi registered visibly the action of the Death Star against the peaceful planet Alderaan and uttered the fateful line, so I felt about my father’s passing when the call came from Alexandria two weeks ago today, bearing the news that he had taken to bed at dawn after a fretful final night and never gotten up.
The family is the first organization those of us lucky enough to have one ever know, and it serves as the original frame of reference we have for leadership and organizational life. A family is an organizational system, with formal and informal roles – he’s the dad, she’s the mom (or maybe it’s two dads or two moms); she’s the joker, he’s the quiet one. And families have explicit goals – ‘all you kids are going to go to college;’ and operating norms – ‘any one of us feels slighted, we all rise up in defense’ – just as the organizations we inhabit during the work day do.
The private family ‘organizations’ and more formal public organizations have some interesting differences. It’s true that families have hierarchies of power and of knowledge much like work organizations, and just like in our diurnal abodes, these hierarchies are not always synonymous. But whereas in a work organization, when you learn as much as your boss, you can get promoted, in families, one never quite escapes being the only girl or the youngest child. Family friends search for signs of the kid you were in the grown young man or woman you’ve become; parents may yield the floor to the young-‘uns’ chatter around the dinner table, but usually get the last word.
The holding power of those early patterns in families is a perpetual source of wonderment. Children naturally take instruction from their parents growing up, but they eventually know something more or better than their folks, because after all, that’s the goal. Parents not agreeing or yielding to it is another matter altogether. Family life can become so contentious that people stop speaking to each other; branches of a family may feud with or even sue each other. The business press is filled with the latest twists and turns of their stories, and books on the bestseller lists chronicle their histories.
Tolstoy penned the line most relevant for my family with his famous beginning to Anna Karenina: ‘All happy families are alike. All unhappy families are unhappy in their own way.’ Having dismissed happy families as boring, he then tells the story that has captivated generations of a questing woman in an unhappy family trying to find happiness.
Ours was one of those unhappy families trying to find happiness, and my father, my namesake whom I loved dearly, was the great driver of that unhappiness. Some of his unhappiness was career and work-related, and some of it was personal. It permeated every aspect of our family life.
If you step back and look at it, Dad navigated our family’s life course from one career unhappiness to the next. I think there’s a better word for his career quest than happiness, for he was funny and fun loving, and people would not have said he’s an unhappy fellow. The better word for his quest is for satisfaction. He was never quite satisfied.
He met my mom on a weekend pass during the war, fell in love and came back to marry her after VJ Day, joining her father in the family business, Jordan Hardware Company in Washington, North Carolina. Ten years later, my grandfather dead and buried half way along, my dad found himself unhappy running a hardware store in a small town. He sold the business, went back to college for a Ph. D. in psychology, and became head of the counseling service at Franklin and Marshall College. That up and running, he left after five years to teach educational testing and counseling in the School of Education at William and Mary. Tenure assured, he pushed hard for certification and licensure of the counseling profession, becoming a founding member of the National Board of Certified Counselors. While this organization was getting established, he took training in family therapy and started a marriage and family counseling training center at W&M.
The list goes on and on. When he reached mandatory retirement from the college, he taught as an adjunct at a neighboring school with a higher retirement age. When he reached that marker, he took training and taught anger management to inmates in the local jail, many of them in for wife and child abuse. His church minister retiring, he led the search committee for a new minister.
He was driven and restless and never satisfied, always seeking to be of service, always wanting to do more.
Of all those many things Dad was, he was a US Marine through and through. Marines say you eventually become a former Marine, but you are never an ex-Marine. Your active service can end, but your identity once formed never changes. Friends have asked if I was ever in the military, and I’ve said half-jokingly ‘Just until I was 18 and went off to college.’ My dad had a wonderful soft side, and cried easily without embarrassment, but like many of the Greatest Generation who fought in the war, he struggled finding a different mode for daily life than battle. He had many friends, but he couldn’t help but clash with and dismiss any who didn’t operate by the same code as he did.
With us kids, he could make grilling hamburgers for a family cookout into a crisis event requiring prompt and unquestioned obedience to the chain of command. We eventually understood ‘Okay, drop that book you’re reading and come help me’ to mean ‘What’ve you been up to all day? I missed you.’
As you might imagine, it took some work.
So, some of the learning from such a guy wasn’t easy, but just as some of the greatest literature is the story of unhappy families, so my dad showed that unhappiness and dissatisfaction can be life’s greatest teachers if you’re prepared to learn from them.
Implicit in all my work with leaders is this question: How can you lead an organization if you can’t lead a life? Our work together encompasses both realms, because for organizational leaders the interweaving of the two is unavoidable. Turning that question around through the lens of my first leader, I would say this: how you lead your life is the school for how you lead an organization. Be a happy person, but don’t ever be satisfied.
My dad always gave a special whistle when he arrived at my basketball games as a kid, so I’d know he was there to cheer me on. Through all my life, I knew he would always be watching when I waved the signal flag. Semper Fideles: when I called, he answered.
At the same time, he taught me to be, like him, fiercely independent. Over the years, I had many calls from him that began ‘I hadn’t heard from you in a while and I just wanted to hear your voice.’ We didn’t always have a lot to talk about, as the overlap in our interests had gotten smaller through the years, but the rhythm of connection became a ritual that sustained our love.
These last few years as he slowed and his life force waned, I found myself ringing him up and saying ‘I hadn’t heard from you in a while. I just wanted to hear your voice.’
Those calls are over now, but the lesson for leading one’s life continues.
Be happy, but don’t be satisfied. Thanks Dad; I won’t forget.
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