5 Leadership Lessons From Dad

My Dad…

It took me many years to realize this but my dad has had the singular greatest influence and impact on the man I have become today. While growing up I spent most of my time with my mother and grandmother, it was those quiet moments with dad that I treasured; it was those deep discussions with dad that impacted me; it was watching my dad that helped me understand what kind of man and father I wanted to be. Unfortunately, I didn’t quite realize this until I met my partner. As I got to know my partner and grew to love many aspects of his personality it clicked that the thing I loved most was that he reminded me of my dad. They are both kind, patient, quiet, supportive and humble beyond words; yes, my partner reminded of my dad! My dad, who is my mentor; my dad, who is my best friend; my dad, who is my role model; and my dad, who is my hero!

My dad left his home, in Greece, alone at the age of 17, and came to the land of opportunity where the streets were paved with gold. My dad was the chosen one to take that journey because his family saw possibilities in him. In fact, many people in my dad’s village chipped in to pay for his travel expenses so he can come to the United States of America and begin a new life. Not only did my dad begin a new life but he started a family, he persevered to connect with others in a country where he had little understanding of the language, and, in the end, after being here for over 60 years, it is clear that he thrived on many levels. He thrived as a husband (my mom has always been the strength behind many of his successes), as a dad, as a grandpa, as a friend and as a business man. Yes, this man, who came to our country with a few dollars in his pocket and no English, thrived as a successful business man and leader!

Leadership Lessons From My Dad…  

As I start to prepare for my new professional endeavor, as Superintendent of Schools in Hastings on Hudson, I started to reflect on the leaders and leadership lessons that have had the greatest influence on me. Yes, I have been influenced by the likes of Whitaker, Senge and Fullan but the one person I kept coming back to was my dad. My dad has had the greatest impact on who I am as a leader because of these 5 leadership lessons he taught me… 

1) Listen more than you talk… a lot more! My dad is the best listener on the planet. No matter what anyone is telling him, he always listens attentively, patiently and supportively. There is no judgement. There is no overreaction. There is no dismissing of others. There is only listening for the purposes of understanding and appreciating someone else’s journey. This was crystalized for me when I came out to my dad at 40 years old. It was the hardest thing I ever had to do and I was pretty certain that as a traditional and religious Greek man, who grew up in another time period, he would not be able to understand or support me. But, that was the farthest from the truth. He listened patiently and when I was done he asked if I was happy and when I said yes, he responded with, “That is all I care about because your happiness is more important than my own!” I had never appreciated my dad more than I did at that moment. I also realized that my dad had modeled one of the most important leadership skills… listening without judgement! So as I get ready for my new journey, I am going to try and listen a lot more than I talk!  

2) Understand and respect your professional context! My dad owned and ran a service station (he was an auto mechanic and his station did repairs and sold gas) in a community that was comprised predominately of members of a conservative religious group. While my dad had little understanding of the community when he opened his shop, he immersed himself in the community and got to know the people, their beliefs, their values and their needs. My dad used this information to tailor the experience at his station to best meet the needs of his community – he closed the station on days of religious holidays that were important in the community, he learned some of the language spoken in the community and he connected with the people; everyone that came to his station knew that Paul would take care of them because he understood and respected them. As my journey as an educational leader has unfolded, I have called on this lesson many times and it has served me well in connecting with members of a community because I took the time to get to know them and understand their values. I am especially mindful of this lesson as I prepare to begin my journey as a Superintendent because my father has helped me recognize that leadership is as much about context as it is about the skills of the leader.    

3) Be supportive and don’t judge, even when you don’t understand or agree! My dad is the most supportive and encouraging human being on the planet. No matter how serious the problem or complicated the situation, my dad always stays calm and supports those in need. When my son was born with various medical issues, I was a mess because I couldn’t wrap my head around what the future may hold for Paulie… would he walk? Would he be healthy? Would he be independent? Would he be happy? The questions and fears flooded my mind and the only thing that made me feel better was talking to my dad because he calmed me down and reminded me to keep my focus on what I could control because that is what my son needed. This is a leadership lesson that has guided me hundreds of times over the last decade whether dealing with an anxious staff member or a fragile child or an irate parent, I try and remain calm so the person knows they are supported even if I don’t understand or agree with them. Support goes a long way because it challenges us to keep the focus on the issues and avoid passing judgement.   

4) Find balance in your personal life because people in your professional world are watching! While my dad worked 20 hour days when I was a baby, as I got older he began spending less time at work and more time with our family. And when I turned 8, the unthinkable happened… my dad, who had worked every single day from the age of 17, took the entire summer off and traveled to Greece with me. We went on road trips, visited family and spent time connecting. There was no work and no late hours – it was just quality time with family. While his employees and customers were shocked that he was away from his work for over a month, in the end, they developed a whole other layer of respect for him because of the value he placed on family. This lesson has been an important one for me because when I first entered educational leadership I spent many hours away from home and missed a lot of time with Paulie. As I have grown older, I have become much more conscious of the importance of balance and so now, when I am with my family, I am with my family. While this means that I have to stay up late and wake up early to get work done, this balance helps me amass the emotional deposits I need to sustain myself in both personal and professional worlds. In fact, this balance has also made an impression on those in my professional world who have commented on how much they appreciate my attempts to maintain balance. This lesson has reminded me that balance in my personal life doesn’t only have a positive impact on me but it could also have a positive impact on those in my professional world who are watching.

5) Be humble! My dad spent his life introducing himself as an auto mechanic but what most people didn’t know is that my dad is an incredibly successful business man. Not only did my dad fix cars but he also owned and managed several successful service stations at the same time. My dad is a lot more than “just” an auto mechanic but in the end, it is his humility and ability to remain humble that always strike me and those who know him. As I leader, this is something I always keep in mind – I stay humble by taking my work seriously but not taking myself seriously. So, while I may have a specific title in front of my name, I will always be a humble and proud educator! 

Words cannot capture how much my dad means to me but as we prepare to celebrate Father’s Day, I hope sharing his story with the world means that many other people will benefit from the 5 leadership lessons my dad taught me! Thank you dad – I love you!

So, if you have a few minutes after you read this post, please feel free to leave a comment below and tell my dad (Paul Sr.) which leadership lesson resonates most with you.