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The Greatest Act of Leadership? Doing nothing!

Marbly L. Miller. Still teaching at the college at 86, the students called him "Mabe the Babe." For most of his career he was just "Doc."

Marbly L. Miller. Still teaching at the college at 86, the students called him "Mabe the Babe." For most of his career he was just "Doc."

The greatest act of courage and of  leadership, to me,  is when someone acts on deeply held principles in the face of personal loss. I saw it "up-close and personal." Here's that story . . .

What's the greatest act of leadership you've witnessed?  For me, it was watching my father deal with my brother's death.

We all know that no one gets through life without getting "the call."  You know the dreaded, gut-wrenching, terrible, traumatizing call that informs you that some disaster or another has happened; a disaster that will alter the rest of your life. No I'm not trying to be melodramatic here. I do mean that call. That call that hopefully is a very rare event.  For me, there have been two such calls that stand out. One was the call telling us that our son's fiancee had cancer; the other call was from my father telling me my younger brother had been killed.

Now, before you "click away"--perhaps in self-preservation, not needing to subject yourself to another heart-rending, emotional, saccharine out-pouring of syrupy emotion--I promise, it won't be that post. No, this post is about courage and leadership. 

When we got the call about my son's intended, it was our duty to pass the phone on to our son. When my son got the horrible news, and in the days, weeks and months that followed, I has a father, of course, suffered--though not in the same proximity to the events--but never-the-less just as intimately, right along with him. "What was he thinking?" Could he do this--to support his bride-to-be through this ordeal, no-matter-what-the-outcome, at such a young age? How will he handle her suffering, her sorrow, her fears?

Should I, as a Dad, "put my oar in the water" and "help" this young man decide what to do? But he hadn't asked me to give my advice. Should I anyway? What would I say? The fear of what might happen in the event of his decision-making and coping weighed heavy.

Fortunately, this call wasn't the first call. This call was the second. This call came after witnessing the most personal act of courage and leadership I have ever witnessed and gave me the courage to face the fears of saying nothing . . . .

In 1992, my younger brother, at age 27, died. It was in a car-bike accident. But this story is not about that. Except that it was the context of the single greatest act of leadership that I have ever witnessed

Now I told you I'm a father. I have six marvelous children. At the time of my brother's death I already had three children myself. They are, each and every one of them, a true gift. I cannot imagine the pain of losing one of them. So, I can't imagine the pain my mother and father were experiencing, not to mention being able to function in the face of such an overwhelming loss. Yet, I watched my Mom and Dad do exactly that.  Here are a few things my Dad, the active leader of the two, did . . .

When he called me to tell me my brother had been killed--only a short time after the police informed them--he had already called my father-in-law; my father-in-law was, at the moment of the call, coming in my door as I got the news. My father had decided, I assume, that we shouldn't be alone at such a moment, and  that we should have support, so he called my father-in-law to alert him-before he called me. As a father, I cannot imagine having the presence of mind at such a moment to think this clearly. Not only was it good to have his caring presence,  I had someone who was not emotionally overwhelmed to drive me--safely-- to my parent's home some 45 minutes away. 

Later, when my brother's landlord wouldn't return his deposit to my parents because "my brother didn't give 30 days notice"-- and despite the fact the family had spent the weekend cleaning out the apartment so they landlord could, and did, get renters into the apartment before the first day of the month--and, immune to the rationale that they shouldn't hold onto his deposit because . . . "oh yeah, he was killed" and grieving parents should not have to deal with such issues even if somehow it seems "fair"--I decision which caused my normally stoically-reserved family to react in disbelief and anger. My father calmly replied, "I think we'll just let the lawyer take care of it." He did. (On a side note, something in me would have liked to hear that conversation. "So, would you like to go to court and tell a judge why you are keeping this money from the deceased man's parents?")

Finally, the conclusion of the courage and leadership came when I went with my father to the arraignment of the young man responsible for my brother's death. The family had decided that the only thing they would request--given the cause of death was an accident and the driver wasn't impaired--was that the young man have a physical check up to make sure this wouldn't happen again. I witnessed my father ask the court for this and then graciously accept the apologies--and extended hand-- of the young man and his parents with a handshake . . . and no drama . . . essentially doing nothing.

If there ever was a moment when my father showed me that he lived with courage, and understood the power of the position he held as a leader of the family--it was at this moment, when he stood by the principles he preached to us. 

Crisis often illuminates, more than any other time, who a leader really is and what they care about. Leadership "under fire" inspires others to want to follow that example to lead because you;ve experienced the gift and personal benefits of that leadership . . . .

So, as I watched my son and his marvelous fiancee faced their own personal tragedy . . . postponing their wedding, focusing on the treatment needed to get into remission, handling the fears and "what ifs?"--I said nothing about what they should do. This was a time for them to make their choices.. Not mine to make or take from them. My role was to support, my son and through him, his betrothed as they battled this disease. I watched as my, now current, daughter-in-law, with the support of her great family, face this illness with courage and strength. I saw my son support her selflessly though the process. What amazing character I witnessed in these two "early-twenties" young  people.

Only, recently, many years after these events took place, and after the happy events of remission, marriage and two beautiful granddaughters, did I tell my son about the internal "struggle of my brain," fearfully worrying about doing the "right thing" in those dark days. I wanted him to understand (as if his actions didn't already demonstrate this knowledge) the role that leadership plays in freeing others to follow their own path and create their own future . . . as he will undoubtable face these challenges in the future, himself, in some way. "I never considered doing anything different," he said, referring to the steadfastness of going through the treatment with his fiancee. "I just thought that's what you do," he concluded.   Thanks Dad!


Another leadership lesson I learned from Dad . . . how Dad got the bus moving again when the coach, and this year's coach of the year, and the bus driver couldn't . . . and saved the game.

From "Doc" to "Mabe-the-Babe" --growing and changing as a leader.

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Leading is all about people. If you don't understand them you will fail. Bryan, with a doctorate in human development, has written a free eBook to help leaders find a framework for understanding people. Based on the principles of Schema Theory, Dr. Miller helps the leader understand the "worldview" of employees that seem difficult and hard to lead. Subscribe and get it free or check out his eBooks for Family Business leaders and professionals that want to move away from insurance dependency into contracting and consulting.