When my first daughter was born, I pretended that Father’s Day was about me. When my second daughter was born, I felt I could fully occupy the holiday’s space, and my appreciation of my own father rode the dugout pine. I was the one with the children. I was the earner and the participatory parent. This was my day.
But a divorce, remarriage and three stepchildren can set a man’s ego right. My first wife relocated nearly 2,000 miles away, so my presence in my daughters’ lives diminished considerably – while my presence in the lives of my stepchildren soared. As father figure but not father to these three, I was shown a new seat while continuing to reach for my daughters. Creeks dry and rise and flood.
This hard life lesson more than 10 years ago – fatherhood is not about you, it’s about them – did more to influence my leadership style than any book or mentor. And here is the lesson:
As a father – and a leader – you are a bridge between the past and the future. No one should be expected to celebrate the present; that’s called GSD, or Getting Shit Done. You honor what came before and you create what comes next.
In both cases, you are occupying a present where other people are the heroes of their stories, past and future.
So here’s what came before: My family immigrated to North America in 1630. The ship logs – which my father dutifully collected like an archaeologist on a dig – show only that a grandfather and grandson made the passage. No mention of a father or any women – but then, not acknowledging women is kind of a Western tradition.
After staying in New England long enough to fight in the Revolutionary War, the family moved into the Midwest territories – and stayed largely in the same 100-mile radius for several generations. In absolute poverty. There is a hill in Southern Indiana where you’ll find the tombstones of people bearing my last name, buried way too young. Irish people can be loyal to a fault, particularly to a land that doesn’t love them back.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps was the beginning of what changed the course. My grandfather shipped off to Oregon and learned enough skill to secure a non-combat post in the Pacific Theater and, after the Japanese signed the treaty on the USS Missouri – my grandfather was aboard, as fortune would have it – he came home to a manufacturing job at International Harvester.
Think of that for a moment. It took 300 years for a family to climb from immigrant and agricultural poverty to an industrial-age job.
That is what it means to honor the past. Not because of great achievements, though they sometimes occur. But because progress is a hard bit of business. It takes generations. A transformative breakthrough is as rare as a shark attack. That’s why people talk about them.
Ask anyone trying to transform a company – or an industry – just how many similarities there are to that.
My father, whom I honor this Father’s Day, graduated high school while working the pump and lube gun at a gas station, then got a job as a parts driver (that’s how car dealerships used to ship parts around, before anyone invented FedEx) at a Chevrolet dealership. My parents had me when he was working behind the counter in the parts department. It was a big promotion.
But he climbed, eventually to become General Manager of the dealership. Since the owner was largely absentee, my father ran the business. He also got into politics – southern Indiana was blue-state country in those days, owed largely to the fact that many families were saved by FDR’s policies. For 16 years, he ran Clark County and was the most powerful person in the region. Creeks dry and rise and flood.
And he sent me to college, the first in his family, 12 generations after we arrived.
And my career has been, from the beginning, about what’s next. About creating the future, not looking back, so I’ve moved nearly a dozen times since leaving Indiana and have, for nearly two decades, had a travel schedule that rivals George Clooney’s character in “Up in the Air.”
As a journalist, it was three stories, plus briefs and a working Sunday story every day. When I convinced Orage Quarles III in the mid-90s that The Modesto Bee needed to be online, in a time we used the word “cyberspace” without irony, everything went into hyperdrive.
Digital. Breaking News. Real-time. Data journalism. Behaviorally targeted ads. Corporate-wide content management systems. Cascading stylesheets. Portable widgets. Mobile. Apps. Partnerships with Yahoo, Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon. AR, VR, A.I., machine learning. Building a future so we could sustain journalism solely from digital revenues.
Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.
I’ve built my career on tomorrow. And my leadership style, too. What is our moon shot? Let’s get there together. To paraphrase John F. Kennedy, not because it is easy, but because it is hard. Let’s create our own future.
I will always be pulled by that siren, always chant the mantra of “Onward.” But, especially on Father’s Day, I think all leaders, innovators and disruptors need to pause and honor the generations that plowed the ground to create this present – which was the stuff of science fiction when they drove the till.
We should honor what came before as loudly as we celebrate the IPO. I have generations of men and women who made it possible for me to be writing this in an air conditioned home, with food in the refrigerator and two kids with college degrees, two on their way and one in the wings.
That’s science fiction if you lived on Daisy Hill in 1840.
Families and industries grow and shift over time. Creeks dry and rise and flood. The best fathers – and the best leaders – drive forward with confidence and purpose, while always tipping their hats to those who came before.