If he was still living, my dad would have turned 94 years old this month. Even though I spent my first decade admiring him and my second and third decade challenging him, I now see clearly the lessons he taught me in spite of myself.
Charles D. Southard was a product of the time period, between the world wars and a middle class upbringing that persevered even during the Great Depression. The important lesson he learned from his Chief of Police father was that there was employment security in civil service.
Later, as I began seeking my career, he expanded his short list of employments with strong security to health care. My own experience, however, as well as the experience of thousands of others, contradicts those words of wisdom spoken over three decades ago.
My dad did what he felt society expected of him. He finished high school, attended college, enlisted in the Army Air Corps shortly after Pearl Harbor was attacked, got married, found a white collar job that had him working Monday through Friday, and raised a kid that seemed to reflect his values back at him.
The Greatest Generation, I’m beginning to realize and much to my chagrin, was aptly named. His generation was, in many ways, also the generation of chivalry and politeness.
Throughout his lifetime, my dad held a number of leadership positions. Most notably to me was that he served as an officer in the United States Air Force until he retired. (Believe me, the uniform makes an impression on a boy.)
What my dad taught me about being a leader was not explicit, but it was more in how he led his life and in the parsing of little bits of wisdom such as:
Attend college and never stop educating yourself.
Dress professionally and error towards dressing up too much.
Speak politely and never use profanity. Profanity just shows the limit of your vocabulary.
Value your friendships.
When you are in the presence of women, open doors, sit up from your desk or table, help them off with their coats, and pull back their chairs.
Always be nice to kids (unless its obvious that they’re brats).
Go the extra distance for your family mostly because it’s the right thing to do and its fun to surprise them.
Always have a good story to tell.
Try to make people laugh even at your own expense.
And last, but not least: When in doubt, take the high road.
I still find myself falling back on his advice when I feel like I don’t have an easy choice and I feel an emotional hug when I hear his words when the world seems unforgiving.
In my dad’s aging with his ever-expanding needs for my help in his slow and painful journey towards death, I discovered new capabilities that I think more clearly defined my own approach to leadership.
I was no longer willing to take a passive role to the advice of professionals.
I questioned all medical, financial, and legal advice, especially by those who apparently couldn’t accept my dad’s declining health. I became that barrier that those professionals had to convince first.
It took a while, but those that we continued to see learned to come prepared.
I let certain things pass if those differences didn’t get in the way of the appropriate care my dad needed to be comfortable and safe.
I found that I could be direct and honest with my dad without hurting his feelings or turning him from me, because he knew he could always trust me and that I would never let him down.
I was always there when he needed me whether it was to screw in a light bulb on my way home from work or help him off the floor (again) at 2 AM. I never wanted him to feel guilty for calling me.
Essentially, my dad never stopped teaching me lessons.
Happy Birthday, Dad.