Three Lessons My Dad Taught Me About Leadership

When I was sixteen, I was convinced my family needed a pool. Playing on the water polo team, I swam in the mornings, at lunch, and after school. I wanted to swim at home as well.

My parents were not opposed to the idea but were not sure the expense was worth it. I decided that I needed to present my case with well reasoned data; so I researched a few different pool companies in the area and secured quotes, regulations information, construction timelines, etc. I then took the data to my father for negotiation.

He concluded that the monthly costs were not unreasonable, but since the budget was tight, I would need to find some things to cut. He convinced me that my proposal had merit but was only possible if something else was cut out of the budget.

My father taught me three valuable lessons during this experience.

1. When treated like adults, people tend to act like adults.

Even sixteen-year-olds. Nearly forty years later, I still appreciate how my dad approached the conversation. He was open but understood the realities of limitations. He understood that there were safety regulations, financial commitments, and long-term maintenance. He understood that simply adding responsibilities without reducing others was not particularly healthy.

So after dinner one night he told me to bring in the family checkbook, a pad of paper, and a calculator. For the next few hours, as he guided me, I recorded all our monthly expenses based on the reality of the checkbook  (what was actually spent). That was the first time I ever really understood how much he made and how much we spent. It was a sobering experience to get to the bottom of the page and realize the reality of cash-flow. Still, he was open. “If you can find the money, we’ll seriously consider your proposal.”

2. You really can’t have it all.

Nor, should you. I had the responsibility of finding the resources to fund my own proposal. I had stopped fantasizing that my parents had an endless source of income that could fund my growing appetites. I saw the budget. I knew the reality. I could no longer live in the make-believe world of expecting someone else to pay for my changing yet growing appetites. Bringing home a toy from aisle nine of the grocery store no longer satisfied a sixteen-year-old. Now I wanted a car and a swimming pool. “Gimme, gimme” and “You’re the grown up, you pay for it” were no longer realistic expectations. I had to outgrow my childish fantasies.

3. We’re responsible for what we get.

I realized that in order to get the pool, something had to give. So I agreed to keep up the lawns, thus eliminating the need for a gardener. I agreed to help build the fence (a story for another time), thus reducing the cost of labor. I agreed to pay for my own car insurance, thus removing the financial responsibility from my parents who had agreed to cover the cost as long as I retained a GPA of 3.0 or higher while in high school. I agreed to make monthly payments on the car that I “purchased from my parents,” thus providing additional cash toward the installments for the pool construction. I agreed to keep the pool clean and maintained, thus eliminating the cost of a pool service.

By assuming new responsibilities, I created the space and opportunity for my parents to build the pool. While it was initially driven by my desire, it was obviously something that benefited the entire family. Through our mutual collaboration, I learned that simply insisting on my demands would never meet with success. Being treated as an adult, I collaborated with the other adults. Together we established a working solution that paid off for us all.

For years, I enjoyed that pool. So did the entire family. I still think of it as my pool though. I made it happen. But I gladly shared it with the rest of the family. While it was my initial idea, I knew it would never have materialized without the collaborative effort of the entire family.

I trust the managerial application is obvious.