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Leadership Lessons from My Veteran Father

Each year, Veteran’s Day holds special meaning for me. I am the daughter of a Veteran whose birthday, November 12, falls the day after this annual time of recognition. I’m so thankful to him, and every other Veteran for their service – their willingness to put themselves at risk to keep us safe. As a Leadership Development professional, this time of year is also a time of reflection about the lessons in leadership my father taught me, so I thought I’d share some of them with you here today.

A old sepia photo of three men in Navy uniforms near the water
My father hanging out with his Navy buddies

For most of my life, my father was a VP and GM of Manufacturing for Aerospace companies. He’d been an Electrician’s Mate, Second Class, in the Navy, and took advantage of the educational opportunities his service afforded him, by earning a degree in Physics from Cal Berkeley, and graduate studies in Manufacturing Management at NYU. Those who worked with him called him brilliant and told me they didn’t always understand him, but never hesitated to follow him.

During my father’s final corporate job, he had the unenviable task of laying off over half of his workforce. Day after day of painful conversations with people he had spent years supporting as their leader. Hearing their questions about how they will care for their families; being the only available target for their anger and disappointment. When he’d talk about those conversations with me, my big burly man of a father, who had a heart of gold, would chew on his lip and his eyes would leave our conversation, undoubtedly remembering their faces.

A headshot business photo of a man with greying hair and a beard wearing a suit and tie
Michael J Morris, father of Lead For Today's founder

Many of us in leadership have had similar experiences. Maybe not laying of half of our workforce all at once, but any number of layoffs has an impact on us. Over my years working with leaders, I’ve heard things like, “you can’t be friends with the people you work with when you’re a leader,” or “don’t get too close, it only makes things harder.” The truth is, it should be hard. The work of leading is, as Brené Brown says, choosing courage over comfort.

Two days after he finished his last batch of layoffs, the company terminated my father’s employment as well. The blow shook him to his core. He’d spent weeks doing the dirty work for this company, because it was his duty. He wasn’t afraid to do hard things, he was a military man. He lived with honor, and this was the most dishonorable thing he’d ever experienced.

I took away several leadership lessons from my father’s experience; here are my top two:

1. Caring about your people matters.

While my father felt incredibly betrayed, he also knew that he had been the right person to convey the layoff news to his staff. He cared about each and every one of them, and treated them with the dignity and respect they deserved while delivering the bad news.

I’ve supported multiple layoffs in my career, and have been part of scripting the departure language for them. Each time, my father’s experience reverberates in my mind, and I try to honor him by recognizing there is a human being on the other end of my news, and that person deserves genuine care.

2. How you do things matters. 

When you have to do hard things, do them with integrity. My father shared with me that he still would have done his job informing his staff the same way, had he known that his job was about to end as well. The betrayal was not about losing his job – that was something he could easily wrap his head around. The deceptive way in which they conducted the process, however, was unforgiveable…and unnecessary.

As leaders, hard things come with the territory. We have to make difficult business decisions in the best interest of our organizations all the time. The way those decisions are carried out and the way they are communicated, makes a drastic difference in how they are received.

Four navy buddies in white uniforms hanging out near their barracks, one man is sitting on the shoulders of another
My father with his navy buddies at the barracks

For my father, a military veteran, his team meant everything. While serving, that team can be the difference between life and death. He carried that spirit, as well as his code of conduct and Sailor’s Creed with him throughout his career.

He remained “committed to excellence and the fair treatment of all,” and I try to continue that legacy every day in my own career and in how I teach others to lead.

As we honor our Veterans on Veterans Day, I'd love to hear...what leadership lessons have you learned from the Veterans in your life?

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