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What My Dad Has Taught Me about Leadership and Authority

A U.S. Father’s Day Reflection of How My Concept of Good leadership Has Been Shaped by My Dad’s Examples

Kayaking with my dad in West Michigan
Kayaking with my dad in West Michigan

Out of context one sentence I read this past week, “leadership does not mean authority” can be a jarring and perhaps even a polarizing sentence. I read it in “Leadership on the Line” by Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky — a book I had read in graduate school for the course “Intercultural Leadership” and decided to pick up again because I am in the throes of navigating how to not only self-lead but also team-lead in a multicultural context. This sub title “leadership does not mean authority” in one of the chapters struck me in a way to consider the leadership I have in my life and whether or not I consider if they have “authority” with me and/or over me and whether or not I have leadership with and/or over others. What I believe to be true about leadership is that at the heart of it is the willingness to risk loss, it is the authority to lean into the risk of danger, and it is the ability to recognize the power to influence. The response can be risky. The freedom can be risky. The act of leadership itself is risky.

Leadership is an act of courage. An act and a state of being that requires relinquishing authority to and for others to be leaders themselves. My dad has shaped my understanding and perspective of this definition of leadership.

To grow up in a two-parent household in six countries before I left for university at 18 (aka diplomat brat), I reflect now that I had both a stable nuclear family upbringing with steadfast values and a strong sense of security and the steadfast advocacy to live with an open heart to approach integrating others’ values based on the different countries in which we lived. As a U.S. diplomatic family, there was a certain consistency in the expectation of how to behave in alignment with our familial values but also the fluidity of adapting in the circumstance and/or to the cultural ways of doing things. I learned as guests in countries we did not have the authority to be dogmatic about what is right or wrong from the lens of our culture or values. I remember hearing my dad ask questions, observing before acting, and never passing up the opportunity to learn from others. He practiced curiosity as a form of leadership to honor others’ authority in culture, language, and ways of doing. What a courageous heart to engage in the ambiguity and to model it for my brother and I.

My dad helped me to recognize that leadership means listening. How I have been socialized has also shaped and contributed to what I deem to be “good” or “poor” leadership. To consider more concretely and intentionally how I am influenced by my peers through discussion, social media, and shared activities invariably impacts how I perceive power and privilege and my own agency. Growing up, I was exposed to several ways of being and doing and absorbed sub-consciously and consciously my “place” in different communities. Listening to others’ perceptions and beliefs compels me to recognize where my own leadership agency may lie in engaging in dialogue, taking action, and being a change-agent. I’m an idealist to a fault and I attribute that to my dad always saying, “never give up on your dreams.” What a beautiful heart to contribute so much more than words to my dreams.

One of my friends has recently challenged me to read another leadership book called: “How to Lead When You’re Not in Charge.” The title seems to align with the premise of my leadership definition analysis; that is: how to release power over and give power to. I can see my dad in this title and also acknowledge that I apply this to how I lead in a professional setting. In having observed my dad be a part of different US diplomatic missions abroad (and having the privilege to work alongside him when I worked at a couple embassies during my university summer breaks), I realized how although there were clear hierarchical structures and complex departments to understand and to operate effectively in within each embassy, it was his ability to lead with a culturally-appropriate mindset to be efficient at change management at different levels and with both internal and external stakeholders. Perhaps he didn’t have the well-known title or even the recognition in terms of what others would consider authority, but his character made him the leader. What a risk to ego. Sometimes authority does not reside in the title or public understanding of who is the leader.

As I continue to grapple with my own consideration of what it means to have leadership and/or authority, I am compelled to reflect further on how my dad has showcased what that looks like in different cultural contexts. It begins with recognizes your authority of self and what you can and cannot control. And it continues with lifelong learning about leadership styles and how to exercise style dexterity in and through different contexts.

I am grateful for his listening ear as I continue to negotiate what it means to have or to not have power, control, and agency. How do I shift my behavior in order to be more of an effective leader? How do I lean into the danger of leading without losing sense of self?

This is what I know: leadership is an act of courage. An act of courage to let go, learn, and adapt. An act of courage that practices power with and releases authority to others. An act of courage to lead when you have the authority and when you do not. An act of courage to acknowledge mistakes. An act of courage to celebrate results. An act of courage to know when to act and when to not. How you are positioned and perceived as a leader largely depends on your act of courage to love, learn, and let go.

Thank you, dad, for your courageous heart. And your modeled leadership. Happy U.S. Father’s Day.

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