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Leadership lessons from my Dad


Much of what I’ve needed to know as a leader, I learned from my Dad.

Make it lively.
My dad presented lessons from neuroscience decades before this was fashionable. He put on a caveman wig and enthralled halls of teachers, parents, and college students with how our human physiology is poorly adapted for the demands of elementary school. With hilarious stories and improbable props, he showed how to adapt classroom activities to respect children’s varying needs to move, explore, touch, see, and create.

Fight the good fight.
Helping kids with visual and physiological challenges to succeed is my dad’s absolute passion. Sounds sweet, but his commitment to the kids often brought resistance from school administrators, teachers, even parents. He stayed on course… going to the kid’s school, if needed, to show teachers how to modify assignments, talking movingly with parents who had given up on their children, encouraging the kids to take pride in what they could do and work hard to overcome obstacles.

When I was a senior at UC Davis, a guy came up to me and said, “You’re Dr. Fox’s daughter, right? Recognize you from the pictures in his office. When I was in junior high, no one thought I’d make it through high school. Your dad believed in me, and he helped me figure out how to learn. I’m a sophomore now, mostly A’s so far. I’m working hard so I can be a doctor like your dad.”

Prepare, review, learn, prepare some more.
I remember spending many evenings in my dad’s office as he checked through records of every patient to see how they were progressing and figure out what they needed next. During nearly 50 years of practice, he mostly set aside his hobbies – golfing, violin – to do behind the scenes preparation that his patients probably never knew he did. I used to think he put way too much time into prep work. Now I know better.

Do what needs doing, without fuss or expecting appreciation.
My dad doesn’t “hang out.” He quietly finds something useful to do. Waiting to drive one of us back from an activity? He’d find a broom and sweep the floor. Waitress overtaxed? He gets coffee and pours for nearby tables. Someone sounding stressed? He makes a kind comment, and often, a new friend.

And, when they need help at the front of the room, my dad’s there, too – chairing professional organizations and running community events. I learned Robert’s Rules of Order (and the importance of pre-meeting campaigning) in middle school while tagging along to his meetings.

Do your best. And love it.
In my many years of competitive swimming, at no time was I in danger of breaking any records. Did that bother my dad? Not so far as I know. He was there every race with a thermos of hot tea, my favorite halvah, and a few coaching pointers. He took me to 5am practices, cheered when I beat him (a far better swimmer) at a lap of fly, drove my friends and me to endless meets, and volunteered for timing or whatever was needed. All he asked was whether I was giving it my best and whether I still wanted to swim.

Treat everyone with respect.
From my father I learned that school secretaries are the most important people at any school. That someone who’s barely passing may be working more than someone sailing through with A’s. That you want the teachers who are “too hard” because they’ll bring out your best. That communities are small, and reputations are earned.

My dad turns 80 this week. He plays violin in two community orchestras, swims laps three days a week, plays bits in movies and commercials (a hobby he picked up when he retired at 75), swaps jokes with grandchildren, grows veggies in his garden, hears from patients now adults with kids of their own, enjoys home life and excursions with my mom, and strikes up joyful conversations with anyone.

For whatever of my Dad’s example has shown up in my work as a leader and coach, I am grateful. You know where it came from.

Thanks, Dad, for inspiring me, always.

About the author

Pam Fox Rollin Pam Fox Rollin is a valued thought-partner to corporate and NGO leaders navigating their organizations through complex change. Her work as an Executive Coach and Speaker draws on 20 years experience, including strategy consulting (Bain, Accenture), management education (Guest Fellow, Stanford GSB), leadership research, and community leadership. You can also find Pam on her Twitter page and company IdeaShape Coaching & Consulting

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