This is the final article in a three-year series focusing on the leadership of lawyers—things bar leaders ought to know and think about. As I thought about how to conclude this series, I thought about the first, most important teachers most of us have—our parents. I know my parents taught me things about leadership—and life in general—that guide me today. I bet yours did, too.
I am fortunate enough to still be able to write a thank-you letter to my mom. But this isn’t just a letter to my mom—it’s a letter to all of you, too. At various points throughout the letter, I’ll share a few words with you. I want to invite you to think about your own values and where they came from—and then maybe you might consider writing a thank-you letter of your own!
May 8, 2005
It was not until later in life that I fully appreciated that each moment, each act, each thing I do every day is connected to you. In fact, the kind of person (husband, father, now grandfather, lawyer, and executive director) I am really reflects the values you and Dad modeled each day and the values you tried to teach me that you knew I would need later in life. Of course, you of all people know that I am far from perfect.
Through my involvement with the American Bar Association, one of my leadership opportunities for the past three years was to write a column every other month in Bar Leader, a magazine that goes to every national, state, and local bar leader in America! I usually write about leadership. When I think about leadership, I think about values. When I think about values, I think about you and Dad. Surely it is the values that parents model and instill in their children that form the basis of what we become. So let me thank you, and attempt to recall a few memories. (I should have written this letter a long time ago.)
[I encourage you not to wait ... If your parents are still living, let them know today how they’ve shaped you as a person and a leader!]
Specifically, I remember at an early age the importance you placed on always telling the truth. I did not always do that, and I remember how bad I felt after I had lied to you. It was that “feeling” that I did not like, probably out of respect for you and Dad, that weighed on me and surely caused me to do a better job on the truth the next time. I also know, because you told me, that you could look into my eyes and tell when I was not telling the truth—I really did not think you could, but now I know you could. You better believe I always tell the truth—I know how bad it feels to do otherwise.
[Is telling the truth always easy? Of course not. I’m sure we’ve all been tempted to “shade the truth” here or there, to staff members, board members, partners at the firm, or anyone else with whom we work. Sometimes it might seem easier to tell a half-truth ... but it never works out that way in the end, does it? Can you really suppress that bad “feeling” about a lie? And even if you can, are you willing to lose your credibility as a leader—maybe even your job—if that “harmless” misstatement is discovered?]
Thank you and Dad for the discipline you imposed. Of course, it sometimes hurt, but that lesson was so important—because it was from your discipline that I believe I learned self-discipline! And once I learned to discipline myself, I better understood how to raise and challenge children and later manage and encourage others in the workplace.
[It may seem strange to talk about discipline and encouragement in the same breath, but I believe the two go hand in hand—or they should, anyway. The next time you have to have a tough talk with an employee, remember that your task is not to belittle him or her, but rather to encourage and enable that employee to be the very best that he or she can be.]
I remember using a bad word one day in front of Dad—I guess I was trying it out, because I had never heard you or Dad use bad language. He very nicely said to me that “folks who use bad words to express themselves may not be smart enough to think of a good word to use.” What a challenge! I thought I was smart, and so from that day on I know I tried to choose “good words”—even under stress.
One of the biggest life lessons you and Dad modeled for me was the importance of respect for others, regardless of their situation in life. Early on, thanks to you, I learned to treat others as I would want to be treated: fairly, compassionately, and respectfully.
[It goes without saying that you shouldn’t curse in a board or staff meeting. But what about other “bad language”—those negative thoughts we all have from time to time and need to learn to manage? Do you bring your problems to work—and make them everyone else’s problems, too? Are you quick to place blame or shoot down ideas? If so, maybe you need to watch your language. Strive to express yourself as positively as you can and to show your respect for everyone you encounter ... yes, even when you’re stressed and the other person is difficult!]
Somewhere along the way, I learned to work hard for a day’s pay. Your encouragement for me to mow lawns, babysit, and during the summer to work at the ice cream store and later the service station, helped me learn early on how to work for a boss (some were good, some were not so good) and serve customers—life lessons I would need in the years to come. And related to a strong work ethic was the lesson to save as much as I could and to live within my means. Perhaps this lesson has resulted in my service over the years as treasurer of numerous organizations.
[Who among us doesn’t have to pay attention to our association’s or our firm’s finances? I believe bar leaders who understand the intricacies of the finances of the association are better equipped to be effective leaders. Suggestion: Presidents-elect should chair the finance committee.]
I could never figure out why you put so much emphasis on me making my bed every day and keeping my room clean. Well, now I know. I think I am better organized and much better able to function in a very demanding job because I learned the value of being “squared away.” I think I get more done in a day because I do have “a place for everything and everything in its place” (that has a familiar ring to it, doesn’t it?), “clean up my own mess,” and “leave the place in better condition than I found it!” Wow!
[Is it time to address that mountain of paper “waiting to be filed”? It’s tough, but for your own peace of mind, try to take a minute each day to do some maintenance.]
Lastly, I learned from you the importance and joy of “service to others.” I am not sure I noticed as much as I should have, but as I grew older I came to realize the truly outstanding record of service to others you had quietly written beside your name. Whether to the PTA, the Boy Scouts, the neighborhood, the Salvation Army, or the VA hospital—Skip Head was always recognized as the outstanding volunteer. In case I didn’t tell you along the way, I am very proud of you for that. And if there is a legacy that you will leave, certainly it is one of service to others. Your children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren can only aspire to the level of service you achieved.
[It takes a great “service to others” commitment coupled with an ability to lead to make a good bar leader a great bar leader. We all ought to be “in the service of others.”]
So here we are. I hope you are proud of me. I am very proud of you.
[Likewise, I am so proud to serve, with all of you, the leaders of our profession. I am proud to have served as chair of the ABA Standing Committee on Bar Activities and Services, an opportunity I shall never forget. Thank you ... and now, start writing that letter!]
I welcome your comments—please e-mail me at email@example.com.
—Allan B. Head, chair, ABA Standing Committee on Bar Activities and Services, and executive director, North Carolina Bar Association.
[Editor’s note: Skip’s husband (Put) of 55 years died on July 1, 1996. Skip has two children, Allan and Brian; three grandchildren, David, Darryl, and Jayme; and four great-grandchildren, Carlyn, Reed, Charli, and Hayden.]