“Son, you’re on your own this time….”

I realised recently there’s a difference between leadership and true leadership.

In the last few years I’ve gobbled up scores of lessons about leadership, from actively seeking out a range of books, to observations on the fire ground, to random learnings in the every day.  What I observed just last week though, was the purest form of leadership I think I can recall – and it’d been staring me in the face for years.

We were on a family holiday, my wife and I and our two young kids up at Nelson Bay (highly recommended by the way).  Our eldest son, a five and a half year old terrorist, had done something he shouldn’t have, like all five and a half year olds do, and was being told off by my wife.  He responded with  something along the lines of “Well it doesn’t matter what you say because Dad makes all the money and paid for the holiday”.

There comes a time, when despite wanting to protect your child from all of life’s ills, that there’s simply nothing a father can do. Son, you’re on your own this time….

While my wife isn’t exactly prone to bouts of expletive-ridden tirades, this had all the hallmarks of being a reasonable excuse to let one roar.  Instead, she calmly stated;

“I do everything for you.  I’ve given up everything for you.”

The moment of tension quickly passed, and we all got back to enjoying our holiday.  I am certain however, that our eldest (and possibly my wife, until she reads this I guess) was entirely oblivious to the power that statement had on me.

For some background.  My wife is significantly smarter than I am.  First Class Honours in a Science degree I can’t even explain – something about genetics and biodiversity.

Due to, well, life, she went back to Uni later than most, demolished a Science degree, volunteered in Costa Rica doing conservation work, travelled the NSW coast collecting and freezing an invasive species of crabs to monitor their insidious march northward, and got published for her efforts.

What I’m trying to show here, is that she’s no slouch in the brains department, and was primed to kick off a fantastic career in something smart.  Something she was particularly excited about.

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Mess with crabbo – get stabbo.  Photo taken off internet

Then came along marriage and motherhood – both of which I might add, she’s also smashing out of the park.  I have no doubt that without her, our entire mob would be a hot mess of (disorganised) chaos.  I’m not talking about cleaning and cooking here – I’m talking about our entire way of life.  It’s no wonder the kids call her The Captain.

It dawned on me in that brief moment of frustration, that all this time she had been demonstrating the purest form of leadership.  Self-sacrifice.  For the good of the mission.

You can lead a team at work, you can lead a team on the sports field, and I’m sure you can cite examples where you put the welfare of your team above your own – fundamental to the success of any team, and the sign of a good leader.

What you’re probably citing though is when you didn’t take credit for the work your team did anyway, or that you took the accountability you should have regardless, for the team missing a deadline, or when expenditure exceeded budget.  While certainly important – these things don’t really matter in the grand scheme of things, and I’d suggest they won’t be things you reflect upon on your death bed.

Your most important contribution may not be something you do, but someone you raise

Want to know what matters?  Kids, legacy, growing a family.  Are they the only things that matter in life?  No, obviously, but I’d suggest they’re on almost everyone’s list above missing that deadline.

Want to know what’s admirable?  Putting a promising career on hold that you worked godd@mn hard for, re-calibrating the trajectory of your life to care for and support 2 small kids (and 1 large adult-sized kid).  Providing an environment where these 3 other humans are given every opportunity to achieve their own successes (and failures), in a space that’s structured, organised, has high standards, is clear, supportive and never-failing.

We are defined by what we choose to reject”
– Mark Manson

What I observed was leadership not towards a short-term goal; hitting a sales target, pouring a slab, winning a contract, but true leadership – for a vision, for something that means something, and dedicating everything to achieving it.

It was a German-born theoretical physicist that said it best.

Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile.”
– 
Albert Einstein

I guess the lesson I learned in that moment was, apart from my wife being a superstar, is don’t just employ leadership techniques you read in a book or a blog, but find something, anything, that inspires you to live true leadership.


As we approach Mother’s Day – take some time to reflect on the sacrifice your Mum made, or is still making, to create an environment where you can achieve the successes you’ve had.  If you can, call your Mum today and tell her she’s awesome.

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