There was a discussion topic on leadership that was introduced in one of my meetings a few months ago. It was a theme that I had heard before with different subjects, but the question was often posed in the same manner – if you were accused of being X (in this case a good leader), would there be enough evidence to convict you? The premise is that the audience, in silence, will take mental inventory of their achievements or actions against a given standard and either receive some affirmation or realize a gap exists and develop a plan to mitigate. Without fail, participants begin to nod thoughtfully as they appear to mentally check off every positive attribute and smile subtly to suggest that not only would there be enough evidence, but that the jury would return the verdict within a matter of seconds and ask openly why there was any question in the first place. While I love the confidence, I often find myself at odds with the individual assessments going on around me. If we’re honest with ourselves, we have to realize that in all of our endeavors there is room for improvement… that whatever level of mastery we have achieved to this point only signals progress, not arrival. Otherwise, we are fooling ourselves or robbing ourselves by buying into the lie of complacency. So, with that in mind, I began to contemplate. Not about leadership, but about fatherhood. The questions lingered… would anyone accuse me of being a good father? would there be any evidence to support the accusation? I couldn’t say. It’s been several weeks weighing on my mind… I just don’t know.
I thought about the things that might constitute evidence…like, what would I consider the actions of a good father? What model or standard would I hold as the yardstick for my evaluation? I consider my dad to have done a good job with us so far (he’s not off the hook yet, I still have quite a few things to learn from him). When I think about why, I can readily think of examples of situations and a lot of intangibles that revealed themselves over time. When I attempted to turn those things into some type of a scale, everything became so subjective or ambiguous. But at least I had some instances and some qualities that I knew I could recognize as evidence. So I thought about my actions and motivations…do I spend enough time with them? do I make the time I spend matter? what am I doing with and for my children? The old standbys I provide for my kids; I love my kids; I take care of my kids, don’t count as evidence. As Chris Rock aptly reminded us, “You’re supposed to!”. You don’t get points simply for showing up… you just don’t. And as with the “leadership” exercise, it becomes easy to look back at actions and moments and see those things in a positive light. It is common for us to look at the things we do through our own paradigm or applied rationale. We can justify just about anything… but if someone else saw it, would they see it the same way? If I sat nodding, satisfied with myself and the job I’ve done as a dad would someone else look on in disagreement? More importantly, would my kids agree?
That one’s tough… At any given point I could be way behind or way ahead, or even both at the same time with a different son. Since the evaluation is ongoing, and the opportunities to fail are infinite, I would have to focus on the long term effect. I thought about how to make the biggest impact over time. Then I realized the long term is made up of all the little moments along the way. So back I went to square one… how do I know I am doing the right things and stringing together enough of the little things to make sure the boys are getting the experiences they need? How do I amass enough evidence? I thought about my dad and what he had done. He was a father figure to a few of my friends growing up. He shouldered a lot of load and did it willingly and without complaint. All the life lessons, the support, the encouragement, the correction, the discipline, the drive, the love, the consistency…there were GIANT things he did that I cannot begin to hope to accomplish and to mean to my kids. I didn’t know how to build that type of evidence. There just didn’t seem to be a way to the top of that mountain. But then, after weeks of wrestling with this in my mind, I saw a path.
It was an unexpected realization and it came along, unassuming and ordinary, in the way of a series of overheard phone conversations. My friend Jim received a call on his cell phone. It wasn’t a long call; maybe 2 or 3 minutes. At first I thought it was his wife calling… he had the smiles and nods working with the occasional “uh-huh…mmhmmm…yes…yeah…oh really?” that men tend to throw around when we are getting an update on something and we really aren’t focused because we are in the middle of something else but we don’t want to seem obviously rude (or so I’ve heard). We were on our way out the door to a football game so I figured he was just hurrying the call along. But when I looked over to him, he was focused… and he was paying attention…standing still in the middle of the room. It was Ryan, his son and oldest child, who had called. A few minutes later, Ryan called again and took his dad through another rapid fire conversation. Jim had recently introduced Ryan to Star Wars, and Ryan was hooked. Understandably. He was calling with questions about characters in his Lego Star Wars game and looking for some insight into his dad’s preference of Sith and bounty hunters. Jim was a pro… patient and engaged, and enjoyed every moment of it.
It took a little while for it to sink in… I probably didn’t realize it until after the game when he talked with Ryan again and they recapped and celebrated over the phone… and then I recalled the phone message the two of them left me the week before after the Broncos beat my Cowboys. It is odd to say, but I had never felt so good about receiving trash talk in my life. It was like a professional act; the two of them handing the phone back and forth without missing a jab…like Run DMC alternating lines and flowing over beats. I even played it for Kendra. She was impressed as well. She asked how frequently they place these phone calls because the message seemed so natural, yet well rehearsed. I even paused a full 2 seconds before hitting the delete command (they were trash talking my Cowboys after all… couldn’t keep that message). I digress… but remembering that, and hearing those conversations provided a lot of perspective for me. That was evidence. He’s a good dad. I could convict him on those interactions alone. If you saw his face when he got off the phone or watched him when he spoke to his son you would have no reasonable doubt. It is evident that he loves his kids and takes his role seriously. But if I asked him about that day I doubt he’d see it the way I just relayed it… and I think that is part of the point.
I wasted time worrying about trying to create evidence when all I had to do was do the things that I should be doing in the first place – being there, being accessible, having fun, playing games, interacting, being dad. The lessons will come. They are inevitable. Every encounter does not have to end in some profound revelation. I knew that. I forgot that. I hope I can keep from getting in my own way too often. Jim is a good dad. I am proud to say that I have many friends that have turned out to be good dads. Some are photographers and can capture images and moments that communicate their adoration and clearly illustrate the focus of their children in their lives. Some are outdoors guys and take every opportunity to seize free moments and spend time in nature with their kids and sharing that appreciation with them. Some are good listeners and spend time in front of their kids hearing what they have to say and giving them attentive audiences and acting as sounding boards. Some are sports guys and provide lessons in the value of competition and the benefits of failure. Some guys sacrifice and give up all they have and know to provide a different reality for their kids than the one they knew growing up. Some are all of these things, and some are more. I am just a guy with a keyboard who wants to make the most of his opportunity at fatherhood, and who is very blessed to have so many examples of evidence right in front of me. From my father, to my brother, to my friends…the path is clear. Am I guilty of being a good dad? I don’t know. But I know that every day I try to do better, and I am not going to waste any more time searching for evidence right now.
Thanks for coming along for the ride.