With so many horrific heartbreaking stories in the news of late, I wanted to post something uplifting as Father’s Day approaches. I want to share some leadership insights I received from my Father, Mr. Henry Joseph “Joe” Porter.
First let me give some context. My Dad was a hard-working, gregarious man respected as a leader in our community in the Ohio Valley and in his workplace. He loved his family. His work and leadership were about making a better life for us, and for our community. For instance, in the 1960’s when I was a young child, as Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders marched in the American south for equality, my Dad led marches in our small town in Western Pennsylvania to give young black people access to the types of jobs that were closed to them at the time. I remember him leading a drill team of young people from the neighborhood giving them the opportunity to demonstrate their talent in our region’s annual parades.
My Dad was one of the brightest men I have known but because of the intersections of race and class, growing up poor and black in a small town on the Ohio River, he was not able to go to college. Consequently, my Dad started working at a very young age, first on the railroad and then at Globe Brick (which, when my siblings and I came along, we affectionately called “the brickyard”). His was a unionized workplace. He was an influencer that eventually became the union president. So strong was his influence, however, that the management team ended up offering him a supervisory position. I think they felt it was better to have him on their side. Over the years he ascended the ranks to assistant superintendent.
After high school I planned to major in industrial engineering and Dad hired me as a summer intern after my high school graduation and again after my first year of college. I worked as a safety-engineering intern. Many of the lessons I learned about leadership from my Dad occurred in that workplace for sure, but they were not limited to work. What is most significant for me is that my Dad modeled these lessons for me throughout my life without any hint that my gender would be a barrier to success.
Here are four of the most memorable lessons on leadership from my Dad.
Walk with Purpose. One of my tasks as a summer engineering intern working at the “brickyard” was to take samples of the clay from the huge machines or presses that stamped out the bricks that were later to be sent through the kilns to bake. I was to conduct quality control tests checking for the proper moisture content. I would have to walk from the management office to the plant, up the stairs and ramps onto the various presses to take samples and then test their moisture levels. Sometimes I would have to go to the mines where they stored clay, bauxite and other raw materials. I was young and not totally aware of my privileged position and Dad knew that others were going to judge me based on how I carried myself. At 6’2”, he had a long swift gait and he walked across that plant like he owned it. He told me, “when you walk around this plant, always walk like you are going somewhere.” In other words, he admonished me to walk with purpose. Walking with purpose has become my leadership mantra. As walking is also a metaphor for how each of us lives our lives, his words remind me that the best leaders live on purpose. His purpose was to make life better for those with whom he interacted. He was responsible for hiring people from all races and backgrounds and giving them the means to make a living. He helped me to see that the best leaders live for a purpose and walk in that purpose.
Value Your Voice. My Dad had a booming bass voice. He played the piano and as children, he’d sit me or my brother or sister on his lap and sing. His would sing Marvin Gaye’s Pride and Joy to my younger brother. Or he’d soulfully jazz up the Playmate song and I could almost see some little girl beckoning me to “come out and play with me, and bring your dollies three, climb up my apple tree.” He led his church choir and was often called upon to sing for special occasions up and down the Ohio Valley. Back home he became a popular narrator of Dr. King’s March on Washington speech and accepted invitations every Black History month to narrate in his booming voice “I Have A Dream.” He wowed the audiences. He was loud and boisterous and knew his voice commanded attention. So he did not squander his gift but used his voice in the service of others. He spoke up against injustice as he led the local NAACP and spoke on behalf of those who felt they had no voice as he served on the board of the Community Resource Center—our local agency that provided services to the aging and economically disadvantaged members of our community. In so using his voice, he taught me to value mine. He taught me that my voice mattered. Any oratorical gifts I might have I believe are God-given but cultivated, coached and modeled by my Dad. Leaders use their voice in service of the causes they lead, the people they serve and the common good.
Use Your Words Wisely. For most of my life I had a love affair with words and Dad coached me on my spelling bees in grade school and junior high. As a teenager, he moved from helping me with spelling to developing my points of view. My Dad would give me scenarios and ask me to state my opinion. He’d ask me questions and listen closely to my answers. He’d drill me with questions to discern my rationale for my responses. If I gave too flip of a response or one I had not thought out thoroughly, he’d challenge me. In so doing he was listening for my critical thinking skills long before I even realized what critical thinking was. He and I would debate any topic: from religion, to the perils of cigarette smoking to cross-race adoptions. He’d have these culturally relevant discussions with his teenaged daughter admonishing me to analyze the world through a different lens. I didn’t totally appreciate it at the time but Dad was cultivating in me the ability to develop a point of view that was not necessarily based on the received view. What I now take away from these lessons is that the best leaders think critically and hold in tension diverse viewpoints without necessarily losing their own.
You Choose. Because neither of my parents had the opportunity to go to college, I know they both put a lot of stock in education for me and my brother and sister. Like most African-American families of my era, education was going to be the means for the children of working-class parents to have a better life than they had. I’ll never forget the day my Dad had the talk with me. We were in the kitchen casually talking about life when he asked me what I wanted to major in when I went to college. I actually don’t think we landed on a major in that conversation, but he said something that never left me: “Jeanne, you can go to college and become whatever you want to become. You can go and become a doctor and not worry about having to marry a doctor.” His was a progressive message from a father to his daughter during an era when many women still were encouraged to go away to college to get their MRS degrees. It’s a leadership lesson for me in that my Dad modeled for me that leadership is not constrained by gender. I never saw leadership roles as limited to men-regardless of the contexts where I served or work. From church, to community groups to corporations, I chose to follow my calling of leadership as vocation! The best leaders choose to lead and understand gender is not a barrier into leadership or in working with other leaders.
So there you have it: four of the most endearing leadership lessons I received from my Dad. He passed away way too early for me, January 23, 1997 at the age of 64. What he imparted to me however has endured for these many years. I am grateful.
Today I salute my Father, and all the fathers, grandfathers, godfathers, uncles, brothers and father-figures who influence us for the good.
Please take a moment and celebrate your father or father figure today.
Happy Father’s Day!
© 2016 Dr. Jeanne