When ISBL asked me to write a blog with a theme of ‘Leadership’ I wondered what I could possibly say that hadn’t already been shared widely. There are so many books, papers and blogs out there on leadership, the differences between leadership and management, and how to be a good leader, that I really don’t feel like I could add anything further.
So, instead I’m going to tell you a story. A story about someone who, I believe, was an excellent leader and whose favourite saying is now the title of this blog.
You might not have recognised my first father-in-law, Derrick, as a leader. Small of stature, loud of voice and with forthright opinions that he liked to share, he fought frequently with his sons and, in retirement, spent a lot of time in his garden shed.
To understand his story, you need a bit of background. Originally Scottish and from a large, impoverished family of brothers, he was adopted as a child by a well-to-do couple from Sri Lanka and spent an idyllic childhood as an only child, but with aunts and numerous female cousins, in Columbo. Most of his childhood tales centred around the sea, small boats and jellyfish stings, (which, yes, involved a lot of peeing on each other!) Later, he joined the Royal Engineers based in Hong Kong and following his service spent the best part of his working life as a senior engineer for a British engineering company in Ghana. On his return to the UK he settled his family in the small village in which I also lived and the rest, as they say, is history. Marriage to their son and three children later, my Mother-in-law died suddenly and unexpectedly, and it was at this point that he and I forged a close and mutually supportive friendship that sadly ended when his son and I divorced nine years later.
Derrick had pretty much seen it all in his life, abject poverty, a culture that was very different (though comfortable) from his birth, military service, an African coup, painful separation from family, a number of ‘back to the beginning’ career starts, a heart attack (which he survived) and the loss of his life partner. But the stories he could tell were amazing, inspiring and demonstrated a resilience and leadership skill that I can only imagine.
“Follow me men, I’m right behind you” was something he often said. He asked me to imagine a group of people in a dark tunnel. If the leader is holding the torch at the front, everyone might be able to see the path ahead but no one can see where they are putting their feet and what the imminent hazards are. But if the leader stands behind the group, shining the light through them, enabling them to see both the current space and the way ahead, as well as each other, this allows everyone to navigate the tunnel, working together to travel forwards.
He was also an advocate of the views of US General Patton, immortalised by George C Scott in the eponymous film, who once said “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.” Derrick believed in supporting his team, employees and family to find their own success and he used to joke that he enjoyed living “vicariously” through others, taking pleasure in their achievements as if they were his own and stepping back to let them take the credit.
He was never afraid to show his own feelings and talk honestly about difficult subjects. In the same way, he was sensitive to others and highly trusted by colleagues. I remember a visit from the son of a colleague from Ghana who came a long way to share memories with him and tell him how his father had believed that Derrick’s leadership had enabled a smooth transition as the British stepped back from his country in the 1970’s.
Even in his later years, Derrick was energetic and fun. He was sad when his sons visited as it reminded him of their Mother and I always had a hard job convincing them he had been dancing in the garden with his grandchildren just hours before they arrived.
There is no doubt that he was a dominant personality, he liked to know what was happening and he liked to be supportive but he could sometimes be overbearing to those who weren’t sure how to handle him. He conducted himself with the highest integrity and was always keen to listen and laugh.
I guess the point of my story is that it is isn’t always the obvious person who is the ‘Leader’. Derrick used to say that the leader in the room is not the one talking, but the one who encourages ideas from the others; is the one who is both trusting and trusted; is the one who encourages independent thinking while, at the same time, promoting a strong team spirit in which everyone feels safe to experiment with ideas.
I hope, when I’m 84, I too can look back on a life that is filled with as much positive attitude, respect and leadership quality as Derrick showed me.
By Emma Gray - 6 March 2018