9 Virtues Blog

Leadership Lessons from a Friend's Funeral

by Rob Jenkins

05/09/2017

It’s amazing what you can learn about leadership, if you’re paying attention—sometimes in the most (seemingly) unlikely places.

I had occasion recently to attend the memorial service for a good friend, my age, who passed away suddenly. As you can imagine, it was quite a sad and solemn occasion, as he left behind a devastated wife, two grown sons, and a host of friends and family. Also, his passing at such a relatively young age forced many of those present, including myself, to confront our own mortality in ways that weren’t particularly comfortable.

And yet, the service was also a remarkable celebration of his life, a tribute to the man and the impact he had on so many. Despite having known him for nearly three decades, I realized as I listened to the speakers that in many ways, the ways that count most, I hardly knew him at all.

I knew my friend had served in the United States Air Force all his adult life—he was stationed at a nearby base when we met—and that he had recently retired as a Lieutenant Colonel. I also knew that, following his retirement as a squadron commander at a large base, he went right back to work at the same base as civilian consultant. I just didn’t fully understand what all of that meant.

At the memorial service, however, as I listened to speaker after speaker talk about this man and his many contributions, I began to get a better picture of his life and what made him the leader he was. Some of the speakers were family members, including his oldest son, an Air Force pilot himself who gave probably the best eulogy I’ve ever heard. But many of those who stood up and bore witness of the man were his co-workers, those who had served with and under him. From them, I learned a number of important lessons in leadership that I’d like to share with you.

First is something Karl and I have written about in The 9 Virtues, and that is the importance of love in leadership. One thing that really struck me as I listened to the speakers was how much these people—not just one or two, but many—truly loved this man. In many cases, he had been their boss, and it was clear they didn’t just like and respect him—they literally loved him.

It occurred to me, as I pondered this obvious fact, that their love for him could only be an outgrowth of his love for them. Many speakers used the word “family” in describing their departed comrade and the atmosphere he had created in their unit. I’ve often thought that particular word is overused, a buzzword designed to manipulate people and make them feel obligated. But that wasn’t the case here. It was clear that, as a leader, my friend really had created a family atmosphere, where his people knew that he loved them and they loved him back.

That’s a powerful thing. Anybody can get people to do stuff out of fear. Getting them to do what they ought to do out of love is something else entirely. It is, in my view, the very highest level of leadership.

Another point the speakers brought up about my friend is that, love aside, he wasn’t afraid to make a tough decision when necessary, even if he knew people weren’t going to like it. When it came down to it, he did what he thought was best for the unit as a whole, for the Air Force, and for the country. That was his responsibility, and he took it seriously. Despite his emotional attachment to people, he could put that aside when he had to—and as a military commander, he sometimes did.

Perhaps, too, it’s the obvious love he had for his people that enabled him to make those hard decisions, seemingly oblivious to people’s feelings. They knew good and well he wasn’t oblivious, because he had proved it over and over in a variety of contexts. They knew, when he was making a decision that had to be made, that he was doing it for the right reasons, doing it because he had to. Because they knew he loved them, they trusted him to make the right decision, even if they didn’t always fully understand.

Another leadership trait that shone through, as people talked about my friend, was the fact that, not only did they trust him—he also trusted them. I lost count of how many people told some story, the point of which was that he had given them the tools they needed to do their job and then left them to do it. I could say he wasn’t a micro-manager, and that would be true, but it doesn’t go far enough. My friend obviously understood that, for people to be truly invested in their work, they need three things: responsibility for a job, enough authority to carry out that responsibility, and ownership of the outcome. He gave them all three.

Finally, and perhaps the thing that struck me most, was that my friend was not a person who tried to “lead from behind.” As Karl and I wrote in The 9 Virtues, there’s really no such thing as leading from behind: You’re either out front, or you’re not leading at all. My friend understood that. He never asked anyone to do anything that he wouldn’t have done himself—in most cases, that he hadn’t already done himself, on multiple occasions. He set the example of hard work, diligence, perseverance, and precision, and he expected everyone else to follow. And they generally did.

I can’t say that I was glad to be there for my friend’s memorial. In truth, I wish there had never been a memorial, because I wish my friend were still alive, and that we were planning to get together for a cookout by his pool in couple weeks.

But if he had to have a memorial service, I’m certainly glad I was there. I was touched to learn so much more about a man I’ve known most of my adult life. Moreover, as a so called “leadership guru,” I was humbled to be on the receiving end of so many vital lessons about what it really means to be an effective leader in the real world.

I’m grateful for that, just as I’m grateful for my friend’s life, for his example, and for his friendship. God speed, Jason. You are greatly missed.