My dad was the youngest of eight children – first-generation immigrants who were dirt poor in money but rich in values. His dad died when he was six months old, and most of his siblings never made it to college or out of their rural Ohio roots. But his skill on the football field would take my dad to higher places, giving him a college education with a football scholarship and a lifelong passion for the game.
He died in 1995 at the age of 56. A retired Army officer and Bronze Star- decorated Vietnam veteran, he spent the last years of his life working as a civil engineer in Radcliff, Kentucky, just south of Louisville. In his spare time, Dad was an active high school football booster, eventually serving as the club’s president. He took pride in building that organization into a model of charity and achievement.
His crown jewel as president was designing, funding and overseeing construction of the Power-House – a spectacular weight training facility on the high school campus that served to develop athleticism and strength in countless student-athletes. The Power-House is still there today, and a plaque on the wall celebrates the contribution my dad made to its construction. But beyond the bricks and mortar, Dad cared about the players.
Dad was always a leader, a mentor and something of a magnet to players who flocked to him for insight, stories or a good word. Long after his own sons had played and graduated, Dad stayed active in the high school football program, and so year after year players knew him on sight.
Indeed, many times a player would approach him after practice or a game and say, “Mr. Novak, can I ask you something?” And off they would walk.
When Dad died, the community wept. Hundreds turned out for his calling hours. The line of people paying their respects was humbling, but one moment stands out quite vividly for me.
Dad’s casket was in a large open room with dozens of chairs off to the back for people to sit and reflect - and many did. But there was one young man in his early twenties who caught my eye as he sat, head in his hands, in the very back corner of the room. I noticed him because he stayed the entire time – even the extra hours that had to be added to get all of the people through the receiving line. He stayed there as others came and went. When the front door to the funeral home finally was closed and calling hours were finished, my family gathered in another room to rest and talk.
I happened to drift back into the viewing room; as I came to the entrance I stopped. There, on the far side of the room, the young man who had sat for hours in the back was kneeling at dad’s casket shedding a torrent of tears. I stood motionless and silent, not wanting to disturb this intensely personal and painful moment. I watched as he made the sign of the cross, stood up and turned to leave. We made eye contact, and as he stepped across the room I approached him. He expressed his condolences so I asked him how he knew my Dad.
“From football,“ he paused, then continued. “He gave me something I really needed back then.”
“What was that?” I asked
“His time,” he said.
He went on about my Dad as a man the team loved not just for the Power-House they knew he had created but for the way he connected with players on a personal level.
“All the kids knew your dad and respected him a lot. He made time for all of us. He cared.”
He shook my hand and turned to leave the room but stopped and turned back to face me.
“Your dad told me something once that I never forgot. I was walking with him out the stadium gate one night after a game that we had played our hearts out but lost,” the young man said.
“Your dad saw how devastated I was, and he put his arm around my shoulder, looked me in the eyes and said, son, someone has to lose the football game, but no one who plays their heart out ever leaves the field a loser. I never forgot those words.”
It turns out that the young man was now a junior in college. He had been talking with his parents the night before when they told him that Mr. Novak had passed away suddenly. The young man hung up the phone, climbed into his car and drove through the night from Michigan to Kentucky to be at the funeral home in time for calling hours – surprising even his parents when he arrived.
When they asked him what he was doing there, he told them he had to come to say goodbye to a man who had made a difference in his life.
LESSONS FOR LEADERS
My Dad made a difference with nothing more than a few minutes and a few words offered from the heart to someone he knew only in passing but who needed him to care. But then, that’s no surprise.
Leaders care about others not because they want something from them but because they have something for them.
Making a difference isn’t doing something; it’s being something – being available, being involved, being concerned, being proud, being patient, being honest or just being there.
I was facilitating a leadership training session recently and I asked the participants to think of the best leader they had ever worked for and what it was about that person that made such an impact. One of the defining characteristics was the leader’s constant availability.
Time is the most valuable commodity we can offer as a leader – coaching, mentoring, praising and just caring about the people we lead outweigh giving raises, bonuses, stock options and perks. It takes discipline to not let the ring tones rule or not let the hours slip away to e-mail, inboxes or overbooked calendars, but we must find a balance. Leadership is not something we can phone in; it’s a responsibility we exercise in person, face to face, every day.
At work, do not reward people with your absence – spend time with your high performers rather than assuming they want to be left alone. They don’t. At home, immerse yourself in the abundance of life that takes only the will to be fully present to enjoy. Leave the laptop in its case, shut off the cell phone and rediscover home life.
Then find meaningful ways to give back. It isn’t what you do that counts; it’s that you do. Reach out beyond yourself to people you do not know, to people who could not possibly repay even an ounce of your kindness and give back without hesitation. There is no such thing as a small kindness – every act is priceless.
The best leaders change us. They make us better. They move us in ways we don’t always recognize at first but never forget.
Dad knew the power of leading with his heart; he lived it and he passed it on in a messenger who drove through the night to pay final respects for a single moment of caring that had a lifetime of impact.
Excerpt from my book, Inspired to Succeed