5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Dad


Before I joined the Air Force, I had the privilege of working for my dad in a steel mill in Youngstown, Ohio. He was a foreman, and I was a scaleman, which is the lowest rung in the mill’s food chain. I learned a great deal during that short amount of time and have carried those leadership principles with me.

Today in honor of my hero, I’ll share five of those leadership lessons:

1.  Know your business. My dad worked his way up through the mill from labor to management and held a variety of positions. He was conscientious and paid attention to the little things. As a foreman, he was respected for his comprehensive knowledge of the mill’s operations and his shift was almost always the top producer.

When I began working at the mill, I mostly did clean-up activities and spent a good deal of time trying to learn the various jobs on our floor. My father was explaining various aspects of how the system worked, and he pulled out a book filled with chemical equations. I was rather impressed with the copious notes and asked him if the other shift foremen had similar books. He just laughed and said they didn’t take the time to truly learn the business.

To be a successful leader, you need to know your operations inside and out. You need to understand indicators — what works and what doesn’t. While my father had experience in many of the jobs on the floor, leaders don’t always have that luxury. That doesn’t mean you get a free pass to be oblivious to the functions under your control. Instead, it requires you to be well-informed, think critically and be able to piece things together. It means you might have to roll up your sleeves and get a little dirty. Whatever it takes, you need to know your business.

2.  Don’t lower your standards. Without question, my dad expected his shift to put in an honest day’s work, and he expected they would meet standards. Admittedly, he had little patience for laziness and poor attitudes, and he had no problem holding his people accountable. That’s not the kind of thing that necessarily makes you popular. Working on a midnight shift clean-up crew, a group of us were on a scheduled break. One of the guys looked at me and said, “No offense, but I don’t like your father. I respect him, but I don’t like him.” Unfazed, I asked why he didn’t like my dad. He said, “Because he makes us work.”

If memory serves correctly, I told him I doubted my dad could care less whether that guy liked him or not. My dad would take the respect over being liked all day long. The bottom line — you need to set your expectations and standards, then hold yourself and everyone else to them. Once you lower your standards, you have established a new (and lower) water mark.

3.  Perceptions matter. My dad helped me land that job, but he made it clear there would be no other advantages. Other people’s sons and daughters had been hired and given preferential treatment, and the other workers resented them. Every third week as the shift rotations went, I would work for my dad. He would give me the dirtiest jobs possible. At the end of the shift, I’d be covered in grease or slag, and he’d be as clean as when he got there eight hours earlier. He’d laugh and ask why I was so much dirtier than him. “Well sir, you sent me down inside a grease pit to clean out metal strips.”

When we practice favoritism or give the plum assignments to the same people, we are breaking faith with the rest of the employees. In any leadership position, practically every move you make is being watched. While you can’t dictate how you are perceived, you can help manage those perceptions by modeling integrity and excellence.

4.  Manage your resources. Above the refrigerator of my childhood home was a cabinet with a small wooden box inside. That box had all kinds of information and bills and notes. I don’t know if my dad had a system with that box, but I sensed he had everything under control. He had a keen sense of financial responsibility and ensured all his hard work would be worth something in the future.

Leaders have to manage their resources wisely to gain the biggest dividends. Constrained budgets require smart decisions and making the most of what’s available. Smaller staffs and workforces require leveraging everyone’s talents and abilities. The leaders who are able to do this will prosper when others are struggling to simply stay afloat.

5.  Value your education. This past summer, I asked my dad if there’s anything he wished he had done differently in his life. Without hesitation, he said he wished he had gone to college. My father places a great deal of value in education and is proud all four of his sons have degrees.

Leaders understand the value of education, not just for themselves but for their people. Whether it’s ensuring the right people are getting the right training at the right time, or ensuring an emerging leader is given the opportunity to shine with a developmental opportunity. As Stephen Covey advocated, leaders understand the importance of sharpening the saw. Every day, there are learning opportunities, and effective leaders grab them, and sometimes record them in little books that others don’t seem to be keeping.

Simple lessons…but valuable. There are more, but word count limits will keep today’s list to five. Thanks Dad!


Brian Schooley is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Nya Jackson

Great post Brian! Love how you weaved in the stories about your dad. It’s crazy how some of the lessons that stick with us the most are the free ones we learn from family, friends, and mentors as opposed to in a formal education setting.