Friday, June 7, 2013

Leadership Principles I Learned from My Dad

Cleaning up toys and doing yard work were chores my siblings and I always had to be reminded to do. Mom would ask us throughout the day to clean up after ourselves. A big family home schooling in a small house meant there were many opportunities to make messes. School work, toys, projects, clothes; as the day progressed so did the piles. Mom would inevitably get tired of nagging us and turn the situation over to Dad in frustration. He had three methods for getting us to pull our own weight.

My favorite was when Dad would make a game out of it. He would sit on the couch or stand in a central location and direct us to pick up each stray item by pointing at it. "Pick that up, put it where it goes" he would say over and over, pointing at dirty socks, matchbox cars, video cases, paper and pens, Legos, or abandoned dishes. It became a race to see which sibling was fastest; whoever had empty hands was the next person responsible to respond to “Pick that up, put it where it goes.”

We found this hilarious. Small, manageable tasks were fun! We all had to pitch in and the division of labor was equal. It was almost like Dad was cleaning with us! However, this technique required a lot of time and supervision from him.

So he and Mom asked us kids to help brainstorm a second method. As a family, we initiated something we called "The Clean Sweep." At 5:00 every evening when Dad got home from work, he would hunt through the whole house and confiscate anything left out where it didn't belong. He would hold it as collateral until we did an assigned chore to reclaim it. If somebody’s pillow got left on the couch and Dad confiscated it, that somebody had to do an extra chore before they could get their pillow back by bedtime.

We knew the rules (clean house by 5), the consequences (loss of item) and the remedy (extra chore to get the toy back). At 5:00, we would follow Dad around the house making sure everything was picked up. If we spotted an overlooked belonging, we raced ahead of Dad and quickly snatched it up to put it away. This method was less fun but still effective (at least until we found his hiding place for the confiscated items).

My least favorite approach was when Dad announced at the breakfast table early one Saturday morning, "Today is a mandatory family yard work day. No complaints, excuses, or exceptions. Everyone is required to participate and you can't leave until we're done." We sulked, complained behind Dad's back, and stewed in our juices the rest of the day. It felt like punishment.
We lethargically dragged brush to the burn pile. We pulled weeds slowly. We dawdled. We actively sought distractions, either by picking fights with each other or creating unnecessary projects. The guise of Look how hard I’m working! seemed a good way to avoid the less desirable tasks (“Dad, I can’t scoop dog poop right now, I’m organizing your bucket of nails!”). So the whole project took longer than it had to and we all had bad attitudes.

In Dad's defense, this fateful Saturday morning happened years after the "Pick that up, put it where it goes" game. As teenagers, we knew the responsibilities required of us. I don't doubt that if Dad had cheerfully asked for volunteers, he would have been alone working in the yard that day. I understand his rationale for laying it out with no room for misinterpretation.

Our grumbling wasn't about the jobs that had to be done outside. The complaints were because "clean yard" was a goal imposed on us. We didn't have buy-in. Dad used his you're-in-trouble voice and we hadn't even done anything wrong yet.  There was no mention of how great it was going to be to have a bonfire at the end of the day, roasting hot dogs over the very branches we'd cleared that afternoon.
My Dad's three methods taught me several lessons:
  • Leader involvement matters.
  • The energy and outlook of the person in charge impacts participants.
  • Following instructions is easier when you understand the rules, the consequences, and the desired outcome.
  • Big jobs can be accomplished in small steps.
  • Ultimatums are less effective than invitations.
  • Many hands make light work.
  • Lack of personal investment results in wasted time and energy.
Thank you, Dad. Sorry your bucket of nails is still a mess.


  1. It's Saturday morning and today is a mandatory family blogging day. No complaints, excuses, or exceptions. Everyone is required to participate and you can't leave until we're done. Ok, Emily, you're excused. (Thanks!)

  2. I love this! We just had a family meeting to go over our family expectations for summer vacation (everyone had input but there was still a lot of whining involved). Knowing what an awesome, responsible, fun person you are, Emily, I'm going to put your dad's lessons to work. You raised an amazing daughter, Erik!