My Dad, Robert J. O’Rourke, passed away on April 20. In his last days, more than 60
people came to the hospital to express their love and to say goodbye. A dozen more sent email, video or voicemail to let him know what he meant to them. Over the course of those final days and the celebrations that followed, the essence of the man emerged. It was no surprise to us that it was remarkably consistent over 76 years, across the country and across all aspects of his life.
While his friends and family grieve, his lessons live on. Isn’t that the essence of leadership: how people behave when the leader is not there?
Here are just some of the things my Dad taught me about leadership and life.
#1. Live your life with integrity. Early and often my Dad reminded us that you want to live your life in such a way that you can like the person in the mirror at the end of the day and always be able to look anyone in the eye. A proponent of “what goes around, comes around,” he encouraged us to do our best, to be kind and to make amends when we fell short. It didn’t mean being a push-over. It meant having self-respect and compassion, and doing the right thing especially if it was tough.
#2. Take care of your family. In the early days of my Dad’s career he juggled three jobs, but I don’t remember him ever having an issue with work-life balance. There was ample time to shine shoes on Sunday night while watching The Wonderful World of Disney on TV. He and my mom cooked amazing meals together and hosted hockey nights, Boxing Day open houses and tons of parties for my sisters and me. He coached softball. He was up early to give me a ride to work and up late to make sure I was home by curfew. He was always happy to play cards, make you a sandwich or have a serious conversation. He loved and supported my mother through years of serious illnesses and lots of ups and downs. They were a real team. Many people remarked that “Bob’s girls” and the strength of his family are his greatest legacy. You will have many jobs in your life, but you only have one family. There is no better investment.
#3. Build lasting relationships. I grew up on a magical little street. The men played softball together. We went to brunch with neighbours after church. People babysat one another’s children. And, for better or worse, everyone on the street knew you and who your parents were – so don’t even try to sit on the curb at the bus stop! (Oh yeah! Tough neighbourhood.) We moved away from Maxime St. in 1984 so it was touching that almost every neighbour came to the visitation 33 years later. Similarly, his entire “poker gang” -a group of men who played cards together for more than 40 years- went out of their way to visit at the hospital, to send notes and to shorten their vacations to say a final goodbye.
What was the secret to my Dad’s deep and lasting relationships? He listened to people. He helped them whenever he could. He was a “straight shooter,” and he really, really knew how to have a good time.
One cousin sent a voicemail message to my Dad from California. He put it best:
“You’re a person who went out of your way to be kind.”
#4. Do your homework. My Dad had a finely tuned bullshit meter and absolutely no patience for smoke and mirrors. Do you know what you’re talking about or not? He wanted to see the numbers. He wanted to hear sound logic. He wanted to see a well thought-out plan and he didn’t want you to skip any steps. “Brûle pas des étapes” was a favourite saying. Often obstinate, he loved a good debate, but it was best to leave a little buffer after he had just read the paper or watched the news.
#5. Work hard. My dad had great respect for hard-working people who made their own way in the world. From a kid who was paid $1/day to pick potatoes to being self-employed for most of his adult life, he certainly did. An early riser, he would watch the comings and goings of his neighbours. He could tell you that the man who delivered his morning paper had the contract for all the buildings on his street; that his wife drove the car, and that his whole workday was done before 6am. He could explain how his clients grew their businesses and, an entrepreneur himself, he knew the time and chops it takes to run your own business, feed your family and plan for business cycles and for the future. Chief among his mantras was “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing properly.”
#6. Count on me. Back in the days of pay phones, my sisters and I always had to have a quarter with us when we left the house. That way, if we ever needed our parents, they were just a call away. When he moved to Vancouver for a few years after my Mom died, he assured us that if we needed him, he would be on the next flight. When we had our babies, he spent a week with us, filled our freezers with our favourite comfort foods and let us rest while he cuddled the newest of his 12 grandchildren. From our first steps into independence, we had the courage to spread our wings while knowing there was a soft place to land.
#7. “Cards is cards.” Whether it’s go fish, canasta, cribbage, Rumoli, pass the ace (ugh!) or poker, my Dad always knew a game that could include everyone and he loved to connect over a game of cards. While games like crib and 31 teach you to count, he was more interested in your character. There’s etiquette around a card table. You have to deal from the top of the deck, deal yourself last, keep your cards above the table, and most importantly NEVER cheat! You play the hand you are dealt. You play to win but sometimes you lose (even little kids), and you can do both with grace.
#8. Make magic and enjoy the ride. Not a magician, but a man who made magic moments is how I would describe my dad. We had parades in the house on Christmas morning. Dad could peel an apple in one long strand as we waited eagerly. He collected our girlhood tears in his cotton handkerchief and told us they would be pearls on our wedding day.
As a kid, if you bumped your head, he would tell you that the bump will grow a bubble gum. When it was “ripe” he would tug on your hair a little bit and pretend that piece of Hubba Bubba or Bazooka Joe came out of your head! And the meals! They were always amazing in quantity, quality and presentation and you could always sneak into the kitchen to get “pick-ins” during the preparation. He could really connect with people and engage with them totally.
During one of his week-long visits, he and my son created an elaborate Lego game of “zone” which involved creating elaborate bases with defences. It lasted for years. My Dad would call my son from Ottawa to tell him he consulted with the Department of National Defence and had new ideas to make his zone impenetrable. Tickled pink by the fun and the attention, my young son would respond that we had visited the Ontario Science Centre and he could counter that new technology. During one of these all too rare visits, my Dad put tinfoil balls everywhere in our basement. When my son came home from school, he found little army men all lined up at the top of the stairs leading to the basement and a sign on the door that read “No Access, the Management.” My Dad did all kinds of silly things just to make kids talk. He liked to see how they thought their way out of unexpected situations.
In business, it’s easy to make someone feel special, yet we sometimes feel that we are too busy for fun and celebration. In the public sector especially, managers feel meals and fun are superfluous and fear they will be criticized, but we are humans working together. We need common points of reference. We need to be ourselves. We need to blow off steam and to have fun. It doesn’t have to cost anything to make magic but the dividends are exceptional.
#9. “My house, my rules.” It wasn’t all fun and games. A self-described “benevolent dictator,” my dad set norms and expectations in his home. He welcomed and respected everyone who walked through the door but expected the same in return. (So boyfriends, NEVER honk from the driveway. Take your ball caps off at the table and have us home by curfew!) As one of my sisters said at his funeral:
Our Dad had very few rules, and we knew better than to push too far. He said what he meant, and he meant what he said. We would always know the value of consequence, but he always left room for a way to make amends.
It’s important for leaders to be firm in their convictions and clear about their values and expectations. There is some room for input, feedback and evolution. There is also a necessity for clear norms, expectations and consequences. There is, ultimately, a decision-maker. Whether it’s your family or your organization, norms set the tone for how people interact within the organization and how they represent it in the world. With plummeting trust in organizations, government and media, we need higher expectations of behaviour and tough consequences for those who contravene them.
#10. Be yourself. My Dad would scoff at the concept of personal “brand.” He led by example every day and in every sphere of his life. He was a smart, kind, classy, generous and through-and-through authentic person. His lifelong investments in relationships were his greatest return.
I concede that is is a longer and somewhat “ramblier” post than I usually write. It was difficult to boil down the essence and the lessons of a man who meant so much to me when the grief is so fresh. It’s hard to edit with tears in my eyes and my heart still in my throat. Thank you for bearing with me and for learning a bit about a great man.
I’d love to know, what did your Dad teach you about leadership?