A Lesson in Leadership From My Father

By Patrick Tambor

Career Insight Series.

The Career Insights Series consists of articles offering advice on entering the world of work, the more unconventional paths you may take and how you can work to achieve your goals. Stay tuned to receive deeper insights into the dynamic nature of the world of work.

Patrick Tambor

In a recent blog post, I offered a few thoughts on my experience playing in a band, and its relevance to my ‘day job’.   In reflecting on my (other) life as a part-time musician, I recalled a time many years ago when my father provided a life lesson in leadership for me and my fellow teenage band-mates.   We were wrapping up a long, too-loud jam session when the talk turned to post-high school plans, and the idea that we could possibly defer college to give ourselves a shot  at living the dream, becoming rock stars, and ‘going for it’ before embarking on the first step of real life.

With a mix of overconfidence, doubt, and a not totally irrational fear that we would never get a chance to do something like this again, four friends discussed and debated our options.  It was pretty serious stuff for a bunch of 17 and 18-year olds, but I’m not sure how serious we really were. I think we knew, deep down, that we would all move on to school and work, and that that was the best route given our decent-but-not-amazing musical skills and limited knowledge of the industry.

Overhearing us in the next room, my father stopped in to say hello, and then did something altogether unexpected, generous, simple, and savvy – in retrospect, a brilliant move, and an example of how a good leader ‘serves’ his team.  He told us that if we really wanted to do it, he would give us seed money (some of which was probably due to be spent on my first year in college) to help the cause.   He acknowledged that it was an important decision, and ours and only ours to make.  Then he walked away.

While it is possible he was just a parent trying to use a little reverse psychology on a bunch of kids, I believe, in that moment, he exemplified a brand of leadership that worked well with high-schoolers, and is relevant today for business professionals.

  •  First, he showed a level of belief and commitment. He did not dismiss us, but rather took us seriously, (perhaps more so than we did ourselves), and pledged his support.
  • Second, he took away potential excuses, regret or blame by telling us it was our call; showing trust, and a willingness to take risks – his own, and ours.
  • And finally, he got out of the way.

In an increasingly agile workplace like IBM where self-directed teams are the new norm, this sounds like a wise approach – commitment from leaders, accountability for teams, and freedom to make decisions and live by them.  That sounds reasonable, almost cliché, but for those most comfortable in a more top-down, command and control environment, it’s pretty radical.  This is a form of leadership that I’m now familiar with at IBM. and what helps make us essential to our clients. Perhaps my father was ahead of his time, or simply feeling his way, but either way it worked.

Our final decision?  We all went off to school. But the music still plays, and the lessons endure.

Patrick Tambor is a Transformation, Talent & Learning Leader with IBM. You can find previous editions of the career insights series here

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