My Dad’s dream was crushed very early on.
Growing up he had always wanted to be a pilot. Not just any pilot; he wanted to fly for the U.S. Air Force. It’s all he thought about. He worked hard in school and did well enough in Air Force ROTC that after graduation, they sent him to pre-flight training.
But it wasn’t to be. At a routine medical checkup, they told him that his eye sight was no longer 20/20. Back then you couldn’t be a pilot if you wore glasses. Yet he had still signed a commitment with the Air Force, so like it or not, they told him he was now going to be a Supply Officer.
Without the benefit of any training, they sent him to a tiny backwater radar base in Texas. He took charge of a unit he knew nothing about, and poured himself into becoming the best Supply Officer he could possibly be. Somewhere along the way he even managed to get his private pilot’s license.
Fast forward a few years, and he found himself on the receiving end of an award recognizing the top Supply Officer in the entire Air Force. He was promoted early and sent to jobs reserved for people of high potential.
Lesson #1: Play the hand you are dealt and do the best you can. There are lots of things you can’t control, so don’t waste your time trying. Focus on the things you can control, and do your very best with what you have. He did his best, and that opened up new possibilities.
Fast forward again, and now we are living in Northern Virginia, where he’s serving two back-to-back tours of duty in the Pentagon. It was finally time to move, and the powers that be were talking about somewhere way out in the prairie states. By this time, we three kids were already in high school, and deeply involved in activities like athletics, band, and the local Boy Scout troop. The move would be hard.
So we didn’t move. He retired, and we stayed. As a result we were able to finish school in one place, do well in our activities, and get into the colleges we applied to. He provided a great launching platform for all three of us.
In the meantime, he started his own business, stepped up to be Scoutmaster for the local troop, volunteered with the Neighborhood Watch, and could often be found involved in any number of volunteer efforts that benefited the local community.
Lesson #2: It’s not about you. To be a father is to be a leader, and one of a leader’s first responsibilities is to take care of his team. Through his humble service to us and others in so many ways, I came to see what a great man he really was.
I’m happy to say that my Dad is still going strong. In fact, as he approached his 80th birthday last year, my mom asked him if there was anything special that he’d like to do. “Yes” was his answer, “as a matter of fact, there is.” He wanted to fly.
The last time he had flown was in 1962. He stopped the day my brother was born. To him the thrill of flying was not worth the risk of having an accident and the toll it could take on the family. It had been 54 years since he had been in the cockpit.
Mom made the arrangements with the help of a grandson who had just earned his own pilot’s wings. When the flight instructor saw my Dad’s license, he did a double-take. He quipped that he was checking to see whether or not one of the Wright brothers happened to be his instructor pilot!
The flight went well – two take-offs and two landings and a pleasant cross country flight in clear conditions. I could hear the joy in my Dad’s voice as he told me about the experience over the phone.
Lesson #3: Stay positive, find the joy. Pouting doesn’t help anybody. Keep a positive mental attitude, find the good in people and circumstances, stay active, and keep moving forward. Did I mention he’s teaching himself how to play violin?
My father is a great leader and provider for our family. I clearly remember many of the lessons he taught us with his words. But some of the strongest, most enduring lessons of all were the ones he taught us without saying a thing.
Ken Downer is a 26 year Army veteran who is just doing his best to follow the great example provided by his father. He focuses now on teaching the art of leadership to others through the blog posts, videos, and other resources available on his web site RapidStartLeadership.com.