Five Lessons From a Father to a Son
Two weeks ago I returned from a business trip and upon landing discovered that my father had passed away unexpectedly. I spent the next seven days with my family and friends, most of the time spent recalling stories of a man loved by many. My dad was one of my best friends and my mentor, and in an age when it’s become uncommon to be taught how to be a good man and citizen I feel blessed to have had him.
Ten days ago I returned to work, diving in head first to make sure I didn’t dwell on the sadness. As an entrepreneur, the only easy week was last week. The past seven days have been crammed with an independent audit, a major board meeting, personnel issues and a million dollar deal going sideways. Team Rubicon, the nonprofit organization I cofounded five years ago, is in a state of rapid change and growth. The challenges are immense, and as a young executive I used to find myself constantly turning to my father for advice. Now, with him gone, I find myself still reaching for the phone when tough issues arise. Of course there’s nobody on the other line, so I’m left with the lessons he gave me.
Here they are.
The strong have an obligation. When I was six my dad’s company transferred us to Austria. We moved to Europe in 1989 and stayed there through the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was interesting, to say the least. One weekend my parents took my sisters and me to visit some sights, and we stopped at Matthausen, a former Nazi concentration camp. We toured through the cells, pens and chambers; saw the ovens; and visited the museum. The museum was full of photographs that colored the barren complex around me with images of the horror that happened. I was seven years old, and it was difficult to grasp the evil—the lack of humanity. I asked my dad how it had happened. “Nobody stopped them,” he said, referring to the Nazis. “Jake, there are really bad people in this world. It’s the responsibility of the strong to stand up to those bad people and protect the weak.” My dad didn’t just think of this mandate through the lens of good and evil. My dad saw his role as an employer and business executive in the same light. He felt it was a moral imperative for companies to take care of their employees—to provide them adequate health insurance, to pay them good wages, and to look out for them when things got bad. He felt that unions were unnecessary in a company that took care of their people willingly and that businesses were the social safety net that government so often fails to provide. The strong—the able—have an obligation to help. Never shirk it.
Do the little things right. Every Saturday and Sunday growing up I would help my dad with projects around the house. By help I mean I would sit next to him and hand him whatever tool he asked for, all the while admiring his ability to fix (at least temporarily) anything. One of my earliest memories of my dad was after one of these afternoons. The job was complete and my dad asked me to pack all the socket wrench attachments away. Young and lazy, I simply dumped the dozen or so different sized heads back into the tool case and raced back into the house. When I got in and sat next to my dad he looked at me quizzically. “Did you put all the sockets away?” he asked. I responded that I had. He got up and walked into the garage, opened the tool case and looked at me with disappointment. “Is this how you found them?” I shook my head no. “You’re a Wood, son. Do the little things right.”
Character counts. When I was in seventh grade I played on a traveling baseball team with all my best friends. The following year they held tryouts, and even players already on the team had to compete. I was cut (of all the things my dad could teach me, he couldn’t teach me how to throw). I was devastated. My dad tried to convince me to tryout for another traveling team across town. Humiliated and lacking confidence, I reluctantly agreed. Before the tryout began my dad pulled me aside and told me to listen, to hustle, and to do anything that was asked. He told me to keep my chin up at all times and lead by example. I did. Later that night I received a phone call—I didn’t make it. Devastated, I went to my room and cried. About ten minutes later I heard the phone ring again, and a few moments after that there was a knock on my door. It was my father. “You made the team,” he said. I was confused and thought he was playing a game with me. “The coach called back and said that after he hung up thought about what ingredients every team needs. He said he had picked a lot of talent, but he needed to pick some character. Congratulations.” Character counts (it just doesn’t make you a good baseball player, though).
Set the example. My father was a notoriously hard worker. Growing up it was rare to have him around the house during the week because of the hours he was putting in managing the factory. Years later, when I was in high school, my dad suggested that I come work for him on the factory floor for a few weeks during the summer (the statute of limitations on child labor has passed). I agreed and when I arrived he put me under the charge of his favorite shop worker, Ray. Ray took me around started assigning me all sorts of odds and ends tasks. Later that week Ray came through the lunchroom and asked me why I was eating lunch. I very politely responded that I heard everyone gets thirty minutes for lunch, so I was taking mine. He then asked if the job I was working on was done. I said no, but that I’d get to it after I finished my sandwich. He nodded his head ever so slightly and walked away. The next week he walked me over to a different part of the factory. As he was explaining to me the next job I sat down on the edge of a machine. “What are you doing,” he asked. “Sitting while you explain what I’m supposed to do,” I responded. He chuckled to himself and continued to explain the job. Later that day my dad called me into his office. “Ray’s been telling me you’re a fan of lunch breaks and sitting around on your ass. Listen to me. Everything you do is an example to others, whether you’re the leader like me or the lowliest shop worker like you. You can set the example that jobs get done, no matter what, or you can be a time-card puncher like the rest of the world. I don’t employ time-card punchers, not even you.” I went back to the factory, found the dirtiest machine I could and grabbed a rag and solvent. I returned home that day the filthiest I’ve ever been in my life.
The blue vase. One day my dad gave me a blue ceramic vase and a book titled “The Go Getter.” “This vase belonged to your grandfather,” he said, “and I have one exactly like it. Now that he’s gone it’s yours, and when I pass you can have mine to give to your son. But only if you read this book.” I looked down at the book, which was less than one hundred pages. Looking back at my dad I thought about how lame a blue vase was, and how reading a book to get one was even lamer. “Okay, Dad,” I responded with pre-teen contempt. I looked at the first page of the book and put it down. I didn’t pick it back up until last week, after my father’s funeral. Walking through the house I’d seen the blue vases, which prompted a frantic search for the book. I read it on the plane ride back to California and, upon finishing it, smiled. You’ll have to read the book for yourself, but rest assured that with or without the book my dad taught me the lesson contained inside. When you say you’ll do something do it no matter the circumstance or challenge along the way. It shall be done. Be a go-getter.