Yesterday was the anniversary of my father’s death 31 years ago. Today is the anniversary of my Uncle Billy’s death. I usually remember these two men on their birthdays rather than on these days, but when sitting to write today’s post, I could not help but think about these two brothers. They were both good fathers and husbands – and leaders. They were both very funny, though my uncle was funnier. They both felt a strong calling to be of service to the community. They were both involved in the church and our community. One played a more formal role; my father was a politician who worked inside the system to effect change. My uncle was an organizer; he brought people together to bring about change from outside the political system. His store (a great deli-luncheonette!) was a gathering point for conversations about how to improve local schools, how to support the youth of the town, how to make people feel a part of their community.
I grew up in a small town in New Jersey. As a boy, it seemed everyone knew my father and he knew all of them. He touched people. He was respected as a man of integrity, a stubbornly honest man. People knew that he cared for them. My father would go out of his way to help strangers. His circle of concern seemed to have to no outer edge; there was room for everyone. It is a characteristic that I will admire and try to emulate for as long as I live.
We moved from New Jersey to Arizona when I was 12. Four and 1/2 years later my father would be gone. What strikes me is that in a very short time in Arizona, he had built up the same reputation and circle as he had in New Jersey. It was his brand! At his funeral, the church in Arizona was standing room only. We’d only been there for four years! Where did all these people come from? There was a memorial service in New Jersey as well. Again, SRO. These people hadn’t seen my father in four years, yet there they were, coming out to remember a man who had touched their lives in a positive way.
My Uncle Billy was the youngest brother. I think he looked up to my father. I know that my father loved his youngest brother and saw him as a very good man. Like my father, my Uncle Billy knew everyone and everyone knew him. He was a character. He was funny and fun to be around. He was also a loving and caring man who took care of his family and his extended family. Like his brother, stubbornly honest, he was a leader in the community and when he passed, neither the town nor our family was ever the same.
When I was in my early 20s I got fired from my first job out of college (I recommend that everyone get fired at least once!). Not knowing what to do, I called Uncle Billy. Without hesitation, he invited me to come and stay with he and his family for “as long as it takes” to figure out what I would do next. (The fact that my Aunt Marge blessed this and welcomed me into her family will never be lost on me! He married well.) I spent six months with my aunt and uncle, living in their home and working in “the store.” Mostly, I got to spend time with him to listen and learn the life lessons that I needed to hear and didn’t get a chance to hear from my father. And as my father and uncle were so alike, it was like getting a two-fer!
I’m writing about these two brothers today because to me they are exemplars of what it means to be a man and what it means to be a leader. There are three things that I think are true about both of them – and true for great leaders. First, they were conscious. They knew who they were and they saw the world as it was and as it could be. They were life-long learners, eager to learn about themselves and how they fit in the world. Second, they were connected. They felt a connection to the community and the needs and wants of many others. This sense of connection had a sense of responsibility with it. And third, they were concerned. Seeing people facing challenges, they responded with concern and compassion, letting others into their circle of concern. These things – being conscious, connected, and concerned – are foundational to being great leaders and good men. These things, these two brothers had down – flat.
They say that we men live our lives comparing and contrasting ourselves with our fathers. Our decisions are born of our desire to be like them and to stand apart at the same time. They may be right. What I do know is that if I am half the man, half the father, half the leader that these two brothers were, I’m doing pretty damn well. Both left us way too soon; and both left big shoes! Thankfully, they left a blueprint for how to live and how to lead.