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The Best Leader I Ever Knew

And what we can learn from him

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The best leader I ever knew died recently. I want to share some of the lessons I learned from him with those of you not fortunate enough to have known him.

At his funeral, I spoke with the woman who had been his office manager in what was to be his final career. "Whenever we went anywhere together" she said, "and met with people who had worked for him before, they always said to me 'You're lucky. Frank's such a great boss' and that they'd love to work for him again." What inspires that kind of loyalty in others? How did he learn it? Click here to jump ahead or keep reading to meet a very special man.

The Navy
Frank was a typical kid, growing up in America's heartland. A smart boy, whose parents made him do his homework, his chores, and his music lessons. He graduated second or third in his high school class, depending on who you asked. He left home for the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland just prior to the start of the Second World War.

The attack on Pearl Harbor compressed the rigorous four-year course of study at the Academy into three years and he went off to war at 22. He earned a Bronze Star during the war, the third highest combat medal the US Navy awards. He told me once, much later, about the teamwork the men in his department had shown that had saved them from repeated attacks from Japanese fighters and kamikazis and had been responsible for his medal. He never mentioned that he had trained those men and built their sense of teamwork.

After the war, he went back to school and earned a Masters Degree in Petroleum Engineering. Not many people in his profession had advanced degrees then, but he always loved learning and he felt it would help his career.

After the Korean War, and the birth of his fourth child, Frank made a career choice that severely limited his chances of becoming an Admiral, but allowed him to spend more time at home with his wife and kids. He said he never regretted that choice. I believe him. Finally, after a 30 year career, he retired from the Navy as a Captain (equivalent to a colonel in the Army).

Because it's there
When he retired from the Navy, he looked for something to do. He took some classes at the local community college and ended up teaching math there. He took a mountaineering class at the college and, at age 55, climbed to the 14,410' summit of Mount Rainier. He made five more ascents as a rope leader and became a member of the all-volunteer Olympic Mountain Rescue team. I remember one story he told me about a couple of "kids" who had gotten lost in the mountains and his team had gone in to find them. These "kids" were in their forties, but he was in better shape and he was 20 years older.

Second Career
With 30 years experience, he easily obtained his Professional Engineer license in several states and spent the next 15 years as a marine/mechanical engineer. Many of the managers who hired him were younger. Some questioned his ability to learn new things or to keep up the pace. He quietly proved them all wrong. And he received another US patent for one of his ideas.

I had the pleasure of succeeding him as Engineering Manager of a design engineering firm. Although two men had held the position between us, everyone in that company who had known him still had the highest personal and professional respect for him - from the company president to his former secretary.

Retirement?
Retirement for Frank didn't mean sitting around. He worked on his golf game, took up cross-country skiing, and remained active in his church and his community. He provided research and technical assistance to his wife in authoring three Navy history books.

As the Director of the local Naval Museum, he planned and supervised a move from the museum's decades-old home to a new space a few blocks away. Irreplaceable artifacts, from a flattened bullet to a mock-up of a submarine conning tower, were moved without loss. The move was completed on schedule.

Listen to your mother
The final leg of his working life began, innocently enough, on a trip to the mountains with his wife. On the way home, they stopped into an antique store and he noticed a cello. He remembered the cello lessons he had taken as a boy and wondered whether he could still play. He practiced, took lessons, and practiced some more. He auditioned for his local symphony and was awarded the third cello position. (There were only three cellists in the small orchestra.)

Frank got deeply involved in the symphony organization, as he did with everything he considered worth doing. He was elected to its Board of Directors and eventually became their President. By the time he played his last concert with the symphony, he has been so successful in building the orchestra that he was playing seventh cello.

In of his favorite pictures, he is already in his tuxedo and doing some last minute practice; his three year old grandson is sitting facing him and 'playing' a plastic violin.

So what made this ordinary man such a great leader? Keep Reading

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