[R.I.P. Joe Wallis] Terms of Endearment – The Importance of Leadership that Cares

There is nothing quite like the unanticipated death and following funeral to sober you up. It’s the sort of occasion that can crystalize a host of elements if you let it, and provide perspective on not only others but yourself. And not-so-surprisingly, the stories that you can find in your personal life can provide instruction and illustration for your professional life.

My 82 year-old father-in-law’s death due to complications following recent heart surgery was one of those times. Joe Wallis had always been a dominant figure in the narrative of his family’s, including my spouse’s, life. While I had known him for almost 20 years, it would be hard to verbalize an endearing quality about him. This sounds harsh, and perhaps it is: I’d would say the same thing about my mother, who has many admirable qualities and endearment is not one of them.

You can lead a decent, good life, and do good things as Joe had in helping his wife Carol raise three fine kids, including my spouse. But it does not mean that you’re automatically respected, or even liked. And if you have a choice, as either a person or a leader, I’d choose respected and liked.

Reverend Mike Marsh of Uvalde’s St. Phillip’s Episcopal Church spoke about Joe’s penchant for stories, which he loved to tell, and retell. But when Joe was buried in Cuero, Texas next to his sister, Patricia “Patsy” Leske who preceded him in death by four year years, my mind thought of the contrast between the family stories told about Patsy versus the stories told about Joe.

Joe’s stories were largely framed along a plot line of what I’d call “small man, big bark.” His temper was legendary, and friends of the kids were invariably warned about this tendency toward sudden outbursts before their first meeting with the family.

Joe’s sister Patricia must have been first in line when the kindness and thoughtfulness genes were passed out. The stories told about her are about her patience and generosity, and her ability to forgive and choose to forget. Her story reminds me of the scene in Field of Dreams where James Earl Jones and Kevin Costner learn the story of baseball bust Moonlight Graham – Doctor Graham to the local townsfolk – from the local Chisholm, Minnesota journalist played by Anne Seymour. She tells them,

His baseball career never mattered to much so he went back to school. There were times when children could not buy eyeglasses or milk, or clothing. Yet no child was ever denied these essentials because in the background there was always Dr. Graham. Without any fanfare or publicity, the glasses or the milk, or the ticket to the ballgame found there way to the child’s pocket.”

All of us are a mixed bag of sorts. Part of Patsy Leske’s attributes was that she was endeared, something that any number of us, including Joe Wallis, may not be.

Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner’s 25+ years of evidence-based research regarding highly effective leadership has shown that leadership that cares – another way to describe leadership that expresses endearment – is one of the essentials in durable, strong leadership.

As found in the Kouzes/Posner book  The Leadership Challenge, caring is one the qualities that separate effective leaders from their less effective counterparts in their survey of over 1 million leaders worldwide. Their work The Leadership Challenge covers the broad attributes of effective leadership their research verifies. Their book Encouraging the Heart helps identify some of the strategies and tactics available for leading from the heart and putting people first.

Positive things happen when people work for leaders who demonstrate care for them, and that not only do people feel better about themselves but research demonstrates that they perform at a higher level.

So while Joe Wallis may be missed, he won’t be endeared. Patsy Leske will be both.

And as you write your life story, you have a choice to make about what you do, and how you do it. I’d opt for endearment.

Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive and team coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above.