Leadership

From Ranger to the White House

“That boy wasn’t raised right,” my daddy said in a hushed tone, tucking his chin so as not to start trouble, yet making sure that I understood what unacceptable behavior looked like when I saw it. Those were my formative years, and what my father was telling me was that, “if a boy isn’t taught how to act as a child, he will behave like a horse’s rear end when he’s a grown man, or trying to become one.”

I must confess that by the time I reached adulthood myself, I had observed a few men that no kind of childhood rearing could have fixed; nevertheless, Daddy’s theory held true for the vast majority of those I watched grow up. Childhood barriers, consistency, and a clear understanding of exactly what conduct would and would not be tolerated, shaped behavior later in life.

Daddy broke the silence as we drove down the Red Bud Road in his old Chevrolet. “Your word is your honor,” he said. “Don’t ever compromise that.”

I don’t even know if he thought I heard him, because I did not answer. I just listened, and rocked hard in that old bench seat as if trying to help that Chevy climb the hill to Carter’s Dam. I assumed, or at least hoped, that he would reward honesty, so I put the theory to the test one dark night standing in our driveway. “Did you boys shoot those windows out with BB guns?” he sternly asked.

I swallowed hard, bowed my head, and threw a silent prayer to the man upstairs. “Yes, sir. We did it,” I said.

“Get inside the house and wait for me to get back,” he said.

Despite the fact that I deserved it, he didn’t whip me. Instead, he said, “I knew you did it, but I wanted to see if you’d own up to it. The only reason you’re not getting a whippin’ is because you told the truth,” and I never forgot that lesson.

“Quit that foolishness,” he’d say, and that meant to stop at that precise moment. Quit meant quit. A second request would not be issued. Given the fact that you could potentially face a judge for looking overly mean at a child in public today, some folks might consider that harsh parenting. The truth is, he never drew blood or left a lasting mark. He didn’t even have to whip me but about twice in eighteen years – just enough to demonstrate his resolve. There was that time I threw a fit in the shoe store. Momma warned me not to pitch a fit before we got there, but I suppose I thought she was bluffing.

I would not have made a good poker player.

She told the shoe salesman to get my size of a particular shoe. I informed her that I didn’t want those shoes and then pointed to the ones I did want. Decades later I would learn that the price tags on shoes vary substantially. I embarrassed her, and no child ought to do that.

She took me to the car and reminded me that she had warned me beforehand. We swung by Daddy’s work to ensure that I had a complete and thorough understanding of what “Don’t pitch a fit,” meant. We never had a need to relearn that lesson.

The second time wasn’t really a whipping but rather a clarification – a mutual understanding. I was a teenager and had finally evolved into the creature my father had described to me years earlier. “In a couple of years,” he told me. “You will know everything, and I won’t know anything.”

It seemed odd for my father to say such a thing, but he was prophetic! Just like he described, as I grew in age and intelligence, his and my mother’s knowledge diminished proportionately. One afternoon, my mother was getting onto me about something. As was the case in those days, “She just did not understand.” I thought I was clear of that old recliner he sat in. I thought I was out of earshot. I thought I said it low enough, under my breath, so that no one would hear it.

I was mistaken.

In a display of the worst judgment I may have ever exhibited in my life, I disrespected my mother. “I wish she’d shut up,” I mumbled.

The entire house shook as he slammed that recliner down and both boots hit the floor. They say there are times in life – near death experiences – when one can see his life flash before his eyes. I did not see my life on display, but I did seem to think that my spirit had departed my body, so as not to be present when he ended it.

When he got to me, I was fairly confident that it would be my last day on earth. If I did live to see another Georgia sunrise, I was fairly confident that it would be through bruised eyes. He grabbed me by the neck, and when he pinned me to the wall, my feet were about six inches off the ground. Then he leaned in real close and informed me of his God given right to end me.

I believed him, and that is why he never had to remind me of that little tidbit of information again.

Today, I am a planner – a strategist. My work involves things like trying to determine how to deter other nations from exhibiting what the rest of the world considers inappropriate behavior. My father didn’t have nuclear weapons or an army. He isn’t even a big man. He simply refused to have another man look at his boy, tuck his chin, and whisper to his own son, “That boy wasn’t raised right.”

My father knew how to deter bad behavior. He was consistent. No meant no. Quit meant quit. He didn’t count to three. He didn’t draw lines in the sand only to redraw them when they were crossed. Heck, he didn’t draw lines period. I got one shot at listening, but if he only whipped me once during my childhood, it would be reasonable to ask, “Why didn’t I see if he’d say no or quit a second time.”

I didn’t test those waters because I believed he would punish me. No, I knew he’d do it. He would wear me out if I didn’t listen. That is what we call deterrence. He didn’t have to whip me because I knew that if I showed my rear end and did not listen, I’d wind up on the receiving end of some fatherly aggression.

That I can recall, he never uttered the word leadership, but I sure did learn a lot about leading and human behavior growing up. I think a few of our nation’s leaders could learn a few things from my father. It doesn’t matter what kind of military or weapon systems a nation possesses. If the other fellow doesn’t believe that you will use them, he’ll see if you won’t count to three. He’ll test you to see if you’ll redraw that line in the sand. Whether you are leading a child or a nation, until no means no, you are going to spend a lot of time renegotiating artificial limitations.