Father as leader

I have regular open office hours for students — a practice that is often suggested for college presidents and for other leaders — the so-called “open door” philosophy. You learn all kinds of things about your organization when you do so.

A senior came to visit me, and often as seniors do, he spoke about his own wonderings as to what he would / could / should do after graduating. And this student was fairly at peace with the mystery and challenges ahead, as was evident in the fact that he didn’t ask me any career questions. Instead he asked me an odd and interesting question that took me off guard: “In your role as a leader, how has being a father influenced how you lead?”

My response began from where I often stand — that children will inherit a world that you will either make better or worse for their adult lives. We all want better lives for all the future adults so we work in the present to improve the coming world to our best abilities. And we often fall short of success because, well, we are human. But we remind ourselves again to care, and to try again. And that’s whether you are a parent or not — a better world is universally desirable.

I knew that wasn’t really a response to his question, so I tried again. I spoke instead about my own father and how he influenced me as a leader. My father was a cook for many years. He left home (a small fishing village in Japan) at 15 and shined shoes on a boat for passengers as his first job in addition to cleaning the bathrooms and floors. On that boat he did every manner of job, and worked his way up to peeling potatoes in the kitchen, and then finally to becoming the cook of the ship. In the 60s he left the ship, and worked as a cook in a Japanese restaurant in Seattle; a decade later he took over a mom-and-pop tofu-making business and ended his career as a cook.

However Dad stayed active in his cooking craft; he loved to cook for guests at our house. It wasn’t often, but when we would have guests come over he would get a whole fish and cut it as sashimi (raw fish) and arrange all the foods in beautiful ways. In many ways he was my first design teacher with his mastery in meticulously arranging the shapes, proportions, mixtures, selection of plates, and overall visual / textural / temperature balance of a multi-course traditional Japanese-style meal.

One day when I was about 11 or 12, I noted to my father his consistent pattern in how he would give the best parts of the fish to the guests, and for himself eat the scrappiest, undesirable parts. I thought this strange because as a cook he knew what tasted good and bad, so with his more developed taste acuities he should be eating the good parts himself. He plainly explained that a cook doesn’t make food for himself to enjoy — he makes food for others to enjoy. His happiness came from making others happy around him. I noticed this about my father — how giving he was to others around him, and expecting absolutely nothing in return.

I shared this story with the student because it epitomizes what I believe is important in a leader — being someone that consistently gives, instead of just takes, from those around them.

It was nice to think of my father that day, and reminded me of how little moments of inspiration travel with you even through decades of life. I think of how my father shared the fish with others as one of my ideals in leader-behavior that I’ve always admired seeing when it happens. Sharing is caring, and I’m glad to share this thought with you. -JM