Leadership lessons of my father

R. Dru Laws

I have spent a considerable amount of time thinking about the principle of true leadership as of late. Every time I do, my thoughts turn to someone I always considered to be a fantastic leader … my father, Dwight Laws.

Before he passed away, he was Director of BYU’s Independent Study department, one of the largest and most successful distance learning programs in the world.  Nearly ten years ago, he was awarded a distinguished leadership award at the annual Distance Learning Administration Conference in Jekyll Island, Georgia.  His acceptance speech is inspirational.  Please allow me to share it with you.

Thank you.  I am aware of my limitations and it is somewhat intimidating to receive this award in a room full of accomplished and successful scholars and leaders. 

I accept this honor on behalf of my many associates. My employees are the genius of our operation. They have the ideas, the inspiration, the enthusiasm, and the courage that makes things work.  I simply cannot keep up with them, so I get out of the way. I am reminded of the old joke about the boy scouts that are skipping up the mountain trail: Lagging behind is a huffing and puffing adult who says between breaths, “I’m their leader.”

Leadership is not always easy. If you desire to be a true leader you must be prepared to be uncomfortable. Leadership is not a position of control. The role of controlling belongs to managers, directors, administrators, and supervisors. I have had all of these roles. They are much more comfortable than being a leader.

My undergraduate degree was in management and I learned all of the rules, principles, tricks, manipulations, compromises, budgeting, and politicizing that it takes to be a manager. My business school taught me to be a manager. Unfortunately, it did not teach me to be a leader. If I have any leadership skills it is because I have stumbled on them and had the good sense to recognize them and the courage to implement them.

Dr. Hugh Nibley, a world renowned scholar who speaks eighteen languages, wrote a treatise entitled “Leadership vs. Management: The Fatal Shift.” He stated the following: “The Generalstab tried desperately for a hundred years to train up a generation of leaders for the German army; but it never worked because the men who delighted their superiors, i.e., the managers, got the high commands, while the men who delighted the lower ranks, ie., the leaders, got reprimands.”

He further states, “Leaders are movers and shakers, original, inventive, unpredictable, imaginative, full of surprises that discomfit the enemy in war and the main office in peace. The managers are safe, conservative, predictable, conforming organization men and team players, dedicated to the establishment. The leader, for example, has a passion for equality. [Leaders] share their beans with their men, calling them by their first names, marching along with them in the heat, sleeping on the ground, and being the first over the wall. . . .”

Dr. Nibley died just a couple of months ago, but his themes on leadership are already the mainstream of modern training in the business world. I have heard the following quote from Hugh Nibley at two different recent business seminars. “Managers do not promote individuals whose competence might threaten their own position, so as the power of management spreads the quality deteriorates (if that is possible). In short, while management shuns equality, it feeds on mediocrity. On the other hand, leadership is an escape from mediocrity. . . .The leader being simply the one who sets the highest example. . . .”

Dr. Michael F. Beaudoin from the University of New England, and “Best Paper” winner here at the DLA 2003 proceedings, said this “. . . effective leadership practice is not confined to those in administrative roles; indeed, there are leaders without portfolio who, as influential thinkers and theorists, have significantly impacted their organizations and the field.”

Here is a final quote from Dr. Nibley. “True leaders are inspiring because they are inspired, caught up in a higher purpose, devoid of personal ambition, idealistic, and incorruptible.” I confess that I do not meet that high standard.

I was asked to comment on my leadership style. I’m willing to do that, warts and all. I make no pretense that I know all about being a leader. I do not claim to know all that my staff knows. I only try to know that they know. Then I can facilitate their activities. When someone walks into my office (and they often do because I have a complete open door policy for everyone at all levels) they might say, “What do you think about this or that?” My answer is always, “What do you think about it?” If they say, “How should I do this or that?” My answer is always, “How would you do it?” Their answers are almost always better than one I might have had, and their suggestions for action are almost always better than what I might have tried. If they don’t have an immediate answer, we have a little brainstorming discussion until “they” come up with the correct suggestion. That allows me to say, “Good thinking. I like that idea. Go for it!”

You might say, “Well that only works if you have exceptional staff.”

I would respond, “You’re right, and I do.”

The key to my leadership is this: there is something I do better than anyone else. I hire well; and then I support, facilitate, buy computers, or do whatever is necessary to assure their success. I spend hours, days, and sometimes even weeks interviewing to assure that I get the best person for the job. I will interview as many as fifty people to find the right one. No one gets hired by me that hasn’t been interviewed a minimum of three times. I don’t necessarily hire the best credentialed or the most experienced or the one who has the best portfolio. I hire the best fit. I believe that everyone has a right to enjoy coming to the work place. I don’t want a malcontent or sourpuss working on the staff, even if they are brilliant. You can teach the necessary work skill set. It’s much more difficult to teach employees “people skills.”

To build up the self-worth and confidence of the staff, I tell our deans of their successes. I use our own people on advertising pieces and billboards. I give credit to the appropriate staff. I encourage innovative and even crazy ideas. I empower them with decision making capability, even regarding refunds and other financial decisions. We have over one hundred full- and part-time employees. I take every one of them to lunch each year (some times we go in groups of five or ten). My wife is never surprised to see a one- or two-hundred dollar restaurant charge show up on our Visa card. It is the smartest money I spend. I encourage continued education and I try to help staff hone their skills to prepare them for their next higher paying job. I do not use any control gimmicks. I don’t want to control them. I want to cheerlead for them. Only when they have succeeded have I succeeded.

A final thought about leadership. A true leader has voluntary, devoted followers. When followers don’t want to follow, the leader ceases to be the leader. True, that person may still be the boss, the manager, the director, the administrator, or the supervisor; they may still make final decisions, enforce their will, have their way, and still control the situation, but they are no longer the leader.

Just this week an employee who I managed over eight years ago came to me again for advice. I may not be her manager anymore, but after all these years, she still considers me a trusted leader and a friend.

I was appointed by the administration of my university to be the director of my department, but my leadership endowment comes from my followers—my staff.

I am honored to accept this award on their behalf.

 R. Dwight Laws
June 8, 2005

I hope you are as inspired and motivated by these words as I am.  I’m a manager but I want to be a leader.  We should all want to be leaders.

R. Dru Laws is Vice President of Rotational Molding at Seljan Company.

The ARM Blog is written by a variety of leaders in the rotational molding industry. We encourage you to share your input in the comment section. If you’re interested in writing a post for the blog, email ARM staff at info@rotomolding.org.

For more information about the Association, visit www.rotomolding.org

4 responses to “Leadership lessons of my father”

  1. Thanks Dru.

  2. Thanks for sharing your father’s inspirational comments, Dru. I am struck by his humility, which is a shared trait among many of the effective leaders with whom I’ve worked. In the old command-control paradigm, “leaders” had all the answers, told people what to do, and did all the thinking for their organizations. Conversely, your father’s approach entails creating an environment in which each person assumes responsibility for his/her own performance, thus becoming leaders in the process.

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