Lessons in Leadership from Beyond the Grave

Recently my father-in-law passed away.   At the ceremonies surrounding his wake, lying in state and funeral, there was an overwhelming response from people who have worked for and with him over the years.  I never took the time to reflect on his leadership, but it is important for me to do so now.  To honor him.

There was a family saying, “We never left anything unsaid.” This comes from when his daughter died at the age of 9 after being hit by a van.  The family always, always left the house with a hug and a kiss and an “I love you,” because you never knew what tomorrow might bring.  There were things I didn’t say, though, or things that he never quite heard.  He was proud of us, but I wonder if he ever heard how proud I was of him. He always wanted to do more, he was constantly vigilant, he was worried about the America he was leaving for his grandchildren.  That lives with me too.

My father-in-law was Mayor, Governor, and Senator George V. Voinovich, from the great state of Ohio, and always in that order.  But there was another order, the order that came before the titles.  Dad was a man of faith, a husband, a father, and a grandfather.

These are a few of the things he taught me.

#1 Value People.

My father-in-law loved people.  He was curious about people – their stories, their backgrounds.  He cared about what they cared about, listened to what they said, thought deeply about opinions other than his own.  Often we would be somewhere together, folks would approach him with “I worked for your campaign back in 1970-something,” or “We spoke at an event in 1985” and he and Mom V would remember their names.  At events, Mom V would often have to give him “the look” and physically steer him away otherwise he’d be talking forever and no schedule for any event would be met.  This curiosity, this attention to the matters of other people’s lives, made him a great leader.  He knew who he was working for and what he was working towards, because he valued people.

#2 People Work With You, Not for You.

Valuing people extended to the people who worked with him.  Though he may not have known it, the biggest legacy he left was likely not the balanced budget in Ohio, the reforms to civil service, the in-state tuition provision for Washington, D.C. residents, or the championing of school choice.  The biggest legacy he left was undoubtedly in the people he mentored and supported and valued and loved – really loved – over the years.  He stayed in contact with so many people that had worked with him over the years.  At the ceremony at City Hall, one of the speakers said that years ago, Dad V had said to him “You don’t work for me, you work with me.”  He actually believed that; actually behaved that way.  In an era when collaboration is constantly discussed, George V. Voinovich got the jump on the secret sauce of leadership.  It’s about working with people.

He engaged both sides of the aisle, always.  He didn’t let party lines dictate his responses to legislation.  This modern fad of devaluing the opposite side, of avoiding common ground, was not his game.  It got in the way of doing the work that needed so desperately to be done.  He believed in what he did, and he believed that working together would get you further.

#3 Never Burn a Bridge.

He was not a “told you so” kind of guy.  He said more than once to me “Never burn a bridge,” then he would start chuckling and say “You’ll never know when you have to walk back over it.” (As a side note, he had the best laugh ever – really genuine and deep when he got to laughing.) There were times when he was very unhappy at work, the snail-like pace of change, the lack of willingness to work together.  He was different.  He was a man who admitted his faults, acknowledged when he had been wrong, and actually changed his opinion as a result of evidence (something so rare I could actually insert a mic drop here.)

This isn’t to say that he didn’t have very strong opinions – he did.  But he always kept it classy.  He never burned it to the ground.

#4 Work Like You Mean It.

The man was always working.  He had these weekly reports he would have his staff write up, and he would review them every weekend.  He would answer his phone anytime, anywhere (something that would regularly drive me nuts when our family was at dinner.  I showed him a meme of a place setting that doesn’t have a space for a cell phone and he laughed, but I think it hurt him a little bit, something I now regret doing.)  We would debate issues all the time – politics were his profession and his trade, he was constantly reading, writing, and processing.  More than once something we discussed would prompt a question that he would jot down somewhere.

Even when we were on vacation, he was answering emails (often dictating them with hilarious results,) reading books, and writing articles.  He had this habit of reading something, looking up and sharing it, and saying “Would you believe it?” in wonder.  Dad V was a constant and hungry learner.  He was a work horse, and proud of it.

#5 Don’t Care About the Credit.

This is actually something that I didn’t know about as much before hearing the words spoken in his honor.  So many people at the various ceremonies and rituals mentioned how he always said (and backed up with action,) that you can get so much done if you don’t care about who gets the credit.

Often, in my relationship with him, he would say “You know, your father-in-law was instrumental in bringing the Rock Hall to Cleveland” (I knew,) or “You know, I helped support the revival of Playhouse Square” (I knew,) or “You know, I helped bring the City of Cleveland out from default” (I – and the rest of Cleveland – knew.)  I think this was because he never felt he did enough, because he was constantly concerned with the world that he was leaving us, that he was leaving the grandkids.

#6 Value Differences of Opinion, and Stay Independent.

When I first joined the family at the age of 24 (my husband and I got married when I was 27, but as far as his family was concerned, I was family as soon as I started dating Peter,) we debated education policy.  At the time, I knew everything there was to know about K-12 education (I have since transformed some of that thinking, and no longer believe I know everything about everything.)  He never once dismissed out of hand my opinions.  Even when I suggested that we arm and train the women of Afghanistan and Iraq (because, in my logic, who had the most to lose from the Taliban?) which was pretty far out there, he didn’t laugh at me.

Over the years, various issues came up where I felt like I knew how Dad V should vote on something.  Some of these were generational; waxing poetic about net neutrality was probably not a great choice.  He would consider what folks would say, he would make notes to confirm information.  But at the end of the day, he thought what he thought.  He didn’t adhere to random lines in the sand. He walked a path to get from one point to another, even if it was unpopular.  He was passionate about attempting to raise the gas tax – something incredibly unpopular to champion.  Even after he was out of office he tried to advocate for it.  He believed that you shouldn’t just run up the credit card for your grandkids to pay off.  His vote was always his own; he voted his conscience.

#7 Clean Your Own Bathrooms; Clean Your Own Floors.

Dad V was not above cleaning his own bathroom.  And when the wood floors of their house needed to be given a good scrub, he got down on his hands and knees and washed them by hand when Mom said it was time.  I think our country would be in far better condition if all leaders scrubbed their own toilets, cleaned their own sinks, and changed their own toilet paper rolls.  We are, all of us, equal.

#8  Don’t Upgrade.

For more than eight years, we lived across the street from Mom and Dad V in Cleveland.  Our oldest is six, and she and our son were blessed to have had so much time with them.  It was a relationship that can only happen with proximity.  It would not have happened had they lived in some fancy house – we couldn’t have afforded to live across the street.  They didn’t believe in waste, personally or governmentally.

The thing that wasn’t said at his services was his immense generosity.  Yes, he was fiscally conservative, but he and Mom were also so generous and supportive, to the grandkids, to us when we started out, and I think those things were linked.  Don’t upgrade.  Live beneath your means.  Have the freedom to make choices about how to spend your time and how to live your life.  Don’t be beholden.

#9 There Is Crying in Baseball

One of the articles about my dad after he passed mentioned that he was “often subject to his emotions.”  And he was.  He cried, more than once, and more than once in public.  He was passionate about doing good in the world, and when he was conflicted and believed deeply, he would show it.

This was pointed out as a postscript of note – that, despite being a great leader, he had this weakness of emotion.  But he knew differently, and those of us who loved him knew differently.  He was a great leader because he was subject to his emotions, not despite them.  He believed, and he led with the conviction of someone wanting to do good for his family and his country.  He was led by faith.

Doesn’t that seem so very strange?  It’s almost confusing to think of that kind of sincerity.  Genuine emotion when you believe in what you’re doing is not a weakness, it is strength.  It is human and it is real.

#10 Family Comes First.

My father-in-law liked winning.  He was a competitive guy.  But he understood – always – his priorities.  It’s something he passed onto his kids.  The thing I first fell in love with about my husband is that he knew what was important.  People come first.  Family comes first.

I don’t know if it comes from losing a child – losing a sibling.  That kind of loss – as a parent, I cannot even imagine the horror.  So we never left anything unsaid in our family.

Dad died four weeks after we moved away from Cleveland.

We left Cleveland because of my career.  When we first told Dad that we were going, he was not very happy about it.  He was the kind of man who would move heaven and earth if he needed to, and he did his best to encourage us to stay.  But when all was said and done, he actually did understand the move, the opportunity, the necessity of it all.  He was always slightly perplexed by me, I think, and me by him.

When he died the ground dropped from beneath me.

When folks came to his wake, people I know and people I don’t know, many of them said “Oh, you’re the ones that moved to New Hampshire!” or “You’re up in New England now, right?” or “Didn’t you just move to Vermont?” or “How is the new job going?”  And I realized that not only do most people have no idea of the geography of those “little states,” he had told people about our move and he was proud of us.

He told me he loved me, the last time I hugged him and kissed him.   I don’t think he wanted us to go.  But he was proud of us.

The person – the human – is the leader, the two cannot be separated.





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