“Lead me, follow me, or get the hell out of my way.” – George S. Patton Jr.
That’s when I realized someone lurked right outside our bedroom doors.
I sat up still glued to the sheets, soaked with sweat. It still must’ve been over 85 degrees outside, my meek fan swirling nothing but hot air around my room. My heart hammered in my ears. I forced my eyes on my digital clock – it read 2:30 am.
Our dog growled and barked from outside my door. Mom and Dad shouted. Feet pounded back down our hallway and out the front door.
Mom burst in my room and held out a handgun to me, handle first.
“Take your father his gun! Now! Someone was in the house and Dad’s chasing him!”
I remember thinking, you’ve got to be kidding, Mom, but I complied slowly, rose from my bed, and carried the gun outside by the handle as if I held a rat by the tail.
Moments later out on the street, Dad appeared under the corner streetlamp, completely out of breath and sweaty, wearing nothing but his white underwear.
“Watcha got there…a rat?” he panted through a smile, bent over with hands on his knees.
I handed him the gun. My hand shook. “No, it’s your gun. Did you get him?”
“Yes…I…figured it…was…my gun…thanks…son…no…I didn’t…get him,” he panted. He held the gun like a cop, which he was, and pushed the safety off.
That incident took place nearly 32 years ago, but Dad always just did when it came to taking action. Fast forward to only six years ago, during my niece’s high school graduation. The school had honored those family and friends who have served in the military. My father had been in the Air Force, so we smiled proudly as he stood while the song played on:
“Off we go, into the wild blue yonder…”
Then, at the end of the graduation, Dad said, “Well, now we’ve got another graduation in two years.” That was be my nephew’s high school graduation, which we did all attend.
“And another one in 18,” I said, referring to my oldest daughter, Beatrice, then unborn, who will now be six years old this year.
He laughed and shook his head. “I don’t know about that one, son. Don’t know if I’ll make it that far.”
I squeezed his shoulder. “You never know, Pop. You beat the devil three times already, and God hasn’t called you home yet.”
But he did get “called home” four years later, in 2012. My mother followed him there four months after that.
It was all so bittersweet as we sat watching my nephew graduate from UC Berkeley recently, sitting among a class of newly minted scholars and leaders just beginning their adult lives and careers. Then I thought of my own two little girls, now nearly four and six, with their whole lives ahead, graduations lifetimes away, all the while their leadership skills budding and growing over time with a little help from me and their loving mother.
And for me, well, I thank my dad.
Special Agent “Papa” Grossman (the grandkids called him that, but I called him “Pop” in his later years) was the nurturing father my sister and I never had, and a good and devoted husband to my mother. He came into our lives in the late 1970s, divorced like my mom, and his bachelor pad showed it – scantily clad women on black velvet paintings and a faux leopard skin bean bag chair – are what I remember the most. Hard-working and the strong, silent type, Dad was direct when needed to be and one of the warmest, funniest and nuttiest men you could ever meet.
It was always a sunny smile, my dad’s. A master of levity, Pop injected humor and silliness into most everything he did. His infectious laughter brought smiles to anyone in its radius, the scar above his lip always glinting under light like polished glass. For the life of me, I can’t remember how he got the scar. All I know is that it added a richness to his character, like biscuits soaked in honey and butter – you could never get enough of his presence.
This all from a law enforcement veteran of over 30 years. Anyone who ever worked with him shared the same sentiment – from the most hardened cops and criminals (who he called his customers), to literal strangers he’d meet on the street, in the store, in campgrounds, in the post office, in the doctor’s office – everyone experienced his sunny disposition, his goofy humor and his viral smile.
He had been stabbed, shot at and beat up more than once by bad guys and girls, yet he inspired me to keep a light head, to be silly, to embrace life and all the people in it, to give life and all the people in it a second and third chance, to laugh in the face of adversity – while at the same time tackling it and pinning it to the ground. Which is why Thom Narofsky’s Inspire to Retire Leadership Theorem resonated so much with me recently as well.
That’s why a leadership legacy for me means:
- Being Definitive. That’s the one thing Pop brow-beat into my head so many years ago and then long into adulthood. It’s okay to question, it’s okay to fail, it’s okay to not be okay sometimes, but like Patton said, “Lead me, follow me, or get the hell out of my way.” The world always was that simple to my dad, and he had the self-awareness, emotional intelligence and personal leadership skills to know when to follow and when to lead – and when to get sh%t done. Taking ownership of self first is always the key to leading well.
- And Living Levity. Laughter is truly a healer, and that’s the one thing Pop didn’t have to brow-beat into my head. It was difficult in my early adulthood to understand, but became easier as I grew older, getting more comfortable in my own skin while making others feel the same way as much as I could. This leadership legacy of laughter that Pop taught me, regardless of the ugly he saw everyday on the streets, was that life was more fun with levity, more beautiful and vibrantly alive with the wondrous mess it all is, like crayons melting together beyond the lines and creating pictures we never thought possible.
I want more pictures of rainbows and silly faces and sunny smiles and birthday hats. So do our girls. There’s enough darkness out there as it is. I’d prefer to stay in the lightness of Pop.
And that’s what we’ll give our girls, and then they’ll give to their children.
A special thank you to all who have served in the military and the police force, in memoriam and those who are still with us, whether still working as such or retired.
God bless you, Pop.
“It was only a sunny smile, and little it cost in the giving, but like morning light it scattered the night and made the day worth living.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald