Dad Paddles the #RooseveltRiver

leadership, history, business, L. Eugene Ton, #RooseveltRiverA couple years ago I wrote a short eBook titled “Everything I Learned about Leadership…I Learned from Lewis and Clark“. Well, guess what? It was a lie! As the dedication in the book declares, I really learned about leadership from my dad! Dad spent the majority of his career as an American Baptist minister, later taking roles in denomination leadership. What this meant was, that as a kid, I spent a LOT of time in church and a LOT of time listening to him preach. Think about it…18 years, give or take…Sunday morning service, Sunday night service, Wednesday service…and all the special services like Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Christmas Eve. A conservative estimate says it was over 2,000 sermons!

Today, almost 40 years since he was last my pastor and probably 10 to 15 years since I have heard him preach, I can remember many (ok not all 2,000, but many) of them. Why? or better yet, how? I can’t remember what I had for breakfast this morning, but I can remember the time he had one of the drollest members of the congregation walk up and eat an apple, leaving the core on the alter during “pledge” Sunday, or when some of the youth stood up and questioned him in the middle of a sermon (planned as a part of youth Sunday of course), or the many times, he would take on a persona of a character from the bible…Peter and Paul being the most memorable or the old lady who proclaimed “You ain’t e’er gonna shroud that light, eer ya?” as an adult lesson of the children’s song “This Little Light of Mine”, or , or even the time he stopped mid-sentence and asked my mother to go to his office and get the copy of his sermon because he’d lost his train of thought and his notes weren’t helping (he STILL says this was not planned).

Why do I remember them? I can hear you saying, “Oh sure, you remember those, they had memorable moments, something that set them apart”. Of course they did, I guess that’s the point. He was (is) a master at creating a visualization through a gesture or an action, some way of saying “This is important! Pay attention!” When he got out from behind the podium, I would (the whole congregation would) sit up and take notice. It was the energy and forcefulness (not in a hell-fire and brimstone sort of way, mind you), but in a way to capture all of our senses. It might have been as simple as pacing across the front of the church, or as in the examples above something even more captivating. As I reflect on this now, my guess is many of the gestures just became a natural part of his delivery when he wanted to make a point, still others were very rehearsed and planned.

Like my dad, Roosevelt was a master at making a point through a gesture. Do an image search on Google for theodore leadership, history, business, #rooseveltriverroosevelt speaking and you will find hundreds of pictures but you would be very hard pressed to find any of him standing still behind a lectern. You will see him teeth bared, leaning forward, fist pounding in hand, or arms spread wide. Some of these were very much thought out, others were as natural to him as speaking itself. The audience was captivated, he was talking with them (not TO them), he was their voice. Roosevelt once declared “I’m am not public opinion, I am the public”, a bold statement certainly, but at the height of his presidency he was absolutely correct.

For me, I inherited my dad’s propensity to wander away from the lectern to make a point, to engage with my listeners. Even during my monthly staff meetings I stand so I can move around. During my exploration of #RooseveltRiver, Dan challenged me to think about times or messages when I should break from the natural, instinctive gestures to make the point even more impactful. Recently, I had the distinct privilege to speak at a high school graduation (future post alert!) as I thought about my words and my delivery, I realized this was one of the times Dan was referring to. What I said was irrelevant. It was not about the message. It was about the graduates, their families and their celebration. I delivered my short remarks passionately, yet standing still behind the lectern. Think about your own delivery. How do you emphasize your points? When you are presenting to your team, the board or a larger audience is your point made by some instinctive gesture? Do you rehearse and plan your gestures? Sometimes the natural, instinctive gestures are the most powerful, however, there are other times that may call for a more intentional, rehearsed gesture, or even times when no gesture at all is the course of the day.

#RooseveltRiver is my year long exploration with Dan Miller of Historical Solutions into leadership using the backdrop of history and the life of Theodore Roosevelt. To read more in this series, select “Roosevelt River” from the Category drop down on the right. 

If anything you read here or in other posts strikes a chord, I would love to hear from you. Leave a comment, hit me up on Twitter (@jtongici), find me on LinkedIn, or Google +.

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