How do you measure the success of a leader? How do you even define what it means to be a leader? After spending a good part of my life in leadership roles and the past 20 years coaching, educating and writing for leaders, the death of my father, Dr. Jack Eblin, 10 days ago has me considering those questions anew.
My dad was a dentist for 46 years. He and my mom met at a church youth group in Huntington, West Virginia when they were 14 years old, dated for seven years and were married for sixty-two. Dad was president of his high school student body and president of his class at Northwestern University dental school for three consecutive years. He served as a Navy lieutenant and dentist on the USS Everglades where he was captain of the ship’s pistol team. He retired from the U.S. Naval Reserve as a lieutenant commander. He was president of the West Virginia Dental Society and Chief Examiner for the Northeastern Regional Board of Dental Examiners.
All of that is just a partial recitation of my dad’s leadership resume. When I was a kid I idolized my dad. I still do as an adult but for different reasons. My mom, as a justifiably proud spouse, business and life partner, probably told me more about my dad’s accomplishments over the years than he did. When I think about it now, he hardly ever talked about all he had accomplished in his life but I did. When he was moving through the leadership rotation of the state dental society and getting involved as an examiner of aspiring dentists, I started bugging him about running for a leadership role in the American Dental Association and positioning himself to be president of the ADA. Based on his track record and my assumption that a leader should always be targeting the next, higher position, I felt confident he could do it.
Over the course of numerous family dinners when I was a teenager, I kept pushing him to run for a leadership role in the ADA. He listened patiently for a few evenings and then basically told me to stop. He explained that holding a leadership role in the ADA would make his life much more about organizational politics than treating patients and that he wasn’t going to distract himself from what mattered the most to him – doing great dentistry for his patients. I was disappointed by his answer and didn’t understand his motivations then but I do now.
The experience of talking about my dad last week with his family, friends and patients and going through his papers as we prepared his obituary and eulogy crystallized something for me. My dad was a servant leader. His primary driver was to serve others. It really wasn’t about him. It was about his family, his patients, his friends, his community.
When Dad left active duty in the Navy, he and Mom had to make a decision about where to live and set up a dental practice. Having gone to school at Northwestern (Mom trained as a dental hygienist there), Chicago was an option. They considered Charlotte, North Carolina which was then a small city of about 100,000 people, roughly the same size as their hometown of Huntington. They moved back there even though Dad had the skills and background to set up shop in a city where he could have made a lot more money. As the service economy has grown and the industrial economy has declined, Charlotte’s population has grown to more than a million people and Huntington’s has shrunk to 47,000. Mom and Dad stayed in Huntington because that’s where their roots were and that’s where the need was.
Even as they were finding a few nickels to rub together to start a family and build a new practice, Dad volunteered at a dental clinic for underprivileged kids and went on to co-found another larger clinic that exists to this day.
Mom and Dad were avid supporters of Marshall University in Huntington where they did their undergraduate training. If it were not for my mother’s fear of flying at the time, they would have been among the victims of a November 1970 plane crash that killed 75 team members, coaches, administrators, flight crew and fans as the Herd was landing at the Huntington airport following an away game in North Carolina. Instead, Dad spent several days close to the crash site identifying friends and neighbors through their dental records. Together, Mom and Dad joined with the community to help support the children of their friends who had died in the crash. Dad became deeply involved in the Big Green Club, serving as its president one year, to help rebuild the football program, heal the community and eventually win a national championship. (You can see the story in the movie, We Are Marshall.)
The crash was a formative experience in Dad’s young adult life and, I think, caused him to invest more in his friends and community than he otherwise might have. One thing that was never in question was Dad’s commitment to serve his patients and connect with them as people. As his office manager, my mother witnessed that for many years and, in the days since he passed, she has been reminded by hundreds of former patients how kind my dad was to them and how he was the only dentist they would ever go to.
Dad’s skill, warmth and compassion were neatly summarized in a letter we found in his papers from a gentleman in the Columbus, Ohio area named Gary Sheets. Gary’s dad lived in Huntington and was a full-time care-giver for his wife of 58 years who had had a debilitating stroke. As the letter explained, Gary’s dad neglected his own health and well-being as he cared for his wife and, consequently, needed a lot of restorative dental work. He went to see my dad. Gary’s letter summarizes what happened when he did:
“I called (my dad) the day he visited your office. He told me how much time you’d spent restoring his teeth and then, as he sat in the chair, he began to worry how much all this work would cost… So, it really caught me by surprise when dad suddenly began to cry over the phone as he told me how you said his dental work was his Christmas present. I haven’t heard my dad cry very often and he has had good reason to do so of late. He gets angry and frustrated with mom, but he’s never cried. Hence, it was beyond description to hear him cry out of joy because, after his recent trials and tribulations with mom, someone was kind enough to give him something extraordinary.”
Dad received that letter from Gary Sheets in January 2005 and I never heard him tell that story in the next 14 years of his life. I only learned about it when I went through his papers after he died. That was my dad.
There were a few lessons for me from reading Gary’s letter. One is that in the midst of working on Gary’s dad, my dad took time to listen to him and his story. He was touched and moved to give the better part of a day of his skill and heart to a man he didn’t know that well but who needed the gifts of health and compassion. Another was that while I was always impressed by my dad’s history as a leader (and he clearly was), he was a servant first. Caring for others in whatever ways he could offer was his primary motivation.
How do you measure a leader? How do you measure a life? It’s not about the titles or the glory. It’s about the people you serve. In the little town of Huntington, West Virginia last Wednesday afternoon, around 400 people came to my dad’s funeral to comfort my mom and to honor his life. It wasn’t because he had been the president of the American Dental Society. He never was. It wasn’t because of the titles he did hold during his life or all he had accomplished in his profession and his community. It was because he used the gifts he had been given and the skills he developed to spend his life caring for and loving others. My dad, Dr. Jack C. Eblin, was a servant leader.
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