Call with Mom

Yesterday I talked to my mother who is 100 years old and living in Iran. Her children have all emigrated and she has a handful of friends and family who are still in touch with her as she has outlived most. Due to the political situation, we rely on long distance phone and Skype calls to communicate. She is too old to relocate at this point. I was telling her about my work with leaders and she reminded me of lessons in leadership that my dad left behind.

My dad was a truly remarkable man. He was of the generation of men who put country and family first.  After his very rigorous education in Iran, he attended the Toulouse Polytechnic in France, the Berlin Polytechnic in Germany, and Perdue University. He graduated from all three with high distinction. He thought mechanical engineering at the University of Maryland as a diplomat in Washington during the Shah’s reign. His most significant contribution was to build the system of vocational education from high school through university level polytechnics in Iran. His belief was that a developing country needs the engineering and technical minds and skills to build its infrastructure. He made sure that his outstanding graduates got scholarships and went to the top European and American schools. He built over 150 such schools and his former students are top engineers at Microsoft, NASA, and other top government and private organizations around the world. Many of them get together annually from all corners of the world to honor his memory and to keep his fire going.

During his lifetime he was surrounded by men interested in lining their own pockets and serving their own agendas. He was in a system that was corrupt and rewarded complicity rather than transparency and honor.  However my father, under tremendous pressure from his superiors and colleagues, would never collude with them. His north star was to serve his country and nothing, not even his own family, got in the way of his mission. Since he would make the purchase decisions for huge projects, the foreign vendors were constantly offering him secret bank accounts in Switzerland, women, the high life, etc. He would always stand up and leave the meeting and disqualify the vendor on the spot. His peers and superiors were nervous and annoyed at having an honest civil servant with transformational ideas for the country in their mist. They were nervous that he might blow the whistle on them, turn off the sources of bribes, or simply get too popular as a national figure (which he did, and was one of the reasons the Shah sent him out of the country for a while to the embassy in Washington…).  The anxiety and paranoia of those who were complicit meant that my father experienced numerous difficulties in his life. These included being dismissed from his role, sent away, and humiliated publicly through press releases and planted rumors. After the revolution, he held his ground with the new regime and he was jailed for over a year in terrible conditions under false accusations that he was a spy for the regime of the Shah. Through it all, he persevered and never compromised on his values, vision, integrity, and sense of service. The last time I saw him, shortly after being freed from jail (his former students went en mass into the court room and demanded justice), he knew in his gut that he was saying good-bye. With tears in his eyes he kissed me and said the following:

“The thing I can give you at this point is what I believe should drive all human beings. Integrity and service. The day-to-day world will, if you allow it, strip you of yourself and fool you into thinking that you are more important than others. Don’t let it. You are nothing without others. Your job is to hold onto your values and do what is right. Don’t let ego, anger, lust, ambition, and what others do strip you of what you are meant to be. If I knew that my four boys carried this forward. I will die a happy man…”

As it turned out that was the last time I saw him as I could not travel safely back to Iran for his funeral.  There was a real danger to his family going back. Have I always been able to walk his path? No, not nearly. However, once I promised him, I would try to make it a goal to reach for and measure my actions against. During difficult times and decisions, I ask myself, what he would do?  It has helped in those moments when I wanted to tell people off, or to walk out, or to compromise my values for financial reasons, etc.

Naturally, many of us are not living in my father’s world nor have the same clear vision and burning passion. But we are leaders whose actions influence the lives of others and in turn, set off cascades of positive or negative energies. Leaders have to understand the special place they occupy. A place where their presence and actions can influence the development and lives of others. It is not a place for the light-hearted and thin-skinned. It is the arena that requires special people put their own agendas second to that of others.

Questions for Online Conversation

  1. Do you have examples of great leaders?
  2. How often to do you think about them and what they stood for?
  3. What are the lessons for you and your leadership?


2 Responses to Call with Mom

  1. Kathi Love says:

    What a great post! He sounds very impressive and truly a man to look up to! Thank you so much for sharing this. Kathi

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