The 3 best leadership gifts my dad gave me before he died

It’s graduation season. I love seeing the celebratory photos of kindergarten and college diplomas. I love telling students they are upperclassmen now and are being entrusted with greater leadership in the ministry.

Father’s Day got me thinking about one of my biggest transitions in leadership. Unbeknownst to any of us, during my first year of college, my dad — my teacher and spiritual mentor — was about to die. But before he did, he left me with three of the most valuable gifts for my growth as a leader.

  1. Vulnerability: My dad’s life exuded stability. He was a disciplined and effective leader with a PhD, several patents, and a wide spiritual influence. But one of the best things he ever did for me was let me know that he worried. I remember him telling me his favorite Bible story was when Jesus said “Do not worry” (Matthew 6:25). And I remember thinking, what in the world could you possibly have to worry about? But now, 16 years later, I am so glad I knew that my dad had anxieties too. Even the best of leaders struggle. I needed to know that.

  2. Confidence: One of my very last conversations with my dad was at Jerry’s Deli in Westwood after watching a UCLA basketball game together. I was telling him about an evangelistic conversation I was having with someone in my dorm. As I often did, I was looking for feedback in my leadership. Did I do it right? Did I say the right things? I remember being surprised by his answer. He didn’t give me any feedback — nothing positive or negative. Just a silent nod that said, “You can do this without me, Kel. You don’t need my approval to be a good leader.” As someone who often struggles with unhealthily attaching my confidence to the opinions of authority, this was a powerful lesson for me.

  3. Commissioning: Two nights before my dad died, I was having dinner in the college cafeteria with him and my roommate, Alicia. We were talking about who we wanted to be when we grew up. My dad looked at me with total certainty and said, “Kelly, you will be a writer.” In the moment I rolled my eyes and thought, no, dad, I’m going to be an InterVarsity staff. But now I look back at that as a commissioning. I was thinking about job titles but he was blessing me to use my strengths. Now as I am beginning to write a second book (using my dad’s print-on-demand publishing technology), I hold onto that blessing, amazed that he saw in me what I couldn’t yet see in myself.

Who is someone you are influencing right now? How might you offer these gifts to them in this transitional season? How have you received these gifts in your own leadership by people who have led you?

Published by K.Aalseth

Kelly J. Aalseth is the Coordinator for Leadership Development for InterVarsity in Greater Los Angeles. She is an author, coach, preacher, and trainer.

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