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Key leadership lessons I learnt from my father

Two days ago I reached the age of 75 — the age my father was when he passed away 35 years ago. So it provided an opportunity for me to reflect on our relationship and on how I was influenced by his example.

Bruno Eldon enjoyed a 33-year career in Shell. He joined the company in Romania, from where he and some of his Shell colleagues escaped the Nazis in 1941. He then rejoined the company in Israel (the British Mandate of Palestine at the time) and finally again in England in 1948, where over the years he rose to be the head of Shell’s management training division.

As I was growing up, at school and then at university, I was exposed to all the latest management thinking, as my father had to keep right up to date in running his workshops for Shell executives from around the world. I learnt about the newly emerging leadership styles as organisations like Shell increasingly employed skilled knowledge workers who needed to be motivated quite differently from those who came before them.

Indeed, as I have written before in these columns, it was in those 1950s and 60s that the foundations were laid for today’s best leadership practices. Since then we have been hearing incessantly from subsequent generations of management gurus, but in essence, it’s more fancy new jargon than fundamental developments.

I was fortunate in not only having my father explain all about motivation and teamwork and appraisals and other leadership matters as practised in one of the leading global corporates, but I had the privilege of meeting many of those who participated in my father’s programmes. For he would invite them to our home for Sunday lunches, where this mere teenager would act as a co-host to those senior executives.

But my weekends were spent in other ways too. For I was the family’s gardener, cutting the lawn and the hedges and pulling up the weeds while my father played the horticulturalist. My job description included washing the car, and every evening I would wash the dishes after dinner as my sister dried them. Later, my father and I would often walk our dog, and it is here that he played the role of my coach.

I attended the London School of Economics for some of my undergraduate studies, 40 years after my father came from Romania to study at LSE. During those years, while an intern in Paris with Eurofinance (the first investment company to operate at a European level), my father came to visit me and it was the first time I remember us conversing as adult to adult rather than as parent to child: a true relationship shift.

When he retired from Shell on entering his third age my father continued with his management training and also became a management consultant, running workshops all over Europe and also in Africa. This was largely with Management Centre Europe, which was associated with the American Management Association — both still prominent institutions today.

Not many years later, now living in Kenya, I became very involved with the Kenya Institute of Management, and when I turned 60 I too reinvented myself as a management consultant, spending many of my days in ways uncannily similar to how my father spent his at that time of his life.

Shortly before he died I visited my father in London for what turned out to be our last meeting. We seemed to be aware that this would be our farewell, and as we sat in his study he notionally handed over his books and papers and overhead slides on management, many of which now adorn by bookshelves at home. Bruno was a very talented painter, and our house is also filled with his wonderful works of art.

What a shame he is not around for us to compare notes on how my life has mirrored his since he passed away. There is so much value he could have continued adding to me, and I would like to think he could even have benefited from my experiences too.

To conclude, let me invite you to share important conversations with your father, before it’s too late. Learn from him, and let him also learn from you.