Sometimes we don’t truly realize the leadership impact that someone close to us has until we hear it through others’ stories.
Dr. W. James “Jim” Harper, Scott’s father, passed away on July 12, 2014 at the age of 91. To learn more about his life, here is a link to his obituary.
Scott likes to say “Dad lived a long time but never got around to getting old,” since he was still actively involved in research, teaching, writing, and advising graduate students as a professor emeritus of food science and technology at The Ohio State University until a few weeks before his death.
For more than seven decades, Jim Harper advised over 150 graduate students and taught thousands of undergraduate students. Their ranks include CEOs of successful entrepreneurial companies and Vice Presidents of R&D for major corporations around the world. We simply knew him as “Dad.”
To understand why he was such an impactful mentor to so many leaders, it’s important to go beyond what he accomplished and to understand how he led others to make big things happen.
At his memorial service at The Ohio State University Faculty Club, we heard stories from colleagues, students, and staff as well as family and friends.
Here are a few lessons they shared, which can apply across any field:
Lead by example: Dad was a great teacher because he was a great learner, always exploring areas that were new to him. This continuously reignited his passion and commitment to his work, and he inspired his students to share this same sense of excitement to learn, passion, and persistence in the face of challenges. Question: How can you lead by example to inspire more passion and commitment?
Learn how to work with “difficult” people: Dad knew that collaboration is the best way to create new solutions to problems and innovate. However his students recalled hating to work in the teams he set up consisting of “difficult” people because it got in the way of “the work.” Years later they appreciated that the real lesson was about learning how work with difficult people. Question: What can you do to encourage teams filled with difficult people to collaborate more effectively?
Allow people to make mistakes – and to learn from them: Dad believed that students learn more from their mistakes on ambitious projects than from achieving easy results. For example, one of Dad’s students described how he struggled with a new technique for food production. Rather than penalizing the student for his mistakes, Dad and the student used each problem as a platform for learning. Question: How can you more effectively guide the people you lead to learn from their mistakes?
Teach people how to think differently about problems and opportunities: Dad was not an “easy” professor, and one of the things that he was famous for was his refusal to teach facts. He would supply his students with real situations and ask them to come up with new answers. Years later, even students who initially struggled made it a point to thank Dad for helping them learn how to think differently. Question: How can you apply facts in different ways to generate new opportunities for innovation?
Recognize your own biases and assumptions: Dad developed such a strong reputation and level of trust within the food industry that executives sought him out with “unsolvable problems” to give to his students to solve. Dad’s approach was that the students’ optimism, lack of bias, and not knowing that something couldn’t be done, enabled them to come up with a feasible solution. And on a number of occasions he was right. Question: How can you encourage people in your organization to address issues with an open mind? How can you keep your own mind open as well?
Acknowledge others’ contributions: Dad was famous in the field of Food Science and Technology, but he never let it go to his head. He certainly appreciated his many honors, awards and testimonials from colleagues, along with those from past and current students. However he understood and communicated to others that his success was not just about him – it was about what he and his colleagues, students, and staff were accomplishing together. Question: How can you increase acknowledgement of others’ contributions?
But of course, we could also see these leadership qualities in Dad’s interactions with his family over the years. Clearly it’s no coincidence that we owe a lot of our approach to working with leaders on issues of accelerating growth and profitability to the lessons he taught us.