Veteran’s Day Musings on My Dad and what it means to be a Leader

A very young Robert Gruhn at the start of his military career.

A very young Robert Gruhn at the start of his military career.

My father, Col. Robert S. Gruhn, Sr. has been gone for more than a decade, but I think about him every day and am forever grateful for the lessons he taught me that continue to influence my work and relationships at home and in the office. I was fortunate to have an incredible role model, someone who pushed each of his children to be our best and give our best, without hesitation or reservation.

Having served in both WWII and in the Korean Conflict, Dad believed in the importance of committed leadership, of following the chain of command, being of service to one’s family and community, and the power of words over weapons. Wherever we lived, my parents made service a priority, dedicating countless hours to improving their community in a myriad of small and large ways, and they always had enough to share, whether dinner, a spare room, or free legal advice.

Being born long after Dad left active duty, I can’t say with confidence how he was a leader during either stint of active duty. But I can say with confidence that his 38 years of military service made him the man he was, honing his leadership skills and framing his perspectives on life, service, family, government, and business.

Dad married late, after his tours of active duty, to the love of his life, my mother. They went on to have five children. Yes, we did wake up to Reveille each morning at 06:00. We learned to play cards where the winner got out of KP duty for the night. And, I know how to make a bed so you can bounce a dime on it (something I never practice now). 

I grew up with stories of the coldest winter in Europe where soldiers shared blankets and body heat to stay warm, of creating a makeshift shower from a helmet, and of the joys of ice cream shared with the family dog upon arriving home. And, on many a weeknight, we ate ‘Shit on a Shingle’ as a favorite family meal. But, as an adult, I also heard different stories of horror and devastation created by nationalism and greed. I saw the decades-old tears from memories of landing at Normandy, liberating a concentration camp, and the loss of friends grown close through the common experience of war.

If I had to cast someone to play my Dad in a movie about his war years, I’d say (while shamelessly mixing generations) that he was more Tom Hanks than Clint Eastwood, leading with confidence and kindness rather than swagger and charisma. He was an intuitive mentor, helping others find the best in themselves and then pushing them to dedicate those talents to making the world better. He was unfailingly kind and gracious to a fault. He didn’t seek out the limelight, but enabled others to shine. And, when the tough jobs came, he was the first to volunteer and the last to leave.

With my mother, Dad was always active in one cause or another, whether organized by others or initiated in our kitchen. He was willing to put in the hard work to create change. He practiced law for more than 50 years, but the hours he seemed to enjoy the most were the pro bono work he did for social causes, whether working with my mother to protect an undeveloped coastline or to deliver public radio to a community. He spent the last years of his career volunteering as a museum lawyer, helping small museums protect the collections. And, he fought large and small battles for his children.

And, as a member of the Greatest Generation, Dad believed in being politically and socially active. He saw the political process as a means to improve the world, and as a result, he’d have hated the current environment. He’d have been marching alongside his kids, maybe even wearing a pink hat in protest of hate, division, and privilege.

As I read books and articles about leadership, written by academics and practitioners, I sometimes wonder what my father would have made of the competing of recommendations for how leaders are supposed to be and what they need to do. But, after a lifetime of watching and learning, I think I know: Leaders are at their best when situations and people are at their worst. They step up when most people step back. They lead from the front, taking risks to support and empower the people behind them. True leaders like my father remind us that leadership is not about the person; it’s about what the person does for others and with others to make the world a better place.

So, thank you, Dad. And, thank you to all the veterans who continue to show us daily what real leadership is. Thank you for your service, your sacrifice, and your commitment. I am grateful today and every day.