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Lessons learned from a father’s letters

What gets left out provides insights in its own way

I’ve never put much stock in books or speeches by athletes or coaches who purport to share the lessons they’ve learned from their world so that people in business can apply them to their daily challenges and leadership development. Too much of what they espouse gets lost in translation from their high-paid, high-profile sports environment to the rest of us, who work in more of a Dunder Mifflin world.

Phil Jackson wrote good books with interesting insights that seemed pertinent to sales managers, including dealing with one of the biggest collection of egos ever assembled on a single team (aside from numerous Yankees teams, of course).

For my money, the Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson has more business leadership insights in its first three chapters than all of the books written by sports figures over the past decade combined. But the Jobs book is more than 600 pages and requires both time and concentration. It’s a lot easier to digest the ghost-written thoughts of Pitino, Magic or “Coach K.”

So I didn’t have high expectations when I cracked open “Dear Jay, Love Dad,” a new book that is essentially a collection of 47 letters that former University of Oklahoma football coach Bud Wilkinson wrote to his son Jay, primarily while the younger Wilkinson was attending college and playing football at Duke University in the early 1960s. Between full reprints of his dad’s letters, Jay Wilkinson expounds upon the lessons he learned from those notes and from his father’s approach to work, parenting and life in general.

The letters contain encouragement and philosophy, but frequently are mixed with mundane descriptions of the elder Wilkinson’s travel plans or his own challenges coaching an Oklahoma team that was in a dramatic free fall.

It’s interesting to note that the lessons Jay took from his father were sometimes more of his own making than true insights from his dad. Once, Bud wrote from the Sooners’ team hotel in Columbia, Mo., just hours before a game against nationally ranked University of Missouri, stating simply “I thought you’d be interested.” He included clippings from a St. Louis newspaper related to work Bud was doing on the President’s Council on Physical Fitness.

“Not every one of Dad’s letters was filled with deep sentiment or fervent conviction,” Jay Wilkinson writes. “That Dad had clipped the newspaper article and sent it to me said plenty about his ability to compartmentalize his life.”

It’s a great reminder for all managers that small efforts can be viewed by subordinates as great support.

Adding to the book’s intrigue (at least for me) was a review by Gregg Easterbrook that ran in The Wall Street Journal. Easterbrook, who writes for ESPN.com, slights the younger Wilkinson for glossing over his father’s later years, when he divorced his wife at age 60 to marry a 27-year-old woman. Easterbrook notes that both Jay and his brother Pat married and divorced as well, in Jay’s case, to marry someone younger.

“Another notable absence is discussion of the Vietnam War, which intensified just as Jay was about to leave college,” Easterbrook states. He notes that Jay was drafted in the ninth round of the NFL draft by the Chicago Bears, but instead decided to enter an Episcopal seminary, which provided one of the few exceptions for avoiding the military draft.

Wilkinson completed four years in the seminary, but opted in 1968 to become a businessman. He went on to a successful career in the financial sector.

“It would be interesting to know what discussions Bud and his son had about all this,” Easterbrook writes. “But they aren’t in the letters, or at least the ones here. Autobiography should be honest; Jay Wilkinson’s failure to be straightforward is striking.”

Whether or not you side with Easterbrook, the debate itself reinforces the lesson that even great leaders are fallible. That fact helped produce one of the greatest sports clichés of all time: It’s not how many times you fall, but how many times you get back up.