Lessons from a life someone else led

Two people, actually. Namely, Cecille and Tom Boughner. Or as I call them, Mom and Dad.

This post has been building in my head for a few weeks now but, really, it’s a lifetime in coming. While I spend my days being influenced by great thinkers in my field on Twitter or in my RSS reader, the single (double?) greatest influence on who I am knew me from the minute I was born. My parents shaped me in every way including, I’ve come to realize, as a professional.

My parents just signed the papers on the house they will retire to. While circumstances beyond their control (and a right prick of a human) have somewhat muddied their plans over the relative short term, in the next few months Dad will finally bid adieu to the pulp industry and the two of them will pull up stakes, say goodbye to the frozen north and set their course for the warmer climes of Vancouver Island.

In almost 40 years (more than 40 years?), Dad has steadily climbed the ladder and become a leader in his industry. While his background couldn’t be more different than mine (he studied chemical engineering, for crying out loud), I can see many lessons that I and any other professional would do well to learn.

I suppose I am in a unique position in that I’ve worked for my Dad. Well, under my Dad. Way under. During the summer that followed my first year at university I went to work at the very same mill discussed in the articles linked to above. I was a worker bee but, unlike some summer students in that field, it wasn’t a make work project or special summer-only position. I was among the crew of students that took over the lowest positions on the line while everyone moved up a peg or three to fill vacation holes.

I worked alongside the people who’ve made a career in the mill; the very same people who are now facing the uncertainty caused by the unscrupulous buyer. As son of the mill manager I went into the job fully expecting to bust my ass and keep my mouth shut. With no idea what to expect I expected the worst. After all, I was the boss’ kid.

Instead of bitterness and resentment, though, I was struck by the respect and, dare I say, admiration my coworkers had for my dad. “Tom” (never Mr. Boughner) was welcome in the control room and on the line. When he talked shop at all it was the unmistakable voice of someone who knew the business. Mostly, though, he talked about nothing at all. The condition of the golf course. The prospect for the Leafs this season.

He knew the guys by name and he treated them like people. Make no mistake, he called the shots, but he didn’t need to micromanage; he knew his people and he knew they knew their jobs. He knew when to push but, more importantly, he knew when not to. He understood that employees are only employees while they’re at work. They have families and hobbies. They are part of a community and they deserve respect for that.

Being part of that team gave me a unique perspective on what an incredible leader my Dad really is (as did coaching hockey, as I talk about in this article). Most people don’t get to see their parents in their work environment; I know I’m a better person and a better professional for having that opportunity.

Dad’s an optimist. Of that there is no doubt. But looking back, I don’t think that alone would have gotten him through. Nope, for that he needed Mom and her very unique combination of cynicism and the ability to take delight in the absurdity of society. The ability to laugh when things seem darkest. The recognition that, in the grand scheme of things, no setback or problem is really worth sweating over.

It’s a wonderful sense of perspective that we all too frequently lose. At the end of the day, I have a wife that loves me. We have a hilarious and well-mannered dog. We both have stable jobs and we’ve got a soft bed on which to lay our heads.

I should add that it’s probably this sense of perspective that drove my Mom to give up paying jobs in favour of volunteer ones in the past; and that made her such a valuable asset to the numerous charities and non-profits to which she loaned her skills over the years. Through all the shit she and Dad have dealt with, Mom still believes the world can be a better place. And she still wants to make it happen. The cyncism comes easy to me; the challenge has been to rise to the second half of the equation.

In the end, I guess the common theme here is people. Family. Community. My Dad has all the credentials and education to justify his rise to the management ranks but he earned it by being a good person and a good leader. My Mom managed to donate countless hours to countless causes while keeping the household in order and running smoothly because she understands what matters.

Growing up my parents always took the time to tell me how proud they were of me. I hope this post helps make them realize how proud I am of them. I love you both; you’ve earned that house overlooking the water.


  1. This is a great and timely reminder that our community leaders are right in front of our eyes, Joe.

    We have these online communities of thousands where we have leaders, thought leaders, influencers and more. We learn from them every day to be better people.

    Yet who do you think made them the person THEY are? Their parents.

    We need to remember this more often – it’s an online world but our lifeblood lies offline. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Danny.

    It’s funny, actually, this post generated more comments than any I have written recently but you’re the first one to actually do so on the blog. Most came via email or DM on Twitter; I think people feel strange commenting on something so personal.

    But I wouldn’t have posted it here if I didn’t want comments! So thank you.

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