This post was meant to be about leadership. Leadership versus management. But that will have to wait, because a more pressing topic has emerged: dealing with loss. This morning we learned that a very dear friend has died. In this case the decline has been surreal in its speed, and the grieving process will be a long one. We have lost many friends and family members over the years, and it is never easy, whether it’s fast and you are unprepared or it’s slow and painful and you are altogether too prepared. Even though death is the one certainty in life (along with taxes, according to Benjamin Franklin), this reality is hard for us to accept. After all, all we know is life. But the only way to protect ourselves from the pain and heartache of losing a loved one is to never love, and for most of us that is a non-starter; it would be a lonely existence indeed. I’m a firm believer in the adage that it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.
My friend was a beloved wife, mother, and grandmother. As well, she had been a math professor and coordinator of the Math Help Centre at her university, and was very active in community activities. The outpouring of love and concern from many, many former students, colleagues, and friends throughout her community last week as word spread of her grave situation attests to the high regard with which she was held by all. The way she led her life has much to teach us. What would a math prof have offered her students, decades past for some of those students, that would have made that kind of impact? Well, possibly it was her ability to reveal the elegance of calculus? Possibly. Maybe she marked easy? Maybe. But neither of those options, even if true, would result in the affection and respect accorded my friend by former students. No, the outpouring comes from her positive attitude and the caring attention she gave to everyone she interacted with. She made you feel like what you had to say was worth listening to, whether you were a first year student who had to take math no matter what, a fellow alto in her choir, someone at the community kitchen where she and her husband volunteered, or a friend taking a leisurely walk with her. If you had a question, she was there to listen, with intelligence and good humour. She lived the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” She lived her life – her dash – with warmth, integrity, and strength of character. She has left us the gift, by example, of how to live a life well and also that important reminder that we should make every day count.
Thinking of her reminds me of the topic of leadership. The definition of a leader that speaks to me best is “a leader is someone who has followers”. Some people who are in official leadership positions have followers as a result of the money it is their prerogative to dispense. Other people in positions of leadership in reality don’t have any followers; nobody has bought into their vision and they are leaders in name only. By this definition, Flora Beckett was a natural leader; she had so many followers. It was our privilege to have known you, Flora. Rest in peace, my dear friend.