My Grandfather's Leadership

7 LEADERSHIP TRAITS 1. Resilience "A leader leads by example whether they intend to or not."

– Unknown

The person who best exemplifies leadership is my grandfather, Judge Benjamin F. Gibson, whom I’m named after.

My grandfather was born in 1931 in a rural unincorporated community 30 miles west of Selma, Alabama.

As an adolescent growing up in the South during The Great Depression, permanent joblessness and educational hurdles in heavily concentrated minority areas fed a socially corrosive brand of hopelessness. But Ben Gibson had different plans for his future.

Despite various disadvantages growing up, my grandfather graduated from college and began work as an accountant. His first job was with The City of Detroit before joining The Detroit Edison Company (what’s now called DTE Energy Electric Company). He was Detroit Edison’s first black professional hire, a foreshadowing of many firsts in his professional career. 2. Magnanimity While working for Detroit Edison in the 1950s and 1960s, my grandfather experienced his share of overt and covert expressions signaling that his presence wasn’t welcome. Rather than greet intolerance with ill will, my grandfather often responded by offering compassion where he found cruelty and helpfulness where he found hostility. Since I grew up in a different time period, my grandfather’s battles won’t be my battles. Many of the fights he fought paved the way for me to pursue various passions. But through his example, I learned to manage conflict and observed the generosity of forgiveness. 3. Cool Like the Other Side of the Pillow With the 24-hour cycle of news and public relations, disagreements often arise when deadlines get tight, when nights get long or when egos attach to positions. Whenever tasked with resolving conflict, I look to my grandfather’s magnanimity for guidance. If the battles he faced were advanced calculus, then the conflicts I mediate or find myself in, simply amount to adding and subtracting.

During times of stress, I remain as calm as a swan above the water’s surface. And like a swan’s feet largely go unnoticed, I try to prevent anyone from seeing that on the inside I’m paddling like the dickens.

While working as an accountant, my grandfather’s family grew and so did his professional exploration. During the early 1950s my grandfather worked during the day and attended law school at night. Graduating fifth in his law school class earned him top honors.

4. Determination

Despite Ben Gibson’s superior class ranking and successful track record as an accountant, finding a job as an attorney at a law firm remained elusive. In 1955, the year he graduated with his law degree, law firms simply weren’t as willing as they are now to offer women and minorities the opportunity to compete as corporate attorneys.

Although less qualified classmates found lucrative private sector employment fairly easily, Ben Gibson didn’t allow his circumstances to dictate his self-worth. Instead, he worked harder, built contacts where he could and took on pro bono cases to demonstrate his ability. Eventually, he advanced to become the first African-American appointed as an Assistant Prosecutor in Lansing, MI.

Later on Ben Gibson earned a position as an attorney in private practice—with the firm he founded.

5. Rigor

My grandfather told us to pursue your passions with the rigor and intensity of a person who has everything to lose and nothing to lose all at the same time. This lesson directly contributed to my intense work ethic.

6. Empathy

“See the situation as the person you’re conversing with sees the situation,” my grandfather says. His point is simple. Empathize. Look at the situation through a kaleidoscope of perspectives and put your own fundamental beliefs through rigorous inquiry. My grandfather has lived in several different cities and states over the past 35+ years. In each of his cities, he’s served on boards, volunteered with nonprofits, taught at law schools, instructed ballroom dance classes and a host of other activities. In each occasion, he’s interacted socially with people from various regions, races and socioeconomic backgrounds. I’m almost certain that these experiences allowed him to be both relatable and successful.

7. Inspire Followers

"Give the janitor the same dignity and respect that you give the CEO," is a value my grandfather instilled into me. Sometimes it’s hard to digest how lucky I am to experience such a magnificent person—a family man, public servant, outstanding jurist and leader.

After reflecting back on my grandfather’s leadership, I am only slightly able to separate Judge Benjamin F. Gibson from the man I call “Papa,” his favorite title since having grandchildren. I understand and more fully appreciate why, in 1979, President Jimmy Carter nominated Ben Gibson to the federal bench.

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