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Lessons From the Land

My bike ride to work is the most peaceful part of my day. I have a demanding job in Silicon Valley—vice president of global customer operations for the social-networking company LinkedIn. I ride along bike trails beside San Francisco Bay with sweeping views of wetlands and forested hillsides. It’s my time to think, to pray, to get some fresh air before plunging into 10-plus hours of meetings, video conferences and e-mails.

This past winter, my dad died and that peacefulness vanished. Dad was 81. His death took all of us—Mom, me, my four siblings—by surprise. He was a Kansas farmer, vigorous and dedicated to the land. He farmed right up until his heart gave out.

I missed Dad intensely. My first days back at the office, I sat at my desk and wondered why I was there. At meetings I blankly watched numbers come and go on PowerPoint slides.

In Silicon Valley people live to work. We’re passionate about innovation, global impact and changing the world. After spending a couple of weeks in my rural hometown, telling stories about Dad, hearing everyone in our small church recall his steadfastness and quiet acts of generosity, work no longer seemed so significant.

I felt adrift in a way I didn’t understand. Dad’s death made me vividly aware of my own mortality. I was in my forties. How should I spend the years remaining to me? I wanted to make them count. Should I leave LinkedIn and join a start-up? Write a business book like other Silicon Valley leaders have done? Or something totally different? Whatever it was, I wanted to make a difference. I kept thinking about these questions on my ride to work.

Dad wasn’t troubled by such uncertainty. Farmer, father, husband—those were his callings and he stuck to them. His name was Ed. He was sturdy, with hands toughened by work and a ready smile that widened around Mom. He loved us kids, and part of that love was putting us to work. “It’s child abuse not to teach your kids to work,” he said.

His standards were high. “Is that the best you can do?” he’d ask quietly. It wasn’t criticism as much as motivation. It always made us want to do better.

Life on the farm was fun when I was little. I rode my dirt bike and wandered the fields with my black Lab. As I got older, Dad ramped up the chores. I tended nearly 1,500 hogs, a dirty, smelly job I did not enjoy. I was 12 when I started driving tractors. Other kids my age got lifeguard jobs and spent summer days by the pool. I plowed fields in the broiling sun.

Dad never pressured me to go into farming. That wasn’t his way. In fact, he never pressured any of us kids to do anything. He led by example. I think he learned that at church.

Dad was no Bible-thumper. He lived his faith by deeds, not words. Our tiny Methodist church had all of six or seven families. But they were big farm families, so the sanctuary always felt full. Mom led the choir. Dad taught Sunday school. We showed up for worship without fail. Dad firmly believed that if you relied on God, everything else would fall into place. No rain? No problem. God would provide. For Dad, faith meant being faithful. He was faithful to the farm. To Mom. To his family.

And he did the right thing even when it hurt. At the funeral, my cousin told a story about a day he went to the store with Dad and my brothers to buy supplies. Back in the car, my cousin realized the cashier had undercharged him.

“Check it out, guys, free money!” my cousin exclaimed.

The car slowed. “What was that?” asked Dad, his eyes on the road.

“The guy at the counter didn’t charge me enough,” my cousin said. Dad looked at him in the rearview mirror. “You’ll want to make that right,” he said.

“It’s only a couple bucks,” my cousin muttered. The look in Dad’s eyes made it clear that that was no excuse. My cousin got the message—and still remembered it all these years later.

I could picture that road, long and straight, bordered by endless waves of wheat. Sometimes, riding along the flat bike trail beside San Francisco Bay, under a big blue sky, I felt like I was back on those country roads of my childhood. Of course it wasn’t Kansas. And at the end of my ride was a cubicle, not a farmhouse. There wasn’t much in that cube, just a computer and a phone, because we changed desks all the time in typical restless Silicon Valley style.

Was that why I felt so unsettled? Silicon Valley restlessness? Here, if you’re not changing jobs every couple of years people wonder what’s wrong with you. I steered my bike into the LinkedIn campus, a cluster of low-slung gray office buildings surrounded by parking lots and flower beds. I locked the bike, showered, changed and sat down at my desk. It was early and the office was still quiet.

Another wave of memories came over me. How different the farm seemed without Dad bustling around it! My older brother Tom had taken over day-to-day management years earlier, and he’d brought the operation into the twenty-first century. The combine harvester alone cost several hundred thousand dollars and used GPS to harvest crops on autopilot with accuracy down to inches. The driver sat in a cockpit like a spaceship’s.

Dad preferred the old methods but he was a realist. And he had to admit the air-conditioned cab was nicer than getting blasted by sun and dust all day. Maybe high-tech and farming weren’t so different after all.

What would Dad have thought about this cubicle? I wondered. How would he have answered the big questions about life and work I keep asking?

Actually, I knew how he’d answer. He’d wake up before dawn, get on his tractor and plow. He’d take care of the livestock. Order fertilizer and meet with the seed supplier. Check up on me and my brothers and sisters. He’d plant what needed to be planted, harvest what needed to be harvested and nurture everything in between. At the end of the day he’d be at the dinner table thanking God for providing.

Dad led by example. He did what he said he was going to do. He didn’t scan the horizon restlessly, looking for a new direction in life. He already knew what was important, and he focused on those things with unwavering faithfulness.

I smiled. The more I thought about it, the more I realized I knew the answer to my questions too. Dad had been showing me that answer my entire life. The externals—this job, that job—mattered less than living with integrity. I didn’t have to change the world. I just had to be myself.

Businesspeople talk a lot about leadership. The most influential leader in my life was my dad. And he was still leading me, even after he was gone. His values were part of everything I did—mentoring employees, coaching my son’s Little League team, writing songs with my daughter. From now on, I would make those values even more central to my life.

I turned on my computer and glanced at my schedule. Another busy day. Not on a farm—but the principles were the same. Lots of chores. A rich harvest of work and relationships. Doing the best I could do. Having an impact by living with integrity. “Thanks, Dad,” I said quietly. And I got to work.

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