Dr. Clarence “Dick” Holland was my professor at Georgia State University (GSU), where he taught statistics in the department of psychology. Last week, he died at the age of 85. The news of his death hit me like a ton of bricks. The strength of my reaction was surprising to me and that forced me to think about why.  

Like me, most of Dr. Holland’s students were in the clinical psychology track at GSU. Few of us identified ourselves as math whizzes and some were overtly hostile to the very notion of statistics. I’d had two very good statistics professors as an undergrad, so my fear of it was gone but I still understood that this level would be much more challenging. Dr. Holland’s relaxed attitude helped ease my mind.

Though I doubt he would have claimed it, Dr. Holland was a gifted communicator. In our statistics classes, he put formulas on the board, using the notations ∑, β, √ and so on, as one would expect. Then, he would turn around and look at our faces. Usually, he would say, “No? Not yet?” Then he would explain it, a bit differently than the first time. Again, he would check our faces for any sign of recognition. He’d say, again, “No? Not yet? Let me try it another way.” After several attempts, of which he seemed to have an endless supply, he would fix on a student who appeared to understand and whom he knew to have good verbal skills. Then, he would say, “Can you try?” By that he meant, would you tell me, and your classmates, what you understand? An invitation to explain to one’s classmates was a great honor but also an additional challenge. If you attempted it, you might be wrong. If you were right, you still might not get through to the others. Dr. Holland was most excited when we all understood. He was always pulling for us and if you got it early, you had to help. There is genius in his way of teaching. I realize now how much l learned about the process of teaching and learning sitting in his class more than 25 years ago.

Paying Attention to Enthusiasm

Spotting my insatiable need to merge business and psychology, and recognizing that I actually respect business people, Dr. Holland took me along on some consulting engagements. Later, he simply handed them to me, even though I wasn’t technically his student. He was an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist and me, a clinician. It might seem an odd pairing, but it worked. I deeply respected him, and he liked my spunk (though it did tire him out, he admitted.)

Thanks, in no small measure to the insight and caring of Dr. Holland, my job and my life’s work are the same. I like to think that I am also a teacher, though in a very different way from my professor. He spotted a talent in me that I am proud of and fanned the flames. Everyone should have this experience. It changed the trajectory of my life.

I can think of no better way to honor Dr. Holland than to share what I learned from him.

1. If you are open to learning, it will happen everywhere. Dr. Holland was an excellent observer. At times, quick to judge, he nonetheless maintained an ability to learn by placing himself in unfamiliar surroundings. It might be on a trip that he and Dot were so fond of taking or standing on his back deck wondering about the progression of the pine beetle infestation in his back yard. His lack of arrogance meant he could learn anywhere.

2. Be rigorous in your inquiries and mindful of the human beings with whom you interact. Holland could question you without making you feel as though he’d already decided if you were right or not, a skill that leaders need. Questions that are thinly veiled judgments or condemnations, undermine relationships and are used by those attempting to “one up” another.

3. Have a sense of humor. What distinguishes a teacher from an expert is a sense of humor. Dr. Holland made me laugh during my master’s thesis defense. I didn’t expect to laugh in this meeting, that for me was serious in the extreme. After I presented my hypothesis, research method, data and analysis, and after the committee had scrutinized my work, he asked “So what?” Funny and profound at the same time. My favorite to this day.

4. Do what you love and look for what others love – nurture both. Motivation is intrinsic. The money, time and energy spent trying to motivate people is largely wasted. To help people grow, develop and change, we must appeal to that part of their self-interest that will give them lasting benefit. Those aspects include drive to achieve, to learn, to invent, build, create, contribute, etc.

I can think of no better way to honor Dr. Holland than to share what I learned from him. Click To Tweet

5. A person need not be famous to achieve a powerful legacy. Dr. Holland taught hundreds of students, perhaps thousands, in the course of his career. I was lucky to be his student in a formal sense, which meant being in his classes (three in all), work with him on my master’s thesis and later, get advice from him while doing research for my dissertation. When I think about it, he was always teaching something to whomever was around. His way was so intertwined with whatever was happening, that one could easily learn without realizing how much he contributed to the learning.

6. Regret is not useful. Many people, following the death of someone who was important to them, talk about wishing they had told them of their significance. I don’t have that sense at all. Rather, I believe that what Dr. Holland preferred to words was the success of his students and what they contribute to the advancement of science and humanity. Leaders who dismiss the notion that legacy is important completely miss the point. It isn’t about how great they are, it’s about what greatness they set in motion.

7. Kindness is active. I had a particularly auspicious relationship with my teacher/mentor. I knew him and his beloved wife, Dot, from another connection. They were a delightful couple, very warm and generous. Dot, who preceded her husband in death, and I became friends. When she died, he called me right away saying, “I’m calling to tell you that Dot had a peaceful ending. I know you loved her and she loved you.” I wept at the loss of her and at his kindness amidst profound grief. Dr. Holland was kind. His kindness was not schmaltzy. His gentleness came wrapped in plain paper, no bows. However, it was deliberate and frequently expressed.

I’ve often told leaders that they are teachers. Conscious of it or not, people around you learn by what you say and do. The scripted messages your communications people write are never, ever as powerful as how you behave. Your actions and words have far-reaching ripple effects. Think for one minute about the most notable leaders you know or have read about. Good, bad, trustworthy or terrible, we remember what people do and without being aware of it, we adopt some of the behaviors of others. No amount of intelligence and experience immunizes us from this for we are social animals.

Why not give serious thought to the leader you are and the leader you want to be? Ask yourself, what are the people around me learning from my actions? Reflecting upon Dr. Holland’s teaching style and his consistent generosity of spirit, I am moved in a very positive way. I take great comfort in thinking about the family, friends, colleagues, and many students whose lives were affected by him.