Leadership Lessons From A 12-Year Old Girl

Leadership-MattersAs I write this, Hazel and I are celebrating our 35th wedding anniversary. As a single mother, she took a big step of faith when she married me and instantly entered the world of Marine Officer’s wife. Our two oldest daughters were married and on their own but Dana, our youngest was just getting ready to turn 12-years old when we got married and moved from Georgia to Hawaii for three years (now that is a honeymoon). It was a big adjustment for the three of us but somehow, we weathered it. It was during our time in Hawaii that I learned some extremely valuable leadership secrets from my youngest daughter. So, at the risk of embarrassing her, let me tell you what she taught me.

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  • Change and pain go together. As the “new girl” in school with the sweetest southern accentComputer keyboard keys labeled LEARN and LEAD around, the young boys were drawn to her. As you can guess, the young girls were not very happy about this and let her know in no uncertain term that she needed to go back to the mainland. Dana was so hurt. Hazel and I reassured her that in time, they would come around but as a new father, my heart was breaking for her and as a Marine, well, let’s say it is good that Hazel knows how to calm me down. But I learned that you have to be aware that anytime you institute change, you have to be prepared to face some resistance. Don’t fight it, plan for it and you will reduce the stress level and make the transition easier on everyone.
  • Embarrassment will not kill you. One night while helping Dana do her homework, I just could not remember how to accomplish the math problem. So, I asked for the teacher’s name. You can image the look of horror on her face but she finally gave me his name and I called him at home. He was gracious to review the process with me and I was able to help Dana complete her homework successfully. Yes, she hid her face the next day in math class hoping her teacher did not say anything – but she survived. I learned that admitting you do not know everything and seeking help is not only okay, but the right thing to do.
  • Peer pressure is real. Since Dana had trouble at first finding friends, she made the mistake of being friends with someone who was a little wild for her age. The result was that our very responsible daughter began to make very bad decisions just for the sake of keeping her friendship. I became very aware that with my young Marines who were so far from their families and friends, they could easily make the same mistake. If they were not careful about who they befriended, they could take a promising career and send  in the opposite direction. So getting to know my Marines and seeing with whom they associated was important to helping them stay out of trouble. I learned that as a leader, you have to not only care about your people at work, but at all times.
  • Be open to new ideas. When Hazel and I got married, I listened to two kinds of music – country and western. But I can tell you, a 12-year old girl really cannot relate to Willy or Conway or Waylon. So, while in the car, we would sometimes put on the music she liked. Much to her dismay, I began to like it too and would sing along loudly. But I cannot hear those songs today without fond memories of Hawaii and Dana. I learned that as the leader, you may have to listen to your people and learn from them if you are going to stay up-to-date and be a valued leader.
  • Keep your sense of humor. For her 12th birthday, Dana had a sleepover party with the friends she had made. So, our downstairs living area was filled with 11 and 12-year old girls. The following morning, I opened the freezer to find a bra in there. Surprised, I asked Hazel the most logical of questions, “Why?” She smiled and told me that would be the bra of the first girl to fall asleep. I just had to laugh. I learned that in all situations, we just need to keep our sense of humor. Fear, anxiety, stress can all be lessened with good clean humor. So, when I lead Marines into some scary situations, I used humor to keep them calm but on the alert.
  • Love hurts but love anyways. Having the honor to be a father to Dana was so wonderful but I cannot tell you how many times I hurt inside for her especially when she was sick, experiencing the difficult teen years, or trying to find her way in life. But I will take a thousand more hurts because of one very special gift she gave me. She calls me Dad – and for that, I will do anything. As a leader you will get so involved with your people who when they are going through hard times or when they make bad decisions that cause themselves pain, you too will hurt with them. But, trust me, it is worth it when on the other side you get to enjoy their successes and their wonderful accomplishments. [/message][su_spacer]

So, after 35 years of marriage, I am so grateful that Hazel was willing to share her life and her girls with me because today, I know I am a better man and a better leader because of the lessons they taught me.

If you want to be an exceptional leader, do not be afraid to learn new lessons from those you lead.

Len Bernat
Len Bernat
LEN is a leader groomed by 20 years of molding and shaping by some of the finest leaders in the United States Marine Corps. Their guidance helped Len realize his full potential as he moved from an enlisted Marine to becoming an Officer of Marines. Len became known for being the leader who could turn any lackluster organization into a strong, functional unit. Upon his retirement, Len worked in several positions before finally starting a second career in governmental procurement. His experience and leadership skills enabled him to be recognized as the 2011 Governmental Procurement Officer of the Year for the Governmental Procurement Association of Georgia and opened doors for him to teach at many of the association’s conferences. Len was also called to the ministry and was ordained at Ashford Memorial Methodist Church in November of 1999. Today, Len is the Pastor of Maxeys Christian Church in Maxeys, Georgia. Len has been married to his wife, Hazel, for 36 years and they have three daughters, three grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren. Grab your copy of Len's new Book – Leadership Matters | Advice From A Career USMC Officer. Using his life experiences as examples, Len takes the eleven principles of leadership and the fourteen traits every leader should possess—which he learned during twenty years in the Marine Corps—and teaches the reader how he was molded and shaped by some of the best leaders the Corps had to offer.


  1. You are a leader not because you are the best, the most efficient and not the most competent. You are a leader because you can get the best out of everyone. Humility is not a lack of self-confidence or a lack of self-esteem. It is recognizing that we do not know everything, but that we can serenely continue to learn. From everyone. Leadership is a very complex journey, which requires transversal skills and voices outside the chorus. A leader knows how to manage them, but above all he knows how to listen to them, catching insights that can escape him. A leader surrounded by silence, simply, is not a leader.

    • Aldo – Your last sentence – “A leaders surrounded by silence, simply, is not a leader” – is wonderful. I promise I will give you credit when I repeat this pearl of wisdom. You, my friend, are truly an exceptional leader and teacher in your own right. Thank you for your comment.

  2. It is so true that the lessons of parenthood translate into the workplace. I often refer to my client’s relationships with their children as a reference point for building stronger management skills. Thank you for sharing these slices of your personal life. They create a vivid depiction of your leadership lessons for the reader.

    • Christine, thank you for reading and commenting on my article. You are absolutely correct that the amazing lessons we learn from raising our children can help us be a better leader in our professional environment. Great to know someone else has seen the connection.

  3. Wonderful, wonderful article, Len! Happy anniversary and congratulations on the amazing character and love you’ve exhibited in this beautiful life commitment. And, I love all of the life and leadership lessons learned from a 12 year old, your beautiful Dana. Thanks for sharing your personal story. It reflects authenticity in a meaningful way. :)

    • Dear Anonymous – Thank you so much for your kind words. I often kid Dana that my white hair can be attributed to her but she was a joy to raise and had become an absolutely amazing woman of strong character, determination, and responsibility.



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