On your mark, get set, ask smart questions: Leadership advice from Grandpa Don

My parents have passed on my Grandpa Don’s tongue-in-cheek advice about all kinds of things. His homegrown wisdom came from a lifetime of overcoming one thing after another and ended in achieving the kind of playful happiness that drew people to him and his home.

words + photographs DR. SARAH THORNTON

What mattered to me as a kid was how fun and loving he was. This was the man who gave me the nickname “Sassy” at age 2, explaining he tried “Sally,” but I couldn’t pronounce it. This was the man who teased perfect strangers by asking them, “Ain’t she ugly?” which led to awkward moments I’d save people from by chastising him. This was the man who often said, “Stop hitting yourself,” as he tapped my left arm with my right hand. This was the man who held me as we watched “Hee Haw” and “Sanford and Son” and ate the canned peaches and cottage cheese Grandma Max brought us. He always made me feel like I was his most prized treasure.

He always made me feel like I was his most prized treasure.

I never misunderstood his sense of humor or affection for a lack of serious grit. He had a heart problem from a young age and developed a degenerative eye disease in the military. He grew up in extreme poverty. He told the story of his dad sending his brothers into the woods with a shotgun and one shell, directing them not to come back without something to eat.

Despite the odds, he turned it around for his family. He and Grandma Max bought a service station and always had a side gig or two – running a trash route, scrapping, fixing up houses. They bought a rock house they turned into their lifelong home, and he hand-dug a basement under it and developed their acre into a massive organic garden. (I loved shelling peas and shucking corn with Grandma Max in the cool of the evening and enjoying a table full of fresh veggies at family dinners.) Into his 70s, he was still helping my parents work on rental properties, even though he’d have to sit down when he had one of his weak spells. He was the epitome of scrappy intelligence and hard work.

Grandma Max, Grandpa Don

One of my favorite Grandpa Don-isms is, “Don’t ask questions you don’t want the answers to.” It sounds incredibly passive and even irresponsible to avoid asking questions because we don’t feel like dealing with the information. When I apply it to leadership in my work life, it sounds like laissez-faire leadership — which, at its worst, looks like hiding in your office and avoiding hard conversations. Laissez-faire leadership can lead to an organizational culture swimming in chaos and lacking in productivity (Carlin, 2019). But when I think of this saying in the context of Grandpa Don’s life, I can’t imagine he meant, “Hide from hard things.” Instead, I think he meant, “Ask smart questions and be ready to act.” I think he’d add, “Don’t forget to have fun and love people.”

When I apply this Grandpa Don-ism to parenting teenagers, the most challenging (and fun) leadership role of my life, “Don’t ask questions you don’t want the answers to” has an added component of “Choose your battles wisely,” because the Lord knows you can’t choose ‘em all or you’d get nothing else done. My husband, Andy, and I often quote Grandpa Don to each other and try to find humor in the situation before we go about truth-finding. I occasionally ask Andy to pause until I have the emotional energy to respond effectively. I’ve also learned to ask better questions. Rather than setting our kids up to lie, I ask questions letting them know I know, so instead of them coming up with a tall tale, we skip ahead to where we go from here.

Sarah Thornton, her kids

I recently found out through social media one of my kids had been meeting up with someone they were not supposed to see. My knee-jerk reaction was to storm into their room and confront them with the picture proof. Instead, I took them to Mexican Villa, and, over chips and a mix of mild and hot sauces, asked, “How’d you enjoy your time with … ?” This led to a much more beneficial conversation and even a little twinkle in our eyes. I hope they know they are my most prized treasure, even when they’re a little ornery.  

Grandpa Don’s tongue-in-cheek advice, “Don’t ask questions you don’t want the answers to,” has turned out to be an important tool in my tool belt. Ask smart questions. Be ready to act. But don’t forget to have fun and love people. ST

Dr. Sarah Thornton is married to “the sweetest man on earth” Andy Thornton, and they have enjoyed making their big old house in Springfield, Missouri, a home for nine beautiful kids, one grandpa, seven chickens, and one very spoiled beagle.  


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