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In a Heartfelt Note, Bill Gates Reveals the Most Important Lesson He Learned from His Dad

In a blog post Tuesday evening, Bill Gates announced that his father, William Gates, Sr. had passed away over the weekend. The post is a heartfelt note from a son about his dad, and it’s clear that their relationship played an important role in shaping the Microsoft founder.

Gates has done quite a bit in his lifetime, and he credits much of it to the support and character of his parents–and his father, in particular. In that light, it’s worth considering the importance of that relationship, in terms of the lesson it gives us all about not just parenting, but leadership. 

There are quite a few valuable insights in Gates’ post, but this probably stuck out the most:

My sisters, Kristi and Libby, and I are very lucky to have been raised by our mom and dad. They gave us constant encouragement and were always patient with us. I knew their love and support were unconditional, even when we clashed in my teenage years. I am sure that’s one of the reasons why I felt comfortable taking some big risks when I was young, like leaving college to start Microsoft with Paul Allen. I knew they would be in my corner even if I failed.

There’s something powerful about that. It’s okay to try something and fail. There’s also more than a little bit of good fortune to grow up in a home like that–one where you know your parents will be in your corner, no matter what. Not everyone does, probably not even most.

It’s hard to overstate how important that is, especially for an entrepreneur. Think about how the world would be different had Bill Gates not felt “comfortable taking some big risks.” What if he hadn’t felt that his parents would stand by him as he left college to start a software company? What if he hadn’t decided to devote his considerable resources to solving some of the world’s most difficult problems.

As a parent myself, I want very much for my children to feel that they have an advocate on their side no matter what. That isn’t the same as allowing them to get away with anything, but it means that they should never fear that they’ll disappoint me, or lose my acceptance, just because they may fall short. 

As a leader, whether that’s as a parent, or an entrepreneur, or a CEO, one of the greatest gifts you can give to the people over whom you have influence is the certainty that you will stand by then, even if they fail. Obviously, that relationship looks different in each of those roles, but the impact is often the same. It creates a safe place to try out ideas, explore, and build interesting new things. 

“Dad wrote me a letter on my 50th birthday,” Gates went on to write. “It is one of my most prized possessions. In it, he encouraged me to stay curious.”

That too–encourage people to be curious. After all, without curiosity, you rarely discover anything of significance. 

That’s pretty rare in a world where we’re often only considered as valuable as our latest performance. When you succeed, you get promoted. When you fail, you get shamed. Your job, as a leader, is to be sure no one in your sphere of influence ever feels shamed.

There’s one more nugget Gates gives about his dad, and it’s worth mentioning in closing. Gates says, “He saw the best in everyone and made everyone feel special.”

That’s a superpower. To be able to leave people feeling as though they are important and valuable is something we should all hope to have said about us when we walk out of a room. If only we could spend our 94 years doing just that.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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