All Industries, Management, Success Story

The Red Pen: A story about leadership, love, and my father

Keith Mercurio
June 13th, 2024
5 Min Read

One of my earliest leadership lessons involves my father and my brother, and the impact of that moment still resonates. I’ll never forget it. 

I was probably about 7 years old, which would have made my brother about 14. He was everything you want to be: star athlete, handsome kid, never got into trouble. Honestly, it was exhausting being his little brother.

Above all, he was an exceptional student. And one night he came downstairs with a paper he’d written and he proudly gave it to my dad, Dennis, who was an English teacher. 

So my dad did what an English teacher would do. He went through it and he graded it with a red pen. 

When my brother came back down, he took one look at the paper, covered in red, and broke down crying.

He experienced what it feels like to think you’ve done right, only to find that someone else thinks you've done wrong.  It’s disappointing. It’s embarrassing. It makes us feel inadequate. 

There were lessons in that moment for me, too, some that it would take me years to learn. And there was a lesson for my dad. But we’ll get back to that. 

The arbiter of right

In that moment, my brother thought he was right. All those red marks showed him how he was wrong. And that’s where the trouble began, not just for them, but for all of us.

For most of us, school was the first institutional value system we were exposed to. The more we were right, the more value we had as a human being. 

We were measured in percentages of rightness. Our grades told us whether we were good or bad, and by extension whether we had a future or not. Our beliefs about our place in the world were formed by an educational system that literally attached a grade to us. 

It’s no wonder we became obsessed with being right, and defensive when told we’re wrong. And that sets us up for a lifetime spent pursuing the idea of being right, in our careers, our relationships, and our views of the world. 

I submit that the No. 1 limitation to growth, happiness and success, for every human being, is our need to be right. 

The cost of being right

So, what does that pursuit ultimately cost us? I know what it has cost me.

My need to make my brother wrong about how he handled my wedding cost me about four years of a good relationship. Making my old boss wrong about how he handled my exit from the company cost me five years without talking to one of my best friends. And most recently, being absolutely certain that I was right about the way my marriage should look cost me that, too. 

The need to be right stands in the way of more happiness, more progress, more success, and more good ideas. It’s creating conflict, and it’s insidious. 

But this need exists in every person. And the only way to defend against it is to accept that we’re just as susceptible to it as everybody else. 

But there’s good news. The greatest leaders, some of whom I have the privilege to coach, have overcome this tendency by shifting their strategy in three key ways:

  • They shift their lens from right and wrong to effective vs. ineffective. As it turns out, four years of making my brother wrong about the way he handled my wedding got me no closer to him. That was pretty damn ineffective, and not the outcome I wanted.

  • They choose curiosity over conviction. They shift the paradigm by saying, “Hey, this is my best thinking right now.” And asking themself, “What if there’s something I don’t know?” We can have our beliefs. We just have to be cautious not to confuse them with truth. 

  • And they ask for advice, not feedback. When we ask for feedback, we just want to hear how great a job we did. Looking for advice shows us how we could do better. And we are free to listen and learn.

Lessons, legacy and loss

That brings us back to all those red marks on my brother’s English paper. They led to a change, too. 

When my brother started crying, my dad didn’t tell him he needed to toughen up. He looked at that moment and asked himself, “What can I do differently?”  

And he changed. He stopped using a red pen, and switched to blue or black. Rather than showing students how they were wrong, he showed them how they could be better. He didn’t lower his standards, he just changed his strategy.

For 35 years teaching middle school English in Arlington, Massachusetts, he never complained about a single student. Countless of them have told me he was their favorite teacher, even if they got C’s and D’s. 

His philosophy was that if you wanted big things from people, you have to see those people as big. And he did.

Over the past two years, he was riddled with Alzheimer’s, leaving him barely able to form a sentence in the language he had mastered. 

He had lost his wife of 50 years, my mom. He lost his dog. He lost his ability to drive. He lost his house when we sold it so he could move into a memory care unit. 

But he didn’t lose what made him special, the ability to see the best in people. Everyone who cared for him. Everyone who visited. 

And even as he was losing his mind, he continued to see the best in me. That brought out in me levels of compassion, patience and love I never knew I had.

Dennis Mercurio passed away in January, at age 80. This will be our first Father's Day without him. 

But his legacy remains. Because he only saw the best in people, that’s all they got to be in his presence. That’s why he was so beloved. 

He saw everyone around him as being capable of the extraordinary, and he was right. And that’s something worth being right about.

Note: Special thanks to my friend and colleague Mike Persinger for the inspiration and co-authorship of this article. Without him, this story never would have made it to print.

To donate to The Alzheimer’s Foundation in Denny’s honor, click here.

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