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The Family Template
Transforming the Influence of Family
"It is not that I was born in a log cabin, but close to it. I came from a position of no money and no power," says Al Gamper, the president and CEO of the CIT Financial Group, when describing how the legacy of his family shaped his leadership. To trace Gamper's family template, we asked several leading questions: What did you learn from your parents as leaders of the family? How would you describe your role in the family? Was there a circumstance or event that touched every family member?
Al Gamper explains how his family life became a template—both a gauge and a pattern—for developing the habit of mind of conviction about corporate equity. "My family background made me aware that society shouldn't be so class conscious. Because of my father's economic struggles, I try to run CIT with an equity in how people are treated—where there is equality of purpose and people can differentiate themselves in their performance. I work to eliminate class and racial distinctions and trappings of the hierarchy. The employees in the mailroom call me Al."
Descriptions of the family template of numerous leaders reveal their family experiences as imprints that cast both shadows and light in their earliest education as leaders. Like Al Gamper, each leader adapts lessons learned from parents as leaders and in response to family events and circumstance.
A Family Template
Al Gamper was a sophomore at Rutgers University when his father'schronic emphysema forced him to quit his job. Gamper assumed the role of provider and dropped out of school to support his parents and older brother. He took a job at Manufacturer's Hanover Bank in Manhattan and finished his last two years of college in four years of night school. For Gamper, his family circumstance created a lifelong conviction about job security.
As he explains, "I watched my father going broke, paying bills. He didn't have the umbrella of an organization to help. As president of CIT, I am very aware of benefits that relate directly to families. We started the CIT Foundation to help employees in trouble. With its funds, we have sent terminally ill children to camp, helped divorced mothers pay their mortgages, and covered the costs of a funeral. Umbrellas are important here. We do these things because I've pushed it, because of what I went through as a kid."
Gamper offers another example of how his family history had been translated into company policy. A consultant once came in and suggested that the CIT Financial Group could save money by dropping all of its retirement programs. "God, I really took that personally," says Gamper. "Why? Because my own background made me so aware of security and treating people well. I want to build an organization that stays strong with good benefits and demanding high levels of work."
It is intriguing to note that Gamper also calls CIT a "paternalistic" company. Clearly Gamper's assumption of his father's role of provider became a pattern for his convictions as a leader. Yet his father's chronic illness did not lessen his influence. Consider how his father's leadership of the family offered Gamper an unforgettable lesson in equity and diversity. As Gamper explains, "My father had a big impact on how I treat people. He was an early advocate of diversity. No biases or bigotry were vested in me."
Gamper remembers a moment of meaning that took place when he was ten years old and called a schoolmate "a nigger" at the dinner table: "My father, who was a strict Swiss, glared at me and asked, `What did you say?' And I said, `You know, a nigger.' Then he said, `If I ever hear you use that word in this family, I will never talk to you again.' And for a couple of days after that, I wondered if I was still a Gamper. If he would have hit me with a stick, I would have felt better. Instead, I was treated like a pariah by this man I really admired. I never used that term again."
Years later, we can still see the link between his father's demand for tolerance and Gamper's own conviction about avoiding the trappings of race and class distinctions at the CIT Financial Group. Gamper also uses the bully pulpit of his leadership to embellish his father's message of tolerance. As the honoree at the annual meeting of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, he retold the story of his father's lesson in leadership and shared his own meaning: "We are all so conscious of racial issues. We have programs and associations working at it. But what we need is better parents. If you all had parents like mine, we wouldn't have as many race crimes in America."
Defining the Template
Gamper explained, "I'm a big believer that your environment and family life in your first ten years on this planet have a big impact on how you think in later life. You don't think about it consciously, but when someone asks me, `Why do you think that is so important?' some of these incidents come back." Gamper's comment echoed the advice of another leader who decried class distinctions. Karl Marx suggested that evolution might be studied in reverse with an eye fixed on the evolved species while looking backward for hints.
In this light, Papa Gamper's supper-time threat can be viewed as a "hint" that spoiled his son's appetite for racial slurs. Yet Al Gamper's expression of conviction and the actions of the CIT Financial Group to promote equity have evolved as his own invention. The family template is a powerful influence on leaders. Still, as psychologist James Hillman suggests, children are not simply the effect of parental causes. To understand this distinction requires a more precise definition of the family template.
A template is a gauge, mold, or pattern that functions as a guide to the form being made. It is also a way of organizing information on a computer screen. The early family life of leaders like Al Gamper suggests how brilliantly leaders organize the information of family patterns and experiences and transform them into habits of mind that define their leadership.
Al Gamper organized two aspects of the family template—the lessons learned from a parent's leadership and from the family's economic circumstances—and used them as a guide in his evolution as a leader. This inner work integrated lessons from the past to create the habit of mind of conviction in his leadership. Gamper's conviction is a habit of mind that leads directly to his strategic actions—from creating a culture at the CIT Financial Group that embraces equity and job security to advocating racial tolerance and diversity in the business community.
Parents as Leaders
The evolution of leaders "in reverse" can be clearly mapped by observing Al Gamper's convictions in the corporate arena and by examining the work of two intriguing leaders of nonprofit organizations: Doug Wheeler, the principal of Zion Preparatory Academy in Seattle, a school that welcomes children primarily from African American and lower-income families who have been overlooked in other school settings; and Beckie Masaki, the executive director of the Asian Women's Shelter, a facility in San Francisco that offers sanctuary for victims of domestic violence. We found their parents' leadership was vital in crafting their inner resources as leaders.
Doug Wheeler, Principal of Zion Preparatory Academy:
The Conviction of Family
Principal Douglas Wheeler calls Seattle's Zion Preparatory Academy "the Thirty-second Avenue Miracle." This inner-city school began in 1982 with six students, one teacher, a budget of thirteen dollars, and books taken out of dumpsters at nearby public schools. By 2000, Zion had grown to 534 students and moved into a $7.4 million facility that is financed by corporate and community support.
The imprint, or the hint, of Wheeler's parents as leaders is apparent in this scene from a Zion Prep schoolroom. Mark, a teacher, asks the students what is different about Zion Prep. The list begins: The students wear uniforms, lunch is free, and there is no gym or video games. Mark persists, "What else?" One of the students explains, "Because we call you guys `Brother' and 'Sister' instead of `Mister' and `Missus.'" When Brother Mark asks, "Why do we do that?" the student answers, "Because you love us." Then Mark says, "And when you love each other, what are you?" The class shouts, "A family!"
In Doug Wheeler's conviction about family at Zion Prep is the legacy of a powerful lesson in leadership taught by both of his parents. Wheeler talks about his pride in watching his father, a probation officer, walk down the street when he came from work: "This was the 1950s. He was the only Negro on our block who wore a suit and carried a briefcase," Wheeler says. And his father always came home to a full house. At one time, there were sixteen children—biological, adopted, and foster kids—in the Wheeler household.
The high census of children was his mother's idea. Wheeler says that every Christmas or holiday his mother brought a new baby home for a visit from the hospital where she worked, and the baby never left. He recalls his mother as a leader: "Mama was the disciplinarian. She was always on our backs. But she taught me how to give, how to embrace children and take care of them."
He remembers one particular Christmas when his mother brought home his future brother Gordy, "a two-week-old baby who was weak and unable to eat." Because her husband had told her, "Woman, no more children," Mama Wheeler asked six-year-old Doug to be her accomplice and hide the baby upstairs when his father got home. Predictably, Gordy squawked and was discovered by Dad, who demanded that he be returned to the hospital the next day. Instead, here is what Wheeler saw: "At three o'clock that night, I came downstairs and found my dad sitting in the living room, singing to Gordy and trying to get him to eat. He stayed up all night trying to feed that baby who became my brother."
Three years later, Wheeler's father taught him another unforgettable lesson in family values. Wheeler describes this moment of meaning: "When you sit at the breakfast table with sixteen kids, cereal doesn't go very far. One morning, when I reached for the little bit of cereal that was left, one of the other kids reached for it too. I got mad and said, `Give me that cereal! You are not one of the real children.'" His father took Doug upstairs, spanked him, and lectured, "You understand one thing: We are all family, and they are all your brothers and sisters." Wheeler was a quick study. He recounts, "By the time I came downstairs and looked around the table again, I knew that I would never say that to any child or anybody again."
To visit Zion Prep is to understand how far Wheeler has carried his father's sermon about the cereal. As he explains, "The thing that makes this school different is that we are willing to be a family for that child. We are willing to be Mom, Pop, Uncle, or Grandpa—whatever it takes to fit into a child's life so they realize that there is a family here."
In this school-as-family, Wheeler wants children to experience unconditional love. His message is, "You can mess up. There will be discipline and consequences, but we are still going to love you." Wheeler takes every opportunity to let the children know how valuable they are, telling them, "There is never going to be anyone like you." Just like his father, Wheeler believes that when you tell children how valuable they are, they will treat other people that way. "That's why we call each other `Brother' and `Sister,'" says Wheeler. "That's what I got at home."
Wheeler has transformed the commitment and tenderness of his parents as family leaders into a habit of mind of conviction that guides his leadership at Zion. Wheeler hopes to pass on these lessons in leadership to another generation of leaders in his role as principal. "When I look at all my children here, they are all my brothers and sisters," he says. "As the oldest, it is my responsibility to lead each one of those children, because each one of them is somebody's mom or dad in the future."
Beckie Masaki, Executive Director, Asian Women's Shelter:
Balancing Community and Self-Reliance
Beckie Masaki, executive director of the Asian Women's Shelter in San Francisco, was raised in a house on Tenth Street in the heart of Sacramento's Japanese American neighborhood. Her family's fish market, the unofficial clubhouse for the community, was on the same block. Masaki proved to be an astute observer of her parents' leadership at work and at home, recalling her parents' conviction about their community as well as their lessons about relying on one's inner authority.
After ten years of working in the field of domestic violence, Masaki was convinced that other available shelters couldn't meet the needs of Asian women. When she opened the Asian Women's Shelter, she explained, "For Asian women, safety is about interdependence and having a community that is going to help you." And Masaki is clear about the source of her conviction.
She recalls, "My parents' store was like a community center. When elderly people came in to cash their Social Security checks, my brother drove them home. If someone was sick, we brought them rice. My father would give people jobs and secretly loan them money. People would just hang out here. I see my work as an extension of that sense of community. It's too bad that feeling of neighborhood is destroyed in this country, because that's what I try to recreate and rebuild in a new way at the Asian Women's Shelter."
For Masaki, the family's sense of community also became a template of trust. She remembers her brother complaining about the way her father ran the store. "My brother would accuse the egg man of shortchanging us, but my father would never count," says Masaki. "He'd say, `We have been doing business with his family for years. We should trust them. It is more important to have the relationship than to argue about a few eggs.'"
Her family's conviction about community takes a different form in Masaki's own emphasis on collaboration. "We put a high value on working with other groups. You have to invest in the relationship and keep an eye on the big picture of the relationship itself. Being angry about the small points can do a lot to destroy trust," she says. Like her father, Masaki trusts people to bring their best to the table.
Yet why did Masaki, who had come from such a loving family, choose to take charge of a shelter for battered women? Because she has translated her family legacy of community in her own terms. "I have the privilege of not having been hurt, so it is my job to be part of the solution," she explains. "All of us, whether we have experienced domestic violence or not, need to be part of the solution. It may not be happening to me as an individual, but because it is part of the community I belong to, I experience it just as deeply as if it were happening to me."
At the Asian Women's Shelter, Masaki draws upon the resource of her conviction about community. She also understands how her mother's model of inner authority has influenced the core convictions of the shelter's treatment program. She says, "A lot of my philosophy about the shelter comes from my mother's philosophy of empowerment."
Masaki offered the following snapshot of her mother's strategy for teaching her to rely on her own strength and authority: "I never saw my mother cry. She was fiercely independent, competent—the opposite of a victim. If I would cry, my mother would be compassionate while giving me the message. You have to be tougher. If I was in trouble, I could run to her and it would be a safe place."
At these times, Masaki's mother would tell her, "I can see that you are in pain, and I will take care of you. But you need to learn to do this yourself." It is fascinating to note at the shelter how Masaki has integrated her mother's tough love into a model for ending the cycle of domestic violence.
She details her approach: "The first time someone comes in, we validate the fact that she has been hurt. She needs someone to nurture her and believe her story, to understand that she has been in a violent and dangerous situation. We offer her rest and food. Then comes the empowerment part. We tell a woman, `You have a lot of strength, and we are giving you a safe place so you can recover that strength within yourself.' If someone asks me whether she should get a divorce, I tell her, `You are the one who knows best.'"
By translating the legacy from her mother in her own words, Masaki reminds each woman that she has the tools and authority within herself to make her own decisions.
Like Mother, Like Daughter
Al Gamper's father was a teacher of tolerance, and Doug Wheeler's mother wrote the book on extended family. Beckie Masaki also has learned powerful lessons in leadership from her parents and defined her leadership by integrating the information and patterns of her family template in a fresh and moving way.
Throughout our interviews, we discovered leaders who have translated admirable lessons from their parents' leadership in their own terms. Yet this positive influence is not the only way that the family template creates a pattern for leadership. We also encountered leaders whose parents' behavior suggests caution or correction rather than inspiration.
Parents as Negative Models: Danger and Opportunity
For some leaders, parents became what one executive called "anti-role models." Whether parents are leaders who evoke caution or inspiration, they become catalysts for the growth of inner resources. Consider the example of Barbara Davis Blum, chairman and CEO of Adams National Bank (the largest women-owned bank in the United States). She does not mince words in describing her mother's influence and her desire to become a boss who was not like her mother.
"My mother was the anti-role model," says Blum. "She was a housewife with little education, few interests or friends, who got a migraine whenever confronted with a problem. I looked at her and I thought, 'If I don't do something with myself, make sure I get the best education, and develop some leadership skills, I could be just like my mother.'"
The impact of parents as negative models can be compared to the word crisis in Chinese calligraphy. In the Chinese language, the word crisis is drawn with two distinct characters. One means danger; the other, opportunity. Similarly, for exceptional leaders, even a negative lesson—a crisis—can become an opportunity to evolve. The experiences of John Mackey, founder and CEO of Whole Foods, who turned the crisis of his father's criticism into an opportunity to develop the resource of reflection, illustrate this point.
John Mackey, Founder and CEO, Whole Foods:
The Opportunity for Reflection
When John Mackey became a teenage vegetarian, his parents didn't want him to join them for dinner. Today, Mackey is the CEO of Whole Foods, America's largest chain of natural foods supermarkets. While he credits his father's leadership and support as essential in building his economic literacy as a leader, his father's short fuse for failure sent Mackey on an extended search for an alternative role model. Mackey's experience demonstrates how even a negative parent model of leadership can foster the growth of inner resources, such as, in Mackey's case, a habit of mind of reflection.
Mackey remembers, "My dad was the kind of guy that if I brought home a report card with all As and one B, he wouldn't say, `That's great!' He would say, `Why did you get the B?' He was a very successful businessman, and even though I had some early successes, my father was incredibly judgmental and had little tolerance for failure." His father's impatience, says Mackey, contributed to a crisis in confidence—one in which John dropped out of college six times and didn't regain his confidence until he started a business at age 24.
Mackey, who has been called the "accidental grocer," is a mindful leader who sought to learn from his experiences by studying religion, philosophy, and spirituality both in and out of college. In the early years of Whole Foods, his search for meaning led to his involvement in a program called "the Course of Miracles," a spiritual philosophy created by two psychologists. In this program, he found a model of reflecting and learned from the experience of his father's intolerance for failure.
As he explains, "`The Course of Miracles' is a pathway about forgiveness, about people making mistakes. I learned that forgiveness comes into play in overlooking people's mistakes. Instead of judging and finding fault—like my father did—we can let mistakes become lessons." Reflecting on his experience in leading Whole Foods, Mackey admits, "One of the reasons Whole Foods practices forgiveness is that I started this business at [age] 24 and made more mistakes than anyone. Yet these mistakes also meant that I had been open to new ideas."
Mackey has created a unique corporate culture based on what he has learned. At Whole Foods, the team, rather than the hierarchy, is the defining unit. Teams can make decisions without getting the green light from upper management. Mackey also practices what he calls "no secrets management," where every team member has access to all of the operating and financial data from corporate headquarters in Austin. The result, according to Mackey, is that "in most companies, people take a risk and if something goes wrong, they get their heads chopped off. Here, because we are decentralized, we let people take a lot of risks and let mistakes be lessons. We don't have a lot of rules handed down from Austin. We have lots of self-examination going on."
Mackey's unique response to failure, and his encouragement of reflection, is apparent in his description of an employee on his third round as a store team leader. Mackey says, "His first two times he didn't do a good job, and we had to pull him out of that position. In many companies, he would just get fired, but we recycled him into other jobs, and he learned the lessons and applied for store team leader again. The second time, he did a better job, but not good enough. So we moved him out again. Now, the third time, he's back in that position and doing an outstanding job. He's one of the best team leaders in the company."
John Mackey's inner work has allowed him to travel a great distance from the dangers of his father's reaction to failure. And it helped him transform a family template of intolerance to create the opportunity for a companywide resource of reflection.
Circumstantial Evidence: What Leaders Do with
What Happens to Them
Parents' leadership is central to the legacy and inner work of leaders. Yet in almost every interview, leaders also described family events and circumstances that stimulated the growth of their inner resources. For example: Philadelphia mayor Ed Rendell's beloved father died when Rendell was twelve years old; Senator Paul Wellstone was ten years old when his older brother was hospitalized for a mental breakdown; and CEO John Bryan of Sara Lee was given one of his father's companies to run when he was the ripe old age of twenty-four.
The aspect of "circumstance" in creating the family template recalls Huxley's definition of inner work. The key in each leader's life was not what happened to that person, but what he or she did with what happened. The route to leadership was directed by how each leader made sense of family events.
To understand this point, consider two leaders from two dramatically different circumstances: Gene Silberberg, the president of Bigsby & Kruthers, the premier menswear retailer in Chicago, and Bruce Hallett, president of Time, Inc., the publisher of Time magazine. For both of these leaders, family circumstances offered a lesson in developing the habit of mind of framework—one that stimulated their resilient, optimistic interpretations of challenges in their leadership.
Gene Silberberg, President, Bigsby & Kruthers:
Choosing a Habit of Mind
During the 1990 presidential debates, President George Bush wore two ties given to him by Gene Silberberg, CEO of Bigsby & Kruthers, a Chicago menswear store that counts Michael Jordan and Dennis Rodman among its frequent buyers. "Our customers buy suits, but we are in the entertainment business, looking for the last little exclamation point," says Silberberg about the seven Bigsby & Kruthers stores that have wet bars, large-screen televisions, and humidor-equipped cigar-smoking lounges. The festive atmosphere of the stores is a stark contrast to Silberberg's remembrance of his childhood circumstances.
Both of Silberberg's parents were Holocaust survivors; they met and married in a relocation camp. His father had been a successful businessman in Austria who had lost his lumber export business in the war. He later emigrated to Chicago, where he could only find work as a laborer. He left his last paycheck—fifty-six dollars for a week's work—in a dresser drawer and committed suicide when Silberberg was eleven. As Silberberg recalls, "I grew up hearing, `Your father is sick because of the war.' I was raised in an atmosphere where you were taught to always be looking over your shoulder. I not only had to live my own life, but I also had to live the lives of people who had died. I had to carry a double pack."
In spite of this burden of circumstance, Gene Silberberg is a resilient leader, one who transformed his parents' pessimism into a habit of mind of framework. He has interpreted the horror of the Holocaust and created a more optimistic style in his life and work.
"There are two kinds of people who came out of the Holocaust," he explains. "Some had seen the worst that could be done between men and had walked away with hopelessness. They had seen the darkest side, they would always look through dim and distrusting glasses, they would never really see the light again. My parents were like that: dim and grim."
Yet Silberberg was stimulated to seek the alternative. "On the other side, I saw people who were liberated, who felt like birds soaring above the earth. They had lived through the worst and God said they were to live, and they feel a responsibility to live life to the fullest." Clearly, Silberberg has decided to soar. Yet his family circumstances remain a part of his equation.
For Silberberg, once you make the decision to come out of the fire, you have little to lose. "So you take risks and you revel in the risks. You don't fear loss because everything is fleeting. The feeling of being on borrowed time gives you confidence," he says. "But that other part is always biting at your tush. It keeps you running smarter and a little faster."
Silberberg needs his optimistic framework in this era, when the menswear business is experiencing a record slump. Mention "casual Fridays" to Silberberg, and he tells you about the daunting challenge facing his company: "Right now, it's the biggest struggle we have ever had. The customer who has been wearing suits his entire adult life is switching to casual sportswear."
Still, he interprets the challenge of his customers with his resilient point of view: "On paper, I shouldn't even be here." But Silberberg takes the long view, because he can remember a time when he couldn't get a loan from Lake Shore Bank without an army of cosigners. Today, the former site of that bank is his newest Michigan Avenue store. "I'm still here," says Silberberg. "I'm taking the last suit wearers and trying to please them."
As he leads his company to counter the "jeaning" of corporate America, Silberberg wonders, "Will the tide turn before we do?" His deeds and words reveal his optimistic framework. He wonders, "Can I compete with the casual look sold by the Gap and Banana Republic? I have to try to outwit them and outwork them and out-create them. I have to keep asking, `What is the atmosphere of my stores? How will we advertise?'" His conclusion: "The only way to find out is to take it on."
Consider, now, a second tale of the role of family circumstance in the evolution of framework.
Bruce Hallett, President, Time, Inc.:
When asked how his employees at Time, Inc. would describe his strengths as a leader, Bruce Hallett answers with the speed of light, "I think they would say my abiding characteristic is my sense of optimism, my belief that we can get somewhere different than we are today. Maybe it is an over-the-top optimism, but it's something people seem to pick up on. They say, `If he thinks we can get there, damn it, then maybe we can!'"
When asked to consider his past as the prologue for this optimistic framework, Hallett's response is equally swift. "I'd have to go back to the model of my mother," he says and proceeds to describe a defining childhood event when he cut off two of his fingertips in his mother's meat grinder. This memory, Hallett says, is still "as clear as riding the train this morning."
"The meat grinder was one of those newfangled 1950s gadgets," Hallett remembers. "My mother was using it to cut up a leftover roast. I pushed the garbage can over, climbed up next to her, and asked if I could help. She handed me a wooden spoon, and I remember thinking, `Why do I need a spoon if Mom's not using one?' The minute she turned her back, I stuck a piece of roast into the grinder and sliced off the tops of two of my fingers."
After the accident, Hallett was hospitalized for several weeks. Here, his mother showed him a model for framing, or interpreting, the traumatic event. Instead of talking about the details of the accident, she insisted on a more resilient and optimistic interpretation. In the weeks and years after the accident, she always focused on how her son had brought Christmas cheer to the other patients in the hospital.
"Once I was bandaged up, I was just this happy little kid with this goofy little hand," said Hallett. "So whenever she told the story, my mother would remind me of how the doctors had carried me around the hospital to do their rounds and that I had been a great source of joy to everyone in the hospital. And she insisted on her interpretation, repeating this story again and again. She would tell me that I had not been in pain; I was just happily being myself. There was no `poor Bruce.' Instead, she offered the idea that I had done some good, that the accident was not a tragedy or a setback."
Hallett calls this framework typical of his mother. "Throughout my life she told me, `If you strike out, you will get a hit next time.' She taught, modeled, and lived in a resilient way," he says. In another example, Hallett remembers bringing home a note from a teacher complaining about his handwriting. He lamented then, "Look Mom, I've got these two shitty little fingers. How can I possibly write as well as the next guy?" But Mother knew best. "Don't you ever let that be an excuse for your performance," she warned. "I never did," recalls Hallett, noting, however, that even her resilient framework couldn't help him throw a curve ball. "I just couldn't get the last flick of spin," he jokes.
The circumstances of a childhood accident created an opportunity for Hallett's mother to model her optimistic framework. Many years later, Hallett continues to communicate a similar habit of mind in his leadership. He offers the example of his tenure as chief of Time's Australia bureau, when he presided over the less-than-stellar launch of Who Weekly, the Australian version of People magazine. Both sales and ad revenues had been disappointing, but instead of despairing, Hallett framed the situation as temporary. He explains, "First editions are never a vivid reflection of what the magazine will be."
Because of his resilient framework—which resulted in his interpretation of the disappointing launch—Hallett was able to rally his troops at the next editorial meeting. He talked about the importance of what they were doing and of his personal commitment to the magazine for the long haul. "It was a defining moment for the magazine," he says. "People really understood that I would be, as they say in Australia, the last guy off the boat."
Reflecting on the lesson he learned, the meeting was also a defining moment for Hallett as a leader: "In that meeting, I understood that leadership is not about imitating somebody else, but about being yourself. The things that worked best for me—my enthusiasm, optimism, and energy—were the biggest resources I had as a leader. I realized that playing on those resources was the best chance I had for being successful."
Avoiding the Traps of the Family Template
Family life offers lessons in leadership in a variety of ways: by seed sentences that grow in meaning, by sermon, by model and example, through inspiration and caution, in life-changing events and circumstances. Each of the scenarios described here illustrates how the medium of family life sends clear messages about how to, or how not to, behave as a leader. But only the leaders-to-be who are watching and listening receive those messages.
Exceptional leaders share the willingness and ability to create a new meaning from their family experiences. They transform their family template into a model for powerful habits of mind that shape their point of view and strategies as leaders. Yet there are two traps in tracing the family template.
The first trap is determinism. A view of family as destiny ignores the cognitive and emotional gifts—and the wonderful quirkiness in temperament and personality—of each individual leader. Countless leaders grew up in families with economic strife. But how many of them have translated the experience into the supportive corporate culture Al Gamper leads at the CIT Financial Group?
We have little desire to join the noisy discussions about nature versus nurture. Nor do we want to join in the furor du jour suggesting that parents don't matter, but genes and peers do. Instead, the family template is best understood in terms of medieval chemistry and the art of alchemy. In alchemy, a combination of elements creates a new, distinct (and even more valuable) element. Similarly, the study of the inner work of leaders reveals the leader and his or her family were combining elements that together created rich inner resources.
A second trap lies in ignoring the power of continuing education. Our consulting and training work has shown us that every leader-in-waiting can be taught to draw upon the legacy of family. The ability to translate a life legacy into habits of mind is a leadership strategy that can be learned and practiced.
Former Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder and PC Connection cofounder and CEO Patricia Gallup have both combined and transformed the legacy of family into rich habits of mind.
Former Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder,
President, Association of American Publishers:
The Anchor of Conviction
By the time former Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder was five years old, her family had moved so many times that Schroeder would advertise her new-kid status by placing her toys on the curb and then sit in a nearby chair to try to lure new friends. "We were like tumbleweeds," remembers Schroeder, whose pilot father was called in to teach in the U.S. Army Air Corps and forced to close his private airport in Oregon after the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Schroeder's family circumstance, along with her parents' leadership, contributed to her capacity to rely on her own conviction. Clearly, Schroeder is the daughter of parents who declared their own (and her) independence. Schroeder offered a portrait of her working mother: a teacher in an era where women ironed sheets and wore white gloves when they went over to someone's house (so they could test for dust).
"Mother didn't buy into that," Schroeder says. "The lesson she taught me was that it was better to learn to play the piano than to make sure it is dust-free. She taught me to do what you think is important and ask yourself, `Am I making progress in what is important to me?'"
About her father's legacy in her leadership, Schroeder explains that her father's baby sister was a tomboy who could outrun and outshoot her brothers. "So my father didn't think I needed to wear pink organdy and sit on silk cushions," says Schroeder. "He allowed me to take flying lessons and to get my pilot's license when I was sixteen. It was fun to be able to do those adult things. I was proud to be different—to have achieved something besides having the best tan."
Then there is the matter of Schroeder's allowance. In 1948, her parents scandalized the second grade when they began to give her an allowance of thirty-five dollars a month, from which she would have to pay for the bus, lunch, school supplies, and Tootsie Rolls. Schroeder shares the meaning of these lessons about trusting her own authority: "From day one, they conveyed tremendous trust in me. I lead the same way today: I run my own office horizontally; I drive my own car, dial my own phone. I don't hover and lecture. I give people a job and trust them to do it. I think that is one of the reasons we kept winning the Best Congressional Staff of the Year Award."
Schroeder's years in Congress are marked by this ripening of her inner authority, such as her willingness to stake out and stand by often unpopular, lonely convictions. As she explains, "I came from Colorado, from Marlboro country, and I chose to work on the issues of women in the military, family and medical leave acts, and gun control. But I'm comfortable enough to form my opinion; I'm not about to defer. The more someone tries to intimidate me, the more I think they don't have the facts."
When Schroeder describes these steadfast positions, she reveals she has transformed her mother's model of defining what is important. Schroeder delivers this message with her signature humor and candor: "Leadership isn't something you put on, like a dress," says Schroeder. "You can't just take polls every day. You have to know what matters to you, and stay in there and educate, and let people know what you are about."
Schroeder is clear about the sources of her conviction. "It comes from the trust my parents put in me." Her inner work—how she has transformed this template of trust—is apparent in her definition of politics. As she explains, "Politics is easy. I'm not an actress; I never tried to hide my positions. I figure anyone who voted for me knows I am pro-choice, anti-gun, and pro-working women. I still got elected. If they didn't like my positions, they could elect someone else."
Patricia Gallup, Cofounder and CEO, PC Connection:
The Habit of Attunement
Patricia Gallup, cofounder and CEO of PC Connection, the nation's largest mail-order and catalog personal computer company, described how her family's "dinner theater" had developed her habit of mind of attunement. Gallup's father—a carpenter, union organizer, and mediator—would direct Patricia and her sister in role play to imagine and debate different sides of an issue. Picking a topic in the news, such as civil rights or the Vietnam War, he invited his daughters to view the issue from all angles.
At other times, Gallup's father would bring his work home. She recalls, "Sometimes at dinner he would talk about grievance cases he was working on and ask us to imagine the point of view of both the employee and the manager. He would challenge us to ask why each person felt so strongly—and to think about a possible positive outcome for both people."
Gallup sums up the impact of this family practice of attunement: "I think it was good for my sister and me to be exposed to thinking about issues, putting ourselves in the other person's shoes, and trying to understand their point of view." Gallup calls attunement "the basis of everything I do as a leader."
As she explains, "Whenever I am making a decision about the company—whether it has to do with customers, employees, or vendors—I ask myself, `What would they be looking for? What are their expectations? How can I make a decision that is in the best interest of all parties?' I try to take everyone's viewpoint into account. If I don't have time to talk to them, I can try to consider the situation from what their point of view might be. If I do a good job of this, I can make a decision that everyone will buy into."
For Gallup, understanding and going beyond customers' expectations is the reason for PC Connection's reputation as an innovator in customer service and support. Case in point: PC Connection doesn't rely on marketing studies to assess customer needs. "By the exercise of putting ourselves in our customers' shoes," says Gallup, "we can be intuitive about people's needs."
Gallup's exercise of attunement inspired the design of two key customer innovations that have become industry standards: PC Connection was the first company to offer toll-free technical support before, during, and after the initial sale. "I could empathize with the needs of new PC users," says Gallup. "When we started this service, the industry was new; there were a lot of new products. Because computers were so new, we felt our customers needed that additional help and feeling of security when deciding who to buy from."
A second customer innovation—shipping every order overnight—was the result of Gallup and business partner David Hall's ability to envision their customers. Gallup observes, "In this global business environment, people have a different sense of time. We could imagine our customers working late in the evening to get information pulled together for the next day. We didn't want them to wonder, `Is the company open?' We want them to know that we are open seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day, and if they order by 2:45 A.M., they will receive their order the next day."
Gallup's passion for being attuned to the needs of customers—what she calls "exceeding their expectations"—can also be traced to her family template. She recalls how her mother, a registered nurse, would volunteer to care for sick neighbors, and her father worked as a volunteer firefighter: "My parents were living on limited resources. Yet they were always reaching out to others, often going beyond other people's ideas about what another person would do for you."
Gallup was eight years old when her father fought a neighbor's house fire until dawn. She remembers, "When he came home, he had trouble breathing and his hands began to blister. It turns out he had stood so close to the fire and inhaled so much warm air, that his lungs had burned and scarred."
Whether Gallup is responding to customer needs by offering overnight delivery or responding to employee needs by developing affordable housing near PC Connection's first corporate headquarters in rural New Hampshire, she sees the influence of her parents' attunement. Gallup sums up this lesson in leadership: "I think my parents' commitment—the whole idea of treating people right—is the source of my passion for the customer and doing the right thing for them."
Why All Leaders Are Alike
When we interviewed Leonard Riggio, CEO of Barnes & Noble, he was tired of reading about his family template. He explains, "A lot has been written about my dad and how he was a great prize fighter who instilled fear in his opponents. Reporters find it convenient to dismiss what I have done by playing on that, as though I'm just some kind of tough guy or bully knocking off the competitors." Riggio deconstructs his dad in a very different way: He sees him as a ringleader and a teacher, not a fighter.
Len Riggio set the record straight, talking about his father's empathy, energy, and innovative ideas: "My dad was a boxer, but what people don't know is that he abhorred violence. He would walk out of a John Wayne movie and say, `Those people are not heroes.' He picked more people off the canvas than he put down on it. His whole life was about inspiring people to become more than they thought they could be."
When Riggio wants to inspire his staff and to excite them "to think outside of the box," he talks to them about admiring his father's ahead-of-his-time ideas. As he explains, "My father was always coming into my office with ideas that later made someone else a fortune. I remember how we scoffed at his idea of starting takeout Italian food at our neighborhood restaurant. Now it is a thousand-store chain."
Riggio's lesson from his father's leadership lies in the habit of mind of attunement—being open to new ideas from everyone. As he puts it, "I realized how often we are dismissive of people who are bright and creative. We put them in a category and say they can't sit at the table. My father's farsightedness showed me how important it is to embrace ideas from everyone."
Listening to Riggio, we are tempted to tinker with the novelist Tolstoy's wisdom about the family template. This magnificent storyteller has suggested "all happy families are alike." Our observation is that all exceptional leaders are alike because they create a rich meaning from their family template.
For these leaders, the family's past is prologue, and they finish the story in the development of their habits of mind. Yet family is only part of the story. Because it takes more than family to educate a leader.
|Introduction: The Inner Work of Leaders||1|
|Pt. 1||The Legacy of Leaders|
|Ch. 1||The Family Template: Transforming the Influence of Family||17|
|Ch. 2||The World as Teacher: Learning from Exemplars and Experience||40|
|Ch. 3||The Moments of Meaning: Translating Events into Commitments||63|
|Pt. 2||Habits of Mind: The Resources to Inform and Invigorate Leadership|
|Ch. 4||Reflection: Examining Experience||81|
|Ch. 5||Framework: Creating an Optimistic Narrative||103|
|Ch. 6||Attunement: Learning from Those You Lead||125|
|Ch. 7||Conviction: Relying on Inner Authority||148|
|Ch. 8||Replenishment: Restoring Perspective||174|
|Endnote: Leadership as a Habit of Mind||186|
|App. A: Authors' Note||209|
|App. B: People Interviewed for this Book||211|
|App. C: The Inner Work Interview||215|