A Life Lesson . . . in Leadership


Walter Brennan, three-time Oscar winner for Best Supporting Actor, stared in a 32 episode TV series, The Tycoon, between 1964-1965.  The very first episode was entitled “Horatio Alger Again”, and I remember watching it with amazement, because that one episode changed my paradigm about success and failure.  The plot was very simple.  Walter, a successful and wealthy self-made tycoon, took a bet that he could start over, from scratch with nothing, and build a successful business in three months.

In my young mind at that time (I was just 16 years old) success was all about having great experience and knowledge in one industry and working hard, using that expert knowledge, to get to the top.  And also, successful people in big companies got to the top through political skill, and not often the positive kind.  My view of business at that time was shaped by my parents, both teachers, who didn’t make much money and couldn’t understand how other people got rich, except by devious means.

Anyway, Walter was dropped into a small town with only money for a hotel room and had three months to prove his abilities to become a success again, from scratch. Needless to say, using his leadership skills and ability to “find out what customers really need”, he got a job in an auto repair shop as a mechanic.  After listening and talking to customers he discovered that many people had trouble with the mechanical jack used to raise the car in order to change a tire. So, he invented an electric jack that plugged into the car cigarette lighter socket for power. In a few short months he built a thriving business, which he sold to his old company for mega-bucks.

What I learned from that episode opened my eyes to what leadership is all about.  It’s not about what you have done in the past, your position in the community or your wealth. Real leadership is about being able to use your leadership skills to shape a positive future going forward, whatever situation you find yourself in.  A good definition of leadership is “the ability and willingness to shape a positive future”.

Failure is an opportunity to start again, more intelligently.  ~Henry Ford

It’s not uncommon in today’s volatile economy for people to be laid off from work. Even highly paid bankers, once the “captains of industry”, can quickly find themselves without a job, and no one is hiring.

Life is a cruel teacher, she gives the test first and the lesson afterward.

So, how do people respond when ill fortune arrives?  Do they wait for things to get better? Or, like Walter Brennan’s character in the TV show, do they use their leadership skills and personal capabilities to rebuild?

If dropped off in a new town, could you rebuild? Leadership is an activity, not a position or title.

Posted by: John R. Childress

Senior Executive Advisor on Leadership, Culture and Strategy Execution Issues,
Business Author and Advisor to CEOs
Visiting Professor, IE Business School, Madrid

e: john@johnrchildress.com
Twitter @bizjrchildress

Read John’s blog,  Business Books Website

Just published: LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture

Read  The Economist review of LEVERAGE
Also on Amazon:   
FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution

PS: John also writes thriller novels 



About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at john@johnrchildress.com or john.childress@theprincipiagroup.com
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