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
Just published: LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture
PS: John also writes thriller novels