No Surrender

one-foot

“Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never – in nothing, great or small, large or petty. Never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy…”
– Winston Churchill

Of course, Churchill just had to fight off the Nazi’s and protect his country from annihilation.  I wonder how he would have handled trying to launch a new business into which he had just invested his life savings when the tech bubble burst and 9/11 stopped the world of commerce from spinning.  Or, how would he have responded when he just got his business humming on all cylinders when the Great Recession hit.  I don’t know how he would have responded when his job got eliminated just as his oldest child was going off to college and his youngest child needed emergency medical treatment.  Or, how he would respond to graduating college with a mountain of debt and trying to find a job in his chosen industry?  Or, if he were a single parent, abandoned by a spouse and faced with raising a family by himself.

I suspect he would have responded EXACTLY THE SAME WAY!

In business and in life, we are constantly faced with insurmountable odds.  The successful executive and the successful person are the ones who do not quit.  They focus on the potential, not the probable.  As we have discussed before, they choose hope and optimism.  During World War II, Churchill willed his country to victory (of course, it helps to have the U.S. as an ally, too).  But, had he not shown his country his will and his resolve to NEVER give in, it is likely that the outcome would have been very different.

How many times in business have you been faced with an overwhelming challenge?   How many times have you not backed down and, even if the outcome was not optimal, were you ultimately proud of yourself for not quitting?  Conversely, how many times have you folded at the first (or second or third) sign of adversity and kick yourself later for not fighting back?  You cannot always control the outcome, but you can control how you respond to the challenge.  As Randy Pausch said in The Last Lecture, “Brick walls are there for a reason – to see how badly we want something.”

Those of you who remember the animated Christmas classic, Santa Claus is Coming to Town (millennials, you guessed it, YouTube) had a great song that I literally hum to myself whenever I am at my lowest and do not know where to turn…

“Just put one foot in front of the other and soon you’ll be walking ‘cross the floor
Just put one foot in front of the other and soon you’ll be walking out the door!”

It is that simple.  Back in the day (before arthritis and artificial hips), I used to be a runner.  I loved going for long runs after work.  One day, I was talking to a much better runner about how I struggled with running up hills.  He told me the secret was to look down, not up.  “If you look down, the pavement looks flat and you don’t focus on the hill, instead you focus on your steps.”  Yup, just one foot in front of the other.

I am currently working on building a new business.  It is a lot of fun and there are many opportunities for success.  It is also significantly harder than I thought it would be.  So, while I hum my tune, I also focus on some great advice my very dear “friend” gave me…

“We made a promise.  We swore we’d always remember.  No retreat, baby.  No surrender.”  Bruce Springsteen

Hello. My Name Is Michael Marcon. You Killed My Business. Prepare To Die.

untitled

The Princess Bride is one of the most beloved movies of a generation.  If you read Michael Marcon Tweets from February 5 (“I Believe”), then you know that movie fits all of my priorities for a good movie – good guys beat the bad guys, true love triumphs, catch phrases galore, and, of course, hidden business lessons abound.

The Man in Black  We learn that “the man in black” (TMIB) is actually the hero.  In life and in business, things are never as black and white as they appear. It was only once he was unmasked that we realize TMIB was the hero, not the villain.  One of the most important lessons I learned from my Mom was when she said, “You never know what goes on behind someone else’s closed door.”  You make assumptions about people at your peril. Better to look behind the mask.

“We are men of action. Lies do not become us.”  Of all the great quotes of this movie, this is the one that always stuck with me.  I remember hearing it the first time and thinking, “Yes. I want to be a “man of action.”  Since then, I have thought of it often as I would reflect, “what is the alternative, inaction? Who can live like that?”

“Lies do not become us” is one of the most fundamental premises in life and business.  I love how the movie underscores the fact that, to be a hero, you need to be above reproach.  Lies, in fact, do not become you.

“Inconceivable!”  Just like Vizzini’s best laid plans, things never work out quite the way you think they will.  Viewers tend to focus on Vizzini’s cluelessness.  What astute business leaders should focus on is the fact that each time his plan was foiled, Vizzini did not give up.  He formulated a new plan.  And, each time, he was convinced he had solved his problem.  The only way to truly “capture your princess” is to keep trying different plans until you find the one that works.  Of course, it also helps to make sure you never, ever, “match wits with a Sicilian when death is on the line!”

The inconceivable scenes also highlight another important point in business – just because you sound smart and spout your various technical jargon, it does not mean you are.  Ultimately, you will be judged on your performance.  At Equity Risk, we had a colleague who was constantly using the current business buzzwords and phrases.  But, he never seemed to use them in the right situations.  Instead of impressing people, he highlighted his ignorance and insecurity.  After one unfortunately poor use of a business buzzword, a colleague leaned over to me and whispered, “He keeps using that phrase.  I do not think it means what he thinks it means.”

“Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” With the possible exception of “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” or “Say hello to my lil friend”, this may be the most quoted line in movie history.  It demonstrates that in order to achieve a goal, you need to have a single- minded devotion to that goal.  Inigo devoted himself to studying fencing and consistently prepared himself for the moment when he would face his nemesis.  As we have learned in business, we never know when our opportunity will present itself. We have to prepare every day. As we learned in life, God has told us that we know not the hour of our reckoning.  We have to prepare every day.

“Have fun stormin’ da’ castle!”  In business and in life, you need a great quest. No matter the odds, life is not worth living and business is not worth doing if you do not have a great quest.  The author of the phenomenal best seller, Good to Great, Jim Collins refers to them as “BHAGs” – “Big, Hairy, Audacious, Goals”.  The most difficult aspect of my post-Equity Risk life is finding the next castle to storm.

“There’s not a lot of money in revenge.”  As Inigo says to TMIB, “I just work for Vizzini to pay the bills.”  In business, there is no money in revenge.  You will be wronged.  You will be cheated.  You will get screwed.  Focus on the quest.  Just like in the movies, the bad guys – ultimately – never get away with it.  Don’t waste your time chasing them.  And, boy, have I wasted my time.  Hopefully, I can, in my best Grandpa/Peter Falk voice, tell you a good story and keep you from making the same mistake.

“I want my father back, you son of a bitch!”  No business lesson here.  I just do.

True Love  The Princess Bride serves as a wonderful reminder that the single greatest power for good is true love.  In business, you have to love what you are doing.  You cannot succeed completely if you are focused on money or power or title or office size.  The only way to perform at a consistently high level over a long period of time is if you truly love what you do.  In life, true love defines our entire existence.  From Mary to the boys to Laura to Penelope, true love sustains my every waking moment.  I am consumed by my desire to protect them, provide for them, and watch them achieve their own great quests.

If you have not watched The Princess Bride, I encourage you to do it – with your family.  It will reinforce your faith in humanity (and who does not need that these days).  If you have watched it, I encourage you to watch it again and, as I do, try to incorporate the lessons into your everyday life.

And, if you like what you have read and you would like me to keep posting these thoughts, all I can say is…

As You Wish.

The Gospel According to Fred

03p62

When my son, Matthew, was born, I received a very nice gift from my Mom that has stayed with me for the past 25 years. It was a book called A Father’s Book of Wisdom, by H. Jackson Brown (FYI – he also wrote the mega bestseller, Life’s Little Instruction Book). The book contained thoughts and reflections on what it means to be a father. There was one thought that has shaped my view on fatherhood since the minute I read it…

“Today, fathers are more like friends, because they don’t have the guts to be fathers.”

I was thinking of that line last week as I reflected on what would have been my father, Fred’s, 81st birthday. As most of you know, he passed away last year. Over the past 14 months since his death, I have found myself frequently quoting him to others, both in business, as well as in personal settings. During this holy season, I thought I would share with you The Gospel According to Fred. If you follow it religiously, you, too, can have everlasting life… in business.

“What the @#$% do you think you’re doing?” This is what Fred said to me as I dramatically loosened my tie, unbuttoned my collar and plopped into my seat to join him on the train ride home from New York City after “a hard day” at my summer job. He “explained” to me that I would never know who I might run into while on the train and asked me if my current sartorial affectation is how I wanted to present myself. To this day, I have never loosened my collar or lowered my tie until I am safely ensconced in my closet at home. As Fred further told me, “If your collar is too tight, then get a shirt that fits.”

“Play to your strengths and fix your weaknesses.” Fred became the Chairman and CEO of ISO, Inc (now Verisk Analytics) by understanding where he had a competitive advantage and where he did not. ISO is a very data driven business and Fred knew that numbers and data were not his strengths. He fixed his weaknesses by recruiting the best IT and data talent he could find – including, at one point, paying a Senior Vice President a higher salary than Fred was making and President and COO. His comment to me was a great lesson – “That is what it took to get the best talent. He doesn’t know that he makes more than me. He was the best person and it will ultimately help the company succeed. And, if the company succeeds, then I will succeed.”“I’d pump gas if I had to in order to support this family.” As frequent readers already know, I focus on the balance between business and life. Too many people are “overweight” to one side or the other. Fred never forgot what his first priority was – his family. He knew that he would do whatever he had to do to provide for his family. What is interesting is that such a characteristic also made him a more successful executive. People who will do whatever they need to do to support their family will also do whatever they need to do to excel in business. If you’re not willing to pump gas, you’re likely not willing to pull an all-nighter on the Johnson account, fly the red-eye to pitch the Smith account, or respond 24/7 to the needs of the Jones account.

“I don’t give a “flyin” about anybody other than the 7 people in this family.” Fred kept his head down. He never got caught up in “keeping up with the Jones”, either personally or professionally. A very dear friend of mine who was a mentor to me during my days at Aon (Mickey C – thank you) once said to me on the subject of keeping his own counsel – “Mikey (yes, he got away with calling me that), when I lay my head on my pillow, I sleep the contented sleep of someone who owes nothing to nobody.” At Equity Risk Partners, I banned the use of the phrase “Word on the street is…”.   I did not care about who was doing what to whom. As I always told my colleagues, “We play offense. Let the other guys figure out how to stop us!”

“You have to take me…warts and all.” Fred was comfortable in his own skin. He knew what he was and who he was. More importantly, he knew what he was not. Being honest with yourself gives you great freedom. He did not hide his uniqueness, he celebrated it. It became a strength because he was consistent. Family members and business colleagues crave consistency.

“He/She is a hustler.” This was the ultimate compliment from Fred. Some people are born with certain skills. Some people are blessed by God with talent that others can only dream of. But, anybody can hustle. That is just will power and determination. Fred had all the time in the world for hustlers.

“This place is a gold mine.” Fred was an optimist. He saw upside when others saw downside (more on that below). He looked for constant improvement, both in his children and his employees. The gold mines he identified were never as apparent to others. There was a line he always used with me as a child that I have often repeated to colleagues that I mentor/counsel – “I have more faith in you than you have in yourself. Until you reverse that equation, you will not maximize your potential.”   The “gold mine” to Fred was achieving your maximum outcome.

“If he is a bad person, just imagine how good you look standing next to him.” To Fred, nothing in business or life was more important than the right values (see Michael Marcon Tweets, Lunch with Mike, ½ Personal). He always approached business and life from one perspective – Act as if your mother is watching.   Early in my career, I was asked to accept a promotion that would catapult me into the upper echelons of the company. But, it would require me to work with someone whose ethics and values were universally regarded as “challenged” (it’s Lent, so I will be polite). I was worried about the repercussions of being associated with this person. I was going to turn down the job and “make a stand on principle”. That is when Fred advised me, “If he is as bad as you think he is, just imagine how good you will look standing next to him.” I took the job. I looked good.

“Surprise me.” Despite his penchant for consistency, Fred always knew he could not get stale. I lost count of how many times – ordering dinner (salad dressing, beverage, etc), on his birthday, Father’s Day, and Christmas (wish list), at the movies (popcorn or Milk Duds), buying a car (color), playing golf (course choice), his answer was, “Surprise me.” As kids, we were thrilled when we got to “pick for Dad.” Imagine how an employee(s) would feel and the creativity they would utilize if the answer to their inquiry on some thorny business issue “fork in the road” was “Surprise me”.

“They just don’t realize that this is not a crisis, it is an opportunity.” This is probably the defining quote of all of the one’s Fred said to me. One day, as we were out for a run, I could tell something was weighing on him. I asked what was going on. He proceeded to tell me that his business was embroiled in a significant litigation. His frustration was not with the lawyers. His frustration was not with the attorneys general that were suing him. His frustration was with his team. They were panicking. The “allegations” were severe. The PR was terrible. Then he said, “They just don’t realize that this is not a crisis. This is an opportunity.” He never lost his wits. He never rushed his thought process. He stayed true to his values and he systematically turned the crisis into an opportunity. The incredibly successful NYSE public company, Verisk Analytics, is a direct result of his actions on that day.

As we discussed in our last post, you can choose hope or you can choose despair.  Fred chose hope – always. What will you choose?

Surprise me.

It’s Alright

2012 Light of Day Concert Series

We all know that I am a big fan of Bruce Springsteen. How big, you ask? I have been to more than 40 concerts, including one in Hyde Park in London with more than 100,000 people. For grins, when I rent a car with Sirius XM radio, I change all of the radio presets to “E Street Radio”. Bruce and his music have been the soundtrack of most of my life. In fact, the number of shows I have attended should really be added by one more – in 1978, when I was in 9th grade, one of my friend’s older sisters invited him and me to a concert featuring this guy I had never heard of. You guessed it, Bruce Springsteen. Unfortunately, about 3 hours before the show, I “mouthed off” to my Mom over some issue that I can no longer recall. She grounded me and said I could not go to the show. I remember thinking, “Boy, did I get off easy. Who cares about some concert by some guy I don’t know?” What a total dork I was back then! (I have improved modestly since)

One of the things I like most about Bruce Springsteen’s music is the hope. No matter how dark, no matter how much despair the characters have, there is always hope. Being a fundamentally optimistic person, the messages of hope always register with me. No song does this better than “Lonesome Day” from The Rising. Written in the aftermath of 9/11, “Lonesome Day” follows a character struggling with the despair and loss associated with 9/11. Yet, it is the chorus that gets to me every time – especially live in concert when 30,000 people sing it in unison and punctuate with a fist pump at the end.

It’s Alright! It’s Alright! It’s Alright! (fist pump) YEAH!

It’s Alright! It’s Alright! It’s Alright! YEAH!

It’s Alright! It’s Alright! It’s Alright! YEAH!

It’s Alright! It’s AlRiiiiiiight!

I think this is a great way to approach life and business. It is a fundamentally optimistic and hopeful choice. It does not mean that bad things won’t happen. It does not mean that you won’t have bad luck or get a bad break. It means you have a choice as to how you respond to it.

When my mother was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, she adopted a very “faithful” attitude. She would say, “It’s God’s will.” One day, we took her to meet the Bishop of Green Bay, David Ricken. We had learned that they “shared” the same patron saint, Padre Pio, of Italy. The Bishop offered to pray with my Mom. While they were meeting, the Bishop asked Mom about her diagnosis. She replied, “It’s God’s will.” He asked her, “Do you want to beat this?” “With everything I have”, she replied. His reply has always stuck with me, “Then, it’s alright to tell Him what you prefer His will to be!”

Choose hope.

Choose optimism.

As we have discussed before, your family and your employees are always watching. Your approach to adversity affects their assessment of the situation and their reaction to it. Do you give them a reason to hope or a reason to despair? Do you give them a glass full of optimism or an empty glass of disappointment? They will take their cues from you and they will not only mirror your reaction, they will magnify it throughout the family or the organization. You only get one shot to react. Once it has been magnified, it is virtually impossible to change course. That is why you must consciously choose to pursue a path of hope and optimism. You cannot fake it.

The other day, Penelope was at the house for a visit (if you don’t know who she is by now, you have to go read the prior blogs). We were playing on the floor when she fell backwards and bonked her head. It was not a big bonk, but it scared her and she started to cry. We held her and began to soothe her. We whispered “It’s alright. It’s alright. It’s alright.” She stopped crying and smiled.

Yeah.

Michael C. Marcon is the founder and Managing Member of M3K Holdings, Chairman of The Marcon Foundation, founder and former CEO of Equity Risk Partners and former chairman of the Ursinus College board of trustees. He tweets from @mcm7464. Tweet him any of your questions about business, leadership or life.

I Believe

019-Bull-CrashDavis1

So, I am watching Bull Durham the other night and Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) goes into his soliloquy about what he believes – “…high fiber…good scotch…I believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone…”. That got me to thinking, “What do I believe?” In case you were wondering, here are some of my beliefs related to business and life:

Let’s start with what should be obvious – I believe that if you disagree with a comment on Twitter/Facebook/Instagram, don’t read it. If you don’t like the values portrayed in a movie or a book or a song, don’t watch/read/listen.

I believe in more tolerance and less outrage. And, I definitely believe in less “faux outrage” (Cory Booker for you “blues”; Sean Hannity for you “reds”).

I believe we need to look at intent before we get offended at the result instead of assuming the person meant to offend.

I believe I need to be forgiven significantly more often than I need to forgive.

I believe we need to do “…a little more lookin’ out for the other guy, too.” (Not mine – Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington).

I believe you should pay more for quality that will last than less for crap that won’t.

I believe the TV stations should stop all going to commercial at the same time.

I believe that, unless you are playing for real prize money, go ahead and hit another ball (That’s for you, Tony).

I believe that the pros get paid to wear logos. The Tiger Woods logo hat, with the Nike logo shirt, and the Nike logo shorts, and the Nike shoes just makes you look like a “wannabe”.

I believe bonuses are not guaranteed. Show up, work hard, and achieve your goals = base salary. Exceed your goals = bonus. Blow away your goals on a regular and sustained basis = promotion.

I believe you need to “pay your dues”.

I believe life is not fair. It is not supposed to be. What you do with the hand you’re dealt is what defines you. God decides who gets what and when. He has a plan and He knows what He is doing.

I believe dogs are better than cats.

I believe all movies should have a happy ending – the guy should get the girl and the good guys should always win. “Do you believe in miracles? YES!”

I believe Bruce Springsteen should be the poet laureate of the United States.

Speaking of Bruce, I believe in a Promised Land.

I believe watching Matthew Marcon run from a dug-out to shortstop and tip his cap to me is when I was most happy and I believe becoming a dad to Keaton Cross changed my life.

I believe you should wear a suit to meet clients and you should dress up to go on a plane.

I believe you should not leave mass early, but it is OK to read the bulletin during the homily if it is boring (because I believe the priest has the responsibility not to be boring).

I believe in reading the newspaper… and magazines… and books… in print and not on a computer. Yes, there is more to carry. But, the experience makes up for it.

I believe in handwritten thank you notes and birthday cards, not texts.

I believe the commercial where the grandmother asks her “precocious granddaughter” who is working away on an iPad tablet device, “What are you doing on your computer?” and the granddaughter replies, “What’s a computer?” is obnoxious.

I believe in “real” Christmas cards and not “Shutterfly” cards. Yes, it takes longer. Use the time to think about why we are celebrating the holiday.

I believe my Mom and Dad are together in heaven and I will see them when I die.

I believe Penelope is a miracle sent to me by God at just the right time (see, He does know what He is doing).

I believe you should let your kids do their own science fair project. I want to hire people who learned how to fail and recover. I believe you should let them climb up the slide and slide down the bannister. Yup, they might break a bone or need some stiches. Because, I believe my Nonno was right – it builds character.

I believe Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups are the best candy on the planet.

I believe you let your employees try new ideas and fail. Then, you let them try again. Even if you already know that the idea won’t work, ask yourself one question – “Will the outcome be fatal to the company?” If not, let them try.

I believe you celebrate failure as much as you celebrate success. Maybe more.

I believe Door County, WI is heaven on earth.

I believe Mary Marcon is a miracle sent to me by God at just the right time (see, He does know what He is doing).

I believe I am most content sitting in the back booth at PC Junction in Baileys Harbor, WI at 8:00 pm on a summer Friday night with Mary and the proprietors/good friends, Bill and Denise, just talking.

I believe sliding your hand over a freshly planed and sanded piece of woodwork created by your “ownself” is one of the best feelings in the world.

I believe St. Thomas More is the best role model for sticking to your principles and Bill Bradley is the best role model for student-athletes.

I believe we should strive to build great businesses, not just do great deals.

I believe “to whom much is given, much is expected” and that we need to pay our fair share. I also believe that the State of California needs to develop a better definition of “fair share”.

I believe all kids should have a paper route, mow lawns, rake leaves, and shovel driveways.

I believe that I will never drive a better car than when I had my 1984, metallic baby blue, Nissan 300ZX, “legendary Z car”. As the commercial said back then – IT… IS… AWESOME!

I believe that the “professionalization” of youth sports is a terrible thing. Johnny is not going to be a pro.

I believe I have been blessed beyond what I deserve – and I do not know why. I believe, one day, I will find out.

I believe there are no excuses, there are only consequences.

I believe in Hail Mary’s – lots and lots of them.

I believe the U.S. is the greatest country on the planet and a beacon of hope for the world – and Washington, DC needs to recognize that and start acting like it.

I believe in teamwork and “playing the game the right way” – make an extra pass, move the runner over, run out your flyballs.

I believe when you hit a homerun, score a touchdown, or make a “3”, you should act like you meant to do it and not like it hasn’t already been done by thousands of people before you – walk off, last play of Super Bowl, and Game 7 buzzer beaters are excepted.

What else do I believe? I BELIEVE.

Michael C. Marcon is the founder and Managing Member of M3K Holdings, Chairman of The Marcon Foundation, founder and former CEO of Equity Risk Partners and former chairman of the Ursinus College board of trustees. He tweets from @mcm7464. Tweet him any of your questions about business, leadership or life.

I Can DOOOOO EEEEET

kids-learning-to-tie-shoe-laces-later-than-ever-studies-show

As many of you know, I have been thoroughly enjoying my time with my almost one-year old granddaughter, Penelope. She is a daily reminder of the miracle of life. Watching her explore, develop, and learn is endlessly fascinating. I lose track of time when I am playing with her.

One of the great things about being a grandparent are the memories that resurface from when I raised my own children, Keaton and Matthew. Mary and I now find ourselves constantly saying, “Remember that time when Keaton…” or “It was so funny when Matthew…” It seems like those moments just happened yesterday, instead of 20+ years ago.

I was thinking about this recently as I work through THE NEXT CHAPTER. That is the reference everyone uses, The Next Chapter, when referring to the unknown direction my life will take following my departure from Equity Risk. It is as if The Next Chapter is an actual being – “How’s it going with The Next Chapter?”; “What’s up with The Next Chapter?”; I can’t wait to meet The Next Chapter!”

When he was little, Matthew was incredibly independent. He always had to try new things and he had to figure them out for himself. Mary and I would watch him struggle with something and, like all parents, tried to help him out. He would respond with a very loud and direct, “I can do it” that came out as “I CAN DOOOOO EEEEET!

I can appreciate that sentiment now more than ever. Having built a business from the ground up that was financed, in part, by using our house as collateral, I used that phrase A LOT! The only difference between me and Matthew is that he shouted it to anyone who tried to help him, and I whispered it to myself when I did not know where to turn next.

As I explore my options for “TNC”, I have reflected on what, exactly, was the fundamental draw and excitement about building Equity Risk. I have determined that it was the fear of failure. Betting your house is a powerful motivator. I never felt more alive than when I had “bet it all”. Now, the challenge is how to replicate that feeling this go ‘round, since the last bet paid off and that form of motivation is not the same.

I have concluded that the fear of failure needs to be replaced with a vertical learning curve. Success and achievement do not end with your first accomplishment or taste of victory. You need to continue to push yourself and challenge yourself to test your limits. I don’t want something that will just get me out a bed in the morning. No, I want something so challenging that it will keep me from going to bed at night!

I was approached the other day by some investors that were interested in having me replicate the success we had with Equity Risk. As I considered the offer (legal obligations notwithstanding), I thought “This will work; This will make a lot of money; I know how to do this; I could do it in my sleep.” Then, it hit me. I had my answer. If I can “do it in my sleep”, it is certainly not a challenge that will keep me from “going to bed at night.”

So, I will keep looking. I encourage you to keep looking, too. If you can “do it in your sleep”, then you are sleeping through life. You have no idea what you can accomplish if you just keep trying new things – you may learn to tie your shoes, or brush your teeth, or cut your food, or pour your own milk from the big, gallon carton… or, start the business / career / relationship of your dreams. Once I find that opportunity – the one that will keep me up at night – you can rest assured that I will jump into it with 100% commitment secure in the knowledge that I Can DOOOOO EEEEET!

Michael C. Marcon is the founder and Managing Member of M3K Holdings, Chairman of The Marcon Foundation, founder and former CEO of Equity Risk Partners and former chairman of the Ursinus College board of trustees. He tweets from @mcm7464. Tweet him any of your questions about business, leadership or life.

Footprints

sea-beach-holiday-vacation.jpg

One night, a man dreamed he was walking along the beach with God. Across the sky flashed scenes from his life. For many scenes, he saw two sets of footprints – one belonging to him and the other to God.

When the last scene of his life flashed before him, he looked back at the footprints in the sand. He noticed that many times along the path of his life, there was only one set of footprints. He also noticed that it happened at the very lowest and saddest times of his life.

This really bothered him and he questioned God.

“Lord, you said that once I decided to follow you, you’d walk with me all the way. But, I have noticed that during the most troublesome times in my life there is only one set of footprints. I don’t understand why, when I needed you most, you would leave me.”

Then, God replied, “My precious, precious child, I love you and I would never leave you! During your times of trial and suffering when you see only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.”

I am sure that the vast majority of you are familiar with this iconic poem. The powerful visual has sustained me for most of my adult life. In fact, I am so moved by it that my wife, Mary, and I use “Footprints in the Snow” as the cover of our Christmas card every year.

It is comforting to know that we have help and that we are not all alone, just “us against the world.” This is also very important in leadership and in business. I am not saying good leaders are God (even though many of us think so). I am saying that good leaders sometimes have to carry their people. It is no different than the dad running behind the bike, one hand on the seat, as his child peddles away for the first time. The child thinks they are peddling on their own. That gives them the confidence to keep going. In business, how important is it for leaders to create the sense of self confidence in their people; to let them believe they can peddle on their own? Once they learn that you’ve “got them,” they will be more confident to take risks and more likely to exceed expectations.

Interestingly, I believe that the important part of the poem is not that God carries all of us when we need Him; it is that we do not realize it until after the fact when we’ve reviewed the scenes of our lives. This is also the secret to great leadership – that your colleagues do not realize they are being carried until after the fact. Good leaders carry their people when they need it and without them knowing. Great leaders create an organization full of people who are constantly carrying each other.

Recently, a dear friend, knowing my affinity for “Footprints in the Snow,” sent me a funny cartoon with a unique spin on the poem. In the cartoon, God says to the man , “Do you see the single set of footprints? That is where I carried you. Do you see the two long parallel grooves? That is where I dragged you kicking and screaming.”

Every now and then, leaders need to realize when running behind the bike holding the seat is not enough. In those cases, you put your head down, grab ‘em by the (proverbial) collar, and drag them to the right decision.

So, how do you become a great leader? Let me tell you a story…

One day, an attractive, incredibly fit, and successful (and modest) middle-aged man dreamed he was walking down a beach.

Before him passed scenes of all his personal and business achievements. He saw many scenes of tremendous professional and personal success. He also saw scenes of less great achievements, mediocre results, and personal failures. 

He was pleased by the scenes of great achievement and troubled by the scenes of personal failure. He remembered each day and its corresponding success or failure as if it were yesterday. He also noticed a pattern. All the days he failed personally or professionally, he was alone on the beach. 

And, on all the days of his greatest personal and business successes, he saw a familiar face. One day, it was his Dad; on another, it was his Mom; on more days than he could count, it was Mary. He saw friends, mentors, teachers and priests. He saw bosses and colleagues. He saw Matthew, Keaton, Laura, and Penelope; he saw David and Nat; he saw his family; he saw his brothers and sisters.

 Then, he saw God (who bears a strong resemblance to Pat Ryan and sounds like the guy from NFL Films) and the man asked, “I see all of these scenes of great joy and success shared with all of the people who are important to me. I also see scenes of disappointment and failure where I was all alone. Why didn’t you help me then?”

 God replied, “My son, you have accomplished so much and achieved great things and I sent all of these people to help you. The days that you were alone were the days that you did not ask for help.”

Great leaders learn that asking for help is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign of faith and maturity.

Michael C. Marcon is the founder of Equity Risk Partners and former chairman of the Ursinus College board of trustees. He tweets from @mcm7464. Tweet him any of your questions about business, leadership or life.