Over the years I have been asked to disclose the identity of my role model for leadership.  If I had to indentify one person, it would have to be Andrew W. Loschiavo.  Even though I have been a student of leadership my entire life, most of what I live and believe about leadership was modeled for me from a very young age from my father. Being a small business owner (general contractor) afforded dad the opportunity to allow family to tag along as he traveled from jobsite to jobsite.  Whenever he would ask, “does anyone want to go for a ride” I was always the first (and usually the only) to volunteer.  The evening trips typically involved “measuring a job”, where he would determine the number of concrete forms, angles, hardware, and yards of concrete he would need to order for the next day.  The day trips usually involved traveling from jobsite to jobsite, providing direction, making sure the crew had the supplies needed, or talking with the customer.     For me, each trip was an adventure that couldn’t be missed.  I was like the firehouse dog that jumps into the front seat of the fire truck at the first sound of the firehouse bell.  I was never sure where we were going.  I just knew I wanted to be there.  Interestingly enough, thirty years later I was part of an elite team of executives in charge of the various lines of business for a technology services company that was changing the business model for computer services.  One day our boss referred to the team as firedogs.  The rest of the team struggled with the metaphor, but I knew exactly what he meant.

Dad didn’t exactly have a teaching style of leadership, but he was a leader, and man of action. Being in his presence provided an opportunity to observe, and boy, did I observe.  I used to watch every move he made.  Many of his actions are forever burned into my memory and subconsciously inform my leadership to this day.  Although dad never attended college, he was an entrepreneur and provider since the age of 12.  His instincts and common sense more than compensated for his lack of formal education.

In reality, my role model for leadership is a composite of all the leaders I have encountered.  Over the years, I have been blessed to work with a plethora of outstanding leaders, numerous enough to fill an entire book.  While only a very few are mentioned in this book, I am grateful to them all.

Upon completing my graduate degree from the University of Kentucky I found myself on assignment with Arthur Andersen & Co. in Chattanooga, Tennessee, with a team of 100 people at a massive materials management installation for the Tennessee Valley Authority. Even though I had been working since the age of 15, including having the exclusive distributorship in the Greater Cincinnati Area for Aqua Queen, a manufacturer of the first automated swimming pool cleaner, I had never worked in a large organization.  My immediate supervisor on that assignment was Jim Barney.  Jim was a manager from our Chicago office who possessed a rare combination of humility and chutzpa.  The combination of his Midwest work ethic, subject matter expertise, quick wit, robust sense of humor and healthy irreverence toward authority made him a truly unique role model for a wet-behind-the-ears youngster fresh out of college, who had never worked in a corporate environment.

Starting with my first day on the job Jim constantly challenged me to push beyond my comfort zone to grow professionally.  Many of the lessons learned through Jim’s mentorship and example have stayed with me throughout my professional life, but two lessons deserve special mention.  The first lesson deals with balance and the second speaks to perspective.

The year we worked together consisted of frequent 80-hour weeks and intense pressure for results.  In the midst of fierce deadlines and unending demands, Jim always insisted we go to lunch each day.  While most of our colleagues would eat at their desks or sustain themselves with coffee and cigarettes throughout the day, our department would stop whatever we were doing around noon to go out for lunch and talk about anything but work.  His logic was simple; “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”  Over the past three decades, the pressures and demands have only increased for me, but I can probably count on two hands the number of times I have missed lunch.  A lunch break may seem like an insignificant factor in the grand scheme of things, but for me it serves as a symbolic reminder for maintaining balance.

The second lesson learned from Jim Barney proved far more elusive for some time.  Whenever I was faced with a tough decision, where a misstep could prove painful or fatal, Jim would say, “They can’t take away your birthday”.  After about the 50th time of hearing this I finally asked, “What the hell does that mean?”

Jim shared a story that a few years earlier he was in a heated argument with a partner in the firm.  In the heat of the moment Jim asked the partner, “What can you do to me (I did mention that Jim had a healthy irreverence for authority)”?  The partner responded with, “I can take away your birthday!”  He said it with such conviction that, for a moment, Jim believed him.  Then Jim went on to explain that no matter how bad things get, they can never take away your birthday.  This is a sentiment I have carried throughout my entire professional career.  It gives me perspective, and the freedom to do the right thing even during the toughest times.

Strategic leadership requires courage.  If you choose to adopt some or all of the principles professed in the pages that follow I can promise you two things: 1) You will be a more effective leader, and 2) no matter how many times you get your helmet dinged (and you will get your helmet dinged), they can’t take away your birthday.

© Mark P. Loschiavo

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