What they taught us

Posted 07.02.2008

One of the most frequent questions I get as an author is, “Are you working on your next book?” The answer is usually no … for now, anyway. That doesn’t mean I don’t mull ideas from time to time on what a next book might be. In the category of “I probably won’t write it, but someone should,” one of the titles I’ve thought of is “Big Life: What I’ve Learned About Living from Reading the Obits.”

It certainly feels like we’ve lost a lot of notables so far in 2008: Robert Mondavi, Tim Russert and George Carlin are three who come to mind. Three very different personalities, certainly, but they all shared several key characteristics — with lessons for all of us who are leaders. Here are a few:

Mondavi_4 Lesson 1. Vision matters.

In Mondavi’s case, the vision of all California wines being world class shaped the second half of his life and kick started an industry. Mondavi basically invented the California wine industry as we know it today. In the face of resistance and long odds, Mondavi started his winery at age 52 and died this past spring at age 94. That’s a pretty strong second half, don’t you think?


Lesson 2. Do what you love — and do it with integrity.

Of the many tributes that I read about Russert, Peggy Noonan’s column in The Wall Street Journal best reflected what I was thinking. Noonan observed: “In a way, the world is a great liar. It shows you it worships and admires money, but at the end of the day it doesn’t … the world admires, and wants to hold on to, and not lose, goodness. It admires virtue …”  Russert married his passion for politics and policy with his talent and integrity as an interviewer. Someone observed that he was a great example of an individual doing what they loved and doing it extremely well.  Excellence, value and integrity flow from that.

Carlin_2 Lesson 3. Share your gifts. 

Finally, George Carlin. Apart from the re-airing of some of his great performances, the best tribute I saw for Carlin was a short Op-Ed column that Jerry Seinfeld wrote for New York Times. Seinfeld observed, “You could certainly say that George downright invented modern American stand-up comedy… Every comedian does a little George.” As for his audiences, he left his mark on us, too. It wasn’t until I watched some of the classic Carlin HBO specials from the 1970s this past week that I realized how much of an influence George Carlin had on my sense of humor as a kid and the way I look at the world.  I’m not suggesting that the Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television regularly come up in my coaching conversations.  I just loved the way Carlin dissected our use of language and the absurdities of many of the things that we take for granted as the “way things are.”