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iOn the Contrary-i Remembering a Good Boy

May 1, 2000
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Yesterday, I attended a memorial service for abillionaire. It was my first. I don’t normally travel in such circles.Maybe you’ve heard of this billionaire. His name was Bill Daniels andhe’s known in business circles as the father of cable television -- his firmis credited with developing more than 50 of the biggest cable companies in theUnited States. But among the 2,000 people who gathered yesterday in his honor,Daniels wasn’t remembered for his business acumen. He was lauded for being“a good boy.”

    Yes, it’s an odd term todescribe someone who had been married several times, who fought -- andeventually won -- a decades-long battle with alcohol abuse, and whose languagesounded more like a dock worker’s than a high-tech executive’s.

    But Daniels, in the tearfulwords of his employees, family members, business partners and colleagues, wasthe kind of man who comes along once in a lifetime. Countless mourners worebuttons that said: “Bill Daniels touched my heart.” How many corporateexecutives can you say that about? 

“Good” doesn’t always mean “nice”
    What was it that made Mr.Daniels such a good boy -- the kind of boy that caused employees to weep openlyat his funeral? It wasn’t that he was always nice. Daniels could actually bequite demanding.

    He expected employees to keeptheir desks clean, dress well, be supremely punctual, and whenever possible buyAmerican and vote Republican. No, Daniels wasn’t concerned with being liked asmuch as he was concerned with being ethical and doing the right thing for otherpeople.

    When the Utah Stars, abasketball team he owned, was forced to declare bankruptcy, Daniels saw thatevery season ticketholder was paid back, with interest, even though it wasn’tlegally required. When friends had financial problems he would leave unmarkedenvelopes full of cash at their doors before speeding off. “Drive-bygiving,” his stepdaughter called it.

    At his memorial service,stories were told of employees who received airplane tickets to visit sickfamily members, clothing for an important event, and rent money during hardtimes. He even paid for plastic surgery for a receptionist who was veryself-conscious because of an eye disorder.

    Yes, Bill Daniels had themoney to change people’s lives. But it was Daniels’ ability to inspireloyalty and help others realize their potential that made this man so memorable.As I listened to the tributes, it dawned on me that effective leadership isn’tabout being nice, in the way that realtors and Avon Ladies are nice. As BillDaniels demonstrated, leaders can be tough, demanding and even irrationallyneat, and people will still respect and admire them -- as long as those leadershave the best interests of people in mind. 

Leaving a legacy of goodness
   I never knew Bill Daniels. I attended hismemorial service because I’ve been doing work with the Daniels Fund, thecharitable foundation that will inherit the lion’s share of his billion-dollarestate. But as I thought about his legacy, I thought about people in my lifewho’ve been tough but good to me. My favorite college professor was also themost intimidating. My favorite boss is also the one who fired me. My favoriteeditor regularly challenged me to find my own voice -- and to rewrite piecesuntil that voice was apparent.

    There’s a lot of talk today about how to makemanagers more effective. In fact, this month’s cover story deals with thatvery topic. But I have to wonder if we’d really need all the business books,workshops and high-priced consultants to tell us how to cultivate trust andinspire loyalty if only we had more role models like Bill Daniels.

    Maybe what the workplace needs is not moremanagement development initiatives, but just a few more good boys and good girlswho make decisions based on a solid sense of what is right and wrong for thepeople involved. Is this too simplistic? Probably. But I also firmly believe wedon’t have to make things hard to make things right.

    The next time you’re facing a tough businessdecision, think how you would like be remembered at your funeral and actaccordingly. Chances are, Bill Daniels would have agreed with you.

Workforce, May 2000, Vol 79,No 5, p. 18 SubscribeNow!

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