It was early on a cold, dreary, gray Sunday morning in mid-town Manhattan, and I had a train to catch. The streets were empty because many folks smarter than I were still asleep. Spring was supposed to be in the air, but that particular morning it felt as if Spring had missed its inbound train.
I was walking towards Penn Station. I had a borrowed camera (I didn’t own one yet, in 1974) around my neck — an old Pentax rangefinder SLR of the sort that the viewfinder was separate from the 35mm lens, meaning you had to remember to take the lens cap off the lens or you’d end up with nifty images of totally unexposed darkness on your film.
(Yes, I know: younger readers are probably bored by another digression into old, forgotten technology, like telexes and telegrams, rotary-dial telephones, PCs the size of baby elephants, etc. The obligation to listen to your elders ramble on about such arcane items may just be the latest twist on the time-honored Confucian tradition of filial piety. Patience is good.)
All of a sudden I saw someone walking toward me on the sidewalk who cut an odd figure. He sported a long, flowing white beard that Santa Claus would have been envious of, and wore a black hat with a sign stuck to the top. As he drew near I could see he was wearing a heavy coat but had the look of someone not unaccustomed to sleeping rough, the kind of person we sadly tend to dismiss and walk quickly past lest they ask us for money or present some other form. of “hassle”.
The sign on his hat said “Dead Are Raised” and cited the source as the Book of Matthew in the New Testament of the Bible.
Even more striking than his great white beard on that cold Sunday morning was the quiet, humble radiance he projected. He was absolutely beaming. If there are people with halos, this guy had one. The look in his eyes suggested the peaceful tranquility of someone who’d survived a passage to hell and back, and the sign on his hat suggested he had a message to share from his journey.
We talked for awhile. Although I had a train to catch, I asked him if I could take his photograph. He gladly agreed. I snapped away, thanked him, and continued on my way.
Ten minutes later I had the sinking feeling that I had forgotten to remove the lens cap. It was now too late to go back. I kicked myself for possibly having missed a great photo opportunity. In my haste, I simply could not recall having removed the lens cap.
That short encounter left a lasting impression. He seemed to embody and exude a deep-rooted sense of optimism that no matter what hardships an individual may face, they can and will prevail. In his case, it seems that this deeply positive mental attitude was based on the personal experience of hardship, and rooted in spirituality.
There is a lesson there which applies to anyone aspiring to be the effective leader of an organization. Optimism, personal will, and determination may or may not be rooted in an individual’s spirituality, but they are critically important leadership traits.
Management guru Jim Collins, in his classic book “Good to Great”, talks about the Stockdale Paradox, named after Admiral James Stockdale, who spent 7 difficult years in a Vietnamese POW camp. He was able to survive by relentlessly embracing two contradictory beliefs that his life couldn’t be worse than it was at the present moment, but that someday it would be better than ever.
Exceptional leaders, or Level 5 Leaders as Collins calls them, confront the brutal facts of reality while maintaining absolute faith that they will prevail in the end. Embracing the facts and the faith at the same time, all the time, that is the key.
The unanswerable question is, of course, whether on that cold, gray Sunday morning many years ago in New York, this guy’s halo was bright enough to project his image right through my camera’s lens cap. (See photo.)