How To Lead: One Longtime CEO’s Letter To His Children

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John T. Williams, CEO of Hagerstown, MD-based Jamison Door Company, decided to write down what he’d learned from his experiences to help his adult children make their way in business—and the world. He was kind enough to share the letter with us.

Always Treat Everyone with Dignity

My mother’s mother insisted I read Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing,” a poem about the beauty of Americans of all skills working, each crafting his own products and using his God-given skills. It implicitly glorifies the fact that each person‘s skill set is important and that we can all use our unique talents to build great things together. Mutual respect among people at all levels of an organization is essential to a good, decent, and ethical organization.

A corollary suggestion I heard years ago at a speech in Atlanta was treat employees like they are volunteers. Volunteers do jobs because they want to and believe they are doing something meaningful with their work. It doesn’t take much to discourage a volunteer or make them want to go somewhere they are appreciated. Same goes for employees.

You Will Be the Best at Whatever You Do

The Optimist Clubs in San Angelo sponsored the Little Olympics, a competition for elementary school students. Events included broad jumping and races of various lengths. Since I wasn’t good at any of those I asked the volunteer coach, Lee Gregg, if I could just help him in some way. One day after practice he said there’s one kid here that will be the best at whatever he chooses to do in life and that kid is you. Nobody had ever said anything like that to me before or shown that they really believed in me. What he said that day always stuck with me and helped me believe in myself.

Every day we have the opportunity to compliment people, tell them we admire some skill they have or some attribute they possess. We can give people reason to see their potential even if they don’t see it in themselves. With a few words or a smile we can brighten people’s days and words of encouragement can change lives. And words cost nothing.

Don’t Shrink from Tough Ethical Decisions

We should all seek to do what is right. While occasionally not clear, often right and wrong actions are obvious. Newspapers and broadcast stations have more than their share of ethical decisions because of the pervasive influence of what they print and broadcast and for how they program the content of what they air. In addition to the obvious issues of how the media uses its influence and the bias of most, there are enormous pressures to publish or not publish many stories and the prominence of how they are played.

Simple examples which have confronted just about every newspaper publisher are stories some large advertiser wants kept out of the paper. As a struggling suburban paper in Plano we published a story about the raging theft of T-tops from a certain brand of sports cars. The dealer who sold that brand never ran another ad after that story came out. We did what was right, but we paid a real price. In Bryan-College Station we sued Texas A&M under the Texas Open Records Act to get the names of the candidates for the school’s president. The law was pretty clear that that was public information, but A&M didn’t care what the law said. We sued – and won – and antagonized a large number of rabid Aggies.

When a large plant of a major company was considering locating in College Station there was a controversy over the zoning. The company would not identify itself and would not specify exactly what it was going to make at its proposed location, which was adjacent to an upscale residential neighborhood. We chose to report accurately and extensively on the events with the full understanding that the company could possibly be discouraged from locating there because of the adverse publicity. We believed the right thing to do was to hold a mirror up to the events and report regardless of the outcome. Later I learned that had the company chosen not to come, a delegation of prominent community leaders would have gone to San Antonio to try to get me fired.

Henrik Ibsen’s “Enemy of the People” is the ultimate piece of literature detailing the kind of conflict faced daily by the media. His story tells of the man who determined that the mineral baths in this resort town were toxic. He thought he would be a hero for revealing this and saving lives, but he was instead determined to be an enemy of the people for destroying the economic base of the community.

Dad Didn’t Just Want a Gold Watch

Daddy was not a very introspective man. He abhorred the theoretical and insisted on the practical. Life was pretty black and white, right or wrong. He was the most moral and ethical person I ever met. If he brought home a pencil from work, he would have put a nickel in the petty cash box before he left. Counselors, psychiatrists, and psychologists were all unnecessary in his way of thinking because if we just listened to and helped each other one on one, those types wouldn’t have a role to play.

But one day he made a comment that I have long remembered. He said when he retired he didn’t just want a gold watch. He wanted to be able say his life counted for something more important. I never heard him say anything similar again as long as he lived. The message of that one remark was burned into my soul. One’s life needs to count for something and money isn’t the only scorecard.

May This Be Your Guide Throughout Your Life.

Those were the simple words my mother wrote in my first Bible after I had walked down the aisle and accepted Christ at the age of 7 at the First Baptist Church in San Angelo. There’s a lot of advice a parent can give a child but none more important than that. I think often of what the world would be like of all of us followed Jesus’s teachings and treated each other with caring, respect and compassion. Comforting is the fact that Jesus surrounded himself with sinners and preached forgiveness. His teachings help us understand what is important in life and to put events in perspective. “What profits a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul?”


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