Build a Parent
It started with a comment from the back of the room. Lloyd Reed, Halftime director, was saying to Jim Collins, “. . . the people I work with and serve-they help shape, and refine, and form my core.”
No, core values don't change as you go along, Collins countered: Behind his Good to Great guideline to “preserve the core and stimulate progress,” hundreds of hours of research, interviews, and analysis of corporations says that values, almost by definition, are fixed.
So core values are what you uncover, discover, even for individuals, Collins said thoughtfully. Those are the things in you all along.
Before going further, a little context: The day of this exchange in Boulder a few weeks ago, Collins had joined a conclave of some 50 Level-Five business leaders, all Christians, most of whom would say, yes, their faith, over the years, had refined and reshaped their core values. In fact, maturing faith had spurred their decisions, some dramatic, to shift their line of vision from success to significance.
From having dinner with him the night before, I knew that our prof himself was in halftime, in his own season of asking, “What matters most and what's next for me?” This, of course, just upped the wattage on the day.
And it is why, as Collins waxed personal about his core values, how he'd “discovered” them, I may have leaned forward.
When Jim Collins Was Growing Up
At age 20, Collins said, he had no character. “None that I can think of. I didn't get any from my parents,” he said.
Helpful candor from this great thinker and he was, I'd guess, too hard on himself. Our early 20's are a time of values transfer. At 20, even kids with a leather-bound boxed set of values from the World's Best Parents are sorting through their parents' values to cobble together their own code. It's a necessary struggle.
In Collins case, the struggle was to identify the values worth having.
He said: “I remember listening in my early 20s to this interview with Harry Truman, where he says, 'The only thing I know for sure is if you don't know the difference between right and wrong by the time you're 30, you never will.' I thought: I have five years to figure it out. I look at myself as an adolescent and early teen, and I wouldn't have understood the question of core values or had any concept of core values. As damning of me as that is, it's still true.”
Then a couple of things happened. One, he was making friends with people he admired. Two, he fell in love with a woman he wanted to live up to. But looking around, where to begin to build his personal code?
“I realized I used to resent that I got nothing from my father, a total disaster,” Collins said. “When I saw my friends in college call their dads for advice, I thought that was weird and dangerous. Then I felt resentful that they had parents to ask.”
Now here's the story's crux. Never mind where a core comes from-I'd say the starter set arrives with our DNA, some of it we're taught, and some we acquire on the journey-the point is what Jim Collins did next.
He said, “I could be angry and feel cheated, or I could build a parent.” And here I'm thinking the whole room may have leaned forward. “So I started reading biographies and I created a personal board of directors. I said to myself, 'If I don't know the difference between right and wrong, I'm going to build a board of people who so exemplify what I think character is that board will shape me.' So I created a personal board and put them on not for their success but for what I perceived to be their character.”
Stop right here for two principles flashing like road-construction signals: 1) He bypassed self-pity to 2) build a parent.
That is a life-altering idea: “I could be angry and feel cheated, or I could build a parent.” It leaps off the page for me because that's how I conquered two voids in my life; and now for a little candor of my own.
When I Needed a Dad
My father was the skeet-shooting champ in Oklahoma, where I was raised. I was the little kid around the radio station, and I'd go out with my dad-though the love of shooting passed directly from my father to my son without stopping at me. I had no desire to get up at 5 a.m. to get wet in a cold duck blind and wait to pick off some very lovely bird.
When my father died, I was in the fifth grade, and I needed a dad. All of us need one. We need that figure in our life to fill the void in our life, whether he's biologically related or someone you adopt and . . . in a figure of speech, I adopted Peter Drucker. In the way that Jim Collins sought out his private board of directors, I asked myself, “Who's the person the world I most admire in terms of his thinking?” And I wrote the most important letter in my life asking whether Peter Drucker would see me.
Anyone can do that-anyone with the humility to admit the need and enough discretion to sort from one person to another until you know what you're looking for.
I knew I needed advice on how to run a business enterprise, so why not go to number one?
But I never in my life said Father to him-or to myself, for that matter. Nor did I say mentor. Some power lies in what goes unsaid. On the other hand, something that was said, and that stays with me, came from Doris, Peter's wife. She said it every time I came to her door (always with an orchid for her to try again to grow in the Claremont, California soil). Doris would say to me, “You're a tonic to Peter.”
My relationship with Peter was the sort of thing that happens and just evolved across a period of 20 years of working together on common values which passed on to many other people.
The other side of it is that Linda and I have one child, whom we lost when he was 24 years old. So isn't it interesting that I have a particular liking to be around and doing things with people who are 40 to 50 years old, the age Ross would be?
Yes, people have core values and it pays to uncover and know them. It's worth the struggle. Yes, I agree with Lloyd Reeb that the people in our life are what shape, refine and form those core values. Actually I believe that, in a different context, Jim Collins thinks so too. Collins calls it “the power of the who.” He devotes a whole chapter titled “Who's on the Bus?” in one of his books. Over and over, he asserts the Who is more important than the What. Who comes before What.
But that's another principle, another conversation.