At this time in 2011, I was eagerly awaiting the New Year. My dream of publishing a book for managers would be realized in June. In that book, amid the advice and research, would be stories from my personal experience. Two of those stories involved bosses I worked for. They were two men who could not have been more different in their leadership styles, but both made an indelible impact on my life.
One of them, Andy Potos, knew he would be in the book. In fact, my editor insisted that I run the copy past him; she thought it might offend him that I revealed I almost quit rather than work for Andy when he became my boss. I described him in the book as a “brash and bottom-line fixated sales guy, and he saw me as a holier-than thou newsperson, bunkered in a silo with my team.” There was more:
He came from the Vince Lombardi school of leadership. Like the legendary Green Bay Packers coach, he was tough, demanding, competitive, and quick to anger. But we both believed in quality journalism and community service, so we built from there.
I learned that behind his intimidating persona was a quick mind that loved a robust debate with a respected sparring partner. As I earned Andy’s trust, I could also tease him about his interesting idiosyncrasies — like wearing a jogging suit to work or parking his luxury car on sidewalks when he felt like it, spouting unprintable invective about competitors or critics — and always, always, raising the bar. Whatever we accomplished was to be celebrated — and then immediately topped!
To placate my book editor, I called Andy and read him that section, along with everything I’d written about how our one-year trial period became a 15-year adventure. His response: “Aw, guy, you’re getting me choked up.” What I knew, that my editor didn’t, was that tough guys don’t mind at all being described as tough guys.
The second boss I wrote about didn’t know he’d be in the book. I wanted to surprise Jim Naughton, the former president of The Poynter Institute. The last chapter of the book focuses on leadership values I treasure: integrity, humanity, and levity. Jim embodied them all, with a special talent for levity in the workplace. I wrote that “he brought just the right mix of gravitas and ‘goofy-tas’ to his position as an academic leader.”
I described the pool table he installed in his office for all to use, his crazy hat collection, and his proclivity for practical jokes, “always wickedly creative but never cruel.” I noted:
Now in retirement, Jim Naughton still smiles, even as he deals with the deadly serious challenge of cancer. On the last day of a series of radiation treatments, just for laughs, he surprised the clinic staff by showing up in a sumo wrestler costume, saying, “Look what your radiation has done to me!” In a book he’s just written about his life as a serial prankster, and his devotion to levity in good times and bad, he ends with these words:
“As long as I am able, I plan to laugh death in the face.”
To that, I added, “Keep laughing, Jim. For a long time.”
When the book came out, I sent a signed copy to Jim, directing him to the tribute to him in the closing pages. A scheduled cancer treatment kept Jim from attending a June book launch event at Poynter, but he emailed me with warm thanks and Naughton-esque wishes for best-sellerdom.
June was a good month.
Then came August.
Early that month, we lost Jim. The damn cancer found a way to outperform the many medical moves that had kept it at bay over the years. Later in August, the seemingly indestructible Andy suffered a traumatic brain injury, with all the challenges that such bodily insults bring, especially to people in their 80s.
Last year at this time, I didn’t envision this turn of events. Didn’t assume I’d be reading the passage about Jim at his memorial service. Didn’t expect to be sending cards to Andy at his care center, hoping they reach him on a good day, as I wait and hope for him to be well enough for a visit.
But here’s what I know this year: I’m comforted that I told two men, two leaders, why they mattered so much in my life. I did it very publicly, in a book, but there’s no reason I couldn’t have delivered those thoughts and feelings to them personally, much sooner.
And that’s my message for you as a new year approaches. You can’t imagine — much less predict — how life will play out. But you have one power that you can put to use right now: the ability to share all the good thoughts, the sincere gratitude, the great memories, with people who’ve earned it — whether in your professional or personal life. Don’t wait until it’s time to say goodbye. Say it at hello.
Write a note. Make a call. Look someone in the eye and reveal what’s in your heart.
Go ahead, say it.
I think it will increase the chances that you’ll truly have a Happy New Year.
Here’s the podcast version of this column: