For the first blog post of this website, I reach back and adapt a vignette from my book, Inspired to Succeed. It is good to remember the source of our journey, to reflect on the things that have brought us to where we are. This reflection from 2012 is as relevant today as it was then.
August 10th is never an easy date in my life.
On that date in 1998 my wife, Cynthia, finished her workday and was driving home, seven months pregnant and joyful about life. She never made it. A man high on drugs, and out to sell his poison, ran a stop sign at high speed and killed her and the baby.
The tragedy devastated my life and Ryan’s life, our nine year-old son. But for me, every day since then has been focused on carrying him through that nightmare and helping him discover the hero I know he has inside.
But I believe my days of carrying him on that journey have finally ended.
On July 10, 2010, at the age of 21 and heading into his senior year at Syracuse University, Ryan bought an iconic local chocolate business that was older than he was. Chocolate Pizza Company (www.ChocolatePizza.com) offered two very unique products - Chocolate Pizza and Peanut Butter Wings.
At one time, the store was across the street from our house. Cynthia used to take him into the store in a stroller. The owner said she would watch as this little hand came up above the counter searching for the sample tray of chocolates. If he found it, his hand would quickly disappear with the chocolate treasure only to reappear moments later.
When he was fifteen and looking for his first job, Ryan asked the owner if she needed help. She didn’t but she hired him anyway.
She was a wonderful boss for him to learn from - patient, hard-working, creative and successful. He worked at the store on weekends, school breaks and summers and whenever his schedule allowed.
He loved it and less than a year later he told her that when she was ready to retire he was ready to own her business. Five years later, he did just that. The toddler in the stroller is now a leader; the boy who dreamed of owning a company is now a man running one.
Ryan is responsible for a two decades-old business with employees who count on his judgment to maintain their jobs. He negotiates contracts, shapes marketing plans, manages inventory, handles customers, creates new products, invests in new equipment and leads a team that looks to him for motivation. He is in total command of every facet of his business.
I have quietly watched him assume all these responsibilities. I have worked with him in the store day in and day out, taking his direction and only occasionally adding my own opinion.
People ask me what it is like to work for my son, and I respond without hesitation that it is the best job I have ever had.
I am part of my son’s life in a way that would be the envy of most dads. My biggest challenge is to stay out of his way, to let him steer the ship and be there for counsel when he asks.
I have coached and mentored leaders all my professional life, it is what I do for a living, and while I am infinitely biased I know this to be true as a leadership coach: Ryan is good. He will be great. He has the tools. He has the heart. There are no limits on what he can achieve and who he can become.
I told all this to Cynthia on my trip to the cemetery on the 12th anniversary of her death. As I stepped out of the car and walked to her headstone, a flock of more than twenty Canadian geese came from nowhere and soared not fifty feet overhead, honking and flapping in that classic “V” formation.
I had to smile because they were flying west. She never could tell directions.
LESSONS FOR LEADERS
Scientists who study these things say that Canadian geese fly in a “V” formation because aside from the lead goose, the other birds find it 17% easier to move forward in that configuration. By drafting in the wake of the bird in front of them, the geese save energy and travel farther than if they were flying solo.
The honking, science says, is actually encouragement for the lead goose, a way for the team to urge the bird at the point to keep at it and draw strength from the flock. As the lead bird tires, another takes its place, and the aerial dance continues over thousands of miles to destinations unseen.
Ryan’s entrepreneurial move reflects at least two leadership truths. The first is leaders set challenging goals and reach them.
They are not afraid to be bold in their thinking and bolder in their actions. Ryan knew at sixteen that he wanted to own Chocolate Pizza Company. He told people that and then he worked hard for years to put himself in a position to make it happen. Leaders live by a carpe diem philosophy. Do it now. Work for what you want. No one should want your dream more. As coach Paul Woodside says, “Big dreams should never come easy.”
The second leadership truth is that effective leaders communicate a clear, vibrant vision for success.
Chocolate Pizza Company was successful before Ryan bought it but it had not scratched its potential. He could see that potential and laid out a vision for growth that has been his blueprint for taking the company to another level.
In his first two years as owner, Ryan grew store sales 188%, increased internet sales by 800% and went from zero wholesale accounts to 350 locations in thirty five states. He took a good company and made it great. His leadership has transformed the business and reinforces the fact that vision is a verb not a noun.
Vision takes a dream, adds an action plan, motivates a team and then refuses to quit.
I have listened to Ryan share his vision of growth with his employees, some of whom are more than twice his age. As leaders, we must find an entrepreneurial spirit that encourages us to take intelligent risks and invest ourselves fully in the task. Leaders draw from life experiences – maturity is not an age; it’s a mindset.
I watch Ryan at work practicing the art of leadership and marvel at how unafraid he is, how decisive he is and how passionate he is. He has things to learn, and some will not be easy or pleasant, but no steel is forged without flame and hammer.
Strength is only measured when it is tested so leaders never fear the struggle to be excellent. Ryan knows what true adversity is and lived through a nightmare that would have crushed lesser souls and yet he emerged hopeful, optimistic, energetic and confident.
Business will test him, but it cannot break him. He has already weathered far, far worse storms.
There were tears this day in the cemetery. The years have not changed that reality, nor should they. But amid the cascade of sadness over the absence of those we love were drops of joy over the presence of those we still have.
In my book, “Conquering Adversity,” I teach others to count blessings, not tears; life is full of both. But this time I took that lesson for myself.
Since that terrible day when I had to tell Ryan the unbearable news about his mom, I have felt like the lead goose, facing the headwinds, trying to carve a path through that would somehow make his journey easier, somehow help him reach a destination that even I could not see.
My place was always at the point. That is, until now.
I think I know why Providence brought geese overhead this evening. They were there to remind me that the point has a new leader. They were there to show me that I can drop back into formation now and simply encourage Ryan to move forward in his bold, new direction.
The boy is now a man and the man is now a leader.
The geese were there to salute a new leader and relieve an old (but very proud) one.