What are most sought after leadership qualities?

On a Monday morning in the fall of 1982, I nosed my car onto I-285, drove two exits north, and got off at Tucker, a community on the northe...

On a Monday morning in the fall of 1982, I nosed my car onto I-285, drove two exits north, and got off at Tucker, a community on the northeast outskirts of Atlanta. About 10 minutes after I’d stepped out the front door of our little Clarkston condo, I was pulling into an office complex parking lot for my first day at A.L. Williams. Ahh, I thought, now that’s a commute.

I slid into an empty slot, parked, and looked around. I noticed a big old Winnebago there. On the side, like a billboard splayed onto the flanks of a commercial long-haul 18-wheeler, was the A.L. Williams name and his leadership logo. Below was a line of 10-mile-high type that read, “Mobile Recruiting and Training Vehicle.”

“Well, this is … different,” I said to myself. “I don’t know exactly what it is, but it’s definitely different.”

That right there turned out to be the understatement of my leadership career. A.L. Williams was different, all right. It was different in so many ways that it took me years to grasp just what this animal was. A.L. Williams was different in how it structured its sales force and in the kind of people who made up that force. It was different in how everyone involved saw what it was they were doing there and how they all held a fervent devotion to a common mission. Most of all, it was different in how the company viewed and treated its people. Its approach was a direct expression of the philosophy of its founder.

Though I didn’t know it when I started there, the leadership philosophy would remind me an awful lot of how my parents viewed the world and would reinforce the values I’d learned while growing up in Salem. These values held that leadership qualities is all about shining your light on other people, rather than promoting yourself.

A Business Is a Community

When I was growing up in Salem, there was a general store in the center of town, called H.L. “Roy” Moore’s General Merchandise. Roy and Helen Moore’s general store wasn’t just a business with leadership. It was a social institution. It was the place where everyone congregated. In addition to its shelves and barrels of goods, it had a sitting area where people would sit themselves down, rest, and talk. It seemed like we went there almost every evening. In many ways, it was the center of the community.

Helen Moore, who was one of my mom’s best friends, was also in Stanley Home Products, one of those great old household-name direct sales companies, like Avon, Tupperware, or Fuller Brush. The way Miss Helen sold Stanley was, she would take orders from everyone in the community, and then, once a quarter or so, she would hold a bingo night at the community center. Everyone would come play bingo. If you won, you’d win Stanley prizes. She’d have her catalogues there, and everyone would mill around after the game and order the stuff they needed.

Growing up, all I ever saw my mom clean with was Stanley Degreaser. Every hairbrush we owned was from Stanley. We had more Stanley products than a dog has fleas. Our home was like a Stanley showroom. Helen was a high-energy lady, the kind of person other people seemed to revolve around. I didn’t have the words for it as a kid, but I do now. Helen Moore was a natural-born salesperson.

It never occurred to me that you could sell insurance this way, with ordinary folks like Helen selling to their friends and community. But that’s what they were doing, more or less, at my new employer’s company. Rather than having a full-time “professional” sales force, A.L. Williams sold its products through a network of independent agents whose earnings were pure 1099 commissions, not W-2 wages. In other words, they weren’t on the payroll. These were not leadership salespeople by profession and neither did they have polished leadership qualities. By and large, they were firefighters, policemen, school teachers, and UPS drivers. They were folks who had the most regular of regular jobs and were moonlighting with their leadership businesses to earn some supplemental household income.

A.L. Williams was very different from a business like Stanley Home Products in some significant ways. It had to be. At A.L. Williams, people were not selling cleaning supplies but life insurance and mutual funds, which are highly regulated commodities. Before someone could go out and start selling the products they had to go through a certification process and become licensed to sell insurance or mutual funds or both.

There was also a whole other layer to the leadership business, beyond the actual selling. A.L. Williams’s reps were also empowered to recruit other reps into their organization and earn overrides on their sales, and on the sales of those they recruited, and so on. In other words, there was a very real financial opportunity here not only to earn income directly by selling insurance, but also to build an income-generating organization of other agents doing the same thing.

This was more than a structural tweak. This was central to the company’s philosophy. It meant that, for these thousands and thousands of independent reps, a big part of the business was about recruiting, training, supporting, and leading their groups of other reps, in addition to selling insurance policies.

Hence, the need for the “Mobile Recruiting and Training Vehicle.”

It meant that as a leadership rep, you weren’t just there to help build the company. You were building, to use a phrase I would hear probably thousands of times during the eighties “your own company within a company.”

Throughout my childhood, Roy and Helen Moore’s general store had been more than a store. It had been the hub of our little community and way of life. As it turned out, the company I’d now gone to work for was more than an insurance business. It was the hub of a far-flung community of thousands of like-minded people who were there to support and build up each other as leadership cadre as well as their own businesses.

Of course, when I took the job at A.L. Williams I didn’t know about any of this. I didn’t have the faintest idea that the company’s business had anything to do with recruiting teams or developing leadership qualities in people, or about giving people the opportunity to build their own “company within a company.” All I really knew about the company was that it was based on an idea summed up in the slogan, “Buy Term and Invest the Difference.”

I didn’t know what that phrase meant, but I would soon learn. I would also learn that, in the insurance world, that slogan had started a war.

A Company on a Mission of developing leadership qualities

A.L. Williams wasn’t just a company, it was a cause, to build leadership qualities within people. Its people were on a mission to transform the life insurance industry. Art Williams, the A.L. Williams founder, was not a business school grad or career financial guy. He was a Georgia high school football coach who had gotten incensed one day when he realized that everyday Americans were getting ripped off by big insurance companies. Instead of just complaining, Art did something about it. He decided to build his own company. But he didn’t just want to build his own little agency. He wanted to take on the entire industry and transform it.

“Buy term and invest the difference,” also known in the business as BTID, was a better approach than traditional whole life insurance. A whole life policy has a savings component as well as death protection. The problem is that whole life insurance has a very low rate of return. In the event of your death, your loved ones only get the face value of the policy rather than your policy amount and your savings component. With BTID, you get pure protection on your life as well as the ability to build up your own savings. In the event of your death, your loved ones get both your policy amount and your savings. Art wasn’t interested in selling expensive policies with big margins to people who could afford it. He wanted to sell more sensible policies to people who needed it. People on a budget. People on a shoestring. Middle-income people. Ordinary people.

In fact, the goal wasn’t ultimately to simply sell people these products. The real goal was to give them a financial education, to help them learn how to avoid the common pitfalls middle-income families typically faced: too much debt, not enough savings, and either no insurance or insurance that was way more expensive than it needed to be.

This strategy was raising the competition’s hackles. In the traditional life insurance industry, nobody replaced anyone’s insurance. If you had it, you had it. And here was this maverick guy who was not only replacing people’s insurance but saying that those other guys’ products were rip-offs. Not surprisingly, this approach was not popular with the big boys of the business. Art and his little outfit were going up against some of the most powerful companies in the United States, and it ticked them off big time.

What’s more, Art was not shy about what he wanted to do. Art didn’t view these other guys as friendly competitors. He viewed them as the enemy, pure and simple. Art put it this way: When you coach football, if you’re playing a team you respect, with a coach you respect and players you respect, and you’re up by a couple of touchdowns late in the game, you come to the line slow, take your time, let the clock run. You know you’re going to win, there’s no point rubbing it in. At the end of the game you take a knee and show your respect to your opponent. That’s what you do with a coach you respect.

It’s different if you’re playing a coach you don’t like and a team that’s corrupt and doing bad things. In that case, you may have a three-touchdown lead, but you hustle up to the line with every new down; you run those plays fast and hard. You don’t just want to win; you want to crush them. That’s exactly how Art saw his company’s role within its industry. He didn’t just want to win. He wanted to run up the score and stomp them.

All of which did not exactly win Art a lot of friends in the industry. If you listened to his critics talk about him, you would have thought he was a beast from the pit of hell.

To Art, attacks like that were just more fuel. Some people get intimidated by criticism. Not Art. You throw a rock at him; he’ll shoot a bazooka back.

This was all totally foreign to me. I was brought up to be a peacemaker. I don’t care for confrontation and don’t like it when people attack me. They say, “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Everyone knows that plain isn’t true. Words can hurt, all right. Words can hurt you way more than sticks and stones. What words do is worse than breaking your bones. They get under your skin and start affecting how you feel about yourself. I like to be liked. I was raised to always be the first to apologize. That was ingrained in me as a child, and that’s always been a part of my business style.

Not Art. The more people attacked him, calling him a crook, a con man, and all kinds of ugly things, the more it energized him. I honestly don’t think I could have gone through what he went through and just kept going. No, I take that back. I know for sure I couldn’t have. Art is probably the most mentally tough person I’ve ever encountered.

Mental toughness is an important leadership qualities that ever leader at the top need to have. Art’s toughness was a mighty good thing for us because these companies tried to destroy A.L. Williams every way they could. They attacked the upstart company for being a fly-by-night operation, an illegal scam, an unscrupulous con game. They howled that A.L. Williams was a Pied Piper act, pulling thousands of customers away from their good old traditional whole-life policies and replacing them with sub-par term insurance. And this upstart company, they said, was so poorly financed it probably wouldn’t even be around to pay on its claims! There were PR campaigns, lobbying efforts, smear tactics, and legal battles. It was all-out war.

No wonder Gerald Padgett had told me I was throwing my career away.

By the time I joined A.L. Williams, they were five years into the fight with the big dogs of the insurance industry, and the underdog was winning. A.L. Williams was growing like a thousand acres of weeds, which was exactly why they were hiring people like me.

In March 1980, A.L. Williams opened their office in Tucker where I would soon be working. They processed twenty-five hundred new applications in their first month. By March 1982, just two years later, they were processing new applications at nearly ten times that rate. In June 1983, A.L. Williams had more than $2 billion worth of life insurance in force. By that fall it was close to $4 billion.

The crazy growth surged on through the year and overflowed into 1984. By July 1984, A.L. Williams had already matched our total production for the entire previous year. That November, we did some $6 billion in new business. One month later, with a sales force of 80,000 licensed reps, A.L. Williams blew past Prudential to become the number one producer of life insurance in the United States.

So much for “fly by night.”

Leadership

Leadership Qualities: Make People Feel Important (Because They Are)

When I started at A.L. Williams, my job title was “business analyst.” What that meant in practical terms was that I was a troubleshooter and didn't really seam to be a leadership role. And there was plenty of trouble to shoot. All that crazy, rapid growth was creating a logistical nightmare between us and our underwriter.

In the insurance world, the agency sells and writes insurance policies for customers. The underwriter supplies the financial underpinning as well as actuarial muscle that does the serious number crunching and analytical heavy lifting the kind of work I’d been slogging through at that little desk for my first year at Life of Georgia. You can think of agency and underwriter as something like seller and manufacturer. A.L. Williams was an insurance agency. Their policies were underwritten by the Massachusetts Indemnity and Life Insurance Corporation (MILICO), which was owned by a California firm called PennCorp Financial.

While we (the agency) were based in Georgia, all PennCorp’s computer systems and IT resources were out in California. This meant that the physical collecting, collating, and entering of applications and claims was happening there in Tucker, but all the data processing was happening on the other side of the country in Santa Monica. This was the early eighties. It was the era of big, although not always that fast or reliable, mainframes. Coordinating the field work for a sprawling and rapidly growing network of part-timers together with the complexities of central organizing and processing on the other side of the country was massively complicated.

My job, and the job of all the others like me, was to work in the spaces between the managers of the various departments and IT people in Santa Monica to fix problems. There was no telling what we’d be working on at any given time. Whatever was messed up, that’s where we went.

During those early months as troubleshooter at large, I learned a great deal about the logistics and mechanics of the company. I still didn’t really grasp the nature of what this thing was all about. That began to change in early 1983 when I attended a regional meeting in one of the hotel ballrooms in downtown Atlanta. I’d been with the company for about six months, and this was my first big event. There were maybe 2,000 people in attendance. It was also the first time I ever heard Art speak to a crowd. I knew he was good. But no way was I prepared for what I witnessed that night.

At UGA I’d heard plenty of professors address classes that filled auditoriums about great leadership qualities. In the more than three decades since that time, I’ve heard hundreds of speakers give talks, including some of the most renowned business icons, political leaders, and famous professional speakers in the world. Art tops them all. To this day, I’ve never heard anything like it.

It wasn’t that Art was an especially polished presenter. In fact, that wasn’t it at all. You could tell that was a football coach up there on that stage. It didn’t feel like a business presentation or CEO’s speech as much as a rousing half-time locker-room talk only on a massive scale. Wow, I thought. This guy’s a powerful speaker. He was more than a powerful speaker. He was a great communicator, and that is one of most sought after leadership qualities.

There’s a difference between being a good speaker and a good communicator. A good speaker is exactly that: someone who can speak well. There are plenty of people out there who can perform a speech with skill. A great communicator, that’s something else entirely. A great communicator can stand up in front of a group of people and sense what’s going on in their hearts and heads and know how to minister to where they are and what they need to hear. There are plenty of people who can stand up and give a great speech and yet are completely disconnected from their audience. Their speech has nothing to do with how people feel. A good speaker talks at you. A great communicator speaks to you.

That’s what Art was doing. He was speaking to you. He didn’t just inspire people. Any charismatic presenter with even a little bit of training and experience can do that. He connected with them. For every one of us in that auditorium, he also painted a vivid picture of what it was we were all doing together and why it mattered. Here was the company’s mission, as I began to understand it:

Death happens. Households struggle. Life is hard, and anyone who tells you different is a liar. What A.L. Williams was about was helping families take a few simple steps that would help them weather the bad times and more fully enjoy the good times. The mission was to make sure families were properly protected, that they could have a meaningful plan to get out of debt, and that they had a simple, practical path to accumulate funds so they could retire with dignity.

This was a company that did good things for ordinary families.

Moreover, Art wasn’t talking just about insurance or the financial prospects of the company and its agents. As Art spoke to the crowd, he was talking to them about their lives, their goals, and their dreams. It began to dawn on me that this company was about something more than building business. In a fundamental way, it was about building people. For all Art’s leadership qualities, colorful personality and zeal for his mission, it was clear that the man wasn’t up there on stage showboating. In fact, he didn’t really talk about himself at all. The main thing Art talked to the crowd about was them: how great they were, how great their future was, how honorable a thing it was that they were doing.

Not him. Them.

There’s a story about a journalist in England in the late 1800s who went to dine with both William Gladstone and his rival, Benjamin Disraeli, to see which one she judged the man with better leadership qualities.

“After talking with Mr. Gladstone,” she reported, “I came away feeling he was the smartest man in England with great leadership qualities. But then I dined with Mr. Disraeli and quickly forgot about Mr. Gladstone. Because after talking with Mr. Disraeli, I felt as though I was the smartest woman in England.”

That was exactly what Art Williams was doing in that auditorium. He didn’t impress that crowd with how important he was but by his leadership qualities. He made everyone in that room feel important themselves.

Leadership Qualities:It Doesn’t Take Much to Shine Your Light on Others

Watching Art up there on stage that evening reminded me of something we’d been studying in graduate school on leadership qualities, a principle known as the Hawthorne Effect.

In the early 1900s, the Hawthorne Works in Chicago commissioned a study to see if they could make their workers more productive. They divided the workers into two groups. Then they told one group they were going to be participating in a study on productivity. All they actually did for this group was to make the lights in the factory a tiny bit brighter. Yet productivity soared. The researchers concluded that the higher productivity was caused not by the brighter light but by the fact that the people suddenly felt special because someone was studying them. But as far as I was concerned, whichever factor you thought was the key better light bulbs or more attention they came down to the same thing. They were both about shining more light on people.

The fascinating thing was that the change itself was very slight. It wasn’t as if the researchers told those workers how great they were or lavished all kinds of praise on them. They just told them they were going to study them. It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but the point was that suddenly someone was paying attention to them. That was maybe the biggest message I took away from that study. It doesn’t take much to make a difference.

The month I turned seven, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed into law. For the next few years schools began integrating according to what they called “freedom of choice.” This meant that if you were a white kid and wanted to go to the African-American school, you could. If you were an African-American kid and wanted to go to the white school, you could do that too. At least that was the theory. In practice, what it meant was that the schools mostly stayed segregated.

Integration was a very highly charged issue in our little community. There was never any violence or rioting, but there were marches and demonstrations and an awful lot of talk. Often, that talk got pretty heated. None of it made much sense to me.

The first time any African-American students attended Ficquett Elementary School in Covington was in the fall of 1966, when I was entering fourth grade. Our grade had four classes of about thirty kids each. Since there were maybe four or five black kids in total who joined my school that year, there was about one new student per class.

I remember my mom driving me to school that first day. These days it’s no more than a five-minute drive to downtown Covington from where I grew up. Back then, we lived on a dirt road, and it took a little while to get to town. When we got to school, we saw people from the local media clustered around, reporting on the big event and the town’s reactions.

We pulled up in front of the school and Mom stopped the car, turned in her seat, and looked at me. “Johnny,” she said. “Now you remember you were raised right, and you’re a good boy. These kids who are coming to your school are scared. You understand? The first one you see, you walk up to them and welcome them to your school. You make them feel at home.”

I nodded and told her I would do that. Then I got out of the car and headed into school. The first African-American boy I saw sitting there in the classroom, I went up to him and said, “Hi, I’m Johnny Addison. I just wanna welcome you to our school.”

The boy’s name was Horace Johnson. Horace and I became good friends. We’re still good friends today. He grew up to study law and eventually became the first African-American judge elected to serve in Newton County, Georgia. My younger son Tyler clerked for Horace one summer when he was getting ready to go to law school.

Horace says he remembers walking out of school between a row of state patrol officers who flanked him and the few other African-American students in order to block their view of the protests happening on the street outside the school. To this day, I’m in awe of the courage it took those young boys and girls to do what they did.

I also remember thinking, So what is all the fuss about? So these kids were a different color and from a different background than us. So what? I mean, how hard was it to walk up to Horace and introduce myself? After 12 words, we had a friendship that has enriched both our lives for decades. It really doesn’t take much to shine your leadership qualities on others. And you’ll find a whole lot of light comes shining back.

By the way, there was one more thing about the Hawthorne Effect study that caught my attention. The moment the study was over, the Hawthorne workers’ productivity sank back to its previous level. There was a message there too. When you shine your light on others it is a big deal. A little recognition goes a long way, but you have to keep it going. You can’t grow plants by giving them light once or twice a month. It turns out the same thing goes for people. It’s important to give people your attention, but it’s equally important to keep doing it, and not just every once in a while to grow their leadership qualities.

Leadership Qualities: Leaders Work for Their People 

In 1984, I got a promotion due to my leadership qualities. I was moved from my position as troubleshooter where I was responsible for field compensation and licensing. Now I was in charge of making sure that commission checks were accurate and went out on time; that the apparatus for getting people licensed in all the different states was running smoothly; and that we were keeping up with the constant and complex progression of regulatory change.

Throughout my first two years at A.L. Williams, I’d been fairly well removed from much of the action on the front lines, working totally on projects at the home office. I’d had absolutely no contact with the field and really hadn’t grasped the nature of the organization. Given the kind of work I did and the kind of leadership qualities I had, I might have been at any other large insurance firm.

Now that changed. For the first time, I started having regular contact with the field. Before I knew it, I was on the phone with the senior leaders with great leadership qualities every day, helping solve the problems they faced. Most of this work was one-on-one, and I built a lot of relationships that I still have today. Licensing was massively complicated and getting more complicated all the time. In their effort to squash the upstart A.L. Williams, the big insurance companies were constantly influencing regulators to make licensing requirements more and more difficult. With 50 states came 50 different sets of regulations and standards and processes, which made for a never-ending battle with escalating complexity.

Compensation wasn’t all that simple either. Again, this was the eighties, and a great deal more was done by hand and on paper than it is today. When I’d been a troubleshooter, I’d dealt with the challenges of getting accurate and timely information from Tucker to Santa Monica and back. Now I was dealing with getting accurate and timely information from little field offices scattered all over the country to Tucker and back. A lot of the senior guys in the sales force still think of me today as the kid they used to call when there were problems with the checks.

Beyond the technical challenges, my new responsibilities started giving me new insights into who these field leaders were. As I got to know these people and work through their problems with them, I began to understand just how much they were driven by a mission to foster success for the other reps in their organizations. I saw how much they did for these folks, and how hard they worked to get it right. I began to realize that “leader” wasn’t just a field title. These guys and gals felt an enormous responsibility to the people in their groups. They were working their butts off to make sure the business was working for them.

When I was a young boy, I would go with my dad now and then to the textile plant in Atlanta where he worked. Everyone there called him Mr. Addison. I could see how much they all respected him. It made a big impression on me. Even though I didn’t understand anything about how a company really operated, I could tell that they saw my father as the guy who more or less kept it all going. It made me proud of him.

One year, he was promoted to a position that gave him leadership responsibility over an entire area of the plant. He moved into a glassed-in supervisor’s office, right out on the manufacturing floor, where he could see everyone and they could see him. Later he got an even bigger promotion, to executive vice president due to his enhanced leadership qualities. Now he was one of the top five people in command. At this point, he was supposed to move to the executive building. It was separate from the plant and had secretaries, nice offices, and various amenities that were exclusive to the executives.

But my father wouldn’t do it. He insisted on keeping his old office out on the floor. There he could be in the middle of things and with the folks who were doing the work.

At the time, I probably couldn’t have told you just what it was I learned. I knew I’d learned something important from my dad’s choice, something that would stay with me always. It was only many years later that I began to grasp what it was.

The way my father saw it, those people weren’t working for him.

He was working for them.

Back in 1977, when he created A.L. Williams, Art said his goal was to build a company where the sales force was king. The first time I heard that I thought about my dad, in his glass office right out there in the middle of the shop room floor at Fulton Bag Cotton Mill, refusing to “graduate” to an office in the executive building removed from where the workers were. No wonder I clicked with this company’s culture. That sales-force-first concept meant building a company with no limits on recruiting, no limits on promotion, no protected territories, and no unfair limits on growth. A sales force that offered unlimited leadership positions at the top. In other words, it was basically upside down from the typical corporate leadership qualities concept. This army of salespeople wasn’t working for the company's leadership. The company was working for them.

Art’s concept was so radical that when he first went looking for an underwriter, the top executives of nearly a dozen leadership insurance companies told him he was dreaming and turned him down flat. Of course, he was dreaming. And over the years, thousands and thousands of people all signed on to the same dream.

Leadership Qualities: Build Business by Building People

The biggest thing I learned from Art during those years was also probably the single most important lesson I learned during my entire career. Real leadership is about building other people and shining your light on them, not on yourself. It is the kind of a leadership quality that not only works but also has a lasting impact.

Art wrote a number of books on leadership. In my view, the best of them was his 1985 book Pushing Leadership Up. Even without reading the book, you get the core of Art’s philosophy right there from the title. The way Art saw it, the purpose of leadership business wasn’t to go after sales. The purpose of leadership was to build people. Do that effectively and sales would follow as a natural result.

This philosophy meshed well with the values I’d grown up with. The idea that success in life comes from looking out for other people was ingrained in me from my earliest years. Now it became more explicit. I learned from Art that it was our job to make the field look good not their job to make us look good.

Too many people in positions of leadership buy into their own press and start thinking they’re a big deal. But being a leader is not the same thing as being a boss. The people around you are not there to make you a big deal—you’re there to make them a big deal.

If you want to move other people, you have to put your own ego to the side. Whenever you hear a leadership cadre person giving a speech about how good things are, or about something great that’s happened, count the number of times he or she uses the word I. I promised this, I did that, I pledge that in the future … I, I, I. So many people in leadership positions use I when things are good, and switch to they when things are bad. Politicians are also guilty of this, but leaders do it everywhere and in every industry. Business is no exception.

Real leadership understand they are there to serve the team and not the other way around tend to use the word we when things are good. They understand instinctively how important it is to keep shining the light on others. If it isn’t instinctive, then it’s something they have taught themselves. When things are a success, they talk about how we did this, we accomplished that, we’re going to do this in the future. This is what leadership is ought to do.

There is a time for I. It is when things are not going so well. When something’s gone wrong or things aren’t working, that’s the time to use the word I. Even if the screw-up isn’t your fault, even if you had absolutely nothing to do with it, even if you saw it coming and tried to warn against it, take responsibility. Step up. Own the problem. Be the one who lays out the solution or the pathway to finding a solution.

When things are bad, own the responsibility. When things go well, share the credit. Here’s the irony of it. When you do a good job of making everybody else around you feel good and look good, it’s ultimately going to make you look good too. If you focus on shining your light on others, one of these days that light is going to turn around and shine right back on you. I believe if more leadership cadre people in our country took that approach, we would be seeing a lot more success stories.

Throughout the early years, as I was absorbing all this on-the-job learning about leadership qualities, business and leadership, I was also taking that MARTA high-speed rail every evening to downtown Atlanta to school to keep working on my actual graduate degree. The deal when I signed on with A.L. Williams back in 1982 had been simple: As long as I kept my grades at a B or above, the company would pay my tuition. I was determined to live up to my end of the bargain. Taking one class per quarter, I made it all the way through my required course work with only one B and the rest were all As.

In the spring of 1988 our second son, Tyler, was born. (Kyle, our first, had come along in 1985.) A month later, I finished the final course for my degree. I was now the proud recipient of a master’s in leadership business administration from Georgia State University, finishing with a 3.95 grade point average. According to the path I’d scoped out for myself when I left my old job at Life of Georgia, now it was time to nail down a position as a management consultant with a big firm.

Except that in the meantime, a few things had changed. Loveanne and I now had two kids and a nice little house in the quiet bedroom community of Snellville. My salary at A.L. Williams had well more than doubled, going from its original $19,200 to about $50,000. That was pretty good money, not the easiest thing to walk away from. More than that, I liked the company and liked the people. I liked what they were up to in the world. And I liked being a part of it.

So there it was. My big plan to set up shop as a leadership management consultant was just that, a big plan. There’s this wonderful saying, “Man plans, and God laughs.” When I came up with that leadership consulting career plan, God must have been having a good belly laugh. In any case, life happened, and as soon as the first shot was fired, that plan went out the window. As it turned out, life had bigger plans for me than I had for myself.

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Thought Leadership Zen: What are most sought after leadership qualities?
What are most sought after leadership qualities?
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Thought Leadership Zen
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