Leaders to Leader

Lessons from the Great American Leaders & How They Apply Now

Have You Ever Been Overwhelmed By Your Personal Circumstances?

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Have you ever been overwhelmed by your personal circumstances? The current recession has caused many to despair over the problems that seem to overwhelm them… lost jobs, downsizing, pay cuts, you name it. Many just want to give up and quit!

What can the experience of the great leaders teach us? Despite nearly hopeless circumstances, the great and influential leaders’ steadfastness, perseverance and personal drive would never allow them to consider quitting.

Herb Kelleher (Southwest Airlines) faced overwhelming challenges when he initially launched his airline. He was immediately sued by his competition to prevent Southwest Airlines from making its first flight. He described his experience, “For the next four years the only business Southwest Airlines performed was litigation, as we tried to get our certificate to fly. After the first two years of defending lawsuits, we ran out of money. The Board of Directors wanted to shut down the company because we had no cash. So I said, ‘Well guys, suppose I just handle the legal work for free and pay all of the costs out of my own pocket, would you be willing to continue under those circumstances?’ Since they had nothing to lose, they said yes. We pressed on, finally getting authorization to fly…

Our first flight was to take off on June 18, 1971 and fly between Dallas, Houston and San Antonio. I was excited about being in the airline industry because it’s a very sporty business. But the regulatory and legal hoops enraged me. I thought if we can’t start a low cost airline and the system defeats us, then there is something wrong with the system. It was an idealistic quest as much as anything else. When we brought the first airplane in for evacuation testing (a simulated emergency situation) I was so excited about seeing it that I walked up behind it and put my head in the engine. The American Airlines mechanic grabbed me and said if someone had hit the thrust reverser I would have been toast. At that point I didn’t even care. I went around and kissed the nose of the plane and started crying I was so happy to see it.” [1]

Conrad Hilton (Hilton Hotels) went bankrupt during the Depression. “Faced with challenges that might have seemed insurmountable, he did what he had done since he was a boy—resolved to work hard and have faith in God. Others, it seemed, made up their minds to put their faith in Hilton. He was able to buy goods on credit from locally owned stores because they trusted his ability and determination to one day pay them back. As the kindness of others and his own ingenuity helped him rebuild his hotel empire to proportions previously unheard of, he solidified his commitment to charity and hospitality—two characteristics that became hallmarks both of Hilton Hotels and of the man who began them.” [2]

Walter and Olive Ann Beech (Beech Aircraft) started their company during the Depression. “‘She was the one that kept trying to get the money together to pay the bills,’ said Frank Hedrick, her nephew, who worked with her at Beech for more than 40 years and who succeeded her in 1968 as president of Beech Aircraft…

She said she didn’t give much thought to the problems of starting a new company at a time when most airplane companies were closing, not opening. ‘Mr. Beech thought about that,’ she said. ‘(But) he had this dream and was going to do it. He probably didn’t know how long the Depression was going to last.’ The first few years were difficult, she said. They sold few airplanes. ‘We had to crawl back up that ladder.’” [3]

Olive Ann Beech overcame additional adversity, when she took over the company, after her husband contracted encephalitis during the Second World War and again, after he suddenly died in 1950.

Joyce Hall (Hallmark) saw his company literally go up in smoke, three years after he started it, when his business burned to the ground. “Hall was $17,000 in debt when a flash fire wiped out his printing plant. Luckily, he was able to sweet-talk a local bank into an unsecured $25,000 loan, and he has not taken a step back since. By the late 1930, Hallmark was one of the top three cards.” [4]

Herb Kelleher (Southwest Airlines) “never considered giving up, despite having a wife and four children at home. Did stress keep him awake nights? No, Kelleher says he was already awake nights, working at his office. ‘I figured if I was working when they were sleeping, it gave me an edge.’ And when he was home, ‘the iron curtain came down,’ walling off the business worries.” [5]

Milton Hershey (Hershey Foods) failed miserably in his first endeavor, a confectionary store in Philadelphia. “In 1886, he was penniless. He went back to Lancaster but did not even have the money to have his possessions shipped after him. When he walked out to his uncle’s farm, he found himself shunned as an irresponsible drifter by most of his relatives.

This time, though, fortune finally smiled on Mr. Hershey. William Henry Lebkicher, who had worked for Hershey in Philadelphia, stored his things and helped him pay the shipping charges. Aunt Mattie and his mother began once again to help him and Milton started experiments which led to the recipe for ‘Hershey’s Crystal’ a ‘melt in your mouth’ caramel candy made with milk.” [6]

“In 1924 [Clarence] Birdseye (Birdseye Foods) helped form the General Sea Foods Co. in Gloucester, Mass., and he began freezing food on a commercial scale… But despite an infusion of cash from a few investors as well as the creation of specially made freezers to hold his product, the country was not yet ready to accept the prospect of frozen food. It took another seven years before Birdseye’s vision came to fruition. As time passed, he continued his experiments with the quick-freezing process… Almost bankrupt, Birdseye continued to press for believers in his inventions. In 1925 he found one in the guise of Postum Cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post.” [7]

Walt Disney (Disney) not only went bankrupt, but also experienced additional adversities. “The company failed due to Disney’s inability to manage the finances, but Disney persevered, continuing to believe in himself and in his dream. He teamed up with his brother, who took care of the financial side of the business and the two moved to Hollywood to found Disney Brothers’ Studio.

But there would still be stumbling blocks. The studio created the popular Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon character for Universal, but when Disney requested an increase in budget, producer Charles B. Mintz instead hired away most of Disney’s animators and took over production of the cartoon in his own studio. Universal owned the character’s trademark, so there was little Disney could do.

After the Oswald fiasco, Disney set about creating a new cartoon character to replace Oswald. That character became one of the most recognizable symbols in the world: Mickey Mouse.” [8]

[1] Kristina Dell, Airline Maverick (Time Magazine, September 21, 2007)

[2] Gaetz Erin, Conrad Hilton’s Secret of Success (American Heritage People, August 2, 2006)

[3] Earle Joe, Olive Ann Beech Rose to Business Greatness (The Wichita Eagle, February 11, 1985)

[4] The Greeting Card King (Time Magazine, November 30, 1959)

[5] Vinnedge Mary, From the Corner Office – Herb Kelleher (Success Magazine, 2010)

[6] Milton S. Hershey: 1857-1945 (Milton Hershey School; mhs-pa.org)

[7] Elan Elissa Clarence Birdseye (Nation’s Restaurant News, Feb, 1996)

[8] Bostwick Heleigh, Turning a Dream into a Kingdom: The Walt Disney Story (LegalZoom, July 2009)

Excerpt: Great! What Makes Leaders Great: What They Did, How They Did It and What You Can Learn From It (Majorium Business Press, Stevens Point, WI 2011)

Read a Free Chapter

Timothy F. Bednarz, Ph.D. | Author | Publisher | Majorium Business Press
Author of Great! What Makes Leaders Great: What They Did, How They Did It and What You Can Learn From It (Finalist – 2011 Foreword Reviews‘ Book of the Year)
Linkedin | Facebook | Twitter | Web| Blog | Catalog |800.654.4935 | 715.342.1018

Copyright © 2013 Timothy F. Bednarz, All Rights Reserved

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