It’s an interesting climate leaders live in today. The bluster is high. The truth is hard to find. And beneath that blinding and loud veneer the very real challenges to business growth and value creation are greater than they have ever been. Change is now something that must recalculated daily, a not so subtle hint that the challenges leaders and their companies face won’t lessen anytime soon. As for remedies, it feels as if the advice available to leaders is ever present, but most of the time that advice feels lackluster at best, at worst unhelpful -the very signals that say it’s time to look elsewhere for insight.
What’s so great, isn’t always what you think.
What makes for greatness isn’t always discovered in the obvious places. But when we find it, such insights can be profoundly powerful and remarkably simple. A story that Nell Newman (founder of Newman’s Own Organics) told me long ago about her father actor Paul Newman, resonates now more than ever. It’s a lesson in leadership and the need for perpetual reinvention – a lesson that any leader today that wants to be around and relevant tomorrow would be wise to heed.
Paul Newman was an innovator his entire life. He innovated in the roles he played on screen, proven in part by the shear range of iconic characters he created – from Henry Gondorff in The Sting, to Luke Jackson in Cool Hand Luke, to Brick in Cat on A Hot Tin Roof. He innovated as a producer, earning a reputation for pushing the boundaries of what a movie or genre could be, and often doing so out of the limelight when he felt he could be more effective (most notably in Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid and They Might be Giants where his producing roles were uncredited). Along the way he was a race car driver and racing team owner, a navy pilot, a skilled jazz pianist, and a frontline political activist. And then there was his stint in specialty foods, which brings us to Nell’s story.
Newman didn’t just come up with a recipe for spaghetti sauce and hock it in jars with his face on it. He conceived an entirely new model for corporate giving, creating a business whose sole purpose for existing was to give its profits to charity. That said, his company’s products were and are mighty tasty. People loved both, the products and the profit model.
Often, fans took the time to tell him how much they loved his work, including one woman who wrote him a letter telling him how great he was, a letter Newman put in a special place where he’d see it every day. The letter told Newman how wonderful his pasta sauces were and how grateful this fan was to him for making them. In fact she dedicated most of a page to telling him so. But as she ran out of superlatives for Newman’s Own, she ending the letter by telling Newman that she’d lately been hearing he was a pretty good actor too, and that she hoped she could find one of his movies someday and see for herself.
True greatness is made one small (humbling) step at a time.
Over his career as an actor, Newman was nominated for nine coveted acting award across five different decades, including wins for two Academy Awards for Best Actor. At his death, his net worth was estimated at more than $50 million. His company had given more than three times that amount away by the time of his passing. But what his fan cared about was his sauce, something he’d concocted on a whim with a friend and in a bathtub (true). And that’s exactly what Newman sought to remind himself of everyday by hanging the fan’s letter where he’d be sure not only to see daily, but see it when he was at his most humbled. He hung it right over the toilet in the bathroom of his home office.
Newman’s greatness was made day by day, and a simple humbling symbol helped remind him that that’s the only way true and lasting greatness can be made.
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