Straight Talk

Dec. 21, 2004
Past sheds light on leadership lessons.

Occasionally, I reminisce. I recommend it. It reminds us how much we owe, and to whom. My reminiscences are usually eclectic assortments of sound bites from my past that seriously affected my future. When I think about the lessons I learned as a boy, and the obstacles I faced leading my company for 25 years, I realize that four humble aspects of my life significantly shaped my leadership abilities: my parents, books, the school yard, and music. Indulge me a moment, and let me reminisce about 1929. The stock market crashed, creating a decade of after-shocks called the Great Depression. I was nine years old when the crash came. Back then there was no television to boggle our minds, or drugs to scramble our brains. There also were no air conditioners, refrigerators, penicillin, or computers. Ice cream cones cost a nickel, movies cost a dime, cars cost $350, and tuition at the best colleges cost $300 a year. Sounds great, doesn't it? Except for one small problem: We had no money. It's difficult to comprehend how poor we were back then, particularly for kids like me whose parents were immigrants. But though we were poor, I was blessed. I had a father and mother who loved me. I had a sister and two brothers to blame things on. My parents couldn't speak or understand English when they arrived in this country, but they learned by the time we kids were born. And, in the learning process, they also learned the wisdom of surrounding their children with love, music, art, and good books. From such a life I learned to respect money without making it a god. My father was an artist. His medium was plaster. He created beautiful gesso sculptures, many of which still exist on the walls and ceilings of Cleveland churches, theaters, and public buildings. My mother was a skilled seamstress whose medium was embroidery. Dad drew designs, and Mom embroidered them. From them I learned the value of teamwork. My dad played the guitar and had a marvelous bass voice. Mom was a bel canto soprano. We kids had assorted voices in assorted ranges. Because we were raised on phonograph records featuring the opera greats, we liked to pretend we were the legendary performers. We loved to listen to Mom and Dad sing Neapolitan love songs to one another -- songs like "O Sole Mio" and "Torna a Surriento." It taught me the value of harmony and the enjoyment of shared relationships. There wasn't much money in the Marino piggy-bank, but there were always good books in the Marino home. And, as I grew older, I inhaled ideas, mostly from those books. I was awed by the discovery that thinking with other people's ideas was not only legal, but encouraged. From this I learned to judge a person's working abilities by their reading habits. In my experience, there is a strong correlation between "word smarts" and "work smarts." People who read are thinking people who learn, adapt, and innovate. But even surrounded by good books, life wasn't easy for a guy with a name like Sal. I preferred it to "dago" and "wop." I remember that for me the school yard was often a battleground. But I also remember that it was in that school yard where I learned tolerance and respect for people's differences; and I learned how valuable diversity is to business. People of varied races, ethnicities, religions, and genders provide new and different perspectives on problem solving. Studying the culture of the world's greatest tenors, for instance, has taught me to value and strive to perfect what I have been given. Great singing, particularly in the high register of the tenor, requires remarkable dedication, extreme patience, hard effort, and tender loving care of one's delicate vocal instrument. Tenors must select their repertoires to fit their voices and sing "within their capabilities" or lose their voices. This kind of self-discipline is invaluable at every level of any company's organizational chart. Sal F. Marino is chairman emeritus of Penton Media Inc. and an IW contributing editor. His e-mail address is [email protected].

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