My role models taught me about management

Sept. 1, 2005
The one uncle and many aunts from the maternal side of my family were an unusual collection of people.
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My uncle, without attending college, became the CEO of a major public utility. My aunts all married outstanding breadwinners without much formal education but with personalities that commanded respect from employees.

One of the uncles who married into the family, a highschool dropout, formed a large and successful foundry. Another uncle, who didn't go beyond high school, became an executive in a large corporation. Yet another uncle, trained as a mechanic, established a lucrative automotive shop.

Closer to home, my dad began his career as an apprentice carpenter, eventually forming a construction business. He made enough money to retire comfortably at age 47. When asked about his education, he was always evasive. Since the family sensed that his schooling was a touchy subject, we tactfully stopped asking about it.

By any standard, all of these men were excellent managers. They hired people, fired people, and ran day-to-day operations. They lined up financing, used the services of accountants and lawyers, supervised salesmen, and marketed their products. And at the end of the day, they brought a sizable chunk of money to the bottom line.

At family gatherings, my numerous male cousins and I would hang around and listen to these men shoot the breeze while they played poker, sipped a little whiskey, laughed, and talked in self-deprecating tones about their wives, their children, and themselves. Humor was always a big element in their conversations, and nearly all of it was at their own expense.

They joked about their wives spending too much money and their kids being lazy and dull-witted, while they portrayed themselves as henpecked husbands unable to cope with the peccadilloes of their families. The proceedings were always punctuated by raucous laughter and just a bit of mild profanity.

My cousins and I did not know the proper vocabulary for all this, but later I realized that this group of accomplished men were our role models. They never indulged in a single second of kissy, huggy quality time and never told the kids that daddy loved them. This was before men were supposed to be sensitive.

The proper role for children was to be seen and not heard, so we respectfully stood just a bit apart from them. Until we were old enough to be admitted to the inner circle, we were content merely to observe because we liked what we saw. Most important of all, we were learning how men are supposed to behave.

Probably because of this experience, none of us rebelled as teenagers. Contempt for our parents was an alien concept. To the contrary, we hoped that some day we would be as smart and as successful as the men who ran our households. The sad thing was that they were embarrassed by their lack of formal schooling. "Don't be like me kid," we were constantly told. "Go out and get yourself an education."

This group of men were humble to the core. They were successful in business, but they never forgot how low they started. They knew that despite their success, their lack of formal education took something away from the status they could command in society.

Conventional wisdom says you aren't supposed to be successful without a college education. These relatives of mine were anachronisms, or at least a dying breed. Instead of falling through the cracks, they rose up through them. And they were embarrassed by that.

Still, they taught my cousins and me something about manly conduct. We saw that to develop a personality that commands respect, even if you don't have a college degree, it helps to spend some time playing cards, drinking a little whiskey, laughing a lot, and making jokes about your spouse, your kids, and yourself.

-- Ronald Khol, Editor
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