The look in my wife’s eyes as I came through the door made me drop my briefcase on the kitchen floor.
Time, and my heart, seemed to stop. “Sweetheart, what’s wrong?” I whispered.
Teary, she murmured, “I don’t know how to tell you this … Charlie just died.”
Charlie was my friend, my mentor, my Best Man, my father figure. His death was sudden and much too soon.
My lungs deflated; my heart hurt.
Work commitments and poor flight schedules left me with little choice but to drive from Colorado Springs to Charlie’s memorial in Temple, Texas. Against the desolate backdrop of the Texas Panhandle, I replayed the memories of my time with Charlie.
I arrived just as the memorial service was starting with the hymns and songs that meant so much to Charlie.
The church was packed. I don’t remember much about what the pastor said, but toward the end of the eulogy, he invited people in the audience to come stand next to him if they could say their lives had been permanently marked by Charlie.
At first just a few gathered around the pastor, and then a movement stirred in the church. The platform filled and people trailed down the aisles to the doors on both sides.
I stood in this crowd of young and old, professionals and laborers, business leaders, ranchers, doctors, students, church leaders, teachers, local residents and people from around the world … all of us standing in testimony to the impact this one man had on our lives.
It occurred to me that a stranger happening into the church at that moment would have to ask, “Who was this guy and how did he make such a difference in the lives of so many?”
The answers to these questions made themselves plain on my long, quiet drive back to Colorado.
I met Charlie in the fall of 1970, just after arriving from Japan to attend college in Texas.
Nothing about him seemed extraordinary at first. He didn’t possess much in the way of charisma or vast business knowledge or physical prowess. He was plainspoken, prematurely balding, with a nose that seemed too large for his face and a preference for western shirts, faded jeans and dusty boots.
His large hands were rough from decades of hard physical work; belying the truth that Charlie was highly educated (as he mentored me, Charlie sometimes joked in moments of frustration that he was schooled in the veterinary sciences to train thoroughbreds, and here he was, stuck breaking a mule like me). His penetrating eyes brimmed with immense goodness and generosity of heart and a deep faith. We were an unlikely pair, the quintessential Texan and this kid fresh off the boat from Japan.
That first meeting turned into a relationship that permanently marked me, and makes me so much of what I am today.
Looking back, I identified three attributes that enabled Charlie to have such a deep and lasting influence on me and so many others.
Charlie was, first of all, a man of clear purpose. He knew why he was on this earth. As he began to uncover leadership abilities in me, he said, “Dan, it’s not worth your life to just accomplish self-determined goals. Live your life so it makes a permanent difference in the lives of people and organizations you touch.”
His charge reminds me of the words of A.W. Tozer, written in the middle of the last century, that “… no man has any right to dedicate his life to anything that can burn or rust or rot or die.”
Charlie taught me that our lives are too valuable to be given over to the trivial. And he lived that way himself; always on the alert for opportunities to make a difference in the life of another — whether that person was a lifelong friend or a newly met stranger.
Charlie helped me see that most of us don’t discover and live out our purpose in heroic moments but in ordinary interactions.
I learned to ask: Am I alert every day for possibilities — planned and spontaneous — to make a difference in the lives of people around me? Am I living my life for the trivial or the purposeful?
In the end, even though his life was cut short, having lived purposefully Charlie lived fully.
The second remarkable attribute Charlie possessed was his keen sense of identity.
In my profession of leader development, I see how leaders view themselves. I’ve seen many embrace the image of servant-leadership in an effort to improve performance.
I don’t have a problem with this concept — in fact I endorse it — but I am concerned when I ask people to define “servant-leadership” and their responses make it clear this is just another technique to them.
Some in business have told me frankly that if they found that servant-leadership didn’t make them more effective, they would try something else.
Charlie had exactly the opposite view. He loved and embraced and lived out his identity, first and foremost, as a servant who was given the responsibility for leading.
That spirit infused everything Charlie did by altering the way he viewed people. He often reminded me that people, all people, are of infinite and eternal worth.
C.S. Lewis wrote:
“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”
This high view of people makes serving the highest calling rather than the lowest duty.
Charlie was overwhelmed at the privilege of serving people. He helped me imagine what our world could be like if civic, business, religious and educational leaders walked into the marketplace, the classroom, the jobsite, the neighborhood, and really saw people in this way.
Wouldn’t it change everything? Wouldn’t our businesses and organizations, our schools and communities flourish with such leadership?
The third attribute that characterized Charlie was his peculiar vision.
In my work with leaders, I’ve seen individuals with a breathtaking ability to see far into the future, to peer deeply into an issue, to grasp the broad dimensions of a challenge. But Charlie’s vision was transcendent. It drove how he lived out his purpose and identity every day.
Charlie possessed what I have come to call “third generation vision.”
Third generation vision is easily described in child-rearing terms. My wife and I are attempting to raise three wonderful children, Abigail, Andrew and Annie.
If we had “first generation vision” as parents, we would be satisfied if our children did as they were told, minded their manners, spoke when spoken to, didn’t do anything to embarrass us and covered up any obvious hygiene problems.
First generation vision is parenting for my personal convenience and near term objectives.
I’ve seen quite a few leaders like this; they enjoy the utility of having people around them to further their personal goals. As long as folks do as they are told and don’t create problems, everything is fine. Until, one day, everything isn’t fine.
Parents with “second generation vision” see their responsibilities differently. They want to raise their children in such a way that the kids become good citizens, good spouses, good parents, good neighbors, good leaders and contributors to society.
Any time you see such a parent, I say commend them. The same goes for leaders of every sort.
Then, there are parents (and leaders like Charlie) who possess a much greater perspective: “third generation vision.” As I think about my own three children, I’m learning to stop and ask, “How do I raise them in such a way that my grandchildren will be great citizens, husbands, wives, parents, neighbors, leaders and contributors?”
Now, faced with a parental leadership issue, I back up and consider how I can leverage the situation to build the wisdom, character and ability of my kids so that their kids will make a difference.
Businesses and organizations of all types are at a crossroads. Anyone can see that.
Talent and leadership for the future are in short supply. A large part of this crisis springs from the fact that we have not developed our own children and the people in our own organizations to live and lead in a future without us.
Charlie’s visionary life makes me ask over and over: Are you leading from first-, second- or third-generation vision?
Purpose. Identity. Vision. By the time I got home from Texas my image of Charlie seemed complete … until a few months later, when I received the bow that wrapped up the whole package.
Charlie’s wife Kay called me one day. She was traveling in Colorado and wondered if we could meet for coffee.
I walked into the coffee shop a bit late, and spotting Kay, angled toward her. She rose when saw me and embraced me warmly. Then, pushing back, with tears in her eyes she said, “Dan, Charlie loved you so much.”
That’s when I got it: The heart that drives a great leader is a heart of love for the people he or she serves. This is the difference between attaining “results” and creating a living, lasting legacy of changed people who continue to make a difference long after the leader is gone.
W. Somerset Maugham, in his novel “Of Human Bondage,” described an aging couple saying, “They had done nothing, and when they went it would be just as if they had never been.”
I’m afraid this will be the epitaph of most leaders.
So I keep having to ask: What kind of leader are you? Are your days characterized by the intentional purpose to make a difference in people’s lives? Do you joyfully embrace the privilege of serving infinite and eternally valuable immortals? Do you have a vision that sees future generations touched by your everyday encounters? And above all, do you truly love those you serve?
I hope my epitaph and yours will be written not in stone but in the testimony of people standing in the aisles to express how grateful they are for the difference we made in their lives.
Dan Wooldridge is a consultant based in Colorado Springs.