Read Obituaries. And Lead to the Fullest
I never met Benedict Freedman. In fact I never heard of him, until I read his obituary in The New York Times.
The loss is mine. Dr. Freedman died recently at the age of 92. His claim to fame, or as judged by the first line of his obit, was co-authorship of the 1947 novel, Mrs. Mike, a sensational bestseller that spawned a movie—and has endured as a favorite with teenage girls and young women to this day.
But that was just a warm-up. Freedman's co-author was his wife, Nancy, whom he married on her expected deathbed in 1941. She actually died in 2010 and their marriage produced three children: a physician, a college professor, and a mathematician who was named a MacArthur fellow.
Freedman was something of a prodigy himself; he graduated high school at 13, but had to leave Columbia at 16 to help support his family. He did go back to school in the 1950s and earned a Ph.D. at UCLA and taught math at Occidental College. He also found time to continue to write novels. Additionally he and Nancy produced two sequels to Mrs. Mike.
Freedman also had two brushes with history. During World War II, he worked for Hughes Aircraft and had a bizarre job interview with Howard Hughes himself. Hughes, a germaphobe, insisted that Freeman shower twice and then stand 30 feet away as questions were shouted out.
Freedman's date for his senior prom was to be Gypsy Rose Lee, something his father, a Broadway writer, had arranged for him. (Before they went out, Ms. Lee gave Freedman what we might call a private show that only frightened him away; remember he was only 13.)
I will admit reading obituaries of well-known people is a pastime of mine. Not because I suffer from schadenfreude (taking comfort in the misfortune of others) but because you discover so much about lives lived well and the impact those lives have had on others.
A tried-and-true human development exercise is to ask people to write their obituaries now, but I think that is too narrow. Better to write your eulogy. Why? Because that is how you want others to remember you and how you would like to be remembered.
An obituary is a recitation of facts embellished with stories. A eulogy is a song of praise to a life well led and Margalit Fox's obit of Freedman comes close to being a eulogy in its eloquence and humor.
The lesson for leaders is to reflect on your life. Are you satisfied doing what you are doing now? Too often we are overwhelmed by the minutiae of the day and it is hard to take a step back and gain perspective. But I would argue that, unless you are fighting fires, saving lives, or about to sink a 20-foot put to win the Masters Golf Tournament, most of what you are doing moment to moment won't matter five years from now. Or maybe even six months from now!
What will matter is how you treat others. As a leader, are you setting the right example? As a follower, are you putting forth good faith effort? As a person are you seeking to make things better for others? The Golden Rule is ingrained within us: Treat other people as you would like to be treated. But how often do we practice it? Really.
Certainly, I am deficient, but I have had the privilege of working with some exceptional leaders who do lead this way. They are not saints but they are men and women of integrity. They lead by example and they live their lives with a commitment to making a positive difference. They make their organizations better places to work and they teach those around them what it means to live a full and rich life.
Like Benedict Freedman. Novelist. Mathematician. Husband. Father…and inspiration!
JOHN BALDONI is the president of Baldoni Consulting, an executive coaching firm. John speaks widely on leadership and has written 10 leadership books; his newest is Lead With Purpose: Giving Your Organization a Reason to Believe in Itself.
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