Inspirational stories are not what you would expect to find in the Money and Business section of the Sunday New York Times. Its articles are generally of the dollars and cents kind. But a few years ago, paging quickly through that Sunday’s business section, I began to notice a regular column called The Boss. The format is the “as told to” kind. A Times reporter interviews someone who has climbed to the top of his or her (mostly his) organization. The reporter then writes up the interview as a brief first-person narrative.
Now and then, though, these columns recount not only the climb-to-success efforts of the interviewees, but also what influenced them at an early stage of their lives in ways that led to something beyond the success they had achieved in the business world per se, and even to a deepened view of life itself. In a piece titled “Setting the Table,” for example, the president and C.E.O. of an organization based in Delaware spoke in his interview of an early job he held for several summers while a college student. The job involved preparing picnic lunches for groups of patients at a state mental hospital. He was responsible for cooking 100 hot dogs and 100 hamburgers.
Only 18 when he first began, he “went into the job thinking I would make the food quickly and get out.” He goes on to say that he “had never visited an institution like that, and you think of the stereotype of people stuck in an institution and taking medication.” What he discovered then and during subsequent summers, however, was that instead of doing his tasks as rapidly as possible and then leaving, he was “spending more and more time there, talking to patients.” The patients, in turn, who were “pretty sick,” took grateful note of his increasingly caring attentions. As time went on, he says, he was not only doing the actual food preparation, but also “putting food on their plates and even feeding them [and] I realized we were helping to improve their quality of life.” We are not told much about the early steps in his subsequent post-college business career, but toward the end of the column he observes, “My family and faith are the most important things in my life.” His early experience among mentally ill hospital patients at those picnics, we realize, had something to do with his faith and his family, but also with his overall perception of life, which had come to include service to the vulnerable.
Another Boss column that appeared in the fall of 2005 was called “Lessons from Dad.” The interviewee this time was a woman—the president of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. The sense of family comes through strongly as she describes her father’s influence on her life. A minister with the Swedish Covenant Church, he was active as she was growing up in the civil rights movement. As a teenager, “I wondered,” she says of that tumultuous period of the 1960’s, “what it would be like to be in a minority”—that is, what it would be like to be an African American teenager in a city familiar with race riots and overt acts of discrimination.
Her thoughts on the issue took concrete form when, as a senior, she transferred to a mostly black school on the south side of Chicago. As her senior year was drawing to an end, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. led to rioting, and the school was temporarily closed. “My new friends surrounded me,” she says, “and got me safely to a station where I could get a bus home.” She tells us: “The memory of their kindness, in spite of their pain and anger, has never left me.” The students had nicknamed her Blue Eyes, “because they assumed that all white people had blue eyes.” Her eyes, in fact, are green, but from that misperception on the part of her new African American friends, she “learned that stereotypes went two ways”—a lesson also learned by the college student who worked with mentally ill hospital patients.
After graduating from college, she taught reading in local public schools and became involved in youth-related activities. Noticing an ad by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society for a read-a-thon coordinator, she applied for the job. That job in turn—and with the encouragement of various other “bosses” who urged her to keep deepening her knowledge of the field to which she had by then committed herself—led to her present C.E.O. position. But her primary debt, she observes at the column’s conclusion, was to her father, who had taught her that “you just keep on learning.” She saw that he “always tried to make himself a better person, and that continues to have a profound effect on me.”
Most of the Boss columns focus more on “how I made it to the top.” But every now and then, as these two examples suggest, generous impulses arising from early life experiences can, once developed, serve as proof that business acumen and human concern for others can intersect in life-giving ways. This is what keeps me looking out for those short Sunday columns.