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January 28, 2019 | by M. Robert Weidner III

New Year, Meaningful Legacies, and Personal Introspection

“Every president lives, not only with what is, but with what has been and what could be.” 

— Lyndon Baines Johnson, 36th President of the United States

I don’t read public opinion polls often, but as I set out to write this column I wanted to know: how many Americans start the year with resolutions?

It’s fewer than I’d assumed. According to an NPR survey, less than half of Americans (44%) made a new year’s promise. Even if you’re not resolving to eat healthier, by this time you’ve probably reviewed last year’s budget, or how much time you spent on social media instead of reading a book or, well, exercising.

The turning of the calendar is a natural time to reflect and I found myself doing that as I watched President George H.W. Bush’s state funeral on Dec. 5, a date just few days shy of the one-year anniversary of my mom’s death.

My mother, Edith Rampke Weidner, was two years older than the late president and grew up far from his home in wealthy Greenwich, Conn. She didn’t go to college. He was Yale graduate, then war hero, congressman, CIA director, and president.

Despite the vast differences in their lives, they both left legacies. We all do, and instead of contemplating weight and sugar intake for the new year, we should think further ahead. What will our legacy be? We cannot script what our eulogists will say, but as we’re taking them, we can – and should – consider what our actions demonstrate.

One of the most poignant moments of President Bush’s funeral, for me, was when his long-time friend, former Sen. Alan Simpson, rose to speak. Sen. Simpson, for those who might not recall, was a Wyoming Republican who was known for his unvarnished rhetoric and his moderate platform. His acid tongue often made him unpopular.

As Simpson told it in his Bush eulogy, “He [Simpson] went from the A social list to the Z, and never came back …”He recalled that during one particularly dark period, his friend George H.W. Bush telephoned him with words of encouragement. Bush just happened to be a very popular president at the time. He invited Simpson, whom he’d known for decades, to Camp David and made sure the press caught the two friends socializing.

Why, Simpson asked the president, would he risk his own poll numbers to stand next to him? President Bush said, “This is about friendship and loyalty.”

When our friends and colleagues are facing dark days, do we offer them the same compassion? Simpson never said in his eulogy what decisions made him unpopular, or whether President Bush agreed with those decisions. It didn’t matter.

You can disagree with friends, and still offer them comfort.

President Lyndon Baines Johnson was another senator – and later commander in chief –with an important legacy. A Texan like Bush, I had the opportunity to visit LBJ’s library in Austin last year.

Like most presidents before him, including President Bush whose decision to increase taxes in the early 1990s was mentioned numerous times as the nation prepared for his funeral, some of the decisions LBJ made were unpopular. He was a civil rights warrior with a southern drawl. He was often gruff, sometimes outright mean, but also was the man who said, “There are no problems which we cannot solve together.”

One of Johnson’s closest friends was the Republicans’ leader in the Senate in the 1960s, Everett Dirksen. Here’s what Sen. Dirksen said about his relationship with LBJ in an interview that’s available in Austin: “We started from this general premise: the Senate is a public institution; it must work; it’s a two-way street; and that requires the efforts of both parties.

Putting the integrity of an institution above personal or political feelings. That’s a legacy.

As you build your business, are you inviting the same sort of collaboration? What about dissent? The world’s best leaders realize they don’t have all the answers. They realize legacies aren’t about elevating the self – winning a news cycle, an election, or having a streak of annual profits. Legacy is a lifetime of building teams, executing a strategic vision, remaining humble, and committing oneself to integrity and innovation always.

One of my favorite LBJ quips is, “You aren’t learning anything when you’re talking.” Listening is another important part of building a sound business legacy, and this lesson is timeless. Here’s what executives at a Chicago manufacturer told Harvard Business Review in 1957:

  • “I think that perhaps 80 percent of my work depends on my listening to someone, or on someone else listening to me.”
  • “I’ve been thinking back about things that have gone wrong over the past couple of years, and I suddenly realized that many of the troubles have resulted from someone not hearing something or getting it in a distorted way.”
  • “I’ve about decided that [listening is] the most important link in the company’s communications …”

Legacies, of course, are not only for individuals. The Metals Service Center Institute will celebrate its 110th birthday this year, and we are contemplating our legacy and how we can build upon it. We know that our members are considering their legacies as well, many of them in the middle of market disruption and leadership shifts. In this new year, and every year, we are here to listen, to collaborate, to challenge, and to build friendships and community.

We look forward to working with you in 2019.