Thursday, December 17, 2015

Remembering Phil Smart, Jr: The Leader as Good King

Well before he succumbed to cancer on December 3, 2015, my long-time client and friend, Phil Smart, Jr, asked me to speak at his memorial service when his time finally came.  I was deeply touched and honored by his request, and, of course, agreed to do so.  Phil was a very organized fellow.  He gave his wife, Sally, and those of us who were asked to participate in the service, clear instructions.  There were three of us who were asked to give “friend appreciations” and we were to keep our remarks to five or six minutes—no small challenge.  I was asked to speak specifically about the process on which Phil and I collaborated to develop his business culture and strategy.  What follows is an expanded version of the remarks I shared at the memorial service that was held on December 14th, 2015 at University Presbyterian Church in Seattle.

Here is what Phil asked me to speak about:

I met him at a seminar I gave on leadership for Mercedes-Benz in March of 1995.  He was the first to approach me during the mid-morning break.  I was immediately struck by his bright eyes and open-heartedness.  As we chatted briefly, he seemed to me less a business man and more someone already on the path to becoming The Good King, a concept from the book King, Warrior, Magician Lover, I was about to introduce in the seminar. The Good King is a model of a kind of leadership substantially different from what I had generally seen in business.  The Good King creates right order for his kingdom, so that blessings and creativity occur at every level.  He creates this order by first developing it in himself, through knowledge of his own inner emotional, spiritual and mental dynamics.  In other words, The Good King is a person of self-reflection, committed to discovering the deep truths about himself so that he can continuously grow and bring wise rule to his realm.   

This may sound like a fairy tale, but it’s quite doable in the real world and is a far better choice than the various degrees of autocratic leadership I’ve witnessed in more than forty years in the business world.  It can apply not only to leadership of a business, but also a family, a sports team, a religious group, a non-profit, any organization.  Over lunch that day, Phil told me that while financial success mattered to him, he was more passionate about his own personal growth and the growth of his people. 

A rich capacity for self-reflection and deep self-correction is not, in my experience, the norm among business people.  But Phil had it in abundance and he was “all in” for the long-term process I proposed.

In the following years, he sent more than half his people to my four and a-half day group leadership retreat in California and attended himself.  He demonstrated an extraordinary degree of openness and honesty, which made it safer for the rest of the group to do the same.

Over many months, he put the entire store through a two day education in teamwork, and another two days in vision.  All of our workshops gave people an opportunity to share personal as well as professional aspects of their lives, if they chose.  Most did and Phil, who attended both as a full participant,  subsequently told me that he had come to know many of his people better in a few days than he had in twenty years.  He relished this kind of deep connection.

All managers and a few other key people were offered 3-day one-on-one retreats with me in California.  Almost all accepted.  Phil actually came for this three times over the years.

In 2000, I conducted a two-week leadership experience in Peru for my clients.  We were fifteen in all from a half-dozen different organizations. Phil wasn’t able to make it at the time but he was generous in giving time off to the two from the organization who did come, and helped me with a scholarship for one of them who couldn’t quite pull together the whole fare by himself.

Back at the store, year after year, we conducted regular Employee Satisfaction Surveys, Town Hall Meetings, Vision Team meetings and company dinners. 

He had me there at 600 East Pike monthly, bi-monthly or quarterly for close coaching to help him keep the whole process going.  He continued to actively participate every step of the way, remaining open and emotionally available.  

How many business people have you met in your life who would be likely to make and sustain such a commitment?  But Phil was not typical  He was a man of many faiths, not just his religious faith.  He had faith in his people.  He had faith in me.  He had faith in himself. He understood, as few do, that every organization, no matter what its purpose, is first and foremost a community of human beings, each needing and deserving respect.

Across more than fifteen years and two painful recessions, he was steady in his commitment…and his faith in nurturing his culture was borne out with financial success and exceptional employee loyalty.  It was common at Phil Smart Mercedes-Benz to find folks who had worked there ten, fifteen, twenty or more years.

So many leaders lose pieces of their humanity as they gain power and financial success.  Phil’s humanity increased.  No wonder people loved him.  He was a very rare man

It stirs my heart to see so many people here today who were part of this voyage.  It was a saga, really, a saga of challenge, learning and joy and Phil was the indispensable force that made it happen.  It was ours and ours alone and because it was so unique, I encourage all of you to share it generously with others. 

For Phil was a truly gifted leader.  When he was at his best, his joy in himself was tangible but quiet.  When he was less than the person he wanted to be, he hurt deeply.  And in both joy and sorrow, he was willing to feel deeply, even when that meant tears. He knew and lived the truth that real men do cry.  I have many memories of his tearful joy and sadness…over his fierce love for Sally, Samantha, Savannah and Shafer and his grandchildren, Cruz and Lulu, his mom and sister, over the agonizing ups and downs of business, over his struggle to stay connected to a father who gave a lot of his energy to philanthropy and  public speaking, over his battle with the demon taking over his cells, and the harsh fact of mortality.  It was a privilege to be a person to whom he revealed himself courageously and without pretense.

Now, here is what Phil could not have asked me to speak about, because all of what follows came into exquisite clarity for me once he had left us:

While I have many beautiful memories of our work together, the most luminous for me at this moment are not work-related.  They occurred during the trip Phil and Sally, my wife, Andrea and I, made to Peru together this past May.  Phil had reached out to me in October after getting some troubling news about his cancer treatment.  He knew I’d been to Peru a number of times and asked if I would design a trip for them…and if Andrea and I would go, too.  Machu Picchu was on Sally’s bucket list and he wanted to give her that gift before the possibility of being overwhelmed by his illness might become inevitable.  I told Phil I’d be delighted to design a trip and the two of us would accompany the two of them, but the best time to go wouldn’t be until May.  He said that was fine because he was going to need another surgery in early December.  Really?  Surgery in December and you want to go hiking in the Andes in May?  He told me not to worry, he had a whole regimen in mind for his recovery and he wasn’t going to hold Sally back.  She was a runner and would want to do some hikes and he was determined to be with her every step of the way.  He insisted I design the trip as if he were completely healthy.  I had seen up close his dedication to fitness as we hiked the trails of California’s Central Coast together over many years, so I knew what he was capable of and I knew the level of determination he was able to bring to any challenge.  I decided to take him at his word. 

By the time we all met in Los Angeles on the evening of May 2nd, Phil looked lean and fit.  No one would have guessed he had just stopped chemo a week before.  We did three major hikes during the next 13 days, each more challenging than what preceded.  The last one was more than seven hours on a section of the Inca Trail that came into Machu Picchu from above.  He and Sally were right out front throughout all 7 miles of it, which started at about 6500 feet and ended at 9000.  The many pictures I have of them going up and down Inca stairways, standing in front of a waterfall together, Phil with his arms spread wide in front of a massive rock, the two of them cheek to cheek at the Gate of the Sun with Machu Picchu in the background—all testify to his extraordinary vitality, love of the outdoors, adventure and, above all, Sally. 

Here are the two particular images that have stayed with me the most.
After hiking into Machu Picchu, exploring the ruins and hanging out in the town below for three days, we took the train from Machu Picchu back to Cuzco.  Two musicians in the club car were playing a raucous rendition of Guantanamera and got all of us up banging a tambourine and dancing, one at a time (it was a small car on a narrow gauge railway).  When it was Phil’s turn, he jumped right in…and the man had moves.  He was shakin’, rattlin’ and rollin’ through the Andes.  After all his health challenges, not to mention the three long hikes, every gyration was an exclamation point celebrating life. 

But the image I cherish the most actually happened a few hours before, in the train station at Machu Picchu.  Andrea and I sat facing Phil and Sally on wooden benches.  As we waited for the train, Sally lay her head on Phil’s shoulder and closed her eyes. Phil looked at me with the bright eyes and open-heartedness I had first seen more than twenty years before.  But this time, there was something else.  It had been Sally’s dream to get to Machu Picchu.  He had been the servant of that dream.  He had made it happen and had been there with her for every single exciting moment.  It was a triumph of life over a daunting foe that sends many cowering through their last months and days.  But not Phil.  Now, resting in the station, the dream safely delivered, he held my gaze so gently, so sweetly for several long seconds. His eyes were deep, warm and full of love.  With Sally’s head against his cheek, he was a man utterly at peace.  He was The Good King.

C 2015 Bob Kamm 

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