I was a baker for the first eight years of my adult life. In the Spring of 1988, I was twenty-four years old and newly married. A month and a half after our wedding I became the manager of a full-line bakery here in northern New York.
We sold a lot of different products. Donuts. Pastries. Muffins. Breads. Cakes. Pies. Cookies. This bakery was open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, three hundred and sixty-four days a year. We closed for Christmas.
To say my introduction to running a business was a crucible is an understatement to put it mildly. My boss lived a hundred miles away. So I was on my own as a young leader, reorganizing and running a sizeable food business. Most of my employees were older than me. Not an easy task by any means.
I learned a lot that first summer as we got the bakery in shape, increased sales, developed a wholesale clientele and stewarded employees. The hours were long and the kitchen always hot. Besides being the manager, I was the head baker, in baker’s whites every day.
During that first year, I had a number of supervisors come up from the Mohawk Valley, where our company had its headquarters, to tutor me and lend a hand. One of the supervisors—his name was Gary—made a big impression on me. After a handful of very long days of training and assisting me, he gave me some pointers on leadership. He summed up everything with these words: ”With everything you do here, you have to be a class act.”
Those words have stayed with me for a quarter of a century. A class act. He was essentially saying, “Chris, you have to lead with your example.” Many people in recent memory have exemplified this kind of excellence in style and execution: Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Tony Bennett, Princess Diana, Derek Jeter, and Cary Grant (pictured above), to name a few.
Rudyard Kipling, well-known for his work The Jungle Book, gave us this remarkable poem. It sums up this kind of leadership succinctly:
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ‘em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
‘ Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,
if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!