One of my favorite biblical verses is Psalms 118: 22-23 – “The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.”
It always comes to mind when I recall the stories of four very different men who were classic underachievers in their early years but used their people skills and abilities to rise to great prominence. Two of them are from Georgia. Three of them helped change the world. And the fourth changed his part of the world.
The first man grew up in Augusta and was considered a slow learner. He was unable to read until age nine. Later in school he had trouble learning arithmetic. His weak eyes and frail health undermined his efforts at any improvement. His parents considered sending him to a school for mentally challenged children, which at that time would have marked him for life and prevented him from any sort of a normal existence.
This child grew up to be an acclaimed world leader.
The next man was an Englishman of almost noble birth. His father was chancellor of the exchequer. He was enrolled at Harrow, one of the most exclusive schools in England, but finished his tenure there with a record for having the lowest marks in school history.
He was turned down by most every college he applied to, but was finally admitted to Sandhurst on the third try.
His disappointed father wrote him a venomous letter that said in part: “I am not going to take the trouble of writing to you long letters after every failure you commit and undergo. I hope you will prevent yourself from leading the idle, useless, unprofitable life you have had during your schooldays and later months. I am afraid that (as an adult) you will degenerate into a shabby, unhappy and futile existence.”
Imagine receiving such a note from your own father. This man, though, recovered and went on to be a great wartime leader.
The third gentleman graduated from high school and enrolled in Reed College in Portland, Ore., but dropped out after only one semester. He took a job as a lowly technician at Atari, the manufacturer of popular video games, with the primary intent of saving enough money to go to India for a spiritual retreat.
He soon left Atari and backpacked around India with a college friend in search of spiritual and philosophical enlightenment. He came back to Portland with his head shaved, wearing traditional Indian clothing. He never enrolled in college again, but he has made an indelible mark on the business world.
The next story is a little bit different from the others. In 1966 a young man who recently graduated from the University of Georgia was pounding the pavement looking for a job the old-fashioned way, going door to door.
Without an appointment, he walked into the General Foods Corporation’s regional sales office. The executive assistant to the sales manager told him they had no jobs available. As he was leaving, the sales manager walked up and asked him into his office.
The manager was middle-aged and had a warm personality. He told the recent Georgia graduate his life story.
“I started working here at a disadvantage, because I didn’t go to college. So I decided I would work twice as hard as the people who did graduate from college. I came early to work early, and stayed late,” he said.
“I made friends with my coworkers,” he continued, “and helped them in many small ways. I would do all the dirty jobs no one wanted. If someone had trouble with their paperwork, I did it for them. If a salesperson wanted to go to a ball game, or take a trip, I would fill in for them. And I gave them the commission,” he said.
“If someone called in sick, I took their sales route and did my job as well. My coworkers appreciated what I did for them.”
He continued, “Before the year was out, I had covered every route in the city, and knew all the grocery store managers. I got to know the sales clerks and listened to them and asked their advice. After a while, I was getting all the best shelf spaces, because many times the person lowest on the ladder knows more than the top brass.
“Our office had a reputation for turning in late reports, but I always turned in my reports first, ahead of the other staff. It was easy,” he said with a chuckle, “because report deadline was Thursday at 4 p.m. But the information was ready Wednesday afternoon. On Wednesday, I would stay a little late and do the report, double check the math (very important) and place it on the boss’s desk that same afternoon.
“After a few years, the bosses would ask me to troubleshoot. If the company had a problem account, I would ride with the salesperson and try and work things out with the client. If sales were slow in an area, I would visit the stores to see if General Foods products could get better floor space.”
He said, “I never tried to personally brownnose the bosses, like many of the other people in the office. I never got involved with office gossip, or any backstabbing of co-workers.
“I know many people thought I was maybe a patsy. But I loved the company. I stayed in the background and did my job each day. Because of these little things, my sales were soon the highest in the division, and soon they were the highest in the company.
“When our sales manager retired, all the people in the office, all my co-workers, supported me when I applied for the position and I got the job. I was the youngest sales manager in the company, and was promoted over many people with more experience and education.” He said this with pride.
He was named Jim Temple, and, yes, I was the young man he was visiting with.
His advice could be called “leading by respect.” Temple today would be called a “servant leader.” Servant leadership is a great way to manage people, and they teach this concept in business schools today.
The first three people whose stories I related had a lot in common with Jim Temple. All three were disadvantaged in some way at the beginning of their lives. And all three have some of the traits of a servant leader.
The first man who could not read well and whose parents were considering placing him in a special school for the mentally challenged was Woodrow Wilson. He suffered from dyslexia, a learning disability. He went to another kind of special school and graduated from Princeton University.
He later became president of Princeton, governor of New Jersey, and president of the United States for two terms. Wilson lead the United States through World War I, and today is ranked fourth on the list of the “Five Greatest Presidents” – above Thomas Jefferson, and below Franklin Roosevelt.
The man who received the letter from his father that said he would “degenerate into a shabby, unhappy and futile existence” was Winston Churchill – who clearly suffered from having a pretty horrible father. Yet he graduated from Sandhurst and became a hero in the Boer War. He was one of the youngest people in history to be elected to British Parliament.
Churchill went on to serve the United Kingdom as prime minister during the Second World War, and led his people to victory over Adolf Hitler. Later, after the war, he served another term as prime minister in the 1950s. In 1954 he was named by Time magazine as the greatest man alive.
The third man in the story, who suffered from a lack of meaning and purpose in his life, at 21 years of age, returned from his travels in India. His name is Steven Paul Jobs.
Jobs saw a computer that Steve Wozniak had designed for his own use and convinced him to quit his job to form a company to print circuit boards that made up the device. But when a computer store ordered a supply of completed computers, they went into the computer business and started Apple Computer, which led to the I-Mac system, NeXT, Pixar, and iPod and all the rest.
All these examples – the three famous men and one you’ve never heard of – show how people can rise above adverse circumstances to become successful and even great.
We will all experience the feeling at some point in our lives that we’re the “stone that is rejected.” But if this happens we’re better off following in the steps of Jim Temple, the General Foods sales manager. The best method for getting ahead is Temple’s servant leader style.
Work harder than those around you, get to know and earn the respect of those higher and lower on the food chain, help and even fill in for your co-workers in their time of need. Never, never get involved in office gossip or backstabbing. Keep a positive attitude. And remember, time is on your side. No matter how terrible your situation, it will soon pass.
The four men I described were blessed with something that wasn’t taught in college – an abundance of people skills. Their examples are worth following. Even if you’re the stone the builders first rejected, you can become the cornerstone of the temple.
Editor’s note: Neely Young’s column is adapted from a commencement speech he delivered in May at Young Harris College.
Neely Young is editor in chief and publisher of Georgia Trend. Contact him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.