This is an abridged excerpt from Heroic Misadventures where I discuss my interaction with one of my economic role models, Leonard E. Read.
Life’s business journey is all about pointers and deciding on those you absorb for future use. In this way my life has been delightfully messy because although I may not have always gone where I intended to go, I’m certainly ending up where I intended to be.
In telling this story it’s important that I nominate the person who influenced me the most, so I’ll tell you about a fellow called Leonard E. Read. Then we can follow on with several incidents from some very unstructured business training, leading into the Australian nickel boom of the late ’60s and early ’70s and how that changed so much, so quickly.
Take me to your leader
In my personal view, leaders are people who influence others to the point of making a change in their life or behaviour patterns. It’s a useful experiment, sorting through the people for inclusion in that category. There are literally hundreds of people from whom I have leamt something, but very few who have actually modified or shaped my behaviour or thinking. So few in fact, that I could count them on my fingers. It goes beyond the natural influence of one’s parents, to whom I’m eternally grateful, or one’s environment or events.
Perhaps the one person who influenced me the most was Leonard E. Read. Through my involvement with Read, many years later, I became a representative for the Foundation for Economic Education in Australia which, in turn, led to the establishment of my own Mannkal Economic Education Foundation.
One day, in 1982, Leonard “sprang it on me” to give a lunchtime talk to a group of his associates in New York, to explain how I first became involved with his foundation in 1952. To me it seemed simple enough, but they were fascinated to hear how a 16-year-old, working after school in his father’s mining engineering supply business, used to open big pine cases of Timken roller-bearings that we imported from Canton, Ohio, USA.
The packing in the boxes included coloured comic-strips (our Australian comic-strips in the ’50s were all black-and-white) together with crumpled literature from the Foundation for Economic Education. Timken had been a supporter of the Foundation and I can still remember the circulation list affixed to the front of the papers bearing all their senior staff’s initials and then directing its way down to the packing department.
This crumpled wisdom covered topics such as business ethics, the moral foundations for capitalism, the concepts of limited government and increased individual responsibility.
(As an aside I should say that I enjoyed the message so much that I used some of it several years later when I was the editor of the Kalgoorlie School of Mines magazine, and did that bring the house down! Kalgoorlie was pretty much a union-based town in those days and wasn’t quite ready for this kind of wisdom).
But back to my teenage education: I felt this Foundation was on the right track, but I needed a little more information so that I could defend myself and these views. So I wrote to them explaining I was having a bit of trouble. They responded with helpful material and a regular copy of their monthly magazine The Freeman.
Several times over the following years I wrote material and submitted it for publication in their Freeman magazine. They never published anything of mine, but one day I received a letter from their President, Leonard E. Read, explaining why.
He politely explained that I might have been a little too pushy and, in his own quiet words, said: “You only have a licence to change yourself, not others. All you can do is to bring an idea to the threshold of someone’s consciousness, and then it is up to them to accept it or reject that idea after due consideration. If they then accept that idea, it will be with them for life”.
On another occasion he explained, again in his own words: “As one acquires an awareness of how little one knows, humility replaces arrogance; this tends to improve a person’s nature and sense of humour.” Not earth-shattering stuff, but I got the message. I have never forgotten his quiet reasoning and it has certainly modified my own approach.
It has also helped my strike rate for having articles published all over the globe, even at Buckingham Palace. So what did Leonard do to make him a leader to me? He simply took the time to write me a letter.
As it has been said, the great dividing line between success and failure can be expressed in five words: “I did not have time”. But in Read’s case he did take the time, and this is probably why I now reply to far more letters than I really need to.
Read’s colleagues enjoyed my story of “opening up old boxes” and they were encouraged that their material, after doing the rounds of all the executives at that great manufacturing enterprise, then being reduced to “packing”, could later be recycled on the other side of the world. It proved to them that their ‘ideas had consequences’. More consequences for me I suspect, than for them.
In this investigation of what type of leaders I admire, high on the list are those who have managed to fully integrate their ethics throughout their business, personal and family lives. Living by a double standard only brings people undone, as we have witnessed with the crop of failed politicians and businessmen of recent times.