It’s interesting to discover what people have found to be true about life and leadership, but it’s fascinating to hear what they’ve found to be false. In the “sh*t that isn’t true” blog we explore cultural clichés and lessons you should “unlearn” on Day One.
This Isn’t What I Need To Hear Right Now
Josh Klenoff’s job is to help leaders share wisdom. As CEO of The Helm, he brings entrepreneurs and CEOs together to share challenges they face in running their companies, and leverage each others’ experiences in creating solutions. That kind of job can create quite a pool of wisdom, so I was eager to share his insights here on the blog.
Our interview for this blog post was recorded several weeks ago, and my intention was to sit down and share his thoughts as the first post of 2017. Instead, an atomic bomb went off in my life in early January, with the sudden deaths of two people profoundly important to me in the span of two weeks. As such, I didn’t return to this interview until last night — listening as I took a long walk along the shore of Lake Ontario.
I braced myself as I was reminded what cultural cliché Josh had chosen to focus on: “things will work out for the best.”
“Oh no,” I thought. “This isn’t what I need to hear right now.”
I was wrong. Josh’s message is a profoundly important reminder of a perspective needed in the world right now, and on a personal level, was something about which I needed to be reminded. While it’s taken far too long, I’m happy to share it now.
A Story That Hadn’t Been Shared Before
“For me, when people say ‘things will work out for the best’, I immediately think back to my grandparents who were Holocaust survivors,” said Josh. “It’s very easy to say. We live in a time of pretence, and people will blithely say a lot of things that sound good. But in my case, it’s very hard to sit by idly if people say something like that.”
With that, he began to tell me a story he later revealed he hadn’t shared before. It emerged from an interview he had conducted with his grandparents several years before, as he tried to better understand the circumstances that had shaped their life, and in doing so, shaped his.
“My grandfather was kind of a scholar. He spoke 11 languages,” Josh began. “When he was 21, he was in Czechoslovakia. When the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia, his train that took him to school each day just kept going past his school and took him to a camp. Later he was moved to Siberia. He spent years there.”
“He experienced something that a lot of people today in their own way experience,” Josh continued. “Total suppression of freedom and basic rights. Everyone in his family was killed except his brother. When it all ended, when the war was over, he didn’t know what to do. He was totally confused. He went to the Red Cross to try to help out in some way.”
“The first day he got there, there was a woman. She was like a chair. She couldn’t move. Her whole family had been killed. She was totally unable to embrace the world. She really just was frozen.”
Josh’s grandfather dedicated himself to finding a way to support this woman and help her reengage with the world.
“He helped her everyday,” said Josh. “He would go over, bring her things, talk to her. He set her up with an apartment. Helped her try to get her life going again.”
Slowly, she made progress. Until one day things changed.
Building a Life
“[My grandfather] showed up one day,” said Josh. “She opened the door and was very scared because he had bloodshot eyes. She thought he was drunk. He didn’t say anything. He just stood there.”
It turned out Josh’s grandfather had just learned that his brother, the only person in his family who hadn’t been confirmed dead, had in fact been killed as well. He had come to the woman’s house in a state of shock.
Josh continued with the story.
“He turned to her and said, ‘Look, we’ve lost our families. We have no one in the world. I would like to build a life with you and create a family.’”
“So they did,” Josh said. “They had my mother and life marches on.”
It took me a moment to realize what Josh was saying. When it finally hit me, I managed a wholly inadequate, “wow”.
Josh chuckled before revealing his key point.
“’Things work out for the best’, is a very hard argument to make when you have a situation like this,” he pointed out. “People in my family were tortured, raped, killed in the most abominable ways. But I do think that while it’s pretty clear things don’t always work out for the best, you can make the best of them. That’s a lesson that I think gets lost on a lot of people. I confess, it gets lost on me a lot. It’s very easy to say. Much harder to live by.”
As incredible as the story was, there was something that confused me.
“I hear what you’re saying,” I told Josh. “But what do you say to someone who’s hearing that story and says, ‘how can you say that two people finding each other after all of that, creating a family, and then having a grandson who wants to tell that tell that story … How can you say that’s not for the best?”
“I can’t profess to know what the best scenario is,” Josh responded. “I don’t even know what’s best for myself, let alone what’s best for six billion other people. But it would be very ego-centric to profess that what happened is best. I could argue it’s best for me, but that’s very different from saying it’s ‘best’. I think therein actually is the nucleus of true leadership. It’s easy to lead our lives. I think it’s much harder to empathize, to understand the problems of others and to be a leader. In other words, to really serve others.”
Josh continued: “To ignore six million people who perished or tens of millions today who live under brutal oppression — who lack the most basic human rights and freedoms — would be a very insular view that things are working out for the best.”
The Work We Have to Put In
It had never occurred to me that when we say “things will work out for the best”, what we’re usually saying is we hope it will work out well for us. That’s an understandable and unconscious perspective to adopt, but what sets great leaders apart is their ability to consciously resist their unconscious ego-centric instincts. To recognize that what’s best for us isn’t always what’s best for most.
Last week I posted a video blog where I tried to point out the damage these ego-centric impulses can create. Millions of Americans are allowing the core values upon which their country was founded to be eroded because they perceive it will benefit them personally in some way. In doing so, they forget that when you allow those in power to hurt those you don’t like, you’re giving those in power the permission, means, and strength to one day do it to you. What happened to Josh’s grandparents and millions of others began the same way.
On a personal level, listening to Josh’s words served as a reminder. I cannot be passive through difficult times, hoping that things will simply “work out for the best”. It is not simply time that will heal, but the actions that I take daily to serve others and contribute positively to the world. The last several weeks have often had me saying to myself, “I don’t know what to do now.” Josh helped remind me that when there is no roadmap, treat each day like it’s Day One. After all, leadership isn’t hoping things will “work out”, it’s recognizing what work we have to put in.
NOTE: The commentary on Josh’s thoughts at the end of this blog reflect my opinions. I have no idea if they’re shared by Josh, and ask that no one make that assumption.
Josh Klenoff Bio
Josh Klenoff is the CEO of The Helm, a community of entrepreneurs and CEOs who come together to build valuable new relationships, tackle pressing challenges and learn from global thought leaders. He attended the Wharton School and Columbia Business School.
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