When I read this week about the sudden passing of Kaiser Permanente CEO Bernard Tyson at 60, I remembered how our agency team worked with him during his ascent to a new leadership role. One afternoon in Oakland, we discussed the forces shaping healthcare and the qualities that distinguish great leaders. Tyson was authentic, bold, courageous and an eloquent spokesman for the industry, his company and where we’ve fallen short in serving others. He was a real leader.
And now, his journey has ended.
What is the message when we suddenly lose someone who has touched our lives?
As he prepared to leave his office for a funeral one day, the legendary public relations leader and my mentor, Al Golin, fell silent. He collected himself and leaned back in his chair, ready to share a poignant story: Al remembered that a friend he had lost sight of called one day and asked for a meeting. On the appointed day, Al’s guest arrived and sat for what he described as the obligatory conversation that occurs when two people reconnect after a long absence.
“We talked about our families, our business interests and remembered past experiences,” Al recalled. He said the awkwardness felt in rekindling a broken relationship faded as the conversation deepened.
But then the reunion took a twist. His guest grew quiet; then he looked across the desk, thanked Al for the meeting and left. A week later, it was reported that the man who had re-entered Al’s life had died.
And what did Al Golin take away from this experience?
“This man apparently knew his time was short, and he came to say good-bye, in his own way and on his terms,” he said. “Seeing him again, I was reminded of our friendship, his personal qualities and who he was as a person. He left me with good memories.”
In business and in life, our journey is an adventure that lacks certainty. My great friend, Dr. Peter Hammerschmidt of Eckerd College’s Management Development Institute, once told a group of leaders preparing for a quest in New Zealand that an adventure is about “committing to an uncertain outcome with an open heart and a willingness to learn and engage. It’s having the ability and the faith to take a leap into the unknown with mindfulness and grace.”
Having an open heart. Being willing to learn and engage others. Having the ability and the faith to take a leap into the unknown. These are qualities we value in others — in life and when they are gone.
My third great-grandfather, John Henry Martin Burton, farmed in Virginia and Alabama in the 1800s. He had three wives and fathered 13 children over his 55 years. Two of his sons fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War. One son, William D. Burton, was killed in action in Georgia in July 1864 at the age of 24. Another son, John Henry Martin Burton, Jr., was orphaned at a tender age, ran away from home to enlist at age 14, and rendered faithful service through the war’s end.
John Henry Martin Burton, Jr. (1847-1925), a devout Christian, settled his family in Texas, where he raised seven boys, including my great-grandfather, Arthur Thomas Burton. A.T. Burton, in turn, had five sons in Cleburne, Johnson County, Texas, where he grew wheat, corn and cotton on 300 acres of the Blacklands Prairie.
For more than 100 years, generations of Burtons have left their imprint on Johnson County. They’ve built churches and schools where needed and created businesses that flourish today. They’ve always been described by others as hard-working, frugal, prudent and God-fearing. They’ve served our country in times when duty called. Their lives have mattered.
Looking back on this history from our family and public records, I know that while John Henry Martin Burton, Jr., survived the war that challenged America’s civil consciousness, he was forever affected by two deaths — that of his mother and the loss of his half-brother. And yet, he gathered himself and took a leap into the unknown with mindfulness and grace. He was a leader. The qualities he imparted to his offspring — be courageous, be bold, work hard, live a respectable life, contribute to the communities you serve and live in faith — set the foundation for the journeys of successive generations of our family.