OPINION: Life lessons line up supporting speaker

·4 min read

Oct. 9—One of the most difficult kinds of stories to do for the newspaper is one about someone who has died, involving interviews to go beyond the person's achievements and gain a sense of who the person was.

It's difficult because most people in their grief retreat to superlatives, describing a person's qualities in the abstract. "She was just the best, a great leader." "He always gave of himself, he always stepped up."

What makes for a strong story are anecdotes — descriptions of scenes, conversations and events that illustrate concretely the person's qualities and personality.

When you are able to elicit a few of those, the fabric of a personality always seems to come together. The stories line up, consistently adding detail to a portrait.

As I interviewed several people on Wednesday who knew Paul Broyhill, who led Broyhill Furniture Industries when it rose to its greatest prominence and prosperity in the 1970s, the stories also lined up in another way: They illustrated philosophies I had heard described the previous night in the first episode of High Point University President Nido Qubein's new half-hour UNC-TV show, "Side by Side." Qubein interviewed John Maxwell, a renowned author and lecturer on leadership.

Maxwell said that leadership is influence, which he defined as making those around you better.

"If you really want to be a great leader, just start by specifically and intentionally adding value to people on a daily basis," he said.

One of the things Broyhill was best known for was his company's executive training, which included teaching the value of relationships and how to build them.

Maxwell said that one of the key elements of being a good leader is humility. In part, that means being willing to learn.

Broyhill demonstrated this quality by surrounding himself with talented people, training them and asking their opinions and advice. He also frequently traveled to meet with the retailers selling his company's products and seeking their opinions and new product ideas.

Maxwell said that humility also is "the ability to care for people, who they are, what they do."

Jeff Cook said he saw this after being named president of Broyhill Furniture in 2007 and meeting Paul Broyhill. By that point, Broyhill had been out of the business for over 20 years, but the human connections he had built at the company were still clearly evident.

"Everyone he hired, he knew their names, he knew their families," Cook said.

One of Broyhill's qualities everyone mentions was his vision, his ability to recognize where the industry should go in the future. Cook described a conversation with Broyhill about the industry's offshoring of jobs to Asia that showed he retained this ability long into retirement.

"He hated that Broyhill (Furniture) had closed all its case goods plants and sold all the equipment to the Chinese," Cook said. "He said that sooner or later they're going to get you."

Broyhill felt that if work had to be sent overseas, the company should have mothballed its factories in North Carolina and retained the equipment, holding everything in reserve in case conditions later warranted bringing the work back to the U.S. — which we have seen being played out. Some jobs have been brought back, and we also have seen how the unforeseen conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic have put the furniture industry at the mercy of long delays in its far-flung global supply chains.

Vision is not an element of leadership that can be learned, it is simply a gift. You have it or you don't.

But Maxwell talked about that too.

"Understand that you have a gift, and it was God-given, ... but remember it was a gift," he said. "You didn't earn it, you're not amazing yourself."

And that's another reason to surround yourself with talented people and help them to become better and achieve more. Whatever your gift may be, it might not be the one that's needed at a particular moment.

So you may ask what conclusion I have drawn from this experience of watching a TV interview and seeing its lessons echoed back at me a day later.

I haven't decided, except that if Qubein interviews an exorcist, I'm not leaving the house the next day.

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