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Takeaways on the roots of leadership and self-confidence

Henry Unger says parents -- or the loss of one -- were the biggest influences on most of his 5 Questions interview subjects.
Henry Unger says parents -- or the loss of one -- were the biggest influences on most of his 5 Questions interview subjects.

Columnist shutting off tape recorder after lengthy career.


“Unofficial Business,” a new column by veteran Atlanta journalist Matt Kempner, will appear in Sunday’s Business section, starting next week. Georgia’s dynamic world of money and people will get Kempner’s personal touch. Expect smart connections, important insights and irony.

When former UGA football coach Vince Dooley was in elementary school, a nun taught him the difference between being a good leader and a poor one.

AT&T Mobility chief Ralph de la Vega had to grow up fast. While on the airport tarmac in Cuba when he was 10, the military stopped his parents from joining him on a plane flying passengers to a new life in America. Five words changed his life — "Only the boy can go."

After her son had a devastating body-surfing accident in Brazil, Alana Shepherd co-founded what became a world-class treatment facility for spinal cord and brain injuries, the Shepherd Center in Atlanta.

And Ann-Marie Campbell, president of Home Depot's Southern Division, learned about business — and life — from her entrepreneurial grandmother after her father died when she was just a year-and-a-half old.

I’ve been lucky enough to interview many Georgia leaders about the mistakes and hardships in their lives — and how they bounced back. It always involved a helping hand from someone who cared.

At 64, a countless number of helping hands have been extended to me throughout my life. As I retire from the AJC after 25 years, I thought I’d pass along a few of the things I learned while doing this column. And since this is my swan song, I tried something different by interviewing myself.

Q: What surprised you the most?

A: The amount of risk that many of these leaders were willing to take — way more than I could stand.

For example, Russ Umphenour personally guaranteed a $333,000 bank loan — money he didn't have — while in the early stages of becoming the largest Arby's franchisee in the country.

“I remember going home and telling my wife that if this doesn’t work out, we were going to be paying this note for the rest of our lives,” he said. “Fortunately, she was very supportive.”

Bernie Marcus and Arthur Blank started Home Depot after they got fired from another hardware company.

“We had a chance to live our lives over again,” Blank said.

The leaders’ enormous tolerance for risk was driven by their self-confidence.

Q: Where did the self-confidence come from?

A: There was no magic. It primarily came from their parents.

Before doing these interviews, I thought that teachers, coaches, mentors and other outside family members might be the most influential people for these leaders.

I was wrong. While others helped, no one approached the impact that a mother or father had on most of these executives.

Many talked about being instilled with a “can-do spirit” at a very young age. And many said their parents’ hard work, sacrifice and high expectations were the most important motivating forces in their careers.

In fact, several of these leaders said the loss of a parent motivated them even more.

Q: How so?

A: "My father died when I was 12 and I was the only child," said former Georgia-Pacific chief Pete Correll.

“We had a little men’s store in Brunswick that my father started. We had to figure out how a woman and her 12-year-old son could run a men’s store, because that was our only source of livelihood.”

Correll worked every day after school. “I learned more from my mother than I learned from all of my educational experiences.”

Hala Moddelmog, CEO of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, lost her mother when she was 17.

“It was a real wake-up call,” she said. “Nothing is given. Nothing is for sure. It made me very determined to learn how to take care of myself. It really drove my independence.”

Q: Which column drew the most response?

A: By far, it was the one with former CNN chief Tom Johnson. He talked about his battles with depression — a subject some other leaders declined to discuss.

Johnson said he went into “deep, clinical depression” after he was kicked upstairs from his publishing job at the Los Angeles Times — a position he loved — to be vice-chairman of Times Mirror Co., which owned that paper and many other media outlets.

“The doctors started me on a routine of drugs,” he said. “I was like a zombie. I would crawl under my desk to take a nap during the day to get my battery charged.”

Johnson offered his help to our readers.

“Depression is a treatable illness. There’s a terrible stigma because it’s a mental health condition. But I am convinced that with the right diagnosis and the right medication, you can deal successfully with it.

“I wish that more CEOs gave more support and attention to the mental health of their employees,” he said. “I will help anybody who asks to talk with me about their depression.”

Johnson’s offer prompted more than 100 emails and calls seeking his counsel. It was a small indicator of how big mental health problems are in the workplace.

Q: Who else discussed this issue?

A: Sally Yates, the former U.S. attorney in Atlanta who is now the deputy attorney general of the United States, shared her feelings about her father's suicide.

“As traumatic as his death was, over the years I’ve come to not want to define his life, or my time with him, in the manner in which he died, but rather in all those years that he lived.

“The manner in which he died was heartbreaking. But there were a whole lot of years prior to that which were not about that. As I think back on my dad, that’s what I really think most about — those years when he lived with a vitality that most people never even come close to.”

Of all the people I’ve interviewed for this column, Yates and Johnson dug the deepest. They talked about their pain because they wanted to help others facing similar issues. They’re class acts.

Bonus questions

Q: Can’t you count? Why did you do so many columns with a lot more than five questions?

A: I started out asking scores of questions during an interview, but I'd publish only five of the answers.

After a while, I realized that I was cheating readers because there was a lot of valuable information I was leaving out. So I added a bonus question and then, later on, several bonus questions.

By the time all of this played out, I thought it was too late to change the name of the column to “umpteen questions.”

Q: What qualities do you think helped these leaders the most?

A: Resiliency and drive.

They all made mistakes. But they figured out what they did wrong, often with the help of a parent, colleague or mentor, and moved on. Giving up was never an option.

Take the late Herman Russell. He made a whopper of a mistake when he was 16. He didn't survey the land he had bought and built a house on the wrong lot.

He would have lost his entire investment if the owner of the adjacent lot was not willing to exchange properties with him.

From that point on, Russell paid attention to the details as he built one of the largest African-American businesses in the nation.

Ann-Marie Campbell stumbled early as a manager for Home Depot.

“I had unreasonable expectations of others,” she said.

“When I was a store manager, I got a 360 evaluation. I got good boss feedback, good peer feedback, but I got hammered by my direct reports. I read the comments and literally cried.

“They said I had them under so much pressure they didn’t have time to breathe. They said I was too moody.

“I held a staff meeting and listened to them for three-and-a-half hours. I never interrupted or defended myself.

“Then I told them my commitment was going to be to trust them, which I clearly was not doing.”

That meeting was a turning point for Campbell, who’s worked for Home Depot for 30 years. She now runs its Southern Division — a unit of nearly 700 stores, 100,000-plus employees and more than $23 billion in annual revenue.

Q: What else did you learn from the interviews?

A: To be grateful, even for the tough times because there's a lesson in them.

And to try to make a difference in at least one person’s life.