Sitting in a high rise in New York, a high-level executive looked at me across the table. With Manhattan sprawling out behind him through the window he asked,
“So, what’s your vision for your business?”
My mind raced. “What am I even doing here?” I thought. “How did we wind up sitting across the table from this man who lives in a world very different from mine?” Fear. Pressure. The desire to perform and look good rose in my chest. Then I remembered, “You know, he’s another guy like you. He chose to meet with you. And besides, let him evaluate you for who you really are, not who you think he wants you to be.”
Summoning my courage, I answered, “Ok, I’ll tell you my real vision. I think our brand can be as big as any out there. People connect with the story and love the product. Our biggest obstacle is how many people we reach. Lisa and I want to put a positive message into the world. We want to share a vision of hope with a broken world.”
His eyebrows raised slightly. Did he like what I said? Did he think I was naïve?
I pressed on, “I approach business idealistically. I believe in integrity in business. I actually believe commerce can be a force for good in the world. I experience how business relationships build friendships across ideological lines, religious convictions, cultural values and even national borders. I think business is an excellent arena to build character, practice free-flowing communication, and learn how to get along with others. Business is a fantastic context to live a life of integrity, adding value to the world rather than taking it. When I make mistakes, and make plenty, I do my best to own them. Our vision is to grow our brand as much as possible to share this message of hope and live an experiment of building a company around these ideals. People have rolled their eyes at me when I share this vision, but there it is.”
He listened with the expressionless face of a person who has sat through countless negotiations. His posture straight, hands folded on the table. When I stopped, he paused, took a breath, and then smiled,
“My father-in-law founded our company on these principles. He has been a person of character his whole career. He is a man—a businessman—of integrity. He’s the type of man who makes a handshake deal and honors it in the face of an immediate offer for twice as much with contract and payment in hand. He started with nothing and through this approach he built what you see around you.” I was shocked to hear this validation of my idealistic approach to life and business.
I’ve had plenty of people roll their eyes at me when I share my view about the positive role business can play in the world. Some have called me naïve, some have implied it. And, to be fair, we have been robbed, taken advantage of, lied to and cheated in business. I live in the real world. Living by ethical and moral values will cost you from time to time. Anyone who tells you different is lying.
He went on, “Make no mistake, my father-in-law has the heart of a lion. He knows he is responsible for those under his care. He is a man of integrity and strength who looks out for his pride—his family, his employees and his businesses. He has high integrity, high values and does business in a fair and mutually beneficial manner. He insists on the same from his employees, his vendors, and business partners. He is savvy. He knows his world and understands the world is full of hyenas and vultures looking to prey on his mistakes. But he is a brave lion. He takes calculated risks. He protects his own. And he does all he can through his business and life to make the world a better place.”
This story has stuck with me and become a model for me in business and life. Because my last name is Leonard, I have identified with the image of the lion for years (for the geeks like me out there, leon is Greek for lion). In preparation for the launch of the Stephen David Leonard site, one of my staff had an Identity Cuff made for me that reads “Lion Heart.” I’ve been wearing it for a while now as a reminder to face the things I fear. It reminds me to be true to myself no matter what I’m facing. It reminds me who I am—a man who is responsible for my family, my employees, my community. I strive to be a man of integrity in all I do. It spurs me on to have difficult conversations, to hold to my values, and to live as the me I’m created to be, rather than the me I think others want me to be.