It was the final hockey game of a lousy season. We had won the first three games in my senior year at Salem High School, beating Danvers, Revere, and Marblehead, but had then lost the next half dozen games, five of them by a single goal. So we badly wanted to win this last one at the Lynn Arena against our archrival Beverly High. As co-captain of the team, the Salem Witches, I had scored a couple of goals, and we were feeling pretty good about our chances.
It was a good game, pushed into overtime at 2-2.
But very quickly, the other team scored and we lost again, for the seventh time in a row. In a fit of frustration, I flung my hockey stick across the ice of the arena, skated after it, and headed back to the locker room. The team was already there, taking off their skates and uniforms. All of a sudden, the door opened and my Irish mother strode in.
The place fell silent. Every eye was glued on this middle-aged woman in a floral-patterned dress as she walked across the floor, past the wooden benches where some of the guys were already changing. She went right for me, grabbing the top of my uniform.
“You punk!” she shouted in my face. “If you don’t know how to lose, you’ll never know how to win. If you don’t know this, you shouldn’t be playing.”
I was mortified–in front of my friends–but what she said never left me. The passion, the energy, the disappointment, and the love she demonstrated by pushing her way into that locker room was my mom. She was the most influential person in my life. Grace Welch taught me the value of competition, just as she taught me the pleasure of winning and the need to take defeat in stride.
If I have any leadership style, a way of getting the best out of people, I owe it to her. Tough and aggressive, warm and generous, she was a great judge of character. She always had opinions of the people she met. She could “smell a phony a mile away.”
She was extremely compassionate and generous to friends. If a relative or neighbor visited the house and complimented her on the water glasses in the breakfront, she wouldn’t hesitate to give them away.
On the other hand, if you crossed her, watch out. She could hold a grudge against anyone who betrayed her trust. I could just as easily be describing myself.
And many of my basic management beliefs–things like competing hard to win, facing reality, motivating people by alternately hugging and kicking them, setting stretch goals, and relentlessly following up on people to make sure things get done–can be traced to her as well. The insights she drilled into me never faded. She always insisted on facing the facts of a situation. One of her favorite expressions was “Don’t kid yourself. That’s the way it is.”
“If you don’t study,” she often warned, “you’ll be nothing. Absolutely nothing. There are no shortcuts. Don’t kid yourself!”
Those are blunt, unyielding admonitions that ring in my head every day. Whenever I try to delude myself that a deal or business problem will miraculously improve, her words set me straight.
From my earliest years in school, she taught me the need to excel. She knew how to be tough with me, but also how to hug and kiss. She made sure I knew how wanted and loved I was. I’d come home with four As and a B on my report card, and my mother would want to know why I got the B. But she would always end the conversation congratulating and hugging me for the As.
She checked constantly to see if I did my homework, in much the same way that I continually follow up at work today. I can remember sitting in my upstairs bedroom, working away on the day’s homework, only to hear her voice rising from the living room: “Have you done it yet? You better not come down until you’ve finished!”
But it was over the kitchen table, playing gin rummy with her, that I learned the fun and joy of competition. I remember racing across the street from the schoolyard for lunch when I was in the first grade, itching for the chance to play gin rummy with her. When she beat me, which was often, she’d put the winning cards on the table and shout, “Gin!” I’d get so mad, but I couldn’t wait to come home again and get the chance to beat her.
That was probably the start of my competitiveness, on the baseball diamond, the hockey rink, the golf course, and business.
Perhaps the greatest single gift she gave me was self-confidence. It’s what I’ve looked for and tried to build in every executive who has ever worked with me. Confidence gives you courage and extends your reach. It lets you take greater risks and achieve far more than you ever thought possible. Building self-confidence in others is a huge part of leadership. It comes from providing opportunities and challenges for people to do things they never imagined they could do–rewarding them after each success in every way possible.
My mother never managed people, but she knew all about building self-esteem. I grew up with a speech impediment, a stammer that wouldn’t go away. Sometimes it led to comical, if not embarrassing, incidents. In college, I often ordered a tuna fish on white toast on Fridays when Catholics in those days couldn’t eat meat. Inevitably, the waitress would return with not one but a pair of sandwiches, having heard my order as “tu-tuna sandwiches.”
My mother served up the perfect excuse for my stuttering. “It’s because you’re so smart,” she would tell me. “No one’s tongue could keep up with a brain like yours.” For years, in fact, I never worried about my stammer. I believed what she told me: that my mind worked faster than my mouth.
I didn’t understand for many years just how much confidence she poured into me. Decades later, when looking at early pictures of me on my sports teams, I was amazed to see that almost always I was the shortest and smallest kid in the picture. In grade school, where I played guard on the basketball squad, I was almost three-quarters the size of several of the other players.
Yet I never knew it or felt it. Today, I look at those pictures and laugh at what a little shrimp I was. It’s just ridiculous that I wasn’t more conscious of my size. That tells you what a mother can do for you. She gave me that much confidence. She convinced me that I could be anyone I wanted to be. It was really up to me. “You just have to go for it,” she would say.