The impacts and side effects of our chronic sick economy are daunting: 25 million Americans unemployed, grossly underemployed, or given up; plunging confidence across the board; crazy capital markets no one understands; an unthinkable rating downgrade for the U.S.; an out-of-control spending and deficit course that promises disaster; a screwy debt deal from a hopelessly dysfunctional leadership; a FED that guarantees unprecedented low interest rates for two more years because it only sees more of the same; an Administration that has no clue but forever campaigns that progress is being made; growth incentives choked off by new destructive regulations galore and an impossible tax mess; class warfare literally torching other countries; the list goes on.

But, hands down, what worries me the most is the impact that this whole mess has in breaking the spirits and hopes of individuals and families, particularly young people, who are just trying to gain a footing and prepare for a future.  And when I start to move into this funk, I am always buoyed up by a valuable lesson that I received long ago, during a recession, from a guy named Leno Lechene. It’s a lesson that has always inspired me and helped me get through some tough patches.

I had only one question as I sat across from Leno: “Why would you even think about doing such a thing?”  The country was in a recession, and Leno had decided to give up a decent job and move his family across the country to take a job that no one else wanted. The new job was a traveling salesman (it was all men back then) for the Bulova Watch Company in the state of Michigan, excluding the entire Detroit area. It was a grossly high-expense, inefficient, spread-out, low-volume territory that no one wanted, particularly during a recession.  And that’s the only reason the job was being offered to Leno.

Technically, Leno did not have the credentials to qualify for a Bulova position.  He was raised in a small Italian community in Illinois. As a young boy, Leno saw his father sent to prison for the rest of his life and his mother die of a chronic illness.  Leno bounced among foster homes, lost track of his siblings, and was on his own by the time his formal education ended in the eighth grade.  As an 19-year-old struggling during the depression, he continually applied for a government WPA job.  The recruiting supervisor advised Leno that his chances would be improved if he took the place of a person on the roster who hadn’t shown up and who had a name that sounded “more American.”  Leno jumped on the idea and appropriated an absentee’s name and position in order to land the job.

After his service in World War II, Leno became a travelling jewelry salesman. He soon discovered that the best salesman in his industry worked for Bulova, and Leno badly wanted to be part of the best. So he applied to become a “Bulova Man” every year for ten straight years, constantly being rejected because he did not have the requisite education. But now Leno was being given a chance.  Bulova had decided to offer to the guy who had pestered them for ten years a dog territory that no one else would take.

Leno was thoughtful in responding to my “why” question. Here’s a summary of the lesson I received from Leno that day – his thoughts expressed in my words:

For many, their security is limited to a position, a role, that has a clearly defined path.  When things get rough, like now, they cling to their roles for dear life.  Many who lose their cherished roles, even the most educated, just end up waiting for things to turn around. They have no capacity to think beyond the clearly defined path they know.  They have a built-in excuse to slow down. They grow weaker, and everything gets harder.

With me, it’s never been about roles or clearly defined paths. My security is rooted in the fact that I am an excellent salesman, one of the very best, and in my passion to always improve.  I know how to push smart and hard in bad times so that I can survive and lay a strong foundation for better times.  I know how to work well with all kinds of people, even the jerks.  Especially the jerks.  But, most of all, in the world of traveling salesman, I know how to constantly think smarter about what I am doing so that I can chart and navigate new paths that others don’t even see.

Real success usually is a function of a person’s capacity to think bigger and smarter about what he or she is doing.  It’s harder than it sounds.  It takes passion and drive and a willingness to shed norms that shackle so many.  But when this kind of bigger and smarter thinking becomes part of you, it takes over and empowers you to regularly rediscover how good you can be.  It’s much stronger than any position or role.  In tough times like these, it’s often the key for those who grow strong from adversity.

Most believe that I am crazy for taking this job.  The path isn’t clear for them.  All they see are insurmountable risks.  But I have thought hard enough about the situation to see far beyond the obvious.  And I’ve never needed a clearly marked path.  Armed with the Bulova line, I can make it happen in this territory.

Leno ended his lesson with two words: “Just watch.”

Eleven years later, our law firm’s mail clerk put on my desk the fanciest piece of mail that I had ever received. I could not restrain my exuberance as I read its contents.  I was being invited to a gala event at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City where Leno Lechene would be honored as the “Bulova Man of the Year.”  It was an award given to the salesperson with the strongest territory in the company.

Why was I being invited?  Well, you see, that true-blue American name that Leno had appropriated as a teen way back when to land that WPA job was “Charles Drake.”  Leno was my Dad.

March 15, 2012