Honor People – Like Mr. Kemlin Did

I am the “senior” member of a small group of men that meets on Wednesday mornings.  These young men are super up-to-date on technology and they send out a leadership podcast each week that we are supposed to listen to before our meeting.  The leader of the group sends out a link to our phone on a “group me” link.  Before you give me too much credit for even knowing what “group me” is – you will need to consider that my iPhone is so old that I cannot get a podcast.  The iPhone I have today is the same one I got when I turned in my flip phone.  However, not wanting my fellow group members to know how old fashion and behind times I am, what I generally do is listen for a few minutes as others discuss and then “wing it from there.”  I have been doing leadership stuff for longer than most of them have been alive and I am confident that nothing new is going to pop up (it hasn’t in the last 2000 years or so).  The variety of leadership gurus of today have different (but valuable) takes on ideas and concepts that have been part of life.  Many times what I can add to the group is a real life example of a concept they are discussing.  This week the topic was “honoring people.” 


Boiled Chitlins


It was in the late 1970’s when I accepted a job with Sanders Paint Company headquartered in Tucker, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta.  Sanders was owned by Consolidated Foods and Mr. Kemlin was our president.  He took quite a risk on hiring a young chemical engineer with no paint industry experience to head up his manufacturing and distribution operation.  I was his youngest executive by at least 20 years.  My wife, Linda, and I were much closer to the ages of those that worked for me – mostly working-class African Americans.  Linda and I were both raised in working class families, so we were comfortable in that environment.  We were quite flattered when on occasion we were invited to a party and we were expected to participate in a Thursday evening ritual – dinner at the Post Office, a Decatur, GA restaurant that’s Thursday night special was chitlins.  I suspect the first time we were invited for chitlins, it was almost like a challenge – “is this white boy going to eat chitlins?”  Having a competitive streak at that age – there was no way I was going to back away from that.


Some of you may not know about chitlins.  They are pig intestines.  I can remember eating them as a child in Oakton, Virginia, what was then a rural community.  Folks say that smell is one of the strongest links back to your memory.  Let me assure you – if you have ever gotten a whiff of chitlins you will never, ever in your lifetime forget it.  Ever.  Some of you may have eaten calamari.  Calamari is sort of like a sophisticated person’s chitlins.  Calamari is served fried and grilled.  Grilled calamari is like boiled chitlins except it does not taste and smell like pig poop. 


Chitlins are normally cooked two ways – fried and boiled.  I have never heard of a baked, grilled or broiled chitlin.  It may be against the law to prepare them in such a sissy manner.  The safest way for novice chitlin eaters is fried.  However, real men – bold men – courageous men-- eat their chitlins boiled.  There is no way I am going to eat fried chitlins in front of my crew.  A large order of boiled chitlins please.


There is no way to describe the horror of a steaming hot plate of boiled chitlins sitting in front of you.  First of all, there is no escaping the smell.  I survived the evening. What got me through that initial plate was my new culinary invention – ketchup and tabasco sauce soup.  If you take ½ bottle of ketchup and an entire bottle of tabasco sauce and mix that with your boiled chitlins you can make it.  I believe the first helping of boiled chitlins was sort of like a rite of passage – an initiation of sorts.  Every other Thursday evening it was okay to join the others by eating friend chitlins. 


You Were Rude to that Man


Mr. Kemlin’s risk paid off.  I had learned a lot of innovative things in the continuous process industry that had never been used in the paint industry.  I was able to apply many of those concepts throughout my paint industry career.  I also had developed some good leadership skills along the way.  Our facility was very successful to the point where Consolidated Foods recognized our performance.  Life was good.  I could tell Mr. Kemilin liked me and I idolized him as my boss and somewhat of a father figure at the time.   He was a wonderful man and role model.


One day I was walking with Mr. Kemlin to his office.  As we passed through the office lobby a salesman from one of our suppliers approached me.  He wanted to sell me something and he had not made an appointment – he had just popped in.  I do not recall being outright mean to the fellow but knowing me, I was probably short and blunt wanting to let him know that next time he needed to make an appointment and I could not see him now.  When we got to Mr. Kemlin’s office he closed to door, turned around to face me and said, “You were rude to that man.” 


I was taken back by him confronting me with this.  It was unexpected.  He briefly went on to let me know that is not the behavior he wanted.  I do not know what else he said.  I do remember feeling bad –not for being rude to the guy, but for disappointing Mr. Kemlin.  He was my leader and I wanted to please him.  Obviously, I had messed up.


It was a lesson I hope that I learned well.  In addition to writing this blog about the incident after over four decades, I mentioned it in my book “Enterprise Fitness.”


Leave a Legacy


Several years ago, Mr. Kemlin died.  Before his funeral his daughter did a Google search on his name and somehow my book popped up.  She looked me up, gave me a buzz and asked would it be okay if they read that section of my book at Mr. Kemlin’s funeral.  I was honored – this time by Mr. Kemlin’s family.


Mr. Kemlin made an intentional effort to honor and add value to people.  Sanders was purchased by Porter Paint Company.  Those of you that have ever been part of a company that was purchased can relate to the stress and chaos involved.  Normally in such cases the president and the controller are on a short leash and probably on a short timetable.  Before Mr. Kemlin departed, he pulled me aside, put his arm around my shoulder and told me how much he appreciated what I had done and that he had underestimated me.  He said, if he had it to do over again, regardless of my young age, he would have promoted me to president after the merge.  He did not have to say that -- and he may have been pumping smoke up my rear end.  However – again, I am recalling that experience decades later.  I remember how he made me feel.  It made me feel good. 


By the way.  The same goes for you.  Your folks, your peers and your bosses for that matter; will not remember what you say – they will remember how you made them feel.  In a situation where I had disappointed him, he made me feel disappointment in having let him down.   And he made me feel special when he complimented me.  I suggest you go and do likewise.  You never can tell – they make talk about it at your funeral.