Inspired By Carol Christison

Carol Christison had a Twitter account, but she didn’t tweet much. In fact, she tweeted exactly four times. Once was promotional: “To rob banks, you go to where the money is. To sell food, you go to where the buyers are — IDDBA.”

Two times Carol tweeted in an instructional vein. First, she wrote about word-of-mouth marketing: “People will not buy if not educated. Teach them your business, and they’ll do the marketing for you (WOM works).” Then she wrote about what motivates purchase: “What you do is important; why you do it is killer! It’s the ‘why’ that gets people to believe and to buy.”

My favorite tweet of Carol’s, though, speaks even stronger to me now, after Carol’s untimely passing, than it did when she wrote it: “Without inspiration, we are all leaders without followers. Christison”

It is the only tweet she signed, and I will take that as a sign that she felt most personally connected to it. That is encapsulated, in a few words, her own leadership style.

IDDBA is a strong organization, and it will doubtless survive and thrive under different leadership. But it will be different than it would have been. Much the same with Apple, after the death of Steve Jobs. The company may do fine, but it won’t be the company it could have been had Steve Jobs lived. The Walt Disney Company has survived and, after some missteps, thrived, but it is not what it would have been had Walt Disney not died at 65.

We are all taught that nobody is indispensable. To Americans, such a thought is soothing, nicely democratic. It fits in with academic theories that also serve to reinforce the view that people are interchangeable.

It used to be that history was taught with a focus on individuals. Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton told the story of the American Founding. Lincoln and Lee and Grant told the story of the Civil War. Edison and Ford told the commercial story of an age. Churchill and Hitler, FDR and Hirohito told the story of the Second World War.

In time, though, this approach came to be rejected indeed it was ridiculed as the “great man” theory of history. Instead, we were instructed, the supposedly “great” men were mere functionaries. According to this new way of thinking, history is controlled by great and impersonal forces that lead history down certain paths, and the individuals that seem to drive things are actually merely driven by these forces.

In other words, if George Washington hadn’t existed, a replacement George Washington would have arisen, pushed out of the populace by great economic and cultural forces, and history would have continued pretty much as it did.

This mode of thought is also comforting to many. After all, if nobody is great, it means nobody is inadequate. If history is driven by forces impossible to thwart, what does it matter if one man is virtuous or courageous?

Such ideas, that nobody is indispensable, that history goes on impervious to the character and leadership of individuals is indeed comforting to those who don’t want the burdens of greatness. These ideas, also, just happen to be wrong.

When he heard that George Washington, who could have been crowned King or served as President the rest of his life, planned to return to his farm, no less an adversary of Washington than King George III said, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world!”

Exhibiting a measure of individual character that few could match, Washington did voluntarily give up power and returned to his farm.

Nelson Mandela is known as the George Washington of South Africa, in no small part because he too, declined to aggrandize himself and retired after one presidential term.

We may like to delude ourselves that somehow, someway, it was inevitable that the tiny Cheese & Deli Association that Carol joined in 1982 would blossom into the IDDBA of today. But, in fact, it was the ability of Carol to inspire her industry, her staff and everyone she met that was the crucial transformational variable of the association and the industry.

I was preparing to launch DELI BUSINESS magazine, and I knew what I needed to do. I made a pilgrimage to Madison, WI, to lay out my dream and to get Carol’s input, advice and, especially, her blessing. She gave all three, and for the rest of her life, she was never anything but kind and generous and, yes, inspirational. I consider myself fortunate to have had the benefit of her counsel and her kindness. She was a unique mix of a leader and a friend. We shall not see her kind again.