Where does Power renew?
As we were standing in the small conference room off of the Vice-Chairman’s office, we were surveying some of the memorabilia that he had collected over his Powerful career. One of the few engineers to actually ascend to this stratospheric level, he had been my idol when I started. If he could make it as an engineer, I had a chance also. Our President was playing with a ball-bearing race, with the silver rolling balls exposed that he was gently nudging around the circle. He turned to my boss and said, “… at least one of these is mine”
… it was an off-color remark that surprised me, but shouldn’t have. Our President had taken a risk on moving our division closer to consulting with “normal” commercial customers, and the initial few projects had been disasters that I will save for another week. Eventually, most of the senior leadership of the current IBM leadership came out of the Space Program in Houston. Men and women I worked down the hall from would eventually run huge parts of the global organization, but to get there, sacrifices had to be made along the way. So I knew he was only partially kidding, with today’s meeting no different…
… without it, Power runs out…
In 1951, after performing together for a week in Philadelphia, an argument between Holiday and Young resulted in neither of them speaking to each for three years. This rift was the outcome of Young chiding Holiday over her heroin addiction and his irritation that she referred to him in interviews in the past tense, stating: “Lester was my favorite tenor player.” But the couple were reunited on stage at the very first Newport jazz festival in 1954. A journalist from Down Beat observed: “He shuffled on stage and once again was part of a Billie presentation. They later embraced in the dressing room and the feud was over.” The merits of their respective recordings in the 50s are still debated over by jazz critics. A sense of vulnerability, introspection, and renewal infused their music of this period, which was frequently in the shape of melancholic ballads.
In 1955, Young was admitted to Bellevue hospital, following a nervous breakdown. He would return to the hospital in 1957, suffering from alcoholism and malnutrition. Holiday and Young drank quietly together in bars close to Birdland and saw in one another their own deterioration staring back at them. George Avakian visited Young at the Alvin Hotel where he lived for the final year of his life. George remembers: “I think they both just got exhausted, that’s the feeling I had with both of them when I saw them in their last years. They were tired people. They were not the bright-eyed, energetic people I knew when we were all younger.”
Within two months of Young’s death, Holiday collapsed into a coma. At the hospital, a white powder was discovered by her bed. She was fingerprinted and photographed on her deathbed by the police. They also confiscated her records and comic books. She died on 15 July, 1959, with less than $1,000 in her name. But despite the bleak nature of their deaths and the sadness that overcame them, both Holiday and Young left behind an extraordinarily Powerful body of work. Most music critics state that there would be no Sinatra without Holiday. and certainly, that also meant Lester who was her foundation. Kamau Daaoud: “It’s almost like if you squeeze a heart in that pain, the nectar that drips from it is incredibly angelic, it’s sweet. It’s always that age-old question: Do you have to walk in fire to sing the songs that they did? If they’d had patron saints and were kept musicians, would the song be as sweet?”
Failure Powerfully renews
Short a sweet like the jazz of that era, our project failed. Like my own executive from Houston after BART, I probably could have stayed on and leveraged the learnings to renew myself. But, as a young 32-year-old, what I had witnessed led me to decide to leave the business – the home of my Dad’s career, and one that had given me so many Powerful lessons. Ironically, the top of the business had started to see the reality that major changes had to be made, including breaking the covenant they had renewed with employees since the 1910s – no layoffs.
They were offering packages to leave for certain job titles, and as fate would have it, I had ended up being labeled a Senior Sales Engineer – the job family open to packages. I applied… and was denied by… the Division President. The great thing about IBM was that you could always appeal decisions through their well-known Open Door policy. I did, and got an audience with him – very different from the airplane trip, or the evening in the conference room. I made my case, and he very Powerfully said “Look Mark, I know you’re not a Sales Engineer, you know you’re not a Sales Engineer. If you want to leave, that is your decision, but I am not going to pay you to leave”. Clear and crisp, it was my decision.
renewing Powerfully is not easy…
Billie and Lester would have one more time to play together just before both of their deaths. CBS aired a program called The Sound of Jazz that involved the best jazz musicians of the time. It was a who’s who, but the stars on today’s track were clearly Billie and Lester. You can see them back to interpreting what each other would do before they did it. As I left the office, he knew and I knew I would not see him again, at least not as IBM employees. I am sad that I have not stayed in touch with him, and it is one of the regrets of my career that as Powerful as these lessons were, they are still painful to think about.
Taking risks is something that comes naturally to me, a Power that would continue to get me into bigger opportunities… and challenges, some of which would eventually turn out better. Mostly it was because I had learned from some of the best what Power really was – and wasn’t. As you are heading into the new post-pandemic world, what Power will be renewing you? And how do you want to leverage that for your team? Now I can look back a bit, and see a few things that have gotten easier to understand over the years. As we leave the Prez, here he is at some of his best, and my wish for your path. One that will be Fine and Mellow.