What I Learned about Leadership from Brendan Byrne

Few outside the Garden State will probably note the passing of Governor Brendan Byrne, who served two terms from 1974 to 1982.  He never ran for President, nor did he have any notable scandals in his administration.  For most of his tenure, New Jersey played the butt of the jokes from other 49 states, with the emergence of Bruce Springsteen as the notable exception.  However, I learned a little bit about leadership from him, thanks to my grandfather, that I carry with me to this day and, I hope, I live up to.

If my meeting the Governor happened by chance, my grandfather helped the odds a bit.  Before his career in government, Byrne practiced law and had my grandfather as a client in the 1950s.  In 1980, my grandfather celebrated his 65th birthday by taking his children and grandchildren to Bermuda for the Memorial Day weekend.  We ran into the Governor in a hotel lobby.  My grandfather strode across the carpet and shook the Governor’s hand, exchanging greetings and asking after each other in a polite but genuine fashion.  As a 10-year-old, I stood awestruck that my grandfather spoke so easily with, by my reckoning, the second-most-powerful politician in America.

Years later, I spent a summer working at my grandfather’s demolition company doing everything from driving him around to jobsites to picking steel rebar from the rubble of recently-dismantled buildings.  Among other things, I saw my grandfather interact with the men who worked for him as foremen, truckers, equipment operators and laborers.  And that’s what he called them, “the men.”  Never “the guys,” “the fellas” or even the faux-honorific “the gentlemen.”  Always “the men.”

He spoke frankly and genuinely with them.  He had an easy familiarity with them that he did not put on.  It was how he talked.

Years later, I would note that he spoke as easily with his men as he did with the Governor.  And that’s when I realized a great truism of dealing with co-workers.  The opposite was even more true: he spoke with his men with as much respect as if they had been the Governor of New Jersey.

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