Resilience gets us through tough times, but where does it come from? Long before COVID hit, leaders recognized the need to bounce back, to be resilient. Leaders need the mental toughness to endure hardship and see the future through the lens of what is possible.
Early on in my construction career I knew I needed to forge ahead to become the best superintendent I could be to later be able to build a business. I realized setbacks, as threatening as they were, made the road ahead more daunting but not impassable.
Learning hard lessons in childhood helped me develop confidence.
Although it seems trivial in comparison to truly difficult situations others faced, I remember when I was 10, I wanted to go boating with my friend’s family but needed my own life-jacket. I mowed neighbor’s lawns “for a living” and saved enough to pay off a debt to my dad. When I asked him about waiting for repayment so I could buy the life-jacket, he refused. As I tearfully presented “his” $10 he said, “OK, now your debt is cleared up, your credit is good and I can loan you $20.”
A couple of years later I was in a rock band and needed a portable keyboard to play out. Although it was a big purchase at the time, he could easily have financed it. Instead he arranged terms with his bank and drove me to meet the loan officer and fill out the paperwork. For two years I made each monthly payment by mowing lawns and working at a car wash.
Resilience isn’t built on financial transactions alone.
As an adolescent my father brought me to work on various jobsites. I started in as he gave instructions to the crew and walked off. I remember the nagging feeling of insecurity because he never said goodbye. I’d look up and notice his car gone. I steeled myself, as the only kid on a remote construction site, and pretended to be confident. Much later I learned he never told the guys of his comings and goings for fear they might slack off in his absence.
In high school I worked most summers and vacations for the business. One hot summer day our lead labor foreman and I were alone doing site-work at an elementary school we were building. I remember staring at what looked like a mountain of crushed stone we needed to spread for a leaching field 100 feet away and asking, “Danny, how are we supposed to do all this without a loader?”
“One wheelbarrow at a time.” The summer sun reflected off that 30 cy pile all day and the stone seemed to laugh at my shovel. It took the day, but it got done.
Over the years when faced with insurmountable odds I remember to go at it “one wheelbarrow at a time.”
I remember too how Danny (Donato Tempesta) cautioned me to pace myself when at 7 AM I attacked the first job of digging a trench by hand with all the might I could muster. “John, don’t kill yourself. We gotta last the whole day.”
I’m thankful Danny taught me construction from the laborer’s view—in the heat of summer or the cold of winter, he planned the next days’ work, took care of the tools and equipment. He never read any books on business, but always “Began with the end in mind.”
I wish my dad had been an easier guy to know. Looking back, I see the benefit of working off debt and learning to manage both money and physical labor. The tough lessons showed me I could accomplish more than I thought. Those experiences built capacity, instilled confidence—and for that, I’m very grateful.
And the keyboard I got? Well I buy a new one every decade or so, the most recent—I call it my KOVID Keyboard– challenges me to learn new programs and comforts me with its beautiful sounds. Plus playing music just gets me out of my own head.
So thanks Dad, for helping me become a more resilient guy and hopefully, a slightly better leader.