I grew up in a blue collar, post war era cracker box with a brick façade that looked like all the others on the surrounding blocks. The neighborhood was nice and clean, and full of kids that, for the most part, were all friends.

I went to a sea foam green grade school one block away from my house that was hastily built out of cinder blocks with concrete floors and huge windows along the walls of each classroom. School was fun, I liked it. I just talked too much. It says so on each of my report cards!

Memorable Moments

Kindergarten and first grade were uneventful. Not really any memorable moments. Except when it came time to use crayons to color stuff – between the lines please! The other kids followed the directions printed on the paper. Green here, blue here, etc. I liked to choose my own colors, add elements, and make stripes to jazz up the picture. And it was okay!

Then came second grade. With the luck of the draw I was put in Mrs. Mounds class – my favorite teacher of all time (next to Mary Kay, my wife and the best teacher ever). The second stroke of luck was I met, who would become my best childhood friend, Kenny.

Right from the beginning, Kenny and I were inseparable. We did everything together. Even our families did things together; camping, boating, fishing, and that great American pastime of the early 60’s, bowling.

Leadership Lessons

Moving On

I was good in sports; Kenny was better at making friends. He had a great smile and an easy going personality that made most of the kids want to be friends. Several of us would meet at the playground on Saturdays to play on the equipment, talk, and have a great time being out of our parents’ hair. Every kid should get to grow up this way, but that’s another story.

Kenny and I moved on to junior high and our circle of friends got much bigger so we didn’t hang out as much as we did in grade school. I participated in most of the sports and Kenny hung out with friends so we started drifting apart, but we remained best friends and always had each other’s back.

Girls and Cars

As we entered our high school years we drifted farther apart, mostly because we were in different high school districts and partly because we developed different interests. And then there were girls and cars. We would still see each other at parties or Friday night football games and occasionally talk on the phone.

Then one morning, on the school bus, a mutual friend told me Kenny was really sick and in the hospital. She said, “They think it might be leukemia.” Even with my limited medical knowledge and no internet to Google, I knew this wasn’t good. What I later learned was that not only did Kenny have leukemia, he had acute leukemia.

Reality Therapy

Kenny immediately started chemotherapy, which isn’t pleasant, but 35 years ago it was downright barbaric. We wondered if he would make it. We were 15 years old living this Ozzie and Harriet life when bam – reality kicked in, hard. Fortunately, the chemo worked and Kenny got better. It took a while, but he finally was back.

Related:  #5 Barrier to Leadership – Not Believing

Fast forward 5 years, Kenny and I are both 20 going on 30. I had started my first business and was having some success (since it was proven I couldn’t work for anyone).  Kenny, having gone out of remission again, moved out of state for specialized care and did another round of chemo along with other treatments along the way.

The Latest News

Kenny moved back in town so I called him to meet for lunch to catch up on the latest news. I didn’t know it, but Kenny was out of remission for the third time when we met for lunch to catch up.

I was excited to tell Kenny all about my business and find out what he had been up to since we hadn’t talked in a few months. After arriving at the diner it was clear that Kenny wasn’t feeling good. I went from excited to concerned.

We sat down in a booth and just looked at each other for what seemed like 5 minutes. It was probably only 10 seconds, but it was long enough to know there was some heavy news coming.

Then it came. “Ron, the cancer is back.”

“What are you going to do?” I asked with a lump in my throat. Then another round hit.

“Nothing”, he said. Silence. Long, awkward silence.

“I’ve done chemo twice and I’m not doing it again.”

“What does that mean?”

And there it was. “I am going to die in a few weeks”

Whew, now my eyes are watering and for a guy who never cries, I was close. I could hardly talk, but Kenny was cool, calm, and collected.

“WHY?” was all I could get out.

“I’ve found a church and a minister, and I have planned my funeral.”

Stunned silence. Then the life lesson I’ll never forget.

“It’s okay, Ron – it is what it is.”

“What do you mean? Why aren’t you fighting it?”

“That’s what I’ve been doing for the last 5 years and it is no way to live, and chemo usually doesn’t work a third time.”

Finality. We are mortal.  A few weeks later Kenny, my best friend, was gone.

Since that day, I’ve come to understand the true meaning of it is what it is. I don’t know about you, but I hear the phrase, “it is what it is” casually used from people at least once or twice a day.

It is a coping mechanism that helps each of us as leaders “own it” instead of blaming or getting out of sorts. In our leadership skills programs, we call it “being above the line” vs. “below the line”.

The Leadership Lessons Kenny Taught Me

  • Be responsible for your actions and your decisions.
  • Have courage to do the right thing and stay true to yourself.
  • Hold yourself accountable for your successes and your failings.
  • Above all, understand how lucky you are to have the choice.

What Leadership Lessons Have You Learned From People?

If you have ideas that you feel like sharing that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

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Ron Whitaker
Ron is an accomplished entrepreneur involved in developing multiple businesses from the ground up. He is the co-founder of About Leaders, an author, and a start-up consultant and investor. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.