Willy Loman’s Legacy

Almost everyone has a teacher or two who stays with him, long after school days are done. For me, one of those teachers was Mr. Orr, my Grade 12 English teacher. I remember him for one particular reason: On the first day of school, he began that first class by asking this question: “What do you think is most important in order for you to succeed in my class?”

After a barrage of expected responses, he took a drag on his cigarette (teachers often smoked in class during the unenlightened 70’s), shook his head, and said something to the effect that, “While it’s good to be a close reader, and helpful to understand grammar, what is really important is that at the end of this course, I like you.”

I was completely taken back by his comment. How shallow! How uninspiring!

Despite that initial off-putting remark, I soon came to realize that Mr. Orr was a great teacher and ended up liking him very much. I’m not sure he ever thought much of me, but his initial comment, as forthright as it was disturbing, has stayed with me, and today I still wonder about — and still have mixed views on — the importance of like-ability.

There has been a lot written on this topic recently, and I’ve learned that there is even an evaluative term for it; it’s called the “Q Score.” Tom Brady may have a better arm than Peyton Manning, but Peyton’s got the higher Q rating. Alex Rodriguez makes more money than Derek Jeter, but Jeter’s Q rating puts A-Rod’s to shame. A recent survey indicates that out of a list of celebrities such as George Clooney, Oprah, and Kim Kardashian, the 2 stars with the highest Q scores are Tom Hanks (I get that.) and Betty White. (Makes me want to grab a Snickers bar.)

Q scores or likeability index, call it what you will, can be a double edge sword. If your goal is just a veneer of sophisticated sociability, your efforts to develop an external polish can eventually drain you of integrity and substance. You may know a really smooth guy, a guy who seems to always know just what to say, how to dress, how to make small talk with girls he doesn’t don’t know or with adults he’s just met yet somehow, despite the gloss of glibness, you know there is something hollow there.

If you’ve ever seen or read “Death of A Salesman,” my favourite American play, you’ll know that the insatiable yearning to be liked is Willy Loman’s tragic flaw. I love Willy because he means so well and wants so much for his boys, but his vision is so painfully distorted. At one point his nephew, Bernard, is criticized for the social sin of being “liked but not well-liked.”

Part of my job as principal at UCC involves meeting with alumni to engage them in supporting the school. This means that I spend a good bit of time in downtown offices, chatting with Old Boys who are often leading large organizations. After most meetings, I come away with 2 thoughts:
First, the guys I meet with are not dummies, but they didn’t get to their particular positions because of IB, IQ, or LSAT scores. I’m convinced that there is a certain academic threshold that leaders need to meet, but beyond that, leadership isn’t determined by someone’s having a 97 rather than a 91 average. I don’t want to downplay the quest for academic excellence, but in general, leadership opportunities are not determined by school scores; they are not reserved for only those who have been invited to the Mensa picnic. (Thank God!)

The other thought I walk away with is this: If I didn’t work for UCC, I’d think I’d just met my new best friend. Almost all of these Old Boys, whether they are working in Toronto, Beijing, New York, London, or Hong Kong are either blessed with or have developed extraordinary people skills. They are easy to spend time with. They’re smart and funny and opinionated. They can laugh at themselves. They can talk about their failures as well as their successes, and they are, in general, eminently engaging. More than anything else, they tend to be story-tellers who are able to connect with people, and they are great at getting others to believe in them.

Last week 2 Harvard men had a contest of sorts, and before it was over they had together spent almost 6 billion dollars in their one-on-one competition. In a nation with over 330 million people, the incumbent won by 100,000 votes in Ohio and 74,000 votes in Florida. There are those who believe that, while the average citizen might not be able to explain the impending corporate tax changes or spell out anticipated domestic spending cuts, he can tell you which guy he’d rather have a coffee with. Pundits now say that the “coffee test” — the candidate you’d prefer to have a drink with –almost always wins the presidential election.

Which brings me back to that first day of Grade 12 English with Mr. Orr. I might have been too hard on him. Perhaps he was right? In hindsight, he may have simply been articulating, if somewhat inelegantly, the importance of the Q score. He might have been trying to say, “Don’t be a self obsessed grade grubber. Connect with people or at least connect with me.”

If Mr. Orr were a political strategist today, he might encourage the parties to ditch expensive primaries and drawn out conventions and instead nominate candidates with great Q ratings. Could you imagine Forrest Gump and the Golden Girl teaming up at the top of the ticket? Why, I can almost hear candidate Tom Hanks’ saying, “Our administration, like life, is like a box of chocolates!” Something like that might make even the most apathetic Republican or Democrat yell, “Run, Forrest. Run!” (Forgive me….)


5 thoughts on “Willy Loman’s Legacy

  1. Great. I think Q is equivalent to EQ? One issue with Q equaling likability is that wanting to be liked can sometimes compromise character. It is truly a fine balance. Great article here that speaks a little to that likeability but more to true heroism and owning “it” when you are the leader. It being something you could have wiggled out of but didn’t because you know what needs to be done when you see it. God bless him and his family for his example. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324439804578104850491484908.html

  2. Is it worth saying that future success doesn’t necessarily follow how well you played in the championship game either? Lots of times the good team player, the guy who comforts the guy who fumbled seems to go further in life than the star receiver. Maybe I am over-sensitive about the mantra that academic success is not everything (a hangover from my 98% final average in high school perhaps or the fact that my Q score is pathetically low!).

  3. It is refreshing to hear the Principal of UCC say that there’s more to life than grades.

    I’ve always thought that the best leaders are those who can connect with anyone – the ones that when you’re speaking with them you feel as though there is no one else they would rather be speaking with; you have their undivided attention.

    Personally, I believe that these skills are refined through adversity. There are some situations in life where the result isn’t that everyone gets a puppy – life can be difficult. But in difficult times, we are forced to make difficult decisions and that requires you to figure out who you are and what you believe in. And believe me, this will change many times throughout your life.

    When you boil it all down, the skills that you mention are the ability to remain calm while you explain your position and attempt to influence the outcome. This is something that cannot be faked. If it feels forced, it will come across as less genuine and have less of an impact.

    On a personal note, I refined my skills in a few places: the vice-principal’s office, my housemaster’s office, explaining to my music teacher in grade nine why I shouldn’t fail, explaining to my math teacher in grade nine why I shouldn’t fail, explaining to my parents in grade nine that I’d passed music, but not math, it’s a vast and varied list of experiences that continue to this day.

    To me, UCC was a place that encouraged debate. We were encouraged to weigh the information provided, form an opinion, and then both sell it and defend it. Really, what we’re talking about it the ability to feel comfortable in your own skin. Oddly enough, this doesn’t always happen when you’re young – much like most things in life, it happens at different speeds for different people. But, it’s always encouraged to have an opinion and to have passion and conviction about it – it is your’s – own it.

    The first step is recognising that while it’s ok to disagree with someone, please make sure that you’ve considered their side as well – in fact, know your opponent’s point of view as well as your own. Remember, just because you win a debate, it doesn’t make you President.

  4. We definitely need to work on the Q factor in our children.
    My brother had a book on his book shelf, and I remember being impressed with it as a child.
    I never read the book, but the title itself had a huge impact on me:
    “Are You Fun to Live With?”
    I took that title to heart and have tried to be fun to live with– or just be with– ever since.
    Too many kids today appear to want to be entertained in all arenas at all times.
    They have little to say at sit-down lunch. They sit and stare.
    Or they text.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s