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Have you ever had someone make you feel special? Or treat you as if your worth was great? When someone shines a light on you, and your potential, there is a transformation! You might be aware of some “Ugly Duckling” stories like “She’s All That” or “Pretty Woman” “10 Things I Hate About You” (Taming of The Shrew), or “My Fair Lady”. I have my own transformation story! It’s about failing as an operations manager at 26 years old, and becoming VP of a Publicly traded company at 27.

Identifying an intention for my life and my business has been a multi-decade process. It’s been difficult to find words, and concepts that captured how I felt. They were always watered down from the true essence of what mattered to me. A recent experience helped me congeal almost four decades of life and work into a single intentional phrase: The divinity of the human soul is paramount! Invoking the concept of divinity may seem like it has no place in literature about leadership or in the halls of business. I hope that you temporarily suspend your judgment and read on.

When I graduated with my master’s degree from the University of Utah, I had the privilege of being recruited by Kelvyn Cullimore to work for the International Tourist Entertainment Corporation, (ITEC Attractions). Kelvyn was the CEO of two publicly traded corporations. He was a great leader. I learned so many valuable lessons from him, which helped me have success in my career and life.

I recently had the opportunity to interview Kelvyn as part of my research for my leadership book. We reminisced about all that I learned from him. I wanted to know why he was so different from other leaders I worked for. I asked him what his leadership philosophy was. He said his leadership philosophy was he believed “the divinity of the human soul was paramount.” This divinity principle informed his leadership approach and his approach to all relationships. This approach was not anti-profit. Employees felt they were appreciated and a person of worth, which led to increased commitment and productivity. Kelvyn believed in the quote: “He who will be greatest among you let him be the servant of all.” His servant leadership and his results told a story of effective stewardship to shareholders, employees, our families, and our customers.

Five Ways to Apply the Divinity Principle:

1. Hire quality people and let them shine: When he interviewed me, he wanted to know my wife and the relationship I had with her. He brought both of us to Branson, Missouri as part of the interview process. This was the location of our first project to be developed. He wanted to see my wife and me in action to see if we would represent the company well. He was focused on surrounding himself with good people. He always said he would hire people smarter than he was and let them shine. He told me if he thought he was better than anyone, that would lead to problems on the team.

2. Teach direct reports to respect you and themselves: He taught me to respect his time and my time. He willingly spent time teaching me and other members of the executive team. He consistently helped me (and others) grow and develop professionally, and personally. However, he did this on his terms so that he could give me his full attention, not always at just the moment I had a question, or problem. He was fine letting me struggle with problems for a time. His approach taught me to be more disciplined with my time and his. I learned to be prepared for my meetings with Kelvyn and my peers. This made the time we spent together extremely valuable and enjoyable.

Kelvyn treated everyone with dignity and respect. He let people know they were needed, wanted, and missed. He knew that caring for his employees would help them care for the customers, three decades before we heard similar ideas from Richard Branson. He would say, “If people have a great experience with customer service, pleasant ticketing, and clean bathrooms and common areas they will say, ‘I can’t wait for this show to start!’ On the contrary, if they have a poor experience, and unclean facilities, they will say, ‘this better be good!’” Those attitudes went a long way to positive recommendations we received from local businesses and clients.

3. Create a welcoming environment: Kelvyn made work fun. He loved to joke around! We had a restaurant we operated in our theater complex. The restaurant is still there and is called McFarland’s. This is the name of a family depicted in our IMAX movie, we specially produced for the Branson visitors. A large part of the Branson tourist population is retirees. At dinner, they frequently complained they were too full for dessert. So, we made sure they had their favorite pie at their tables before dinner.  We had specialty pies like our famous vinegar pie. We served fried green tomatoes. The customers loved it and we had fun serving them! My favorite part of the restaurant was the two tables we put on pistons that caused the tabletops to rise 10 inches over a period of 20 minutes, slow enough that the guests would not notice. We would let the other guests close to the table in on the gag. They would giggle as they saw people scooping food straight from the table to their mouth. For being good sports, we would give them free pie.

4. Show confidence in your team members: He made me feel important as he delegated important and difficult assignments, which stretched me and made me feel valued. He taught me the power of relationships. He gave me the freedom to work as much or as little as I wanted if I completed my work. That usually meant 80 hours per week. I was fine with this because I loved my job, and my family often came to visit. He believed in anticipatory management. Instead of reacting, he was responding to business demands. This made it easier for him to get employee buy-in on important issues.

5. Teach your people to balance opposing ideas: He taught me how to balance competing principles, like noticing the details without losing sight of the big picture. We worked to create a healthy culture that would provide a great environment and experience for our customers, we could notice details, like garbage on the ground, and never be too important ourselves to pick it up. This is something that has stuck with me to this day, I pick up trash almost anywhere I go.

He was able to balance helping me feel confident and the need to stay humble and teachable. I remember when I was young in my career and not delivering to the level Kelvyn thought I was capable of, he let me know. He told me I had six months to make a change, or he would have to let me go. That may sound harsh, but because of the relationship we had, I felt like I did not want to let him down. After six months, he promoted me to VP of Operations. His belief that I could be great helped me transform into the leader he expected me to be. He managed expectations around issues of fairness like salary. So even though I had a promotion, I had a peer in sales making more than me. This kept me humble, and it was explained in a way I could accept.

My experience working with Kelvyn has left a positive impact which I cannot deny. It mirrors the outcome of effective management by business guru and Harvard Business School Professor, Clayton Christensen. His business philosophy was “…Management is the most noble of professions if it is practiced well. No other occupation offers as many ways to help others learn and grow, take responsibility, and be recognized for achievement, and contribute to the success of the team.” (How Will You Measure Your Life? Clayton M. Christensen, 2010 McKinsey Award Winner)

The divinity of the human soul is paramount? We could use a little more of this divinity principle in the world today. In my experience, too few people have had a boss like Kelvyn in their lives. Too often I hear of frustrated employees who had narcissistic and selfish bosses. I was tempted to water the word divinity down and replace it with dignity. That might be more acceptable to a few more people. But my intention is to lift people up. To help them become aware of their potential and impact on others, to be a little less profane and a little more divine!

The author 🏔 Spencer Horn, M.S., CTPC, CSP is also the co-host of the Teamwork A Better Way Podcast. You can hear him and his co-host Christian Napier discuss this topic on the April 1, 2024 episode.

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