Leadership Perspective: Living Life by Life’s Rules

by Lyndon Olson

People who try to live their lives by a book of rigid rules may find pages missing when crucial events come up. Unexpected occurrences happen. Plans go awry. Life can be a benevolent teacher at times and a harsh taskmaster at others.

People who pay attention to life’s lessons along their personal journeys derive great benefits. The lessons I’ve learned have served me well and I list some of them below.

Work that appeals to your sense of curiosity and desire to serve makes you grow. Scientists who are involved in discovery know this as a matter of course. I began learning the lesson as a state representative in the Texas Legislature and later, when I served on the Texas State Board of Insurance. I went to the House of Representative soon after finishing at Baylor and stayed there until I was about 30, then went to the insurance commission, where I served as chairman and member. There I spent eight years under three governors — Dolph Briscoe, Mark White, and Bill Clements two separate times.

During that time I saw a great opportunity to grow and I learned about making policy that fits public needs. But when I reached the point that I’d stopped growing, I knew I must do something else. It’s important to understand what makes you feel enriched and nourished and challenged, and to be willing to opt for the sometimes difficult changes necessary to keep growing personally and professionally.

When I left Austin, I knew I would not return to public life, if ever, until I gained the financial freedom to make the decisions I needed to for my family and myself. I decided that my destinations were more time with my family, financial security, and travel. So I made the necessary break. People often will advise you, “Don’t look back.” I think we all must look back to see what we did well and what we need to work on. This is what experience is all about.

Stay connected to and involved in the work you do. After spending eight fascinating years as chairman and member of the insurance board, I was ready to tackle a new challenge and I knew more about my own strengths and interests. The work of that commission taught me about the fundamentals and complexities of the international insurance and reinsurance markets. Then Clifton Robinson of Waco asked me to be the CEO of his company. This gave me the opportunity to lead and govern and make money in a dynamic business. It was a medium-sized company, small enough so that the chief executive officer could be really involved in the day-to-day workings.

Many others who have excelled in the business world have learned well the lesson of staying connected. They’ve discovered that detachment not only breeds boredom and ignorance but inefficiency and chaos. Ray Kroc, McDonald’s chief, used to cook fries, order supplies and clean his restaurants. Later in life, he’d surprise workers in his restaurants with impromptu visits just to see how they were operating. Being an involved leader teaches you what it takes to do a job and it’s something you are unlikely to forget.

In addition to learning the business, staying connected educated me about people and their needs.

Use all of your experience and ability and see how far it takes you. No one uses everything every day, but those of us fortunate enough to have a variety of experiences must exercise our knowledge as regularly as we exercise our muscles. We forget what we don’t use, and that part of us atrophies.

I was president of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners during the 1980s, and participated in numerous negotiations for trade agreements and regulatory matters as well as drafting of treaties, and I took part in the resolving of major insurance insolvencies. So the next step I took seemed logical. I moved into the CEO position of a large national insurance company.

With this company I participated in a lot of facets of the insurance business on a bigger scale. I ended up staying in Waco but working all over the United States. I commuted often to New York as we made acquisitions. I spent eight rich years doing this work on Wall Street, in Georgia, Texas, Illinois and Canada, and soon discovered that the work would reward me for years to come.

I realized some of those rewards when President Clinton appointed me as the United States ambassador to Sweden. This position was a culmination of all the other work I had done in my life. The role taught me about the importance of diplomacy on an international scale. I also expanded my knowledge of politics, business, and interpreting and enforcing laws. I found great blessing in the knowledge that Sweden is the country from which my grandfather emigrated years ago.

Remember life’s most basic lessons. Some of these we glean from our parents and other elders. Some we learn from what happens to us along our personal journey. Early on, my parents taught my brother Charles and me the importance of being respectful and of caring about those who are less fortunate. A guiding principle in my family was that determination, spirit, courage and hopefulness all lead to a sense of personal responsibility. My father, an attorney who has been compared to the character of Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird) because of his beliefs about the law and justice, required his children to have high expectations of themselves. Out of that demand, our strengths evolved.

Broken down to its most basic form, treating others with respect and having high expectations for self make getting along with other people a simpler task. I enjoy being around all kinds of people, from the average person on the street to the exotic to the intelligent.

I have learned that when working with diverse groups of people to accomplish an end, whether for creating public policy, making money or running a corporation, you should care about those who are less fortunate. I am not referring only to economic fortune, but to physical and spiritual fortune, too. My parents taught me the first chapters of this lesson, but people I have met along the way have reinforced it and broadened it.

Cherish your roots. For the 58 years of my life I’ve chosen to call Waco my home. I’ve learned that home is where the important people and things are. My family is in Waco. The people who supported me my whole life, who encouraged me and nurtured me and stayed next to me when I stumbled, are here. I have lots of friends in the state and around the country, and the world for that matter, but Waco, Texas, is my home because the blessings of my life began in this community. So it’s natural that it’s been my choice and my wife’s choice to live here.

I like Waco’s native flavor so much that I asked Dan Henderson of Uncle Dan’s restaurant to come to Sweden and feed July Fourth revelers at the embassy two times, in 1998 and 2001. He did so with his trademark good humor, shipping almost 2,000 pounds of meat and all the extras that go with it, as well as a two-ton barbecue pit, from Waco. Photographs on the walls of his restaurant tell the story.

Waco gets little credit for the wealth it nurtures, which I will talk about in more detail. But I believe it’s true of most communities that its residents don’t realize what their hometown looks like from the outside until they go out into the world and see what else is there. Waco surpasses similar-sized cities in education, health, business, and culture. This is not by accident, but by hard work of citizens and community leaders, people of vision. I choose to live in Waco not only because my heart is here, but also because I enjoy what goes on here.

Life is richer if lived broadly. Another way to say this is that there’s more to life than work. I indulge this other-than-work part of my life by supporting the arts. Although I do that in many ways, one of the boards that I am most proud of is serving is that of the Byrd Hoffman Foundation of New York, established by Robert Wilson of Waco.

Bob was a protege of the Hoffman sisters, Byrd and Faye. Their young dancing students were known as the Dancing Hoffmanettes. This duo taught elocution and drama as well as dancing, and Byrd Hoffman taught young Robert to slow down when speaking.

Robert Wilson is a playwright and famous in the area of experimental theater but he’s also devoted to sculpture and fine art. His work has been featured in showings and won awards worldwide. He was born right here and educated at the University of Texas before going to Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. He and his Byrd Hoffman School of Byrds — a group of artists he founded — worked and performed in lower Manhattan in the ’60s.

Each summer Bob develops new theater work at his Water Mill Center, a multidisciplinary arts laboratory in Long Island. This is where he teaches an international group of artists.

I am pleased to say I am on the Byrd Hoffman Foundation board. Of all the personages who came out of Waco, Bob Wilson is huge internationally even though he is little known here.

When people ask me which of my roles so far has been the greatest or most pleasing or important to me, I find picking just one is difficult. It’s a delicious dilemma. I’ve instead found it easier to focus on living my life one step at a time, and getting up when I stumbled. We all stumble, although we often think we are the only ones. But we are never alone in our failures, whether we fall physically, emotionally, financially. We need to focus not on the act of falling, but the act of getting up. And getting up again and again, no matter how many times we fall.

One of the most important lessons I learned as a child revolved around treating people the way I wanted to be treated. While the “do unto others” rule sounds quite trite from repetition, I cannot say the actual practice of treating others the way we wish to be treated has been overused. The quality of life worldwide, and our fortunes, could grow vastly if only the most fortunate among us regularly practiced the lessons we’ve learned.


In addition to his distinguished career in the insurance industry, Lyndon L. Olson has demonstrated his commitment to public, civic and cultural life.

The former United States ambassador to Sweden is a consultant to the senior management of Citigroup Inc. on insurance and reinsurance issues, international trade, regulatory issues, and government affairs. He’s been a senior adviser to the global financial services company since 2002.

He served as the U.S. ambassador to Sweden from 1998 to 2001 and received the Swedish-American of the Year Award from King Carl XVI Gustaf. He also received an honorary doctorate from Sweden’s Umea University and maintains his relationship with the country by serving on the board of directors of the Swedish American Chamber of Commerce and the American Scandinavian Foundation, both in New York City.

A member of the Philosophical Society of Texas, he is on the Board of the Lyndon B. Johnson Foundation, a member of the Rapoport Foundation and is Vice Chairman and Trustee of the Scottish Rite Hospital for Children in Dallas. He is on the Board of Trustees of the Baylor College of Medicine. Baylor gave him its Distinguished Alumni Award in 1999, and the Waco Independent School District gave him the same award in 1998.

A native of Waco and a representative in the Texas House from 1973 to 1978, Olson graduated from Baylor University and attended Baylor Law School. He is a past president of the university’s alumni association. He chaired the Texas State Board of Insurance from 1979 until August 1987 and was president of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners in 1982. He resides in Waco, Texas with his wife, Kay Woodward Olson.

Baylor Business Review, Fall 2005

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