War and Memories
Tom is the President and CEO of Insight Sourcing Group, Inc., a management consulting firm exclusively focused on strategic sourcing and procurement-related services. Tom can be reached via e-mail at [email protected], or through his Web site, www.witness-to-war.org.
If you ever find yourself in a US cemetery, take a second to read the tombstones. The combat veterans’ markers are easy to find. War had made such an impact on these soldiers’ lives that they chose to honor their commitment on their burial grounds. Above all else, they wish to be remembered for the war in which they fought and the unit in which they served.
In short, they have stories to tell.
When it comes time for my burial, I’m confident that the name of my business will not be on my tombstone, despite the passion and energy I have poured into it. Like all entrepreneurs, I have faced my share of battles, but my experiences don’t compare to the trials and tribulations of military personnel. It was these stories that inspired me to create a nonprofit that changed my life.
Early in the 1990s, I found myself reading a marker for a World War II veteran and his deceased wife. The veteran’s side of the stone listed only his birth date, which led me to believe he was still alive. I found his name in the phone book and offered to buy him breakfast. The former soldier recounted his fighting days. His eyes lit up when he spoke of enemies who infiltrated the perimeter through tunnels during the middle of the night. He recalled how he was taught to freeze when flares went off, how one officer died when he didn’t listen, and he remembered seeing his best friend “catch bullets with his chest.”
Talking to this veteran gave me a new perspective, and I soon found myself meeting with others. I was shocked to discover that few had ever recorded their amazing tales. And given that most of them were well into their seventies, it was clear the details would be lost to history. I considered this an extraordinary loss, and I knew that one day, I had to fi gure out a way to fix it.
Eight years later, I launched the
Witness to War Foundation, a nonprofit designed to capture war stories for future generations. While I was excited to fi nally embark on this mission, the timing could not have been worse. I had just recently launched my management consulting firm, and I had my hands full with a 2-year-old son and another on the way. It was diffi cult balancing a young family, young business and a nonprofit, but I knew that if I were ever to do it, it had to be now.
I decided to do the interviews primarily during working hours so that my business would be affected more than my family. I’m sure the project hindered the growth of my company somewhat, but I think it has come around full circle and added a unique dimension to my life. On days I should have been growing my nascent company or changing diapers, I went to reunions and homes. I met extraordinary men and women who fought for my ability to start a business in a free country. I captured their stories.
It has been an incredible experience and one that, in many ways, surpasses my business success in terms of purpose. Like many entrepreneurs, I am motivated by success for the sake of success. My scoreboard for much of my career has been my company’s revenues, my income, the number of clients we have or the jobs we created. All of these things are rewarding and fulfi lling in their own way; however, the Witness to War project is more pure. Most of the veterans I interviewed have seen and felt things most of us cannot even imagine. Throughout this project, I learned that the types of stress and challenges
I face in business are almost laughable compared to the things some of the veterans faced. During the early days of my consulting fi rm, I felt a great deal of stress regarding whether a deal would close or if a project would turn out well. But then I would hear about real stress: of charging a German machine gun pit, of coming face to face with an enemy, of a fear so intense that a survivor’s eyes tear up 60 years later. I realized I didn’t know the meaning of stress.
After each interview, I would be so relaxed and thankful that it made me a better leader. I realized there were few things in business I could ever face that would compare to a single day of combat, and that helped me grow as a business owner.
As entrepreneurs, we are, almost by definition, obsessed with our businesses. However, few of us will have our company names or net incomes etched into our headstones. I have found that investing in something other than myself or my business has brought me a heightened personal satisfaction and greater business success. And for that, I am thankful.