Coffey-Rigby Livery Stable, Manning, SC, from the South Carolina Department of Archives and History

As a child, our family’s yearly Thanksgiving meals took place in Manning, SC — population 3000, complete with the Manning Cafe, McCabe’s Barbecue, Brogdon’s Store, and a public library built in 1910. Manning was built near the headwaters of Wyboo Creek in South Carolina lake country, and home to the annual Striped Bass Festival. Manning hosted our entire family for the Thanksgiving meal — and I grew up in a very large family.

My mother was one of nine children, and my 20 cousins, 16 aunts and uncles, various other family friends, and of course my brothers and I would show up for the feast, all sitting at different-sized tables spread throughout my aunt’s home. As one grew older, one could be graduated to the Big Table, the table where all the Grown People — the adults — sat for the Thanksgiving feast, conversing about wise things, and catching up on all the family stories and news.

Courthouse in Manning, SC from the South Carolina Department of Archives and History

The funny thing is that, though I inevitably grew older, I never grew old enough to have a seat at the Big Table. I was one of the youngest, and there was always too little room, and too many family members for the limited seats at the main table.

Of course, you can never have too many family members. Not really. And my cousins and I had our own fun, and probably got away with more mischief since we weren’t under the eye of the adults. And family meals always prepare you for taking your seat at the Big Table, in time.

Today, in many ways and in a variety of contexts, I am finally sitting at the Big Table and I’ve received more than I ever dreamed I would. Perhaps a part of growing older is realizing how much you have been given, and how unexpectedly it has been provided.

This week will be filled with abundance. The Wednesday before this Thanksgiving’s feast, I will be engaging in one of my favorite past-times — cooking. Later on I’ll head out to where some family members have been gathering together, preparing for the big meal and enjoying the outdoors.

Cooking and the outdoors pale in significance to the family and friends I’ve been given, both the old friends who have been with me for a lifetime, and the new ones who have traveled a shorter journey with me.

I am thankful for my health. I don’t take it for granted — so many are not given such a blessing, and I’m conscious of it more every year.

I have experienced a relentless pace of blessings over the years and I am grateful.

Those blessings in my personal life have clearly been a part of allowing me to have blessings in other areas, the biggest part of which has been my work. The most obvious place where I’ve taken a seat at the Big Table is at Elliott Davis — truly a grand and spectacular feast of people, some 750 and more, spread through nine offices in nine communities, all of them different, but in some ways, just like Manning. Each of our communities has its cafes and barbecue places, its historic library, its particular geographic setting that shaped its formation, its big annual celebrations to recognize what is near and dear to each of them. It is a very big table — and Elliott Davis employees, including me, all get to have a seat at that table.

For all of this and more, I am truly grateful.

But I’m also grateful for this insight, one that applies to our workplaces, our families, our hobbies, our communities: it’s not so much where you sit at the table but with whom you are enjoying the meal.

Yes, there are many people at the table, and it is large and grand, and there will always be room for others. It is the company we keep that is the real blessing.

pioneers, American history, log cabin

First log cabin, Douglas County, Nevada, from the Historic American Buildings Survey

What images come to mind when you hear the word “pioneer”?

I was recently in Gunnison, CO on a trip with my sons when we stumbled upon Gunnison Pioneer Museum. It wasn’t on our exploration agenda, but we were staying across the street and made an impromptu decision to check it out.

As I expected, there were many artifacts from the 1800s. This was not a small, one-building museum. There were original houses and cabins filled with incredible displays of period clothing, weaponry, farm implements, arrowheads and mining equipment. There were numerous railroad exhibits. We saw items like school desks with inkwells, a milk wagon, an ox cart and farm tools. These are the images the word “pioneer” conjures when I hear it.

What was most surprising to me was that even though it was billed as a pioneer museum, there were artifacts and displays up to the present time. This included the introduction of cameras and electric trains and kitchen appliances – stuff that was invented in my lifetime. I took pictures of these items to share with my brothers – things like a stereo resembling the one my parents owned and the hand held beater that was a staple in my mom’s kitchen. It was a trip down memory lane.

The big “wow” factor to me was that all these items and inventions became a part of my life. I never thought about them being a part of history. They simply assimilated and became the norm. Seeing them now in a pioneer museum made me realize that future generations will see these artifacts and, most likely, will smile and shake their heads at their antiquity thinking that what they have now, in the present, is the best it will ever be.

History is being made every day. We live it, it evolves and it never sunsets. In our personal lives, something new comes along and we rush out to buy it. In our business, an innovative concept is introduced and we want to be the first to test it. At the time, we think it might be the ultimate, but it is only a matter of time before the “new and improved” version comes along and the prior one becomes “history.” And when we have the opportunity to look back, 30, 40, 50 years or more because we happen to stumble upon a pioneer museum, we understand the impact and that we were, indeed, a part of our own history in the making.

What items from your personal history have you not thought about lately, but recognize as pioneering?

Recently someone asked me for a favorite quote for business and my response was swift.

“There’s always one more thing you can do to influence any situation in your favor — and after that one more thing, and after that….”
— Lieutenant General Hal Moore

In the best or the worst of situations we can choose to focus not on our circumstances but on an unrelenting drive for improvement and action. In good times, we don’t need to sit back and admire our successes — we can continue to learn and grow. In dark times, we can recognize that there is always some additional step that we can take so that, inch by inch, we may move out of dire situations.

image of Lieutenant General Hal Moore at la Drang, leadership in dark times

Lieutenant General Hal Moore at la Drang

Lieutenant General Hal Moore had a long and distinguished career of service in the US Army. He was most noted for his military prowess in the Vietnam War, particularly in the Battle of la Drang, about which the movie We Were Soldiers Once was filmed. In that brutal and seemingly hopeless battle, Moore led 450 soldiers to an improbable victory over 2,000 Vietnamese troops.

Moore’s quote reminds me that, though some things are beyond our control in both the worst and best of times, at least some actions and decisions are in our own hands. We don’t need to feel powerless even in times of desperation — we only need to incrementally act, grow, and change, one step at a time.

What’s your favorite quote for business (and life)?


In an earlier post (Smart Reading Topics) I mentioned one of the values I hold dear — the importance of reading widely both in one’s field as well as out of it. I particularly enjoy reading history and the expanded field of vision it provides of other people’s experiences. Reading provides insight into others’ achievements and failures which means I can glean tips on how to enhance my personal achievements and hopefully limit my failures.

A military career is one in which wisdom, competence and discernment assume life-and-death importance. An email composed by retired four-star General James Mattis in which he referenced the importance of learning from others went viral back in 2003.

“… The problem with being too busy to read is that you learn by experience (or by your men’s experience), i.e. the hard way. By reading, you learn through others’ experiences, generally a better way to do business, especially in our line of work where the consequences of incompetence are so final for young men.

Thanks to my reading, I have never been caught flat-footed by any situation, never at a loss for how any problem has been addressed (successfully or unsuccessfully) before. It doesn’t give me all the answers, but it lights what is often a dark path ahead.

Throughout his military career, Mattis marched into conflict situations armed with the experience of others he studied while reading books such as The Siege and From Beirut to Jerusalem. He drew upon lessons learned while reading about the life of Gertrude Bell in Seven Pillars of Wisdom. He can cite specific lessons from his readings which he has applied in unique situations to make life and death decisions.

Although conference rooms, corporate offices and work stations do not have the immediate and mortal significance of battlefields, it is still important for business leaders to recognize the impact their knowledge, experience and decisions can have on the lives of others. In some small sense, we are responsible for the livelihoods and work satisfaction of many human beings. We have a duty to take that responsibility seriously, learning from others as best we can so we can limit costly mistakes.

What lessons have you learned from others? Are you using what you read to help you succeed?

I love the unheard stories from history. Each character has his or her own small role with an individual story, as a part of the larger whole. That’s what makes it all come to life.

Of course, I appreciate the big figures of history as well — George Washington, Ben Franklin, Abraham Lincoln. All of them deserve our regard and respect for their leadership. But still, it’s the little-known stories of adventure, courage, and sheer guts that weave the great dramas of life.

I was recently emailed this story of an artillery commander, Richard Andrews, in the Civil War. Here’s how Eddie Inman (a man I don’t know) tells Andrews’ story (you can find out more about Andrews life through his Wikipedia link, which also shares the story):

“Confederate artillerist R. Snowden Andrews suffered a horrible wound at Cedar Mountain. A piece of shell tore apart the wall of Andrews’ abdomen on the right side as the major straddled his horse. With enough presence of mind to press one arm over the gaping wound and clutch his horse’s neck with the other Andrews could fall to the ground without being entirely disemboweled. Everyone who saw the mangled artillerist knew that he was dying, and various surgeons pronounced the wound fatal. Two country doctors, Thomas B. and William H. Amiss, who happened to be brothers, agreed to take on the patient. Upon examining the wound, Thomas Amiss found Andrews “completely disemboweled, his intestines covered with dust, hen-grass, sand and grit.” . . . the doctors ordered stretcher-bearers to carry Andrews to the James Garnett house a couple of miles to the rear. In great agony Andrews was taken to the Garnett home and there he was placed on the dining room table. It was now nearly midnight, almost seven hours since Andrews had suffered the wound. The ghastly tear in Andrews’ abdominal wall proved to be only one of two wounds once the gore was cleared away. The savage piece of shell had continued its path across the top of the major’s thigh, cutting it open near the hip. Dr. William Amiss carefully cleaned both wounds, washing the mass of dust and debris from Andrews’ intestines and abdominal cavity. Dr. Thomas Amiss then replaced the organs and sewed the wound shut with “….cotton and a common calico needle, the only instrument available….” Andrews himself held the wound’s edges together during the sewing. . . . Amazingly, the inevitable peritonitis did not appear, and Snowden’s vicious wounds healed within five weeks. . . . By the spring of 1863 a miraculously healed Andrews returned to field duty wearing the second star of a lieutenant colonel. Within a short time another wound knocked Andrews out of service again as a bullet hit him on June 15, 1863. Recovering, he was sent to Europe on ordnance duty.”

I read stories like this and I recognize that my day at work won’t be so bad. I also recognize that you never know what miracles may occur if you simply move forward — and meet crises with plenty of courage. You just never know.