215 – 6 Lessons I Learned In A Year Of Suffering (Reflections On Losing A Lifelong Friend)

Randy, Lexie (Randy's sister), Joni (Stan's sister) and Stanley in Ada, OK
Randy, Lexie (Randy’s sister), Joni (Stan’s sister) and Stanley in Ada, OK

Stanley was born on April 11, 1957. He left this life on May 12, 2013. On the day of his death I published this post and podcast. It was the most painful post and podcast I’ve ever produced. No, it has nothing to do with business, management, leadership or building an organization/business. It’s intensely personal. So, if such things are off-putting to you, then avoid it. But if you want to know more about who and what I really am, then you may find it valuable. I’ll let you judge.

This Friday would have been his 57th birthday. I think of him every day. Every single day.

Modern marketing gurus regurgitate the ancient maxim, “People are all listening to the radio station, WIIFM – What’s In It For Me. Don’t talk about yourself. Talk about your prospect.” While that may be fundamentally true, it presupposes that we’re all morons roaming around devoid of interest in others, repelled by notions of compassion or empathy and behaving like Barney Fife once described giraffes to Opie.

Boy, giraffes are selfish. Just running around looking out for number one.”

I’ve learned a few things this year.

We’re approaching the first full year since his passing and I still have moments of enormous sadness. I confess that I will sometimes close a door, turn the lights out and simply cry. It doesn’t happen often, but it happens at least once a month, usually during a time when I so desperately want to pick up the phone and call him. His number is still in my phone, even though I know the number – like him – is long gone.

The Pivot, sparked in large part, by his illness and subsequent death took a number of turns, detours and running through a few ditches. My entire career can be summed up in a phrase, “business leader.” Since I was in my mid-20’s I’ve lead businesses. Five years ago I stepped down, resigning my post as the leader of a company I had called home for almost 20 years. When you’ve done something for so long, it can be difficult to figure out, “Now what?”

Helping people.

Serving people.

Inspiring people.

Teaching people.

Leading people.

Impacting people.

Provoking thought.

Stirring emotions. 

These were the things that had driven me since my youth. Stanley’s death prompted more emotions than anything in my life ever had. It was personal. It was heart stuff, not head stuff.

Heart stuff is the stuff of extraordinary leadership. And there it was. Staring me in the face as it never had quite before. I’m at my best when I’m investing in other people. I invest in myself most when I’m investing in others. I’m not being altruistic. I’m being true to who I really am. Being behind the scenes, lurking in the shadows with a timely word of advice or encouragement, sitting down privately to help somebody through some challenge, pushing – shoving – nudging others into the spotlight…those are the moments when I’m at my best.

Stanley and I had such a strong bond that I think we both assumed we’d have each other forever. Truth is, we hoped to have each other forever. If you don’t believe in forever, then I’m sad for you. Stanley and I both had faith that eternity is real. I still have that faith. For Stanley, his faith is now realized based on what we both believed to be true. Namely, we both believed the Bible.

Usually, we only had one objective when we were together. Laugh as much as possible. We were marksmen at hitting that target. We never missed a target. He died knowing our record was perfect. And as he lay dying I couldn’t even see the target any more. What once had always been so easy to hit was now impossible to even spot. I was learning the meaning of the term, “wrecked.”

For some guys who could be moody, blue and perhaps not always big fun to be around…together, we became two friends adept at the craft of volleying sarcastic remarks. We were equally accomplished at witty observations. Not everybody appreciated it. Some couldn’t keep up. We’d put in way more than 10,000 hours mastering the craft.

Lesson #1

Life is short. Make it count.

I already knew this, but Stanley’s passing just made it more real. I admit that it didn’t have much impact on my professional life. Not at first. I was mostly focused on my personal and spiritual life.

But since you’re likely here for professional or business type stuff, let’s apply it there.

If your career isn’t going as you’d like, then when are you going to do something about it? When are you going to stop making excuses?

I don’t care how old you are. I don’t care how young you are. Bob Geldof’s 25-year-old daughter, Peaches, died on Monday. Is that young enough for you? I know people who have buried babies. Mickey Rooney also died on Monday. He was 93. Is that old enough for you? Death is no respecter of persons.

You get to choose what you do with the time you’ve got. You’ve got RIGHT NOW. That’s all you’ve got.

What are going to do to make a positive difference RIGHT NOW? So many people haven’t yet determined to make a positive difference at any time. Too many of us are just doing time. Too many of us are living in an uncertain future. The common mantra of the masses is, “Tomorrow will be better.” No it won’t. Not if tomorrow never comes. And even if it does come, the odds are you’ll be just as lazy, indifferent and unprofitable tomorrow as you were today. And yesterday. And the day before that. Your history may not be an absolute predictor of your future. Even so, the odds are high that you’ll keep doing what you’ve always done.

So, make today count. Make up your mind – RIGHT NOW – that you’re going to take responsibility for your life, as much as is humanly possible. The things you can control are: your choices and your actions/behaviors. Embrace that. Own it.

Lesson #2

Come to grips with what you hate. Pursue what you love.

Professionally, I’ve done lots of things I didn’t much like. I’ve even done some things I hate. But in my 35 plus year career I’ve mostly loved leading and competing. Both of those are personal. Intimate even.

I love communicating. Watching people. Listening to people. Working with people.

I love problem solving. Watching a solution work, or fail. Then trying to figure it out again…or trying to find a better way.

I love questioning if we might find a better way. Asking, “What if…?” And answering the question based on whatever information is at hand.

I hate red tape. I hate having to ask for permission. I hate tyrannical leaders. I hate autocrats. I hate micro-managers. I hate stagnant thinkers. I hate pessimistic leaders who constantly bark, “That’ll never work.”

You can easily recognize what you hate. Write it down. Professionally, what do you absolutely hate? And what do you hate to do? I’m not promising you’ll be able to avoid every single thing you hate to do, but you sure don’t want to make that activity the bulk of your work.

It can be much tougher to figure out what you love. Write it down. Professionally, what you love so much you lose yourself in the activity? When you’re doing it, time flies by. When you’re doing it, you perform almost without thought. It almost seems innate. What is it? Think of it in terms of being the thing you’d like to do most of the time!

Lesson #3

Understand what you’re best at. And acknowledge what is hard for you.

We spend so much time chasing dreams that may never be realized…and we neglect to sit down and examine our lives as fully as we could. Or should.

I love chasing dreams. I think it can be healthy to a point. However, we can’t just sit around dreaming about things. Plans and strategies have to be constructed. Action has to be taken. Corrective action has to be taken. Problems have to be solved. Adversity has to be overcome.

Those are hard things to do. They’re harder when you’re chasing something you’re not very good at. Take the time to figure out what you’re naturally good at. Stop trying to be something (and somebody) you’re not.

Lesson #4

Be relentless. Let tenacity rule your life.

Face your fears and stomp them into the ground. That phone call you’re afraid to make…make it anyway. If there’s a chance you’ll find success by making that call, make that call. “But what if I fail?” Then you’ll fail. Not making the call is a sure fire way to fail. Take whatever actions you’re avoiding because you’re afraid. Do them anyway. Before long, taking action will be your habit and the fear will subside.

Be ruthless in your pursuits. Dogged persistence is the path to accomplishment.

This doesn’t mean you’re ruthless with people. Don’t be a jerk. Or insensitive. Or selfish, like a giraffe. Just be focused on what you’re trying to accomplish and find a way to get it done.

You haven’t accomplished what you want because you haven’t taken enough action – or you haven’t taken enough of the appropriate actions. Do more. Watch the results, then adjust your actions. Keep doing what you fear most because it’s the fear that’s defeating your dreams (and plans and strategies).

Lesson #5

Leave an impact. Create footprints, fingerprints and any other mark that will affect people.

If you want to chase money, go ahead. Not me. Sure, I want to make as much money as possible, but at my age it’s not about stuff. It’s about people. It’s about the things I’d like to do for my family and close friends.

Money is a tool. A vehicle to do meaningful things for people I love. My wife. My kids. My grandkids. In that order.

It’s a resource for good. The congregation where I work and worship. That’s a major driver for me. To contribute to something vastly bigger than me. And more important than me.

Making money isn’t the same as making a mark. I’m much more interested in making a mark. Specifically, professionally I want to make money by making a mark. Personally, I just want to make a mark.

That means making a difference in somebody’s life. It means being a friend, supporter, mentor, or “fill-in-the-blank” for people so they can’t imagine their life without me. Does that sound selfish? Maybe. But it’s honest. I want to live so people will miss me when I’m gone. That’s demanding and it challenges me every day to find ways to be valuable. Some days (maybe most days) I fail, but I’m still trying. I hope to become more accomplished with practice.

Lesson #6

Do something. Make a difference. Yes, you’ll make enemies, but you’ll also make some solid friends.

Stanley and I knew as teenagers this truth – “If you’re not willing to be hated by some, you’ll be loved by no one.”

Some people misunderstood our snarkiness. Others resented our friendship. We didn’t care. The people who were most attracted to us were the people we were most attracted to. That’s how it works. Birds of a feather and all that.

I prefer fewer really close friends over a vast number of casual friends. I know a lot of people. I’m close to very few. That’s intentional. It’s not snobbish, it’s just a preference. It doesn’t mean I don’t care about people, including casual friends.

Life isn’t infinite. Neither is my energy or emotion. If I’m going to be the most helpful I can be, then I have to watch where I invest myself. Professionally, I can invest in a broader audience because the scope of influence is narrowed. Personally, I have to restrain myself because I have extraordinary empathy – it’s just my wiring. I can’t temper how much I care and how much I get wrapped up in trying to help friends. Truth is, I have to make sure I’m not intruding and overstepping my bounds. Mostly, I think I stay inbounds, but not always.

I’m driven to make a difference and I’m perfectly willing to accept that some won’t like me for it. I remember having a conversation with my son when he was a teenager.

If you’re going to be a person of action, you’re going to be judged harshly by some.”

I taught both of my children to be people of decision and action. And I’ve always warned them that some people aren’t going to like it because some people will throw rocks at anybody who tries to make a difference. Throwing rocks at the action takers is a full-time hobby for some. You know you’re not taking enough action if you’re not making somebody angry with you. Focus on the friends you’re collecting along the way, not the enemies.


Okay, Stanley’s death didn’t teach me these things necessarily, but his passing did reinforce their importance to me. It’s hard to explain how one friend’s passing can compel such introspection. He was the one person – the only guy in my life – who I could talk to about anything. My wife is clearly my closest confident, but Stanley was my sole male sounding board.

He was sick most of the last year of his life so my loss was slow, then sudden. Even though our last conversations didn’t make much sense because his mind was quickly slipping away…there was something to the fact that I knew he was still here. Maybe I was hopeful (even though there wasn’t much hope, if any) things would get better. I knew they wouldn’t. I knew the inevitable. But I wasn’t wrecked until it happened.

Yes, I wallowed in sorrow for weeks, and months. Like a diver who has gone deep to the ocean’s floor, I knew it wouldn’t be safe to come up too quickly. My ascent back to normalcy took time. Slow and steady.

My best skills continue to be empathy, communication and problem-solving. Those have always been by 3 biggest assets. Stanley’s death refocused me to handle up better on that last one, problem solving. Over the past few years my skills to help others find solutions to their problems left me alone struggling to solve my own. Things would leap out at me whenever I helped others. I could search intently for answers to my own problems and be completed baffled how to even begin. It was a struggle that I suppose every person experiences at some point in life. I was just puzzled that I was experiencing it so late in my life.

This Friday would have been Stanley’s 57th birthday. In a few weeks I’ll be 57. It’s weird to think that I’ve reached an age beyond any age Stanley ever did. His death wrecked me, but his life impacted me like no other. That’s his legacy for me. I hope I had the same impact on him. And now, I’m hoping I have a similar impact on others.


P.S. I hope you stayed tuned to the podcast until the very end because I inserted a recording of Stanley sitting my living room playing my guitar and singing. It was on a Sunday afternoon, July 18, 2010. 

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Grow Great a public sector leadership podcastAbout the hosts: Randy Cantrell brings over 4 decades of experience as a business leader and organization builder. Lisa Norris brings almost 3 decades of experience in HR and all things "people." Their shared passion for leadership and developing high-performing cultures provoked them to focus the Grow Great podcast on city government leadership.

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