A few months ago, I had a friend confide in me that he had "no formal education." I asked him what he meant by that, and he said he was embarrassed to say he never went to college. My friend is a very skilled and successful executive with a large corporation. I told him I thought there was no reason for him to be embarrassed. I said there are other people I know who are in the same boat. One of them is an entrepreneur who to this day lives in fear someone will find out he has little formal education. He is wildly successful and is one of the most articulate individuals I have ever met. People love and respect him because he has wonderful leadership qualities and is committed to his family and community.
The fact is that a piece of paper doesn't confer intelligence, common sense, reason, leadership skills and all the other intangibles that make for a quality businessperson. As long as you have a willingness and aptitude, being an autodidact shouldn't be an impediment to success in many fields.
Don't get me wrong. Having a college degree is important. It's the ticket to many a good job. College is where you meet many people who will be connections to jobs and a place in society. In fact, these days most professional positions I hear about require a graduate degree.
For many people, however, going to college isn't a lock. They may have grown up with fewer advantages or resources--having had to get a job to help their family survive. Sometimes people drop out of college because they find a decent job or believe school isn't relevant to what they want to do.
If there is a really tough situation or decision to make, I would prefer the person who has the experience and the street smarts to make the right choices over the person with multiple graduate degrees and little real-world experience. Many of the mistakes we see in business and government these days are being made by the latter type of person.
In business most decisions aren't about brain surgery or rocket science. Recently, a Southwest Airlines jet arriving at Chicago's Midway Airport skidded off a runway in a snowstorm, plowed through a fence and struck a car, killing a 6-year-old boy and injuring several other people. The accident raised many safety questions, but that didn't stop Southwest's chief executive, Gary Kelly, from immediately expressing the company's condolences to the families, a departure from reactions by other carriers that have been involved in fatal accidents.
According to Pete Wentz, an executive with APCO Worldwide's Chicago office, the airline's response has set a new standard for how to deal with such crises. "They stepped right in front, right away," Wentz told the Chicago Tribune. "Their CEO was right out front, right away. That's unique. Generally, the CEO doesn't want his name attached to the event or saying things that you realize a month later weren't the right things to say."
Steven Fink, president of Lexicon Communications of Pasadena, Calif., told the Tribune that Southwest may be writing a new chapter in crisis management. "I must say I was impressed," Fink said. "I think they are doing everything right so far. When you do have a fatality, it is the responsibility to step up to the plate. Maybe new ground has been broken for the airlines."
Even doctors, who certainly need a graduate degree, often make poor choices in their practices because they lack people skills. An article in this magazine, "Attentive docs minimize lawsuits" (Dec. 12, p. 34), suggests that physicians who have a congenial bedside manner and who apologize to patients and their families when treatment or procedures go wrong minimize their own and their hospitals' medical malpractice risk. But the many doctors who have failed to establish strong personal relationships with their patients find that apologies for mistakes fall on deaf ears.
In both of these real-world examples we find decisionmaking that involves intelligence, common sense and experience, not simply a college degree.
We need more of the kind of leadership provided by another leader who never graduated from college, Harry Truman. (Despite his background, Truman was one of the more well-read presidents, like so many successful people without degrees. It's no irony that Truman's name is also attached to many schools and scholarship programs.) Truman always accepted responsibility for the actions of his administration, as illustrated by the famous sign on his desk that read, "The buck stops here."
It's too bad Truman's dictum isn't shared by many people. Too often, executives are shielded from blame as their handlers try to spin bad news rather than confront situations head-on. Too often, educated people don't have the experience to know what to do when confronted by something they haven't had as a case study in business school.
So my friend and others who don't have college degrees should take heart. When it comes to making critical decisions, they have the skills and experiences that give them a leg up on others who may have college degrees. They should be proud that they have succeeded in a world where educational background is taken more seriously than experience and a track record of knowing how to do the right thing.
Honesty is the best policy,
Charles S. Lauer
Vice President-Publishing/Editorial Director