Find Yourself a Hero

by Dexter Van Dango September/October 2012
If we don't find ways to improve our minds, refine our style and increase our overall performance, we stagnate. Dexter Van Dango shares his thoughts on developing your personal style by identifying your heroes — within and outside of the industry — and incorporating their traits into your own way of doing business.

“You know something, Wally? I’d rather do nothin’ with you than somethin’ with anybody else.”

From 1957 to 1963 Leave It to Beaver aired 235 episodes, first on CBS and then on ABC, as an all-American family “feel good” situational comedy. Though their relationship would ebb and flow throughout the seven-year series, Theodore “Beaver” Cleaver generally looked up to his older brother Wally as his hero. defines the noun “hero” as follows:

1.)   a.) a mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability; b.) an illustrious warrior; c.) a man (substitute woman for heroine) admired for his achievements and noble qualities; d.) one who shows great courage.

2.)   a.) the principal male character in a literary or dramatic work; b) the central figure in an event, period or movement.

However you define it, the word hero evokes images in each of our individual minds. Do you picture The Lone Ranger coming to the rescue or Seal Team Six taking down Osama bin Laden? Is a hero Sully Sullenberger safely landing a fully-loaded A320 on the Hudson or Charles Lindbergh crossing the Atlantic solo in The Spirit of St. Louis? Or could it be Billy Jean King beating Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes” or Usain Bolt claiming the title of fastest man in the world? However you define it — you know it when you see it.

This piece is being written for the annual Fall Conference issue of Monitor. We have an ELFA convention each year with a robust agenda including a full complement of industry and commerce speakers. Yet over the past 20 years or so, I don’t recall a single one of those speakers remembering or drawing attention to one of their heroes.

In late August and early September we witnessed Republican and Democratic National Conventions where nearly every speaker identified their mother or father or Ronald Reagan as their hero. That is, nearly everyone except Anne Romney and Michelle Obama, who each portrayed their respective husbands as the real heroes.

As children we were bombarded with heroes. Whether it was the Saturday morning cartoon super heroes or nurses, policemen, firemen and astronauts — someone was always being singled out as a hero to look up to. And we did.

Today it is tough to find a genuine hero. Oh, there are recipients of the Silver Star and the occasional story of a guy who pulled a child off the tracks while a train approached, but what about business heroes? Who can you point to in business that you hold higher than others as your hero? Indra Nooyi of Pepsi Co? Jeff Bezos of Amazon? Meg Whitman of HP? Michael Dell? Steve Jobs? Jack Welsh? I contend that for most of us, it is difficult to identify a valid business hero. Where does that leave us? I guess we could create our own heroes.

Here is my suggestion. Create your hero from a compilation of people you admire. For example, if you are in sales — who is the best salesperson you know? Who makes a great first impression, or always shows up impeccably dressed and perfectly coifed? Is there someone you have watched make a sales presentation who impressed you enough that you wanted to emulate her?

Years ago, I financed trucks and trailers for a large privately owned dealership. Most of the salespeople wore cowboy boots and blue jeans with plaid shirts. They dressed like many of their customers — owner operators. Not my buddy Mike. Mike wore buttoned down pinpoint oxford shirts, grey wool slacks and a Brooks Brothers blazer with a three stripe tie. While most of the salespeople pulled up to the shop door in back of the business when they called on customers, Mike always went through the front door and called on company executives, not shop foremen or fleet managers. I learned a lot from Mike and still emulate many of his traits today, nearly 30 years after he first influenced me.

Traversing the city’s sidewalks to and from work, each day I pass a dozen or more homeless people perched on their staked out corners. Most sit on the ground holding a sign that tells their story while rattling a paper cup with a handful of jingling coins. Not the Entertainer. The Entertainer is my homeless hero. He sings, tells jokes, quotes poetry or compliments people on what they are wearing. Today as I passed him he quoted J. Wellington Wimpy — the character from the Popeye comic strip — loudly proclaiming “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.” I couldn’t help but laugh and smile at him, like I do most mornings. The Entertainer shows that differentiation sets you apart from the rest of the pack — a simple but important trait to emulate.

William G. (Woody) Sutton, CAE, president and chief executive officer of the ELFA is a natural born leader. You see it when he enters a room. His gregarious and affable style is infectious, which makes you want to listen to his powerful voice. Ken Bentsen, Woody’s predecessor, had his own style. Within minutes of meeting Ken you knew he was a cerebral character — able to process loads of information and assess its impact quickly. Retired longtime ELFA CEO Mike Flemming had a different style altogether. Mike was so polished and professional that he could be predictable. With a graceful style and silky smooth voice — you can almost imagine Mike as a talk show host or television news reader. If you could emulate the best traits from these three guys and incorporate it into your own business style and repertoire, imagine how successful you could be in almost any job.

How do you overcome adversity? At times I question my ability to overcome simple challenges that are placed in front of me. When I’m feeling sorry for myself or thinking life isn’t fair, I think of people who really overcome adversity and thrive in doing so. During August as we watched the summer Olympic games there were several references to the 1996 Atlanta games where U.S. gymnast Kerri Strug landed the final vault and quickly lifted her damaged ankle but still managed to hold her pose. You think there was a bit of adversity to overcome on that final run to the vault?  Her score of 9.712 helped the U.S. women gymnastics team clinch the gold medal.

Consider President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roosevelt was paralyzed from the waist down after contracting polio, some 11 years before becoming President. Through his positive attitude and enthusiastic personality, he refused to allow his debilitation drag him down. As he shepherded the country through one of its most difficult times of depression and World War II, many Americans had no idea of the extent of his disease. He was a hero at overcoming adversity. Find someone you admire for overcoming adversity and think of them each time you face new challenges.

Finding people you admire can come from nearly anywhere. Think about a few of our esteemed past and current leasing industry executives. Combine the good natured charm of Valerie Jester with the wisdom of Joe Lane. Look at the discipline of Paul Larkins and match it with the likability and resourcefulness of Deborah Monosson. See the grounded approachable personality of Jim Ambrose and blend it with the presence, demeanor and kindness of Jim Renner. Imagine if you possessed the jovial friendliness of a Bill Montgomery and the tenacity of Jim McGrane. You get where I’m going here — identify traits and characteristics you admire in others and try to emulate them in your own style. I’m not recommending cloning people but instead copying some of the best things you like about many people — and incorporating them into your own way of doing business.

My underlying message here is that we all need personal growth. If we’re not learning new things and finding ways to improve our minds, refining our style and increasing our overall performance, then we’re stagnating. For the Fall Conference issue last year I wrote, “The Critical Case for Lifetime Learning — Unable to Adapt and Therefore Dispensable.” While that article was aimed at adapting to the changing environment and greater reliance on technology, this article is aimed at making improvements to your personal style. We all have flaws.

Vince Lombardi once said, “We will relentlessly chase perfection knowing we will never catch it because nothing is perfect, but in the process we will catch excellence. I have no interest in being just good!” He created a dynasty and his teams were filled with heroes.

Chase a little perfection for your own well-being.

Your feedback is welcomed at

Dexter Van Dango is a pen name for a real person who is a senior executive with more than 25 years of experience in the equipment leasing industry. A self-described portly, middle-aged, graying, balding leasing guy in the twilight of a mediocre career, Van Dango will provide occasional insight from the front lines via the Monitor.

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