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CEOs and Military Coups and Figs: Ingredients Tied Together with a Dash of Magic to draw a “Blueprint for Success”

August 7, 2009

fig plant

It happened at the Magic Johnson Leadership Conference in Los Angeles, sponsored in part by FedEx, where I had the honor of speaking to college students from all over the country who have received scholarships through the Magic Johnson Foundation. We at FedEx are proud to support Magic’s efforts to broaden educational opportunities for young people with great potential and limited resources.

Magic’s life story and mine intersected at Michigan State, where we went to school together back in the 70s. Our paths to Michigan State were pretty different, though. When Magic was shooting basketballs as a young boy in East Lansing, I was growing up amid olives, grapes and figs in a village in Southern Greece. While Magic’s dad was building cars at GM, I could only dream of cars – we had donkeys, mules and bicycles. More on that later.

Building on the conference theme, “Blueprint for Success,” I shared with the students experiences from my own life – some good, some bad – that could help them develop their own personal blueprint for success. In my talk with the students, I went on to share more ways to be their own CEO and to develop a blueprint for a successful life. Here are some of those:

  • Integrity is essential. Its importance can’t be overstated. The truth must be your guide. If you want to be an influential, whether it’s at a university or a legislature or company, you must be honest. People will usually forgive you when you mess up. They will not forgive you if you lie.
  • Have confidence. Believe in yourself. Focus on “I will” instead of “I will try.” Say in your mind, “I can do this, I will do this.” What you are telling yourself is exactly what’s going to happen. Don’t dwell on the negative—it’s mentally toxic. Think about being versus doing. We all develop lists, and we just do, do, do, do. To be an effective CEO, you must be in the moment. And when you’re in that moment, you’ll be more thoughtful and sharper in making decisions.
  • Learn the difference between responding and reacting. Responding is when you think logically and deal with someone in the right way, even if they are arguing. Reacting involves emotion. When you get into very serious situations, assess what’s happening and how to best respond, not how to react.
  • Use kaleidoscope thinking. When you twist a kaleidoscope you see changing patterns and colors. You see different images. In life, kaleidoscope thinking means that when you “hit the wall,” you need to change the dial and figure out a different way of looking at things and getting to your answer.
  • Success is determined by how well one adjusts to change. There is one constant in life and that’s change: sometimes positive, sometimes negative. Think of adversity as an opportunity. Either you embrace change or it will embrace you. The greatest inventors, athletes and business people are those who adjust well to change and, in many cases, welcome it!
  • Don’t’ ever let any crisis be bigger than you. Stay calm and be in control.
  • Be true to yourself.
  • Life is a marathon, not a sprint. Plan for the marathon, but be prepared to sprint when necessary. The sooner, you realize that the marathon runner wins the race of life, you will have an advantage.
  • Take good care of yourself. Your health and overall wellness is the epicenter of life. Most people don’t realize this though till they encounter a serious illness or disease. Enjoy every day and have fun. Life is too short. That’s what it’s all about.

Now back to my Greek village and how two things shaped my early world view.

The first: you can never take your freedom, your civil liberties for granted. I saw those things evaporate before my eyes when tanks rumbled up to our village of 700 people in 1968, and we were prevented from going to school or our jobs. A military coup overthrew the Greek government and took over the country. My father and grandfather had fought wars against outsiders, but now their own countrymen were taking away their civil liberties. It was a very disturbing time for my family. So we moved here in 1968 when I was eight years old.

Coming to America was a culture shock, as you might imagine. I did not know one word of English. I did not know what baseball was or even who The Rolling Stones were. I certainly had never seen snow before we moved to Flint, Michigan. So I had to adapt.

The second thing that shaped my world view was studying philosophy at a very young age and learning that, as Aristotle said, I was a citizen of the world. It was a little hard to imagine when all I saw in this beautiful little village was donkeys, figs, grapes, and mountains. But it was a very powerful concept to me then. Today, with the Internet, proliferating media and super-efficient worldwide transportation and delivery networks that give us access to ideas, goods and places we could once only dream of, Aristotle’s concept is even more powerful. The students I spoke to have a much better chance of being a citizen of the world than I ever had growing up.

And because they are citizens of the world, I suggested to my audience that each of them become a CEO, a Chief Executive Officer of the most important organization in the world: themselves. I advised them, “You are your own Chief Executive Officer, and the sooner you learn that, the more powerful you will be in what you do with your life.”

What do CEOs have to do? They manage the brand of a corporation. Google has a brand. Proctor and Gamble has a brand. People have a brand too.; Magic Johnson is a good example. A person’s brand is the promise and the image they project—to classmates, to an organization, to prospective employers. It is a value proposition. It is a promise of what you will do or deliver whether you’re a business person, an artist or a basketball player.

Not only do people have to manage their own personal brand, but they also have to think about their reputation. Reputation has to do with character and values. It’s who you are and how you deal with people. It’s how companies treat their people, the environment and their communities. In the case of FedEx, these things have less to do with brand and more to do with the organization’s reputation.

Everyone is his or her own CEO. I know these students supported by the Magic Johnson Foundation have the power within themselves to make a real difference in the world. I’d love to check back on them five years from now. I’m sure they will be well on their way to creating their own brand and positively influencing the professions they choose to enter.


    Jeff Kilmer says:


    Loved your “blue print” ideas…especially the concept of “I will”.

    Now to get that across to 30 eigth grade football players here in Memphis!


    Sharon Turco says:


    Janas L. Jackson says:

    I had the pleasure of attending the Magic Johnson Leadership Conference at UCLA where Bill Margaritis delivered the keynote address to college students on how to be your own CEO. Following the speech, the young scholars gave him a standing ovation and formed a line to tell him how the speech had opened their eyes to new possibilities. These students hailed from such schools as Harvard, Howard, Dartmouth, Ohio State, Atlanta University, Morehouse, Tennessee State, University of Texas and the list goes on. Within hours, they were also blogging and e-mailing their friends about this “life-changing speech” from a FedEx executive. Magic Johnson continued to refer to key points of Bill’s message throughout the conference. Even now, weeks later, the students are still talking about Bill’s speech. Additionally, many students noted that while some companies will send a check to support causes, FedEx leaders will actually show up and share their knowledge. It was truly a proud day for FedEx!

    I found Mr. Margaritis’s post to be one of the best I have read recently but it left me wanting to hear more form him on this topic.

    I feel that he could publish an essay on this topic and that many of us could learn a great deal about managing our own brand.

    Jennifer says:

    That was absolutely motivating. I truely hope the students in attendance absorbed the full impact of this speech. It has made a difference for me today.

    Jim Turber says:

    Thanks for this Bill! I really needed to hear this. I don’t know if you would remember me but I used to work with Michele Leeper at FedEx Kinko’s and we managed the FedEx account. I was laid off last September and have been struggling to get back on my feet and just recently passed my state boards for insurance. It has been a dark time for my family and I had felt as if I had let them down, but reading this has given me new energy and a fresh outlook that I can and will succeed. I wish you continued success with FedEx!

    Carla Washington says:

    Great story! I had the pleasure of attending the National Urban League Path to Power Conference in Chicago in July & was able to listen to Magic Johnson on 2 panel discussions. Glad to hear FedEx supports a great vision!

    Chet Myers says:

    Bill, Integrity is essential….there is no substitute.

    Its tough to some times to take the harder right path than the easier wrong.

    Thank you for taking the time to put your remarks together and share them with us. Regards Chet

    donna haley says:

    Inspiring message for young and old alike. As an HR professional, I think HR would really benefit from hearing more from you… perhaps at a future Town Hall meeting?


    What a great article Bill…You have made our Heritage proud …It certainly brought back some
    wonderful memories…I too came here at a young age and how grateful we are to have accomplished
    what we do/I love what I do here at FEDEX with the Animal Control Desk.and how much your Dept has been a part of our development here with Lisa Daniel …

    Mike Moriarty says:

    Bill, wonderful insights told through your personal journey. I know you related to everyone in the audience by telling them your family story.
    Years ago my father had me read Mark Twain and been guided by his adage “when in doubt, tell the truth”. You are right on….integrity is most important.
    Best, Mike Moriarty

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