Lessons from Observing a Life Well-Lived

My father-in-law, James Gladney McGee, Jr. died on November 3. One of the great blessings of my life was knowing him.

Jim graduated from Clemson in 1953, when it was still a military school. After two years in the Army, he took a pay cut to go to work as a management trainee at the Sonoco Products Company. He retired 34 years later as President of Sonoco International. After “retiring” he traveled the world, played a lot of golf, and undertook project after project. 

My friend, Terry Moore, urges us to live a life worth imitating. If ever there was a model of what that looks like, Jim McGee lived it. I was fortunate to get to see it up close. Here are some lessons I learned from observing a life well-lived.

You don’t have to be an expert to give good advice

Jim was very smart, but he never succumbed to the temptation to pretend he knew it all. Several times I asked him for advice about my business. He always said the same thing. “I really don’t understand your business.” Then he would give me some principles to guide my thinking. 

The result was that I used his framework to make a better decision than I would have made on my own. It was also a better decision than Jim could have made. And I learned more about my business in the process. 

Making good decisions isn’t that hard

Jim was the best person I’ve ever been around at identifying the key issues in a challenge. That probably started as a natural gift that he honed to a sharp edge over the years. He taught me to look beyond the first decision to what would happen two or three steps down the road. 

Do what you do well

Whatever Jim did he tried to do well. There wasn’t any excuse for just getting by when you could do things well with just a bit more effort. To do things well, you must keep learning and trying new things. 

Jim made the effort to learn about things in his world. When he was active in business, he dove deeply into subjects that would make him a better manager. Later, he learned about the artists whose paintings he bought. He studied the aging process. 

Little things matter a lot

In the last couple of years, I met many people who knew Jim. They all had a story to tell. The stories were all about what Jim did for them. I heard stories about the big opportunity Jim gave to each of several people. 

One man told me about little handwritten notes of encouragement that Jim sent him. “I’ve still got every one of them,” he said.

Relationships are golden

Strong relationships are one key to a good life. You celebrate with family and friends when things go well and magnify your joy. Those same family and friends lift you up when times are hard. 

Good relationships take time and Jim spent time with friends and family. We had regular Sunday family dinners that sometimes lasted until early evening. His grandchildren loved to tell stories of the time he spent with them. 

The most important relationship for Jim was with Claire, the love of his life. They married in 1953 and were married for 65 years until she died two years ago. Now they’re together again.

There are few great role models in business and fewer still for living a life worth imitating. When you find one, learn as much as you can.

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