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Peter Samuelson

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Small Children Helped by Big General

Posted: 01/07/2013 12:23 pm

He was the biggest man I'd ever met. General Schwarzkopf was so tall, and so wide, that standing in front of him I felt seriously small. I was like Jon Stewart when he greets, well, pretty much anybody.

I was in Tampa to persuade the General to become the Chairman of the Capital Campaign for Starbright World, the non-profit social network for seriously ill teenagers that Steven Spielberg, Kathy Kennedy and I had dreamed up a few weeks earlier. We knew that when children are seriously ill, their interaction with their peers goes away, and they feel isolated and depressed. And in the brave new tech world of the early 1990s, we imagined using the new-fangled Internet to build them a virtual clubhouse in cyberspace.

I had gone to meet Steven for the first time, to propose all this to him, in what was supposed to be a 20 minute meeting, and had emerged three hours later with a 'yes' and an astonishing personal pledge. I hid behind a tree in the Amblin parking lot and called my wife, Saryl, "I think I just met for hours with Steven Spielberg. I think he agreed to be Chairman, and I think he just donated two and a half million dollars to kick it off... But I think I may be hallucinating..." There was a long silence, and then my wife asked, "Should I come and pick you up? You don't sound safe to drive."

But there was a slight problem. What we needed was more like $50 million in high-tech everything. We needed hardware, and software, and dedicated T3 lines between pediatric hospitals, and, and, and... And worse, Steven was much more the inventor of our User Interface than the beggar for donations. And while I was happy to go around begging, the corporate CEO's who needed to be begged were much less interested in meeting me, as we now had Steven, and why wasn't he flying to meet them? Kathy, Lee Rosenberg, Steven and I decided we needed a man who was unstoppable. Someone who had led from the front through sheer willpower and clout. Perhaps, we imagined, someone who had recently won the Gulf War, liberated Kuwait and marched the armies of the free world to the gates of Saddam Hussein's Baghdad? Yes, we thought, General Schwarzkopf would be a great leader for our fundraising.

The problem was that none of us knew him, and we also didn't know anyone who knew him. I suggested our best course was to ask Steven to sign a letter. So he did. And here I was, two weeks later, sitting in front of the General in his office in a Tampa high-rise, as he towered above me from the other side of his epic-sized desk. Lying on the desk was the biggest gun I had ever seen -- a revolver for sure in shape, but about four times larger than any handgun I'd previously encountered. Innocently, I enquired whether it was for security, Saddam's assassins presumably still being a threat, as suggested by his special elevator, which trapped and vetted me before letting me out on the his floor. "No," said General Schwarzkopf, "The pistol is for dealing with journalists."

I launched into my pitch: this new social network would be revolutionary. Seriously ill teenagers in hospitals around the world would log-on, select an avatar (ET was reserved for Steven) and then walk it around one of our 3D 'worlds'... This was before the computer mouse, so really one 'walked' the avatar using the Up, Down, Left and Right keys... a zig zag trajectory in right angles, more an Etch-a-Sketch maneuver, but one that seemed to work in our prototypes. I explained that we were pulling experts into our meetings who would never otherwise meet or work together: directors, writers and programmers inventing this thing alongside pediatricians, psychiatrists, oncologists and hospital administrators. I explained that we were the generalists, standing in the middle of the experts and yanking them back to the center of our mission for seriously ill kids, when human nature made our experts tend to follow only what their own silo of expertise had taught them.

"Young man", asked General Schwarzkopf, "what do you know about the U.S. Army?" "Very little" I replied. "Well," he went on, "listen up! When you join the Army, you receive a rank... but you are also designated a Specialist: You are a rifleman, or a cook, a driver or a mechanic. And however much you are promoted over the years, you keep your Specialty. It's a pin on your shoulder. It's what you do for us."

Leaning over the gun from the other side of his desk, the General added, "And then there is that special day, if you are the best of the best -- If you are a leader, if you are the smartest -- when the U.S. Army makes you a General. And in the ceremony when you get your stars, they take away your Specialty, because you are no longer a Specialist, you are a leader. You are in charge. You are the general."

This was a jaw dropping moment for me. I realized for the very first time that there was a reason why they were called Generals -- they were the generalists who were needed to lead the specialists. And without them, the specialists would muck it up and everyone would get killed by the enemy. You had to have generalists to lead the experts, otherwise you'd veer off mission and lose your battles, your war and your lives. And with the rise of knowledge, the sheer mass of new stuff that needed knowing, we tended to focus on every aspect of deep and penetrating study except one, nurturing the leaders who needed to know a lot about everything, but most of all be specialists in leading.

This revelation from General Schwarzkopf did actually change my life; my epiphany was realizing that the skill-set of a film producer was precisely that: the generalist who keeps all the hundred specialists focused on mission, on strategy, on the goal: delivering an excellent product on time and on budget. And nobody else on set thinks that way. And yes, it is a skill that can be both taught and learned. I realized because of Norman that I could make a material difference in the world using those skills. The subsequent charities I founded, www.firststar.org and www.edar.org also address hellaciously complicated issues, child abuse and neglect and homelessness, and they do need armies of specialists. But at the top, you have to lead, and leadership has to harness multiple specialists towards the driving core goals, and then keep them focused: Lead, follow, or get out of the way!

General Schwarzkopf signed up to become Capital Campaign Chairman of www.starbrightworld.org and we raised our $50 million in cash and in kind: Sprint, Intel, Knowledge Adventures, Vulcan and Coca Cola all saluted the Starbright flag when it was held aloft by General Schwarzkopf on behalf of our special children. I would sit next to him, as one by one, he told corporate CEO's, "Here's what we need you to do. Now." And they all said yes and did it. Now. Remarkable and inspiring. Leadership by the best.

When David Haspel had the genius idea that we create and publish a fairy tale book to benefit Starbright World, with each Chapter written by a different celebrity, it was Stormin' Norman who led the charge. In our book The Emperor's New Clothes, Steven wrote as The Honest Boy, Robin Williams as the Jester, Calvin Klein as the Emperor's Underpants... and General Schwarzkopf wrote, of course, as our General. And he vigorously barnstormed all over network television to get out the word. Harcourt paid a huge advance, and we raised over a million dollars for our seriously ill kids and their network.

And so it was in June of 1995 that Steven Spielberg, General Schwarzkopf and I pressed a big green button on stage at Digital World that turned on Starbright World for kids in hospital beds around the country. They moved their avatars, they saw each other in video conferences, they spoke, they made friends and found love, validation and comfort amid pain and fear. Our research showed that as their spirits soared, their T-Cell counts often rose as well, and so they did better physiologically. Starbright World has never been turned off since, and our closed, supervised and protected network now links teenagers who are critically, chronically or terminally ill across Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Britain and the U.S. Starbright World operates 24/7 and is moderated by trained teams in the United States. When Los Angeles goes home, Mission Control passes to Sydney, Australia, who keep things safe through the night. Starbright World was, and remains today, the world's first fully interactive avatar and AV- based Social Network. When the three of us pressed that button in 1995, Mark Zuckerberg was eleven years old. Sorry, Mark.

Norman Schwarzkopf won a war for us, and he also won the peace. With initiatives like Starbright World, forever a part of Starlight Children's Foundation, he showed all of us the nature of true leadership, and exactly why and how it is crucial to fixing our world. I wish we had him in Washington today. I shall miss him very much: he taught me that really and truly, "A man never stands so tall as when he stoops to hold the hand of a child in need." I've been following in his very large footsteps ever since.

Peter Samuelson, Co-Founder, Starlight Children's Foundation

 

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