Hans Tanzler: A Born Leader

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We’re often asked, “Can leadership be learned? Or is it hardwired at birth?”

Our answer: Yes.

We wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing if we didn’t really believe that leadership skills and behaviors can be taught and learned. We’ve seen proof positive of it. But, like you, we’ve also known people who just seemed to have that “something special” – call it “presence”, or “charisma” – that sets them apart from the run-of-the-mill. This mysterious trait makes people want to follow these “born leaders”. When their leadership is channeled in a positive way, they can have a tremendous, and equally positive impact on the lives of others.

One such “born leader” was Hans G. Tanzler, Jr., who served as Mayor of my hometown, Jacksonville, Florida, from 1967-1979, and who died today, at the age of 86.

Known locally as the “Father of Consolidation”, he was credited with developing and implementing the plan which combined the local city and county governments into one entity, giving Jacksonville the distinction of being the largest city in the lower 48, in terms of land area. (Barrow, Alaska has us beat, by a long shot.)

Larger-than-life, Mayor Tanzler, who had to have been at least 6’5″ tall, became a legend in these parts, with both staunch supporters and detractors. But I never heard anyone describe him as “forgettable”.

In the summer of 2003, my family and I spent a week’s vacation in the mountain hamlet of Sky Valley, Georgia, near the North Carolina border. There, in the middle of a bucolic vale stands a picturesque country church whose Sunday morning bells beckoned us to attend services. Five minutes after the service started, a older gentleman of imposing height slipped into the pew next to me. I took one look at him and knew in an instant who he was. He didn’t know me from Adam.

During a meet-and-greet time in the service, he introduced himself (an unnecessary introduction), and was surprised and delighted to learn that he had, by chance, sat down next to a Jacksonville family, 400 miles from home, in the place in which he and his wife had a part-time home in their retirement. As it happened, he was in the process of writing a letter of advice to Jacksonville’s newly elected mayor, John Peyton, whose upcoming inauguration Hans would be unable to attend. In essence, his advice to the new mayor (40 years his junior), was to listen to the will of the people, but not to be swayed by every special interest in the city. In other words, take counsel and advice, and then, make your decisions. Good advice for any leader, we think.

After church, we exchanged phone numbers. That afternoon, the Mayor called with an invitation to join him and his wife in their home, just up the mountain, for dinner. As it turned out, when we arrived, we were joined by his son and daughter-in-law, whose son we learned was a high school friend of our daughter (such is the small town nature of Jacksonville, population 1.3 million). We were given a tour of the Tanzlers’ beautiful mountaintop retreat, which was like a museum of Jacksonville history. The Mayor regaled us with stories of the city I had grown up in, and even treated us to recitations of Shakespeare, featuring some of his favorite bits of wisdom. We then were ferried to his favorite local restaurant, a no-frills Mexican place with great food and lots of character.

We partied into the evening (partied being a relative term, but you get the picture), and had an absolutely delightful evening with our new friends, the Tanzlers.

When we got back to our chalet that evening, my wife and I both remarked that there was something about Hans that we couldn’t quite put our finger on. But he had “it”, whatever “it” is. It explained a lot about how he had done the things he’d done in his career.

Two weeks after we arrived home from vacation, I received a very gracious letter from Hans Tanzler, with a copy of the letter he had written to Mayor Peyton. And the earlier referenced advice, “you must be like Ulysses in the Odyssey, and chain yourself to the mast, so you can steer the safe course and not be tempted by the sirens who will be calling”.

What do I take from the example of Hans Tanzler? In addition to the timeless advice he passed on to the mayor of a new generation, the fact that some people have a gift, probably hardwired at birth, that makes people want to follow them. If you have this gift, my hope is that you’ll recognize it, and then nurture and develop it for the benefit of everyone you influence. To the rest of us – we CAN learn and develop the traits, the skills, the behaviors of effective leaders. Let’s try to learn something – every day – that makes others want to follow us on a positive path.

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