A Fool's Takeaways on Life and Leadership With Louis Zamperini

This article is part of our Rising Star Portfolios series. Click here to follow Jason on Twitter.

Recently, our CEO and co-founder Tom Gardner had the great fortune to interview Louis Zamperini. Recognized as an American hero, Zamperini was a World War II prisoner of war and is the subject of Laura Hillenbrand's new book, Unbroken. To wrap up our series, I sat down with Tom to talk more about his takeaways from his time with Zamperini:

Jason Moser: Louie's story is an incredible one. It really makes me think of the power of the human spirit. You said that he also made you think about leadership. What are the things you look for in leaders when you are looking at companies?

Tom Gardner: You said it, Jason. Louie's story is an unbelievable testament to the power of the human spirit. Reading the book and speaking with him reiterated to me some of the key qualities that I look for in leaders today.

  1. A leader does it first; he leads the way and sees what it's like so he can lead others with the knowledge of what may be next. In regard to companies, I think leaders need to be obsessed with and love their product. I mean if they don't, then why are they even there? To me, Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) Steve Jobs and Nike's (NYSE: NKE  ) Phil Knight are great examples of this.
  2. Leaders plan for worst-case scenarios. Typically for me this shows up on the balance sheet. During the financial crisis, some retail companies were prepared for this better than others. Coach (NYSE: COH  ) , for example, historically holds plenty of cash and short-term investments (more than $800 million currently) and virtually zero debt, and CEO Lew Frankfort's guidance has helped the company continue to prosper. So when the financial crisis hit, there was some opportunity there in retail because some were financially healthier than others. Yes, business took a hit, but they were still going to be around after the dust settled, and investors who were paying attention found some really great deals.
  3. Great leaders have to be all in; there is no going halfway. So how do you find this? I like to look at the tenure of management. Founder-led businesses like Reed Hastings and Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX  ) are wonderful examples. Companies where the CEO has been there for a long time or where they promote from within, focusing on developing talent rather than trying to bring it in. I look for management turnover that's lower than industry average and companies where they create an environment where people want to be and stay.

Moser: Those are all great examples. So you also mentioned that Louie exemplifies many of the strengths that can actually make us better investors. Talk a bit more about that.

Gardner: It was so refreshing to hear his thoughts on finances and debt and how avoiding some of the most basic pitfalls can make life so much more enjoyable. Louie has so many strengths; there's not enough room or time to cover them all. But he did get me thinking about a few things that I believe we can all practice in order to become better investors as well as better people.

  1. It's good to be an optimist; you have to be able to look at how things can turn out well. Of course things can get worse, but staying optimistic can help you keep a level head. The numbers out there support that one out of three years in the market is a down year, but this also implies that two of those years are up years. Make no mistake, though. I am not a blind optimist; I'm an optimist based on the facts.
  2. Whatever you do that you love, that you spend time on, go for it all the way. You want to be the best. The best leaders in business and in life are always looking at how they can get better. When you think you've found your passion, you are trying to learn all you can to get better. My time with Louie challenged me to think, "How can I study even harder and get even better?" If it's not your passion, then you won't be able to sustain this. Yes, some can fake it for a while, but in the end it's simply not sustainable.
  3. The fact that he gave up skateboarding at 81 and skiing at 91 I think shows the importance of not only taking risks, but further taking measured, manageable risks. So when I come across young investors who are brand new to the concept, I say, "Pick a company you admire and put $200 into it. Get skin in the game, commit to two years and learn about it. Read about investing and learn how it applies to the company you own." From there you just want to get better and better. For all the sweet tooths out there, I say, "Start with the dessert of action."

Motley Fool CEO and co-founder Tom Gardner and Stock Advisor analyst Jason Moser own no shares of any companies mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple and Coach. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Nike, Apple, Netflix, and Coach. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended creating a diagonal call position in Nike. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying puts in Netflix. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended creating a bull call spread position in Apple. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


Read/Post Comments (5) | Recommend This Article (26)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On July 20, 2011, at 6:45 PM, drillerjim101 wrote:

    Awesome thoughts and great applications to life principles that will serve anyone well for a lifetime.

    Louis's story is one all should read. Definitely the best read I've had in months. And most inspiring.

    As to Louie's advice to be an optimist I can only echo what the great Ronald Reagan always reminded us:

    THE BEST IS YET TO COME.

    Thanks, Tom and Jason

  • Report this Comment On July 20, 2011, at 9:49 PM, TMFSocialME wrote:

    Agreed! Thanks drillerjim101! Your comment inspired me to read the article instead of just skimming over it. Great read. Hopefully everyone who reads this hits the 'Rec' button (top right) and spreads the optimism.

  • Report this Comment On July 20, 2011, at 9:58 PM, drillerjim101 wrote:

    PS Log on to Amazon and purchase a copy of Unbroken. You won't be sorry. And while you're at it buy a few more shares of Amazon for your portfolio.

  • Report this Comment On July 20, 2011, at 11:19 PM, TMFTomGardner wrote:

    I cannot more highly recommend this book. It is a fascinating read of a fantastic life. I felt like I was floating during our conversation -- because more than a hero, Louie is a role model for how to plan, how to survive, how to fail and learn from failure, and how to live life as a learning adventure, filled with faith and love. These interviews are an absolute highlight in my 18 years with The Fool. - Tom

  • Report this Comment On July 22, 2011, at 12:10 PM, 0401amigo wrote:

    Tomas,

    Well done and article even better read Unbroken but the reason was I had read Laura's first

    "Seabiscuit" and learned of her story as well.

    the Biscuit in its own ways has many investment lessons about life, love of fellow man, loyalty and not giving up.

    Thanks one of you best

    your Aussie Cheesehead mate!

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