Character Lessons From Two Docs

Character is easy to define, but hard to quantify. This lesson struck home as I was reading the memoir of one doctor and later listening to an interview with another. They are Doc Watson and Doc Simon.


Character is easy to define, but hard to quantify. It is
fundamental to leadership yet describing beyond a few maxims, such as, “What you
do when you think no one is looking,” can be devilish.


Character within a context of leadership is example. This
lesson struck home as I was reading the memoir of one doctor and later
listening to an interview with another. Neither are physicians nor Ph.D.’s, but
both dispense amounts of healing and wisdom in healthy doses. They are Doc
and Doc Simon. Both are in their eighties now and their approach to
their crafts, Watson music and Simon drama, give us windows into the role that
character plays in work and why it matters.

Both docs are characters in their own rights. Doc Watson is
a granddaddy of country folk and bluegrass who has delighted generations of
fans with his wistful ballads and mellifluously voice. Doc Simon is one of the
most successful Broadway playwrights and Hollywood screenwriters who has
entertained millions with characters that make us think, often wince sometimes
cry, but so often laugh out loud.

Neil Simon

What we learn from the two Docs–by the way Simon, as he
reveals in Rewrites, earned his
nickname as a toddler when he was given a toy doctor kit and Watson was
Doc by a fan who shouted the moniker during a radio broadcast — is
that character emanates more from what you do more than from who you are.


Voice. A leader
needs a voice, a point of view. For Watson it is literally his voice, for my
money the most tender yet masculine and warm voice in folk music. Listening to
Watson is like pulling up an old chair. For Simon it is a sense of humor that
allows him to look at the human condition with an eye toward provoking insight
through laughs.

Leaders need to care about what they do. Listen to a Watson tune and you know
you are listening to a degree of musicianship that fits him and his
accompanists like a glove. Simon is a master of creating characters who are so
much like us they seem real and it is their foibles that provoke such

Hard work.
Leaders need to put in the time. Watson told Terry Gross on Fresh Air in 1988 that when he broke
into music scene he was “green as apples” and depended on so many others to
make his way. Simon for his part defines the writer’s mantra, writing is
rewriting. All of his plays undergo significant rewrites during rehearsal and
in some instances entire new acts are created.


Depth. Leaders
need to have soul, a sense of centeredness. When you listen to a Watson ballad
you hear a voice that echoes an understanding of the human condition as well as
a faith in a higher power. Simon’s plays, and his memoirs, provoke hilarity but
they do not simply for laughs for to connect us to life’s eternal questions.

Leaders need to be connected to their people. Watson operates in world of
bluegrass and folk where musicians relate to each other in all kinds of
interesting ways–teachers, idols and most of friends. Simon lives the
community of theater, writers, directors, producers and actors. Cutthroat and
chaotic at times, but also warm and understanding, it is fundamental to Simon’s
development as an artist.

Doc Watson

There is something else that unites the two Docs for me. Both have known hardship and loss. Doc
Watson lost his sight before his first birthday; Doc Simon grew up in the
shadow of an intolerant and often absent father with a mother who worked hard
to make ends meet. Watson’s son, Merle, an accomplished guitarist who
accompanied his father on tour, was killed in a farming accident. Simon’s first
wife died of cancer at age 40 leaving him grief stricken and challenged to
raise two daughters.


Both found peace through their work . Their experiences adds
a layer of depth to their respective crafts. Each teaches of the role example
plays in shaping character by doing what you do best and trying always to
create and to entertain. Good lessons for all of us.

John Baldoni is an
internationally recognized leadership development consultant, executive coach,
author, and speaker. In 2010 Top Leadership Gurus named John one of the world’s
top 25 leadership experts. John’s newest book is
12 Steps to Power Presence: How to Assert
Your Authority to Lead
. (Amacom 2010).
Readers are welcome to visit John’s Web site,