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Rekindling the inner flame in others, and ourselves

A mentor helped rekindle the inner flame of former Campbell Soup Company CEO Doug Conant, and what he learned can help you do the same.

8 min read


inner flame

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Do you feel like the inner flame that motivates you in your personal and professional life has dimmed? Answering a few questions will provide insight into how you can rekindle your inner light. Before we pose the questions, though, let us share a story that illuminates why contemplating them is so valuable. 

Doug Conant’s story: Being honored and honoring others

Doug Conant
Doug Conant

Doug Conant is the leader who turned around Campbell Soup Company when he served as President and CEO from 2001-2011. We’ve previously written about how Conant held senior leaders accountable for improving employee engagement at Campbell’s and the tremendous difference it made. 

We had a long conversation with Conant recently and came away very encouraged by how his views on leadership are aligned with what we advocate about fostering connection cultures. In particular, we wanted to know more about him as a person and how he developed into a leader who cares about people. Who had influenced him? We learned that his journey to the top of the corporate ladder hadn’t come without obstacles.

Albert Schweitzer once wrote: “In everyone’s life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.” At a tough juncture in Doug Conant’s career that person was Neil MacKenna.

Conant was a 32-year-old director of marketing at Parker Brothers Toy and Game Company near Boston when he was stunned to hear the VP of marketing tell him, “Your job has been eliminated. Clear out your desk by noon.” He was hard-working and competent, and now fired. How could this be happening? Hurt, angry, crushed, humiliated, self-pity, dread are words he uses to capture his reaction to the place he now found himself in. (How many workers cut loose in the wave of recent lay-offs can relate?)

The exit package included outplacement counseling and that is how Conant met the man who would greatly shape him as a leader. Conant describes Neil MacKenna as a wonderful, tough-as-nails, crusty New Englander. He was a decorated veteran of World War II and graduate of Harvard Business School who “didn’t suffer whining or a victim-y ‘poor me’ attitude.” Throughout the outplacement process, Conant was struck by how MacKenna was fully present, listened intently and earnestly and genuinely wanted to be of help. He felt honored by MacKenna. A bond of connection formed between them that would last until MacKenna passed away almost 20 years later. 

At their second meeting, MacKenna gave Conant the take-home assignment to write out his life story, by hand, and with as much detail as he could. That kind of thorough self-reflection was not something Conant had done before. When they were back together to talk it over, MacKenna called Conant out on the disconnect between the man coming through on paper and the man Conant presented to others. As Conant recounts in The Blueprint: 6 Practical Steps to Lift Your Leadership to New Heights, MacKenna told him, “What you’re showing to the world is a modest guy who goes with the flow. But the Doug who wrote this story is a leader and a fighter.” 

Working with MacKenna, Conant came to realize that in trying to be the person that others wanted him to be or expected him to be, whether it was his parents, teachers, coaches or bosses, he was not being true to himself. Talking with us about this, Conant paraphrased a quote from Brene Brown that resonates with him: “You can either walk inside your story and own it, or you stand outside of your story and hustle for your worthiness every day.” Going on, he said, “I needed to write my own story. I needed to figure out what matters most to me and how I want to show up with passion and enthusiasm, and bring my best self to work every day.”

Secondly, MacKenna had him think about the people who had honored him along his life’s journey. Then he challenged Conant to be more like them in honoring others. 

The positive emotions Conant experienced from connecting with MacKenna made him more aware of how fully connecting with others affects them in positive ways. He wanted to have that kind of positive effect on people in his life and began being more intentional about connecting. Going forward, he would connect with, support, honor and serve the people in his life in ways that reflected excellence, including his family and friends, and the people with whom he worked. 

One practice he embraced as a result of his newfound insights was to actively look for ways to praise and encourage others, and to celebrate their contributions. Not only did he praise people verbally, but he became the most prolific writer of handwritten notes we’ve ever known (which we will share more about in a future article). 

In our conversation, he shared: “When I look back on the people who had a profound influence on me — and that’s what leadership is all about, having a profound influence on people to move them in a particular direction that’s good for the enterprise and good for them — they had two characteristics that really jumped out. They had very high standards for me and they loved me to death. They cared.” He noted, “I dealt with a lot of people who had high standards who didn’t care and I dealt with a lot of people who cared a lot but really didn’t lift me up and challenge me. The people who had the most profound impact were, in my language, tough-minded and tender-hearted.” High on his list, Conant told us, are his grandparents and … Neil MacKenna.

“The learning that came out of losing my job was enormous,” Conant declared. It ultimately reframed his view of leadership and prepared him for bigger roles. 

Conant would go on to hold a number of senior leader positions, including president of the Nabisco Foods Company, president and CEO of Campbell Soup Company and chairman of Avon Products. He is now an author, speaker, teacher and executive coach at Conant Leadership

Your story: Connecting through honoring and serving one another

Being in environments rich with human connections in which colleagues, friends and family members are honoring and serving one another can be life-changing and rekindle your inner flame. We can’t give what we don’t have so we need people in our lives who honor, serve and connect with us to support us through the inevitable ups and downs of life, including our time at work. We need people who help us learn, grow and achieve our potential so we can make our contribution to the greater good. 

So, as you reflect on your life story up until this point, ask yourself:

  • Who are the people in my life that I have strong connections with and who support me so that I achieve my potential?
  • What is it about them that makes me feel so connected?
  • Do I need to develop more supportive relationships that give me the connections I need to be my best self, do my best work and make my greatest contributions?

After thinking about the supportive relationships in your life, consider how you are supporting others. Ask yourself:  

  • Who am I connecting with, honoring and supporting so they will achieve their potential? 
  • Through my words and behaviors, can they tell that I care about them as individuals and I believe in them? 
  • Am I encouraging them to become an even better person by expecting the best of them and holding them to high standards?

As Conant reminds us in The Blueprint: “[Y]ou can be more like the people who have helped you become the person you are today; you can be that person for the people with whom you live and work. You already know what it looks like. You’ve lived it. And you know, from your memories of these people, that the way they behaved toward you is the way other people also deserve to be treated.” 

Creating and fostering a culture of connection in which people are honoring and serving one another will lead to healthier individuals, communities, organizations and a stronger and better society, something that’s very much in need today. 


Michael Lee Stallard, president and co-founder of Connection Culture Group, is a thought leader and speaker on how effective leaders boost human connection in team and organizational cultures to improve the health and performance of individuals and organizations. He is the author of “Connection Culture” and “Fired Up or Burned Out.”

Katharine P. Stallard is a partner of Connection Culture Group and a contributing author to “Connection Culture.” To receive a 28-page “100 Ways to Connect” e-book, sample chapters of “Connection Culture” and Stallard’s  monthly Connection Culture email newsletter at no cost, sign up here

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own. 


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