Maintain an Even Strain (Issue 999)

In which we are reminded to ask clients about the moments that most influence their life guidelines.

CORPORATE TRIUMPH, THEN DEATH IN A FERRARI.” The New York Times headline, center bottom of the first page, June 10, 1983

The article read: “The young president of a successful new computer company died Wednesday afternoon in a car crash in California’s Silicon Valley, hours after his company had sold its stock to the public for the first time and he had become a multimillionaire.

Dennis R. Barnhart, 40 years old, president and chief executive officer of Eagle Computer Inc., was on his way home to his wife and three children with a companion, Sheldon R. Caughey, also 40…

Mr. Barnhart’s red Ferrari veered out of control a block from company headquarters in Los Gatos. The car flew through the air, tore through 20 feet of guard rail and crashed into a ravine… Describing the accident, Frank Blaisdell, spokesman for the Los Gatos Fire District, said the Ferrari ”had to be flying.”

I remember reading that story and feeling extraordinarily sad for Barnhart, his family, and his colleagues and employees. I also remember feeling  angry at the waste of it. While it’s possible the car malfunctioned, a more likely bet is that when Barnhart, who had just closed the biggest deal of his life, punched the Ferrari accelerator in celebratory exuberance, the car did what it was designed to do and Barnhart lost control.  [And, three years later, his company failed. Everything lost.]

Stupid. A waste.

At around that same time, I read Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book, “The Right Stuff.” I took to heart an expression attributed by Wolfe to the NASA Project Mercury astronauts in the mid-1960s: “Maintain an even strain.” Don’t put the system under surprise or excessive loads. Keep it together. Don’t show weakness. Don’t get too excited.  Keep yourself grounded.

And, influenced by my reaction to Barnhart’s death,  “Maintain an even strain” became part of me: Don’t get too excited.  Don’t Barnhart.

[For example, you could ask my kids who, often, have said to me: “Dad, can’t you speed up a bit? Every other car on the road is passing us.”]

Each  of our clients has stories like that. Well, not exactly like that, but stories or experiences that became unspoken, significant driving forces, guidelines, or limitations in how they run their businesses.

If we are to truly understand them, it’s useful to know what those stories or experiences are, possibly starting with a question like,  “Can you think of a moment or experience that has significantly influenced how you do or don’t run your business?”

Nick Miller and Clarity train banks and bankers to attract and develop deeper relationships with small businesses. Many more Sales Thoughts like this and a host of other articles and resources at .

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