Starlight Children's Foundation Celebrates
General H. Norman Schwarzkopf
Small Children Helped by Big General
By Peter Samuelson, Founder, Starlight Children's Foundation
He was the biggest man I’d ever met. General Schwarzkopf
was so large, that standing in front
of him I felt seriously small. I was in
Tampa to persuade the General to become Chairman of the Capital Campaign for Starbright World, the non-profit
social network for seriously ill teenagers that Steven Spielberg, Kathy Kennedy
and I dreamed up a few weeks earlier. When teens are
seriously ill, their interaction with peers ends, and they feel isolated and
depressed. In the brave new tech world of the early 1990’s, we imagined using
the new-fangled Internet to build a virtual “clubhouse” in cyberspace.
But there was a slight problem: this had never been done
before, and we needed $50 million in high tech hardware, software, plus
dedicated T3 lines between hospitals. Kathy, Lee Rosenberg, Steven and I
decided we needed a man who was unstoppable. Perhaps, we imagined, someone who
had recently won the Gulf War, liberated Kuwait and marched the armies of the
free world to the gates of Saddam Hussein’s Baghdad? Yes, we thought, General
Schwarzkopf was our man.
Current Starlight Chairman Emeritus Steven Spielberg
listens as General H. Norman
the new initiative of the Starbright World Foundation
the Skirball Center in Los Angeles, CA in 2000.
Two weeks later, the General towered across his
epic-sized desk. Lying on it was the biggest gun I had ever seen – a revolver
for sure, but four times larger than any I’d previously encountered. I enquired
whether it was for security, Saddam’s assassins presumably still being a
threat, as suggested by his elevator, which had trapped and vetted me before
letting me out on his floor. “No,” said General Schwarzkopf, “The pistol is for
dealing with journalists.”
I launched into my pitch: seriously ill teenagers in
hospitals around the world would select an avatar (ET was reserved for Steven)
and then walk it around one of our 3D ‘worlds’… This was before the computer
mouse, so one ‘walked’ the avatar using the arrow keys… a zigzag trajectory in
right angles, more like Etch-a-Sketch, but one that seemed to work in our
prototypes. I explained we were assembling experts who would never otherwise work
together: directors, writers and programmers inventing alongside pediatricians, psychiatrists,
oncologists and hospital administrators.
I explained that we were the generalists, surrounded by experts and constantly
yanking them back to the center of our mission.
man”, asked General Schwarzkopf, “what do you know about the U.S. Army?” “Very
little, Sir” I replied. “Well,” he went on, “when you join the Army, you
receive not just a rank, but also a specialty: you are a rifleman or a cook, a
driver or a mechanic. However much you are promoted over the years, you keep
your specialty. It’s a pin on your shoulder. It’s what you do for us. And then
there is that special day, if you are the best of the best. If you are a
leader. If you are the smartest. The day the U.S. Army makes you a General. And
in the ceremony when you get your stars, they take away your specialty because you are no longer a specialist. You
are a leader. You are the General.”
This was a jaw dropping moment for me.
I realized for the very first time that there was a reason why Generals are
given that title. They are the generalists who lead the specialists.
Without them, the specialists would muck it up and everyone would get killed by
the enemy. You had to have generalists to lead the experts, otherwise you’d
veer off mission, lose your battles, your war and your lives.
This revelation from General
Schwarzkopf changed my professional life; my epiphany was realizing as a film producer I was the generalist who
keeps a hundred specialists focused on mission, on strategy, on the goal:
delivering an excellent product on time and on budget. Nobody else on set
thinks only that way. I realized because of Norman that I could make a material
difference in the world using skills I had already developed. The subsequent
charities I founded, www.firststar.org
address tremendously complicated issues, child abuse and neglect, and
homelessness, and they also harness armies of specialists. But at the top, leadership
has to point our multiple specialists towards core goals, and then keep them
there: lead, follow, or get out of the way!
General Schwarzkopf signed up to become
Capital Campaign Chairman for Starbright World. We raised our $50 million in cash and
in-kind: Coca-Cola, Intel, Sprint, Knowledge Adventures, Vulcan and others
saluted the Starbright flag held aloft by General Schwarzkopf on behalf of special
children. I sat next to him as one by one he told corporate CEO’s, “here’s what
we need you to do. Now.” And they all said yes and did it. Remarkable and inspiring,
leadership from the front.
David Haspel had the genius idea to publish a fairy tale
book to benefit Starbright World, with each Chapter written by a different
celebrity. It was Stormin’ Norman who led the charge. For our book The Emperor's New Clothes, Steven wrote as The Honest Boy, Robin Williams as the
Jester, Calvin Klein as the Emperor’s Underpants… You can guess who wrote as our General, and then
barnstormed all over network television. We raised over a million dollars for
our seriously ill kids’ network.
In June of 1995 that Steven Spielberg,
General Schwarzkopf and I pressed a big green button on stage at Digital World,
turning on Starbright World for kids in hospital beds around the country. They
moved their avatars, saw each other in video conferences, spoke, made friends
and found love, validation and comfort. Research showed that as their spirits
soared, their t-cell counts rose too, and they often did better physically.
Starbright World has never been turned off since, and our closed,
supervised and protected network still links ill teenagers across Australia,
New Zealand, Canada, the UK and the U.S. Starbright World is moderated 24/7 by
trained teams in the United States and Australia. When the three of us pressed
that button in 1995, Mark Zuckerberg was just eleven years old.
Norman Schwarzkopf won a war for us,
and he delivered peace to children in crisis. Through initiatives like
Starbright World, forever a part of Starlight Children’s Foundation, he demonstrated
how great leadership is crucial to fixing our world. I shall miss him very
much: he taught me that really and truly, “A man never stands so tall as when
he stoops to hold the hand of a child in need.” I’ve been following in his very
large footsteps ever since.