Editor’s Note: Zig Ziglar died Nov. 28, 2012, at the age of 86 of pneumonia. American Profile remembers this beloved motivational icon with this feature from our archives, which originally appeared in 2008.
For 35 years, Zig Ziglar has inspired millions of corporate executives, salespeople, church leaders and everyday folks as a motivational speaker and author of 26 inspirational, you-can-be-a-winner books.
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But in March of last year, Ziglar fell down the stairs in his Plano, Texas, home and suffered a concussion after hitting his head. In the weeks of rehabilitation that followed, the charismatic king of can-do found his motivational optimism put to the test.
“As a result of the fall, Dad has positional vertigo, which affects his balance,” says Tom Ziglar, 43, his son and the CEO of Ziglar Corp., a personal and professional development company that offers motivational and educational programs, workshops and keynote speakers worldwide. “His short-term memory has also been affected. As he jokingly says, ‘Now my short-term memory is really short.'”
But true to form, Ziglar did not let the accident keep him down. Although he was forced to use a walker for several weeks, soon he was on his feet again, both figuratively and literally.
“You focus on what you can do, not what you can’t do,” says Ziglar, invoking one of his well-known expressions.
“He had to use all the things he’s been teaching for years,” says his daughter and book editor Julie Norman, 51. “His attitude is so great.”
As a result of his accident, Ziglar dramatically curtailed his work schedule to about 30 appearances each year. And these days, Julie accompanies him and co-hosts. “Everything Dad knows is still 100 percent there, but he’s got a short-term glitch where something might get lost momentarily,” she explains. “So we go together and do an interview format.”
Ziglar doesn’t mind sharing the stage with his youngest daughter, whom he affectionately calls “Little One.”
“It’s been an adjustment,” he admits. “But it’s been the most delightful adjustment.”
Embracing the struggle
By adapting and making the best of a difficult situation, Ziglar, 81, found the topic for his next book, Embrace the Struggle.
“There are millions of families going through the exact same thing as we are,” Tom says. “An unplanned event, because of age or illness, or an accident, can change everything. But the wisdom, the knowledge and the integrity are still there. It just expresses itself in a different way. Dad is living that.”
“God wants Zig to get back to where he was, or even better,” says long-time friend Bernie Lofchick, the CEO of several companies, including Midland Commercial Sales and Service in Winnipeg, Canada.
“He’ll make it back, but he has to struggle. This book will help millions of people.”
Hilary Zig Ziglar is no stranger to struggle. He grew up during the Great Depression in Yazoo City, Miss. (pop. 14,631), one of 12 children. His father, John, a farmer and sawmill owner, died of a stroke in 1932 when Zig was 5. His mother, Lila, held the family together with her strong Christian faith and unwavering values.
“My mother never compromised her love for the Lord or her love for the truth,” Ziglar says. “It was either black or white, fresh or rotten, the truth or a lie.”
After high school graduation in 1944, Ziglar joined the U.S. Navy. Two years later, he met and married the former Jean Abernathy of Jackson, Miss.
“She’s been my wife and my life ever since,” Ziglar says.
Birth of a salesman
After being discharged in 1946, Ziglar enrolled in the University of South Carolina and earned money by selling homemade sandwiches to students in the dormitories. Then Jean saw an ad in the newspaper for a $10,000-per-year salesman. Ziglar applied and got the job, dropping out of college to sell cookware on commission. He was so broke at the time that he had to go out and sell two sets of cookware to pay the $64 hospital bill when his first daughter, Suzan, was born, but his sales career soon took off. In 1951, he became WearEver cookware’s No. 2 national salesman. A series of sales jobs followed, often uprooting the family, which eventually included three daughters and a son.
Evolving into a masterful salesman with a powerful pitch that customers often found hard to resist, Ziglar sold a sleep-teaching method, life insurance, health insurance and stocks. Like most salespeople, he often attended motivational seminars to pump up his enthusiasm and perfect his pitch. This was the aspect of sales he loved most, and he harbored a secret ambition to be the one doing the motivating.
In the late 1950s, he was invited to co-host business seminars for chambers of commerce in North Carolina. Soon he hit the stage again when his friend Hal Krause invited the ambitious, energetic young salesman to speak to employees of his company, Future Homes, in Kansas City, Mo.. A few years later, Krause started American Salesmasters, an outlet for honoring professional salespeople. Ziglar was a speaker at the debut seminar.
“He blew the crowd away,” recalls Lofchick, one of the attendees at the event. “I don’t know how many times he was interrupted with applause and standing ovations.”
By 1970, Ziglar was earning a living as a motivational and public speaker.
“He basically invented the job of being a speaker,” says Jordan Steinberg, president of the Speaker Agency, a company that books speakers such as environmental activist Erin Brockovich and retired basketball coach John Wooden. “He’s the best.”
Finding a meaningful message
Then, two years into his speaking career, Ziglar’s life—and message—changed.
“On July 4, 1972, an elderly black woman named Sister Jessie spent the weekend in our home,” Ziglar recalls. “When she got through with me, I had committed my life to Christ. That’s when my career exploded.”
Indeed, Ziglar found that incorporating Biblical teachings and his own spiritual journey into his speeches made his motivational messages even more meaningful, both to himself and his audiences.
“The way you are in life is the way you are going to be in business,” explains Jean, who has heard her husband speak more times than she can count. “The Lord is always a part of it.”
Nearly four decades after beginning his speaking career, Ziglar has traveled more than 5 million miles in his quest to inspire others to succeed in all facets of their lives. “My whole thesis is balance,” he says. “Being successful means having success stories across the many areas of your life.”
Twenty-seven full-time employees keep his company in Addison, Texas, humming, selling motivational books and tapes, booking speakers, including Ziglar, and staging corporate training programs.
“I’m having so much fun doing what I’m doing,” Ziglar says. B”ut the real joy comes when you can make a contribution to somebody else’s career.”
Zig has guided and inspired his 10 fellow speakers featured on the Ziglar roster, including Krish Dhanam.
“I landed in America in 1986 with nine dollars in my pocket,” says Dhanam, who emigrated from India. F”our years later, I won a sales contest and a ticket to a Zig Ziglar seminar. I walked out realizing this is about the most profound person I had ever met.”
Dhanam went to work for Ziglar, first as a telemarketer, then selling books on the road. Today, he is an accomplished speaker and Ziglar’s international operations director.
“One of the things he taught me was that if you can impact another life, significance is bound to come in just about anything you do,” Dhanam says. “That’s what speaking should always be about: the desire to make a difference in someone else’s life.”
Ziglar plans to continue doing just that. “I’m not going to ease up, let up, shut up or give up until I’m taken up!” he says. “As a matter of fact, I’m just getting warmed up.”