By Horst Schulze
Editor’s Note: Horst Schulze, chairman and CEO of Capella Hotel Group, is a legend and leader in the service world. His vision has helped reshape concepts of customer service throughout the hospitality and service industries. In this excerpt from his new book Excellence Wins, Horst shares how he discovered what matters most in life.
I am grateful for the opportunities I have had to pursue excellence in my field, training ladies and gentlemen to serve ladies and gentlemen. From my lowly start in a small German village, I have been privileged to travel the world and work with outstanding people.
But it all nearly came to a screeching halt back in 1992.
Ritz-Carlton was flying high. We had 25 hotels up and running, from Atlanta to Bali, with another 15 on the drawing board for such exotic places as Hawaii and Shanghai. We had just won our first Malcolm Baldrige Award. The previous November, Hotels magazine had called me “corporate hotelier of the world.”
I went in for my annual physical examination and was shocked to hear that I had a leiomyosarcoma of the colon, a rare malignancy that accounts for only 1 percent of cancer diagnoses. “We will operate to remove it,” the surgeon said, “but it will come back within a year. It’s like a snowstorm—it just shows up everywhere.”
That evening, I looked at my dear wife, Sheri, and said, “This can’t be happening!” Soon we were praying together, God, please! Our children—they’re only nine, five, and 18 months—they won’t even know me as they grow up. I won’t be able to help them, to influence them.
It didn’t help that Sheri’s father back in Pittsburgh was battling cancer at the same time. In fact, he passed away 18 months later.
I made appointments to see more oncology specialists. Every one of them, after examining my case, confirmed the original opinion.
Soon I was screaming at God, trying to bargain with him. I’ll do anything you ask; just let me live for my family! I found it hard even to say the Lord’s Prayer, particularly the line “thy will be done.” Lord, please include my healing in your will, I begged.
My high-flying career in the hotel world faded in importance. All the ambition, the strategic plans, the ego, the money, and the recognitions got stripped away. They weren’t relevant anymore. When this kind of upheaval erupts in your life, it is easier to let God come and fill the vacuum. A Scripture from my boyhood confirmation class back in Germany returned to my mind: “He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.” I recited that verse again and again.
The Bible describes how when Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, his mild manner reminded people of a certain prophecy: “See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey.” That is how it felt to me. God was quietly riding into the center of my panic.
I had been attending a weekly home-based Bible class with about 30 other men. Now, four of them said they wanted to come over and pray for me. This shocked my sense of reserve and privacy. (As the saying goes, “You can tell a German, but you can’t tell him much!”) But now in my desperate hour, I said okay.
Their prayers that evening seemed so deep, so heavy, so authentic. After they left, I said to myself, I want to be a godly man like that.
The surgery proceeded, and it was successful—for the time being. The next Monday, the technicians did a full body scan to see if some of the “snow” was already growing elsewhere. I was told to come back on Thursday to hear the results. Why so long? I wondered. I was tempted to launch into my spiel about customers needing timeliness, but I restrained myself.
On Wednesday night, Sheri and I were lying on the living room floor praying. I had never felt so close to her. We prayed that I could come back from all this. We prayed for our daughters; while the two younger ones didn’t fully grasp what was going on, our nine-year-old was clearly aware that something was not good with Daddy.
We had been told that I would need to be checked every three months for new outbreaks of the sarcoma. We hoped against hope that these checkups wouldn’t bring more bad news.
In the midst of our praying, a friend named John Watson knocked at the door. We invited him in. “Well,” he said, “maybe I should tell you guys what happened to me before your operation. I woke up in the middle of the night, and I just knew somebody else was in the room. What happened next was that this ‘somebody’ said to me, ‘Do not worry about your friend Horst. I have other plans for him. In fact, he will even do speaking for me—not only in English, but also in German.’”
Our anxiety subsided at that point. By the next day, I felt expectant as I returned to the doctor to hear the scan report. “You are totally cancer-free for now,” he said. “Just come back in three months, and we’ll see how things are going.”
The Verdict of Time
As you know from reading this, my body did not succumb to the cancer. My checkups continued to be clean. My work with Ritz-Carlton and later on with Capella resumed at a vigorous pace.
Though chemotherapy was recommended, I declined. Instead, I went on a macrobiotic diet for the next two years, seeking to hold steady.
The years kept passing, one after another. I did more speaking to business groups, university classes, and churches, not only here in America but back in my homeland as well. In November 2015, I was speaking at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. I found myself at an evening dinner with several oncologists. I happened to mention that I had survived cancer.
“What kind of cancer?” they wanted to know. I told them the name and a little about the case.
“Horst, you didn’t have that cancer,” one of the men flatly declared. “Otherwise, you wouldn’t be sitting here. You would be long gone.”
“Look,” I protested, “I went to the best experts in the country. They all concurred.”
“Well, that analysis 20-some years ago was not as sophisticated as it is today,” came the reply. “You didn’t have that cancer—we can assure you.” They asked where the treatment had been done.
“At Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta,” I said.
“That’s a good hospital,” the one man answered. “They probably still have your slides. I’d like to see them.”
So when I returned home, I called the CEO, whom I knew. He said he would check the archives. Sure enough, my file was brought up and sent to Baltimore.
Two weeks later, I got a call from the skeptical oncologist. “Next time you come this way, I want to meet you again,” he said. “I’ve never met anybody who survived that cancer.”
I can only say that God heard the desperate prayers of a man, his wife, and their friends. We had said to him, Please be here!—and he was.
I still meet with the study group that interceded for me, all these years later. In fact, I go to a second weekly group taught by a Bible scholar named Ken Boa. On Sundays, our family gains invaluable strength and insight from our worship at The Church of the Apostles. About four times a year, we open our home for an all-day seminar on some spiritual topic, welcoming up to 50 people at a time.
The foundation of God’s truth lies at the center of my life in business. Whether I’m interacting with an employee, a customer, an investor, or even a competitor, I am aware that this person is one of the “others” Jesus had in mind when he gave the Golden Rule about treating them as I would want to be treated.
When disputes arise over contract terms, with opposing lawyers battling back and forth, I hear the familiar words of the New Testament epistle, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” More than once I’ve seen the deadlock melt away as I have done my best and trusted God to handle the rest.
In retrospect, I think I was mostly a “Sunday Christian” until the onset of my cancer. This was a time when my business achievements lost all importance. They played no more role; they no longer sheltered me from my screaming need for hope. And hope at this point could only be found in Christ. So my decision for Christ (for hope) was a deep and permanent one. To tell the truth, I am today thankful for cancer—as well as grateful to have survived it.
And now you know the rest of my story.
Taken from Excellence Wins: A No-Nonsense Guide to Becoming the Best in a World of Compromise by Horst Schulze. Click here to learn more about this title.
CEOs. Leaders without titles. Startups. Corporations. For-profits. Nonprofits.
It doesn’t matter who you are or what you do — you want to become the best. You want to win, every time.
Horst Schulze knows how to win. In Excellence Wins, Schulze, in his absolute no-nonsense approach, shares the visionary and disruptive principles that have produced immense global successes over the course of his still-prolific fifty-year career.
As the co-founder and former president of Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co., Schulze fearlessly led the company to unprecedented multi-billion dollar growth, setting the business vision and people-focused standards that made the Ritz-Carlton brand globally elite.
Schulze’s principles are both versatile and utterly practical to leaders of every age, career stage, and industry. You don’t need a powerful title or a line of direct reports — you have everything you need to use them right now.
If you’re searching for the blueprint to beating the competition and out-performing everyone around you, look no further than Excellence Wins. Schulze pulls no punches as a masterful guide to becoming the very best in a world of routine compromise.
Unleash the disruptive power of your true potential, own your career trajectory, and experience the game-changing proof firsthand: Excellence Wins.
Horst Schulze is Founder, Chairman & CEO of the Capella Hotel Group, and Co-founder & Former COO of The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co. Schulze is a legendary leader and global titan of business. His visionary and disruptive principles have reshaped the concepts of excellence, service, and competitive advantage, transcending divisions of industry across the business landscape.
Upon co-founding the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co. in 1983, Schulze singlehandedly set the business operation and service standards that made the Ritz-Carlton brand globally elite and world-famous. Under Schulze’s prodigious leadership, The Ritz-Carlton, a multi-billion dollar international enterprise, was awarded the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award twice—an unprecedented achievement, as The Ritz-Carlton remains the only hotel company to ever receive the prestigious award.
In 2002, Schulze founded a second company, The Capella Hotel Group, raising the bar set at the Ritz-Carlton even higher to pioneer the first “ultraluxury” guest experience.
Horst Schulze is a highly sought after keynote speaker for numerous global businesses and organizations. He and his wife, Sheri, live in Atlanta, Georgia.