We are very weary right now. The news is bad, depressing… The problems immense, the solutions seem elusive.
I think we need inspiration. We definitely need robust souls, and a hefty dose of inventiveness. And I think that we need to fight cynicism as though it were our deadliest enemy.
An oft-quoted criticism against cynics is that they only point out problems without offering solutions. I think it goes deeper, and is more problematic than that: they point out problems, and wallow in problems, and believe that no one can find solutions.
If America is anything it is a place where we have always believed that we can – we will – find solutions.
I have posted often about the great collection of speeches in Willaim Safire’s Lend Me Your Ears. Today, I was re-reading Al Gore’s 1994 Harvard Commencement Address from that volume. (Safire was a conservative, but his collection is very balanced). Throughout the volume, Safire writes what he likes about the speeches that he selected for this volume. Safire said about this speech:
On June 9, 1994, Gore made the most profound speech of his vice-presidency, examining the loss of trust in government that has afflicted his generation.
Here are brief excerpts from Gore’s speech.
History is a precarious source of lessons. Nevertheless, I am reminded that similar serious economic problems prevailed in Athens in the 4th century B.C., when the philosophical school we now know as Cynicism was born. The Cynics were fed up with their society and its social conventions and wanted everybody to know it. The root of the word “cynic” is the same as the Greek word for “dog,”and some scholars say the Cynics got their name because they barked at society.
Cynicism is deadly. It bites everything it can reach — like a dog with a foot caught in a trap. And then it devours itself. It drains us of the will to improve; it diminishes our public spirit; it saps our inventiveness; it withers our souls.
I think this is a theme for this time. Our country, (our world), our companies and organizations, are in great need of leaders who believe that a brighter tomorrow is in fact possible, and attainable.
We know of all the CEO’s who slash and burn with cutbacks and layoffs – all understandable, but at the same time “demoralizing” (literally, sapping the morale out of countless people). We need the opposite of demoralizing leaders. We need to label cynicism as the enemy, and elevate and follow leaders who say that it is still possible.
At least, that’s what I am looking for.
In a book that will be published in September by Business Plus, Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best…and Learn from the Worst, Robert I. Sutton explains that it is to some extent a sequel to his previous bestseller, The No Asshole Rule:
After thinking about all the pressures and tensions that people shared with him about their problems with toxic supervisors, “I realized the ‘asshole problem’ wasn’t an isolated concern for most employees and in most workplaces. It was intertwined with feelings, opinions, and aspirations that swirled around a central figure: THE BOSS. I realized that the best bosses did far more than enforce the no asshole rule. They took diverse and intertwined steps to create effective and human workplaces. And the worst bosses weren’t just guilty of letting assholes rule the roost. Their incompetence reared its ugly head in a host of other ways.”
Sutton cites dozens of examples in the book of both “good bosses” and “bad bosses.” Here’s one that caught my eye:
“Anne Rhoades, former head of the People Department at Southwest Airlines, described to me how a fellow executive earned the loyalty of the Southwest gate agents by interrupting a nasty and abusive passenger, telling the jerk that he wouldn’t allow his people to be treated that way, and then marching him to a American Airlines gate to buy him a ticket to send him on his way. This not only brought Southwest people together because they felt protected, it brought them together because American was seen as an evil competitor that deserved that asshole passenger.”
It’s not often that I write an entire post based on part of one of Bob’s. But this one prompted a lot of thinking that I feel the need to share… It is in his interview with Chip Conley. Here’s the excerpt:
Morris: How specifically has Maslow influenced your own thinking about JVH’s employees?
Conley: One of my breakthroughs when studying Maslow’s work was to see there are three key themes: Survival (Maslow’s two lower level needs: physiological and safety), Success (social/belonging and esteem) and Transformation (self-actualization). When you apply these three themes to the three ways we connect with our work, you realize that someone with a Job tends to be purely focused on the comp package or Money (Survival).
Those who see their work as a Career are focused on Recognition on the Success level of the pyramid. But, those who have a Calling (there are fewer which is why the pyramid is smaller at top) are Transformed by their work due to the sense of Meaning they get from the company they work for and/or the work that they do. Money, Recognition, Meaning. Job, Career, Calling. That’s the progression up the pyramid.
I think this sense of calling at work/in work is a noble aspiration. I don’t know how to manufacture it – it has to flow from within. But I think we have learned some things about it through the years, like: it does not matter what your job is, it is possible to have a sense of calling in any and every job. And, this sense of calling is definitely not restricted to “information” jobs, or “leadership jobs.” It is available, in fact, it is necessary, for any and all jobs. In other words, all jobs can have (and should have) a sense of calling.
You know, we used to read quotes like this more often:
“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.
“The society which scorns excellence in plumbing because plumbing is a humble activity, and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because philosophy is an exalted activity, will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.”
John William Gardner
So, I’ve been thinking about Conley’s point. I like it. I think it is significant But I also think that this “need” to view work as a calling is a universal need, regardless of the work at hand. It is work itself – the dignity of work, the nobility of work – that is a calling. And it should not be for the few who are at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy. (and I am a big fan of Maslow).
Or, to put it another way… The progression up the pyramid has nothing to do with what one’s job is. It has everything to do with one’s own view of the nobility of work, and this view comes from within, and is possible, and desirable, for any and every job.
Do you understand the “calling” aspect in your work?
A Book Lover’s Favorite Scene:
I was speaking in Edmond, Oklahoma yesterday. At lunch, as I was checking my iPhone and another at our table was opening her MacBook, she said “quick, take a look behind you.” Well, I looked, I saw, and this is what I saw:
Here were two young women, reading physical books, apparently because they simply love to read. (Yes, I asked for their permission to take these photos).
There is hope.