A Leadership Lesson From An Older Generation
From a time when autocratic leadership was the norm, some held true to humanistic ethical values even if they didn't realise it.
This week on Sunday Letters, I’m bringing you the fourth in a series of essays on the art of ethical leadership. Over the course of the series, we’ll cover the paradox of success, Machiavellianism, inauthentic leadership, and new Capitalism, amongst other topics, in an effort to show an all too prominent flaw in the human character. These essays previously lived on The Lead, a publication that I started on a whim a few months ago that is now moving here to Sunday Letters. I hope you’ll enjoy these essays and the perspectives they represent. They are, in large part, my personal philosophy on how to live and work successfully with others. I hope you enjoy them.
I was chatting to my Dad recently about work, particularly about his forty years of management in the construction industry. He was in his prime in the 70s and 80s, a period of distinct depression and widespread poverty in Ireland. The country had only recently joined the EU (the EEC as it was known), infrastructure was non-existent, and unemployment was in the high-teens. Prospects weren’t good for skilled workers, so many families emigrated to the US, Canada, or Australia. My parents realised this, and when an opportunity to manage a project in Doha, Qatar, came my Dad’s way in 1978, they packed up the family, and we headed east. A year later, we returned to Ireland with economic conditions much the same. The construction game was still as cut-throat, and workers were as disposable as ever. However, even in the midst of this, my Dad held to particular values that were unique for his time.
He had a good way with blokes, the workers, the men who put everything together. He spoke their language and related to their circumstances. He understood the on-the-ground experience that every manual worker endures, and he fought, albeit subtly, for their interests. I say endures because the construction game is an assault on the person. This is true even taking into account today’s improved working conditions. The work is adversarial, and even though surface optics attempt to convince us otherwise, every worker and manager knows that it’s all a stage performance. Building sites are dirty, noisy, dangerous places where before the advent of health and safety standards, men would literally risk their lives daily to earn a crust. Arguably, they still do. It was only with the arrival of multinational corporations to Ireland that standards improved. I have little time for corporates, but that’s one good thing that they brought.
My father’s role was to manage projects and get them done on time and within budget. But rather than taking a hard-line autocratic approach which was all too common at the time, he was a diplomat. He inherently knew the game, working with blokes, connecting with them, and forming a bond. But not in a disingenuous way; after all, he was one of them. As such, he garnered widespread respect despite being responsible for letting lads go as projects came to a close. He had a sharp edge, too, often telling workers as he fired them, “now, I’m not sacking you; you’re sacking yourself.” Afterwards, they’d buy him pints and thank him for the opportunity. To him, lads were not merely resources to get a job done; they were human beings like him. But not everyone saw it that way.
“Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying”
-Studds Terkel | Author & Broadcaster
As he reminisced with me about the “good old days”, he told me of the challenge of weekly in-house labour meetings. “The language was poisonous,” he said. “They had no relationship with the men and rarely knew them personally. Yet, they held firm opinions on whether these men should be kept on or sacked. It was often outright character assassination. These were guys I worked with and who performed for me year-in, year-out, and management wanted to get rid of them. They simply didn’t understand how things worked on the ground.” When labour strikes hit in the 70s, he found himself on the picket lines with the men and in conflict with senior management. My mother scolded him for not putting his career first. His employers didn’t understand that they needed to be on the workers’ side so that the workers would be on their side when it mattered. My mother didn’t understand that there was more to my father than the pursuit of career advancement.
The construction industry is dog-eat-dog and is matched for its intensity in many other workplaces. The nature of the relationship between managers and staff on the ground is hierarchical and antagonistic. It may be cooperative, but only under threat of reprimand, loss of wages, or, indeed, one’s job. Workers are often not allowed to think critically, and as much as we’d like to think leadership in organisations has changed for the better, I’d argue it has not. Even where the outward behaviour and attitudes have become more palatable and politically correct, the underlying premises remain unchanged. Do what you’re told, and don’t question the status quo. Adopt the persona, fulfil the role, and follow the protocols to the letter; that’s how you get ahead.
The predominant leadership and management system is not actively challenged but is rather one of momentum. Yes, I know HBR, McKinsey, and a host of business & management publications have extolled the virtues of Transformational Leadership perhaps for decades. Still, the fact is that F.W. Taylor’s Scientific Management1 remains dominant in the psyche of workplace management and leadership. It’s us versus them. Corporations want productivity – that’s the bottom line - and they are prepared to do what is necessary to get it. Of course, they’ll play the marketing game, but they’ll also forgo their sense of humanity for the sake of profit regardless of any social imperative. After all, if they fail to do so, they cease to be viable entities.
A Note on Frederick Taylor
Frederick F. Taylor worked in the Philadelphia steel industry in the late 19th century and established principles of labour efficiency that laid the ground for modern management. He conducted experiments for the optimal setting for lathes and boring machines and developed productivity tables that labourers followed. He suggested that efficiency was a matter of science and that worker behaviour could be adapted and improved through them. It could be argued that Taylor saw workers as machines, and through cajolery, threats, fines and firings, Taylor succeeded in doubling the work done by his workers. For a time, the men were cowed, and his bosses were happy. But Taylor was miserable. On consideration of his time and effort implementing Scientific Management in the steelworks, Taylor reflected;
"I was a young man in years," he said later, "but I give you my word I was a great deal older than I am now with worry, meanness, and contemptibleness of the whole damn thing. It is a horrid life for any man to live, not to be able to look any workman in the face all day long without seeing hostility there."
Generations of “doing” serve to train would-be managers how to perform for the company despite its social policy and commitment to the health ’ health, and wellbeing of its workers. This is so despite an individual’s inherent feelings and care for other people. You can employ all the leadership and management training you want. Still, if core fundamentals driving the company, and indeed the individual, don’t shift from hierarchical to that of diversified complementary leadership, culture doesn’t change. Culture changes people. It also enhances the sense of right and wrong in the individual and lets them know where the line is. Too often, however, this line is blurred or even ignored in day to day operations, and people are sacrificed for the sake of profit.
People can change, I mean really change, for the better. But there is something in all of us that is elemental, primary, constitutional. If that character structure cannot live and work by humanitarian-based ethics2, nothing changes for the better concerning our treatment of our fellow human beings in workplace environments. Business and work remain a means to a material end, and other human beings are an acceptable cost.
Change is happening; I’ll grant you that. But there are many leaders and managers in corporations, small and large the world over, that still operate from a do-it-or-else perspective. I know because I was one of those. The pressure to perform and uphold a particular self-concept can drive us to do things we wish we hadn’t. I’ll put my hand up to that. Had I known better, I may have made better decisions in my business and work. Nevertheless, experience teaches, and I learned important lessons. Words and theory don’t, unfortunately, don’t teach. So maybe we’ve got to be bad leaders before we become good ones.
On a final note, I believe that the workplace is invariably at odds with our humanity. The workplace requires us to subjugate ourselves to the ideal image, which has a detrimental effect on both managers and workers. It asks us not to follow what we feel but to follow the rules. These rules don’t serve us; they serve others further up the hierarchical chain. This is so blatantly obvious I can’t accept that everyone doesn't see it. I mean, it’s so basic to how workplaces operate. So in that light, what is the leader’s role?
I’m not sure.
Maybe we can address our leadership shortcomings in the modern workplace, or maybe it’s a square peg in a round hole scenario. I’m not certain it’s something that can be resolved, given how society is currently structured. Nonetheless, capitalist-driven business models and the workplaces they create encourage us to ignore feelings that would otherwise inform us to appropriate behaviour. When we take on a job, we must forget ourselves, which leads to obscene responses to our own needs and that of others.
Eckardt Horney, M. (1996). Fromm's Humanistic Ethics and the Role of the Prophet. M. Cortina and M. Maccoby (Eds.), A Prophetic Analyst. Erich Fromm's Contribution to Psychoanalysis, Northvale and London (Jason Aronson Inc.) 1996, pp. 151-166.