Let's Talk About Our Noble Future

Michael Neiss

I remember a colleague relating to me that Jim Kouzes reminded her that The Five Practices represented a pentathlon, not an individual event. A leader could not be his/her exemplary best by concentrating on any one or two given practice. From my vantage point here in the Midwest of the USA, with our rich heritage of rust belt enterprises, I see more comfort with some practices. And at times, I see a real struggle with the practice of inspiring a shared vision.

Let me be very clear about my biases here. Before my consulting career, I spent years in operations. I love metrics. I love operational excellence. Great execution still trumps great ideas in my lens. I want my leaders to have dirt under their fingernails. I want them to model the way by showing through their behavior a respect for hard work. I want them to challenge the process, sometimes knocking down barriers by brute force and determination. I want them to enable others by realizing we are all in this together and trusting others. I want them to encourage by recognizing hard work and excellent results. However, I am concerned that we may have taken our eyes off a most critical practice, inspiring a shared vision. Working hard, working fast, eliminating waste, improving operations are all important, but without clearly defining the purpose of our labors, or the meaning of the work, we may end up questioning our future rather than celebrating its arrival.

I spent years with the auto industry as a manager for General Motors, and as a consultant to Ford, Daimler-Chrysler, and Nissan Motors. I love the business and I love the people I have worked with. General Motors has done outstanding work in improving manufacturing efficiencies, controlling costs, and building a more competitive culture. Without their inherited legacy costs of pensions and retiree healthcare, they would be the low cost producer of vehicles. The problem seems to be that they have become more efficient building vehicles that customers do not want. Market share is tumbling. As consumers, we haven't been inspired to be part of the GM vision.

More importantly, when I ask my neighbors about where their company is headed, most respond, "I don't know, but I hope it is better". Napoleon said, "A leader is a dealer in hope." To my friends in the big three (or the former members of the big three), I would suggest there is wisdom in his words. Now, more than ever, is it the leader's job to engage the full potential of the workforce by communicating what possibility are they going after? Yes, continue to be vigilant to the competency of execution, but share your forward-looking views and most importantly, your passion for the possibilities of the future. Engage them in the pursuit of greatness, not the avoidance of failure.

I do have a client that gets this. They work hard at clarifying and inspiring a shared vision. Herman Miller understands that an organization works differently when they are "creating great places to work, live, learn, and heal" as opposed to becoming the low cost producer of office furniture. Yes, they work hard at operational excellence. It is stated, and practiced, as one of their criteria for each customer solution. But they are also very mindful of their history of design and innovation, and how to turn that into value for their customers. Herman Miller employees know that what they do is an important part of building great workplaces for others. A focus on metrics keeps them on the competitive road, but a well-espoused vision tells them where the road is heading and why it is a noble place to be. Herman Miller has a great legacy. The DePree family's concern for people and community, the Eame's, Nelson's, Rhode's design heritage, Dr. Frost's counsel on employee ownership, are just a few gems from their revered past. Herman Miller leaders recognize that the past is a foundation, and not an anchor. Leaders are challenged to further the legacy by focusing on new and more ennobling possibilities. The past is viewed as a gift not to be squandered. Look at it, admire it, tell its story, but do not be satisfied with it. To my friends in the big three, I recall the words of Dr. Edwards Deming when he spoke to us at a GM conference. "Past success is not predictor of future success".

I do not mean to criticize from the sidelines here. I do mean to share what years of work with The Leadership Challenge has taught me. Hard work without vision is a formula for getting to mediocrity faster. Hard work without hope destroys motivation. In the 80's, Toyota called GM the sleeping giant. There is no greater call to battle than a great, inspiring vision.

We can all learn from our past. I focused on the Midwest, but I believe the same lessons apply to the other giants across our great country—Microsoft, Nike, Starbucks, Nordstroms, to name a few. Talking about our noble future should become a habit. It is the fuel necessary to getting there.

Michael Neiss is President and Founder of Michael T. Neiss and Associates, a consulting practice in South Haven, Michigan providing customized leadership development seminars, executive coaching, and strategic consultation for executive teams. You can reach Mike directly at mike@michaelneiss.com or 269-637-7092.

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