Sunday, July 10, 2011

Alive and Alert, for Life and Work

Early one evening in the twenty-first century, as Princeton and I were walking through China town, on our way to have some noodles, I spied something on the curb. Aha! I snapped it up. It turned out to be a ladies wristwatch with jeweled inner workings. It had obviously been laying there for some time.

Princeton was surprised that I’d noticed; I was surprised that others hadn’t noticed. Or rather, half surprised: I am starting to realize that others don’t have the advantage of my brothers and I, for back in the good old days, back when we were in Wolf Cubs and Boy Scouts, we were often admonished to “be alert” and “be observant.” Were you?

Looking back, I wonder if our scoutmasters had a secondary purpose beyond the obvious one, of course, of adding an alert quality to our lives. Perhaps, as with our daily good deed, they also wanted us to know that special quality of life that comes of getting our minds off ourselves. In those years life meant more than swimming in electronics and accumulating stuff. Character counted. It’s been a long time since I heard, “A scout is thrifty;” it’s been a couple of generations since I’ve seen a certain joke sign in the workplace: “Be alert… We need more lerts.”

Today, looking beyond China town to the office skyscrapers, I wonder: What’s on the minds of the folks in the highest places? I’m thinking of some guys who are bizarrely overpaid. In my youth no one ever dreamed that one day our rich respected community "leaders," those chief executive officers who are setting an example for their vice presidents and for their other workers and for all the rest of us… No one imagined that one day the CEOs would drop “good deeds” and “being thrifty” to believe in greed and easy credit. I cannot imagine them, or their vice presidents, ever leading a Boy Scout troop. Can you? Perhaps it’s time to readjust our respect, time to see bizarre CEOs as being decoupled from the community. It’s too bad.

I’ve lived through a period when scouting was common—eleven of the twelve Apollo moonwalkers were Scouts—and then on to a time when I can walk under an evening moon in China town past an unnoticed ladies wristwatch. If people today aren’t being observant, then what are they doing? I think of the man who always walked the same sidewalk to work every day for a year. One morning he was amazed. Overnight, somehow, someone had put up a big tree! This while leaving the ground miraculously undisturbed! I have to chuckle: Maybe the man hadn’t been very alert, but at least, when he finally got around to seeing the tree, he also observed the ground.

Obviously that man, to put things in Star Trek terms, was warping along to work everyday with his scanners and sensors turned off. Or, to put things in my grandfather’s terms, “The dang fool was walking along wearing horse blinders.” No doubt you’ve seen those black squares along a horse’s eyes to keep the beast from noticing anything to the side.

Scanners? As a typical male I like radar. And I like scanning as I roar along the road with a stick shift, or, when I’m softly walking in the dewy morning along a hunting trail. When I was a young soldier on foot patrols I was the most alive: It was life and death to keep my head on a swivel. Now I’m middle aged and my neck is still, yet I think I remain alive to the world; I think I keep the corners of my eyes open. As for wearing horse blinders… is that a lifestyle choice? Or is that a default from never knowing any different?

And what about sensors? What about listening? A folksinger, John Prine, sings a comic song: “My wife goes to Mars.” Can you picture it? In the kitchen, Sunday morning, the husband observes a glittering bird out the window. “Hey, there’s a rare jeweled blackbird.” The wife doesn’t look, doesn’t move a single muscle. She’s off on Mars… I know a husband who won’t go to Mars, not anymore. He’s still smarting from losing money: His wife made him fork out for a hearing test.

At my company we try to be thrifty, of course, yet late last year we decided it made sense to provide everyone with a month-at-a-glance day timer. One day I quizzed the five workers in my leadership class: Although they were alert enough to keep their ears open during staff meetings, none of my students had been alert enough to notice that for every month their day timer included a time management tip. I was only half surprised, not at all miffed. What does anger me at work and in the community is when we are in a group, in a meeting, and individuals put their personal agendas above the group, such as by gossiping with a person next to them. At this I am still surprised.

As a chairman I try to avoid such unworthy behavior by running a tight ship. For example, if I am asking people to look in their day timers then, amidst the rustling, I will discourage anyone from speaking to the motion before us. “One thing at a time.” As a regular member, during a meeting, if I need to unobtrusively check my day timer for a group related purpose, then I feel responsible to set my sensors for maximum, or at least to be flipping my laser focus swiftly back and forth from the meeting to my day timer. What I won’t ever do is slack off and idly check my day timer to see when the next ice hockey game is: That would be unworthy of me. What I won’t do is take the guy in the next seat along with me to Mars: That would be too degrading. For me, being alert means noticing and hearing.

In my lifetime I’ve gone from seeing giant blinking computers, to the invention of little onboard computers for Apollo space crews, to seeing, here on earth, “wage slaves” fading into history. It is a truism that a modern business requires more computers, a much flatter organizational pyramid, and more work by teams. Today these team members, more than ever before, need to be educated, informed and empowered. Not like slaves, nor like peasants, but more like citizens: they each need to feel responsible. Therefore, while it might seem cost effective to send only the chairman off for training in “functional group meetings,” it is probably better to train the whole group to the standard of accepting responsibility for their meetings.

Not every one wants responsibility… just as, in my boyhood, not every tenderfoot wanted to stick around long enough to become a good Boy Scout. Human nature, of course, means there will always be employees who have their minds on themselves, not on the group task. And rather than merely blame the chairman, or blame those individuals, it might be better for me to reflect how these tenderfeet represent the integrity of all of us, me included, at the group level. And then get to work to try to raise the standards of us all.

 As you know, a team’s professionalism rests on a base of integrity. Unfortunately, there is a limit as to how high the group's standards can ever get, a limit as to how much professionalism the staff can ever have, if their CEO, for whatever bizarre reason, doesn’t have integrity himself: This was demonstrated in my youth by the people of South Vietnam.

Lest we forget: I recall an instance where a Vietnamese general demonstrated he felt no sense of service to his army or his nation: During a panicky retreat in 1973 he pushed a private out of his jeep to make room for a refrigerator. And as surely as night follows day none of the privates would exert themselves to serve either. So although the South Vietnamese army should, in theory, have been well practiced and hardened by years of fighting the Viet Cong... in 1975 the army fell like dominos before the merely peace time army of North Vietnam.

Needless to say, the South Vietnamese business CEOs were surely no better than the generals they sent out to fight, no better than the politicians they elected. Truly a nation gets the government it deserves.

And now I walk in China town, as the skyscrapers loom over all of us, and I wonder: What sort of CEOs are we coming to deserve? What do we stand for? And am I being alert to what those CEOs are doing? As a citizen, as part of a board of directors, I share my role-responsibility, but as an individual I answer to my own conscience… and so I have the utmost respect for an individual CEO, Robert Townsend, who turned down a board’s pay raise, in order to stay loyal to the other employees.

In my workplace, as in my private life, what I can do is keep on being alert… The world needs more lerts.

Sean Crawford
Where vigilance is the eternal price of freedom,
Relaxing with half-closed eyes over a beer during the Calgary stampede,
July, 20111

~“Eleven of the twelve Apollo moonwalkers were Scouts” is in Rocket Men (p. 49) by Craig Nelson

~ The refrigerator incident is in Bright Shinning Lie by former Vietnam correspondent Neil Sheehan.

~“That’s your integrity at the group level” comes from the hero taking a human potential course in a third book, A Rage For Revenge, of The War Against the Chtorr series, about fighting an ecological infestation, by David Gerrold.
During his course, by the way, the hero learns to handle his rage. Or so he thinks. In the fourth book, after he hits bottom, he is forced to re-examine his rage at a deeper level.

In the first book, with the “real” world leaders all dead, a dysfunctional meeting symbolizes how the young heroes, and the second string world leaders, are still learning to be responsible. Early in the war New York City, along with the United Nations building, has been lost. Now, as a supposedly important world science conference is convening in a convention room in Denver, the hero watches while the chairman forlornly taps his glass to start the meeting… but all the delegates just keep on talking, raising their voices to be heard against each other. It takes a while to get started.

Gerrold once said his series was about on-the-job training for a hero. I’ve learned along with him. I highly recommend The War Against the Chtorr series.

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