I hope you are enjoying the Labor Day weekend.
For as long as I’ve been posting thoughts about work, Labor Day has been a day to pay homage to workers. So this year is no different.
To get ready for it, I travelled to a local exhibit about workers in some of our most hazardous industries. My plan was to focus on one of them, namely the men and women whose work involved using asbestos. The Values@Work news item and post this week are dedicated to them.
This newsletter also features news items on one particular encore career, the small innovations that tend to transform our lives, another multi-sensory experience to end your week, and how to energize some of the most mundane communications at work with your personality.
1. General leadership
America has a large military and many generals. As with all c-suites, some of them surely climbed into the top ranks because they were political animals more than talented leaders, but that still leaves the country with a great deal of capability, and increasingly, that reservoir of talent is being tapped by the civilian sector. In terms of encore careers, it might never be a better time to have the ability to impose discipline on large organizations while building highly functional teams.
The best of these generals (and admirals, for the sea-worthy variety) have the ability to form a uniquely powerful bond with the men and women who follow them. In terms of values, the best military leaders have a powerful drive not only to improve their own capabilities and contributions but also to be open and responsive to the needs of those they are trying to lead. When they get this balance right, it can be a powerful combination.
According to an article in this week’s Wall Street Journal, more of America’s generals are bringing battlefield lessons to business, particularly when it comes to training. How to maintain discipline in the face of daunting odds is the subject of a course taught by Mark Hertling to key staffers at a 32,000-employee hospital group.
“General Hertling’s course culminates in several dozen doctors, nurses and administrators going to Gettysburg, Pa., each year. There, he assigns each to be a different figure in the pivotal Civil War battle; afterward the staff discusses how the lessons apply to health care. ‘They really dig into that person’s personality and see how their achievements or dysfunctions contributed to the bigger disaster or accomplishment,’ he says.”
His aim is to help his students to keep it together while strengthening ties when they need one another most.
A primary lesson in Stephen Speakes’ playbook is to make sure that you know the situation on the ground when you play a leadership role. From his current position at a cargo equipment company, Speakes holds many of his company meetings on the factory floor.
“When manufacturing companies get too big, the leaders leave the manufacturing floor. [But] the people on the line will tell you in a heartbeat what’s going on and why.” I suspect that as a general, Speakes spent more time than the average on the front lines so that he knew where to lead those who were depending on him most.
When your work is about others as well as yourself, your skills will always be in demand in the workforce. For some additional thoughts about encore careers, here’s a post that I wrote after speaking to a group of executives a few years ago.
2. If you want to see the future, think small
Maybe it’s the romantic in all of us, because I fall for it too. When I think about 10 or 20 years from now, I imagine the big things that will be different. Robot cars and robotic servants, like in the Jetsons, or a disease-free world thanks the gene-splicing CRSPR technology. And maybe we will reap the benefits of these technological marvels.
But it is worth remembering, that most of the most significant innovations in recorded history were “humble and cheap,” and hardly seen as marvels at all.
- While Guttenberg gets all the credit for his movable-type printing press, the technology revolution that followed would not have been possible without the invention of modern paper (picking up where the Egyptians and Chinese had left off).
- The railroad gets all the kudos for taming the American West during the 19th Century, but it was another innovation that made “living” on the Plains and domesticating the states west of the Mississippi possible. It was barbed wire, an inexpensive way to mark boundaries and contain livestock on vast ranges of land.
- We think of the iPhone, but one of its cheapest and most versatile parts may be the real harbinger of change in the future. They are the multiple sensors that not only make your touch screens work, but increasingly support the internet of things.
So if you want to see into the future, you may want to look small instead of big.
I urge you to read the eye-opening Financial Times article by Tim Harford that gave rise to this news item. Harford is also the author of Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy, a book that he published last month and that I can’t wait to read.
3. The work that’s behind Labor Day
As we get ready to celebrate the informal end of summer, it’s easy to forget all the work that’s behind Labor Day. I tried to remember some of it by attending a local exhibit in memory of fallen asbestos workers.
There are several reasons that I thought their stories might resonate. I’ve always been fascinated by factory work. When I served in the Coast Guard, I connected to many of the men and women who worked the ports both here in Philadelphia and in New Haven. Right after law school, I had a clerkship with the judge who was handling the flood of asbestos-related cases that were filed by workers men at the Philadelphia Naval Yard during World War II. It took 40 to 50 years for the asbestos that had embedded in their lungs to manifest as mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis. I can still see them taking the stand and hear their raspy voices.
The exhibit told their stories through photographs and metal employee badges that include their pictures, employee numbers and company names. Since many of these companies, along with the asbestos manufacturers, knew about the hazards of asbestos but failed to protect those who worked with it everyday, this presentation was a powerful way to personalize their labor while recalling its consequences.
Earl Dotter, who took the photographs and collected the badges, has made it his life’s work to call attention to hazardous industries and the men and women who have suffered by working in them. He was drawn to “social reporting” as a response to the loss he felt after the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King during the Sixties. But he was also attracted to the vibrancy of the factory floor, and as he met these hardworking men and women, he wanted to put a spotlight on workplace conditions that were in many instances costing them their lives.
You can see many of Dotter’s photographs on his website. The exhibit of badges and photographs continues through mid-November. (Information on the exhibit, which is at a Drexel University gallery, can be found here).
When Americans still made things, Labor Day was for celebrating the balance that was often struck between workers and factory owners. When there was imbalance, Labor Day became an occasion for rallying America’s workforce so it could hold its own by bargaining for safe jobs and fair wages.
Today, the challenge may be keeping our jobs—the right to make a living—in the face of increasing automation given the rise of robotics and artificial intelligence. This tribute to asbestos workers is a timely reminder that while tomorrow may mark the end of summer, it is also a day for thinking about the nature and quality of our work in a future that throws new risks in the path of the American worker.
My full post, with additional images from the exhibit, can be found here.
4. Mindful dancing
As fewer people identify with an organized religion, more people have gravitated to practices like meditation or mindfulness. These kinds of practices tend to be less structured and more improvisational in nature than religious rituals, but they can still make your spirits soar.
Of course, I'm writing WorkLifeReward: Following Your Values to a Good Life at Work as an even more basic response to the diminished role that organized religion plays today. While most people still want to do “what is right,” for many there is no longer a single authority that provides ready answers, and it is difficult to decide “on your own” what values should guide your life and how they can do so. The book offers ways to approach these threshold questions.
While a moral framework can help you to orient your life and work, personal undertakings you can improve with practice also play a “centering” role. Mindfulness—or the practice of living in the moment while your mind tries to wander—is one of them. Because this space in the newsletter is about refreshing for work with our underutilized senses, I'm sharing a piece from the New York Times that scrambles all of these elements. I hope you have fun with it.
First, an overview:
“Dancing isn’t about escaping the stressors of daily life. Dancing offers us a way to embrace them. By being present while dancing, we can learn about ourselves and our bodies. You don’t need to be perfect as a dancer. Instead, we can come home to the present moment through the practice of mindful dancing.”
Now for to the specifics:
“Either in the silence or with a piece of music you select, allow yourself to begin moving in a way that seems natural to you. Avoid forcing or striving. . . Let the process unfold naturally. See where it goes. If you notice your attention wandering away from your organic movement it does not mean that you’ve failed at mindfulness. Simply invite the attention back to your movement and your breath’s connection to the movement. You can keep your personal practice to one song or choose to string many together. You can practice alone, or in the company of others. Continue to notice what happens.”
Many of you have written to tell me where you’re reading this newsletter when it lands on Sunday mornings. Now I’ll no doubt be able to add some additional images of note to my reader profiles.
Do you ever leave an automated message? The “I’m unavailable” message on your phone. The automatic email when you’re out of the office ( or OOO ). Even the message for the Amazon delivery person on where to leave your package so a passerby doesn’t pinch it.
Well nobody said these messages have to be boring. In fact, adding some less expected sides of yourself can create some genuine surprise.
In a recent essay, the author notes that she has a real job, but that she also never stopped having a masters degree in fine arts, writing poetry, or being “you may be able to tell, a bit of a weirdo.” We all have unclaimed sides of our personalities, and this woman discovered some new possibilities when she tapped into hers.
Take an OOO message like “I know you need something from me, but I won’t be back until after Labor Day when I’ll get back to you.” She just started inserting her more playful side, and watched while it built some good will all-around. In fact, it works for all kinds of imminently forgettable messages. As she writes:
“Moments of surprise in the mundane matter exponentially. I have received many many bemused responses. From close colleagues to clients to absolute strangers. It instantaneously bonds us and shifts the exchange from ‘I have a request or need’ to ‘I see and hear you.’ When I eventually return and execute on that request, there are new connections, filamenty kinship has grown between us through humor and surprise.”
This is one of her OOO messages ( and my favorite, given its hymn for the city that never sleeps and its echo with item #4, above ):
“I am abroad with the most inconsistent wifi I have ever experienced. It’s the substantiation of mindfulness, the invitation to a million moments paused in the belligerent now. I will pick up with you again when I am back in New York where the data flows like a subterranean stream and the hours are neither here nor there. Thank you for your patience in the meantime.”
Wouldn’t you want to ask her where she’s been and a half dozen other things before getting down to business? Well, that’s ( as she says ) the point.
Have a short, but good week of work after the holiday tomorrow. Thanks for reading and for writing back with your thoughts.
Until next week,