On Doing Good

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A chapter from the manuscript In the Crucible of Work, authored by Sanford Shugart

Do all the good you can, by all the means you can,
in all the ways you can, in all the places you can,
at all the times you can, to all the people you can,
as long as ever you can.

John Wesley

Doing well and doing good are not the same thing. When we go to work, especially when we take on the mantle of leadership – the responsibility to steward an enterprise on behalf of those we serve and those with whom we serve – they have every reason to expect our best. Our best efforts to lead with and toward excellence come with the role we assume as leader, no matter what the purpose of the organization. This is about doing our jobs well. It is a matter of commitment, competence, and performance. But in addition to doing our work well, it is also of vital importance to our work, ourselves, and our organizations that we do good, seeking both ends and means that are, in a word, a blessing to others.

You needn’t look very far to see why this is important to the spirit, both yours and your organization’s. Stories, our stories, of alienation at work are legendary. Consider the academic department where the scholars in the community are deeply, even viciously divided over amazingly small and arcane matters; or worse where they have developed a culture of despising the students they are there to serve. Consider the hospital floor where “healers” may regularly inflict all manner of wounds on one another, and especially those in different and less prestigious roles, through neglect, humiliation, or just ordinary boorishness. Consider the sometimes toxic politics of the local church, where the walking wounded, both ordained and lay people, received their wounds, not “in the world,” as it were, but in the church itself. In all of these cases, there is at the core a problem of losing touch with the call to do good even while pursuing the goal of doing well.

Sometimes this issue rises to an almost mythological level. Everyone in our society knows the phrase “going postal.” Whether this image has any validity in the facts, that is whether workplace violence is any more likely in the U.S. Postal Service than any other enterprise, is highly doubtful. But the myth has a life of its own, supported, I suspect, not by the 30 or so actual incidents of workplace violence investigated at the USPS in the last three decades, but by our everyday experience of the Post Office. It isn’t even necessary to describe the sense of deadness of spirit and absence of any enthusiasm, much less passion, one encounters in most of the larger urban Post Offices. It isn’t hard to imagine that a few of those once vital human beings drubbed into lifeless bureaucrats might finally explode into one last violent act of insurrection at work.

It hasn’t always been this way. The USPS has a deep and honorable history that is completely inconsistent with the current impression of the deadening bureaucracy. Founded by the Second Continental Congress in 1775, authorized specifically by Article One of the Constitution, and originally led by Benjamin Franklin, the first two hundred years of the USPS were marked by heroic purpose and performance with a reputation that was unimpeachable. One among many of its more heroic chapters was the creation of the Air Mail Service in 1918. Piloted by intrepid war veterans in surplus de Havilland DH-4 aircraft (get a picture; nothing could be more stirringly romantic), some 1200 flights were made in the first year, nearly 100 ending in emergency landings. Yet, within two years, they had delivered more than 49 million letters. It is this heroic history that was wrapped up in the public attraction to the famous quotation, “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” (Generally thought of as the USPS motto, it is in fact an inscription on the famous James Farley Post Office in New York City, taken from Herodotus’ account of couriers in the ancient Persian Empire. Such is the power of myth, for good or ill.)

Today, the USPS remains an enormous and vital servant institution, though not without serious challenges from the technological revolution and major private sector competition for certain segments of its services. It is the second largest civilian employer in the country, just behind Walmart, with somewhere around 650,000 staff. It operates more than a quarter of a million vehicles, and collects some $75 billion in revenue annually. It continues, in many ways, to connect the country and bind us into some kind of community across great distances and differences.

So how did we go from the noble myth of the postal service in its first two hundred years of existence to “going postal?” Could the media’s sensationalizing of several tragic incidents of workplace violence and mental illness in the 1980s have created such a popular myth without our common experience of a servant institution in the last throes of death by self-strangulation? And would this perception be as strong if we didn’t all experience this kind of alienated work where we spend the bulk of our days?

Organization kills spirit. (If Robert Greenleaf didn’t write this, he should have. I have been unable to find the quote in any of his writings, but have an abiding suspicion that this was his idea before it was mine.) Organization kills spirit, and the larger and more complex the organization, the more likely and the more thorough the alienation of those who work in it. Surely, this is a part of what has happened in our story of the USPS. The fact that the tiny, rural Post Offices often remain vital, responsive centers of community and service suggests as much. But I have a strong suspicion that the size of the monopolistic bureaucracy is only a part of the problem.

I wonder if the depth of alienation isn’t also a failure to keep alive what was once a deep sense of doing good, not just doing well, especially in a crucible of work where doing well, where every day’s successful performance, simply leads to an identical next day, and another, and another. This can describe the repetitive work of a front line production laborer, a maintenance worker, or a clerk in many industries, but also the life of many a leader, where the expectations can never be fully met and the work can easily become a treadmill. The workers I know who have remained vital and joyful in work like this, including “Mutt,” our local “post-person,” have a powerful sense of doing good, of making a positive difference in every interaction with co-workers, customers, and others, no matter how incidental to their official job. Mutt befriends the dogs on her route with little illicit snacks, rescues abandoned potted plants from the roadside trash pick-up, and bears abroad the best kind of cheerful gossipy concern for the neighbors that reminds us to carry a meal to the lady down the street whom we wouldn’t have known was ill, but for Mutt’s concern and gabbiness. Mutt finds a way to have fun in her job by looking for ways to be kind and connected to the people around her.

This difference in orientation, the commitment to doing good, as well as doing well, has important dimensions at both personal and organizational levels. In both, however, a defining characteristic is one’s sense of purpose. Purpose is the philosopher’s stone that can transform our experience of work and organizational life, even in places where bureaucracy takes on mythological proportions, from a place that is deadening to one that nourishes us with meaning.

A strong personal sense of purpose in one’s life is both achievable and perhaps most important when one’s work is the routinized, dumbed-down, standardized labor that has become characteristic of so many jobs since the industrial revolution. The aggregation of effort in mass culture that eliminates our sense of craft by engaging us in procedures and processes rather than ends often puts us in a situation where we “work to live,” for essentially utilitarian purposes – to put food on the table and pay the bills. There is nothing inherently wrong, or particularly modern, about this kind of work. Nor is it only a pattern in industrial labor. Many so-called knowledge workers in the “post-industrial” economy, in fact nearly all service workers, engage in work that requires a minimal exertion of creativity and thought from moment to moment. This doesn’t eliminate the “crucible effect,” the choice between formation and deformation in our day to day working lives. Rather, it magnifies it, requiring us to find meaning that isn’t altogether apparent in the technical substance or proximate ends of our work. The best and most accessible wisdom in this case is to choose to “do all the good you can to all the people you can” in the midst of what would otherwise be a barren workplace. Also, even in much of the work in which leaders engage, contrary to what we might assume, doing good isn’t necessarily an obvious concern until one realizes the degree to which we affect the crucibles of other workers in our charge. Keeping this in mind and taking seriously the responsibility for at least some of the misery and joy of those with whom we work is vital to the life of every leader. I am not suggesting a paternal sense of care for other adults, but sober reflection on the responsibility to humanize the work for others, simply to create a more humane world, and in the process protecting one’s own sense of humanity and creating a culture more likely to get their best efforts at work that doesn’t inherently call forth their commitment by its nature. Sometimes the most important part of our work journey isn’t the destination, but the fellowship of those with whom we share the road. Doing good enables one to do well over the long term, even if this isn’t the highest or only reason to do good.

All I am suggesting is that, bumper-sticker wisdom notwithstanding, our acts of kindness should not be random, but a part of our regular reflection on the nature of our work and how it is forming us and others. To the question, “how well am I doing?” the stuff of performance review, we should always add “what good am I doing?” the stuff of a life that nourishes the soul.

I discovered the hard way that there is a special responsibility for leaders here. Quite a few years ago, in my first college presidency, I and my senior colleagues were having just these kinds of discussions and feeling we were beginning to make headway in our organization, a public college of about twenty thousand students. One day a student – we’ll call her Jenny – came to see me. She was a college ambassador, selected for a role representing the college with me in the community, for which she received a modest scholarship and the standard khaki trousers and blue blazer ambassador uniform, and so I was acquainted with this thoughtful student. Jenny was, on this occasion, clearly upset, so I brought her into my office and encouraged her to open up. She told me her boyfriend, with whom I was also acquainted, had been killed two weeks before in an automobile accident. We had a cry, and I offered to do anything I could. She said there was one thing I could do. She had tried coming back to school (this tragedy had occurred mid-semester), but just couldn’t complete the term, so she was withdrawing. Further, her finances were very tenuous, so she asked me to arrange a full refund of her tuition. Now, in that particular state, this was actually illegal, the cut-off date for refunds established in the appropriations act by the state legislature. Nevertheless, I promised her a refund and offered to take her textbooks back at full value. Jenny and I talked a while further and she left.

During my lunch hour, I was on a long training run with another staff member, several miles from campus, telling him this story. He was not thrilled with it – he was the Chief Financial Officer, a wonderful and caring human being. His concern, I assumed, was the potential of an audit finding, something CFO’s hate. I told him not to concern himself, that this was one audit exception I’d be happy to take. (I could just see the headlines: “President Breaks Rules to Help Devastated Student.”) “Okay,” he said, “but how is this going to make the other staff she talked to feel?” I was stopped dead in my tracks. Of course, I wasn’t the first person she had brought this concern to. So we ran back to campus and dressed. I went to see the Dean of Students. Had she heard from Jenny? Yes, she had. Isn’t it awful? She told her there was nothing she could do, but she could come see me if she wanted. Then I went to see the Director of Admissions, whom I knew to be a friend of Jenny’s. Had Jenny come to him? Yes. Isn’t it awful? He told her there was nothing he could do, but she could go see the Dean if she wanted. So I stopped asking.

I want to emphasize that both the Dean and Director were and are wonderful people, kind and responsive, always willing to go the extra mile for anyone, and especially for a student in need. Both of them wanted to help her, but it required breaking a rule, creating some risk for the organization and perhaps themselves. They wanted to do good, but didn’t feel the organization could afford it.

I went back to my office and put my head down on the cool glass top thinking that I had accomplished nothing in two years of leadership. It was my job as the leader to create an environment in my organization where good people could do the right thing for the right reasons fearlessly. And I hadn’t. And there were two kinds of prices being paid for that failure. People like Jenny who needed our organization to do something good, something special and out of the ordinary, something involving a little bit of risk, were not being served. We were not “doing all the good you can to all the people you can.” In addition, people like these two staff members were being damaged. What price does one pay when he knows there is some good to be done, wants to do the good, and doesn’t for no better reason than it might break some rule? We put people in this position all the time. I recall telling this story to a large group of counselors in California who work with students with disabilities every day, coordinating services to support them in their education. Except that the perennial resource limits more often put these people, who entered the work out of a calling to serve, in the position of rationing the services. When I made this point in a rhetorical question, “what price must you being paying in your hearts when this happens?” sobbing could be heard from all over the auditorium.

If we believe in “doing all the good you can,” as a part of our spiritual and psychological health, then we leaders have to create the environment, the organizational culture that permits it, even when it means breaking the rules. We may have to learn how to break the rules intelligently. We may even have to pay some consequences for someone else’s rule-breaking when it was the right thing to do. And this behavior has to be a daily habit, not just a special case.

If doing good and enabling others to do good is vital in our daily jobs, it is all the more important in our thinking about the whole enterprise we are attempting to lead. It is inherent in the experience of the crucible of work that the greater the heat and pressure, the more narrow the focus of our attention often becomes. Under pressure to survive and produce, our hierarchy of attention is often forced straight to the “bottom line,” the tangible and proximate outcomes of our work. We generally don’t fail to consider the good we might accomplish together in the world because we couldn’t care less, but because the press of daily demands on us squeezes out the habit of reflection, both as individuals and as communities of work. As the poet Rainier Maria Rilke wrote,

For somewhere there is an ancient enmity between our daily life and the great work. Help me in saying it to understand it.

Requiem for a Friend

The source for a deep sense of transcendent purpose in our organizations, the mission beyond the mission, isn’t the difference we want to make in the organization, or the difference we want to make in the industry, but the difference we want to make in the world. Rarely is this question asked in any serious way in our organizational life. As I sit on various boards of directors, I can imagine the resistance to questions of transcendent purpose as useless distractions and pontificating. But I am certain that these are among the questions that separate great organizations from the mediocre, giving their leadership broader and more meaningful insight in to the present and future of the enterprise and calling themselves and their employees to a different sense of pride and commitment to the work.

This isn’t just a problem for organizations that are obviously oriented to the bottom line, businesses that are accountable to shareholders looking for “added value.” In many ways, our servant institutions, with what ought to be clear and transcendent purposes, are even more at risk of avoiding this conversation of ultimate purpose. Saddled by what Robert Greenleaf called “the presumption of virtue,” many service oriented non-profits regularly fail to carefully consider what good they might do in the world. Hospitals, pressed by the cost of capital, may pursue operating margins to the exclusion of a deep and regular conversation on ultimate purpose precisely because their underlying purpose is so obviously good. No one could work long in a modern hospital or the criminal justice system or the educational system, however, without realizing how vital this conversation can be. Without it, the potential for a great deal of harm in pursuit of the “obviously good purposes” of the institution can go unrecognized and unchecked.

Again, it is useful to use language from outside the ordinary discourse of the work world and ask the question, seriously and regularly, “How is our enterprise a blessing to those we serve and those with whom we serve?” We need to know if we are “doing all the good we can to all the people we can” while we pursue our specific missions with intense focus. The more intensity we bring to our mission, the more vital the discipline of asking just these questions or we may awaken someday to an organization that exacts a huge and unnecessary price for its contribution to the world. This is a dimension of corporate ethics that is generally overlooked. Deeply ethical corporations don’t just attend to whether what they are doing is legal or fair or causing no harm, but whether they are building (or tearing down) the quality of life – substance and spirit – of the world in which they serve. Many may rail at this entire discussion, but most would also recognize the all too typical organization whose “corporate citizenship” consists of making contributions out of self-interest, engaging in “cause marketing” or even worse leveraging influential people to do business with them or regulate them differently. This isn’t citizenship, it is manipulation and politics. Standing in stark contrast are corporations and leaders that have a clearly developed sense of the difference they can and want to make in the world and whose citizenship and philanthropy are carefully focused to further this greater good. More importantly, the good they do in these ways isn’t some kind of compensation for the harm they are doing in their core mission, but an extension of the good they are seeking to do in all of their work. When asked why they are supporting a cause, the answer flows from their deep mission, not their momentary marketing tactics or the quid pro quo politics of the senior executives, and certainly not to distract the public from their latest disaster.

There are a number of management experts and economists who object on grounds of theory and principle that this whole discussion is off base. Milton Friedman has argued that even ordinary corporate philanthropy is “subversive,” a breach of trust with the shareholders, diminishing the value of their shares and distracting the organization from the only legitimate and final discipline of the market. It is difficult to disagree in theory. But as another of America’s great journeyman philosophers said,

In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. But in practice there is.

Yogi Berra

And what practice suggests is that persons and organizations, in the crucible of work every day, dealing with the pressure, heat, reactivity, and corrosion that is inevitably present in success no less than failure, are subject to deep deformation of their characters. When this goes on unchecked, both can become dysfunctional and even dangerous. Their missions suffer and their performance degrades. In practice, one of the disciplines that can prevent this erosion of spirit and performance is consciously to bring the questions of doing good to bear on our work. In practice, taking seriously the injunction to “do all the good you can for all the people you can” awakens possibilities to connect our purposes and our performance in powerful ways, making it possible both to do well and to do good.

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