by BILL WADDELL
I still remember the surge of pride and great sense of accomplishment I felt when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon 40 years ago even though, as a 13 year old boy living in Ohio I had absolutely nothing to do with it. We all felt that way, and not just Americans. It was widely seen as a great accomplishment for the world.
I also remember catching an occasional glimpse of Armstrong on the campus of the University of Cincinnati where I was an undergraduate business student and he was a professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering. That glimpse was all we got – he was a very private man who kept a very low profile. His reaction to having stepped onto the moon and into the history books was typical of the astronauts, and not unexpected in that day. He was very cognizant of the fact that he was the public face for what was a great team effort. The moon landing was a great achievement for technology and for the thousands of people who had made a contribution.
It seems that shortly after that, we changed from a culture that recognized teams as the source of accomplishment and success to a very self-centered culture. Prior to that time, Presidents retired to their home towns and penned their memoirs for the history books. Now we have ex-Presidents going on world speaking tours charging hundreds of thousands of dollars. Sports heroes used to play for the same team their entire career, now they are free agents moving from city to city in pursuit of an ever greater paycheck.
The same is true for business people. The top executives routinely grab as much credit, glory and cash as they can. The professional manager is a mercenary, moving from company to company without a second thought if there is a bigger paycheck to be had. The notion that others in the company might have contributed to his success never crosses his mind – he is much like the NFL running back contriving the end zone dance that draws the most attention to himself, forgetting all about the nameless blockers who got him there.
Perhaps these are just the nostalgic ruminations of an old guy, but I believe there is a profound implication for lean in this change – that it is much more difficult to create a business culture of respect and teamwork in a national culture that expects individuals to grab all they can for themselves. It seems impossible to me for a CEO to idolize Jack Welch, for instance, and lead a lean team at the same time. Welch is the epitome of self-aggrandizement while lean demands a great deal of humility from its leadership.
Whether my concerns for our culture are valid or not, I believe Neil Armstrong would have made a great lean leader. Perhaps his humility and regard for the rest of the team arose from having worked his way up from the bottom, and he had first hand experience being a back-up player and being the guy toiling in the shadows – an experience far too few business leaders have these days.