In his slow southern drawl that typified Shelby Foote’s Mississippi roots, the ageing historian commented during the final episode of Ken Burns’ magisterial multi-part documentary, “The Civil War”:
Before the war, it was said the United States “are”—and grammatically it was spoken that way and thought of as a collection of independent states. And after the war, it was always the United States “is” as we say today—without being self-conscious at all. And that sums up what the war accomplished. It made us an “is.”
Social Media is replete with attempts at business wisdom, most searching for the keys to successful organizations. To me it’s a curious effort, for the answers were provided a long time ago through the work of theoretical pioneers such as Mayo in the 1920s to the practical applications of corporate leaders such Gyllenhammar in the 1970s and 80s.
In reality, a truer question is being probed: that of how to survive as a business in a unique era of globalizing, cost cutting, and downsizing.
Still, to me, the answer remains a simple one. I always ask clients a straightforward question before I undertake a writing project:
How do you refer to your business—in the singular “its” or the plural “our”? For example, do you say, “Widgets ’R’ Us is committed to customer service,” or “Widgets ’R’ Us are committed to customer service”?
It’s a very important distinction (grammatically I’ve covered it previously) but I’m not interested in syntax today. I’m focused purely on corporate spirit.
You see, an organization that thinks of itself, as a group of individuals united for a common purpose will, more often than not, succeed. It’s become a team.
Show the slightest crack in this behavior: rogue managers undermining performance appraisals, favoritisms to head office over the shop floor, massive salary increases for executives over front line staff, sending core functions overseas where language barriers exist, not communicating the corporate vision with uniform enthusiasm—and more often than not, they’ll fail. They’ve become greed machines.
The United States remains the world’s most complex organization. Yet in the 1860s, as it began to fill out its continent, it almost disintegrated in fratricide. States rights versus national needs, slave culture versus individual identity, Southern farming poverty versus Northern industrialized riches.
Somehow out of the slaughter of nearly 750,000 citizens in a civil war (7.5 million some estimate in today’s terms), and the sheer devastation to its cities from 1861-65, it became as Shelby Foote said: “The United States is.” And to the apex of global hegemony it then grew and tenaciously remains.
On a large wall in Washington, DC, is inscribed the following quote spoken by an exhausted president, Abraham Lincoln, without the benefit of amplification, later to receive both cheer and some derision at the hands of the print media in 1863:
It is for us, the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
In just three days, the dead and wounded on that field of battle at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, rivaled the whole of America’s casualties in both Iraqi Wars since. Over 50,000. So much so, that now, this “Gettysburg Address” remains a beacon for teamwork.
It teaches that success only comes through the commitment of individuals, whom together, work to consecrate a greater purpose: in business that would be the corporate mission.
Do you want to be a successful organization of people? Then talk and act as if your goals are one. That’s it—inspire individuals through leadership.
All you need do, is become an “is”.
© 2015 Adam Parker. You’ve just read a Parkerpinion.
Main picture credit: Shelby Foote speaks. Sourced from Ken Burns, The Civil War, © 2015 WETA.