Among the more aggravating verbal firefights plaguing the U.S. countryside is the question of how history should be taught in the public schools. Don’t worry – we’ll get to how this relates to you in a couple of hundred words or so. Patience, please!
On one side of the controversy we have those who advocate including only those episodes in our past that reflect when our forebears were at their best. On the other we have those who, at the extreme end, propose that unless we render an account of every wart and blemish in our country’s past … and that’s wart and blemish according to our current-day standards … then we’re lying to our children.
Just my opinion (stay patient – we’re almost there): Our grammar schools and middle schools should adopt the former view. It won’t really be history. Call it American Mythology. It would present the best of our past – those episodes in which America lived up to its finest aspirations. Its purpose would be to help children understand the core values of what America stands for, doing so through the powerful mechanism of storytelling.
High school is when students should start to discover the complexities and nuances of our nation’s past. Not an everything-we-ever-did-was-awful account – that would accomplish little. What it should help students discover is that circumstances are always more complicated than they appear to be on the surface; our nation’s leaders weren’t cardboard-cut-out saints (or sinners) but were complex human beings with all that this implies; that sometimes we lived up to our aspirations and sometimes we succumbed to our worst tendencies.
What on earth does this have with running a large organization?
More than you might think.
Over the past couple of weeks we’ve been discussing the challenges of leading a largely remote workforce. While challenges abound, perhaps the most challenging of all the challenges is the challenge of establishing a widely adopted business culture – a shared understanding of what we stand for and how we do things around here. Call it “cultural engineering.”
When your workforce is small, leaders can engineer the culture through frequent interpersonal interactions. When it’s dispersed and remote, though, cultural engineering leading by example loses some of its effectiveness for the simple reason that employees aren’t in a position to see leaders leading by example.
One possible starting point is an often neglected but potentially potent leadership tool – the old-fashioned company newsletter.
Quite a few years ago I watched my then employer make use of this tool to remarkable effect. The format was uncomplicated – a short (~500 words) email. In addition to company news, it included a discussion of one of the company’s core values, and … and this was the not-so-secret sauce … it related a recent effort on the part of an employee or team that showed the company’s values in action.
The newsletter explained a desired cultural characteristic, illustrated it through storytelling, showed every employee that management noticed such things and valued them, and encouraged everyone to do something that would put their team in a future newsletter.
Having watched it in action I can testify that it worked. I also watched as a new management team axed the newsletter. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the company slowly lost its culture, substituting financial engineering as the single core value that supplanted the culture that had come before.
Bob’s last word: Peter Drucker stated that “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” While he neglected to explain whether it would do so more effectively if served with bacon and hash browns, he certainly had a point.
I’ve told the joke about the man who had a dog with no legs too many times by now. Every morning he had to take the dog out for a drag, which describes how management has to do its job in the absence of a strong company culture.
Cultural engineering is hard. But it isn’t a hard as managing without it.
Bob’s sales pitch: As long as I’m spouting off about one politicized policy issue, what the heck – here’s another: Am I the only one who agrees with the constitutional scholar Linda R. Monk that we should stop arguing about whether to include “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, drop the Pledge altogether, and in its place teach children to recite the Preamble to the Constitution?