Leadership comes in many forms, not one, but we tend to use the word as though it has singular meaning. Leadership, especially “good” leadership, is interpreted typically as overseeing and directing aggressive efforts to achieve valued outcomes. But that interpretation says nothing about intent, including whether leadership is undertaken to advance the public good.
I was thinking about how to illustrate that point simply and persuasively when, of all places, I stumbled across an answer on TV. Mysteries at the Museum, presented by The Travel Channel, includes vignettes about artifacts exhibited in museum collections. Each artifact offers a lens into the past.
Two vignettes from the program are summarized here, both drawn from the episode that aired this past November 13th. The first story is about wood scraps. The second is about sausages.
Profiting from Leftovers
If ever an American could declare, “I built that!” Henry Ford would be it. The Ford story isn’t just about what he did—bring the automobile to the average American—it’s also about how he did it.
Ford, a stickler for efficiency, gave microscopic attention to the production process—from raw materials to final assembly—and he fretted constantly over inefficiency and waste. There are many stories about this tendency, some legendary. The story told here comes from the early part of the 20th Century.
One day, while inspecting one of his production facilities, Ford noticed that a considerable amount of wood scraps and sawdust remained after the assembly process. Troubled by the circumstance, Ford started thinking about what he could do with scrap. He took the challenge to company chemists. After experimenting with options, the outcome was a fuel source.
At issue was what to do with this new product—a business question at its core. The default option would be to incorporate the fuel in the auto production process. Another option would be to market it as a competitive alternative to oil, coal, and wood. The third (and ingenious) alternative connected the product to leisure and recreation.
A “good society” isn’t out-of-balance, but out-of-balance we are today. That’s why a Progressive response is so timely—a response that values justice, equity, and people, especially those who are less able to speak for themselves.
The fuel source was charcoal. It was formed as a briquette. And the charcoal briquette became the fuel source for cook-outs. Through charcoal Ford found an ingenious way to advance his auto business—by connecting a drive in the country with a picnic lunch or dinner prepared via charcoal.
Ford took full advantage of his innovation, too. He produced, labeled, marketed, and sold charcoal under his name. But Ford didn’t stop at making charcoal broadly available to the public at an affordable price. He built demand and, then, sold business rights to another businessman, none other than E.G. Kingsford, the name we associate today with charcoal. Kingsford, Ford’s relative, helped the auto titan develop the product.
Ford not only closed the waste loop, he profited handsomely from it, as well.
Try the Sausage, Otto
The second vignette takes place in 1860’s Germany. It’s a fascinating tale about speaking truth-to-power and using ingenuity to advance the public good.
The protagonist in this story is Rudolf Virchow, a scientist, who also served as leader of The Progressive Party in the Prussian legislature. The antagonist is Otto von Bismarck, a notable and forceful politician of the time. Virchow and von Bismarck were political foes with starkly contrasting political philosophies.
The story has to do with public health. Virchow was troubled by a surge of illness among his people, a malady that caused neurological problems, face-flushing, heart attacks, and sometimes led to death. The problem was widespread and persistent. Virchow began investigating.
He found the symptoms to be food-related. Germans love sausages, but sanitary conditions in the factory production process were uneven at the time. Virchow discovered that some sausages contained trichinella spiralis, a worm that causes trichinosis. People who ate those sausages often fell ill.
Virchow made his findings public and offered recommendations for controlling the epidemic. But von Bismarck would have nothing of it; he refused to take action. An incensed Virchow made an impassioned public speech. He decried von Bismarck’s disregard for public health and demanded that the government take action.
von Bismarck responded with anger, interpreting Virchow’s action as a personal attack. Honor besmirched, von Bismarck challenged Virchow to a duel. Virchow eventually accepted, but on one condition: he’d pick the weapon.
When the two met at the appointed time and place, Virchow presented von Bismarck with his weapon of choice—two pork sausages. This would be an eating duel. Would von Bismarck be willing to risk ingesting the very food he was unwilling to regulate?
The answer was no. With message delivered poignantly, the German leader ordered adjustments in the country’s public health laws. Factory conditions soon improved and the incidence of illness declined significantly.
Virchow figured out an unusual way to lead for the public good—through a politician’s stomach.
What Can We Learn about Leadership?
The fascinating thing about these stories, old as they are, is contemporary relevance. They well illustrate the modern political circumstance, rhetoric, and challenge.
In Ford’s story, leadership is expressed through initiative, focus, and ingenuity. Ford built a business, created jobs, and produced a valued product. Virchow’s story is about initiative, focus, and ingenuity, too, but it has a different center of gravity: it’s about people and their well-being. And while Ford’s work was done by employees under his direction, Virchow’s effort required crossing boundaries: he challenged power and took political risks.
It’s easy to value what Ford accomplished and to applaud how Virchow served people. Indeed, to flourish, society needs both leadership forms. The problem is we’re out of balance today. Our nation privileges Ford-style leadership. We tend to value, above all else, leadership that builds organizations and produces “winning” outcomes, especially in the business sector. We’re leery of public policies and other efforts, such as increasing the minimum wage, which might interfere.
That tendency, which is now integrated into the dominant American mindset, has widespread implications. Just think about this: Which graduates are most frequently selected by America’s colleges and universities as “alumni success stories”? You know the answer: they’re likely to be graduates who’ve “achieved” in a Ford-style manner, and less likely to be nurses, social workers, or labor leaders. The same kind of thinking afflicts how Americans think about “good” public policy. Why is Social Security viewed by so many people as an “entitlement?”
A “good society” isn’t out-of-balance, but out-of-balance we are today. That’s why a Progressive response is so timely—a response that values justice, equity, and people, especially those who are less able to speak for themselves. That response recognizes the limits of power and capitalism, to bound self-serving excesses.
The reality is that we live in an unbalanced America. And getting to balance is a democratic requirement.
Think about that the next time you go into the voting booth; the next time you pick a leader for your organization; the next time somebody talks about what government should and shouldn’t fund; the next time you make a choice/decision that has public implications. That next time…think about who benefits, who doesn’t, and how much.
Then, be a Virchow. Act as a Progressive. Lead for the public good.