By Frank J. Rich
Few things wear commitment as a tree. John Muir, environmentalist, naturalist, adventurer, and thinker excited the notion in his famous words, “It has been said that trees are imperfect men, and seem to bemoan their imprisonment rooted in the ground. But they never seem so to me. I never saw a discontented tree. They grip the ground as though they liked it, and though fast rooted they travel about as far as we do. They go wandering forth in all directions with every wind, going and coming like ourselves, traveling with us around the sun two million miles a day, and through space, heaven knows how fast and far!”
Were these well-limned words to qualify the yaw of fellow travelers—men—the workplace and the world would produce a different math than the cacophony of avarice, misrepresentation, and malingering that refreshes pixel-like as we look around. Indeed, taking measure of us, John Muir chose a defense of the tree.
At a time when employers, private and government, and the employment engine, struggle as typical “America first and foremost” fealty vanishes, a dissuaded populace moans of joblessness and economic uncertainty that sours the palette. If we pause to give promise a history lesson, visions of the “Greatest Generation” come into focus, even though most seeking employment, our youth now 72 percent un-contracted in the marketplace, and little charged of its principles, are near absent knowledge of Tom Brokaw, chronicler of the now famous label on America’s most productive, ethically rooted, and committed by principle, and feeling vexed and uncommitted to the navigational star in a stormy sea of fainting hopes. If a bleak and forlorn sentence, consider that employees, not employers, are more lost in the turbulence of the cultural sea change that paints the present and the future.
Born of nothing but promise, Americans from every land found harmony in ethic that joined all in the belief that just about anybody “could,” in a society aching and achieving by its diversity of imagination, approach, and vision. Brokaw’s “generation,” if indeed the greatest generation society ever produced, fought the Great War not for “fame and recognition” but because “it was the right thing to do.” Extraordinary! Drawn together in common cause and hardened to a softness that respected the right to be and to contribute by one’s labors, they found unity and strength in the resolve to build a better life, and fashioned America as the greatest economic engine ever known to man and a worldwide superpower. They landed on our shores with nothing but a great work ethic and a great attitude. As Martin Klinzing put it, “Essentially (the) discussion boils down to the fact that you can teach someone anything except to care.”
So where is the harmonic connection to what is “right and true,” to the “Greatest Generation,” its chords ringing with the opportunity in work, the promise of a brighter future, lost after the making, or so Brokaw and those before who lamenting its decline decried, switching psyches as though horses to position leverage, entitlement, greed, and the pursuit of individual rights as idols? The disequilibrium in this math, confounding the symmetry atavistic of good beginnings, is the confusion in the workplace that delivers poor attitudes, habits, the god in spurious resumes, and ultimately uncommitted human assets. Few workers take to their daily bread winning as “settlers,” in the words of E. B. White of The New Yorker magazine, with the unbridled passion that mirrors the productivity of an earlier age and a magnetism that collects those around them as they sail into the wind and by a star. Sadly, those who don’t fit onto this boat are the disenfranchised “commuters” of an economic engine now being wagged by its tail.
As the economy returns to growth on all planes, the demand for labor will change positions with the supply of it as workers take the bully pulpit. Employers will feel the pressure to increase their profiles—better wages, benefits, and perks. It’s the way of free market models, ultimately directed by supply and demand. Don’t give in to it!
There is little disagreement with the premise that attitude trumps skills in the selection of new employees. And though foundation stones in the model of quality employees, attitude and work ethic have complements, not least, “segment knowledge, soft skills like leadership and managerial quality, creativity, and the ability to learn and adapt to the changing environment,” as Professor Emeritus of Harvard Business School James Heskett has noted by the measure of thirty years of study. Driven to discover the route to excellence in organizations, he went beyond the conventional wisdom: “hire for attitude and train for skills.” Attitude took on new meaning—in summary, “ … the ability to identify with and live core values of the organization such as respect for others, being customer-driven, etc. Management has concluded that it is too difficult and costly to try to change the attitudes of adults. As a result, they release those unable to work and manage according to the organization’s values and replace them with those who can.”
Not coincidentally, the work revealed that “capital flows follow quality labor,” a conclusion of considerable study by Gregory Clark, summarized in his 2006 book A Farewell to Alms, minimizing the long-term threat of outsourcing to developed economies. The image of this favored son of the Greatest Generation is not only worth the effort necessary to good employee selections, but also worth waiting for, if Clark is right. As C. J. Cullinane commented, “Attitude is all … if employees are the (corporate) brain cells, then long-term employees are the long-term memory of the corporate brain.”