The Case for Decency

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Leaders, what stories are you telling and retelling?  What values and visions do those stories communicate to the people you are leading?  Stories give us a sense of common purpose – they infuse our work with meaning, and give us something more – commitment to shared values, hope for a brighter future, and the passion of a common purpose.

This summer I had the opportunity to travel with my family to West Virginia to visit the Cass Railroad, and, on that trip, I was fortunate to come across a truly great man.  It is not every day that one gets to meet a truly decent person, but let me tell you about Josh and the makings of a decent man and a great leader. 

Josh was the conductor and brakeman on our day-long steam train excursion.  Over the course of our five-hour trip he regaled us with stories about the Cass Railroad, the logging camp and company that had provided work to his great-grandfather and economic infrastructure to the region through the early part of the last century.  He taught us about the local ecosystems and the changes to landscape and climate brought about by the logging of the old grove forests in WVA.  I learned about his great-grandfather as the camp cook in Cass, and how he’d get up every morning at 3:00am to prepare breakfast for all the men.  Then, as they began to eat their breakfasts, he would turn his attention to their lunches, take a short rest, and began dinner preparations.  All the while his wife was back with the family tending their 10 children and their 1000-acre farm!

What I appreciated about the way Josh approached his work was how he told his stories.  They were true stories that he infused with lessons learned, and embedded within the stories he shared was a moral code.  Over the course of our five-hour ride he was transmitting a set of values to his passengers:

Family matters.  Josh wants to live in such a way that his family might be proud enough of how he lived to tell stories about his life to future generations – the way he was telling his great-grandparents' stories to us.

Hard work matters.  It should be rewarded with fair pay and safe working conditions.  The men who worked these logging camps worked hard, but most of their money went back to the company for rent and the goods purchased at the company store.  Traveling out of the camp required transport on company rails.  How do we treat workers who sacrifice so much and work so hard, living apart from family and undertaking backbreaking labor?  Workers who do difficult, dangerous work should be well cared for and given safe tools, and an appropriately safe working environment.

The environment matters.  It is fragile and we should be mindful of our ecosystems.  Think about the consequences of your industry on the land and environment. The rush to log the mountains of WVA dramatically changed the climate of the state.  With ancient trees the forest floor used to remain dark, wild, and frosty permanently shaded by the towering trees.  When they were logged, heat and lightening ignited fires across the region, burning the mountains across the state with wildfires that burned continually for years.  What are the consequences of the emerging industries today?  Are we, as leaders, thinking through the side effects of our rush to bring new tools to market?  Are we thinking through the side effects of the ways we are using our natural resources today?

Diversity matters.  We need each other.  Diversity is strength.  My favorite story was the one he told about the diversity of the loggers who lived in the camps – immigrants from all over the world.   Italians, Swedes, Ukrainians, Jews, Russians, Africans, Latinos were all working together, speaking many languages and learning from each other to bring lumber for our country’s burgeoning cities, industries, and railroads.  At the turn of the last century these people were living together, making friendships across their different languages, cultures and faiths.  Long before such relationships were common or even legal in the rest of the country, there was no segregation in the camps.  These people were a team.  Josh concluded, “If they could figure it out on the top of this mountain in 1910, surly we can find a way to be together today.”  A story with a moral for our times.

Every day, up and down the mountain, Josh tells his stories, communicating a set of values that he hopes will equip his passengers to live a little bit of those values once they leave.

In my work with Senior Leaders, I help them shape the stories they tell about their business – where they have been and where they are going, what impact they want to have on the future, and why that matters.  In the companies where those stories are told and retold, people who join the business join those stories in the same way the youngest generation is born into a family’s story.  From time to time those stories are reshaped to help people move forward in a new direction.

What are the stories that will move your people into the future with a passion born of purpose?  This is vision casting – your story about your imagined future.  What stories do you tell to support the values, great work, and good behavior you find in your teams?  Decency should be celebrated!  It gives rise to a culture of trust, and a people who hope and believe that what they do will matter.  People thrive when they are treated well.  And decent people treat people well.