Ever take a management course? Chances are good that at some point an instructor told you “to act like you own the company.” That same advice is out there today. Google the phrase. No shortage of links to choose from. [For grins, you might check out Scott Adams’ Dilbert cartoon on the subject.]
Act like you own the company? What on earth did your teacher mean? Just this…that if you were the owner, you’d take the time and effort needed to develop a vision. That you’d work as hard as needed to get the job done, rather than just from eight-to-five. That you’d innovate. That you’d challenge your co-workers to act like they owned the company too.
Sometimes the owner of the company is the same person as the president of that company. [Same idea, for current purposes.] There are presidents of small companies, and there are presidents of larger, multi-national conglomerates, and there are presidents of countries.
Then there is the president of the United States.
The most powerful person in the world, right?
You and I look at him that way. But that’s not often the way that presidents see themselves. If they did, their hair wouldn’t suddenly grey. They wouldn’t be frustrated like President Obama, when he reads the ten or so letters selected daily for his reading out of the ten thousand snail-mailed and a similar number e-mailed to the White House every 24 hours. Today’s Washington Post story on this quotes the president as saying he longs for the days when he’d been a community organizer back in Chicago, just out of college, making $10,000 a year. He could make a difference then!
Perhaps the president takes heart from a President Truman story. In the last days of Truman’s administration, just before Dwight Eisenhower took office, Truman called the press into the Oval Office. He said, “Ike is going to come in here and say ‘do this,’ and ‘do that’…and nothing will happen! It’s not like the army.”
Their experience is universally true. Every man jack of us thinks every day of our lives that if we just had a job up the next rung of the ladder from the one we currently hold, that we could finally make a difference.
A select few walk into that Oval Office, and find out that it’s all a cruel hoax. Fact is, most of us discover this sometime earlier in our lives and careers. It doesn’t take too many steps up the ladder to bring the point home.
So just why do things work that way? They work that way because the ability to get things done by saying “do this” or “do that” is limited at best to the two or three people we can keep an eye on 24-7 and/or intimidate. [If we’re honest, we realize we don’t even control ourselves that well.] Let the number get any larger, and our back is always turned on the majority of people in the group. It’s therefore not about demanding that things get done. In fact, it’s not even very much about asking…or asking nicely. It’s all about modeling behavior…as Gandhi said, “being the change we want to see in the world.”
You and I can stand for something. For conducting our science with integrity. For putting the best available science into practice. For not misrepresenting the truth to win an argument or a point of view. For not denying the truth either. We can refuse to be content with resource extraction alone, or environmental protection alone, or safety in the face of hazards alone. Instead we can insist on balancing all three of these objectives. We can respect, forgive, maybe even love one another. We can remain forward looking and not dwell on past hurts and wrongs.
And we can be happy with our station in life. Fortunately, only a few of us are trapped and confined by encumbering one of those positions at the top. This means we get to be productive and effective like that community organizer…or that bench scientist…or (insert your job and role here).
Especially if we act like a president in two respects: (1) we own the company, and (2) we model behavior.