Re-evaluate Your Fundamentals

One challenge in writing a column for a magazine is that I have to hit the keyboard three months in advance of publication. So, how can I be topical? Today is Dec. 12. If I knew what the world will be like March 1, I would be the richest man in the world.

The current news leads include the negotiations leading up to the fiscal cliff, new right-to-work legislation in Michigan, an appeals court ruling that Americans have the constitutional right to carry loaded guns outside their home and, of course, retail sales figures from Christmas shopping. By the time you read this Christmas sales will be old news. Hopefully, there won’t be any more senseless killings. We will know if we have fallen off the cliff or not, and either way, America will be dealing with unsolved endemic economic and labor issues. Given all of this, it’s hard to think of human resource problems.

I’m not going to go off on that tired old subject, the role of HR, so you can relax. I’m much more concerned with a timeless topic: the state of our nation. Maybe when you live as long as I have you learn to not be distracted by smaller, often passing problems. You are attracted to the fundamentals of life. Believe me, America’s fundamentals need some attention.

The strength of any nation rests on a strong middle class. No matter who has been in charge the past 20 years, our middle class has taken a beating. Businesses are going under or waiting to invest until Washington gives some clear signals. As a result, tax revenues at the local and national levels have been beaten down. This has led to near bankruptcy in states and municipalities, which in turn has caused reductions in numbers of police officers, firefighters and teachers.

Crime rates, particularly murder, are up. Teachers are uncertain about their careers. Health care cost is teetering on the brink, driving companies to move as many people as possible to part-time without benefits. What happens when hospitals are filled with people who have no medical insurance?

So what does this have to do with talent management, my editor is asking. It is ironic that on the one hand we have all these problems and we have advances in technology that greatly reduce decision risks. Do you think a new smartphone, tablet or social network is not the solution? Do you believe a new compensation incentive plan will turn behavior around? How about another class on leadership? Wait a minute — we might have something. Could leadership in government, education and business be the culprit?

Peter Koestenbaum, retired professor, philosopher and executive consultant, approached the topic of leadership by saying: “Unless the distant goals of meaning, greatness and destiny are addressed, we cannot make an intelligent decision about what to do tomorrow morning, much less set strategy for a company.”

Do you think anyone in Washington is thinking this way????

Abraham Maslow, probably America’s most famous social psychologist, looked at leadership and management from both a production and a health standpoint. To paraphrase him: Management stresses two consequences — productivity and workers’ psychological health. The best managers improve their workers’ health in two ways: gratification of their basic needs starting with safety and security along with their meta-needs for truth, goodness, justice and the opportunity to grow.

Perhaps we need to shift our leadership approach. Perhaps HR’s greatest contribution could be to support a leadership model that combines Koestenbaum’s strategic approach and Maslow’s health approach.

We claim that HR is the keeper of culture. Leaders’ vision and behavior drive culture. With our country so stressed by economic, political and social dysfunction, it might be time for business to take on responsibilities other sectors have neglected. We must train leaders to become insightful in the midst of daily work pressures.

We desperately need a leadership philosophy based on strategic goals rather than current expediency and self-interest. We need to back that up with an operational model that centers on notions of health and growth. This is a challenge that HR can take on as the keeper of the culture.