This week I’ve been hiking in the State of Washington with my wife and some acquaintances. A number of us headed up a trail through a dense stand of Douglas Fir trees masking the noonday sunlight down to the level of dusk. The thick moss on the ground deadened the sound of everything. It was an exceptionally beautiful place, except for one thing.

I was bringing up the rear of our line of hikers and saw next to our path a bright blue plastic bag, knotted and full of, well, stuff. Everyone else had walked right by it. I picked it up and carried it to the end of our hike. A bear-proof garbage can, thoughtfully provided by the taxpayers of Washington, relieved me of the plastic bag. Over dinner that evening, I took some good natured ribbing mostly about sweepers at the end of the circus parade: isn’t that what Deans do, clean up after other people? I gamely protested that my students and colleagues gave me little to do in that way, though my companions were adamant. The conversation triggered a reflection on the work of managers and leaders.

The blue plastic bag is a metaphor for the ills that litter business organizations. “Cleaning up” is what a leader does with those bags to keep an organization successful. Anarchy doesn’t work. A community chooses a leader to pull it together and get it headed in the right direction. Much of the practical content of any general manager’s job is to straighten things up—frame a vision; set a strategy; help wayward colleagues get on track; clear up misunderstandings; salve hurt feelings; approve projects; celebrate achievements; and so on.

I told my friends that it would be easy to amend my job description to say, “Because he is Dean, he should pick up after others.” But this doesn’t explain why it has to be the Dean who picks up—why not delegate it? In most organizations, people are hired to tidy up, both literally (janitors, gardeners, and staff assistants) and metaphorically (lawyers, auditors, designees of all kinds). Delegation can create indifference, what Cornell West calls the “hotel culture: you check in; you check out; and you leave it to someone else to pick up.” Thus, in high performance organizations, “cleaning up” of business problems is not really delegated—everyone contributes. But everyone doesn’t have the same standard of tidiness or the same proclivity. How does an organization align around the kind of cleaning up it needs?

Organizations don’t gain high standards simply by legislating them. Some people will focus on standards defined by codes of conduct, professional certifications (like the CPA), and government regulations. But these often breed a compliance mentality—what it takes to just get by. High performance organizations have standards that are truly high.

Organizations and communities learn high standards from people who are motivated by passion and vision. Such people live their values, set an example, educate and enlist others, and speak up when things aren’t right. Living high standards can be uncomfortable. If you care about creating “Aha!” in a classroom, you will stay up late at night perfecting your notes and plans. If you care about building a mass-market retailer, you will focus relentlessly on the customer. Sam Walton said, “High expectations are the key to everything.” If you want to produce the best animated films in the world, you will focus relentlessly on artistry. Walt Disney said, “Get a good idea and stay with it. Dog it and work with it until it’s done, and done right.” If you care about the beauty of a natural space, you will pick up the stray plastic bag. If the Dean cares about the integrity and sustainability of a school, he or she will set high standards and make a fuss when necessary.

When does one acquire high standards? They certainly don’t come to someone after he or she has become a leader. Rather, they are a precursor for leadership. Does one pick up garbage because one is the leader, or is one the leader because one picks up garbage? I think the latter is true.

A truly great educational experience is fundamentally about shaping a student’s standards—this includes expectations about “good work,” “high performance,” and leadership. In developing leaders in the world of practical affairs, Darden aims to shape people who will see and clean up the many kinds of plastic bags that litter the business landscape.

Epilogue: The next day, our group of hikers encountered another bag of garbage. Someone else in the group picked it up and trekked it in.

Posted by Robert Bruner at 08/09/2007 10:14:27 PM