It is a founding principle of our democracy that the state is guided by the will of the people. In ancient Greece where democracy originated amongst the city-states, citizens of Athens would gather before the Acropolis to hear speeches and elect leaders, to hear debates and decide policy. There was a thriving commerce of ideas and opinion at the foot of the mount, and the practice of oratory originated in politicians seeking to sway opinion before an issue was decided.
When the time came for a vote, each citizen would indicate his choice by standing when the call was made to attest yea or nay. [Yes, it is astonishing to think many centuries would pass before women would become full citizens and be allowed to vote!] “Stand up and be counted” has survived in our contemporary lexicon to mean ‘make your voice heard.’ We learn through its usage we can’t expect to keep our opinions private and later complain when things don’t go our way. Nonetheless, in the representative democracy practiced today in these United States, the millions of individual voices are so easily subordinated to our few elected officials – delegated to the delegates – that we citizens wait and watch by custom to see how things go, and, sadly, feel relegated to private grumbling when politicians’ acts fail to align with our wishes.
So, it is with great pleasure that I tell the story of citizen Margaret O’Neil and her conversation this week with General Russel Honore. The humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico is still unfolding as I write, with food, water, fuel and electricity in scarce supply across our island protectorate, 10 days and counting after Hurricane Maria leveled most of the countryside. Rations are few and lines are long to receive them. The country’s ports are jammed with containers awaiting cleared roads and drivers available to transport them to communities in the interior.
Watching news reports covering the disaster, and a governmental response unequal to the task, despite stout assertions to the contrary by Trump administration officials, this citizen didn’t like what she saw. On this day, she was not satisfied with the private grumbling we are frequently driven to, and was driven to action.
Margaret ‘Margie’ O’Neil is a 33-year veteran of service with the phone company, from its days as a regulated public utility with the mission to provide and maintain telephone service to all parts of the country, without exception. That time has passed, as we all know, and government provision of universal service of any sort is hotly debated. What is not debatable – so far – is that in times of crisis, we Americans all pitch in.
‘This is as bad as Katrina,’ she thought, remembering how recovery from that hurricane turned around when FEMA stood down and the US Army was called in. ‘When I worked in the phone company, we could do some things in times of disaster. Where is General Honore?’
A brief search of the web turned up the website for the now-retired General who led the Army’s widely praised handling of the recovery from Hurricane Katrina, and at the bottom in bold face type, his company phone number. Brrrrrng, brrrrng.
‘General Honore,’ said a gruff voice.
Gulp. No secretary answering, no phone machine. It’s the General himself.
Margie: ‘I’m a citizen from Burlington Massachusetts calling. Sorry to bother you sir, but they need to get you down there in Puerto Rico.’
General Honore: ‘I’m trying, let me tell you. I’m on TV five times a day, trying to get it done.’
Margie: ‘Really? That’s good to hear.’
General Honore: ‘I’ve got the playbook on this type of thing right here, and I’m hopefully going there in three days. Hang in there; I’m trying to get it done.’
Margie: ‘OK; that’s great! Thanks a lot.’
General Honore: ‘You got it, baby!’
She hung up, thrilled of course to have spoken directly to the General, but more importantly, satisfied with having done her citizen duty to ‘stand up and be counted.’
In my view, it’s time now, indeed it’s always time now in a democracy, for every one of us to stand up and be counted. We live in a time of deep divisions in the body politic. Our President has no coherent legislative agenda, but rather, according to one observer, sees the end goal of his job to be tearing down both sides of the established political culture, Democrat and Republican, leaving rebuilding to the rest of us (see The Abbie Hoffman of the Right: Donald Trump). Further, as another writer observes, his master strategy is to ‘throw out distraction bombs on a regular basis, while turning the screws of power toward a backward era,’ each new insult or lie washing out its predecessor, inducing amnesia and indolence in the electorate (see A Method to the Madness: Trump’s Fog Machine). Massive forces are arrayed against speaking up and being heard, regardless of your political persuasion, making speaking up more important than ever.
As in the public sector, so in the private sector, it’s always time for an organization’s ‘citizens’ to stand up and be counted, in my view. Just as General Honore welcomed Margie’s call, able CEOs not only welcome calls from the front lines, but actively encourage and seek them out. As I’ve written elsewhere, “you go down the hierarchy for expertise and look up for direction, down for ‘doing things right,’ up for ‘doing the right things.’ Those doing things right on the front lines closest to the customer get the earliest warning signals that we’re not doing the right things.” Smart CEOs know this, and want to hear the news.
Nonetheless, in my work with CEOs, while I find them invariably eager to hear from members of their organizations, they frequently don’t hear as much as they’d like, and are mystified by it. My counsel based on experience is to accept it as fact that people assume you don’t want to hear unless you make an outsized effort to assure them that you do. Various CEO-driven mechanisms can be put in place to engage a company’s employees in their ‘citizen’ role: lunch meetings with small groups, by location or department, to hear what’s on their minds; walking tours – MBWA - ‘management by walking around’ for impromptu one-on-one discussions; extended leadership meetings with the top team and their direct reports on strategy execution; employee engagement surveys to take the pulse of a larger organization, and so forth. Undergirding all of these mechanisms should be regular communication, in person and in writing, stressing the value of input from all quarters about the business, its challenges and opportunities, what’s working and what should change.
My counsel to organizational citizens is this: if your company CEO is not looking to hear from you, it’s okay to know better than them that they should. You may not get the ‘You got it, baby!’ from them that Margie O’Neil got from General Honore, but that doesn’t mean you don’t deserve it!
Comments? I’d like to hear your thoughts. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
From my blogpost ‘This Is Not The Leadership Team Our Company Needs.’ See also ‘Silent Rebellion and the Irreducible Leadership Task’