I enjoyed the spotlight that this book puts on hopefulness, and the rallying cry to hold tight to it, even in the face of a society with increasing cynicism and its accompanying peril to the health of the individual human soul.  Many people may believe that people are not inherently good—but a society and democracy are doomed to fail if a prevalence of this type of thinking takes hold.  Can we do good and choose correctly or must we be guided (i.e. coerced)?  Must morality be legislated?  Some people hold to these cynical beliefs, and at times they are easier to accept, but we should resist.  Riemen believes that the ideals of classical humanitarianism can guard against cynicism and restore Western civilization’s highest values.  I agree with this but think that we need to accept change and loosen our hold on the past somewhat.  We need new “classical” ideals that will change the dynamic, shift the paradigm, and point us in a new, and even better, direction, encompassing the past but forging them into a new creation and a new future.  The humanities and arts can inform a society of hopefulness and we should look to the past for many of these ideals but, more importantly we should foster environments in which the classical humanities can be a living thing that continues its lineage into the future.  Evolution is a must.  As the French say: plus cest change, plus cest la meme chose.

I also like that Riemen has related a healthy society to the health of the individual and, in turn related the health of the individual to the state of their dignity.  Riemen says that “Personal ethics are more important than social institutions.” Individuals’ happiness is more important than social commitment; because a healthy society is based on healthy individuals.  Value the individual, because society depends on it.  Riemen also says that “…what this world needs above all else, a social order that would safeguard human dignity…” and that is what we should strive for in our lives and our influence on others.

American society and business today does indeed suffer from some of the problems that Riemen identifies.  The power of money, and the multitude of things it can represent, has crowded out inner growth.  We also often hear on the news “democracy” referred to as the justification for a policy, but no mention of what this really means or what democracy entails.  Riemen says that “Politicized minds do not see concrete individuals who are alive, who love, and who are loved.  All they see are abstractions: capitalism, communism, globalization…” and laments that “Morality is replaced by a doctrine of virtue.”   Yes, we also see this in modern society, of ten in the form of legislation of morality. We indeed are losing our humanity and some of it has to do with us losing our roots, our connection to nature, I believe.  The humanist view of the necessity of personal freedom and dignity vs. the view of the necessity of a powerful state to save people from their own evil devices is an argument that continues even today. 

As human nature is twofold, we must respect and develop the twofold nature of the individuals whom we lead and who work with and for us.  The physical body is the most obvious and we have arguably done a good job at tending to that.  The soul, the nobility of spirit—“…life as the art of becoming human through the cultivation of the human soul.” per the book—is what is often missing.  The goals of business must include people and individuals.  We must also be more interested in substance than appearance.  It is easy to look at the appearances of our friends and coworkers, a nice car and house, etc. and assume that they are doing well.  However, it is the things that are not seen that are often overlooked and are the underlying importance.   Riemen says that the poet teaches us true freedom.  “Without that ultimate vivification—which the poet and other artists alone can give—reality would seem incomplete and science, democracy, and life itself finally in vain.”  “…facts are good for scholars, but we must write the truth!”  I’ve always tried to live my life as an art form and this ideal in the book spoke to me and I believe should be applied in business as in life.  Goethe said that “Civilization is a permanent exercise in respect.  Respect for the divine, the earth, for our fellow man and so for our own dignity.”  For the sake of our own souls and of those that we are connected to we must resist the seductiveness of power and bad faith lest it damage our nobility of spirit.  If we’re not faithful to our individuality and allow others to be faithful to theirs we also risk our souls, for as Riemen states “…being one of the herd languishes one’s soul away.”  We must respect and nourish the twofold nature of humanity in both ourselves and those around us. 

Another idea that resonated with me in this book is: “…the past is not closed, it receives meaning from our present actions.” Shamans have historically said the same thing; quantum physics is now beginning to say the same thing: everything is connected and influences everything else, even across time and barriers to influence that we once thought existed we are now seeing as not a barrier at all.  This thought can be a wellspring of hope for us humans even in the midst of failures and shortcomings!

To my fellow classmates, I would like to point out the passage in the book that proclaims that “Thoughtful conversation is the best way to examine life and make it worth living.” We can achieve some soul growth and nobility of spirit and meaning of life through thoughtful, felt and authentic conversation.  I invite all classmates to be human personalities attempting to come to grips with eternal problems posed by the moral, social, and political conflicts of our time.  “Without the freedom to think differently, speak differently, be different, have differences of opinion—without these freedoms, all other values are defenseless.  And whatever one might think of the capitalist West, these freedoms are back again.  Right here.”  So resist the urge to hold back or to say what is thought to be expected of you and instead let your true feelings and thoughts be released into the world.  You never know what good may come of it. 

References:

Riemen, R. (2008). Nobility of spirit: a forgotten ideal. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press

This article discusses a Case Study from the Stanford Graduate School of Business that is subtitled: Success in A Declining Industry.

The founder, George Zimmer, opened his first store back in 1973, at a time when competitors were closing their doors. From opening to the time of the article (1997) the Men’s’ Wearhouse enjoyed 30% growth. Between 1991 and 1996 they grew from 113 stores to 345 and from $133.4 to $483.5 in net sales. This Case is a study of some of the things they did right.

Some of the things that I think they did right:

  • Humanism. George Zimmer said: “I’ll tell you the last thing most MBA’s probably think of as value is the untapped human potential…the culture says, ‘It’s got to be quantifiable’.” They understood that their people were not disconnected from the rest of their lives when they were at work and had holistic views of their people. In terms of sales and their salespeople they understood that customers could unconsciously tell the difference between a “fake” salesperson and a salesperson that is being part of a genuine human interaction. They saw their salespeople as “consultants” who could expand off someone’s initial request but not sell them something they didn’t want or need for their own benefit. They used the term “selling with soul” and “becoming an artist as a salesperson” as well as “make an emotional connection” (a la “Linchpin” per Seth Godin which actually came more recently). They understood that sales involved understanding and serving people.
  • Servant Leadership. In contrast to the ubiquitous ‘shareholders first’ mentality, they said that employees came first and shareholders last (my cynical side says ‘is this real or just lip service?’). Management treated the people they managed and worked with as their customers as well, which is a great policy. Zimmer set an example of his servant mentality by making a comparatively smaller salary than his industry counterparts. They also seemed to have a mentality of managers doing all jobs when needed, similar to Southwest Airlines; if a regional manager was visiting a store and saw a customer that needed help they would jump in and help.
  • Open Door Complaint Policy. They encouraged employees to point out problems. Encouraging complaints and allowing problems to surface goes a long way toward improving the business’s structural systems.
  • Abundant Training. Zimmer characterized training as the same thing as mentoring, just that it reached more people. He also tried to give his employees a sense of being connected to something with a higher purpose. However, all training was ‘in-house’; see “wrong” section below for the other side of the training subject.
  • Tailored Performance Evaluations. While I’m generally not a fan of the Performance Eval, Men’s Wearhouse did do one thing that is worth applauding, if even for the effort: they, at least somewhat, tailored their Evals to the specific job, rather than using a “one size fits all”. This was a step in the right direction. On the down side their Evals did not have any team incentives which probably would have helped preclude inter-company competition and stealing of customers which they seemed to have some problem with.

Some of the things that I think they did wrong:

  • Nepotism. Most of the management team and board of directors were George Zimmer’s relatives and boyhood friends and nepotism was not discouraged. While it can be personally nice to work with friends and family it can substantially increase the risk of such negatives as groupthink and lack of fresh ideas.
  • No Outside Training and Promotion Only From Within. Men’s Wearhouse said that their “managers did not have the time” to do outside training. In-house training and promotion from within are nice in moderation but too much could create a stagnant situation of sparse levels of new energy and ideas.