College Quarterly
Spring 2004 - Volume 7 Number 2
Notes … And Dignity for All: Unlocking Greatness through Values-based Leadership.
James Despain and Jane Bodman Converse
Upper Saddle River, NJ (Pearson Education, 2003).

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

The world is so full of "how-to", "self-help", "guide to instant success" and "corporate management for beginners" books that it seems almost unseemly to write about one in The College Quarterly. On the one hand, it is probably unfair to single one out for special treatment since they are dripping off the shelves of every big box book store within range of an aspirant Lexus driver in a twelve-step program. On the other hand, as the old lady said about voting: "Why should I, my dear? It only encourages them."

Rather than remain stand-offish in the face of the Oprahfication of the remains of civilization, I have decided to address, if not exactly embrace, the genre. The volume I have chosen is James Despain's " … And Dignity for All," with authorship shared by Jane Bodman Converse, a long-time associate and partner in DespainConverse consulting company. If Converse is the "communications player," it is Despain who runs the game.

Like the mythical Lee Iacocca, and any number of corporate heroes who came upon a private enterprise in trouble and facilitated its restoration, Phoenix-like, to fiscal respectability, Despain has a story of rejuvenation and corporate culture change. Unlike most such change champions, however, Jim Despain never finished high school. His employer, Caterpillar Inc. Track-Type Tractors Division, employed him for forty-three years in capacities from factory broom sweeper to Corporate Vice-President. The secret of his success, it is said, was his direct experience with work at all levels and his respect for all workers, no matter what their particular tasks within the organization.

We have heard a great deal about corporate culture, best practices, re-engineering and so on during the past few decades. Every fashion purloined and adapted from the so-called Japanese miracle (which was based on North American corporate practices duly purloined and adapted by the Japanese) has had its day. Total Quality Management, Quality of Working Life, Employee Empowerment and other fads gave expression to the notion that a successful organization needed the loyalty and commitment of its workers, especially in the development of innovation and entrepreneurship. These exercises, of course, have been less successful than they might have been since successful organizations display little loyalty and commitment to their workers.

Working smarter and faster and for longer hours can only go so far when the mark of exceptional employees is that they can work themselves right out of a job. Downsizing, outsourcing and off-shoring employment is not apt to win much support on any shop floor.

Despain, of course, has the answer. In an age in which corporate corruption, in both private and public institutions, is blatant, the key to turning a badly performing institution around is to focus on values. This approach is widely touted across our society. Every school in my region is committed to building "character communities," in which children are encouraged to live up to inventories of admirable cookie-cutter virtues such as honesty, enthusiasm and perseverance. More experimental aesthetic and political values with a critical edge and a commitment to social justice are left out of the catalogue. The point of such endeavours is to improve the predictability of individuals as producers and consumers and not the generosity of the institutions within which they perform their assigned roles. Ideological regimentation and behavioural self-regulation are the principal mechanisms through which values can be reinvented as methods of social control.

Jim Despain expands these notions into the domain of reciprocally reinforcing corporate populism. The book is a homely tribute to being nice, but also firm. Everyone is worthy of respect and respect must be shown to all. An important corollary of this principle is the importance of discipline, since laziness (underperformance) implies disrespect for those who work hard (exceed expectations). Organizations prosper only when employees are recognised, encouraged and given the freedom to do their best because they want to and not because they have to. An atmosphere of coercion, a strategy of micromanagement and a corporate culture of exclusively top-down decision making is, for Despain, a formula for disaster.

The counter formula, expressed in an appendix called "Our Common Values" (and copyrighted by Caterpillar) builds on trust and mutual respect. It promotes teamwork, empowerment, risk taking and a pervasive sense of urgency. It aims at continuous improvement and commitment. Its ultimate goal is customer satisfaction.

Despain gives a splendid example of values-based leadership in operation. As president of a Caterpillar "joint venture" in Mexico, he was confronted by labour troubles. A strike was called and the workers went on the picket line. Fortunately for the company, the "Our Common Values" program had already been started. So, many workers crossed their own picket line. Once inside, they found a warm atmosphere of mutual support. Meanwhile "vicious" union members showed "disdain" for the company and tried to win a "fair contract." Their tactics included "choking traffic and screaming obscenities at those who crossed the line."

Valiant to the end, Jim Despain knew that "the company was not to be broken." With loyal workers crossing the line every day, productivity was increased. The sense of "we" versus "they" vanished as everyone, management and scab alike, pursued their common interest. Confronted by such enthusiastic co-optation, the union was doomed.

This book and its tale of a modern Horatio Alger may not have been as inspirational as it was intended to be, but maybe, as a union steward, I am just prejudiced. Those who enjoy this sort of thing will find Jim Despain's "aw, shucks" approach to profit maximization and union-busting bracing. If nothing else, it reinforces the truth so eloquently expressed Pierre Boulle's dopplegänger, General Yamashita: "Be Happy in Your Work!"


Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College, King City. His email address is howard.doughty@senecac.on.ca

Notes

• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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2004 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology