In our COLE coffee chat today, I posed the question: "How do you keep people motivated when the projects they work on are sometimes horribly unsuccessful due to external factors that they had no control over?" If you are a leader of a team that threw every ounce of energy into Waxman-Markey, and then watched it go down in flames, how do pick yourselves up again and say, "the effort was valuable?"
Our conversation was led by Ted Ryan, who teaches a course on Ethics at Fuqua and poses questions such as "What is the NPV of hope?" He said that the way to motivate was to remind, every day, of the inherent nobility of working on a cause to "Save the world." But what really captured me was Dan Baum who brought up the Mississippi Freedom Party.
I didn't know much about it, but here is what I have found:
In 1964, the Democratic Party of Mississippi only allowed whites to join. The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party involved 80,000 casting ballots for an integrated group of delegates. However, when these delegates went to the Democratic National Convention, they were denied seats and votes. By all means, this tens-of-thousands-strong movement was a failure.
The walls of NCTC are hung with the photos and stories of conservationists associated with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. When you walk through the buildings and lodges you see Teddy Roosevelt, Rachel Carson, Ding Darling, Aldo Leopold, and many less-prominent names. Although I'd read about land use history in this country, and read the books and philosophies of many of those people, seeing their faces turned on a light in me. I felt, suddenly, that I was part of a much longer story.
Dan said, "Those people in the Mississippi Freedom Party must have felt terrible after they failed. But look what happened after them. Look what they laid the groundwork for."
Ted corroborated, "You sometimes see so many young people come to big problems and throw themselves at it again and again, and they burn out fast until, disillusioned, they give up."
What does it mean, to Save The World? For the first time I realized that it is never something you do alone. Yes, there are charismatic, accomplished people who stand up and stand out. They, by the force of their personality and talent, in combination with timing and luck move the needle further than many of the rest of us. But these people are few and far between, and so each of us has a responsibility to move the needle in our own way. We must crank the gears so those behind us can continue in our footsteps.
Businesses that stick around are the ones that think in long time frames - past the time of just one CEO, and certainly past the success of just one product.
These conservationists - true ones, not hybrid oddities like me - should never be put in a place where they feel their fires have burned so hot for so long, that they must go out. They should never have to suffer the poison of bitterness from undone work, from hopelessness. On the drive back from West Virginia, Dean Urban mentioned that the environmental movement has learned virtually nothing from the civil rights movement, and the gender rights movements that came before it.
By talking about history, and looking outside of the conservation movement, we can cause the fire in the best and brightest to burn not for years, but for decades.