The Technology of Human Accomplishment

November 20, 2012

This year’s ASCE Annual Conference keynote speaker was David Lapin, founder of Lapin International and author of Lead by Greatness.

From the start of his presentation, Mr. Lapin challenged our preconceived notion of leadership. Can institutional improvements be achieved by top down directives? To a point, perhaps, but Mr. Lapin suggested that the next revolution in productivity will come from improved relationships between colleagues. Mr. Lapin argues that the technology of human accomplishment is based on trust and shared values. Leaders who understand how to connect with their employees’ humanity will be more successful.

Mr. Lapin’s presentation was highlighted by a series of personal but effective stories. He began by describing the mundane event that he credits with changing his approach to leadership. After a long, difficult business trip, Mr. Lapin encountered a billboard in LAX airport that simply implored, “do more!” At first, he was offended – how could he possibly do more… work more, study more. What he really needed to do was accomplish more without doing anything more. He began studying visionaries that accomplished more by instilling in their followers a passionate sense of purpose. Unfortunately, few managers practice the principles that Mr. Lapin espouses. According to a recent report, less than 5% of employees feel ‘highly’ inspired at work (LRN, The HOW Report 2012).

The visionaries that Mr. Lapin wanted to emulate set their organizations apart by infusing them with innovation, energy, and heroic performance. The latter is a unique trait meant to explain how some inspiring leaders can motivate their followers without actually promising a tangible reward. Such inspiration occurs at the confluence of personal connection and professional challenge. In his book, Mr. Lapin identifies eight character traits that define great leaders.

  1. Exceptional leaders are vehemently authentic in their own values.
  2. They have a sense of personal destiny.
  3. They have mastery over their challenges.
  4. They are humble enough to recognize that they are part of a bigger whole.
  5. They admit their own vulnerability.
  6. They craft environments in which people feel safe to give of themselves generously.
  7. They are aware of differences in culture.
  8. They trust their inner wisdom.

To inspire, managers must set aside the 19th century way of thinking that people work only for what they can get and not for what they can give. In a 2010 TED lecture, hotelier Chip Conley expressed a different approach to management, “business must create the conditions for employees to live their calling [sic].” Likewise, Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl observed, “spiritual life strengthened the prisoner, helped him adapt, and thereby improved his chance of survival.” Frankl’s thinking posits that a sense of higher purpose is so important to people that many people put their values before their own survival. Another way of contemplating this concept is to assume that man has two operating systems: animal instinct versus inspired heroes. The later is a choice that serves the well being of the soul, possibly at peril to the body. Vitor Frankl personally observed that people who shared their rations with others in the Nazi death camps lived for a higher purpose and had a higher survival rate than those who stole other people’s food. Powerful stuff!

In order to activate the inspired hero in our comrades and ourselves, Mr. Lapin explains that we must understand our spiritual fingerprint. First, identify your value-drivers by considering the values for which you have made a meaningful sacrifice at some time in your life. Have you sacrificed for education, family, in the name of honesty, etc.? Now honestly rank these drivers, and place the most important at the core of concentric circles. Although two individuals may share the same value-drivers, their application of these values can vary greatly based on the hierarchy. Identifying the relative import of another’s values can help disarm conflict.

The concept of a hierarchy of values can equally be applied to different national and corporate cultures. Mr. Lapin described how he was able to find resolution in a post-apartheid labor dispute in South Africa. On a safari into the African bush a week before an important business negotiation, Mr. Lapin described his looming challenge to his elderly African guide. The guide cut to the chase when asked why African workers were so much less productive than other cultures for their western managers, “they [the managers] do not know how to talk to us.” He further explained that in African culture there is hardly anything so discourteous as to give another person a directive. Instead, the worker should be engaged as an equal and then politely asked for help. Personal dignity is at the core of the culture’s values. It’s worth noting that politely asking for help works equally well in the American culture too.

Mr. Lapin went on to describe the values of one particular US-based international client. They placed efficiency at their core, then respect, trust, and compensation in order. Work efficiently and be respected. Earn trust through respect and compensation after entering the circle of trust. This model didn’t work in China, where the local culture places respect at the core of one’s values. Offer respect to earn one’s trust and achieve efficiency thereafter. In Saudi Arabia trust is most central, and that may mean offering compensation before efficiency is achieved. As such, Mr. Lapin noted it’s more effective to top before services are rendered when visiting Saudi Arabia.

Mr. Lapin ended his presentation with the most personal story in his book. Mr. Lapin is Jewish, a rabbi even. Early in his business career he was faced with a test of his authenticity. He was to meet with a respected business and religious leader of the Moslem community in a city in Iran. Mr. Lapin was advised to find a replacement for the trip or, at the very least, not to reveal his faith. However, confident in his authenticity, he made no change to his appearance and initiated the meeting. The other business leader immediately recognized Mr. Lapin’s authenticity and respected his openness. Although they differed greatly in worldviews, the two men shared a core value-driver, sought common ground, and were able to have a profitable business relationship.

The presentation was very inspirational. I was among the first in line to buy Lead by Greatness. Mr. Lapin’s focus on values gives voice to a new generation of workers who are seeking more from employment than economic rewards. I look forward to your comments about the technology of human accomplishment. Please leave your thoughts below.

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