An Entirely Different Elephant
Editor's Notebook 2001One day a small boy was on an African safari with his family when he wandered off on his own. It didn't take long for the poor boy to get hopelessly lost in the tangled jungle. As he cried for his parents, a lone elephant with a large thorn lodged in his foot staggered by. Feeling sorry for the creature, the boy pried the thorn from the elephant's foot with all his might. The elephant gazed gratefully at the child and, sensing his dilemma, guided the boy back to his camp. Reunited with his parents, the boy quickly looked back to catch a glimpse of the pachyderm disappearing back into the jungle.
Twenty years later, the boy now grown to be a father of his own, went to the circus and sat right in the very front row. When the elephant act began, one of the elephants kept looking at the man. Eventually, the elephant walked over to him, gently picked him up with his trunk - then repeatedly dashed the hapless man to the ground and trampled him to death in front of the stunned crowd.
Turns out, it was an entirely different elephant!
But seriously folks, how often have you went into an event thinking you knew full well how it would play out based on past experience, only to find out you assumed incorrectly?
For the past several January issues, we've asked our columnists to write about a common theme. This time around with the presidential inauguration at hand (although at the time we all wrote our columns, we did not know the "official" president), we thought it best to write on what we would do if we were president of the plumbing and/or heating industry.
While the president himself certainly wields a lot of power, above all the president's real influence resides in making it possible to get the legislative branch, not to mention 300 million citizens, each possessing free will and free choice, to move forward together on a common purpose.
Boiled down, being president of anything is about getting other people to follow you - often to places they've never been before. One element in making that happen is inspiring a shared vision.
As with our elephant joke, there's more to life than acting in the here and now based entirely on what you think you know about the past. We emphasize "entirely" since we are not saying that past experience doesn't matter. Everyone certainly learns from past mistakes as well as successes. While understanding the past is a natural first step, it alone is not the best diviner of providing insight into the future.
George Dubya's quest for the presidency got us thinking about how his father was criticized for lacking vision. His dad even belittled the concept, referring to it as "the vision thing."
It seems to us that an effective president presents a personal vision of what the future should look like, often doing so without any maps to study, guidebooks to read, or pictures to view. Sort of like creating the future from the future itself - and only then looking "back" to the present to find your way.
"In some ways, leaders live their lives backward," say James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner, authors of "The Leadership Challenge." "They gaze across the horizon of time, imagining the attractive opportunities that are in store when they and their constituents arrive at a distant destination. The clear image of the future pulls them forward."
While having a vision implies a quasimystical experience reserved for a few, all of us make efforts to see the future, say the authors. "We do it every time we plan a trip for the summer or put a little money in the bank for our retirement. While some of us may have greater creative imaginations than others, it's a more common skill than some have assumed."
As close as the Bush-Gore vote was, neither candidate presented a compelling vision, at least not while on the campaign trail. But what about you and your business? What do you see that isn't? We'll give you one.
One aspect of your profession that strikes us as currently underserved is water purification. The last national consumer survey conducted by the Water Quality Association in 1999, emphasized the dissatisfaction people have with their tap water:
- About 75 percent have some concerns regarding the quality of their household water supply.
- Almost 50 percent are concerned about possible health-related contaminants.
- One in five is dissatisfied with the quality of his or her household water supply.
- One in three believes his or her water is not as safe as it should be.
- More than 45 percent would like to know more about the quality of their household water supply.
Many other businesses other than plumbing contractors have already jumped on this bandwagon. Biased as we are, we don't think many of these other parties have the knowledge plumbing contractors have. Nor do these other businesses have the access to people's homes as you do.
How to make it all happen? Well, inspiring a shared vision is only one of the attributes Kouzes and Posner explain. For one thing, "inspiring" means no one person can simply command commitment. And for another, "shared" means that visions seen only by one person remain locked firmly in that person's head.
We could write a book, but then again it's already been written. Pick up a copy of "The Leadership Challenge;" we'll even put it on our Web site to make it easier to order. Maybe you'll see that the vision thing is no more abstract than a wrench in your hands.