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Column: Leaders need open-mindedness


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We certainly have a lot of leadership issues here in Columbus, from the local parks department to downtown space/design to Cummins diversity. I see a common thread through all of these. Rich Gold’s well-written letter on positional power vs. referent power played out one aspect of this. For me there is an underlying bigger issue at stake here that we may be missing. It is all about open-mindedness.

It is an issue that has been around for a long time in Columbus and most of the world. Many in life struggle with the conflict between those who believe that they know what should be and those who are exploring what can be. We live in a great laboratory of all that. And this is what is behind what is going on right now. At least, I think it is.

I want to use another story of my Cummins history to illustrate this. Back in the early 1980s, Jim Henderson (then the president of Cummins) went to Japan and came back rather stunned. He had seen what Toyota was doing with manufacturing, and he was awestruck. He called a few of us together and said that “this is the future.”

A great example of his open-mindedness. He asked me to help him lead this transformation of Cummins, and I was honored and blessed by his confidence in me. Unfortunately, we both underestimated how hard this change would be. But it set me on my future career. I do not think very many realize that willingness of Jim to take that risk. As far as I could gather, not one Fortune 500 company had tried a total company shift before we did that here.

This was in line with a long history of Cummins taking risks in the workplace. Not all worked out, but Walesboro, Charleston, S.C, Jamestown, N.Y., Rocky Mount, N.C., and other efforts were examples of trying to learn how to be the best and not be satisfied with thinking we already know.

It is what attracted me to come to work here. It was not all roses. I remember my first walk-through of the main engine plant in 1977. I asked lots of questions about some dubious manufacturing methods, and my guide looked at me and said, “Son, I have been making engines for 30 years. How long you been making them?” That is a closed mind. We had them here. It was not an easy task to get “experts” to be open to new ideas.

After I left Cummins, I came back to consult to Arvin and was met with such a closed-minded management, and that really disappointed me. After all, I still lived here. This was in the 1990s, and they were convinced that they already knew all the right answers. I hope I do not have to explain any more of that story. This was far too typical of many of the companies I consulted to. They did not want to hear about any Japanese methods. They were doing fine, for now. Many of them are now gone.

My point here is, leadership has to encourage open-mindedness to our rapidly shifting technologies, to learning from other cultures and viewpoints, to accepting the contributions of people of different colors, ethnicities, sexual orientations and world views.

It is not about advocating gay marriage as much as an attitude that is not closed and that there are many other perspectives. It is a mind-set that welcomes looking at the changes that are going on in our shrinking world. That our customers may no longer look like us, think like us, act like us, but they are why we are in business.

I watched as Joe Loughrey and Tim Solso and now Tom Linebarger carried on what Jim had started at Cummins (and J. Irwin Miller before him), and it is not a done thing. The necessity of open-minded people is what will carry Cummins forward to be successful in the future.

How do we begin this open-minded way of looking at things? One way is to encourage dialogue instead of so much vicious debate. I am not sure many understand the difference between dialogue and debate. Debate starts with a strong position, builds a case to prove it and then defends that preconceived answer.

Too much debate tends to set people in concrete around their current ideas. All the work of defending and attacking builds up a resistance to new ways of looking at things. That is true of both the left and the right.

Dialogue begins with a question, a curiosity about what is going on, why something persists as an issue. Then both sides explore what it is about in the effort to seek a common ground. It is an inclusion process that values different perspectives. It digs into the underlying things that may be keeping a chronic problem alive and well. This was the essence of continuous improvement that I worked at for years.

This takes a rare form of leadership, one that does not divide and conquer, but that admits that there is help needed. That is willing to see where the data takes us. To be open to solutions not seen before.

It is not easy. Most of us are well-trained in the debate mode (just go look at the comment section of the letters to the editor). This dialogue stuff is rather a strange animal to most. But as we can see around us, the taking of sides, throwing rocks and digging in do no one much good.

We need to be open-minded in our government, not convinced that my way is the only way; to be open to new designs of spaces and places, not that they will all be perfect, but that we explore. We need to welcome all the various people arriving to make this town work. This is one very unique town, and I think it is that open mind-set, which goes back a long time, that makes it this way. It is why I still live here.

Columbus retiree Tom Lane served as a consultant to a number of companies in his career. In recent years his has been a familiar name to readers of The Republic’s letters to the editor. He can be reached at editorial@therepublic.com.

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