Fifty years ago this month—in May of 1967—Walter J. Campbell, the legendary editor-in-chief of Steel Magazine and then of its successor IndustryWeek, took a chance and hired a young writer whose background was in broadcast journalism, not print media.
I was that writer.
The United States, indeed the world, was quite different then. Lyndon B. Johnson was in the penultimate year of his presidency in 1967. The war in Viet Nam raged, and so did many of its protestors. LSD was a familiar acronym; LED was not. Two men from Earth had yet to be the first humans to walk on its moon. A politician from California was yet to be the first person to resign the presidency of the United States. A man from Michigan had yet to be the first un-elected Vice President and un-elected President of The United States.
We journalists wrote words on a Royal Standard typewriter and filed them by Western Union.
A smart phone was a desktop telephone whose color was other than black.
In 1967, American manufacturing executives remained unsure of bottom-line benefits of an investment tax credit and of accelerated depreciation of assets. Yet many were convinced their companies’ very existences were imperiled by imports of “cheap” foreign steel, autos, and electronics. Despite the intent of the Trade Expansion Act of 1963, in the United States in 1967 there was far less talk among manufacturers of lowering tariffs and revising the rules of international trade than of protecting domestic markets and “saving” U.S. industry. Global economic interdependence was more of an academic notion than a complex and often-confounding economic reality.
Fifty years on, international economic interdependence is not an academic notion, although some leaders in industry and politics wish it were only that. Economic independence again has come—or is coming—to the forefront in the United States, in the rest of the Americas, in Europe, and in Asia. It is a development that leaders in manufacturing enterprises around the world ignore or deny at their peril.
Fifty years on, executives in manufacturing ignore or deny at their peril a resurgence of reasoned and unreasoned assertions on the proper roles of the private sector and the public sector in society. Indeed, in the United States, the proposition of running government like a business is closer to being a governing principle on a scale never before seen—even as the words “business” and “government” remain inadequately defined.
Fifty years on, it is incumbent upon the men and women of business, in concord or in conflict, to think about the conditions of their economic, social, and political environments and to advocate public policy positions with clarity.
Fifty years on, it is incumbent upon the women and men in business to consider whether “business” and “ethics” are mutually inclusive terms. Beyond legal and fiduciary requirements, do companies, corporations, and partnerships have social responsibilities? Does a manufacturer have a responsibility to be a moral force, a moral leader, a moral teacher? Are these questions as fundamental to a business as “Why do we exist?”
Fifty years on, every manager, every executive, in manufacturing needs to ask and answer the question: “Why do we exist?” The existential question is as ancient as the writings of the early Greek philosophers and as modern as the demands of contemporary global manufacturing. Only after executives have established compelling reasons for their companies to be in business do they have a responsible basis for asking and answering such operational questions as: What are our strengths? Our weaknesses? Our capital and human resource requirements?
Fifty years on, either/or thinking, aided and abetted by generally accepted accounting principles, continues to drive managers in manufacturing to categorize virtually everything as an asset or a liability and focuses their attention only on the bottom line of profit and loss.
Fifty years on, paying attention on the creative process of continuous improvement—an interdependent process of measuring, analyzing, and justifying—should be among the essential responsibilities of executives in manufacturing.
Fifty years on, the pressures by parents and the marketplace for students to graduate from school with skills matched to the moment is a serious cause for concern. Education is not—nor should it be—simply the acquisition of specific skills and techniques. Education is—and should be—about acquiring the bases for asking questions about skills, and techniques, and principles. Education is—and should be—about challenging current and conventional wisdom, whether the subject is English or engineering, French or physics, mathematics or music, programming or probabilities.
Fifty years on, in our public and private lives, in our businesses and in our governments, truths are less than self-evident. Accusation, innuendo, insinuation and just plain lies seem to be the new truths, the “alternate facts.” None of these is better for humankind, for truths denied, dismissed, or deferred benefit no one—no individual, no business, no nation. The truth is that in all aspects of our lives, if we fail to ask questions and seek answers, if we fail to seek counsel outside ourselves, we encourage the present demagogues of the right and of the left to exceed the demagogues of the past in both reach and grasp.
This is the final essay in a series of occasional essay by John S. McClenahen, an award-winning writer who for four decades covered international economics, public policy, and management principles for IndustryWeek and was, in 1987, the first Press Fellow from the United States at Wolfson College, Cambridge.