On Management

Dec. 21, 2004
On self-reliance and the Wizard of Oz.

The last two lines of Ralph Waldo Emerson's famous essay "Self Reliance" assert: "Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles." Emerson is considered by many to be one of the first great philosophic minds to surface in the American Republic. Born in Boston, one of the centers of the new republic, he seemed to strike a chord in the hearts and minds of Americans with his writings. One could almost say his ideas were intrinsic to the principles upon which this great nation was founded. At a personal level, Emerson's basic theme was: Trust your instincts. Years later L. Frank Baum delivered a similar message in his story -- actually a series of stories -- The Wizard of Oz. Originally written in 1900 and made into a movie in 1939, this epic tale has captivated the hearts and minds of children and adults for almost 100 years. At the same time, it teaches a lesson that every manager and professional -- indeed, every person -- should take to heart. Frequently in the world of business we are like the characters in The Wizard of Oz, searching for the Emerald City and the mysterious wizard who will solve our problems and bestow upon us all the characteristics we fear we are lacking. The Scarecrow needed a brain, the Tin Woodman needed a heart, and the Cowardly Lion needed courage. No doubt you can think of many people in your company who could use all three of these attributes. The truth, revealed so dramatically at the end of the movie version (I hope I'm not spoiling it for anyone who hasn't seen it), is that the journey to find the wizard proved to each of the characters that what they were seeking was already inside each of them and simply needed to be recognized, acknowledged, and used. Thus it is with all of us. I think that if Emerson were alive today, he would look with disdain upon all the hand-wringing going on about "political correctness" and the self-doubt that it incubates. Perhaps the following passages from "Self Reliance" will shed light on the essence of his timeless message:

  • To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men -- that is genius. (How often have you been guilty of saying "I knew that was what should be done," yet you lacked the courage to say so publicly when it counted?)
  • What I must do is all that concerns me, not what people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness.
  • We pass for what we are. Character teaches above our wills. Men imagine that they communicate their virtue or vice only by overt actions, and do not see that virtue or vice emit a breath every moment.
To paraphrase a familiar adage, sometimes your actions speak so loudly that others cannot hear what your words are saying. People will judge you by what you believe and what you do on a day-to-day basis, not merely by what you say. The truth will be conveyed by the composite of your actions. Great leaders have an innate sense of this; they have an aura about them that others perceive, even though they often cannot identify it in words. Whether it is the brains, the heart, or the courage, you have it inside you -- if only you will allow it to be fully developed, appreciated, and used. Earlier this year, my column "The death of ethics?" (Jan. 5, Page 68) brought an encouraging response from readers. Just as Dorothy simply wanted to find her way from Oz to her home in Kansas, many of you just want to find a place where principles still rule over convenient, dishonest, or unethical behavior. There are always a few people who will take the easy route and blame their failings on others or on circumstances. Most people want to manage the right way, lead the right way, and live by Emerson's rules of self reliance. You have the brains, the heart, and the courage inside you to make a difference in your place of work and in the world. Go do it. Life is too short to spend searching for your own Wizard of Oz. John Mariotti, a former manufacturing CEO, is president of The Enterprise Group, a consulting business. He lives in Knoxville. His e-mail address is [email protected].

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