Some Great Business Advice from 1958: Beauty in Management

A New Year’s Resolution for your business, for your consideration.

Xerox is celebrating the 75th anniversary of the invention of xerography, the process that creates copies and prints from dry powder instead of wet ink.

Getting from invention to a machine that automatically created copies with the single push of a button was no easy task. It nearly did not happen until Joe Wilson saw vast possibilities in what everyone else dismissed as (at best) an uninspiring demonstration. Wilson’s little Haloid Company of Rochester, N.Y., purchased the rights to that process in 1950 – 12 years after it was invented. His company spent the rest of a decade figuring out how to make it easy to use.

Joe Wilson
“He who denies that the humanities are an indispensable part of a business manager’s training, attests his ignorance of true leadership.” – Joseph C. Wilson

The vision and courage required for this odyssey cannot be understated, but that’s a story for another time. For now, we share this article that Joe wrote in 1958, about a year before the 914 Copier made its debut. By this time, Haloid Xerox had spent nearly $12 million to develop the 914, which was more money than the company had earned since 1950. Reading only this article, you would never know that this little company was deep in debt, and its flagship product in doubt.

Here, Joe Wilson lays out the essential qualities a business person needs in order to inspire his people and make his business succeed. It’s nothing less than a guide on how to transform a company, a business, an industry — while serving the people who share a stake every step of the way. We believe Joe’s advice is every bit as insightful and prophetic today as it was in 1958.

For your consideration, we present: “Beauty in Management” by Joseph C. Wilson.

The Challenge

The unknowing to the contrary, the life of the businessman in this century is rich in the intellectual challenge imposed by dazzling technological and social change. It is ruthlessly demanding of the courage and integrity needed to face with equanimity sudden crisis deeply involving the treasured interests of others and, equally, the slow remorseless stubborn trends which threaten the bases of the society in which he believes.

The best of them must have, on the one hand, the resources of the artist whose penetrating perception allows him to master and interpret phenomena he does not fully comprehend; and yet, on the other, he must strive constantly for the facts the scientist wants and use his method of precision. Statesmen, more than politicians, toil for higher goals while they hold tenaciously to the realization that men are not angels. Businessmen, more than money changers, must work with human beings and, the most rigorous obligation of all, create in them a common will to do worthwhile work, to achieve together aims which add dignity to their lives and pride in the company of their associates.

A Role of Loneliness

Every businessman who must make the final decision lives at times in a kind of impenetrable loneliness where judgment and its consequences loom large and awful because they focus so tightly on one being. Then the price of power seems high. But more often comes the ecstasy of common aspiration and effort, of the well-joined movement of the group toward valuable objectives through an imaginative, creative process over which no man has control but which must be studied with insight and acted upon with vigor, else others suffer or gain. So great a swing from solitude to community sometimes brings strain to the most resilient personality.

This is a role that calls for a scholar’s willingness to study, analyze, and synthesize, to project bravely, to hypothesize with boldness and wisdom, and then to act from intellectual premises. Those who scoff at the businessman do not understand the good ones and the satisfying richness of their job’s demands upon them, just as many businessmen who shrug off the academician do not appreciate the seminal contribution the true lover of knowledge makes to a free society.

“The head of a business works with people, and all other phases of his task pale in significance compared to this need to know human beings …”

Working with People

The head of a business works with people, and all other phases of his task pale in significance compared to this need to know human beings, to understand the complexity of their characters and motives, to persuade them of sound judgments, and above all to inspire in them the desire to lift their joint efforts to planes above those which their individual capacities could achieve.

Think of that line of Browning’s, “This high man, aiming at a million, misses an unit.” In ten words, it distills an essence of business leadership, and it comes from nineteenth-century English poetry, not the curriculum of the Graduate School of Business Administration, Harvard University, partial as I am to Alma Mater.

Arnold Toynbee’s figure of the toilers, leaping from ledge to ledge, slowly, steadily climbing the abyss up the precipice toward civilization, contains all the wisdom the manager needs to know about the process of creativity in his research department.

Plato’s chained men, searching for truth by observing the flickering shadows of reality on the cave’s back wall, illuminate for all time the industrial relations director’s problem of communication.

He who denies that the humanities are an indispensable part of a business manager’s training, attests his ignorance of true leadership.

Once when I was making such an assertion in public, a tough-minded personnel man stumped me with this question, “Why do you management people talk like that, but when you send us out to hire a young fellow for a specific job, you stipulate that he should have a business administration degree, or one in accounting, in physics, or chemistry, or electrical engineering, and never that he be an English or philosophy major?”

The answer I could not find that day came after much brooding, and I regret to say it reflects on our foresight to the degree the question is precise. The answer, of course, is that not many of us have the wit to start out to hire the man who will be president two decades hence.

“Greatness is not the stuff of dreams; human effort must be successful to be great in business, as in art.”

Beauty in Harmony

The higher the responsibility, the more understanding required. It is the general manager who most evidently needs to know what Browning meant. He is the one who must take responsibility for articulating human activity into an order as elegant as the abstraction of an algebraic “group.” The builders of the Catholic Church were artists as great as Leonardo da Vinci. The harmony of an organization, smoothly working toward goals of value, is as beautiful as a Beethoven quartet.

Unless its leaders understand beauty and the relationship of these three beautiful things, they cannot inspire. This is the heart of the matter. The fact that few businessmen attain such richness and joy of understanding does not detract from the validity of the hypothesis that the best ones do; few artists are Michelangelos.

So much talk of beauty and joy should not obscure the fact that the end of enterprise is profit. It is no good for harmonious, humanitarian, just, creative managements to close their books on a loss. The Sistine Chapel had to be finished; War and Peace was finally written. Greatness is not the stuff of dreams; human effort must be successful to be great in business, as in art. It is more likely to succeed in any field if the common denominator, man, is comprehended.

Organized human endeavor can be lifted an order of magnitude through leadership if it is inspiring. The springs of inspiration lie deep in the knowledge of all that is worst and best in men and in the whole-hearted acceptance of that worst and best. To lead well is to know people and to know, above all, that they are always people. The roots of that knowledge are in the sturdy minds and noble souls of the centuries.

That low man seeks a little thing to
Sees it and does it:
This high man, with a great thing to
Dies ere he knows it.
That low man goes on adding one to
His hundred’s soon hit:
This high man, aiming at a million,
Misses an unit.

-Robert Browning
“A Grammarian’s Funeral”

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