By Gregory Pings
The mind of man is the only instrument which, when stretched, does not return to its original dimension. We credit this insight to the American poet Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., gender biases notwithstanding. This type of stretching creates tremendous challenges for people. Here’s how modern day Xerox founder Joe Wilson put it nearly 45 years ago. “It requires people who can withstand great pressures, it requires resilient people. It requires people who have the stamina to accept change.”
On this celebration of Labor Day in the United States and Canada, I offer insight from Joe Wilson. The words are old, but they are not dusty; in this age where change is the only constant, let us reflect on the men and women who work to enrich our lives and make this constant change meaningful. What follows are excerpts from “The Royal Role,” a speech that has stood the test of time which Joe delivered to Xerox managers in 1971.
The Importance of the Individual
We all know that organizations have strength and that there are some things that cannot be done except through the institution. However, bear in mind that the only reason any of us is here today is because of one man’s invention. That man was Chester Carlson, a beleaguered man – I won’t belabor the story, you’ve all read about it — but I constantly remind myself that the idea, the germ, the thing that created the phenomenon of xerography was born in the mind of one single individual working on weekends in a little apartment in Long Island.
As we mobilize the great forces to bring sophisticated products into being, I pray that this organization will not forget that perhaps the greatest one may be born in some one individual’s mind in an obscure laboratory somewhere. If that happens, I hope that the organizational red tape won’t be so acute that the idea won’t be accepted and won’t move forward. I hope there will be the necessary discernment to do something about it.
Motivation is another thing. I think motivation of individuals is terribly important. The only reason that we were given the opportunity to work with xerography was because we were so hungry to do something after the war. We were striving to find some new things because we recognized that, without a new product or technology, we would soon be obliterated. To make a long story short, we were able to persuade Battelle Memorial Institute to give us the opportunity to take xerography and work with it and run with it and make it a world-wide service because we convinced them that we did indeed intend to do something about it. They felt that the big companies with whom they were talking might put this technology on a back burner and not do anything with it. The key point here is that individuals have the determination and the willingness and the motivation to do something.
I’d like to emphasize the self-evident fact that we are dependent upon young people. This is one of the reasons why the great growth of Xerox took place under the leadership of young people, not old people. This is the reason why we feel so strongly that people in their forties should be running this company. Anything that’s going to change as fast as this company is changing, anything that’s going to put the stress on people requires the leadership and stamina that young people can provide. I would like to suggest to everyone at Xerox that the great opportunities in this company are going to come to young people.
The Royal Role
In conclusion, I would like to repeat a quotation from the American poet, Robert Frost. In a few sentences, he provides the spirit which I think must be preserved in this corporation if we are to maintain our enormous momentum:“Let’s keep starring man in the royal role. It will not be his ever to create one least germ or coal, those two things he cannot, but the comfort is in the covenant we may get control, if not of the whole, of at least some part, where not too immense. So by craft and art we can give the part wholeness in a sense. …Keep on elevating but while meditating what we can’t or can, let’s keep starring man in the royal role.”
More from Joe Wilson
Subscribe to Simplify Work and receive email updates when we publish a new article.