…One of the best ways for young leaders to learn is by observing other leaders in action.
~ Company President
Who were these four young men in black? Why had four impeccably dressed men in black suits, white shirts, black ties, and black oxfords come into the room and proceeded to stand directly behind the president of the company? The expressions on their faces gave away nothing, and the CEO sitting across the table from me offered no explanation.
In 2002, I had just finished my six-year progression through the leadership chairs of the American Society for Quality (ASQ) from government division chair, to ASQ board member, to vice president, to president, to now serving as the chairman of the board of the prestigious not-for-profit association. While the elected leadership positions of the 100,000- member global association was voluntary, they brought with them significant clout, recognition, and responsibilities for standardization and improvement of products and services worldwide.
ASQ at the time was being encouraged by business leaders to advance its influence worldwide as corporate supply chains expanded internationally. As part of that expansion, I had been asked as chair of the society, to serve as ambassador in exploring global partnerships by visiting Southeast Asia to meet with counterparts in Japan, and China. These visits would culminate in a keynote speech at the Performance Excellence Conference in Seoul, South Korea.
Upon my landing at my first stop in Japan, I was greeted by my Japanese liaison.
She asked me if she could offer me a short course in Japanese customs for the evening’s dinner with one of the leaders of Japanese quality who was also the president of one of the largest construction companies in the country. As we drove to the company’s headquarters, she walked me through the protocols for proper greetings, exchange of cards and gifts, dinner etiquette, and several other important cultural rituals essential to building an important international relationship.
Were they bodyguards? Wait Staff? Potential assassins?
At exactly 7 PM, I was ushered into the private dinning room of the company president. We exchanged greetings, cards, and gifts and I was escorted to my seat directly across the table from the president. I quickly scanned the walls, which were covered pictures of construction projects the company had been a part of – including hydroelectric generation and nuclear plants, industrial campuses, and other large infrastructure projects globally. It was when I glanced back up to begin our one-on-one conversation that the four young men in black suddenly appeared without a word and took their places directly behind the president. My mind was racing trying to make sense of this. My liaison had not filled me in on this custom, nor did the president acknowledge the men in any way. Were they bodyguards? Could they be interpreters, wait staff, food tasters, potential assassins? I decided it was best not to ask and see how it played out.
I did not remember all the details of what the president and I talked about that evening, but two topics stood out. One was his asking me in a very sincere tone how a quality manager for a midsized American city like Madison, Wisconsin, could become president of the world’s leading quality organization. The other was what ASQ was sought to accomplish by encouraging the adoption of quality principles pioneered in industry to government agencies and their communities in the U.S.
He expressed genuine surprise and shared that he had never heard of such a thing and asked me how it was working. I asked him a question. “ Why should quality be limited to industry? Wouldn’t you agree that there are processes in government and the not-for-profit sector just like in your company that can be improved? “ He nodded but I could tell he was still unconvinced. I shared with him that Dr. W. Edwards Deming—whom the company president knew well from work Deming had done in Japan after WW II with leaders of Toyota, Honda, Kubota, and many other industries—was skeptical that these practices could be applied to government much less the larger community. I told him the jury was still out, but that Dr. Deming was mentoring the mayor of Madison, and me.
I told him that Dr. Deming was mentoring the mayor of Madison and me.
In fact, I went out on a limb and said I knew it COULD WORK! The issue was whether a commitment to quality and continuous improvement WOULD WORK given the revolving door nature of elected leaders in government.
While we ate and talked for over two hours, the four young men never changed position: hands folded in front of them, shoulders back, and eyes leveled at the wall behind me with no expression or emotion. They reminded me of the guards at Buckingham Palace, but without the bushy hats and guns.
When we finished our meeting, the president thanked me on behalf of the Japanese Union of Scientific Engineers (JUSE) for visiting their country and expressed their appreciation for all they had learned from American quality gurus – Dr. Deming, Dr. Juran, Myron Tribus, and many others who had helped Japanese companies recover from the devastation of World War II. I assured him that I would pass along his sentiments to leaders in quality in the United States and invited him to visit Madison to observe our work in applying quality improvement principles in government and in our community.
As I was about to leave, the president took my hand, bowed, and said, “Thank you Mosgaller-San, for allowing these young men from our company to join us tonight. We take leadership development very seriously and one of the best ways for young leaders to learn is by observing other leaders in action. I felt tonight was one of those special occasions. Now if you will excuse me, I am looking forward to having dinner with them so they can share what they learned by observing our conversation. “
I said, “ This fits with the Japanese belief that leaders have to spend time on the Gemba (the shop floor) learning how things really work from the bottom up, practicing humility, listening deeply, and walking in the shoes of the workers.”
He said, “Yes exactly. It is hard for young men to stand silently for two hours, but that is a good lesson for leaders too! It doesn’t seem that long ago I was one of those young men.”
As I flew to South Korea the next day I thought about the young men in black and wondered what they had observed the previous evening. Did they learn that quality wasn’t just for industry but could be applied to other sectors of society to make things better? Did they learn that in America a quality practitioner in a midsized city could aspire to being a leader of quality globally? Did they appreciate the impact quality practices could have on a whole community beyond the factory floor?
Did they learn that quality wasn’t just for industry but could be applied to other sectors of society to make things better?
I got my answer about six months later when I got an unexpected call from the leader of the Quality of Life Foundation in Argentina. Michael Santana was leading a delegation of Argentinian businesspeople to Japan to learn about quality. As part of their discussions, a member of the Argentine delegation had asked if the Japanese were applying quality practices in other sectors besides industry. One of the young men in black who was attending the meeting said he had observed a recent dinner with a leader of the American Society for Quality where he had learned how they were pioneering the application of quality in government and suggested he call me in Madison, Wisconsin. Mr. Santana asked me if they could stop in Madison on their way back to Argentina.
A week later, the Argentinian Quality of Life Foundation representatives came to Madison and I learned that their delegation was made up of business leaders and families that had lost love ones during the Great Disappearance ( an estimated 20,000 people had disappeared). These courageous leaders were searching for ways to adapt quality principles to rebuild the civic infrastructure in their homeland.
Thus began a long, powerful relationship between the community of Madison in partnership with the Quality of Life Foundation in driving fear out of their society and reinvigorating civic life in their country. The point of the story of the men (or women) in black, is that leaders not only learn a lot by observing but they can pass that learning on to others who can use their own imagination to improve their situation.
I wrote “Four Men in Black” because in my many years of working on the development of leaders in all three sectors of society, I have rarely seen as disciplined an approach to developing leaders like I witnessed in this story and I feel as a major advantage for this company.
- It was active – You learned by doing, listening, practicing.
- It was intentional – It was highly prized and recognized as valuable.
- It was an investment – They believed the future depended on it.
- It combined action and reflection into a disciplined approach to leadership.
- It got results – The return on investment was evident at every level of the company.
Maybe Yogi Berra, that font of folk wisdom, could add another quote to his list of lessons,
“Yes, you can see a lot by observing,” but better still, a leader passes it on, and makes the world a better place. “
Tom Mosgaller has led change in city government, business, and healthcare. He is past president of the American Society for Quality (ASQ) and the Madison Area Quality Improvement Network (MAQIN). His experience as a community organizer has shaped his approach to engaging people in creating positive change.
Photo by Michal Matlon on Unsplash