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Motivation And Modern Leadership; Surprising Agile Lessons From 1967

In 1967, Robert Kinsley, a WWII veteran, husband, and father of 3, was the Manager of Web Operations for Burroughs Corp out of Rochester, NY. He was interviewed for an article in the publication then known as “Line & Staff – Technical Engineering and Management”.

I never got a chance to ask him what “web operations” meant in 1967 as it has a significant role in the year 2020 and I'm pretty confident they aren't the same. But, when I received the saved article from his wife of 75 years, it stood out to me that this was a man clearly ahead of his time.

The title of the article was “Motivation Means Is Management’s Responsibility”.

Don’t get me wrong, there are various 1967 verbiage taking place throughout the piece, but if you peer through the time-space language filter, you will see forward-thinking concepts around teams, motivation, and modern leadership.

The techniques surrounding how to motivate people have been an ongoing conundrum no matter what generation you lived in. Robert was a straight shooter. When asked his advice on how to motivate employees he states, “I don’t believe you can motivate anyone.”

OK, that seems a little harsh out of the gate, but Robert goes on to say, “All you can do is provide the climate, or atmosphere, in which people can motivate themselves. Unless a (person) has the desire, there isn’t much you can do for him.” Interesting...

Does this simple statement from 1967 answer the question many leaders are struggling with today? I am often asked by business leaders how we can go about motivating people. I hear, “No matter what I do, some people just can’t seem to get motivated.” In response, I often refer them to what I call the Agile Leadership Principle. It simply states:

“Build projects around motivated individuals; give them the environment and support they need and trust them to get the job done.”

So, when I am asked how to “motivate people”, I usually say the best chance you have is to provide them the right environment, support their efforts (especially when things go south), and trust them to make decisions and that they are doing their best. But to Robert’s point, there are simply going to be times when, even under those circumstances, people choose not to be motivated. Then it becomes an unfortunate cultural decision in the hands of leadership. Is that who you want to count on each day to deliver?

Robert goes on to say that, “Someone in my position should always be asking himself, ‘What can I do to encourage my people to motivate themselves?’ This would depend largely on the individual, of course, but I’ve found,” says Robert, “that one of the best ways to encourage them is allowing them to take on greater responsibility.”

Today we call that empowering our people and decentralized decision-making.

When it comes to leadership, Robert states;

“I believe the primary function of a manager is to develop (people). If I accept the (1967) definition of management as ‘getting things done through people, then I know the only way I can hope to achieve this goal is by developing my (people).”

Robert was here stating a critical modern-day leadership concept of ‘current leadership taking the time to develop future leaders’. By working to continually develop our people and give them that attention, our ultimate goals in the form of business value and customer outcomes will get achieved.

He states that one of the strongest motivators of people is continual training and coaching (or what he refers to as "counseling"). Helping people establish standards and processes that work for them in their environment. He goes on to say that, important for results, are the common understanding of “a statement of conditions (or evidence) that will exist when a good job is being done.” Today we call that Acceptance Criteria and a Definition of Done.

Robert refers to creating an atmosphere of “complete objectivity”. When it comes to who he would look for in employees, he states, “I have a pet saying: ‘I can excuse (someone) for most everything except not trying.’” I wish organizations would use this motto in their innovation areas. He says, “I look for someone with a sincere passion for getting things done.” Robert then begins describing someone with a good balance between the desire for maximum production, quality, and their honest concern for people.

“These may seem like divergent desires, but they’re not, really. I don’t think that working to achieve a highly productive, quality-conscious operation that makes money is in conflict with the best interests of your people.”

He wraps up by stating, “I think the key to creating the right motivational climate is to convince your (people) that you have complete confidence in their ability to perform responsibly…and that you will do everything in your power to help them develop their potential.”

Good ideas are good ideas no matter how long ago they were penned. Robert’s wife, who sent me the article, is someone I refer to as Gramma. She had saved it over the years and, after learning of the type of concepts I coach and train, decided to send me the actual article. Robert himself is the man I was named after, my recently departed grandfather.

I’m proud to say my grandfather was a forward thinker at a time when much of the world was “command and control.” I consider his thoughts around decentralized decision-making and motivation pretty forward-thinking for a man who served in the most command and control environment we know during World War II. In 1967, there weren’t many people talking about environment, support, and trust. You don’t see too many quotes from that era around great leaders developing other great leaders.

But Grampa was ahead of the game. It saddens me to reflect on the many times I could have talked shop with him over the years and didn’t. I wonder how many more seeds of wisdom could have been passed along. Unfortunately, it took an article written 53 years ago for me to see how closely we are aligned professionally. It motivates me to share with my children and others.

Robert E. Kinsley, Agile thought leader from 1967. I can only hope it’s genetic.