Larry Wilson Interview
Larry Wilson is a legendary management coach/consultant/guru and best-selling author. His Wilson Learning is one of the longest-standing and most respected management training firms.
Hanley: Larry Wilson, how do you think America is doing competitively these days?
Wilson: I think that we’re loosing ground in a number of areas, and we’re gaining ground in others. If we look back to the automobile industry in the ‘50s and ‘60s, America dominated. Now, General Motors, Ford and Chrysler are all in serious trouble. Recently somebody told me the net market value of Harley Davidson is bigger than that of General Motors. Automobiles represented the key industry that defined the USA business superiority. Yet, as Tom Friedman tells us in his book, The World is Flat, the world beyond us has caught up to us. This is especially true in the hard steel manufacturing industries.
Friedman started off his book with the startling example of the Olympic basketball team from the Unites States losing in the Olympics. How could we have lost? We invented basketball. We were the best. We had the pros. We were dominant. And we lost. He uses that as a metaphor for “Look what’s coming; they’re catching up; the world is flat.” It’s no longer that we’re on top and everyone else is behind us. No. It’s a flat world. So, are we getting hurt? The answer is yes. And the story behind the story is that we’re not responding well to this new reality.
Hanley: What would you say is the main source of our difficulties? Is a lot of it our education system?
Wilson: Yes and more. John, let me repeat a statement I like to make when I’m speaking in front of a bunch of leaders, just to get their reaction. Here it is: “I believe most, if not all of our institutions, have ill prepared us to live in the world we’re living in today”. What do I mean? The metaphor for me is that we’re now living in the world of Oz, yet we’re still behaving as though we’re living in Kansas. And that gap is biting us in the butt and the bites are getting bigger and more frequent. Certainly a big part of the gap lies at the feet of the educational system. And those feet include all the toes from kindergarten through college.
Hanley: Say more about all of our institutions having ill prepared us to live in Oz.
Wilson: Daniel Pink recently wrote an interesting book called A Whole New Mind. As we look forward to the future, he’s telling us is that we’ve lost our past advantage. We all know that accelerating change has dealt us a new world of globalization, increased competition, and increased complexity. The question is, how prepared are we to deal with these new realities and how have our institutions helped us? In his book Pink goes right to the point of how unprepared our brain is to take advantage of these changes. But first he reminds us of the two sides of our brain, our left and our right brain. Each of these two sides of our brain has a different primary function. Our left-brain handles the details, takes care of language, works more at the tactical and detail level and generally processes information in a linear way.
The right brain utilizes imagery, sees the bigger picture and connects the dots of possibilities by processes data through a more holistic mind frame. Of course this is not new news. But here’s his point and the big “Aha” that ties back to the idea that most of our institutions have ill-prepared us to live in our new world. We respond best when there’s an ideal balance between both sides of our brain working in collaboration and harmony. For the majority of us that perfect balance doesn’t exist.
Hanley: Why is this so?
Wilson: Some of this is genetic. Yet most of this imbalance is culturally driven by our institutions that have heavily favored our left-brain’s predictable logic over our right brain’s creative unpredictability. Or so it would seem.
Hanley: So, what‘s Daniel Pink’s point?
Wilson: Here it is, and it’s big. Pink makes the case that our left-brain, everyone’s left-brain, has become a commodity. Much like Tom Friedman’s point that the world is flat, meaning the world beyond ours has caught up to us. Yet Pink is more specific by saying that they’ve copied us and caught up with our “left brain” competencies. Of course, commodity means there’s increasingly plenty of supply and thus the price keeps going south. The translation here is that many if not most “important” left brain jobs can be done by competent people from anywhere on the globe at vastly reduced prices. Ouch!
Here’s an example and a pretty compelling metaphor for the new level of competition in this new game. The fact is, anything we can make, think or deliver can be done almost anywhere else in the world and delivered to your house, office or factory on time and inexpensively. It’s not just electronics and cars; it’s also services like your tax form being prepared by a CPA in India and your MRI being interpreted by a Doctor in an Indian hospital just a few blocks away from that CPA.
The Indian accountant likely has a USA CPA certificate, probably an MBA as well. Your tax firm may be in the US, but the bulk of the work of processing your return is done in India. Let’s say the CPA in the United States who in the past has been doing the tax detail work makes $10,000 a month. The CPA that’s doing the work in India makes $1,000 a month. So, the guy that owns the CPA firm in the USA is going to send the bulk of the work to the CPA in India, and get it back quickly and accurately. The owner will do the last 10 percent of your tax return and hopefully at less cost to you and more profit to his firm. And the same example is parallel regarding the MRI you were given by your doctor in the USA.
Now those are just a couple of examples to shake us up because when we think of outsourcing jobs to another country, we mostly think manual jobs, right? But these are not manual labor jobs. These are examples of highly sophisticated work, engineering, accounting, analysis, and so on. And, these are examples of mostly left-brain dominated work. Remember, Pink’s point is – the left-brain is becoming a commodity. Again commodity means lots of it is available and the price is low and going lower all the time. Also remember, all of this includes quality standards set in the USA while costing about a tenth of the cost at home. The list goes on and on. The impact of this new competition alone is profoundly changing our world and demanding new responses from all of us. For the most part, we’re just not responding fast enough.
Hanley: How does education fit this commodity situation?
Wilson: Well, for starters, our education system is highly tilted to the left-brain learning. Most of what’s measured as learning is our short-term memory, hardly a true measure of how well we use what we learned. For example, if you want to go to college, you’re going to have to take the SATs and all those various and sundry tests they have for you. But none of those, at least the SAT, has any reference to anything that has anything to do with the right brain. So here lies the problem, that our left-brain has been over developed and our right brain underdeveloped. In the new world of Oz, our left-brain competencies have become a commodity and our right brain competencies have become the new area of opportunity. The problem is that our intuitions have failed to prepare us for these right-brain opportunities.
The problem behind the problem is that our institutions are simply behind the play. And the problem behind that problem is how stuck and difficult it is for these institutions to change themselves. It’s the metaphor of the generals always planning for the last war. So if your education system is primarily teaching left brain oriented commodity competencies, and you pay a fortune to send your daughter to college, when she graduates all she’s ready for is to compete with the whole world of commodity graduates who are willing to work ten times cheaper, and harder, than what she expects.
Pink is saying if you’re really thinking about your daughter’s future, or the country’s future, then education ought to be focusing more on competencies that are not a commodity. These would be the right brain competencies that he says are harder to commoditize and represent the advantages of future opportunities.
Right brain competencies open us up into the whole arena of creativity and innovation. In our world of accelerating change, what could be more important that learning how to make change a friend and opportunity rather than an enemy to be feared? Making that kind of attitudinal major mind-set change is, for the most part, a right brain process. Yet it’s our institutions that are resisting change by attitudes that see change more as a threat to be feared than as an opportunity to be gained. With these current negative attitudes it’s hard to see how they should the ones to teach our youth how to prepare for their future.
Nothing says this more than our basic K through12 school system. In 1982 a prestigious presidential committee presented their finding on the status of the school system. The title of the report said it all. It was called “A Nation at Risk”. The headline spoke to the fact that our world had been changing at a rapid rate, yet our school system was changing hardly at all. The committee gave the system a D- on its report card.
That was 25 years ago. How much change has happened to our world in these last 25 years? How much has our school system changed in these last 25 years? The questions and the answers say it all. We’ve got a broken system that’s hardly committed to fixing itself, much less preparing our children to survive, thrive and live a great life in pursuit of their own happiness.
Yet, we should be asking ourselves what might happen if our educational system put more emphasis on developing more of our right brain potential. The right brain is filled with interpersonal empathy and creativity. What we have discovered is that co-operative learning, pioneered by David and Roger Johnson from the University of Minnesota, gets great result such as: students learn more, faster, and apply and sustain more of what they learn. And, as a bonus, or perhaps as the primary outcome, students learn right brain collaboration skills they’ll be using for their lifetime. Yet, even with all the research collected over 40 years, co-operative learning is still not even close to being in the main stream of education.
This is true even as businesses of all kinds are changing their work structures toward more team based group work with less supervision. The paradox is that the biggest obstacle to people collaborating at work is they need to break the competition habits they primarily learned while going through the school system. Here’s something we could have learned in school: how to adapt more to what’s changing in the world around us? This opportunity is looming large because many jobs, mostly left-brain jobs, are being lost. And, the number of jobs being lost overseas is insignificant compared to number being replaced by technology.
To make this point Warren Bennis, a professor at USC, tells this story. In the near future, a manufacturing plant will need only two living beings in the plant, a man and a dog. The man’s job is to feed the dog. The dog’s job is to keep the man from touching anything. If we, all of us, don’t want to end up becoming dog feeders, we’ve got to prepare ourselves, grow ourselves and be accountable to and for ourselves. For a lot of us, a least for our current culture, that accountability factor has been replaced by an entitlement mentality that can be at odds with the accountable mind-set.
Hanley: How do we move past this approach?
Wilson: The political world is saying – “We’ve got to do more for the middle class.” And it’s true. But the “doing” too often looks a lot more like giving them their daily fish rather than teaching them how to fish, or if you will, helping them learn to do more for themselves. What might the help look like? Well, we’re supposed to be entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. A lot has been said about life and liberty, not so much about the pursuit of happiness. Recent research found the two most important causes of happiness are: 1) Great relationships and 2) Meaningful work. Helping people pursue these two outcomes to happiness ought to be the priority function of all of our institutions who have the most influence on our culture. And, it’s our culture that has the greatest influence on us.
Yes, there is an economic disconnect between the haves and the have-nots. Yet, it’s not just about money. That same happiness research put the USA at 13 compared to other countries in degrees of happiness. Want to guess who came in first? It was Mexico. How can that be, especially with all those Mexicans trying to jump the fence to get to the US? Let’s think about it. What are they looking for? But first, what did the research say about their highest values? It was the overwhelming value of family. That was the factor that got them to #1 on the happiness scale. When you read the stories behind the motives of the fence jumping, you’ll see that a lot of the motivation is one or two people coming north in order to send money back to their families.
Of course, they too are motivated to have more meaningful work, but will do less meaningful work to satisfy that first value of providing more financial security to the family. It is also the prime reason they try to bring their families north. Why? For a better education, more opportunities, more meaningful work, for a better life, for more happiness, that’s why. Sounds a lot like us.
The biggest cause of the economic disconnects is the different thinking and behavioral competencies that people have learned or not learned. The most helpful of these were not learned in our formal school curriculum, but in our “school of hard knocks” curriculum. Many of these are right brain focused and are highly valued and relevant in our new world of Oz. There’s no perfect category or definition of these competencies. The closest I can think of would be entrepreneurial thinking and doing. And it’s not new news that most true entrepreneurs didn’t have a perfect fit with our educational system. The good news is that we’re beginning to see a huge increase in new entrepreneurial starts. And that’s a great start on the yellow brick road to OZ.
Hanley: Well, that’s some reason for optimism.
Wilson: Well, I hope so. What our new company, The Wilson Collaborative, is up too is creating more right brain curriculums that are steeped in competencies like learning to learn, learning to choose, learning to relate, learning to create and learning to integrate. Again, important competencies we didn’t learn in formal school classes. Yet, these are the competencies that most entrepreneurs somehow learned in their school of hard knocks. These competencies directly apply to leadership and innovation, and to customer relations as well as self-motivation and accountability. All of these competencies tilt more to the right brain and certainly are critical factors for people wanting to become more entrepreneurial.
Hanley: Let me ask you this. I don’t know if this is more philosophical thinking, but if somebody has a global consciousness, why should they care if America loses market share? I mean, if it’s good for the world as a whole, then maybe that’s ok. What do you think of that?
Wilson: Well, I think you have to look at it from two different points of view. It’s okay if everybody is playing a game of collaboration or interdependence where when the tide goes up all the boats go up. Yet what happens in every kind of significant change is that somebody is going to get hurt in the transition time. The people who are going to get hurt are mostly those people who are not doing anything to change themselves. Actually it’s that whole insanity thing, doing what you’ve always done while expecting things to be different or expecting things to stay the way it always was. I remember a quote from the philosopher Eric Hoffer who told us: "In times of change learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists." My version of his quote is: “Knowing is the enemy of learning.” If the world changes and we don’t change our thinking, individually or as a country, we’re going backward and we’re seriously threatened.
And that’s what’s happening to the unprepared “learned” majority. Now the question is, “What are the changes that people have to make?” This is subject you and I have always been interested in. And the answer is, “Changes in how we think,” because how we think affects everything we do. My business, just like Lifespring’s business, is to help people bring about changes by helping them change the thinking that’s causing interferences to their being able to access their full potential. Our formula is: Performance is Potential Minus Interference. Your dad and I have always had the same objective in what and how we thought. Although I funnel most of my work through businesses, our real leverage is with business leaders who want to empower their people to “grow themselves.” These leaders have to believe, “If I want to grow my company, I’ve got to grow my people”.
Yet it’s not about the business; it’s about the people who work at the businesses. I’m not an economist, but I’ve worked with lots of companies and lots of leaders. I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly. The biggest quality gap is in leadership effectiveness, those people who have others reporting to them. This includes the foreman and supervisor right up the CEO.
Hanley: Sure. Well, tell us a little bit about how you assess how this is going. You’ve been in this consulting business 40 odd years. I picked up Tom Peters’ book some time back. His latest one is called Re-imagine and he’s been at it for quite a long time, too. He’s pretty angry that guys like you and he have been out there laying it out for businesses and managers – “Here’s the changes that needs to happen”. And he doesn’t see enough action being taken. Are you skeptical or optimistic?
Wilson: I share his disappointment and I share his frustration. At the same time, our collective thinking has been so influenced, mostly by those major institutions I talked about that have ill prepared us to live in Oz, that we’ve all created deeply embedded self defeating thought-habits that keep us stuck. Again, it’s this “stuckness” that holds us back from manifesting all the great possibilities that surround us. It’s our leaders who have the greatest amount of stuckness. We’re not talking about fifty years or so of stuckness, we’re talking about…well, at one level you can say, at least 10,000 years of evolution that has gotten us to this point.
Now, the reason for Tom’s frustration – “Why don’t they, meaning the leaders, get it”? Well, here’s our take on it. Almost always it’s because the people who are trying to lead the change, that are trying to influence, insist or demand that people change, are seeing the task as an intellectual challenge. And it’s truly not an intellectual challenge. There’s some of that, but the majority of the forces at play are really emotional resisters, not intellectual. I’ll say to you I agree to change, and I may believe it. But I don’t make the change. Why not? Because intellectually I agree with you, but emotionally I don’t. Why, because I’m emotionally stuck. Now, I’ve just introduced a word that’s extremely critical to the whole scenario behind Tom Peter’s and your and my frustration of people’s resistance to change, even when the people intellectually know it’s best for them. And the word “emotion” is not a favored word in the world of business. Emotions at best are suspect by most leaders and our emotions get little respect from them as well, right?
Wilson: In fact, most often emotions are played out at work as: “Leave your emotions at home for god’s sake, this is a business” - which is the most insane statement anybody could make. Yet that statement tells us that most leaders are fundamentally flawed in their understanding of the nature of human beings, the very human beings the leaders are expecting to follow them. So, what is the problem we’re trying to solve? Again it’s stuckness, emotional stuckness. We’re not talking about people who are sick and need to get well. We’re not talking about people who are broken and need to get fixed. We are talking about people who are emotionally stuck and need to get unstuck in those patterns of their life that are not serving them well. And, by the way, that category includes all of us. It’s stuckness. So how, where and when did we get stuck and what kind of help did we get to help us get un-stuck?
I realize I’ve been using this word stuck a lot because I really think it most accurately defines the human condition. Let me give a little more depth to the word.
Let’s go back to Pavlov and his discovery of the conditioned response. His most famous example was with dogs. He knew that dogs began to salivate in the presence of food. So, he began to connect, over and over, the sound of a specific bell with the presence of food. At some point, with enough connections of food and bell sounds, he could ring the bell without the presence of food, and the dogs salivated as though they were in the presence of food, even though no food was present. The dogs had “stuck” two separate things together that in the future were each defined by the dogs as being one and the same. To the dogs, bell was the same as food and food was the same bell. He had fooled the dogs into believing that illusion. The joke here is that if we believed this way, we’d go to a restaurant, order a meal and then eat the menu. But, its no joke, and we do it all the time.
Most of our self-defeating delusional beliefs are rapped up in conditioned responses that are leading much of our life. And, for the most part, we’re totally unconscious to what’s happening. Most of us were never taught how we got conditioned to repeat self-defeating responses to what life hands us. And, more important, how to get unstuck from that that conditioning. What a missed opportunity for our education to connect those dots.
Hanley: Give me an example of a self-defeating illusion that’s trapped in a conditional response.
Wilson: Sure. Here’s one most of us can relate to. It’s our sense of Worth, or Worthiness. It’s sometimes called our self-esteem. It really has to do with our ability to love ourselves, which is then connected to how much we can truly love others. So, starting in a competitive childhood, we begin to access our worth as a human being. But we really didn’t have an objective way to accomplish that task. So, most of us used the assessment tool of comparison, that is - comparing ourselves to other people or even to other things.
The other people might be our siblings, our friends, our classmates or others we hear about or see on TV. The things might be our toys, those things we “must have” or we’ll be lesser than those that do have them. We’re constantly getting feedback on how well we’re competing from our surroundings or our culture. So, our disease is constant anxiety that we’re “not enough.” Not smart enough, not rich enough, not pretty or handsome enough, tall enough, slim enough, sexy enough, and well, the list never stops. And now we’re an adult that has practiced this comparison thinking process thousands and thousands and thousands of times. The result is we’re not making choices in the present; we’re following the conditioned responses we’ve been practicing most of our life. It’s all automatic, we don’t think about it, we’ve been conditioned to salivate at the sight of people, places or things that if we could be or have, would close the gap between my “not enough” fears and the worthiness I seek.
The illusion is that I am what I have or I am what I do. If I buy that new car, house, vacation home, airplane, boat, shoes, shirt, dress, then I’ll be more worthy. My salivating hungers for worthiness gets feed, but not for long. Soon my anxiety returns and my hunt for worthiness continues to drive me. The result is that I end up leading my life to prove myself, instead of leading my life to express myself, two totally different paths to Oz. The fact is I’m stuck playing a game that I cannot win.
The good news about the word “stuck” is that it implies that which is stuck can become unstuck. And it can. Here’s a question that has to be asked. If all this is accurate, then why oh why didn’t we learn how to get unstuck as a primary competency of our educational system? To a great degree the answer is, “It’s been the blind leading the blind”. Start with the parent leading the child. Ponder this. How we got to be a parent has nothing to do with the competencies of being a parent. So, how did we learn to be a parent? Yes, from observing our parents. And, how did they learn how to be a parent? Sure, the same way. This goes all the way back to Adam and Eve, and remember what happened to their children. Not a perfect process, right?
The same is true with how people learned to be a leader. It’s not that different from being a parent. I believe there are more less-effective parents than there are effective parents. Yet I know there are more less-effective leaders than there are effective ones. There’s a whole lot of leadership stuckness going on out there.
Look, we started this interview by you asking me, “How do I think America is doing
competitively these days?” I said; “I think that we’re loosing ground in a number of
areas and we’re gaining ground in others.” I think what’s primarily causing the losing ground or gaining ground rests on squarely on the shoulders of leadership. So, let’s focus in on the specific subject of leadership as being at cause of loosing or gaining, and how leadership plays out as being the problem and/or the solution to our future competitiveness. Also, let’s look at how leadership’s willingness to change or not change relates to their degree of stuckness and therefore our stuckness.
Hanley: Great, let’s talk about what makes a leader effective or ineffective.
Wilson: Okay, but let’s start with some mutually defined words. First I believe the phenomena of leadership is someone following someone else, because they want to, not because the have to. The word “phenomena” suggests it’s not happening that often, or it’s not the norm. It also it says that true leadership is determined, not by the title, but by the followers. This is much the same as quality is determined, not by the company, but by the customers. Next, I believe that the function of leadership is to bring about change, and especially so when the world is changing at an unparallel rate of speed. Obviously a big part of bringing about change is the leader’s ability to enroll other people to wanting to change. But again, most often leaders view this task as an intellectual challenge, when it’s much more an emotional challenge. And, they can’t understand why it isn’t working or it takes so long.
Hanley: Why does it take so long, intellectually or emotionally?
Wilson: Let’s look at a case study of a leader that failed big time and then succeeded big time, Edwards Deming, the change agent of the quality movement. He changed a whole county. I’m pretty sure you know his story. But let’s summarize it quickly. Not surprisingly, Dr. Deming spent his youth on a farm learning a “can-do” attitude and how to fix and improve things. After he got his PhD. from Yale, he was drafted during World War II and was involved in getting companies to quickly shift from consumer products to war-time products. That’s where he started learning about quality. When the war was over he had learned a lot about quality and wanted to share it with the same companies that had made that quick shift to war-time work. This time, they didn’t really want to listen. Why? Well, there was a five-year pent-up demand. They didn’t care about quality. They just wanted to get their products out the door. People wanted to buy and the companies were making money hand over fist. Strategic planning was adding 15 to 30 percent to last year’s profits knowing that half would come from inflation. Deming was preaching his gospel of Quality and Productivity to an audience who wasn’t interested in either quality or productivity. Arrogance and egos played a large part in their deaf ears to Deming’s message and most leaders were convinced they were already great. Remember, knowing is the enemy of learning. So, Deming failed to change the thinking of leaders in the USA. But Deming did find an audience – halfway around the world. He went to Japan.
Now what was the situation there? They were defeated. They were humiliated, which was the worst thing that happened because humiliation in that culture meant you might as well kill yourself. So they were open to new and different things. Before the war, the rap that was tagged onto anything that came from Japan was “Made in Japan” and it was a code word for “junk,” meaning no quality at all. So Deming found a very excited audience, excited enough to get over the pain of their humiliation and a willingness to be open to serious change. I call this change by crisis. Deming was a Game Changer and their savior. They didn’t challenge him. They totally accepted what he espoused. It was totally different than what they’d been doing, but they realized what they did before didn’t work. So they became great champions of Deming’s 14 Points of Quality.
Now of course it took the USA a long time to let go of their old belief that “Made in Japan” was a joke. But the joke was on us. The Japanese commitment to quality and improving productivity gradually, but forcefully, became the gold standard for leadership throughout the world. Finally the realization of how far we had fallen behind required us to let go of some of our “ego centeredness” and start looking into “what had really changed with our former enemies.” Thus the search began. Now the question was: “What can we, the US, learn from them, the Japanese, and apply to our companies”? In a typical western way, we thought we could just go over there, get the information and tack it on to whatever we were already doing. We imported and tried to copy Quality Circles, Continuous Improvement, and Just on Time Manufacturing ideas to make them our own. But we only had part of the equation. We imported the right seeds, but we didn’t realize our potential because we planted them in a soil of fear and mistrust. The expectation of the harvest was disappointing to say the least. We thought we could simply tell our followers to implement these secrets and expect to get results as good as, or better than, our Japanese teachers. Why didn’t we get those results? Where did we go wrong?
Again, the answer to both questions is about leading or, if you will, not leading. It’s the difference between “want to” and “have to” – between leading from a mindset of fear-based Control and Command or, leading from a trust-based Developmental Leadership mind-set where it’s understood that people are the organization’s most valuable asset. Developmental Leaders also understand that people do things for their own reasons, not ours. Deming warned us, as he had warned the Japanese. They listened, we didn’t. Even if you remember his 14 Points of Quality, you might not remember the content of Number 8. Why pick out that one above all the others? Deming told us that if Number 8 isn’t implemented, the other13 points won’t work. Perhaps it should have been number one. Number 8 is: “Drive fear out of the organization.” Though he never said this, the implication is clear. When you drive something out, you have to bring something else in. In this case, that something else is Trust. And creating Trust is what I believe to be the biggest challenge for any leader.
Hanley: So, trusting the leader is the primary reason people are willing to change?
Wilson: Yes, that’s the beginning. Yet there’s more, which is the motivation to change. I mentioned that the big motive for Japan to be so willing to commit to such a major change was crisis. They had hit bottom. Crisis is the road most traveled when it comes to a reason or motive to change. This is true for us as individuals or for an organization, which of course is made up of individuals. When you find yourself in an alley at 4:00 AM having thrown up all over the place and the police are leading you away, it usually occurs to that maybe you better take a deeper look at your life and start making some changes. The same is true for any organization that’s hit bottom or is moving quickly in that direction. The basic strategy in this situation is to hunker down and pull out our best survival skills. Yet, I believe there are two other primary motives for a willingness to change. I call the second one evolutionary change. This occurs when there’s a clear recognition that things are changing around us and we better learn to adapt to these changes. So, we adapt. The third motivation to change I call anticipatory change. This is where an individual or an organization looks into the future and attempts to predict what’s likely to happen and then create a best possible response to that happening. This is a strategy of trying to get to the future first and claiming the prize of being who it is that others are trying to copy.
So the three big motives for change are - crisis, evolution and anticipation. I’ve already said that crisis is the road most traveled to change and it’s the easiest to motivate, but it’s also the most costly. Anticipation is the least road traveled and the most difficult to motivate because of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” thinking. Yet it always creates the best results. These motives represent different situations for leaders and leaders ideally should be masters of all three situations.
So lets stay with the story of how Deming changed the business and leadership model of a whole country by changing the mind-set of the business leaders in Japan. One way to tell the story is through the evolution of the decline of the automobile business in the USA. Remember, I started this interview by saying that General Motors, Ford and Chrysler are all in serious trouble, and it was the automobiles business that defined the USA business superiority. Yes, today the world is flat and our automobile business has gotten seriously flattened in the process. I want to make the case that had we listened more to Deming and made many of the changes he suggested in how we lead people, we would still be king of the automobile hill and likely a lot less flat in others important areas of how we define ourselves.
Let’s play out what happened by comparing General Motors to Toyota. Toyota has already passed Ford. It’s already passed Chrysler. It’s going to pass General Motors any day now. Here’s a simple example that helps me understand why we’ve missed the mark because we didn’t really hear Deming’s message. At Toyota, 90% of the employees make at least one suggestion a year to improve the work they do. Most of these suggestions are acted on. At General Motors, 5% of the employees make at least one suggestion a year. Most of these suggestions are not acted on. Why is this so? I suggest two reasons. First, in Japan, critical thinking skills are a central component of all curriculums being taught in the schools. You’ll find it very difficult to discover any serious critical thinking skills taught in any part of our curriculums. Second, I believe Deming’s eighth point of his fourteen points of quality is being violated every day in most of our organizations and institutions. Remember, his point number 8 - drive fear out of the organization, or, the other 13 points can’t work.
Hanley: And fear abounds in our culture, doesn’t it?
Wilson: Absolutely. Let’s start with our major institutions, education, religion, business, the media and the government. What has been the primary motivational message of most of these pillars of our culture? The first message is: “We have all the answers.” The second message is: “Do what you’re told, or else!” That “or else” message creates lot’s of fear. And, what has been our leadership model for motivating others for thousands of years? It’s been control, command, fear-based. Clearly the Japanese had plenty of their own brand of fear-based institutions. Yet Deming’s influence has made a difference in how leadership works in Japan or, at least, in Japanese businesses. We’ll all familiar with their concept of consensus leadership. They take the time to bring most everyone into discussions of pending decisions or changes that are being explored. This takes valuable time. In our western world, we pride ourselves for making fast decisions, thus with little time for discussion. The difference is the Japanese get fast implementation while we get agonizingly slow implementation. The cost of slow implementation is much greater than the time cost of collaboration. This extra collaboration time is also a major factor in people’s motivation to support that in which they had a voice.
Yet, all that being said, in 1972 General Motors was the most profitable corporation in the world by sales and profits. What were they, the top 300 leaders, thinking from that place of being the best in the world? That’s a question that profession James O’Toole of USC wanted to find out. So, he asked them. Not directly, but by interviewing a good representation of the 300, he was able to get under their conscious thinking to ferret out what he called the 10 operation assumptions of GM in 1972. Here’s the summary of his report of their operating assumptions:
1. GM is in the business of making money, not cars.
2. Success comes not from technological leadership but from having the resources to quickly adopt innovations successfully introduced by others.
3. Cars are primarily status symbols. Styling is therefore more important than quality to buyers who are, after all, going to trade up every other year.
4. The U.S. car market is isolated from the rest of the world. Foreign competition will never gain more than 15 percent of the domestic market.
5. Energy will always be cheap and abundant.
6. Workers do not have an important impact on production or product quality.
7. The consumer movement doesn't represent the concerns of a significant portion of the U.S. public.
8. The government is the enemy. It must be fought tooth and nail every step of the way.
9. Strict, centralized financial controls are the secret of good administration.
10.Managers should be developed only from the inside.
Now you can use your own imagination to “ferret out” what impact these leadership assumptions played in the slow devaluation of this former symbol of our business superiority.
Hanley: It’s hard to believe they were so off the mark. These had to be smart guys at that level.
Wilson: Often being smart leads to thinking you do have all the answers. That was in the 70s. Here’s what was already happening in the early ‘80s. General Motors had 31 plants spread over the country. Its worst performing plant was in Fremont California. So GM closed the plant down for two years. Then, two years later Toyota and General Motors formed a partnership to build cars together in that plant again. The plant was re-named the NUMI plant. The reason for the partnership was that General Motors wanted to know more about Japanese management. Good news, right? The Japanese wanted to know more about US distribution. That was both sides of the quid pro. And they did it. The Japanese were given full responsibility for running the plant. All the cars coming off the line were the same, the only difference between them were the labels, one for GM, one for Toyota.
So what did the Japanese do? Well, the first thing they did, unheard of in the US, is they brought all the supervisors of that plant, about 400 people, to Japan for somewhere between three and six months. Not to tell them what to do, but to teach them what they do in Japan. The Japanese approach was, we’re going to teach you everything we know, everything we do. Now, we don’t know your country. We don’t know your culture, so what you’re going to have to do is choose, or select, or decide, what to take back from here that you think will work in the US. The next thing they did was to hire back everyone they could who had been there before except the top management. Why not the management? Because they deemed the management would to be too difficult to change. And, when did they hire these people? They hired most of them three months before the plant was to be opened. And they used that entire time to train the people in the new system. Now as you know, a plant goes on the books as an asset, but the people are debited as an expense. So in the US we don’t do things that way. We build the plant, and then as close to the opening as possible, start hiring the people. That always causes a shake out time that results in early low performance and poor quality. Fix it on the fly or have the dealers “deal” with it was the normal GM mantra. The Japanese didn’t think that way. Deming taught them to be obsessed with quality, an obsession highly valued by their customers. So at Numi they hired the employees months before they were to open the plant and trained the hell out of them. And when the plant opened, on the very first day, it was the most productive and high quality plant of all of the other General Motors plants. And, every person in the Numi plant was thrilled.
Hanley: That’s quite a goose bump story of success. Did GM get the lesson?
Wilson: Well, you tell me. Certainly that was the chance General Motors had to get what they said they wanted out of the partnership. But did they learn about Japanese management? I had a friend at the University of New Mexico School of Business. He was the only professor permitted to do research at the Numi plant. A year after his research was completed he was asked by General Motors come to Detroit and share his research with that same level of top executives that James O’Toole interviewed. He did it. And he told them about all the changes that were made and why. He explained the new team processes to making cars. He told them about the Numi Values and the new Code of Conduct that all associates, including all management, agreed to and signed and upheld. And, he shared the very impressive major financial results. What this audience heard was quite different than what General Motors was doing in the other plants. He said they seemed interested or a least polite. Then he told me the third act of the play. He said: “I was in a stall in the bathroom and a couple of guys came in and I overheard their conversation. One guy said to the other, ‘What did you think of the speech?’ And the other guy said, ‘Well, it was ok. But if he thinks I’m giving up my private parking space, he’s nuts.’” That simple statement and that simple response…
Hanley: Sums it all up.
Wilson: Sums it all up, exactly. It’s leaders saying, “I’ve got mine. I’m not moving, I’m not changing, I’ve worked too hard and too and long to get where I am, the hell with them. In three years, I’m on the beach. Let someone else come in and fight the battles”. Totally stuck in their comfort zone. That stuck mind-set has cost GM billions and billions if you’re just talking about wasted money. It’s cost untold billions in unrealized future opportunities. And, what’s been the cost to all those loyal employees who really believed if they just kept their head down, did their job, didn’t rock the boat, and served the boss, they too would have a happy ever after ending? No, this wasn’t the thinking of everyone, but it was the thinking of the GM culture. As things got worse they finally realized they had to do something different. Change by crisis. Maybe the Numi experience was a necessary first step GM needed to find its courage to attempt to re-invent itself. In more technical terms, this re-inventing process is called a bifurcation. In more simple terms it means a new or different path.
So, GM funded a 5 billion dollar commitment to create a new pathway to the future by inventing Saturn. John, in the early 80s our Pecos consulting team had done a lot of work with GM of Canada. Canada was a microcosm of GM Detroit. In Canada we learned every aspect of what made GM tick, or not tick. As Saturn became a reality it was in dire need of new and different thinking. Voices from Detroit heard about some of the “new and different” things that we were doing at GM Canada. The short of it is that we were brought in to help Saturn with its mission of becoming a “Different kind of Company” that was building a “Different kind of Car.” Saturn had a two-part charter: 1) Learn how to build a low priced car to compete with the Japanese. 2) Become the “learning organization” for all of General Motors and then teach the rest of your brothers and sisters companies what you learned. For Saturn this was permission to learn new things and do new things by getting out of the box of GM limitations and feeling free to innovate.
This permission didn’t sound anything like the regular GM. But it did sound good to a lot of people, a few of whom actually worked at GM. But there was a lot of whispering going on, especially from those sibling brothers and sisters companies who couldn’t believe why or how this “newbe” Saturn, who, by the way, had never built a car, could have come into such a powerful position of telling us anything about cars we don’t already know. And, 5 billion dollars going to this up-start, why didn’t we at least be given a shot at some at that? This was really the story of Cinderella and her jealous sisters all over again. The part about Saturn being the learning organization for all of GM was established, but to no surprise, it was never implemented. The history of the jealous sisters is that Chevrolet wouldn’t ever listen to Pontiac or Buick much less to this new little creep called Saturn. So the good intention of sharing best practices to the rest of the family lost out to the ugly power of stuck egos.
Hanley: You were just talking about the ego as maybe a fundamental blocking point to leaders making real progress to improve. So are you suggesting that in business and particularly in leadership, there’s a need for an overall transcending of our egos in some way? If so, I mean, that sounds huge. That sounds like a Buddhist enlightenment project. Is it possible?
Wilson: Well, what would the results be in our country if we were all taught how to change our minds to change our lives? What if we were all taught to be competent in doing this the way you taught it in Life spring? Lives did get changed, didn’t they, big time, right?
Hanley: Yeah, we saw it happen all the time.
Wilson: But was that change sustainable? Not necessarily and why not? It was mostly because our culture didn’t support it? A few sustained the change, but that’s a small percentage, 2 percent maybe. But sustainability means that the new change has to be the new norm. This requires that the new beliefs are surrounding us. It’s has to be “the way people think around here.” I mentioned that in Japan they are obsessed with quality. We need to be surrounded by the belief that each of us can create our own quality of life.
Hanley: That sounds great. How do we get to that point?
Wilson: Well it has to start with our leaders. Do you remember the Trim Tab concept brought to us by Buckminster Fuller?
Hanley: Sure, he was a giant of a thinker. He gave us the Geodesic Dome.
Wilson: Right. Back at my Pecos days John Denver was sponsoring a conference at his ranch on the future of business. I was lucky enough to hire a very special young lady at Pecos who I met at that meeting. Her name is Amy Edmondson. As I was walking around the ranch, I saw a young lady facilitating 30 or 40 people who were sitting on the grass seemingly enthralled with what she saying and doing with triangles. I got there about 10 minutes before the session was over. When it was over I asked her who she was and what was this session all about. She told me her story. She had gone to Harvard for three years majoring in math, gotten high grades, and coming to her 4th year, had taken most of the required classes. They asked her what she would like to do for her senior year. Her answer was, “Well, I’d love to become an intern for Buckminster Fuller.” And they said, “Well, if you can pull that off, just give us our tuition and you’ve got it.” And she did. In fact she stayed with him for three more years beyond her graduation and became his right arm until he died. She wrote a book about him called The Fuller Explanation.
I really lucked out because I enticed her to join our team at Pecos River Learning Centers and she became my right arm. She was fabulous, brilliant and wonderful. She used to tell me all these stories about Buckminster Fuller. Four years later she got a call from Harvard that said: “Look Amy, if you’ll come back to Harvard, we’ll pay for everything if you’ll work to get an MBA and then Ph.D. All you have to do after you get those degrees is promise to teach at the Harvard Business School for four years.” Obviously I couldn’t compete with that, nor did I want to compete with that. It was the greatest opportunity in the world for her. She’s now Dr. Amy Edmondson, a tenured professor at the Harvard Business School.
Now back to the question of how we change a culture. Amy told me a story of someone asking Bucky, “How do you change the course of the Queen Mary steaming over the ocean at 30 knots with all that mass?” And Bucky said, “Well, the obvious answer is the rudder. But that was the wrong question. The real question is - How do you change the rudder?” And Bucky said, “You change the rudder with that little sliver that goes down the side of the rudder.” Called the what?
Hanley: The trim tab.
Wilson: Yes the trim tab. And he said, “If you turn that trim tab to the left side, that makes the rudder changes to the right side, and that change in the rudder makes the ship turn to the left side. And that’s you’ve start a change process.” Because Bucky was a mathematician first, he put all this is mathematical terms. He said no real change will begin until you’ve collected a 5 percent critical mass of the total group. That 5% represents the trim tab, the tipping point. Now you’ve got something to work with. The next task is to enroll the next 15%. He said that once you’ve got a 20 % passionate group aliened, the change is unstoppable. Later at Pecos, we put the players into three groups - saints, sinners, and savers. So when you’re going for the 5 percent trim tab, enroll only the saints who already believe. These are the people who’ve been looking for a way to make things happen. When you get that 5% critical mass of saints together, their job is to recruit the next 15% from the ranks of more saints and many savers. At this point you try to keep the sinners out because they’re going to resist altogether. This is part of the politics of creating change.
Hanley: Did you say saints, sinners, and savers?
Wilson: Yes, savers are the people who can go either way. They’re savable. The sinners are those who are not likely to ever be willing to change.
Hanley: Got you.
Wilson: Sinners are going to fight you all the way, tooth and nail. It’s the bell shape curve, Saints on one end, the sinners on the other end. But the mass in the middle, that’s the 80 percent of Savers. I said earlier I believe the primary job of a leader is to bring about change, but leaders go first or most won’t believe the change is for real. Few people will do anything different until they see the leaders change. Leaders have to be the role models for everyone on the ship. Unfortunately, too often that’s seldom the case.
Hanley: Now, hold on. When you go to these executives and tell them, “Look if you really want to compete and be successful what needs to happen here is that you and your people have to get past your own egos to make the changes necessary to save the ship” - Are you finding some interest in that?
Wilson: Absolutely, some interest, but not universal. Again, it’s not that they intellectually disagree; it’s that they emotionally disagree. It’s the stuckness factor again. Some, no matter what, are not going to change. They’re the sinners, right? You have to find the saints who are willing to lead. Forty years ago there were maybe 3 to 4 percent of enlightened leaders who thought like this. Today there’s probably 10 to 15 percent that are moving toward this new leadership thinking. And as more businesses are becoming more successful by empowering their employees and giving them a voice, rather than controlling them as replicable cogs in a machine, we’ll be getting closer to hitting that trim tab tipping point and things will move much faster.
Hanley: Do you have any current examples of a time leadership change process happening that most of us could relate to?
Wilson: Do I ever. Did you watch this last super bowl?
Hanley: Of course. I love football.
Wilson: Right. Well, I think you and millions of us were witnesses to a big time example of leadership change happening. Yes, a big part of the story was that each team had a black coach refuting the unspoken myth that black coaches can’t be head coaches, much less able to win a super bowl. Yet, just as important was the “different from the NFL norm” style of coaching that was displayed during the game. Here’s a quote by coach Dungy right after the game: “I think now, with two guys coming to the Super Bowl with maybe different personalities than most people perceive of an NFL coach, a different value system, maybe a different way of expressing themselves, people say 'You know what? Anything can work if you get the right person.' "
Did you get those word descriptions that Dungy used? He said “different personalities, a different value system, a different way of expressing themselves”. To me, he was describing the difference between the “normal” NFL Control and Command leader/coach and the new Developmental leader/coach. The difference is in their personalities, their values and their way of expressing themselves. I loved it when Dungy told the story of the message he gives his players at the beginning of each new season. He says in almost a whisper, “I want you to listen to me now so you hear that this is as loud a voice you’ll hear me use as I speak to you all season long”. What a simple and powerful message that clearly makes the point of a different personality, a different value system and a different way of expressing one’s self.
Hanley: Yes, that is a powerful message. You said a “developmental leader.” Say more about what that means.
Wilson: Here’s one way to explain the differences. Some leaders believe their main job is to get work done through people. Other leaders believe their main job is to get people done through work. The first group represents more of the control and command leadership style. The second group represents more of the developmental leader style.
Hanley: Ok, say more about getting people done, what does that mean?
Wilson: Done means developed, ideally, reaching their full potential. It’s what Maslow called Self-Actualization. Here’s a clip from the Chicago Tribune about Peter Drucker’s view of leaders growing their people that was written shortly after his death: William Pollard, chairman emeritus of ServiceMaster Co., remembered Drucker appearing before his board of directors to ask a trademark question: "As leaders, what is your business?" One by one, the directors told Drucker how the company cleans floors, kills bugs and makes grass nice and green, Pollard recalled. "You're all wrong," Drucker told them. "You're really in the business of growing and developing people." I rest my case. We really believe that if you want to grow your company you have to grow your people. But that priority can only be understood by developmental leaders who really believe that people, their people, are their most important asset and thus their ultimate differentiation. This goes directly to the belief system of leaders, or better yet, the motives of the leaders.
Hanley: Say more about the motives of leaders.
Wilson: The problem is, too many leaders are still holding on to the illusion of Control and Command. They still haven’t fully grasped that seldom in this day and age are people motivated to “want to do things for other people’s reasons.” And “have to because I said so” does not a Leader make. So what’s the solution to this Leadership Challenge? One thing we do is have them say these words, “I am the problem and I am the solution” then saying it and thinking about as though they really mean it.
“I Am the Problem, I am the Solution” does not allow anyone to get off the accountability hook. Since Leaders go first, they, by definition or job description, must be the ones who raise their hands first and say, “I am the problem and I am the solution.” Now that we know who is the problem and who is the solution, what do we do next? It’s time for some deep down leadership reflection. Deep down means at our very core, our very being, reflecting by telling ourselves the truth even when it makes us miserable. What is it that we have them reflect upon? It’s this important question, “Why do I want to be a Leader?”
In the mid-80s for a year I facilitated a monthly 2-day session on leadership. There were about 80 people in each session. I started each session by asking the participants a slightly different question than, “Why do I want to be a Leader?”
My question was, “Why do you think most people want to be a leader?” At that moment in this session, I didn’t want to ask them why they wanted to be a leader. They seemed more spontaneous and truthful with the phrase “most people.” Let me tell you what the answers were. The most popular answer from that question from over a thousand people was “power.” Does that surprise you? It didn’t surprise me. We’ve had thousands of years of control and command to emulate the lust for power.
The second most popular answer was “control” because what do you do with all that power? The third most popular answer was an ecliptic one; status, recognition and pay. We combined those three and called them “To be served.” So, what the majority of these leader “want-a-bees” were saying is that most people want to be leaders so they can have the power, be in control and be served. Isn’t this the American dream? Or is it? Here’s an insightful question. Would most people want to follow someone who’s motives are power, control and being served? Aren’t these the ego-centric motives we‘ve been talking about? Let’s check it out.
It was at this point in the session I asked them to recall a time in their own lives when they decided to follow someone, because they wanted to, not because they had to. That someone could have been a parent, a teacher, a boss, a friend or someone no longer living. I asked them to write out a scenario of why they decided to follow that person. The most popular answer was that this person they chose to follow had seen something in them, some potential, some talent that they themselves had not yet recognized. Does this sound like getting power, or empowering others?
The second most popular answer was, “I was stuck in a rut and couldn’t see a way out, and that person I chose to follow helped me see options and possibilities that I had been blind to.” Does this sound like controlling people, or setting them free? The third most popular answer almost always came spontaneously from the participants. It wasn’t to be served, but to serve. Wouldn’t you be more likely to follow someone whose motives are to empower you, free you and serve you? That question needs to be asked and thought about, even though the answer is obvious. Here’s something else that’s obvious. Each of us is consciously or unconsciously on our own hero’s journey. We’re all trying to grow to rediscover the hero we’ve always been, but may have forgotten. It’s a journey from our false self to our true self. I believe the true self is the spirit that is truly who we are, and it’s waiting to fulfill its purpose.
Hanley: How do we grow our self?
Wilson: I think that Michelangelo answered this question for all of us. He was often asked, “How did you create that magnificent statue of David out of a large block of marble?” Michelangelo always replied: “The perfect David was always there. All I did was remove everything that wasn’t David.” We normally think of growth as adding on and there is some of that. Yet most of our growth is done by Letting Go of all that is not who we really are, letting go of our fearful ego-centeredness. LET GO. Only then can we add or remember the new Thinking and Doing competencies that are the answer to “Being Prepared” to thrive in Oz. Rules that worked in Kansas just won’t work in Oz. In Kansas, leaders are expected to “control and command” others to do what they’re told. And, the others usually do just that, but no more. In Oz, leaders trust people to “Do what’s right.” And the people usually do just that -- and more. In Kansas, it’s normal that people are expected to serve the boss first. In Oz, it’s normal that people expect to serve the customer first. In Kansas, since we’re doing what we’re told, there’s no need to be accountable for what we do – just do it. If we make a mistake, we hide it, bury it or blame others for it. In Oz, everyone is accountable for their thoughts, their feelings and their behaviors. And, they’re expected to keep learning to “Do what’s right” that includes making mistakes going forward. They’re also expected to learn from and share their mistakes with others who can benefit and learn from them. In Oz the mantra is: Fail Fast, Learn fast, Grow Fast.
What motivates leaders in Kansas is to have power over others, control others and being served by others. In Oz, what motivates leaders is empowering, freeing and serving others. Most people don’t realize that these Kansas and Oz motives are polar opposites. Why? Mainly because they’re stuck in their “Kansas” thinking while their world has moved on to Oz. Future Shock indeed! Again, here’s my bold statement that’s not entirely true, but more true than false: All of our institutions have basically failed to prepare us for the world that’s upon us, and the rut is getting deeper and at warp speed. So, every organization is being faced with the same question to answer and challenge to solve: Does it pay us to be the best players in a game that’s no longer being played? Well, assuming that’s an easy question to answer, lets move to the challenge: What are the new Oz rules? And, how do we learn to use them?
I like to use metaphors to help us understand this challenge. The computer is part of what got us into Oz, along with the Internet and its untold implications, so let’s use it as our metaphor to face these challenges. We know that the computer has applications, lot’s of them. Most of us know of or use only a few of these applications in our daily lives. Now we may or may not know that the computer also has an operating system. We don’t visually see this operating system but without it there would be no applications. In fact, the applications are totally dependent on the operating system and cannot exceed the potential of the operating system. When we (or the computer manufacturer) choose to “upgrade” the computer’s operating system, more stuff is “added” because that’s the way the computer creates more potential. This added potential allows us to do more things faster, easier and with higher quality. We upgraded the computer; it’s better, it’s grown, we’re happy, and life is good in the computer department of our lives.
But… adding more “stuff” is not how human beings upgrade their operating system’s potential. Each one of us was already born with the “right stuff” to begin with. Plato told us “Learning is remembering what we already know.” The word “educates” means: to bring forth that which is already there. So, this brings us back to Michelangelo’s answer: “The perfect me is always there. All I have to do is remove, let go, of everything that isn’t me.” Doesn’t that sound somewhat familiar John?
Hanley: Oh yeah! Well, it’s exciting that you’re out there doing it and getting the response you
have. And you’ve gotten a lot of response over the years. We can always lament the lack
of progress. But then again, I’m sure we can see the progress too if we want to look for it.
Wilson: We can be disappointed and wish to hell things would go faster, but that’s not the point. The point is, it is what it is. All we can do is give our best shot and learn from whatever happened. It’s a ready, shoot, aim adventure we’re all living through, so we might as well choose to have fun on the ride.
Hanley: I know one of your most important mentors was the famous psychologist, Abraham Maslow. Tell us about how you two met.
Wilson: Yeah. I started thinking differently at age 23 by reading Victor Frankel’s book Man’s Search For Meaning. I changed how I looked at myself and that was the biggest influence I had in becoming the youngest lifetime member of the life insurance Million Dollar Round Table by age 27. That gave me credibility in that little world and started my speaking career inside that world. Then an insurance company asked me if I would be willing to create a training program and I said yes before I really thought about it. I didn’t know what it was going to be about, but I knew what it wasn’t going to be about. It wasn’t going to be about the way people were trained to sell at that time which was basically an adversarial relationship. It was win-lose, me against you. That hasn’t all gone away. But that was so conditioned in our culture that nobody ever thought there might be a better way. It was “buyer beware.” That’s the deal. I didn’t know where I was going to go until I met Maslow. Here’s what happened. I was running past the University of Minnesota bookstore to an appointment. There were about 20 tables outside the bookstore and each table had 100 to 200 books on each table. And they were all priced at a dollar. I reached into a pile of these and pulled out one book on psychology with articles written by different people. I opened the up to one page. The intriguing title was “The Hierarchy of Relative Prepotency.”
Now who could deny that that wasn’t an exciting title? It came out to be Abraham Maslow’s article on the Pyramid of Needs. I stood there and read it. I got it. This has something to do with what I was looking for, though I didn’t know what it was, but I just knew it was something important. So I paid the dollar, went home and read the article three or four times. The next morning I called Maslow up at Brandeis University. I didn’t know he was the head of Humanistic Psychology and all I said was, “I’m an insurance guy and I’m trying to write a training program and I read your article and I’d love to come out and see you and talk about how your thinking fits into what I’m want to create.” And he said, “Well, come on out.” He gave me a full day of his valuable time. It was an amazing experience for me. I felt like I had every right to be there. He made me feel as though we were equals. I was 32 years old. Anyway, so he told me about his dream, about an imaginary island that he had created on which a thousand people lived, all of whom were totally self-actualized. He said, “What do you think it would be like to live on that island?” And I knew he was going to tell me. So I leaned forward and said, “I don’t know, what?” He learned forward and he said, “Why don’t you go find out?” It was like a spear to my heart. It’s hard to describe. I was visibly shaken. I didn’t fully realize it at the time, but that’s the day I found my purpose, which became, “Helping others become all they can be” shortly after that I started Wilson Learning. By the way, the name of his imaginary island was Eupsychia. Euphoria is the good feeling. Eupsychia is the good mind.
He wanted me to call my new company Eupsychia. But nobody could spell it and nobody could understand what it meant. And of course my ego was such that I wanted to call it Wilson Learning. But then Maslow turned me onto Carl Rogers. Carl Rogers is great. He had written two books, one, On Becoming a Person. And it’s about leadership, or at least leading your own life by becoming who you really are. And he wrote another book on Client-centered Therapy. It could have been called customer-centered businesses. Anyway, Maslow introduced me to Carl Rogers and he introduced me to the counseling process. I looked into that model and realized it had a philosophy, a discipline and a set of skills. This was the model I wanted for my new training program. We started Wilson Learning with the counselor selling program and in just a few years became the 2ed largest training company in the US.
Hanley: Please say your purpose again.
Wilson: Helping others become as much as they can be.
Hanley: And was that something you worked out on that day with Maslow or after?
Wilson: No. We talked around the “why” of purpose. He said, “Go back and figure it out.” And that’s what I came up with. And I sent it back to him and he said, “Perfect, that’s perfect, go with that. And as your going, keep looking to find Eupsychia.”
Hanley: So do you recommend that everybody craft a personal purpose?
Wilson: Totally. I believe that’s the most significant thing that anybody can do to lead a great life. But Maslow, Carl Rogers and Victor Frankel were my heroes. By the way, in the middle 70s I not only met Dr. Frankl; I shared the platform with him in Vienna.
Hanley: That must have been a real thrill.
Wilson: Well, I know I’ve been very lucky and very blessed. And it’s a good day when I’m still on the right side of the grass.
Hanley: Well, you’re way on the right side of the grass. I think we covered a lot of territory. This will be an excellent interview.
Wilson: I hope this is what you wanted.
Hanley: Thank you very much.
Wilson: All right, do what you want with it. It’s been my pleasure.