In 2011, on the 50th anniversary of the late Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s first manned space flight, BBC correspondent Richard Hollingham uncovered colorful details of the former Soviet Union’s achievements in space exploration that were long shrouded in secrecy.
Walking through a proverbial time capsule at the Russian space museum, Hollingham came upon a three-man spacecraft — the Volshod 1 — known to be so cramped that cosmonauts could not wear spacesuits. The story goes that one of the engineers warned the chief designer, Sergei Korolev, that the slightest air leak would kill all on board.
“Korlev’s solution,” Hollingham wrote,“ was to appoint the engineer as one of the cosmonauts, believing this would help to properly motivate him to make the capsule as safe as possible.” All three cosmonauts survived the mission, he reported.
One hundred seventy years earlier and a continent removed, J.M.W. Turner, arguably Britain’s greatest painter, lashed himself to the mast of a ship in a blinding snowstorm to observe the foundering of the Ariel, a paddle steamer that would sink after leaving Harwich in 1842. When asked later about his inspiration for capturing the sound and fury that inspired “Snow Storm —Steam Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth,” Turner said:
“I got the sailors to lash me to the mast to observe it [like Homer’s Odysseus, resisting the Sirens]; I was lashed for four hours and I did not expect to escape, but I felt bound to record it.”
These two powerful vignettes share a critical common element: To find inspiration and success in our work as counselors and practitioners, we must to commit ourselves to experiencing the lives of others, body and soul.
While in Seattle for Boeing at one time, I met with our client, Jerry Calhoun, the global human resources leader. As we sat down, Calhoun, who later led HR for Alan Mulally when he was CEO of Ford Motor Co., looked at me for a long time before he spoke. Then he shook his head and said, almost prophetically, “This is the last time we’ll meet here in the corporate office.”
Thinking our firm had been fired before our engagement started, I looked at him somewhat puzzled .
“Real work is done out in Renton, in Everett, and in places where people build our aircraft and other products,” Calhoun said. “That’s where you need to be — not here in corporate.”
I never forgot this conversation.
I have long been “strapped to the mast” — destined for manufacturing plants and field locations that allow me to observe leaders, managers and employees on the front lines, to see how communication works where “real” work is done where careers ebb and flow, where leaders struggle to cut through information overload and seize the day, where the men and women we’ve forgotten to thank and recognize for their contributions await us.
How can we ask others to take risks or to find solutions to needs or problems without discovering for ourselves what sucks the oxygen from the air we breathe, or how the dizzying forces we see and feel may imperil the future?
Do not go gentle into that good night. Do not trust companywide surveys that yield buckets full of numbers and trend data but little context for why issues or problems abound in a corporate culture. Strap yourselves to the mast, metaphorically; get out of your office or classroom, leave your teleconferences, your voice messages and your social media behind for a time, and go see people where real work is done.