Right out of the gate I want to be clear that I’m not talking about me here! I don’t usually show up tired and I’m not old. I refuse to think of myself that way. I do love the idea of getting older though. A wise fisherman once taught me that the worse thing that ever happens to us is we stop getting older. So hurray for each birthday … but it’s okay if they take their time getting here!
What got me onto this topic was a visit to the city of Detroit. I hadn’t been to there in over 35 years. My memories of it we’re as a blue-collar, rough and tumble, somewhat edgy place with a truly vibrant spirit. What I found this time put the words “old and tired” into my mind.
Detroit has well published woes, of particular note the title of largest city to ever go bankrupt in the USA. Its population has declined from a high of 1.8 million people to under 700,000 now and still dropping. Entire neighborhoods have been demolished and many more sit boarded up. Those parts of the city look more than tired … they look like they are in the palliative care ward.
I didn’t stay downtown. I was in Dearborn in the heart of Ford Motor Company territory. Everything about the area was just fine. It was clean and safe. The hotel was a wonderful old thing perched amongst the commercial complex of Ford across the street from their proving ground. I could have imagined walking through the grounds in my seersucker suit and spats. It got me thinking what might have changed around here in the intervening 80+ years. Certainly there were the modern conveniences that we expect like Internet and ATM’s. I’m sure the technology resident in the research and development complex next door is state of the art. But what else?
The heart of the community is still the same. They get up in their little brick bungalows, they drive their Ford vehicle to work to the brick Ford complex and they build Ford cars and trucks. They’ve been doing it since Henry Ford released the Model ‘A’.
I’m sure life is exactly the same in the parts of Detroit that build GM and Chrysler cars. I’m also certain that the folks here realized that there were other parts of the world that were building cars as well. What I’m not certain was as clear was the quality of the vehicles the other guys were making and the changes going on in the global economy that said it wasn’t a three-horse race anymore.
Whatever happened, not enough change did. The result being a city that is now old, tired and possibly dying. You can see it in the people. They do their jobs. Some even smile as they do their jobs. Others are even genuinely cheerful. But as I absorbed the general feeling of the place it was tired and maybe defeated.
I could go in many directions from here. I could speak of my home city of Calgary which is largely a single industry town (oil and gas) and speculate on its future. I could look at what happens to companies when they fail to understand these dynamics (and I think I will next week). But for now I’d like to use Detroit as a metaphor for ourselves.
I wrote of my father two weeks ago. As I look at it, he was a bit like Detroit. He didn’t have a “plan B”. His plan was to work as an accountant until he knew he had enough money to retire and then try to keep himself busy. He didn’t truly understand the change that was coming his way and when it arrived he didn’t know what to do. It pains me to say it, but I think he got old and tired and, as a result, died of boredom.
That’s a story about being old, but I think it applicable to us at any stage in life. What are we doing to remain young and vital? What are we doing about our physical fitness that will provide us much of the energy and resilience that we need to engage fully in life? What learning are we engaged in to keep our minds active, to help keep ourselves current and relevant? Do we invest in truly knowing our inner, more spiritual self as a compass for future decisions? Most importantly, do we dream of what we will do next, truly believe in that dream and act on making it real?
An element of essential leadership is to help our team members build a development plan based on what they truly desire to achieve for themselves, what they want to contribute to their world (however they define it), what they long to create, express or experience. What do we do, as leaders, to engage our team members in these thoughtful discussions about their futures? Are we focused on them as growing individuals or merely agents for meeting the requirement of the status quo? Do we allow for dreaming and creativity as a part of renewing our team?
Detroit was a lesson for me. I’ll remember it for myself, but also as part of my responsibilities to help others lead themselves to bright new futures.