Leading the Organization
The High-Performance Business Organization
Even Hollywood could not have embellished the story of Eleuthère Irénée du Pont. He was a French immigrant to the United States at the height of the French Revolution; he was a refugee from oppression who had a passion to start a new life and a successful company. His story is unique in many ways, in part because of his entrepreneurship and that of the company that still bears his name. His is a story of role model leadership and the founding of a high-performance business organization.
In Delaware in the early nineteenth century, while E.I. du Pont was establishing his business, he began to develop a values-based organizational culture. His early leadership in that regard has inspired generations of DuPont employees to this day.
The company that E.I. du Pont founded grew rapidly and succeeded quickly – indeed, it became one of the most successful enterprises in North American history. The company has survived and prospered for more than 200 years, which makes it one of the oldest in the world. Of course, as with all enterprises, it has encountered disappointments and failures. But its successes have been legendary.
It was Pierre S. du Pont, a descendant of the founder, along with Alfred Sloan of General Motors, who largely invented professional managership and strategic business centres. That model has been the standard design for businesses ever since. And both of these business leaders were engineers.
But there are other aspects to this story. Before leeing France, E.I. du Pont had been the assistant to Antoine Lavoisier, long regarded as the founder of modern chemistry. In North America, du Pont would base his business on his practical knowledge of that science. He started by producing and selling gunpowder – obviously, an extremely hazardous material requiring deep technical knowledge. His technical skills and the values on which he built them would spawn a culture of invention and innovation. Between 1950 and 1970, its scientists and technologists would develop an unprecedented number of classes of materials – essentially, the DuPont Company invented the polymer industry. And it continues to invent new products. To this day, DuPont refers to itself as a “Science Company.”
The DuPont Company can be commended for many things: for helping to invent the modern corporation; for developing high-performance systems for materials innovation; and for showing others how to develop ideas into inventions and then into products that satisfy customers. But perhaps its most important contribution to corporate history was that it was among the irst companies to recognize that people are its most important resource.
E.I. du Pont's gunpowder business was potentially hazardous, and the early experiments producing that material sometimes resulted in explosions that injured or killed his workers. He decided early on that these injuries and deaths were unacceptable – this, in an era when fatal industrial accidents were commonplace and given scant attention. Many people at the time believed that workplace injuries were a cost of doing business in hazardous processes and products. E.I. du Pont, though, believed deeply that eliminating such accidents was the right thing for his company to do. In our terms, he embraced the core value that his company must show concern for its workers. He then expressed that value by developing a safety and security culture, one that he himself lived by working in his factory alongside his production workers.
E.I. du Pont was a scientist, a businessman, and a role model leader. He based his leadership on his values, which included concern for the wellbeing of others. He was also determined to create a strong and sustainable business model. By any measure, he succeeded.
I worked for the DuPont Company, so its story is well known to me. I know of many other admirable companies, such as Walmart (for its highperformance distribution system), General Electric (for its high-performance human resource system), and Toyota (for its high-performance manufacturing processes), and there will be others that I have never heard of that you yourself could name.
In chapter 2 of part one, I introduced the developmental leadership model. That model has two parts: individual leadership and organizational leadership. Part three of this book discusses at length how role model leaders make positive change in organizations. That positive change, as you will be reminded, is directed by the aspiration to develop a high-performance business organization. The developmental leadership model this book presents is an evolution from the authoritarian models of the past, where the leader / boss prevailed, as well as from the more recent democratic approaches, such as participative teamwork. In developmental leadership, everyone is developing leading and leadership competence and everyone works together to build high-performance work processes and systems that will beneit the organization's stakeholders.
All of this developmental learning and work moves the business organization towards higher and higher levels of performance and the moving target that I call the high-performance business organization (see chapter 2). To review, such an organization has these traits:
• The organization has created an admirable set of core values and lives
• All individuals have learned to be role model leaders and are continually developing their leadership competence.
• The organization has created and sustained a harmonious level of
service for all stakeholders.
• Productivity and quality measures are all higher than in other business organizations and are growing sustainably with no wasteful processes or outcomes.
Earlier, I described the company founded by E.I. du Pont as a highperformance business organization. Does this mean the company meets all the criteria described above and that it meets its targets all the time? The simple and obvious answer is no. The metrics listed above are aspirational. They are meant to clarify the meaning of a high-performance business organization and what it hopes to achieve and to suggest how it can set out to become one.
I know the DuPont Company very well; I know that its people strive to improve all the time. And I know that there are times when its people, including me when I worked there, make mistakes that result in setbacks in productivity, quality, and other measures. But when mistakes are made, DuPont's people recognize them and take disciplined, systematic actions to rectify them and continue moving forward. That, quite simply, is what developmental organizations do and what separates them from others. And in doing so – in continuously striving for perfection as the target – they rapidly improve the lives of others and themselves.
All engineers and scientists know that there is nothing more practical than a theory believed.