Using the life’s work of civil rights titan John Lewis as inspiration
U.S. Representative, renowned civil rights leader, and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient John Lewis died on July 17. If you wonder what his legacy could possibly have to do with home building, I offer this quote from a tweet he published in June 2018: “Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”
Opposing the Status Quo
John Lewis offered those words or some version of them many times during his long, distinguished career. Hearing them again the week of his passing led me to think back over my own history of more than 30 years working with building industry leaders and 23 years writing this monthly column for Pro Builder.
Right up front, let me state that in no way do I make any false equivalency—even a vague equivalency—between the career and impact of John Lewis and that of my own, nor can the vast majority of us.
Many times I have felt beaten down and figuratively arrested for certain beliefs or positions I’ve held in opposition to the status quo, but John Lewis was literally arrested more than 40 times and physically beaten and bloodied on multiple occasions, including receiving a skull fracture at the hands of a state trooper during the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches in Alabama. That’s a level of commitment few of us can imagine.
But I do fancy myself a contrarian, even a rabble-rouser at times, but always for what I believe is a good and just, even necessary, cause. As a child of the ’60s and a college student during the first half of the 1970s, I grew up with various protests broadcast on television. My first memories of demonstrations, while I was still in junior high, were the freedom marches in the Deep South, which continued throughout the 1960s. Those peaceful marchers, led by Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, and other members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, were confronted with violent opposition, shocking the nation, which watched as unarmed protesters were beaten by police in living color on the evening news.
“Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.” —John Lewis
King, Lewis, and a host of others persevered and kept demonstrating for what they knew was right, eventually leading to the passage of landmark civil rights legislation. They caused a lot of trouble alright, and it took this country many years to reach a consensus that that trouble was both good and necessary.
By the late ’60s, civil rights marches were supplanted by Vietnam protests, at least in terms of airtime. These events, sometimes drawing tens of thousands, continued until the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, but were memorialized during the August 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago in an epic battle between thousands of protesters and Mayor Richard Daley’s police force.
The first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, was organized to protest the incredible environmental degradation going on at the time, and those of us who wore green armbands in support of the message were dismissed from school and sent home.
I graduated high school just three weeks after the May 4, 1970, deaths of four students on the Kent State University campus at the hands of Ohio National Guard troops. It was literally all we talked about at the time. The outrage was palpable. There were those who said—publicly—that the Kent State protesters got what they asked for, but those voices were largely drowned out by the anger and indignation across the land. “Four dead in Oh-hi-o,” as the song penned by Neil Young goes, and it still gets a reaction from me each time I hear it.
To young people today who express well-earned concern about the incredible divisions in our country at this time, I tell them that, on the whole, it was worse back then.
Shining a Light
Thus, I grew up in a time of protests, rallies, demonstrations, marches, walkouts, and shootings. We were learning—to most parents’ chagrin, although mine were remarkably supportive—to speak up, speak out, and not settle for business as usual.
As editor of my high school newspaper, I was suspended from school three times for editorials deemed “inappropriate.” But when you discover a cover-up of rancid, bug-infested food in the school cafeteria, liquored-up bus drivers routinely speeding and not stopping for railroad crossings, and then your own school ends up having the highest rate of teen pregnancy in the entire state, what else could an editor do but report it? That was good and necessary trouble in my book, and it provided the perfect subject for my college entrance essay.
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My proclivity for shining a light on serious if unflattering situations continued throughout my career. Right out of college, on my steel mill job one night, I was told to “re-inspect” rejected structural steel for use in nuclear submarines and ship it out to make our quota. As a 22-year-old turn foreman, my refusal to sign off on a railcar load of suspect I-beams earned me a transfer from the relatively clean and cushy back end of the mill to the front end; a tougher and dirtier assignment with worse hours.
In my next position, with a large electronics company, I discovered a major division falsifying test reports on a new process designed to save on gold plating. The Fort Worth operation was trying to kill it for purely political reasons, but unbeknownst to them, we also ran the test in secret in the small, upstart, Albuquerque plant and the new process showed seven-figure savings. I was never again invited back to Fort Worth, and I became an official pariah for telling the truth.
Then, with a consulting firm, the favoritism in resources shown to our East Coast operations was simply untenable to those of us in the lowly Midwest. Meanwhile, our “lack of performance” in achieving completely unrealistic goals resulted in the elimination of my year-end bonus. My protests led to an early departure from that outfit. The list goes on and on. Then, almost 33 years ago, I arrived in home building.
Calling Out Trouble in Home Building
I’ll never forget the meeting where five of us—all corporate vice presidents—committed to one another that we would tell the truth about any difficult or unethical situation and not back off the need to resolve it immediately.
At the Friday staff meeting with the senior VP, I laid it on the table, as agreed by our gang of five. As our SVP went into full meltdown mode, one by one the four other VPs lost their resolve and backed down. As one of those colleagues replied to my indignant challenge that afternoon, “Hey, I saw you out on a limb, sawing it off behind you, and I wasn’t going to jump on it.” My subsequent response to him pretty well ended our already fragile working relationship.
Another time, I was informed about an operation committing mail fraud, which is a federal offense. Division field personal were told to open the backs of mailboxes in the clubhouse at a big project, pull the customer satisfaction surveys, then hand-deliver them to customers. The field staff were literally trained to go over the survey with the customer to “help them answer it,” while describing how important the ratings were to their bonuses, showing pictures of their new baby or cute puppy, whatever it took.
I’m certain my commitment to fighting for what’s right has cost me financially, but I sleep well.
A cover-up ensued and I took it to the top for action. This was the time to literally put the fear of God into this operation—well known for cheating on many fronts—and make sure everyone heard about it. Instead, it was just glossed over with a meek reprimand. After all, those field personnel were making their numbers, weren’t they?
In another division, it came to light that the controller was saving six-figures of money that was, in fact, owed to customers because tax payments in his state were made in arrears. When new homeowners got their tax bills, more than half just paid and forgot to recover the portion owed by the builder for the land up to the date of sale. There’s no choice but to immediately fire the controller for such egregious actions, right? Instead, it was finessed and explained away as simply being a mistake.
A few years later though, a VP of finance at that company bragged to a national meeting about the huge “profit center” he was accumulating through unpaid labor—work done but which contractors never billed for. In this case, the chairman of the building company had quietly come into the back of the large room and overheard the conversation. The next morning, the VP of finance was gone and the chairman made sure everyone throughout the company understood why. Cheating the trades was something the chairman simply would not tolerate.
Staying the Course
Since launching TrueNorth Development 23 years ago, I’ve run into similar situations. One such time was in response to an appeal from top staff at a large private builder, who wanted someone to intervene with the company owner, who can only be described as totally out of control. (Having worked with more than 240 builders, I’m not giving anything away here.)
This builder used three consultants for three different strategic pursuits, and all agreed with the staff’s assessment. I was one of those consultants.
When have you stood up, perhaps risking pay, position, promotion, or even your job because you were willing to fight for what's right, to cause “good trouble”?
The three of us had a long conversation and decided we cared too much about this builder’s very good people to just look the other way and collect our fees. So we made a plan to go directly to the owner, as a group; after all, he was paying us to help him run his business better, and everyone agreed he was the single biggest obstacle.
You can probably guess the outcome of that meeting. The two other consultants quickly capitulated as the owner went ballistic. One said nothing, while the other implied I made the whole thing up. That ended my engagement with the firm and cost me significant dollars, while the other two consultants continued to collect fees for years until this builder’s bankruptcy during the crash of 2009.
I Could Write a Book
As is often said, “I could write a book” featuring a hundred cases like these. It could work by setting up the stories and asking readers to consider their own reactions and responses. “What would ______ do”—fill in your own name and have at it. Perhaps you’d do better or be smarter than I was.
I’m certain my commitment to fighting for what’s right has cost me financially, but I sleep well. And although colleagues or clients may look back and question my advice, business strategies, or decisions, I never worry they will challenge my ethics.
What are your stories about good and necessary trouble? When have you stood up, perhaps risking pay, position, promotion, or even your job because you were willing to fight for what's right, to cause “good trouble”? I know many of you have been there, and no doubt some of you are facing such tough situations even as you read this. What will you do? What will you risk?
John Lewis, beaten, bloodied, and jailed as a young man in his 20s, continued fighting during his entire life. He never gave up, even when facing pancreatic cancer at age 80. Lewis was often called the “conscience of the Congress,” and he stood up to pundits, peers, and presidents for what he believed. Ironically, John Lewis’ actions today would be classified by some as part of a radical element trying to tear the country apart. Yet I am confident that most are thankful for his courage and pray we find more like him.
Think back over your life and career. Have you ever regretted standing up for the right thing? I’ll bet not. What we do regret are those times when we didn’t stand up.
There’s plenty of change needed in our companies and in our industry. Maybe it’s time to make some good trouble, necessary trouble, to enable it.