From The Order of Her Noodly Appendage
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Intimacy is at the heart of competence. It has to do with understanding, with believing, and with practice. It has to do with the relationship to one's work.

Everyone knows you can't run a good restaurant with absentee management. A young man I know went to eat lunch one day at his regular restaurant. It was unusually busy. He managed to get a menu, but before the waitress came to take his order his lunch hour had evaporated. Genuinely concerned that the owner should know what had happened, he mentioned it to the cashier in a friendly way and went back to work. That night, the owner of the restaurant arrived at the young man's house, unannounced, with dinner—enough dinner for two nights.

This kind of intimacy with one's work leads to solid competence.

Being an effective department supervisor on a manufacturing floor is fundamentally different from giving seminars about it.

In the same way, war games are different from battle. Those who have been there know the heightened sense of reality and unreality, and the odor of fear and risk and death. Only the heart-pounding experience of battle can bring that intimacy.

Those of you who have had real experience with machinery and equipment and even buildings know that they have personalities of their own. Intimacy with a job leads one to understand that when training people to do a job, one needs to teach not only the skill of the job but the art of it as well. And the art of it always has to do with the personality of both the operator and the machine. Intimacy is the experience of ownership. This often arises out of difficulty or questions or exasperation, or even survival.

Beliefs are connected to intimacy. Beliefs come before policies or standards or practices. Practice without belief is a forlorn existence. Managers who have no beliefs but only understand methodology and quantification are modern-day eunuchs. They can never engender competence or confidence. They can never be truly intimate.

Functionally and technologically we are concerned with intimacy. We should be concerned with intimacy when we design the organizational structures which, after all, are the road maps that help us to work together. Intimacy concerns us personally, professionally, and organizationally.

Intimacy with our work directly affects our accountability and results in personal authenticity in the work process. A key component of intimacy is passion. 

You should not think that you can come to intimacy easily or by following a formula. Nor is intimacy easily preserved. It has its enemies. In our group activities, intimacy is betrayed by such things as politics, short-term measurements, arrogance, superficiality, and an orientation toward self rather than toward the good of the group.

Superficiality in a special way is an enemy of intimacy. When one thinks carefully about why certain people who are competent, well educated, energetic, and well supported with good tools fail, it is often the red thread of superficiality that does them in. They never get seriously and accountably involved in their own work.

Intimacy is betrayed by the inability of our leaders to focus and provide continuity and momentum. It is betrayed by finding complexity where simplicity ought to be. Leaders who encumber people rather than enabling them betray intimacy.

Intimacy has its champions too.

I was inspired by a Charles Kuralt segment reporting on a talented high school gymnast paralyzed from the waist down. The young athlete was really good, and it was fun to see how accomplished he had become. Something he said applies in a special way to each of us: “I don't come with the wheelchair. The wheelchair comes with me.”

This is the way it is at work. We don't come with our companies—they come with us, because no company or institution can amount to anything without the people who make it what it is. Our companies can never be anything we do not want ourselves to be. When we look at work in that relationship to ourselves, we develop a real intimacy with work, an intimacy that adds value to work and to our organizations.

We find intimacy through a search for comfort with ambiguity. We do not grow by knowing all of the answers, but rather by living with the questions.

Intimacy rises from translating personal and institutional values into daily work practices, from searching for knowledge and wisdom and justice. Above all, intimacy rises from, and gives rise to, strong relationships. Intimacy is one way of describing the relationship we all desire with work.

Charles Eames used to enjoy talking about “good goods.” He was talking about good materials, good solutions, good products. This helped me to understand that the “good goods” of the art of leadership is the sacred nature of our relationships. Intimacy should be part of the relationships we build at work.

Broadly speaking, there are two types of relationships in industry. The first and most easily understood is the contractual relationship. The contractual relationship covers the quid pro quo of working together. I've mentioned this kind of relationship before. But more is needed, particularly today when the majority of workers are, essentially, volunteers.

Three of the key elements in the art of working together are how to deal with change, how to deal with conflict, and how to reach our potential. A legal contract almost always breaks down under the inevitable duress of conflict and change. A contract has nothing to do with reaching our potential.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, speaking to the 1978 graduating class of Harvard College, said this about legalistic relationships: “a society based on the letter of the law and never reaching any higher, fails to take advantage of the full range of human possibilities. The letter of the law is too cold and formal to have a beneficial influence on society. Whenever the tissue of life is woven of legalistic relationships, this creates an atmosphere of spiritual mediocrity that paralyzes men's noblest impulses” And later: “After a certain level of the problem has been reached, legalistic thinking induces paralysis; it prevents one from seeing the scale and the meaning of events” (A World Split Apart, New York: Harper & Row, 1978, pp. 17–19, 39.)

Covenantal relationships, on the other hand, induce freedom, not paralysis. A covenantal relationship rests on shared commitment to ideas, to issues, to values, to goals, and to management processes. Words such as love, warmth, personal chemistry are certainly pertinent. Covenantal relationships are open to influence. They fill deep needs and they enable work to have meaning and to be fulfilling. Covenantal relationships reflect unity and grace and poise. They are an expression of the sacred nature of relationships.

Covenantal relationships enable corporations to be hospitable to the unusual person and unusual idea. Covenantal relationships tolerate risk and forgive errors. I am convinced that the best management process for todays environment is participative management based on covenantal relationships. Look for the “good goods” of quality relationships that prevail in a corporation as you seek to serve.

How can we begin to build and nurture intimacy? Well, one way to begin is by asking questions and looking for answers. How does the company connect with its history? What business is it in? Who are the people and what are their relationships with one another? How does the company deal with change and conflict? Most important, perhaps, what is their vision of the future? Where are they going? What do they want to become?

Leaders are obliged to think about these questions. Both the act and the art of leadership, if we are to be intimate with our work, demand this.

From time to time I am asked, “What is your personal goal for Herman Miller?” When one loves jazz, one thinks of Louis Armstrong. When one truly enjoys baseball, one thinks of Sandy Koufax. When one appreciates stabiles, one thinks of Alexander Calder. When we respond to the French Impressionists, we think of Renoir. Each of these beautifully talented, beautifully trained, beautifully disciplined persons is special to us because he is a gift to the spirit.

My goal for Herman Miller is that when people both inside the company and outside the company look at all of us, not as a corporation but as a group of people working intimately within a covenantal relationship, they'll say, “Those folks are a gift to the spirit.”