Sidney and I shared an interest in efforts to humanize the workplace. He held deep values of human development and against all forms of prejudice, and his leadership approach was a direct expression of these values. He told me he felt guilty about the way workers were treated in his factories, especially the mindless repetitive work they had to do that almost made them into machine parts. So when he learned that Norwegians and Swedes were engaging workers differently, he offered to lead a demonstration project in one of his factories. I warned him that his own managers would probably think he’d lost his marbles, but this didn’t faze him. He saw it as a chance to integrate his values with his practice.
I introduced him to Irving Bluestone, vice president of the United Auto Workers (UAW), who, when Sidney described his vision for workplace enhancement, asked, “Are you for real?” Yet despite the initial skepticism, the two went on to collaborate on the Work Improvement Project at a Harman factory in Bolivar, Tennessee that made outside mirrors for cars. To the amazement of Sidney’s managers, the efforts produced gains in productivity and profit along with worker satisfaction. The project, which I directed, became a model built on by all American car companies. When Sidney bought Tannoy, a loud-speaker company in the United Kingdom, we repeated the project successfully in Scotland. As a result of the Bolivar project, the UAW—which had supported Jimmy Carter’s nomination and election—asked Carter to bring Sidney into his administration. Carter appointed him Deputy Secretary of Commerce.
Also as a result, I was hired to apply the lessons of Bolivar at AT&T and Volvo. And we carried the aim of our project even further when Sidney endowed the Kennedy School’s Program on Technology, Public Policy and Human Development, which I directed from 1978 through 1990. The purpose was to develop students who would build on our accomplishments.
After working in the Carter Administration, where he supported work improvement projects in the civil service, Sidney bought back his company, which he had sold before entering government service. He continued to combine business strategy with a leadership style that focused on the well-being of his employees. His factory workers I interviewed believed that the benefits they received were the expression of Sidney’s philosophy.
Sidney was convinced that to be authentic and trusted, a leader should communicate a philosophy, rooted in his or her values. His business philosophy expressed values of respect, non-discrimination, education, beauty and quality. At one of his factories, he made employees repackage a product because the label had been placed crookedly. He said, “Sloppiness in details leads to poor quality in products.” He saw good leadership as an attention to the aesthetic as well as to the economic and technical, and he urged his managers to read poetry and learn from great writers and playwrights, especially Shakespeare.
At age 92, he told me that if he stopped working, he’d lose the motivation to get up early and do an hour of calisthenics. He was motivated by the challenge of making his visions come alive. He was convinced that by combining knowledge of science, technology, art and philosophy, students would be more likely to become innovators. As recently as last year he persuaded the president of USC to establish a program of polymathy that he chaired. Together with his chairmanship of Newsweek, he was just getting started on a new career, and a new expression of his values and vision.