“[To Gilchrist Stewart]…I will tell you in a word what we want in the position that you are now attempting to fill. We want a man who puts his whole soul in the work-who gives it his thought night and day-who can teach the theory of dairying in the class room, and who is not afraid after his teaching to put on his dairy suit and go into the stable and remain with the students while they are milking, and then go into the creamery and take hold in a whole souled way and show the students who to do their work. We want a man who is so much in love with the work that he thinks it is just as important for him to remain with students while they are milking and separating the milk as it is for the academic teacher to remain with his class while they are reciting arithmetic. We want a person whose soul is so deeply in love with his work that it is a pleasure for him to co-operate and obey orders, who looks so closely after every detail of his work that matters will not get so out of order that others will have to be constantly calling his attention to defects and to whom orders will not have to be continually repeated by the farm director or myself. We want one who is continually planning for the improvement and perfection of his work. This is what we want in this position and we can accept nothing less.”-“November 9, 1897,” Booker T. Washington
Presidential Commentary by Dr. Brian Johnson
Esteemed author and educator, Parker Palmer, writes the following regarding finding one’s purpose and passion in connection with one’s work: “It is not easy work rejoining soul and role.” And the founding principal and president of Tuskegee (Institute) University, Booker T. Washington thoroughly outlines in this letter to Mr. Gilchrist Stewart the kind of employee he sought to assist him in his work at Tuskegee. Expounding upon his conception of “heart (calling), head (competence) and hands (capable),” Mr. Washington wanted someone to “take hold in a whole souled way,” and “whose soul is deeply in love with his work.” While Mr. Washington’s passage needs no additional commentary, and one might argue that he offers a 19th century notion of work, we are able to glean two important lessons for the 21st century from his remarks to Mr. Stewart. First, he wanted someone “who gives [work] his thought night and day.” Now, there are a great many employees whose work ends as soon as the bell rings, yet there are some who give constant thought and deliberation to how their work might be improved and made better. To be sure, work-life balance dictates prudence in these matters. Notwithstanding, the student, scholar, professor, staff member and administrator who is constantly turning about in their head how to make things better will likely become the person who surpasses those whose work is done at the close of the class period or the business day. (For this man or woman is working while others are talking or sleeping, and when they become successful, it is only a surprise to those who do not know the supreme value of works as opposed to words.) Second, Mr. Washington wanted someone “who looks so closely after every detail of his work…whom orders will not have to be continually repeated…[and] one who is continually planning for the improvement and perfection of his work.” Herein lies the (3) chief descriptors of any successful man or woman at their craft: 1. They look closely after the details. Contrary to popular opinion, “it does take all of that” to become a man or woman whose work transcends any boundary. Attention to the most minute of details is a characteristic of excellence that is oft-times avoided because it is perceived as additional work 2. They do not need to be told repeatedly what to do. If a supervisor must spend his or her time repeatedly issuing the same instructions and expectations to those within their charge, then they might rightly do the work themselves. On the other hand, if a supervisor can issue a general set of expectations and instructions and never return to the person except when absolutely necessary it enables the supervisor to attend to their own duties and not the duties of others. 3. They are continually planning for improvement and perfection in their work. Note, one will never arrive at perfection which is precisely why an institution and its employees must be in a constant state of “continuous improvement.” It is a poor employee or organization that rests upon past successes or achievement. The best employees and organizations work constantly to achieve and do MORE and MORE. Success-true success-begets more success and, most importantly, continued success. (Success is the 3rd greatest 7-letter word after “purpose” and “passion.”) Every successful man or woman wants to work in a culture of success. And such success is both the tradition and trajectory of Tuskegee (Institute) University.
Brian L. Johnson, Ph.D.
7th President, Tuskegee University