Vol. 11, No. 9
September 2009
PQ Systems
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Six Sigma and more:
Pete Seeger at 90: His example still rings true

As I was watching the televised broadcast of Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday party celebration at Madison Square Garden, I suddenly realized how much Pete has to teach us about Six Sigma and leadership. The feeling was welling up in me, but when he got the audience at the Garden to sing “Amazing Grace” in three-part harmony by simply dividing up the room into three parts, giving each part a note to start on, providing words from time to time, and asking them to sing, my heart nearly burst.

After the show was over, I considered why he has become such a presence in our country and even around the world. Of course, there’s the music and the activism but it somehow seems more than that. I think he exemplifies good leadership. I think he does three things:

  1. He speaks the truth.
  2. He trusts the people.
  3. He stays the course.

Let’s explore each of these roles.

The three best known songs he wrote, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”, “If I Had a Hammer”, and “Turn, Turn, Turn” pretty well capture his truth. His participation in Martin Luther King’s March on Washington brought the civil rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome,” to a central place in America’s civil rights movement. His truth has been in support of workers’ rights, civil rights, international disarmament, and the environment... these are big issues.

But there is evidence that he understands what is essential to all of us as we speak our truth. Our truth is only part of the larger truth. We must continually listen to what may amend or, indeed, turn around our truth. While Seeger embraced Communism in the early 1940s, once he realized what a brutal dictator Stalin was, he left the party. As his truth evolved, he spoke it by writing, performing, demonstrating, and just plain speaking out.

His trust of the people is what started this whole column for me as he trusted the audience in Madison Square Garden to sing “Amazing Grace” in three-part harmony. But his trust was larger than that event. His whole career trusted that the people would support someone who goes against the grain. He has advocated for workers when traditional leadership said everything is fine for the workers. He has advocated for African Americans when traditional leadership said they should just stay where they belong. He has advocated for peace in the midst of our government’s race toward war. And he has advocated for the environment when both business and governmental leaders said we can’t afford to take care of the environment. The people bought his records and attended his concerts. Given his voice, they felt empowered to use their own.

Although his ability to earn a living was greatly diminished when he was blacklisted in 1953 and sentenced to jail in 1962 because he refused to name personal and political associations before the House Un-American Activities Committee, he stayed the course. Seeger apparently started “speaking his truth” in the early 40’s and he’s still at it... that’s nearly 70 years. Bruce Springsteen, at Seeger’s birthday party, reflected on his observation at the inauguration of our county’s first African American President, where together Springsteen and Seeger sang “This Land is Your Land.” His observation was, “He (Seeger) outlasted the bastards.” It was a powerful birthday party.

So if you want to reinvigorate your Six Sigma effort, follow the lead of Pete Seeger:

  • Speak your truth, but be sure your truth is large enough. It should be bigger than you, Six Sigma, or your organization. And remember that whatever it is, it is just part of the whole truth.
  • Trust the people, and expect that, if your truth is wise, they will support you beyond your wildest dreams.
  • Stay the course, because the important stuff takes a little while... but if it’s important enough it’s worth it.

As always, I treasure your thoughts. I’m at support@pqsystems.com.


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