Having recently reread Arthur Miller’s classic play “All My Sons”, its timeless look at a leadership dilemma (although written in 1946) made me pause and reflect.
And it encouraged me to share this first of a series of Atosú letters with you, which, given the value of your time, will be sporadic in cadence but we hope pointed in content and insight.
A reflection in choice and compromise
The play explores themes of guilt and responsibility in pursuit of success. Set in post-World War II America, it follows the Keller family as they deal with the aftermath of their involvement in a wartime scandal. The family patriarch Joe is a successful businessman who runs a manufacturing plant that produced faulty engine parts during the war. As a result, 21 pilots died due to the parts’ failure.
The title “All My Sons” refers to the ripple effect of Joe’s decisions to meet expectations of the US Air Force (his main client) amid pressure to build a business to provide for his family.
For leaders today, it’s a reflection in ethical decision-making, and the risk of compromising when strained by output measures like profit, margins, efficiency, and shareholder value. It’s a reminder that for values-driven organisations, purpose and commercial success needn’t be at odds. That is, for outputs to be truly sustainable, inputs must be authentic.
The founder’s trap
It’s the capacity to step back in these moments and take a long view that is so valuable to a leader. Joe – who evidently has many noble qualities as a loyal and loving family man – wouldn’t be the first (or last) leader to compromise himself, his business and his legacy through misguided decision-making. While a culture of maximum output at all costs seems to be the driver, it would be naïve for any leader to think that external pressures alone are to blame.
One of the greatest risks to an entrepreneur’s legacy – and one little spoken about – is themselves. The ‘founder’s trap’ sees many owners inhibit their business’ growth and success, despite best intentions. And sometimes, as in the case with Joe, it can lead to the total self-destruction of the organisation’s most valuable asset – the person themselves – often taking everything they’ve built down with them.
And for what? In Joe’s case, the legacy he strove to build for his family was the most misguided of all, with one son committing suicide because of his father’s actions and the other disinterested in taking the reigns of the business, and eventually disgusted when he discovered the truth.
“You can be better! Once and for all you can know there’s a universe of people outside and you’re responsible to it.”– Chris Keller (Joe’s son) to Joe, Act 2
The dilemma of choice and compromise is also seen in the Keller family’s neighbour Dr. Jim Bayliss’ longing to be a medical researcher rather than a practicing physician – and his constraint by culture and his wife to make money in a more traditional way.
This feeling undoubtedly rings familiar to many. Witnessing the lethargy of Jim dealing with patients versus his joy when reminiscing his two months spent living “on just bananas and milk while studying a disease” (his purpose) sparks introspection in the audience about what we’d all really like to be doing – and the compromises we all make:
“Now I live in the usual darkness; I can’t find myself; it’s hard sometimes to remember the kind of man I wanted to be.”– Dr. Jim Bayliss, Act 3
For today’s leaders and those passionate about personal growth and development, the post-World War II backdrop is apt. The current models of education and leadership were inherited from this period. For today, they are limited and often not fit for purpose – put simply, they lack the strength and sustainability that heart and compassion deliver.
Now in 2023, as conflict has returned to Europe and supply chains strain under demands of the war machine and consumerism, it’s more important than ever for leaders to be aware of the material values for them and their people – because the time for compromise will always come…
P.S. If you haven’t seen or read the play, you can easily access it online. This stage performance recording on Spotify is a compelling listen.