Week 4 in a series of posts inspired by family holiday through the southern states of the USA.
The presidency of Jimmy Carter, from 1977 to 1981, coming between Gerald Ford (who served for less than a year, ascending to the presidency when Nixon resigned in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal) and Ronald Reagan (who oversaw significant financial prosperity during much of his reign) was not viewed by many political commentators as one which was particularly successful. Reviewing and collating scholarly rankings of all US Presidents shows Carter sitting somewhere between 25th and 30th of the 45 presidents who have completed their terms. Poor relations with congress making it difficult to enact his will, difficult economic conditions throughout his time, marked by high inflation and oil shortages, along with the Iran hostage crisis were used against him by Reagan in the 1980 election. He lost in 44 states and was comfortably defeated by Ronald Reagan in the electoral college by 489 votes to 49. The popular vote was closer, but he was still10% behind Reagan and his time in the most powerful seat in the world came to an end after one term and his presidency was eclipsed by his successor.
For anyone, rising to the rank of President would be considered the peak of their professional achievement and so there can be a tendency to measure individuals contribution by the success or failure of their time in this highest of offices. But Jimmy Carter served as President for only four years, in a life which has just entered its hundredth year. Despite the grandeur of the post which can elevate it to outsized proportions, four years is a tiny mark on the long timeline of Carter's life. In the four decades since he left office, he has hit numerous milestones of presidential longevity (including being the first to live for four decades after his inauguration) and has been involved in humanitarian and human rights causes across the globe. His nongovernmental agency, the Carter Center has administered hundreds of millions of treatments to help reduce preventable blindness (one such disease caused by the Guinea Worm saw only 13 cases last year and Carter has said he hopes that he will outlive the disease) and he's supported Habitat for Humanity both by being an ambassador and by building houses for them for 35 years. He's worked to support over 100 countries and organisations around the world to negotiate in support of human rights and find peaceful resolution to conflicts. No president has done more in their time after leaving office and Carter received the Nobel Peace prize in 2002.
In addition, viewing his presidency from a distance of four decades, it can be seen that some of the steps he took proved beneficial over a much longer timeline than that of a presidential term. The deregulation of the beer industry sparked the growth in home brewing and microbrewing which has turned America from a nation known for crap, watery beer to a place with thousands of fantastic micro breweries making lovely, innovative brews. He pushed for medical insurance reform in a way that has informed much of the conversation on that topic today. He established an education department at a cabinet level for the first time, ensuring that this was a focus at the top level of government. His work at Camp David brought peace between Israel and Egypt and as we are seeing even as I type this, peace in the Middle East can be very hard to come by. His desire to make government "competent and compassionate" is something that many if us yearn for even now and his focus on using the power of the USA to push for the protection of human rights around the world is something that many people wish to see return. In response to the US energy crisis, he encouraged energy conservation and installed solar panels on the White House which would seem progressive even now and his post-presidential work speaks for itself.
In business, we often measure people by their results and especially their short-term results. That's something that I've seen changing in some of the organisations I've worked with these past few years, but it's still the prevalent method of appraisal and is tied closely to reward and recognition. I understand the reason for that; firstly it's easy and it encourages people to drive results today, which supports organisations in aligning internally with the ways they're measured externally (i.e. by short term market performance). What I've seen that do, however is twofold - firstly it encourages short-term thinking which have create catastrophic long-term consequences (sales of PPI in banking, Blockbuster worrying about short term profits rather then long term viability, multiple examples of oil companies cutting corners in health and safety leading to environmental disasters, Purdue Pharma driving sales of opiate-based painkillers across America leading to huge addiction issues and deaths). But secondly, the ways in which these short term value decisions are communicated can create a connection in people's minds between their value in the workplace and their value to the world.
If Jimmy Carter is an example of anything, it's that someone's life should be measured by more than what they deliver in their workplace, especially when we're looking at a short time in their role and measuring only the instantaneous results. For organisations to be successful long term and sustainable, we need to be constantly looking for better ways to measure success and value and encourage our people to have longer horizons over which to view their world.