Sunday, April 27th, 2014
My friend and occasional Urbanophile contributor Rod Stevens has suggested that communities should create “Dewar’s Profiles” of the people in their cities that represent the type of entrepreneur they’d like to attract more of. I think this is a good idea. It’s about thinking of the characteristics of people who have achieved success, and chosen to build that success in a particular place. What attributes do those people have? Once you know that, you can go out and find more of them.
Some of this is place specific but I want to apply this concept to the civic change agent generally, a person who has a powerful impact on the trajectory of a community for the better over the long term.
I want to look specifically at J. Irwin Miller in Columbus, Indiana. For those who don’t know Columbus, it’s a small manufacturing city that is almost the antithesis of Rust Belt decline. Apart from Big Ten college towns Lafayette and Bloomington, it’s the only small city in Indiana that can be said to be thriving – and it’s doing it with manufacturing. Columbus is home to Cummins Engine, a large diesel engine manufacturer, but also numerous other manufacturing concerns, including the largest concentration of Japanese owned firms in the state outside of much larger Indianapolis.
The success of Columbus can in part be traced to J. Irwin Miller (1909-2004). Miller took over leadership at Cummins, which his family had bankrolled. Not only was he the CEO of Columbus’ leading industrial firm, he also ran Irwin Union Bank, the original source of his family’s wealth and the town’s most important bank. Desiring to create a community that would be attractive to skilled engineers and other talent he need make Cummins succeed, Miller created a foundation that would pay the architectural fees for schools and other public buildings provided that the client picked an architect from Miller’s list. That list included a who’s who of modern architectural legends including Eero Saarinen, Harry Weese, IM Pei, and many others. Suffice it to say this was an offer the town fathers couldn’t refuse, the result of which is that Columbus has one of the world’s greatest collections of modern architecture, with six buildings classified as National Historic Landmarks, the US government’s highest designation. Columbus is literally an international architectural tourism destination. Beyond the architecture, Columbus also became somewhat infused with Miller’s progressivist ethos, though never without losing a certain bedrock Hoosier conservatism. The result is a high quality community that remains affordable, pro-business, and which has navigated the transition to the global economy to date in a way few other similarly situated cities did.
I find a few things of interest in Miller’s life, even out of what little I know. The most important is that he was not a self-made man. He was at least the second generation of wealth in his family. Born into total financial security and leadership of the undisputed first family and most important enterprises in Columbus, he had security of position and provision as close to that of a European aristocrat as we might find in America.
The best compare and contrast of the aristocratic and democratic man is of course found in Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Tocqueville clearly had great admiration for America, but also understood the aristocratic virtues that it lacked.
When one was born into an aristocratic position, it came with utter security. That position could never be taken away except by war. This security of position I think is something those of us in America, where this is predominantly lacking, don’t full appreciate. And it has profound affects on the way people conduct their lives.
I have two former colleagues who came from a somewhat similar situation to Miller. One of them was the child of the president of a major corporation in Indianapolis. The other was the child of the president of a bank in a small Michigan city. Raised with elite status in their communities and financial security, both of them carry themselves with a certain ease and unself-consciousness that I could never muster. These are people, you can tell, who never had to fear that through some social faux pas or mistake or change of fortune, their careers or social standing would come crumbling down, or that they’d suffer material want.
By contrast, growing up poor in rural Southern Indiana, I am keenly aware of the fragility of any accomplishments I might have. I think that’s common and why self-made people who even manage to amass great wealth and success often still remain hungry for more. There’s an inherent insecurity of station in the character of the vast bulk of us that is so normal in America that we often don’t realize that some people don’t share it.
The fact that Miller was born into this absolute security of position and wealth gave him a freedom of action that those of us plagued with the curse of democratic insecurity don’t have by default. He was freed from the calculus of risk that infuses almost every decision or action the rest of us take.
But beyond simply security of position, Miller also had power. This was influence in the community as its leading citizen, but also responsibility to run his family’s business concerns, including a major, publicly traded corporation. This makes him very different from a trust funder that merely receives wealth without either power or responsibility. The latter condition is quite dangerous, as Tocqueville noted, saying: “There is nothing more miserably corrupt than an aristocracy that preserves its wealth while losing its power and which, though reduced to vulgar enjoyments, still possesses immense leisure. The energetic passions and great thoughts that formerly animated it then disappear, and one encounters scarcely more than a multitude of gnawing little vices that attach themselves like worms to a cadaver.” This is something which Miller was spared.
Also, as a child of privilege, he was fortunate to receive an elite education from an early age. I grew up listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd and went to a Big Ten school where I studied the practical art of business. Miller was raised in a highly enriched environment, attended Yale, then studied philosophy and other subjects at Oxford. I’m not sure where he acquired his interest in architecture, but I presume a thorough artistic education was part of his upbringing. (He later served on the board of the Museum of Modern Art). Clearly he would not have been able to select the architects he did if he lacked the education and discernment to do so. His education was similar to what the child of an aristocrat would have received.
Another attribute of the aristocrat that showed itself in Miller was an ability to think long term. As Tocqueville again noted, “Aristocracy is infinitely more skillful in the science of the legislator than democracy can be. Master of itself, it is not subject to getting carried away in passing distractions; it has long designs that it knows how to ripen until a favorable occasion presents itself. Aristocracy proceeds wisely; it knows the art of making the collective force of all its laws converge at the same time toward the same point.” While this was specifically legislative, we see that Miller stayed the course with his architectural commissions and plans for civic improvement in Columbus over the long term. This wasn’t a flash in the pan or a phase he went through. It was a lifelong pattern of behavior.
Lastly, and this one is not specifically related to aristocracy, he came from a strong religious tradition and was strongly influenced by his personal faith. Two of his grandfathers were pastors and he was a lifelong adherent to the Disciples of Christ denomination they hailed from. (Both First Christian Church and North Christian Church in Columbus, both National Historic Landmarks, were churches Miller attended). It’s clear this affected his views on the world. I can’t speak authoritatively on this, but he appears to have been very influenced by mainline protestant type social justice concerns around the greater public good. He welcomed the formation of a union at Cummins Engine. He was active in the civil rights movement. He was also a key leader in the ecumenical movement and the establishment of the National Council of Churches. He was obviously a very active philanthropist, and in addition to his own giving sat on the board of the Ford Foundation. He didn’t abandon Columbus. As the recent article “Welcome to Cummins, USA” in Forbes shows, his values still have a hold at Cummins the company.
Put these together had we have:
– Inherited security of position and wealth – secure from birth
– Actual power in the community combined with major management responsibilities
– Top level education cultivated from an early age
– Long term thinking and consistency
– Faith-based commitment to the greater civic good
When looking at who the potential positive change agents in a community are, it would be helpful I think to do a scan of those who have several of those criteria. It’s not clear that they can all be combined – and in the case of larger cities no one person is likely to have political clout in the way Miller had it in Columbus – but the more of them that are present, the more likely it is that someone has the potential for making a major positive impact on a community.
It’s easy to see how the lack of any of them can potentially sabotage a candidate. People without gut level security in their position are likely to be boat rockers. This implies political or business scions are potential candidates. But someone who has already had a major exit out of a huge startup might fit the bill as well. Tony Hsieh in Las Vegas immediately comes to mind.
Without some serious level of intellectual cultivation or gettitude, it’s unlikely a person would be able to chose the right course of action or even the right advisors to help find it. (As Machiavelli rightly pointed out, “This is an axiom which never fails: that a prince who is not wise himself will never take good advice…Good counsels, whencesoever they come, are born of the wisdom of the prince, and not the wisdom of the prince from good counsels.”) Similarly someone without a long term vision or plan will likely grow tired of the long term change game. We see the toll daily in our communities from people without real responsibilities and/or a moral compass and civic mindedness (faith-based or otherwise). They are the billionaires that bleed the public treasury dry. Unlike Miller, they’re not putting money in, they’re taking it out.
Nevertheless, even if you can’t get all five, at least getting part of the way there might suggest people who have the potential for major positive change in a community. I’m not claiming this is the only template of the change agent. It’s only one possibility. But it’s clearly an important case study. I’ll perhaps circle back and look at other models in a future post.