The posts I’ve been writing this month relate to lessons one learns from history, and how they can be applied to manufacturing. The fact is that manufacturing has played a vital role in America from the get-go, and our leaders’ attitudes towards manufacturing have shaped our history.
A recent column by Benjamin Clement notes that manufacturing was central to American independence:
In colonial America, England prevented American manufacturing by using tactics that included arresting and jailing anyone with manufacturing talent who would move from England to the colonies. In response to the English demand that we ship to them our timber, iron ore, rice, cotton, indigo, and natural resources, and import from them the manufactured finished articles, thereby remaining a banana republic, Alexander Hamilton in his famous treatise “Report on Manufacturers” called for steps instead to build up our own manufacturing and to build our country.
Perhaps because our manufacturing was so hard won, much historical policy was centered on protecting the sector:
- Lincoln decided against importing steel from England to build a transcontinental railroad. Instead, he encouraged development of our own steel plants. He put import restrictions on British steel, thereby giving birth to one of the key industrial engines of growth in this country.
- During the Great Depression, Roosevelt developed a system of import quotas and subsidies for America’s agriculture. This system has remained to this day.
- In the ‘50s, Eisenhower applied oil import quotas, in the ‘60s, Kennedy restricted textile imports, and in the ‘80s, Reagan put import quotas on steel, machine tools, semiconductors, and a 50 percent import tariff on motorcycles.
Today’s global marketplace puts new strains on manufacturing, and whether one argues for protective policies (as Clement does) or other approaches, the lesson to me is that our leaders took strong and committed stands when policies proved effective.
Elsewhere, a column by Steven Forbes raises two important points about leadership: One, anyone who accomplishes something great, something unique, whether in business or in politics, often does so by defying the conventional thinking of his time; and two, even though more than 2,000 years have passed since Hannibal crossed the Alps, the elements of what it takes to be a successful leader have not changed. What are those elements, according to Forbes?
They are simple and obvious, or should be: motivating those who follow you to share your vision; inspiring through example; a sense of duty and responsibility to those who trust and depend on you; the capacity to see a problem and the skill to fix it; developing and maintaining a proper perspective on yourself in the face of success or adversity; setting and achieving goals; understanding people’s limits; and knowing when to drive hard and when to ease up on both subordinates and competitors.
That description rings true to me.In these complex and challenging times, the issues faced by our leaders can be daunting. How the nation nurtures its manufacturing sector is one of them. Regardless of the approaches taken, the fact is that sound leadership will be essential if those approaches are to be successful. Considering the actions and characters of our past leaders can only help those who have the courage to lead us going forward. Let’s hope their appreciation for history is commensurate with their ambition to lead. Manufacturing needs that.