I was thirteen when my infatuation with To Kill a Mockingbird began. Since then, I have read the novel countless times – Harper Lee’s words are often comforting, like an old friend.
This past Tuesday, Harper Lee announced the upcoming release of a sequel to her classic Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Set for release this summer, Go Set a Watchman was reportedly written prior to the original novel, and includes the same characters twenty years after the events in To Kill a Mockingbird. The news surrounding this announcement brought back fond memories and lessons learned about the mockingbirds in our lives.
Set during the Great Depression when the South was plagued by racism, classism, and prejudice, To Kill a Mockingbird is told through the eyes of a young girl named Scout. The story follows three children and their obsession with a reclusive neighbor named Boo Radley, whom they have never met. During this time, the community is beset with a racially plagued trial in which Scout’s father, Atticus, is the defense attorney for a black male accused of raping a white woman.
As the reader is guided through the difficult topics of rape and racial injustice, the book tackles social laws and community codes. Throughout the novel, Harper Lee uses a mockingbird to symbolize innocence, as represented by the following passage:
“I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the back yard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it.
“Your father’s right,” she said. “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
During the climax of the novel, Scout and her brother are attacked by the vengeful father of the young woman who falsely made accusations of rape. The children are saved by their reclusive neighbor, Boo Radley, who eventually kills their attacker. Recognizing that it would be more of a sin to arrest someone who was helping save children, the local sheriff decides that the attacker was not killed by Boo Radley; instead, noting that the attacker must have fallen on his knife. When Atticus asked if Scout could understand the decision, she said “Well, it’d be sort of like shootin’ a mockingbird, wouldn’t it?”
From the innocent perspective of a child, the reader learns to be a better neighbor, citizen, parent, and leader. Mockingbirds symbolize the intangible qualities and values that we want to define our organizations and communities (Tweet This). Leaders recognize those opportunities when sacrificing an acceptable decision, policy, or norm helps protect the greater good. At times, it may be against policy to waive fees for someone financially incapable of paying the fee; allowing code violations to continue for an elderly person who needs more time to correct the problem, or to allow an employee to be unproductive during a time of personal loss. While these examples are very trite, there are times when a leader needs to make a decision that benefits the greater good even though it might not be what policy states. Examples of community mockingbirds appear daily as some examples are very small and can be solved by the leader being passive aggressive about tackling an issue or complaint while others are more visible and require the leader to intentionally and publicly address the deviation from public policy. Either silently or publicly, protecting the mockingbird occurs when the foundational values for the community would be eroded by following policy.
What are mockingbirds in your community?
Executive Search Manager
Last summer, my husband purchased a suit jacket at Nordstrom and he recently noticed that a seam was unraveling around the collar. Somehow, I managed to locate the receipt from six months ago and I headed to the store to see if they would consider altering the jacket. After I explained the issue, the Nordstrom’s representative filled out an alterations form and told me it would be ready tomorrow, without even glancing at my receipt (much to my dismay because I was very proud that I still had the receipt!). Shocked with quick turnaround, I asked what the charge would be – it was free.
From its tiny beginnings as a single partnership shoe store, Nordstrom has grown into a retail and customer service dynasty.
In Salem, Oregon, a customer called the Nordstrom store, “She has driven past the mall and had discovered when she got home that one of her hubcaps had fallen off. ‘Was there anyone in Nordstrom,’ she asked, ‘who could check the road that ran past the mall to see if my hubcap was there?’ A Nordstrom employee did just that, found the hubcap, brought it back to the store, washed it, and notified the customer, who came in to pick it up. ‘We love that story,’ said Pete Nordstrom, executive vice president of the company… ‘because it means people don’t just think of Nordstrom for buying things, they think of us as a place where they can find solutions.” [The Nordstrom Way to Customer Service Excellence, Robert Spector and Patrick McCarthy]
The employee handbook of Nordstrom is reported to be a single notecard. One side has a welcome message. The other side states, “Our only rule: Use good judgment in all situations.”
If businesses are trying to become the “Nordstrom” of their industry, it begs the questions, who/what is the “Nordstrom” of local government?
In government, we do not have sales reports, commission checks, or quarterly investment reports that yield above 2%. It is difficult to make the connection for the importance of customer service. Do residents have another choice for a company to turn on their water? No. Do builders have another avenue for receiving a building permit? No. Does the lack of competition give leaders an excuse to not focus on customer service? Perhaps.
However, local government has the ability to deeply affect our customers on a daily basis. The services that we provide are arguably the most important, basic services that a citizen receives – safety, water, sanitation, streets, codes, library, and recreation.
It is our job to offer these services in the “Nordstrom” way – use good judgment and look for solutions.
How is your organization operating in the “Nordstrom” way?
Executive Search Manager