Sam Houston And The Modern Day Office

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Explore:  Legal History

Sam Houston is one of my heroes and today is the 150th anniversary of the death of Sam Houston. While he cannot claim the title as the “Father of Texas”, as that moniker goes to Stephen F. Austin, he is certainly can claim to be the ‘George Washington’ of Texas. He was the General of the Texican Army, which defeated Santa Ana in 1836 at the Battle of San Jacinto, after which the Mexican dictator granted Texas its independence. He was the first President of the Republic of Texas before Texas was granted statehood and, finally, he was the first Governor of the Lone Star State after admission into the United States. And, unlike our present governor (Governor Goodhair), he argued against secession when the rest of the Deep South seceded in 1861.

Sam Houston had also been a protégée of Andrew Jackson and the Governor of Tennessee. Houston served with Jackson in the War of 1812. He was interviewed by Alexis de Tocqueville for his seminal work “Democracy in America”. But he was also a man with many faults. He once caned a US Representative who he felt had insulted him, his arrest was ordered by Congress for the beating and he was eventually found guilty. While Governor of Tennessee, he was married but separated from his wife who claimed he had been emasculated during the Creek War of 1814. He left the Governorship and went to live among the Cherokee Indians who formerly adopted him as a member of their nation, giving him the nickname ‘The Raven’. Lastly, he had a nasty drinking problem.

In the Financial Times (FT) this past week, in its Weekend Edition, had an article entitled “The office almanac. An insider’s guide to what’s new and what’s not”, by Lucy Kellaway who about her review of the history of the workplace office and what had and had not changed over the past 250 years.

Six new fads that aren’t new

  1. Working from Starbucks. The English invented coffeehouses so that they could conduct business in them.
  2. Working from home. People have always worked from home because there weren’t any offices. Wait a minute – isn’t that the definition of a virtual office?
  3. Paying for internships. 200 years ago, a clerk had to post a bond and work for no pay for an internship with the East India Company. Last year, a week’s internship a Vogue was auctioned off for $42,000. Seems like things may have actually improved.
  4. Eating breakfast at your desk. John Stuart Mill had breakfast at his desk every day. The only difference with today is that Mill had it served and was waited on by a servant.
  5. Twitter. Remember it was Samuel F. B. Morse, who in his first telegram said, “What hath God Wrought?”
  6. Email destroying piece of mind. In 1913, people complained about having to answer one phone call a day. Imagine that.

Six things that really are new

  1. Managers. A truly new phenomenon. But if there were no managers, Kellaway wrote, there would be no meetings, memos and no need for “leveraging” or “delivering solutions.” Think about it.
  2. Liking your job. This was “unheard of”. On the other hand, this may not apply to associates at any law firm.
  3. Women. Women were introduced into the workplace in the late 19th century but were an instant hit.
  4. Competence. It was not until the 1870’s that “to get a job you needed not only to refrain from drooling but also to know some mathematics and Latin too.”
  5. Jargon. When management was command and control, there was no need for jargon, only orders.
  6. Casual clothes. Thank you Apple.

Six things that are eternal

  1. Lust. Office affairs have been going on since…there have been offices.
  2. Badmouthing Colleagues. The need to ridicule colleagues is constant, but now it is done on social media.
  3. Beauty Premium. “Tall, low-voiced and easy on the eye” people tend to do better, except in Iowa where that is the basis for employment termination.
  4. Petty Policies. Companies who cancel the annual Christmas party to ‘save money’ in the face of the best year they’ve ever had. Don’t forget those companies who won’t let people work from home any longer.
  5. Motivational Slogans. At Facebook there are slogans plastered on the wall “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” After revelations on NSA spying perhaps the better statement would be “Be afraid, be very afraid.”
  6. Paper. In 1975, BusinessWeek predicted a paperless office by the end of the century. Kellaway wrote, “I still predict that the paperless office will arrive no sooner than the paperless toilet.”

Six things that will never come back

  1. Ledgers. The end of the ledger meant that the system of entering things chronologically to be never found again was to be no more.
  2. A graveyard of equipment. Gone are quill pens, blotting paper, typewriters and all other forms of outdated equipment.
  3. Noise. Office noise and yapping on the phone has been replaced by emails and texts, the irony is that now that people wear headphones.
  4. Tobacco. It was once snuff, then cigarettes. “Those people” are now seen on the pavement outside.
  5. Privacy. When was the last time you had an office or one with real walls?
  6. The Tea Lady. One of the greatest gifts to the civilized world by the English, now gone to cost-cutting. Neither Starbucks, nor the water cooler, does the job as well. And besides, the Tea Lady always brews a better cup of tea.

What does this mean for the compliance practitioner? I think it means that are some options for you to communicate. Take the coffee shop, why not have a meeting in a local coffee shop. If one can do business there, why not some compliance and ethics discussions? Moreover, it goes to show that everything old can be new again.

Why is Sam Houston one of my true heroes? Consider his words after being forced from the Governorship because he opposed secession.

Let me tell you what is coming. After the sacrifice of countless millions of treasure and hundreds of thousands of lives, you may win Southern independence if God be not against you, but I doubt it. I tell you that, while I believe with you in the doctrine of states rights, the North is determined to preserve this Union. They are not a fiery, impulsive people as you are, for they live in colder climates. But when they begin to move in a given direction, they move with the steady momentum and perseverance of a mighty avalanche; and what I fear is, they will overwhelm the South.

A good weekend to all.