An HR History Lesson – Worth Repeating

A friend of mine, Doug Gehrman, author of Leadership for Life, also teaches leadership at Houston Baptist University. We share career tracks, paralleled by our chemical engineering beginnings and transition to a mutual passion for leadership and organizational culture.

He told me the story of once asking his HBU class what they thought about the timing of the advent of human resources ( HR ) in the context of elevating the practice of compensation, benefits, etc., to influence workplace effectiveness. Several guesses later (mostly in the realm of 40 to 50 years) Doug posed that HR has been with us since the dawn of time – as in 5000 years ago.

Professor Gehrman wrote about the Egyptian pyramid-building enterprise in his Life Under Construction blog … here’s an excerpt:

“The principles of human behavior, motivation, and leadership are much the same as they were thousands of years ago. The difference today is that through experience, observation, and research we better understand the principles and how they apply in the workplace. An early example is the building of the great pyramids.

About 2560 BC, Khufu, the Egyptian Pharaoh, enlisted his countrymen to build his tomb.  It is estimated that over 50,000 men were involved in the construction. The first task was to haul limestone from quarries in the Arabian Mountains to the Nile, ferry them across the Nile, and then drag them to the site of the pyramid. It took ten years to build a mile-long and 6o-foot wide causeway of polished stone for dragging the stones from the Nile to the construction site.

The pyramid itself was under construction for 20 years. Its base was a square, 800 feet on a side with a height of 481 feet (a 40-story building). The smallest blocks of the 2,300,000 used in the construction were 30 feet in length and weighed over two tons.

The building of the pyramids represents a feat of such monumental proportions that the actual methods of construction may never be fully understood. Even extraterrestrial theories have been proposed. So how was this accomplished in a relatively short time? Who made up the labor force and what motivated them?

Many of us might believe that slaves were employed under the whip of an overseer, but archaeological evidence paints a different picture. The remains of workers indicate all the construction workers were Egyptian and not slaves from conquered countries. The workgroups had names and, as the graffiti of the times said, were “friends of Khufu.” Workers were paid, fed, had relief crews, were provided housing, and received medical care. Not the picture you would get in a concentration camp of slaves. So what was the answer to this apparent dedication to the task and the perfection of their pyramids?

The Egyptians had a strong spiritual life that centered on their Gods and the Pharaoh Kings. On the death of a Pharaoh, it was believed that they became Gods who could then ensure an afterlife for everyone. Therefore, the pyramids were sacred tombs. They were built to last an eternity to protect the God who would favor the workers with eternal life. They weren’t building a pyramid; they were securing a place in the afterlife. Now that’s a transcending purpose!

Moon Landing 1920x1200 wallpaperNot much has changed in almost 5,000 years. People will still give their all to a cause that serves, for them, a noble purpose. Whether it’s the volunteer working in a hospital or the NASA engineer working to “land a man on the moon in the next decade,” the power of higher purpose is strong. You will see higher purpose themes reflected in modern day advertising, recruitment literature, and the promises of politicians.

An organization’s higher purpose can inspire and motivate employees to do their best work. Creating a higher purpose is a function of an organization’s values, the integrity of the leadership, community involvement, and a vision that paints a destination for the organization that speaks to higher-order human aspirations. Pride comes from what your company stands for and how it behaves in the marketplace and community.

As a leader, focus on the fundamentals of leadership. As the Blind Boys of Alabama sing, “What comes from the heart goes to the heart.”  It’s about higher purpose, not greed, and that’s powerful.”


So, what’s the major leadership angst today?

Probably the same as Pharaoh Khufu’s.

Need contemporary applications of purpose at work?

How about Southwest Airlines, Apple, Starbucks, Google?

The world has changed but human desires have not. Can I have an Amen?

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