Even in casual conversation over lunch, J. Irwin Miller measures out his words with the easy confidence of one who is no stranger to his thoughts. And for a captain of industry, the man Esquire magazine proposed for president in an October 1967 cover story, Irwin Miller thinks some pretty outrageous thoughts. Thanks to the efforts of filmmaker James Ault, the National Conference of Christians and Jews, and Lilly Endowment, we get to kibitz on the table talk.
Recently retired as chairman of the board of the Cummins Engine Company, Miller is the subject of a half-hour-long video portrait produced by Ault under the auspices of the National Conference of Christians and Jews with support from Lilly Endowment. In Irwin Miller: Portrait of a Trustee the principal subject holds forth on topics as diverse as the perils of groupthink and institutional orthodoxy, the nature of leadership, and the particular responsibilities and benefits of seminary trusteeship, and manages to hold our interest at the same time.
We are not the first audience held captive by the incisiveness of Miller’s observations, and the idiosyncratic turn of his through, which can segue effortlessly from a story about diesel engine manufacture to a lesson about seminary leadership and manage to do justice to both. Early in his tenure as vice president for religion at Lilly Endowment, Robert Wood Lynn began making regular trips south on Interstate 65 between Indianapolis and Miller’s office in Columbus, Indiana, for what soon became an ongoing discussion that ranged widely over issues of institutional life and leadership.
As Miller’s primary conversation partner for the taping sessions from which the video was constructed, Lynn evokes a distillation of the industrialist’s views that is at once engaging and provocative.
Indeed, Miller’s strength lies precisely in the general relevance of his insights; when he cautions us about the limitations of groupthink, it is not only ecclesiastical institutions that he has in mind. His experience has taught him the futility of safe thinking in any context; it is the loss of imagination that most concerns him, and the resulting impairment of vision that is the greatest threat to any institution’s survival. That and failure of nerve. “The same problems are facing the leader in every activity in society,” he says at one point. “They face President Bush, they face the governor of Indiana, they face me in business, they face the dean of a divinity school, they face the president of a college, or the chairman of a bank. Because the human beings are the same in all of these institutions, and new forces are rushing through the world, changing things faster than human beings have ever been accustomed to respond,” Miller observes early on in the documentary. And then, in his characteristic fashion, he takes this conventional wisdom and turns it back on itself to produce a provocative insight: “The safest and most prudent course is on the side of change. The real danger is not to change. You have at least a 50/50 chance of surviving if you are willing to embrace radical change and pursue it.”
Miller’s views on leadership are not mere abstractions. When he took the helm of Cummins Engine, it was a small (60 employees), family-owned company; as its general manager, his daily responsibilities included opening the mail. By the time he retired, Cummins had become the leading independent manufacturer of diesel engines in the world, with annual sales of $3.5 billion, employing 21,000 people in 14 plants here and abroad. Miller is not an organizational theorist winging it on the fly, but a practical man whose insights are rooted in the fullness of ordinary life, whose parables are drawn from the marketplace as well as the sanctuary.
“Let’s say you’ve got a problem: This engine goes out in the field and this part keeps breaking all the time, and you try every idea you can think of. And finally, there is something that works. You’ve arrived at, by pure chance, the Edisonian method, just by trying anything you can find. Then what happens? The profession gets real busy developing a theory as to why it works. And that theory becomes a theology and therefore it is orthodox and you don’t change it because anybody who wants to change it is now a heretic. Once you are able to explain why something is real good, you stop thinking about it. How do you keep perpetually open to new and crazy ideas?”
Miller’s experience has convinced him that such challenges demand leadership, and true leadership demands service. “The leader as servant is a fundamental Christian concept. The leader must be a person who is not afraid to take power, but does so reluctantly and does not like power for his own uses, and has a natural humility but also a natural toughness.”
A graduate of Yale, Miller spent a year at Oxford and another traveling around Europe before returning to the U.S. to take up his family’s business interests. He is the product of a classical education, and one can assume that somewhere along the way Socrates’ assertion of the worthlessness of an unexamined life struck home. A certain reflectiveness seems to characterize his personal perspective and perhaps accounts for his continuing openness to “new and crazy ideas.”
The essence of leadership may be service, but Miller’s experience has convinced him that the fruits of such service have practical value in the marketplace. “Service outside the business is actually refreshing rather than exhausting. You come back from a good trustee meeting fired up with new ideas for your own business. Public service makes you a much more effective person in your career.”
And seminary trusteeship brings a unique reward. “Unless you are completely insensitive, it should raise questions almost every day about how you’re conducting yourself in the business world. Those are difficult questions, not easy to answer. But it is a very good thing for you to have to wrestle with them and come out somewhere.” It’s a good thing for society as well, insists Jacqueline Wexler who brought the video portrait under NCCJ auspices during her tenure as the organization’s president out of her conviction that good trusteeship is “the lifeline of American institutions in the independent sector.”
Wexler continues: “Individually and as a self-sustaining group, our institutions depend on the broad, deep, and long view of their trustees to nurture and sustain them.”
Miller’s own record of public service is formidable, and includes stints on the boards of Butler University, Christian Theological Seminary, the Mayo Clinic, appointment as a lifetime trustee of the Yale Corporation, and election as the first lay president of the National Council of Churches in 1960. He has also served on the boards of American Telephone and Telegraph, Chemical Bank, and Ford.
Miller is adamant that trusteeship is a commitment to hard work, not some kind of social plum. “It is a mistake to say this will only take an hour of your time three times a year. If you are the right kind of trustee, it will take some night work.”
Being a good trustee also takes what Miller calls “courageous integrity — integrity that doesn’t melt when a difficult situation comes along.” In a particularly vivid anecdote, Miller cites Kingman Brewster’s success in leading Yale University as its president during the turbulent ‘60s, culminating in the Black Panther trial. As member of the Yale Corporation, Miller got a firsthand look at Brewster’s gift for leadership under pressure. “Kingman was an extraordinarily courageous guy. He just went ahead and led the university: faculty, students, anybody,” Miller remembers. Prompted by the tensions that threatened to tear apart the university at the time of the Black Panther trial, Brewster called a mass meeting in the hockey arena.
“The whole corporation was there, sitting high up and exposed, and the place was open to all expressions of opinion. But Kingman’s willingness never to hide or barricade himself in, to meet with anybody, was a high-risk decision that just came out magnificently.”
Miller insists that servant leadership is the primary task of trusteeship; contrary to conventional wisdom, he places an individual trustee’s capacity to give money to the institution way down on the list of priorities. “Find people committed to the purposes of the institution and they will help draw the needed resources,” he says.
Richard Dickinson, president of Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, has firsthand knowledge of Miller’s conviction on this score. Dickinson recalls what happened when, in response to a request from trustees for a vision for the seminary’s future, the faculty submitted a report that reflected existing budgetary constraints. “Irwin Miller challenged that,” says Dickinson, quoting Miller’s comment on the report: “It is the responsibility of you who are professional theological educators to come up with a vision of what you want as first-rate theological education. It is our task as trustees to try to enable that to happen.”
Miller’s is an ennobling viewpoint, the more convincing because its application does not lie solely or even predominantly with the church, the more compelling because it reflects his engagement with the central dilemmas that confront us all in this time. James Ault’s video portrait promises to extend the impact of that service farther than even Miller’s prodigious imagination would have envisioned—unto a new generation of trustees, and the institutions they will help lead into the next millennium. That’s no small feat for either the man, or the producer. We have them both to thank. And we do.
The capacity for ethical compartmentalization is not confined to commercial types and great rulers. I have seen professors of theology and ethics maintain deceitful private lives. As a longtime trustee of educational institutions, I have observed fiercely liberal faculties, willing to write and demonstrate for the rights of minorities and women, but never to admit either to their own departments, claiming that they would not be a party to lowering “quality” through submission to quotas.
The humanities offer the best chance of demonstrating to the young the sweetness of cooperation over the sour destructiveness of the adversary mind, the painful glory of creative effort over the dull boredom of low aim.
What is the cost of the church’s preoccupation with self, its caution, its fear to risk? The answer is easy — loss of influence on our troubled times, a blurred example to those who have lost their way, an uncertainty as to what its witness ought to be.
We don’t like to look at our real unvarnished behavior. It is uncomfortable to be reminded that hell is probably inhabited less by sensational criminals than by ordinary, dull people of only mildly shabby thoughts and motives.
Do not be overimpressed by the intellectual world. Its denizens are as skilled in the use of the ad hominem argument as any other group. Above all enjoy your pilgrimage. God loves this world, and so should you.