Global Matters: When duty calls, will we answer?

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I arrived at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport shortly after midnight, and among the throng awaiting my fellow passengers was a uniformed gentleman holding a small sign bearing the logo of a hotel and my name. I made eye contact and he signaled me to meet him on the other side of the corridor formed by the crowd.

He insisted on taking my bag from me, and we walked a short distance to the exit of the terminal, where another young man awaited, this one in a business suit. He introduced himself and waited with me while the driver hurried off to get the car.

The young man in the suit engaged me in polite conversation while we waited. I thanked him for coming out in the middle of the night to meet me, and he looked at me with a hint of surprise.

“Why, Sir, it’s my duty!”

I recognized, of course, that late nights and early mornings are part of the drill when your job entails meeting hotel guests. But never had I had someone tell me in such basic terms that it was his duty to serve the customer.

I’ve heard “it’s my job” a thousand times, but never “it’s my duty,” and there is a difference.

“It’s my job” means that a task is a requirement. “It’s my duty” implies a stronger, deeper obligation. There is a moral component to the concept of duty that is not necessarily implied in simply doing one’s job, and the pervasive sense of duty that one finds in a country like India should strike a cautionary note.

Lest anyone excoriate me for denigrating the Maine work ethic, let me preemptively acknowledge and extol the virtues of the Maine workforce. There’s a reason why employers set up shop here, and why employee turnover is low. We have good, dedicated people who work hard and whose ingenuity and integrity have built the Maine brand.

There may be something that courses deeper in the veins than work ethic alone, however, and that is the concept of duty. How duty factors into the question of economic power is something we should be considering.

Since my return from India I’ve had discussions with consulting partners in Delhi on a variety of matters. Invariably I receive calls at around two o’clock in the afternoon here, which corresponds to 11:30 p.m. in India. One relatively junior consultant has been tasked with these follow-up calls, and he is always the one to contact me as the clock approaches midnight in Delhi.

I make a point of telling him that I appreciate his efforts, and inevitably I suggest to him that since it is almost midnight, he should be thinking about heading home. And, just as inevitably, he tells me that he is happy to do the work, even at midnight. It is, he says, his duty.

In fact, each day during my stay in India this young man would call to make sure that the car he had arranged for me had arrived, and at the end of every day he called to see that my meetings had met expectations. If he could not personally be present for a meeting, he called to apologize. If he could not personally call me in the morning, he arranged for another colleague to do so. He considered this level of service to be his duty.

Now, different cultures approach work and relationships in ways that reflect particular perspectives. We pride ourselves on a loose, informal structure that encourages communication across a “flat” organization. The opinions of all contributors are, in principle, welcome and equally valued.

Other cultures place a premium on structure and hierarchy. Organizations in such cultures reflect a reverence for seniority and experience. One advances and earns credibility through dedication and persistence.

Critics of more stratified cultures frequently note that highly structured environments discourage innovation and squelch the kind of abstract thinking that encourages creativity. Openness, informality and the free flow of ideas are truly American concepts, and they have served us well.

Yet today’s global business environment is one increasingly populated by hundreds of millions of dedicated, educated, focused and wired young professionals, motivated to a large extent by duty.

Now, we are who are, and we like it this way. We cherish the values and perspectives that have made us the economic engine of the world; but there are massive demographic and consequent economic changes afoot.

Wealth and power are migrating to centers of influence driven by value systems with which we are much less familiar.

How will these changes impact us? How can we thrive in the coming decades?

You might say it’s our job – or perhaps our duty – to figure that out. Our futures may depend upon it.

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Perry B. Newman is a South Portland resident and president of Atlantica Group, an international business consulting firm based in Portland, with clients in North America, Israel and Europe.