Why they aren’t the Newport Bengals: Slavery is never good for business

“Now, who is your momma?”

As a proud Kentuckian, I’ve always smiled at Neil Rackham’s classic “SPIN Selling” describing the differences of doing business in the North vs. the South:

I remember once watching a southern banker in Kentucky selling trust services to a customer who looked like Colonel Sanders’s twin brother. In this case the Preliminaries took up almost 80 percent of the discussion. Before either party was ready to talk about business, there was a careful “sniffing-out” process that established some of the things essential to doing business in the rural south, such as where you were from, who you knew, and whether your uncle kept horses. Only after an hour of cautious social talk was the customer ready to reveal something of his business need.

In contrast, I recall the first time I ever went on a sales call in the garment district of New York. There were no chairs in the buyer’s office. I assumed this meant that we weren’t supposed to stay long enough to sit down. On the wall behind the buyer’s desk was a stark notice: “Spit it out and get out.” In this call the Preliminaries consisted of “Hello, I’ll be brief” from the seller and a grunt from the buyer.

You want to know how accurate these descriptions are? I literally spent time wondering if I knew who the banker was.

Mr. Blue MauMau, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

And I happen to have a lilac bush once owned by Colonel Sanders. It’s a relationship-oriented world down here.

I might quibble with the Northern approach–you don’t need to be nice, but you do need to be kind. Having said that, results are just as important as relationship.

We’re in the middle of a podcast series on that very idea.

But long before we talked about Southern manners vs. Northern speed, there was something else going on. Something that has returned to haunt all of us in the modern workplace: idleness.

North vs. South

In the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville, a French aristocratic lawyer, studied the United States on behalf of his government. His outside-the-fishbowl insights are penetrating. For instance:

In provinces where people owned virtually no slaves, population, wealth, and prosperity were increasing more rapidly than in provinces where people did own slaves.

Kaleeb18, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Cincinnati from the banks of the Ohio. Love that skyline! Incidentally, love that Skyline.

This doesn’t immediately make sense, does it? The North had to work, or hire people to work. Meanwhile, the South’s slaves did the work–for free. Yet, Tocqueville observes, “labor and expense on the one hand, leisure and economy on the other: yet the advantage lay with the former.” Despite having to pay for labor, the North’s economy was expanding.

The contrast was so stark that he observed it floating down the Ohio River, past the eventual home of one Colonel Harland David Sanders.

Tocqueville noted that both sides of the Ohio Valley had fertile land … healthy air … temperate climate. …

The only difference in their situations was the legality of slavery. And what a difference it made:

On the left bank of the river, the population is sparse. From time to time, a group of slaves can be seen ambling in their carefree way through half-cleared fields. The virgin forest never disappears for long. Society seems to slumber. Man appears idle, whereas nature is the very image of activity and life.

By contrast, the confused hum emanating from the right bank proclaims from afar the presence of industry. Rich harvests fill the fields. Elegant homes hint at the taste and fastidiousness of the farmers. Prosperity is apparent everywhere. Man seems rich and content: he is at work.

I spend quite a bit of time in Cincinnati, and it is still a city of industry. My clients there are extremely hardworking. If I eat breakfast in a restaurant, I’m surrounded by business meetings. Tocqueville backs up his Ohio observations with data: population growth, canal construction, even how some Southern enterprises came about due to migrating Northerners.

The dignity of work

Tocqueville is also careful to say he is talking about slavery, not racism. Both sides were racist. In fact, Ohio made it illegal for free blacks to move there or buy property!

But his larger point is really about a willingness to work:

Labor is identified south of the Ohio with the idea of slavery, north of the Ohio with the idea of well-being and progress. To the south it is degraded, to the north honored. On the left bank of the river it is impossible to find workers of the white race; they would be afraid of looking like slaves. For labor, people must rely on the Negro. On the right bank one would search in vain for an idle person. The White applies his industriousness and intelligence to labor of every kind.


Times have changed, of course. But Cincinnati grew up on that northern bank, not the southern. This is probably the reason.

Tocqueville notes that the Ohioan is willing to work and willing to boldly explore “every path that fortune uncovers.” My fellow culture coaches would have called that Ohioan “engaged” or operating out of an “abundance mindset.”

This is why coaching is such a huge opportunity. Coaching is conversation to help someone reach awareness and take action. It is the very opposite of treating a person like an instrument to do work. Instead you treat them like the person they are. There is dignity in humanity and in their work.

But we still have slaves: machines.

“A curious machine.”

Machines launder our clothes. Simplify our cooking. Courier our messages. Increase our efficiencies in almost every way. One of these machines fits in our pockets and provides us infinite distractions.

We are all tempted to leisure. And in many senses of the word, we don’t need to work.

Maybe we are the slaves now, chained to our devices for leisure, chained to our busyness for meaning.

Years ago, I read “Twilight” by John W. Campbell Jr., a 1930s short story about a time traveler who visits the far future only to find that cities are mostly empty. Technology meets all human needs–so humans are dependent. Without anything to strive for, they begin to waste away, dying off for lack of activity. Before he leaves, the time traveler brings about one more machine, “a curious machine,” hoping to spark the content-but-pitiful humans into initiative and growth.

Will we waste away in luxurious boredom?

Or will our constant–if shallow–activity drive us to anxiety, even violence?

Like the Ohioans of the 1830s, we need to be bold, constant explorers. We need to “wrestle and grow.”

I don’t know how much time we have. But I want us to be on the correct bank of the river.

If this has stoked your imagination, here are some further questions to explore.

Do you need to do the hard mental/emotional work of dialogue?

Do your people see their craft or trade as honorable work?

Do you see meaning and purpose beyond the work?