Why is it that you go to some places, and things seem right, and others seem wrong. You go into a restaurant, and look around, and things seem wrong. A smell, scary folk at bar, absent staff. And yet sometimes you go into an empty restaurant, and it appears welcoming and wholesome, and your perception is wow, they have many tables for me. And then you go into a busy restaurant, and the crowd is too wild or the place is empty, and you sense that no, its not a place to be, and you scurry away.
That feeling is yes, about the architecture and the design at a point. But it is larger than that. It’s the people and the institution, and that goes for a church, hotel, restaurant, school campus, historic site or park. The people make the place.
One such place is the Portsmouth Naval Hospital. While I have no special knowledge of how the facility is run today, or its patient care history in recent years, over the generations is has been a leader as the Navy’s oldest continuously running hospital, and many generations of devoted Navy have served there nobly.
A Book from Dr. Byrd
On my shelf (my guess it is because my history buff great grandfather was a Norfolk obstetrician/gynecologist, Dr. G. Bentley Byrd) is the history book A Century With Norfolk Naval Hospital by Dr. Richmond C. Holcomb. It was published in 1930 on the centennial of the hospital. It is a thorough history, detailing not only the medical accomplishments of the place, but the larger social, economic and cultural issues the facility faced. At the end, Holcomb sums up what a great institution is about, and it applies to every institution:
The soul of an institution springs from the men who guide it in its mission. It is not in its structure of wood, brick, stone and steel, but in the spiritual ideals of those who work to improve and uplift the character of its service. There is no person whose work is unimportant and from the laborer on the grounds to the commanding officer, they all contribute some of their personality to create an atmosphere. This atmosphere may be sensed the moment one enters its precincts.
The people are of course great at any noble hospital. But the Naval Hospital has been great from the start, but it has the advantage of being built initially to the highest standards with the 1827 neoclassical building which faces the Elizabeth River today. The caption to the photo reads “Her massive Doric columns of freestone have always been objects of beauty.”
Excellence in My Church
Details from staff matter. I have seen that personally in great institutions large and small. This always comes from the leader. At my Sarasota, Florida parish Church of the Redeemer, the grounds are beautiful, the attendance is strong and the parish one of the most successful in the nation in The Episcopal Church. This Christmas at just one service, there were nearly 800!
Very often, I have seen the rector, The Rev. Fred Robinson, tending the St. Francis garden, or moving chairs about in the parish hall. This gives all the staff and parishioners the expectation of how the place needs to look, and be. The place does not succeed because he dead-heads flowers. But it is all part of a piece, a way of being.
The excellence must come from leadership, and it does not have to come from the top. While working at the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, I remember one day helping with issue of something at the front entrance of the Lora Robins Visitor Center. Then assistant director Holly Shimizu, an accomplished botanist (now director of the United States Botanical Garden) went over to the cigarette sand ashtray that was just outside the door, and put her hand in the sand, and scooped out the dirty butts herself. It was a potent reminder to the rest of the staff on how to behave. She did it unconsciously (not didactically) and thus made an even larger impression that the sand needed to be cleaned.
NFL Field Markings
The popularity of the NFL is always a wonder, if you step back from it. Part of the glory comes from how well it works. Certainly other sports leagues are run well, but there is something special about the NFL. It was best described to me by of all people Rush Limbaugh, as one year he described seeing the preparations for a Super Bowl, as he observed a solitary field worker perfectly laying down paint marks on a field in advance of a game.
The details matter. Of course, one can take this to the extreme, or to annoying lengths, but in general, taking care of where you are makes sense. Not only does it increase the effectiveness of the institution through the way it looks, but it creates an atmosphere where all the employees, from top down, seem busy and on purpose as you walk in the door.
I will leave you with the famous retail shirt folding exercise. The New Yorker ran a piece years ago on this practice at the store Benetton, which is really all about good merchandising. The idea is that keeping shirts and sweaters folded properly and stacked (which needs to happen in a store anyway) gives a strong indication to the customer as you walk into the store that the store is about the merchandise.
Walk into a store, and the clerks are standing around, staring at you ready to pounce, and you get a bad feeling. But if the clerk is immersed in the folding of the merchandise, you get a better sense that they are interested in the quality of what is sold.
So take care of your surroundings, and your people, and they will bring you greatness.
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Note two of the above are government institutions. In appreciating them, one can see that not all government agencies are worthless spendthrifts: