Insights from the Past: Lowell, MA on Leadership

When I think of National Historical Parks, I think of huge mountains, massive trees and peaceful wildlife. Our family recently went on a road trip through the Northeast and discovered a new kind of National Park on the way — Lowell, MA, where most of downtown is designated as the Park. You’ve probably heard the Death Cab for Cutie song about Kerouac’s hometown.

The song and the trolleys were about all I knew about the place before we stopped for a couple of days. What I didn’t know is from its founding in 1821 through WWII, Lowell was at the center of the Industrial Revolution in America. This is the second post in a series about insights from our time there. The first is available here.   


In a place where a million miles of cotton was produced every week with 10,000 looms, managers ruled with an iron fist. It was a place where leadership vanity was the norm, and expected. To even label the behavior of those yielding the iron fist as “management" is too kind…the term overseers captures this more effectively. The greed and drive for profits drove out most concern for workers. 

Mill overseers were given strict goals by mill owners, and they did whatever it took to meet the goals. Strict curfews and diets were forced upon the mill workers. Boardinghouse keepers mapped out and observed nearly every detail of the workers’ lives. It was all in the pursuit of making workers into highly efficient cogs. Boardinghouse rooms housed 4-6 people each, and privacy was a pipe dream. 


The bell tolled at 5am every day except Sunday. Workers stirred in the boardinghouses and walked the short distance to the mills.

Once there, they ascended the stairs to their work floor and began another day of working looms to contribute their part to the miles of cotton cloth. The bell to go home rang 14 hours later at 7pm, most days. 


Work in the factories was a massive shift from the ebb and flow of farm life to machinery-focused work. On the farm, work was limited by the hours of the daylight. With light powered by the canals below in the factory, there was no reasonable limit. 

Now…as we start to unearth more about how our brains function, the pendulum may be swinging back in the other direction towards a more natural, farm-like, view of work. The continued rise of solopreneurs and freelancers demonstrates this. Some enlightened organizations (Bristol Myers-Squibb, JP Morgan, Basecamp, many others) have moved to more flexible work environments. Strong resistance is coming from tech "hustlers" in Silicon Valley, who are now celebrating the very thing the mill workers fought hard to change a century ago.

Today, one of the worst things that can be said about a manager is that he/she is a micromanager. Unfortunately, power-hungry leaders still run their companies with a lack of trust for their workers. Today the behavior is not quite to the extreme of a mill overseer, but stories about using the number of divorces in a work team as a measure of productivity and reviewing screenshots of a worker's computer screen every five minutes abound.

"I remember a guy in one company I worked for who used the number of divorces in his group as a measure of its productivity. Believe it or not, his top management reportedly considered this a valid metric. What's ironic (but not surprising) is that the group itself accomplished next to nothing." – Geoffrey James, Inc. Magazine

This is all happening even when the evidence is mounting for different ways of working, especially in creative industries

The outcomes of this are detrimental to our output at work, our health, and even impacts lifespan.

“…a lack of autonomy at work elevates stress hormones and can have other negative health effects, potentially even hastening mortality.” – Yuki Noguchi, NPR

Here’s hoping we continue towards a more realistic integration of life and work that more accurately mirrors how human energy ebbs and flows.

"Unlike machines, humans operate on a cyclical basis, which means our energy and motivation fluctuate in peaks and troughs." – Lauren Davidson, The Atlantic

Josh Carlton is the Founder of 500THz, a boutique market research firm that delights in using creativity to solve marketing problems. He is also an Adjunct Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This post also appears on LinkedIn

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