Let's Not Compound the Tragedy

October 1, 1997
It's been five days since Diana, Princess of Wales, died in a car accident on Paris streets. As I write this, the funeral is still two days away. The world is in mourning, and I've been stunned by the depth of my grief. Yes, I admired her charitable work, and I respected the tenacity with which she struggled to solve her personal problems. But those qualities were not Diana's alone. My sorrow, the long lines of people waiting to pay their respects, and the mountains of flowers in cities around the world, are about something greater than Diana.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair clearly struck a chord when he called Diana "The People's Princess," for that's the moniker most used in the media these past few days. Its popularity goes a long way toward explaining our sense of loss.

We loved Diana not because she was a princess, but for her humanity. We loved her willingness to hold children wounded by land mines or fighting leukemia. We loved her for the obvious joy she found in her young sons. We loved her determination to look a hotel doorman straight in the eye, acknowledge him, and shake his hand. We loved her ability to connect.

But Diana was a princess, and as such she represented at least two of our most established institutions: government and monarchy. The universal outpouring of grief suggests that it hardly mattered to most people whether Diana represented their government or their monarchy. Still, it mattered a lot that she represented such stalwart institutions.

She alone seemed to bridge the ever-widening gap between our institutions and the people they are intended to serve. We believed that Diana operated in the real world, that she understood the issues facing ordinary people and that those issues mattered to her. Diana treated every person she met with respect, and so we all felt respected.

Consider how alienated from our institutions we are. Don't most of us believe that Congress is far more interested in petty political squabbling than in solving problems? Don't we dread another headline about police brutality? Don't we deplore the fact that the press seems far more concerned with hiding behind the public's "right to know" than in taking a hard look at how its cynicism and intrusiveness can ruin lives? We are dispirited and bereft. Diana gave institutions a very human and compassionate face, and in doing so gave us hope.

So what does all this have to do with you? Plenty. Business is high on the list of institutions that have alienated people. In the midst of mass downsizings, stagnant wages, declining benefits, longer hours and CEO pay that's often thousands (even millions) of times more than the average wage, employees have lost faith that the institution of business understands their world or cares about them. The epidemic of unethical behavior that's eroding our ability to compete is a direct outgrowth of employees' sense of abandonment and fear. Can we afford to let this gap between people and their institutions-starting with business-remain? And aren't HR professionals in the best position possible within organizations to begin closing the gap?

Playwright Arthur Miller once observed that, "A life, after all, is evidence." Diana's life surely was evidence that one person can make great progress in easing our malaise. Let's not compound the tragedy of her death by losing sight of that.

Workforce, October 1997, Vol. 76, No. 10, p. 4.