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Gracious Professionalism: Take the Challenge

What if your grandmother read about your actions in the national news media? Or saw you on TV? Would you be proud of your actions, or hiding your head like many recent business and government leaders?

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Woodie Flowers, Ph.D., FIRST National Advisor and Pappalardo Professor Emeritus of Mechanical Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, coined the term "Gracious Professionalism." He relates that he was teaching a course at MIT that involved building from a kit of materials in a sort of competition. The students developed an attitude of “competing like crazy,” yet showed respect to those they were competing against. Flowers called this attitude gracious professionalism. As he said at the time, “Imagine that your grandmother will see everything you do on nationwide media.”

“Students embraced that concept with just a few comments to get them started. They learned to work hard, yet take pride in helping other people. It was good to be known as someone who knew something,” says Flowers. The concept was carried over to a new organization that Flowers started with renowned inventor, Dean Kamen— FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, The highlight of FIRST is a series of competitions in which students build robots that compete against robots built by other teams. Each team has a mentor to help them get started and to provide guidance.

“When Dean and I started FIRST, mentors would come to New Hampshire and I’d give talks on getting them through the process. I had one slide on Gracious Professionalism the first year talking about how the mentors could impact the tone of the competition. The next year I had six slides. I think it has worked because humans like feeling good, not just about accomplishing something, but also how they accomplish it. If you create an environment where the right things are encouraged, then the right things happen,” continues Flowers.

Gracious Professionalism is not just an idea; it’s a way of doing things that encourages high-quality work, emphasizes the value of others and respects individuals and the community. As the organization’s Web site puts it, “With Gracious Professionalism, fierce competition and mutual gain are not separate notions. Gracious professionals learn and compete like crazy, but treat one another with respect and kindness in the process. They avoid treating anyone like losers. No chest-thumping tough talk, but no sticky-sweet platitudes either. Knowledge, competition and empathy are comfortably blended.”

Proud to be an engineer

Gracious Professionalism has meaning beyond the student competition in robotics. As Flowers puts it, “I want to die proud of having been an engineer. If engineers and others in the technology business don’t have bigger views than solving problems that other people give them, then they aren’t going to do the right thing.”

Flowers believes that many Automation World readers are in a powerful position in society. You know a lot about the world around you and are scientifically educated, he says. And Flowers challenges you to apply this technical knowledge to make a difference. It’s a deal you make in order to learn what you know. You stood on the shoulders of giants before you and are given thinking tools by them, he points out. In exchange, you should accept responsibility to use that knowledge well. “Don’t abuse what you know,” Flowers says. “Exercise the profession in a gracious way. It’s a nice set of behaviors that does good and serves society.”

Flowers is also optimistic about the new generation of engineers he’s seen developing through FIRST. “This particular generation seems to want to solve the world’s problems in a good way.” And registration for this year’s competition is going ahead undaunted, despite all the recession talk.

Gary Mintchell,, is Editor in Chief of Automation World.

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