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National Association of Counties * Washington, D.C.      Vol. 33, No. 18 * October 1, 2001

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The Doctor’s Poetic Insight to HR Success

The HR Doctor’s favorite poem is Maud Muller by John Greenleaf Whittier. It offers an insight into life, that is important for the success of any human resources professional, or anyone else in public service, for that matter.

The poem is about a chance encounter between a beautiful farm girl raking hay near a stream and an important and wealthy judge who rides by on a summer’s day. The peasant girl imagines how wonderful and different her life would be if she were to marry the judge. She is frustrated by her circumstances and can escape her fate only through imagination.

The judge is also frustrated by the complexities and pressures in his life and longs for the uncomplicated joys of being a “simple” farmer. How different his life would be if he married that beautiful girl at the side of the road! After a brief conversation, however, the judge rides on and the girl resumes her chores. The rest of their lives are spent in frustration over circumstances both find depressing. They both keep thinking back to the brief meeting by the roadside. Near the end of the poem, Whittier writes:

“Alas for maiden, alas for judge
For rich repiner and household
God pity them both and pity us
Who vainly the days of youth
Of all sad words of tongue o r pen
The saddest are these, it might
have been.”

In our lives as public administrators we often encounter what appear to be missed opportunities. We are frustrated by rules that seem inflexible, by others who may not see policy alternatives the same way we do, and by constant pressures to meet deadlines, satisfy auditors, resolve staff disputes, or stay within ill-conceived budgets.

The HR Doctor sees all too often that the reactions of administrators compound their problems, and over time, add to their frustrations.

In many cases this simply need not be the outcome. Many elected and appointed officials spend inordinate amounts of time lamenting over what could have been what should have been, or what didn’t happen. They never stop looking back and never stop reminding others of the failed past. This phenomenon is closely allied with the whining in our society, which has increased in local government, and in the rest of the world (see the HR Doctor’s article, The National Commission on Whining at

This “lamenting to excess” is often accompanied by another symptom of distress — the search for a scapegoat or for someone to blame regarding something which should have happened, but didn’t.

In meetings of many governing bodies, this scapegoat search often ends at the county or city manager, the school superintendent, or some other conveniently located staff member. This is an important contributing factor in the relatively short average tenure of the brave, if not foolhardy, souls who occupy these top positions.

The public administration lessons taught to us by HR Director John Greenleaf Whittier are very valuable.

First, don’t spend the precious time and energy of your professional or personal life continually looking backwards at what could have been. Instead, use that energy to seek out innovation and opportunities to reach new goals.

Our history is always with us, but it is also always behind us. It is hard to move successfully down the road ahead, when we are constantly looking behind us. Air Force veterans would use another phrase, “There are no rear view mirrors on jet fighters.”

Next the poet reminds us to focus on what is important to us and not to spend so much time focusing on the trivial. Symptoms of this “trivial pursuit” and narrow focus may be seen in many local government budget reviews. Even elected officials may spend hours of their own and many other people’s time inordinately focusing on what in the grand scheme of the budget “universe” are items of the most minor importance. The reader is invited to learn more about the value of a focus on the “vital few” by reading the HR Doctor article The Pareto Principle at

Finally, when you recognize a great opportunity, seize the chance. Take a risk! The HR Doctor knows that risk taking is not easy in bureaucracies, however, it can be very rewarding and even fun. Senior managers who act as mentors to other colleagues — and that should be every senior manager — would be wise to help develop the skills of prudent risk taking in those less experienced co-workers. Innovation and progress result from risking more than some others might think wise. Even if failure sometimes results, the best public administrators are those who make mistakes, learn from what occurred, and then continue to look for ways to make positive changes!

In the case of this wonderful poem by John Greenleaf Whittier, the HR Doctor has several recommendations. The judge should take an early retirement. Maud Muller should go back to school and study public administration. Finally, every reader of the HR Doctor articles should enjoy a good poem now and then!

All the best,


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