(Photo of me opening the Pangea (*5) event recently in Madrid, NYTimes article)
A Hollywood producer wants to make a movie of your life –not covering just your lived experiences but also anticipating your future. If you accept the deal, you may start working with a scriptwriter –or decide to write the script yourself. The resulting story should recreate your life in the best possible light, appealingly and attractively, even entertainingly for the general public. This regardless whether your personal story is not only composed of happy moments but also of drama and even tragedy: the lives of most of us have light and darkness, ups and downs, happiness and sadness.
Additionally, in order to build a good personal narrative, the script should depart sometimes from actual events and recreate reality with epical and poetic elements.
Let’s get back to reality. It’s quite improbable that our lives will reach the screen, but we may agree that the exercise of developing the story –the narrative- of your life makes sense, both for you, your family members and friends, even for a wider array of stakeholders if you are a leading manager or hold a prominent social position.
“One of the puzzles of the human personality is our virtual compulsion to storify our reality: we love stories," says Amy Zalman (1). Indeed, since childhood we grow attached to stories, fables, family anecdotes, local tales and epical narrations of remote civilizations. Those stories bring meaning to our environment, simplify the complexity of the world, facilitate our integration in society and provide us with behavioral references and role models. Furthermore, stories enhance our sense of belonging to the broad and diverse constituency of human beings.
The early philosophers used myths to explain some of the major issues affecting our lives since they were mindful of the formidable pedagogical power of stories. Plato, for example, will be remembered by many for his myths of the Cavern and of the Ring of Gyges; the first addressing whether true knowledge is possible and the second considering -with less fortune in my opinion- the duty to be just regardless of external pressure. (2)
Stories are also essential to bolster social organizations and to gain both internal and external supporters. The origins of states, religions, institutions, some family sagas and of course companies, rely on stories, based either on reality or fiction, which recreate their genesis and evolution and make them stand unique and distinctive.
Furthermore, storytelling is essential for learning and personal development and widely used in the education of children. Some of the fondest memories of my childhood are the stories that my mother told us after watching movies together. Her emphasis was not just on the plot, but also on the visual and evocative aspects of what she had observed, which stimulated our imagination and awareness, and our desire to further our knowledge.
However, the use of stories is not only restricted to the education of the young. Experience shows that stories are also very useful for teaching adults and even senior managers. The case-study methodology, commonly used at business schools, employs a characteristic strategic narrative that gives meaning and unity to facts and data on a company or management situation. Interestingly, according to the feedback from executive programs’ directors, managers, especially those with greater responsibilities, increasingly demand shorter case-studies, perhaps due to their lack of available time and their distinctive orientation to action, with less time for the reflection, a common feature of manager’s work.
In fact, the analysis of stories and narratives has flourished across the social sciences in recent years, from international relations, to business strategy or political science has led to the creation of the cross-disciplinary field of narratology, the theory of how narratives are structured and related issues.
In this context, a concept that has gained increasing ground is "strategic narrative". The fundamental assumption behind strategic narrative is that telling stories is a purposeful activity, and that those who relate narratives want to cause some effect in listeners or recipients, for example increasing motivation, aligning people around some cause or value, strengthening a community and even to influence the future behavior of others. Indeed, strategic narrative is associated with linking the past and the future: “Narrative imagining was fundamental both to our ability to explain and our ability to predict”, explains Mark Turner (4).
In this same vein, one of the recommendations of Sun Tzu’s in his popular The Art of War -a preferred reference book of managers-, is that “true leaders create magic in all their strategies”. My interpretation of this is that the strategic narrative employed by business leaders can provide the appropriate, almost spiritual, conditions to motivate others.
Indeed, in business communication, stories are carefully selected by top managers to describe their company’s key milestones, or to illustrate their organisational culture and stakeholder’s values, their strategic mission and essential features. Those stories add true value to their companies and conceptualise their main strategic advantages.
Also, CEOs use stories in their presentations to justify or mystify key strategic decisions and to provide context for corporate transformations. “Stories are the latest fad to have hit the corporate communication industry. Experts everywhere are waking up to the something that any child could tell them: that a story is easier to listen and much easier to remember than a dry string of facts and propositions”, explains Financial Times’ columnist Lucy Kellaway (3).
There are a number of timely takeaways from this post:
-First a clarification: strategic narratives are not pitches. The latter are those discourses prepared for short, quick presentations, either of your company or of yourself, usable at cocktails, elevators, at the beginning of business meetings as well at some other social events. A strategic narrative takes longer than a pitch and provides more nuances and references to provide a complete picture about you or your company.
- While building a narrative, I suggest you follow the golden rules of American publicists: First, tell a meaningful story; Second, be concise –even brief; Third: emphasize the emotional over the conceptual.
-It is advisable to develop a strategic narrative of your own company if there is not one in place already. This narrative should portray the company’s institutional values, the fundamental milestones in its history, its main activities, products or services and the key features of its members. Stories have protagonists, and it may be helpful that the main characters are company figures. At the same time, the more anchored a narrative is in past characters and former episodes, the less future-oriented and innovative it may be. Of course, it depends on how forward looking and futuristic are the stories that form the narrative.
-It is recommendable that you have your own strategic narrative about yourself: an attractive and seductive story about your origins, your background, your key personality traits, showing how your personality was formed. Your story may also include your principal mentors, or alternatively you may emphasise your growth as that of a self-made person.
Your own story, of course, evolves as time passes. Some personal narratives emphasize the consistency and unity of one’s life, whereas others may highlight the discontinuity and juxtaposition of different facets or stages in a life (like when we refer to the first Wittgenstein or the second Picasso).
I am convinced that taking the effort to produce your personal narrative will help you to give more meaning to your own life, even if it lacks coherence and you find that the dots of your experience are disperse. Are you ready to tell your own personal narrative, providing the best possible account of your own life?
Who hasn’t dreamt every now and then of saving up enough money and retiring to live contentedly in some earthly paradise? This was Tom Wilson’s plan, the main character in Somerset Maugham’s 1935 short story, The Lotus Eater. Wilson is a hard-working bank manager in London, who at the age of 35 loses his wife and daughter, two of the worst setbacks anybody could suffer. Hoping to forget his sorrows, he travels to Italy, where he visits the island of Capri, an idyllic spot that bewitches him.
Upon returning to his routine job in London, Wilson begins planning early retirement in Capri. Now without familial responsibilities, he believes that his pension from early retirement, along with the sale of his house and his savings, will provide him with enough money to survive for the following couple of decades, given that the average life expectancy in the early years of the twentieth century for men was around 60. Wilson puts his plan into action and begins to enjoy a frugal, but peaceful, life in Capri.
Time passes by inexorably, and after two decades of the contemplative life, his income has dwindled down to nothing, at which point he decides to end his own life. He locks himself in his room, lights a charcoal fire that will fill the room with carbon monoxide and poison him, and lies down on the bed to die. But the next day, he is found unconscious, but alive. However, the fumes have left him brain damaged. Wilson lives on for a few years more, penniless, on the margins of the community, and sleeping in a shed provided by his former employees. In the final lines, the narrator, commenting on Wilson’s situation, notes: “I think on the whole we all get what we deserve," … "But that doesn’t prevent its being rather horrible."
Maugham’s assertion that “we all get what we deserve” is arguable, particularly bearing in mind the role that moral luck can play in our lives. In any event, we make decisions at important moments in our lives that influence the rest of our existence. The Lotus Eater provides a good example of what can go wrong when we prematurely retire to earthly paradises without sufficient funds to live comfortably. At the very least, if we were to take such a decision, it would be advisable to build a business, or to look for a job in the paradise of choice; and not simply to finance a life the duration of which we cannot guess, but also to keep us in form physically and mentally.
This is not a view that Wilson shares: "Leisure," …"If people only knew! It’s the most priceless thing a man can have and they’re such fools they don’t even know it`s something to aim at. Work? They work for work’s sake. They haven’t got the brains to realize that the only object of work is to obtain leisure."
Do you share Wilson’s opinion? Interesting enough, a recent Gallup survey shows that just 30 percent of employees in America feel engaged at work. Around the world, across 142 countries, the proportion of employees who feel engaged at work is only 13 percent (1). In light of this, it seems likely that most people would leave their jobs tomorrow and head of to their respective paradises were their fortunes to improve dramatically, for example by winning the lottery or inheriting a large sum of money.
Wilson lost his family: it is clear that one of the main reasons that we continue to work is to sustain and improve the living conditions of our loved ones. That said, I would like to look at some of the internal reasons that motivate us to keep working, and that have to do with the job itself and our personal disposition, rather than external factors, such as raising a family.
We’ve all had rainy days at work. On such occasions, like Wilson, we might find ourselves dreaming of flying off to some paradisiacal destination where we could spend the rest of a tantalizing trouble-free life. What measures can we take to improve our disposition towards work, to enjoy it, and even be happy carrying out our profession? Below are a few suggestions:
- In the first place, enjoying your work depends primarily on you, and nobody else. Your proactive approach and mood are decisive when it comes to changing things in the workplace. If you will allow me to paraphrase a renowned piece of advice: do not think what the others, your boss, and your colleagues, can do for you at work; rather, think what you can do to turn your company into a respected and preferred organization.
- Put together a short, positive pitch about your job and responsibilities, your achievements and professional objectives; something along the lines of the kind of presentation you might make at your child’s school on parents’ day. Try to make this presentation inspiring, and that would earn you your listeners’ praise. I am convinced after doing this a couple of times you will feel a stronger bond with your work.
- Think about and plan out your company’s development objectives, and how you would like your career to advance over the next five years, and taking into account the training and education that might be required for this.
-Set out the most important tasks for the coming few days. Some people believe that during leisure time it is essential to disconnect completely from work. I don’t agree. I think that work and leisure should flow naturally in your life. If you come up with good ideas during free time, write them down or record them.
- Similarly, prepare your free time so that you can properly enjoy your hobbies and leisure pursuits. Some people see free time as a blank space, or decompression chamber. This might be understandable in the aftermath of particularly stressful periods at work, but it is a good idea to plan for and diversify leisure activities.
-One final piece of advice. Look into the progress that has been made in positive psychology in recent years. If you think that you need outside help, talk to a coach about how they can help you focus on your career.
Wilson’s choice for Capri is easy to understand. The Island has long provided a refuge for emperors, writers, aristocrats, and business people. Over the centuries, many people have succumbed to the beauty of its landscape, the charm of its people, its benign climate, and its wonderful food. It is an island on a human scale, where each stopping off point can be travelled on foot, its landscape verdant, colorful, and perfumed. The views out to the Faraglioni, of the sea from Monte Solaro or Villa Tiberio, or of Vesuvius and the Bay of Naples are among the most lovely anywhere on earth. Maugham describes the Piazza in Capri as, “a perfect setting for an opera by Donizetti, and you felt that the voluble crowd might at any moment break out into a rattling chorus.”
In short, it’s the perfect paradise for “il dolce far niente”. Sadly, any latter-day Wilson considering retirement to Capri would have to find far greater resources than our hapless bank manager: the island is now one of the most expensive places in Europe to live.
Maugham took his title from Homer’s Odyssey, which at one point tells of an island whose inhabitants consume lotus leaves, which induces in them a state of akrasia, or indolence, allowing them to forget their homelands and families and to live contentedly. But let’s not kid ourselves: Wilson’s is very much a cautionary tale.
Gurus use the metaphors “the world is flat”, referring to the amazing impact of communication technologies and to global convergence, or “the world is round”, meaning the still prevalent and centrifugal local forces across the Globe. Arguing about the shape of the World six centuries ago, however, could make you liable to be prosecuted, at even risk to your own life.
Christopher Columbus (1450/51?-1506 ), who lived at that time was fearless and and based his exploratory venture on the roundedness of the World. Today many countries celebrate October 12, commemorating the successful landing of Columbus’ expedition, supported by the Castile Crown, at San Salvador (currently the Bahamas) on that same day in 1492. Some historians question whether this event was the actual discovery of the continent by Europeans, since the Vikings had reached Labrador Island in a previous epochs, but the credit went to the enigmatic Admiral given the subsequent conquest and a successful marketing initiative: Amerigo Vespucci, one of the members of his crew, accidentally gave his name to the discovered continent in one of his letters to a friend in Europe, who later spread the news.
One of the virtues of Columbus was his perseverance, especially manifested in the looking for support and launching of his project. He wanted to discover a new way to the Indies (Far East) westbound. Until then, explorers went to Asia following the path of Marco Polo and the Silk Road or navigating around the African Coast and rounding the Cape of Good Hope. Columbus challenged the extended belief at his time that the world was flat and he further thought that the distance between Portugal and Japan was 2,760 miles –a severe miscalculation since it is actually over 12,000 miles. In fact, these mismatches between data estimations and actual facts and figures, common at early expeditions before the world was properly mapped, remind us of similar errors at companies when trying to predict the uncertain, for example the size of the potential market for a new product, or the required future investments of a start up.
Columbus search of alternative financial resources for his expedition also reminds us of current fund raising efforts and road shows performed by many entrepreneurs. Columbus knocked at many doors and received negative answers from different kings and merchants. However, his endurance rendered results and he was lucky to find the support of Isabel, Queen of Castile, who was in the right mood just after reuniting the Iberian Peninsula and founding the kingdom of Spain.
Apart from his endurance, there are not many other virtues applicable to Columbus as a manager, according to available sources. He was not a skilled pilot, according to comments of different experts, although he improved with experience and did successfully take advantage of the trade winds. In fact, historians wonder whether he realized he had reached a new continent after his four subsequent travels to America. What is even more obvious is that he lacked the necessary and effective leadership skills: He fought with all his captains and his crew was on the verge of mutiny several times. Columbus could only trust the members of his family, something that unfortunately happens at some family businesses and this results in unsustainable management. During his third trip to America, he faced the opposition of settlers and friars who accused him of mismanagement and was imprisoned by a delegate of the Crown and required to go back to Castile. It is well-known now, his refusal to have his shackles removed during the whole voyage on the ship back to Spain, puffed up with pride. Indeed, self-pride, developed over the years as a consequence of his recognized achievements in life, was one of his weaknesses, as his son tells us of his passing away: “the Admiral, suffering more severely still from his gout and other illnesses and from grief at seeing himself so fallen from his high state, yielded his soul to God on Ascension Day”…
Being credited with the discovery of a new continent may be enough basis to inflate one’s ego, and pride, as happened with Columbus. However, I believe that pride is not a good advisor for top managers: it may distort our opinions about people and their intentions. My suggestion is that you get rid of personal pride while deciding about important issues at your company or while evaluating the performance of others. I conceive management as more a service to others than a way to achieve fame and public recognition. I guess that if you cultivate this spirit of service you will much better equipped than Columbus to overcome future adversity and the inevitable low-points throughout your career.
The account of the first discovery of American land in the book(*) is not as epic as some paintings or movies have portrayed. The night between October 11 and 12 was filled with subsequent confirmations of land coming into sight. I enclose some words extracted from Columbus log-book on his historical landing at Guanahani: “In order to win their friendship –he refers to the natives-(…) I gave some of them red caps and glass beads which they hung round their necks, also many other triffles. These things pleased them greatly and they became marvelously friendly to us. They afterwards swam out to the ship’s boats in which we were sitting, bringing us parrots and balls of cotton thread and spears and many other things, which they exchanged with us for such objects as glass heads, hawks and bells. In fact, they were willingly traded everything they had”. It’s a timeless evidence of business’ prodigy. It proves that business is the best connector between people from different cultures. Business, then and now, makes the Word flatter.
(*) The book referenced here is a compilation of different writings, including Columbus log-book, and excerpts from works by Bartolomé de las Casas, Hernando Columbus –son of Christopher- and others, edited by J.M. Cohen.
Idealism and Pragmatism, as opposed but complementary and mutually beneficial visions of the World, are eloquently illustrated in Cervantes’ masterpiece “Don Quixote,"acknowledged by many as the first modern novel. However, some literary scholars suggest that the novel should have been entitled “Don Quixote and Sancho Panza” for the two main protagonists of this book deserve equal merit and recognition and indeed represent two facets of the personality that, if combined into one, may achieve a perfect equilibrium.
Don Quixote is ethereal, idealistic (sometimes to lunatic extremes), detached from material goods, with a noble figure, tall but skinny, a low-level aristocrat who is victim of delusions of grandeur. "Honor" is the motto that drives him to afford risky, often foolish, actions since he has devoted the rest of his life to the old-fashioned enterprise of restoring chivalry customs.
Sancho Panza, working as Quixote’s esquire for free, is short, has a distinguishable paunch but with his feet on the ground and a distinctive worldly vision. He incarnates the model of pragmatism and looks for chances to move up the social ladder, while taking care for the day-to-day basic needs of the couple, such as lodgings, food and other living arrangements. He even has capitalist instincts, rare in Spanish 16th Century: when he discovers the properties of the supposedly magic balsam of Fierabras that heals whomever drinks it, he wonders how to mass produce it (1).
The two protagonists represent respectively the “ying” and the “yang” and they are one of the most complementary and synergetic couples of world’s literature. Since they represent opposed personalities, maybe living together is not just possible but enjoyable. Furthermore, they respect and profess profound affection for each other regardless their differences and what others may think. A quote from Sancho at the end of the novel is illustrative of this, when he takes upon his own shoulders his companion’s mission after Don Quixote’s death: “Let us take the field in shepherds’ apparel, according to our agreement: who knows, but behind some bush we may find my Lady Dulcinea disenchanted, and a comely sight to see”.
Quixote and Sancho may well characterize the personality poles that many companies need in their top management. In fact, idealism and pragmatism are not easily found together in a single person. Some managers are the embodiment of strategic vision and passion for innovation, whereas others have a marked orientation towards finance and performance. Some are risk-averse and conservative, and well suited for times of crisis, whereas others may drive successfully their organizations in times of growth.
There are many cases of companies where the actual governance was shared by an idealist and a pragmatist, in the Quixote-Sancho fashion. A paradigmatic example of this was the initial management at Philips, the Dutch electronics conglomerate, when during the first decades of expansion the company was co-driven by the two founding brothers; one embodying the innovative and production drive and the other the orientation to market. This synergetic polarity originally inspired the matrix structure that the corporation adopted and maintained operative until the 1980’s.
Another example was Apple at the time when Steve Jobs hired John Sculley, then CEO of PepsiCo, to head the Cupertino-based company. Jobs intention of combining his idealism, strategic vision and perfectionism with Sculley’s marketing talent and performance-oriented style was sound and potentially beneficial. However, we know that the tandem did not work together well, and that the power struggle between Jobs and Sculley ended with the exit of the former from the company he founded. Indeed, Job’s quixotic traits, his erratic and temperamental attitude — some witnesses even referred to a sort of reality distortion (2) — came to the extreme at that time. Unfortunately, Sculley did not prove to be a supportive Sancho Panza either.
Given your past experience and the feedback that you get from your colleagues and coaches, do you consider yourself an idealist or a pragmatist manager, a Quixote or a Sancho? You probably combine elements of the two, but I guess that there is a useful piece of advice for managers if Cervantes’ novel is interpreted from the perspective explained here. If you run a company and feel naturally inclined to one of the described poles, you should better counteract the undesirable effects of this inertia in your company and appoint a senior manager with a complementary profile to keep healthy dialectics. Steve Jobs, who acknowledged his past error, did this during his successful second mandate as CEO at Apple.
“Did not I assure you, they were no other than windmills? Indeed, nobody could mistake them for anything else, but one who has windmills in his own head?” tells Sancho to Don Quixote after the ludicrous attack the latter undertakes against the standing constructions, believing they were fierce giants. Was Sancho right or didn’t he understand his master’s vision? Well, we may stand before two conceptions of reality that are not put to the test until actions are performed and evaluated in the long term.
It is rare to find a writing emperor, but even more an emperor who wished to be a philosopher rather than wear the purple. This is the case of Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE), known as the last good emperor of the Antonine's dynasty in the Second Century of our era, when the Barbarians besieged the Roman Empire. You may be familiar with his image if you visited Capitol Hill in Rome, where his colossal equestrian statute remains because early Christians believed it represented St. Peter.
Marcus Aurelius lived in times when Rome was experiencing both internal and external turbulence. Internally, different political and cultural opposing streams concurred: in religion, the fight between defendants of the old faith in Roman deities and Christians was starting to erode old beliefs associated with traditional Roman customs and Law; in philosophy, stoics, epicureans, and supporters of imported doctrines of Plato and other Greek philosophers contended to become the standard. Marcus Aurelius was, by education and self-cultivation, a stoic. Basically, stoics defended personal self-control, the subjection of the own senses to the mind, the acceptance of nature –they professed some sort of pantheism- and of given state of things, in order to achieve perfection.
This spirit influences Marcus Aurelius “Meditations”, which exude some form of holiness and sanctity. In fact, at his death, after a battle on the Danube Front (the hit movieGladiator here at least was accurate), he was declared sacred, being the last Roman emperor to be considered part of the deities. Why did he write this book? The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains that “by reflecting upon philosophical ideas and, perhaps more importantly, writing them down, Marcus Aurelius engages in a repetitive process designed to habituate his mind into a new way of thinking”.
Allow me to formulate a first takeaway from this. Writing a blog or a diary that reflect your ideas and thoughts is a beneficial practice for at least two reasons: First, by describing your actions you may give further meaning to your decisions and your behavior. Second, it is an excellent way to formulate explicitly your beliefs and values, reshape and interiorize them.
Many of the maxims in the “Meditations” sound repetitive, but they may be recommendable at times when managers have to face deception, failures or any other sort of setback. I include a selection below:
II.1. Begin the morning by saying to yourself: I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial (…) I can neither be harmed by any of them (…) for we are made for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth.
II.14. Though you were to live three thousand years, or three million, still remember that no man losses any other life than this which now lives, or lives any other than this which he now loses.
An advice to those who look for places to retire and recharge the batteries –I declare myself guilty of this, since I am writing these lines at my little house in the country:
IV.3 Men seek retreats for themselves, houses in the country, seashores, and mountains, and you too are wont to desire such things very much. But this is altogether a mark of the common sort of man, for it is in your power, whenever you shall choose, to retire into yourself.
A further piece of advice to cultivate modesty; valuable since it comes from an emperor:
IV.3. But perhaps a longing for the thing called fame torments you. See how soon everything is forgotten; look at the chaos of infinite time on each side of the present, and the emptiness of applause, and the fickleness and poor judgement of those who pretend to praise, and the narrowness of the space within which it is confined. For the whole earth is but a point and in that how small a nook is this your dwelling, and how few are there within it, and what kind of people are they who will praise you?
Interestingly, Meditation has become a popular and effective practice among managers. The experience from the courses on meditation that we run at our School is very positive, and most participants say that meditation has helped them improve their personal balance and their professional performance. It also helps to develop positive leadership. Allow me a second takeaway from this article. If you have not experienced yet, I suggest you give meditation a try.
Going back to our protagonist, there are two aspects of Marcus Aurelius’ personality, which do not fit with the pure thoughts of his “Meditations”. First, he devoted most of his life to warfare. Second, his son Commodus –excellently played in the movie Gladiator by actor Joaquin Phoenix-, who became his successor, was not a very good apprentice, since he became one of the most deplorable emperors of Rome. However, this happens in the best of families, doesn’t it?
(Photo: Detail of equestrian bronze sculpture of Marcus Aurelius in Capitol Hill, Rome)
(Photo: Reflections of the evening sun on the waters of the Mälaren Lake, in front of the Parliament, in Stockholm on Friday, 16 May '14)
In today’s developed world, the majority of us are lucky to live distant from external violence. Although our chances of suffering a violent attack or an accident may vary, depending on countries, lifestyle or jobs, they are not comparable to the defencelessness experienced by our ancestors, centuries ago. The evolution of institutions, the rule of law and the moral progress achieved in our societies make the experience of external violence an improbable event. However, we can still witness violent phenomena through TV and other media, watching the news on wars, terrorist attacks, murders, natural disasters and similar horrible events, which happen elsewhere.
When learning of those human atrocities, like the current kidnapping of the Nigerian girls, I recall Simone de Beauvoir’s splendid "Les Belles Images", where the French protagonist, a conscientious mother, is concerned by her daughter’s sadness over the evils occurring abroad –hunger, epidemics, natural disasters- and causing devastating effects among huge numbers of poor. The mother believes that her daughter’s sufferings are useless because these calamities cannot be solved solely by one person, if at all. This impotence of the single individual to solve big evils produces a natural, psychological reaction in many humans. People like "belle images" –beautiful images- and prefer them to scenes of horror. Additionally, most people are not prepared to coexist with permanent images of evil or suffering. The natural reaction of the mother in Beauvoir’s novel is, then, to change the television channel, or the subject I should say, in order to impede her beloved daughter’s continuous exposure to the cruelest aspects of life. The extreme version of this "belle image" syndrome is just not talking or not showing pictures of some particular disaster, minimising the exposure to calamities or even pretending that they do not exist. I am sure you identify the syndrome I am talking about.
In a similar vein, sometimes I hear that managers should avoid being sensitive or compassionate, since they should take hard decisions that may affect thousands of people while keeping themselves calm and unaffected at the same time. This is encapsulated by the widely used expression: “Is nothing personal, It is just business”.
Imagine that you have to fire half of your team as a consequence of a merger or a company downsizing. How could you cope with the personal tensions derived from such measures without detaching yourself enough to avoid suffering personally? Indeed, some managers, and humans in general, develop some sort of self-defence mechanisms to protect themselves from mental disruptions in times of crisis, a sort of automatic reaction to elude thinking about the harmful consequences of our decisions on others.
However, sensitiveness and compassion have room in business relations as virtues to be practiced. The challenge for managers is how to take hard decisions and at the same time keep their humanity. I can only think of a way-out in those cases: hard decisions should be subject to rational scrutiny and managers who adopt them should be capable of defending them in the public arena through reasonable arguments. Contrary to what Machiavelli stated, I believe that, in business it is better to be loved than to be feared.
Going back to atrocities and how people react to them, I recently read Susan Sontag’s “Regarding The Pain of Others”, a forceful essay on the imagery of warfare, a wake-up call at a time when we are witnessing, every day, countless attacks on human lives everywhere, more than what headlines can tell, and sometimes very close to home. Sontag explained: “the understanding of war among people who have not experienced war is now chiefly a product of [war photographers'] images”.
So far as we feel sympathy," Sontag wrote, "we feel we are not accomplices to what caused the suffering. Our sympathy proclaims our innocence as well as our impotence."
Sontag was also realistic about what intellectuals can do about warfare: “Who believes today that war can be abolished? None, not even pacifists. We hope only (so far in vain) to stop genocide and to bring to justice those who commit gross violations of the laws of war (for there are laws of war, to which combatants should be held too), and to be able to stop specific wars by imposing negotiated alternatives to armed conflict.”
Good Business" is the best antidote to bad international politics. "Good Education" is the best equaliser across humans, and societies. Working as a professor in a business school is a privilege, as we get the opportunity to enhance our students, -and our own-, sense and sensibility, and contribute in some way to avoiding the "Belle Image" syndrome, and try to keep our humanity.
(Photo: I took this from the island of Capri in Italy, where the episode of Sirens supposedly took place)
The Odyssey narrates the hazardous journey of Odysseus –or Ulysses, in its Latin version- back to his kingdom in Ithaca from the Trojan War. It was a long trip indeed since it took him ten years to cover a distance that could have only taken few weeks then, and 30 minutes by plane today; although the exact location of Troy is a matter of controversy, most historians place it on the western coast of current Turkey, and Ithaca is an island in the Ionian Sea.
Odysseus is described many times in the book -abundant in epithets applied to its characters, humans and deities- as “the strategist”, a word that comes from “strategos” (στρατηγός in Greek), meaning “leader of the army”. The story depicts him as a respected leader with guile and resourcefulness, willing to take risks when necessary, respectful to his subordinates and committed to his mission. Many times he needs to force his crew against their fickle desires in order to continue their trip. Certainly, the book –versioned in many film movies- is a must for those who look forward cultivating ideas and concepts on strategy.
Throughout its fourteen chapters, the book relates the trials that Odysseus and his men have to overcome, not without loosing part of the crew in every episode until he remains the only survivor. The more celebrated passages include the escape from Polyphemus’ cave, dressed up as sheep, ending with the blinding of the one-eye giant; the visit to Circe’s island, where this witch turns many men into pigs; the crossing of the sea where the Sirens attract sailors with their charming and deadly chants to sink their ships, a challenge that Odysseus passes successfully by asking his crew to wear earplugs while he stands tied to the ship’s mast. Incidentally, this last episode has served as an illustration to discuss paternalism in moral theory: When the sirens start to sing, Odysseus cries desperately to be unbound by his crew but they ignore him, an example of how prior decisions to restrict one’s liberty are binding and can be enforced by others. The episode of Scylla and Charybdis, narrated in chapter 12 of the Odyssey is my favorite one. There, Ulysses and his crew have to face one of the most risky challenges of their nautical venture. Right after leaving the Sirens, they have to pass through a very narrow strait each side of which is dominated by a rock with a major danger. One of the rocks is inhabited by a terrifying creature, Scylla, which has six long necks and devours any creature that approaches. The rock on the other side of the strait is house of Charybdis, a formidable creature that produces a whirlpool by sucking the seawater down. If a ship captain wants to pass the strait successfully they have to flee Charybdis at the risk of loosing some oarsmen to Scylla, which is what indeed happens to Ulysses. From this celebrated Odyssey’s passage comes the common aphorism used that sometimes, when trying to avoid something, you risk incurring in a different but also severe error: "Falling into Scylla for trying to avoid Charybdis".
The art of managing organizations has similarities with the Scylla and Charybdis challenge. It consists of maintaining the right balance, a workable equilibrium, which keeps the interest of the different company’s stakeholders aligned.
The latest chapters of the book are devoted to Odysseus’ arrival in Ithaca, how he restores his powers as king and how he is recognized by his patient wife Penelope, only after a series of tests. Greek tragedies made their characters subject to the wishes, often capricious, of deities. Odysseus was wrong in upsetting some of the Olympus’ powerful gods. Again, a lesson to be taken for managers: don’t challenge the Establishment unless you have some trumps to play.
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) is well known for his Art masterpieces and for his architectural and engineering inventions but less people are aware of his chef’s skills. His notebooks on culinary affairs ooze with so much irony that he probably wanted them inaccessible, a possible reason why the Maestro wrote them backwards; an awkward practice common to all his handwritten documents. Amusingly, a menu designed by Leonardo and Sandro Botticelli, the renowned Italian painter, for a Florence tavern was so illegible that, despite the proportioned figures drawn by the latter, neither clients nor cooks were able to interpret it.
Leonardo is considered a genius for all seasons and his notebooks also show that he was a tireless worker and that he kept everything under observation, his senses on the alert in order to improve objects and daily routines. This openness to the external world, to how things work and how can they be improved, is the basis of innovation and a desirable attitude for all managers. Intelligence without a constant disposition to improve practical things may become a useless asset.
The notes on kitchen were written by Leonardo for his own use, during his service as advisor to Luigi Sforza, the head of a prominent aristocratic family of Florence’s Renaissance. They include recipes, design of devices to improve cookery, recommendations on the etiquette at the table and more. For example, Leonardo is attributed to have introduced the use of napkins, as recorded in one of his notes: “An alternative to dirty table clothes” –apparently, guests used to clean themselves with the same tablecloth.
I include some of the notes that caught my attention, though the whole book is recommendable and entertaining.
On new devices for the Kitchen
Leonardo’s notes of to-do-things and new objects to be designed, combined with his characteristic drawings, raise reader’s affection and admiration. In one of the notes, “the new machines that I have yet to design for my kitchens”, he announces his intention to develop different devices “to pluck ducks, cut pigs into small cubes, knead bread, grind meat and press sheep”. Another note deals with one of the first accounts of how freezing preserves food. He tells about a person called Leoni Buillarotti who every year took hundreds of frogs to Lake Trasimeno before it froze and then cut pieces of the ice with the frogs inside and kept them in a cold place. According to Leonardo, the frog’s legs cooked by Buillarotti were one of the most demanded exquisite delicacies of the time.
On manners at lunch
A really hilarious note is the one describing “indecent behaviors at my Master’s table”:
- “Nobody should seat on the table, nor show his back to the table, nor on the lap of another guest”.
- “Nobody should take food from another’s guest plate, unless he first asks for permission”.
- “Nobody should clean his knife with his neighbor’s clothes”.
- “Nobody should take food from the table and put it in his pocket for later consumption”.
- “Nobody should pinch or beat his table neighbor”.
The list of recommendations continues. Indeed, a note that could be used in toast if you look to provoke laughter from your audience
Had Leonardo lived in our days, I am sure he would have become an active Linkedin contributor though I wonder whether he would have developed his own software to write backwards.
"Leadership and learning are indispensable to each," is a quote taken from the speech that John F. Kennedy prepared for delivery in Dallas, the day he was assassinated in 1963.
Is Leadership a result of genetics or is it a consequence of learning and cultural development? This is a debate I am not going to get into here. Future advances in biology will reveal if there is a specific gene responsible for leadership, and most recent research suggests that a good deal of leadership skills are based on culture and personality, and can be developed. In fact, during my career as Professor of Strategic Management I have seen numerous cases of mature managers who are able to identify new leadership traits and grow these new capabilities, sometimes nearly from scratch.
Until biology –or medicine- show us the way to develop new leadership cells, education and training seem the best way to develop leadership and managerial skills. Indeed, it is almost inconceivable that a leader could reach the top without strenuous preparation or the dedication to maintain and improve his or her skills. Leaders seem increasingly eager to update their outlook on society and business, and to anticipate the future. It is part of their role. This in turn requires a constant striving for learning and adapting themselves to permanent change, as most management educators will confirm. In my personal experience of dealing with CEOs, I am impressed by the importance they give to learning new management concepts, and how they procure relevant information for their decision-making. Lifelong learning is their reality. I used to believe that managers, particularly those at the top, were people of action rather than reflection, but I now know that this is not the case. Indeed, if we look at the published diaries of top executives, we see long working days of up to seventeen hours, filled almost solely with meetings. But what those diaries do not show is the time CEOs dedicate to preparing for those meetings and increasing their knowledge base.
I had the opportunity to talk with the famous financier and philanthropist George Soros while he visited IE Business School. From our conversation I became aware of just how much time he devotes to reading and dealing with academics. Soros may not be such a good example of the studiousness of managers, since he was formerly an academic, but numerous studies show that successful managers spend a substantial part of their busy days reading and studying. Some studies suggest that one of the reasons senior executives read is to provide relief from the solitude of being at the top. According to a quote attributed to C.S. Lewis: "We read to learn that we are not alone".
If you allow me to suggest just one takeaway from this post: reading literature –the classics, drama, novels, poetry- will help you to learn more about the world, about human nature, about how human beings interact in society and in work. Reading literature may help you to become a better manager.
Business schools are often blamed for inculcating arrogance in their graduates. “Humility is not a word often pegged onto MBAs,” once wrote Henry Mintzberg. This feeling of belonging to an elitist business school is normally cultivated in three phases: First, during the admission and interview process there is constant emphasis on how the school only selects the best. Second, during the program, the attachment to a selected group –“la crème de la crème”- is reinforced. Third, before and after graduation, students are encouraged to only look for the top-paid jobs, those at the summit of their professional tree, or those with high status. Such a sentiment is handed down from generation to generation both by the school’s management, as well as by graduates.
Is this something natural and unavoidable? I believe that we, as management educators, should do our best to dismiss narcissist and arrogant graduates. That said, it must also be accepted that many institutions, including higher education ones, are based on the idea of meritocracy, i.e., the recognition and promotion of the best individuals with the highest level of skills. Admission to school, grants, assessment of work, and selection for jobs are all based on the concept of meritocracy.
There are procedures to avoid excessive elitism, such as positive discrimination or the use of alternative methods to measure a person’s qualities, or changing the rules of our institutions, but these are generally criticsed as counterproductive and undesirable. Of course, business schools are far from being the only institutions guilty of practicing elitism; it is a cultural characteristic of all well-regarded educational institutions. Similarly, candidates, their families, and all stakeholders tend to want to belong to elite organizations.
Given that the concept of meritocracy is intrinsic to the functioning of many social institutions, the objective of educators, and of business schools in particular, would be better focused on how to instill in students a real sense of confidence and self-recognition, along with a commitment to society and supported by the virtue of modesty. The challenge for educators and students is how to balance the self-assurance needed to lead people and to take decisions with the modesty required to avoid over-confidence and loosing touch with reality.
I tend to kick off the inaugural speech I give to MBA students at my school with the same words Socrates used when addressing new students: “The only true wisdom is knowing that you know nothing.” I then add that they may feel a little bemused, since MBA students have normally a pretty high opinion of themselves, have followed a competitive selection system, and all have respectable professional experience.
But I believe that this is the proper way to welcome a group of motivated students who are starting a very challenging learning experience and who have invested an important amount of their time and their resources. To focus on cultivating their self-esteem as based on a sense of belonging to an elite would be misleading.
Allow me to encourage you to repeat to yourself, as frequently as needed, the Socratic magic words: “I know nothing”.