Archive for March, 2011

Pay attention

30th March 2011

This post is one in a series where I’m going to take each of Sarah Bakewell’s twenty attempts at Montainge’s answer to the question ‘how to live’ and re-interpret them as an answer to the question ‘how to be a leader’. If that baffles you (and if you haven’t read the rest of the series, why wouldn’t it?), you can read my explanation here. You can find earlier posts in the series under the ‘How to be a leader’ category in the navigation bar to the left.

2. Q: How to be a leader? A: Pay attention

Montaigne’s near-death experience didn’t only free him from worry about the end of his life. It also prompted a sort of mid-life crisis. Within a A-group-of-Falmouth-firef-015couple of years of his riding accident he had quit the role as a Bordeaux magistrate that he’d held for thirteen years and retired to his Perigourd chateaux where he set about adapting one of the towers as a kind of retreat: a library for his books and a place to ‘hide’. Although managing the estate was still ‘work’, it was considerably less than part time and he’d given up the job which had filled most of his days for more than a decade. He consciously committed himself to a life of contemplation, reflection and calm. He covered the walls of his room with quotations ‘Only one thing is certain: that nothing is certain and nothing is more wretched or arrogant than man’ (Pliny the Elder) and even had his own dedication written in a side chamber to his library, consecrating the space to his own ‘freedom, tranquillity and leisure’.

Except that wasn’t how it panned out. With nothing to fill his time he got bored. A little bit depressed. More than a little bit idle. He describes his mind galloping away like a runaway horse and his thoughts resembling the patterns that dance across the ceiling reflecting light from water in a bowl. He ‘lost it’ a bit. He only restored some order when he decided to write. His new job became observing the things going on around him and noticing what was going on inside his own head. His new purpose became capturing what he saw, thought and felt in his essays and in both the effort to notice his own mind and the meandering, cheerfully chaotic style of his writing, he created something new: something that Henry James would describe in 1890 as ‘stream of consciousness’. By looking inside himself, by being intrigued at what he found there and by setting it down in print, Montaigne learned to pay attention to himself.

Without a chateaux to retire to and the cash in the bank to consider tranquillity and leisure, creating a retreat isn’t on the agenda for most managers. It’s certainly not been for me so far. What can be on the agenda ‘though is the sprit of what Montaigne was aiming for: finding the time and space to carefully consider yourself. In my own career some of the frustration that took me out of employment and into working for myself was the absence of time to be thoughtful and creative; the crushing process focus that management careers can become. ‘What are we going to do’ became writing a board paper, ‘how are we going to do it’ became appointing a project manager to write a plan. Taking on new teams or departments became responsibility for budgets and business plans. Delivering ‘control’, working inside the policies of the IT department and making sure that the rest of the business complied with the HR policies had become more prized than delivering an outstanding result. Running between meetings and poring over spreadsheets became my working day. When I saw how much time it took someone to manage my diary every week I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I wondered whether I was creating something or just administrating it; developing people or just coordinating their work.

Of course, management is administration. That’s what the ‘A’ in MBA stands for, after all, and a certain amount of it is a good thing for the governance of the firm. Legal obligations need to be complied with. Senior people need confidence that their teams are making progress. The problem is not when administration and coordination are part of a leader’s role, the problem is when they become the whole of a leader’s role: when the act of managing displaces the art of it and the process dominates the purpose. The things you are taught as a manager are not about freedom, creativity and trust which are surely the attributes of the organisation of the future. Instead you are taught about process, control and security: the exercise of power to squeeze an employee into conforming in a way that Karl Marx would recognise. Worse, as soon as the processes are set down in a training programme they become the rigidities which inhibit the development of the managers who, with no time or encouragement to find new ways, fall back on their training to do things the way their boss would. After all if you’ve done the management training, you don’t have to learn any more, right? You can set fire to the ‘L’ plates and burn up the motorways with the rest of the road warriors. But I prefer a view which says that learning should never stop. I like the Buddhist idea that the beginner has more options than the expert because he hasn’t become rigid through his training. I believe learning should accelerate with experience and seniority because what made you successful yesterday is almost certainly what will prevent your success tomorrow. If there is a continuum of management that runs from coercion to coordination and through cooperation to collaboration, the future is in the last of these and the practice in most organisations seems rooted in the first and second. When Myers-Briggs is the most commonly used psychological tool in organisations and it was patented in 1946 based on Carl Jung’s 1921 ‘Phycological Types’, historical thinking seems pretty close at hand. Driving forwards while looking backwards sounds like a pretty good way to crash the car.

More than ten years ago now, Marcus Buckingham captured this rigidity in ‘First Break all the Rules’. He advocated strengths based leadership which puts people in places where the good things about them can be maximized rather than their weaknesses corrected to comply with a competency model. He talked about the need for managers to resist the temptation to control and painted a picture of the organisation as a place where talented people come together by consent to do great work. Management of process will only get you so far. Sooner or later it is the leadership of messy, contradictory, troublesome people that will make the difference. And the most messy, contradictory and troublesome person you are likely to come across is yourself. Like Timothy Gallwey and plenty of others before him Marcus Buckingham urged the manager to reflect and focus to make sure they are learning from their experience, not just repeating it. Learning about yourself to help you lead others. Developing the confidence, insight and wisdom to have a ‘beginners mind’ and give up the security of process so that you can invest your trust in people, including yourself. And how should a leader do this reflecting and learning? One way is to write a journal on what you’ve experienced and how you feel. Just like Montaigne.

Journal writing and his sister, blogging, are disciplines which force the writer to explain their thoughts, if only to themselves. As a science, linguistics can’t decide for certain whether language drives thought or thought drives language but what is clear is that the process of writing clarifies or modifies the thought. For myself, I like to paraphrase Karl Weick ‘how do I know if my thoughts make sense until I’ve seen them written down’? Like Montaigne, I say ‘pay attention’: to your thoughts, your feelings and your learning and I can’t think of a better way to do that than writing things down. Just like Montaigne.