Archive for May, 2011

Use little tricks

21st May 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.

Q: How to be a leader? A: Use little tricks

Aerial-Dancers-011As I’ve written before, Renaissance thinking was dominated by the ancient Greeks and Romans in a way which is much more obvious than it is now. Intelligent dinner party guests would quote Plutarch as easily as their contemporary equivalents chat about footballer’s love lives and Montaingne was no different. Although he was often dismissive of academic philosophers, thinking about how to live was at the core of Montaigne’s writing, his subsequent reputation and, come to think of it, his presence in these articles. Stoicism, Epicureanism and Scepticism underpinned much of how Montainge tried to manage himself in his world and although twenty-first century shorthand has reduced these schools of thought to ‘putting up with stuff’, ‘eating a lot’ and ‘being hard to impress’, there is a stronger and more useful foundation to their views. Their common aim was eudaimonia: joy, happiness, human flourishing. This could only be achieved through ‘ataraxia’: equilibrium or balance, a freedom from anxiety which could come variously through self-control and paying attention to the important things. Attention was best achieved thorough ‘prosoche’ or mindfulness, a way of knowing what was going on with yourself, of clearing your vision to see what was good in the world and taking pleasure rather than pain from what life put in your path.

‘Counting your blessings’ is often easier said than done, though, as all of who’ve tried it knows. Shit does indeed happen and whether that takes the form of fear of death or grief over loss, as it did for Montaigne, or a more prosaic failing project or missed promotion, concentrating on what is good and what you are living your life for is an outcome best reached through countless small tricks that you play on yourself; tricks which force you into an inner dialogue and behaviours which help you face the right way while the storms of organisational life risk blowing you off course. These ‘tricks’ are available everywhere from your grandma’s old country sayings to airport bookshops, but the problem for me in my early years as a manager was the occasional value behind these strong ideas was too often dressed in the Versace of self promotion. Like a footballer’s wife it was hard to see the beauty behind the bling and my sceptical response was to ignore them, assuming the botoxed exterior masked an empty heart. From Steven Covey, through Anthony Robbins to Timothy Ferris my characteristic response was ‘so what?’. Achievement was all and deeper thinking was required to manage it. Evangelicals offering short cuts received short shrift.

Like any extreme view, ‘though, I was as often wrong as I was right and a quick glance around twitter sees showy ideas put to good use: @naturalgrump writes about positive psychology, @melbuck32 about her life plan, @alisonchisnell about procrastination. These are all ‘tricks’ in the Montigne sense: devices to focus the conversation you have with yourself, to influence your behaviour towards acquiring good habits rather than the bad ones to which the human mind is unerringly drawn. @oliverburkeman consistently subjects the self help literature to critical analysis and, while he finds plenty of fluff and nonsense to cheerfully massacre, he also finds nuggets of value. I ran a marathon this weekend and those with the same or similar experiences know that little tricks are the things that get you through after mile 20 or so. “Next mile in nine minutes, and you’re nearly there”, “Just keep up with the ginger guy”, “You’ve done the training, now make it count” and plenty of other things that don’t bear repeating on a page. Knowing that these things helped me in running made me try them at work and another Montaigne method, ‘Read a lot: forget most of it’ let me unearth things of value. Over time I learned to put my hair shirt in the wardrobe, to be less scornful and concentrate on the contents rather than the wrapping.

Recognising the human potential for self destruction and damaging behaviour is the start of learning tricks to avoid it as surely as understanding yourself is the start of understanding others, so to the aspiring leader I say, don’t be shy of little tricks. If saluting magpies, writing a ‘to do’ list or having a ‘seven C’s’ plan helps you manage yourself, then incorporate them into the routines that help you succeed. Like Montaigne, develop your own little bundle of tricks and use them to help keep your eyes on the important things in your life.