Hold Something Back

15th December 2011 | Posted in Books, How to be a Leader

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: Hold something back

Montaigne wrote about the need to ‘keep a private room behind the shop’: to hold something back from your public face to the world. He placed this in the context of his family and, most particularly his marriage to the seemingly rather fierce Francoise de La Chassaigne. Their marriage seemed reasonably conventional for their class and their time. He was 33, she 21; they both came from good families; she was something of a looker, it seems, and although he was on the short side and tells us he had an unusually small penis, their relationship looked like it had a fair chance of success early on. It certainly lasted but their lives seem to have been unusually separate, even for the standards of the time. Montaigne built his tower which was rather like a posh version of Grandad’s garden shed – a place of his own away from family life. He writes about his wife’s shrewishness and her temper. Perhaps most damningly, his later writings mention her hardly at all and the passion and fondness that are typical of his early words about her reduce to a chilly silence by the end.

This makes Montaigne sound rather cold but Sarah Bakewell takes a more charitable view than others. She writes about his unusually hands on parenting of their surviving child – more like a modern man than a medieval nobleman – and finds plenty of evidence of his affection and love for his family. She wonders about the effect on Montaigne of the death of all but one of his children and if the passionate, loving Montaigne that we see in the context of his relationship with La Boetie poured similarly intense emotions into those dead children it is easy to understand a later desire to insulate himself from the grief of future loss. For myself, I wonder how easy it might have been to live with a man of such eccentricity, such inconstancy of opinions. If TS Elliot finds him like ‘fighting with fog’ it’s not surprising that his wife might have found Montaigne a difficult bugger to live with. Perhaps, like Cyril Connelly’s ‘pram in the hall’, Montaigne is only the writer we see now because of his chosen isolation from the comfort of a loving family.

Lifting the idea – keep something back from your public face – and placing it into the role of the leader in a modern organisation is intriguing. At first glance it sounds contradictory. Arriving from Mars and reading about modern leadership would give an impression of the heroic leader straight out of Ancient Greece: the business philosopher, warrior and politician. It sounds like leadership is about being open, engaging the emotions of those around you through using your own strong emotional intelligence and submerging yourself and your team under a cloud of purpose that excludes all else and achieves monumental things. It’s only the odd outlier like Charlie Judy’s Trench HR that points out what we all know to be true – leadership has just as many muck and bullets in the job description as sunshine and flowers. People need to be asked to do difficult things sometimes; some of them will occasionally need to go through some formal disciplinary process; sometimes a leader is going to have to make decisions about redundancies; sometimes they’re going to have their decisions challenged. I’m probably into my 10th major change project right now and there isn’t one of them that hasn’t involved job losses, conflict and disputes. Most of them have some litigation in there as well when disappointed people and organisations turn to their last resort to rage against the tide of unwelcome change.

The question is, how much should you let that hurt you and can you do anything, Montaigne-like, to protect yourself? For most of the redundancy-type stuff, my experience is that leaders cope. Those without much experience feel it more, for sure, but if a leader is able to sit in front of a structure chart and a spreadsheet and decide to throw some people’s livelihoods away without it hurting, I certainly don’t want to work with them. And the fact that it hurts helps, frankly. It makes them more challenging when the decisions get made, more careful in making the choices about who is to go, less gung-ho when they take new people on and more credible when they sit in front of the people whose jobs they are ending and look them in the eye to tell them so. If that was the extent of the emotional pain facing the leaders around me, I’d be inclined to leave Montaigne’s room behind the shop to it. But the bits that really hurt, in my experience, are when the knives go a little deeper. When the legal proceedings say ‘he dismissed me because of my age’; ‘she passed me over for promotion because of my sex’; ‘he bullied me because I’m gay’. Maybe I’ve been lucky to work in places where none of those things have been true but I’ve never seen a leader accused of discrimination without them being hurt by it. Personally. To the core. Over a beer or in a quiet moment they will tell me how affronted they are, how the accusation paints them as a caricature they don’t recognise. How the very idea they could behave in that way is an attack on their view of themselves.

Of course our employment legal system encourages claimants to lump a discrimination claim in there and there’s still enough lawyer in me to understand that it’s part of the process. Of course I’ve said that to everyone in this position but when the accusation have been leveled at me ‘part of the process’ doesn’t help. When I’ve had to stand in the witness box and defend my reputation, it’s been personal. It’s not been about my processes or the commercial risk: it’s been about me; my values. Who I am.

So here is where I agree with Montaigne. My values define me and I expect people to experience them through dealing with me rather than hear me explain them. My private room behind the shop contains the rules by which I live my life and the measures by which I judge myself. I’m not going to put them on display, I’m going to hold them close. To those that aspire to leadership I say: understand what’s important about you and keep it dear. Somewhere safe from the rough and tumble your career will throw your way.

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