25th January 2012
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.
How to be a leader? A: Dare to be different
The religious wars that dogged Montaigne’s lifetime came to a particularly bloody head in the period after 1572 and what became known as the St Bartholomew massacres. All over France, catholics undertook bloody and indiscriminate slaughter of protestants and when the Huguenot protestants organised themselves to retaliate the resulting years of violence were so terrible that its hardly surprising that the common view was that the Apocalypse was raining down on their poor medieval heads. Failed harvests, insect infestations, meteors and freezing winters only served to prove the fundamentalists right in their view that the end of the world was nigh and when Jean Wier estimated at least 7,409,127 witches at large in France, torture became an enthusiastically state-sponsored industry. While Wier provides early evidence of both the persuasive value of odd numbers and the unreliability of most organisational data, fanaticism was everywhere. Both sides of the fight kept their own particular Taliban close who, of course, agreed with one another that their personal brand of holy zeal was the only behaviour sufficient to protect the innocent from righteous ritual murder.
Montaigne stayed predictably aloof. Drawing on the Stoic tradition, he recommended seeing things from different angles or different scales to estimate their significance. He spoke about seeing all human endeavour in the same way we would look down on a column of ants. ‘Astronomers warn of great and imminent alterations and mutations’ he wrote. ‘But they forget the simple fact that, however bad things are, most of life goes on undisturbed’. That’s his medieval ‘meh’ again, and it led over time to him being seen as part of an emerging grouping, the politiques, whose rational humanism and more moderate christianity would ultimately rise above the crisis and bring at least some of the madness to heal.
I’m hoping that no-one reading this post experiences bloody slaughter at work every day and the only witch hunts that come your way are metaphorical but I know that I’ve seen the equivalent mental processes drive apparently sane management teams to inexplicable actions; something the psychologists call group-think. Harmony in a team is good; a team that fails to disagree sometimes is bad. Some of the most graphic examples are from UK businesses in the 1990’s when BA and M&S halved their share values through their misguidedly homogenised boards vigorously agreeing with one another in pursuing faulty strategies. Academic analysis after the events make the comparison with the French religious wars uncomfortable: ‘a belief in their moral certainty’ and ‘a sense of complete invulnerability’ (for which read life after death) characterises the behaviour of these groups of clever and respected individuals working as stupid and derided collectives.
Some say recruit more women to Boards. Some say look for different industry backgrounds. Some say look for wider ethnic and national backgrounds. I say do all of those things but I also say that whatever their gender or background each individual in the senior team needs to understand that some of their value is in their ability to express their differences. Karl Weick talks about ‘avoided tests’: the idea that management is concerned only with what is comfortable and solutions which are at odds with experience are rejected. I’ve seen it happen. I’ve also seen the value of the opposite where, courage in hand, the noisy majority are confronted with an opposite view and wonder anew, modify their enthusiasm and, sometimes, change their course.
So to those that aspire to lead, I say learn from Montaigne and dare to be different. It’s often hard, regularly unpopular and sometime lonely. But it’s the right thing to do. After all, without grit you can’t have oysters.