Awake from the Sleep of Habit

10th January 2012 | Posted in 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: Awake from the sleep of habit

While Montaigne’s France was riven with religious civil wars, the Spanish, Portuguese and British fleets were discovering the world wasn’t flat, America really did exist and a whole world full of people and wealth was there to colonise and exploit. In one of those ‘what if..’ moments in history the tendency of the French to have their protestants and catholics slaughter one another kept their focus on the home front while first-mover advantage abroad went to more practical souls. What might the world have looked like now if the wealth of South America had been shipped to Marseille instead of Seville? Where might we be now if the French had the strength to move out of Florida and make the whole of North America theirs?

The comparatively small scale fruits of exploration that did fall Montaigne’s way, ‘though were fascinating to him. He travelled to meet a tribe, the Tupinamba, representatives of whom had been brought to France as a public curiosity and he was fascinated by their culture and what he was able to read about others. While a more predictable response was to regard differences in culture or behaviour as evidence of lack of civilisation or savageness, Montaigne saw these differences as challenge to habits in his own society. With characteristic crudeness he pointed to cultures where women pee standing up and men sitting down. He was interested in places where hair was worn long in the front and short at the back, curious about a culture where blackened teeth was the fashion and white ones abhorred. He didn’t see any value in copying these things but he did see them as legitimately different. He used the differences he saw to put himself in someone else’s shoes and consider whether his own way of doing things should change.

Of course habit is just a pattern of behaviour and part of being human. Consciously or subconsciously searching for patterns and holding onto comfortable ones is what we do. From naming the constellations to regression analysis, the history of human thinking and behaviour is about habit. Habits save effort because they allow routine without thought. Good habits are the repeated actions which delivered success last time. But even good habits have unexpected consequences when things change around them and what once made sense now becomes a comfortable indulgence. Taylorism and it’s grandchild, Process Management, are about habit. They’re about finding the most effective way to do something and repeating it. Again. And Again. And Again. Which all seemed fine and efficient until Deming pointed out that the most efficient way to produce a poor product still produced a poor product or Taiichi Ohno took a chain saw to the storage area. The history of manufacturing, and therefore the history of management, is peppered with habits acquired and habits discarded when the equivalent of a Montaigne wanders along and asks ‘Why not..?’ and ‘What if…?’

If habit is part of the human condition, then so is change. As a clever man once told me, if change wasn’t normal then we’d all still be dressing like it was 1945 but there is a huge difference between choosing a new suit and having your new suit chosen for you. People hate being changed. They sometimes hate changing themselves as all of this month’s failed new year resolutions and lapsed gym memberships will prove. But somehow or other the successful leader has to equip people for change at work, encourage them to find changes of their own and prepare them for changes that the organisation will demand from them – work which Colin Marshall described as ‘the only meaningful job of the manager’. All of which is seductively easy to say and seriously difficult to achieve. Confronted with the need to manage change in the face of how difficult that is to achieve, leaders look for patterns, hoping that they’ll find simple answers to complex questions. From GE to Kotter and many less famous examples before and since, the literature is full of step by step guides and homespun examples of what worked for someone else. These books cram leader’s bookshelves in the hope that it will work for them, too. Some of it is depressingly self-helppy, leading to the enduring observation: ‘The reason that businessmen talk about gurus is because they can’t spell charlatan’. More considered writers tell us that change is all to do with culture. Of course it is. Everything is to do with culture. And when you consider Edgar Schein’s definition of culture as ‘the residue of success’, you might just realise that you’ve gone round in a huge circle and culture is just a collective habit.

All this can do your head right in.

So where does that leave the aspiring leader? In a kind of Kevin’s razor, I’ve always taken the view that if things are more complicated than I can grasp, I’ll revert to simple answers. My simple answers are that people I’ve always wanted to follow have been honest and direct. When they needed me to change, they told me so and I trusted them. Where I could make choices, they gave me the freedom to do so; where there were no choices they told me that, too.

It may not be perfect but to those that aspire to leadership I say be like Montaigne and have an open mind to change. When it comes to implementing it with the people around you be as complicated as you need to be but stay as simple as you can.

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