Be with people

03rd January 2012 | 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: Be with people

It would be easy to read everything I’ve written so far about Montaigne and imagine a solitary sort. A man who built himself a tower to get away from his wife and collected around 1,000 books by his death doesn’t sound like the life and soul of the party, does he? The Penguin version of his collected essays has 1360 pages of small print – a prolific output and more apparent evidence of someone who spent a lot of time on his own. But Sarah Montague tells us that this wasn’t the case. “My essential character is suited to communication and revelation” she quotes him as saying, “I am all in the open and in full view, born for company and friendship”. Deep in the centre of the way that Montaigne lived his life was the idea that living is about being ‘porous and sociable’, that understanding other people was a desirable goal which could only be attained by being with them, not locking yourself away, Descartes-like, to think about them. Given the circumstances of the time, this was a considerable investment on Montaigne’s part. Religious civil wars dominated his lifetime and gangs of armed men wandered around looking for targets for their religious bigotry or sheer criminality. But rather than surrounding his chateaux with guards and walls like a medieval X Factor winner in a gated estate, Montaigne kept his properly open to all visitors, invited or not. Plenty were invited: friends came for jousting, hunting, sport. Although he seems to have disliked all these activities he also decided that if he wanted visitors, he had to entertain them. Itinerant performers were welcomed, though he seems to have had little enjoyment of their performances and on more than one occasion he invited troops of travelling soldiers onto the property, one of whose intended brutality towards him was immediately disarmed by his frankness and hospitality.  Like JK Rowling, he also seems to have written surrounded by noise and bustle – people talked and worked around him and his tower was surrounded by the clanking of wine-making machinery, the clucking of hens and the chatter of a working estate rather than some sort of monastic silence. “Wonderful brilliance may be gained for human judgement by getting to know men” he wrote, “When we are all huddled and concentrated in ourselves our judgement is reduced to the length of our nose”.

 It sounds like such an obvious statement that I paused and thought hard before writing it, but leadership is about people. You can’t ‘do’ leadership on your own. Many people seem to try, ‘though and technology has the potential to make us ignore what we know. Since Aristotle conviviality, being with others, has been one of the acknowledged bases of human existence.

Returning from a holiday, as many of us are today, should be the time that the smart leader sits down with people and chats. No agenda: just a chat. About presents, about friends, about children. But many of us will instead look at the inbox and spend hours or days inside the screen, wondering what we missed and just trying to get the unread mail down to a manageable number. Whatever I was taught about time-management as a young manager has the potential to be pressured into redundancy by the immediacy of the next email or the next meeting and that potential is at the cost of the human relationships that actually make the business work.

Countless organisations directly or indirectly measure the productivity of their managers in meetings attended and emails answered. These thing matter but not to the exclusion of the people around you. To those that aspire to leadership, I say take a leaf from Tom Peters and Manage by Walking About. Take a leaf from Justin King who spends each Friday with his Blackberry off visiting a store. Take a leaf from Montaigne and understand that the world is larger than the screen at the end of your nose.



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