Archive for July, 2012

Beware false prophets

18th July 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: Ignore false prophets

Montaigne wore his learning lightly. Although presenting his work now requires the context of the time this is a facet of 2012 that wouldn’t have been a feature for his original readers. For those that read him as he wrote and for a couple of hundred years afterwards he was fresh, exciting and unruly. His dis-order, his rambling digressions and, above all, his focus on the personal and immediate made him unique and dangerous enough for the Vatican style police to ban his work for nearly two hundred years between 1676 and 1854. It is this focus on the personal which earns him the ‘first blogger’ title and the tendency to draw conclusions about ‘how to live’ from his observations are made by others, not him. Montaigne didn’t live to a philosophy or code. His only rule was that there was no rule, no set path, no more than a general direction. If philosophy emerges from his work it is by accident, not design.

I remember when I believed there was a ‘right’ answer, a combination which would unlock the mysteries of commerce and make it all make sense: a philosophy to explain the random events of a career and an organisation. I also remember when I turned up at business school twenty years later and found most of my class mates still on the same quest. I particularly remember the frustration of many of my fellow students when ‘it depends’ was the lecturer’s ultimate answer to almost every question. There is something deep within us all which grabs for the solidity of a master plan, a formula for success, a great big sack of an idea to bundle all of the complexity of an organisation into despite our experience to the contrary.

This urge is reflected on the bookshelves of leaders and airport book stores everywhere. From Steven J Covey to ‘Good to Great’, from Kotter’s ‘8 steps’ to Terry Leahy’s ‘Management in ten words’ everyone is searching for the unifying idea, the philosophy of how to manage the unmanageable chaos that is most organisations – a cunning plan, some intelligent design that can be boiled down to the brutalism of a ‘to do’ list. Read a Twitter stream for too long and you’ll see the same thing: endless repetition of single answers to complex questions that need context and understanding to dare to propose action. Like twenty first century Mountebanks and Collis Brown’s mixture, their promise to cure all ills gets more attention than it deserves.    

It would be really reassuring to believe in one true path but my experience makes me side with Montaigne – a general direction is the best we can hope for and trying to herd all of the cats into one sack is a futile exercise. In HR School this tendency is pulled into a sterile debate over ‘best practice or best fit’, in most psychology tools the reduction of the endless variety of people to some bland opposites: introvert or extrovert?, thinker or talker? Shame on you, HR. Of all business disciplines, surely ours is the one where space for the individual and unique ought to exist.

So to those that aspire to leadership, I say don’t restrict yourself to any single model. Like Montaigne, embrace the complexity of real life above the facile simplicity of sold solutions. Chose direction over prescription and, like Montaigne, treat imposters with the suspicion they deserve.