Give up control

17th September 2012 | Posted in Books, How to be a Leader, Management

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: Give up control

 As soon as art leaves the artist it has to stand up for itself in a world of analysis, interpretation and discussion. As well as debate about what on earth it all meant though, Montaigne’s life work was subjected to some more fundamental indignity. Without copyright laws to protect the original from abridging, deleting or just plain rewriting, Montaigne’s Essays had to withstand more than their fair share of battering. The nature of The Essays lends itself to rough treatment, of course. The current Penguin Edition has 1360 pages and some of Montaigne’s riffs and rambles run to 20 pages of close-typed print without reaching anything close to a conclusion. By any measure, The Essays are opaque, ambiguous and ripe for distortion. It’s hardly surprising that others sought to cash in on Montaigne’s reputation and make his work what the BBC calls ‘more accessible’ and some others describe as ‘dumbed down’. The first re-packaging of The Essays was from a friend, Pierre Charron, and he started a trend which ran through the seventeenth century and produced some remarkably slim volumes. ‘The Thoughts of Montaigne’, for example, comes in at a pocket-friendly 214 pages. Of course what the reader got in 214 pages bore no resemblance to the artistry of the original but it meant a knowing nod around the dinner table when someone referred to some memorable passage. Like a shopping mall version of ‘Going Underground’ ‘though, the buyer may have heard the tune but they’ll never have got the attitude.

Those that did the hard reading to get the attitude behind The Essays were not always more welcome to Montaigne, ‘though. Anyone with ambitious things to say is used to the idea that people will do what they like when pronouncing on the work and Montaigne was no exception. I remember getting dim looks from a young teacher when I wondered unkindly what Shakespeare would make of the pretentious psycho-babble she was plastering all over King Lear and Montaigne felt the same about Plato:

‘See how Plato is moved and tossed about. Every man, glorying in applying him to himself, sets him on the side he wants. They trot him out and insert him into all the new opinions that the world accepts’.

However peeved he was on Plato’s behalf, he was more sanguine when it came to his own work. In his mind, readers would interpret his work as they may, find things he never intended to say and in the process, create new ideas:

‘An able reader often discovers in other men’s writing perfections beyond those the author put in or perceived and in doing so they lend the work richer meanings and aspects’.

For Montaigne, it was all amor fati – cheerfully embracing an uncertain fate. Whether people published basardised versions of his work or read flatteringly unintended ideas into his writing, he recognized that he couldn’t control what happened, so he got on with enjoying going with the flow.

At face value, amor fati looks like a challenging concept for leaders. In a world where senior managers, investors, and followers all look to the guy or gal in the big office for certainty, direction and control, the idea of embracing fate sounds risky, to say the least. It might just be the only way, ‘though.

As a young middle manager, I was taught that control was the essence of my work. Deliver the plan and the budget by managing the processes and everyone would be happy. On promotion to my first senior position, I had too many people to adequately control and any plan was overtaken by events before it was written. There was nothing in my management education at that point to equip me for the change and no-one was coaching me to look for a different way to manage five hundred people from the methods I’d used with fifty. A nervous breakdown did not ensue, but it might have done and the current stress levels experienced by managers could be at least partly attributable to the paradox of control and lack of control that they have to balance every day. As Rick has written, the problem with command and control is that it works sometimes and its bloody reassuring when you are the one doing the controlling.

This is particularly true, and particularly futile, in organisations in crisis. Karl Weick describes organisations as a places where alternative meanings exist for everything. For him managing is the process of trying to make sense of what has happened in the past in order to predict the future and convince everyone that you know what you are doing:

“In business, we tell ourselves stories in order to know more and to compete better. In a crisis, stories tell us not to panic. As reality unfolds, everyone starts asking themselves ‘Do you have any idea what’s going on here?’ Then someone spins a story and the moral is something like ‘Don’t worry, I have seen something vaguely  like this before’. And that’s more than comforting, its motivating. Even if the company is in quite a serious situation, someone will be able to use that tiny core of meaning to convert their interpretations into action”.

I’ve witnessed this reliance on planning; I’ve done it myself. ‘This is what happened and this is what we did’ quickly leads to ‘Let’s do that, then’. The plan lends the illusion of control and is given credit for any eventual success. Weick tells a story of a platoon of Austrian soldiers lost in the winter Alps. They confounded the odds against survival to find their way back to base by following a map. Unknown to them, the map was of the Pyrenees and therefore completely useless in any practical sense. Yet the belief that they knew the way out of their crisis was sufficient to motivate and, ultimately, save them. On a similar theme, I have always thought that the amount of time, energy and effort placed by organisations in deciding direction is out of proportion to the reward gained by it. Strategies are rarely unique and success is often easier to achieve through excellence at execution than it is through having a ground-breaking strategy but the planning cycle continues to occupy half of many a manager’s working year.

The opposite school of thought is less common, in my experience. This thinking says that while it might have been enough for Henry Ford to manage rigid system and process and it might have been enough for the Toyota system to achieve better results through better process, more recent experience teaches us that over emphasis on control leads to the ultimate fossilisation of the firm. From Peters and Waterman’s ‘freedom in a framework’ to Bob Sutton’s ‘firm opinions weakly held’, there is an acknowledgement that letting go of control is a requirement for business success.

None of which is to say the transition from ‘tight’ to ‘loose’ is easy or that discussing amor fati around the board table will gain you any points in the plus column for your next promotion. But you should try. Management is a performance art and it’s closer to Jazz than Classical Ballet.

So for those who aspire to leadership, I say be like Montaigne and give up control. Remember that what you got you here won’t get you to where you want to go next and your success is dependent on able people on your team discovering richer meanings and aspects to the direction that you agree on together than you could possible achieve by telling them what to do.

Comments are closed.