David Hurst delivers multimedia presentations and a range of customized experiences that will inform and inspire your people and help them learn from the past, master the moment and create the future.
A few days ago this blog of mine got published on the HBR Blog Network where it is attracting a good deal of comment. You can read it in situ as well as the comments here (as well as see the great mongrel pic HBR selected!)
Here is the blog:
Humans engage with their world in two reciprocal ways: firstly as passionate participants and secondly as detached observers. As managers we cycle between these modes constantly. It’s the mark of a great manager to be able to judge, in a complex situation, when and how to use each of them.
Detached observation requires a certain maturity. Consider that we are born into the world immersed in context. We are embodied organisms, fine-tuned by evolution to garner cues to action from our surroundings. We pay attention when we see a face and smile when we are smiled at. We learn to walk and talk without explicit instruction. From about the age of seven onward, however, we develop the capacity for perspective-taking. We learn to distance ourselves from the world and to swap our roles as involved participants for positions as distant observers.
A Spectrum of Disciplines
When we attend school and university we discover the spectrum of disciplines available to us to observe the complexity of the world and learn about it. On the “left” are the fine arts, whose methods are basically analogical. They simulate our experience of complexity using many different media: their role is integrative — to make meaning. On the “right” are the hard sciences, whose methods are analytical. Each of these right-hand fields develops its own style of abstraction to study different aspects of reality: their role is to dissect complexity and to explain. In the middle of this spectrum are the liberal arts and the mongrel discipline that we call “management”. As Peter Drucker often contended, management is neither an art nor a science, but a practice with aspects of each. Its role is both to explain and to make meaning.
Ever since Descartes, the detached, rational objectivity of the observer has been prized over all other forms of knowledge. Applied to the study of matter and things it has generated huge benefits for humankind. However, the Cartesian agenda was always an imperial one and, emboldened by its success on the right, it has marched ever leftward on the spectrum of the disciplines. In the social sciences, the program has been much less successful. In management, in particular, it is clear that people, unlike objects, react poorly if they sense they are being treated as items; their behavior becomes erratic and unpredictable. People want to be regarded as ends-in-themselves, not as instruments of another’s purpose.
I returned to Canada over the weekend from Lithuania via London, where I “perched” over night before taking the afternoon Air Canada flight from Heathrow to Toronto. The highlight of the past week was my trip to Kaunas, Lithuania to take part in the annual meeting of the Baltic Management Development Association. I sat in on all the sessions that I could and delivered the final keynote on Friday before attending the gala dinner.
Early on in the week, however, I had the great pleasure of having lunch with Will Hopper at the Garrick Club in London. Will is the Chairman of the Peter Drucker Society in the United Kingdom and I had met him in Vienna at the Drucker Forum in November last year. His recent book, The Puritan Gift, offers an excellent perspective on the American management heritage and where it has gone so badly wrong. The Garrick Club itself is a marvel, founded in 1831 with a long distinguished history and a collection of theatre memorabilia and writings that would grace any museum. We sat at the Members’ Table for lunch, where I found myself seated next to a retired judge and across from Marcus Lovett, the current Phantom in the London production of The Phantom of the Opera. We all had a stimulating conversation over an excellent meal.
It’s been a great middle week of my trip to the UK and Europe. I had an excellent reception for the ecological perspectives from The New Ecology of Leadership in all the places I visited. In Nottingham about 50 people turned out for an early Breakfast Briefing and I spoke for just over an hour before handling questions. Nottingham itself, like so many former industrial towns in England, has been through a bad time, losing many of the industries that had propelled earlier phases of the Industrial Revolution. The textile industry collapsed following WW II and survives only as a small but vibrant fashion design cluster. Today there are only a few large firms around, the best known of which is Boots, the pharmacy retailer. The event itself took place on the new Jubilee Campus of the University of Nottingham, which stands on the site of the former Raleigh Bicycle Factory, whose bikes with their Sturmey-Archer three-speed gear hubs, were objects of passion when I was a boy of eight growing up in South Africa! Much has changed since then…
The Thursday evening session also saw about 50 people come to the Canada-UK Chamber of Commerce session organized by Square Peg International at Macdonald House in Grosvenor Square. Apparently the Canadian Government is planning to sell the building and move into Canada House in Trafalgar Square in the next year or so. Estimated proceeds are about £500 million. There were people from a wide range of institutions and enterprises and they seemed to enjoy the presentation. As was the case in Nottingham, the highlight was the ecological take on Margaret Thatcher’s time in office and how her monomaniacal focus on breaking the unions and mobilizing the Conservative Party prevented her from building a sense of community that could embrace all Britons. This was the challenge taken on quite successfully by Tony Blair, whose election Thatcher enabled by forcing the Labour Party to abandon its unilateral policy for the nationalization of industry and its unconditional support for the unions. Some observers suggested that the ecological perspective would be really helpful if applied to the European Union and the bureaucracy in Brussels, which is totally stuck in gridlock.
Last week was the first of three weeks “on the road” for me in the UK and Europe. I am doing a series of corporate education sessions, and book-related presentations at business schools and management associations. The past week was spent in London on an intense development program for corporate managers for a large global company. I ran a 1½ day “learning” session, based on my work, and sat in on 3½ days of sessions run by others.
There were about 130 managers in total, divided into three groups – about thirty senior managers, who I was working with, another forty middle managers and sixty more junior managers. It consisted of a variety of feedback instruments ranging from the level of the personality to 360-degree feedback on their leadership styles together with sessions on leading change, power and influence and decision-making. Fortunately the dimensions of these different tests could be mapped onto the ecocycle and the ecological perspective seemed to help as an excellent integrating framework for the participants. The biggest hit during my session was when I used Itay Talgam’s great TED video to illustrate the different forms of power and influence and mapped it onto the navigation tools in the ecocycle.
The study of business history in North American business schools has been on the wane for some time now, crowded out by “more practical”, “hard” topics. History is seen as nice, rather than necessary. But if contexts matter in management, then history matters. In The New Ecology of Leadership I have a chapter on the topic and give three reasons why the study of history is essential for managers:
- To understand how effective strategies (methods of getting things done) usually arise from competencies (virtuous habits acquired over time from many different sources) and are mediated by technologies of various kinds. This is the essence of organizational learning.
- To discover and discipline potentially helpful analogies drawn between past events in other organizations and situations to current predicaments. This is the essence of what we mean by “learning from the experience of others.”
- To understand the dynamics of cause and effect in complex systems and to think about both individual and systemic risk. The need for managers to distinguish the quotidian from the urgent and the trivial from the important is a constant challenge. By alerting us to important signals, a study of history can help us pay better attention to what’s happening now.
I found an excellent illustration of these benefits when I reviewed recently Andreas Kluth’s fine book, Hannibal and Me: What History’s Greatest Military Strategist Can Teach Us about Success and Failure. When I first wrote this review for Strategy+Business Mr. Kluth was US West Coast correspondent for The Economist; he is now their Berlin Bureau Chief and German Correspondent.