Archive for October 2017

A worthy role model

31 October 2017

(Reprinted from The Edge – Options pullout, 30 October 2017 issue)

Dear Kam,
I’m looking for a leadership role. I have no idea what that means but I have been told that all the cool kids are doing it these days.

I was watching a very interesting BBC documentary about the changing dynamics between management and the workforce over the last several decades. All the theories that have driven the changing trends have come from America and from the McKinsey management consulting firm in particular. The documentary was about how the worker was asked to commit emotionally to the company (following a reimagined Japanese model) but is now under the constant threat of ruthless culling, or something like that. This was a British documentary looking at an American story but the two cultures have so much in common that it is understandable if they imagine their workplace norms to be universally true, which they are not.

What I was struck by was how certain management-speak words were constantly being repeated without anyone questioning their underlying meaning: Leadership, performance and performer. One McKinsey consultant asked in the abstract if he is a good performer, because if he is not then, he has to go. I come from the entertainment industry where we use “performer” to describe an actor or a singer. Elvis gave great performances because he was a great performer, but nobody would have asked him to head ExxonMobil. Although that would have been fun.

The words used to judge management have a performative quality. Leadership implies a performance, not winning or losing. Imagine leadership and you might see stirring speeches giving frightened troops mettle before a final death ride, like in The Lord of the Rings. “Death! Death! Death!”, the king shouts before leading his now heartened people on their final annihilating charge. They were going to lose but then they were suddenly saved by the unexpected arrival of an extremely effective army of ghosts. The word leadership is imbued with theatre and Hollywood. It is probably not surprising that American-generated management speak uses the word because in America, the show is often more important than the outcome. Exhibit A: Donald Trump.

My experiences in management roles have been in the entertainment industry. We never used the performative management buzzwords because the great performances were supposed to happen on the other side of the camera lens. Directing a film is a performance but it must be in the service of the final film. The audience will never know nor care about the dramas that happened on the set because they will only be judging the final film. In entertainment, the word is effectiveness. And being effective can be nice or not nice, depending on what is required at that moment.

An actor once asked a movie director, “What’s my motivation for this scene?” The director said, “Your paycheque.” Money can be a strong motivating force and Michael Caine only did one execrable movie because he wanted a new swimming pool. But the money is not always good and yet you still need to coax a good performance out of an actor on a hot day during fasting month. So, you use a combination of concern, flattery and sternness in order to effectively achieve a succession of brilliant short bursts after saying “Action!”. It is very tempting, when being at the head of a big film shoot, to enjoy the performance of being a director. You are the big guy and everyone is running around doing whatever you want. But it is all a waste of time if you cannot be effective and create a decent product. Unfortunately, I know this from bitter personal experience.

Perhaps I am imagining that management buzzwords are specific to an American cultural outlook, and perhaps it is all because I have been reading a lot about the American Civil War recently. I have been confused by how America seems to have forgotten its greatest general and, instead, has chosen to endlessly eulogise generals who were ultimately failures or simply clownish. General Ulysses S Grant succeeded where all others failed, winning a succession of brilliant hard-fought victories before becoming president. But he was modest and introverted, dressed scruffily and never led a charge with noble words. I really admire Grant because he had a genius for understanding the true overall strategic situation and because he was effective when others merely blustered and designed their own uniforms.

And yet, I can’t remember what he looked like despite having seen his photo a hundred times. His face and his body language seemed to want to retreat from the camera, as if he wanted to be away from this silly performance to concentrate on other things like planning his campaigns or thinking about the many novels he enjoyed reading. I know what the losing General Robert E Lee looked like, even though I don’t hold him in very high regard, because his photo memorably exudes all the theatre of handsome and gallant leadership. If I walked past Grant in the street, I wouldn’t recognise him. But I know that he was a greater general than Napoleon or Alexander the Great, both of whom led their countries to ruin in the pursuit of personal glory.

I think it’s important to question the buzzwords we instinctively use, like leadership, performance and performer. Grant might now be largely forgotten because he was not a performer who imagined that leadership was a performance. But because he was effective and moved inexorably forward when other generals had retreated, his soldiers gladly followed. How Grant managed to achieve that skill is worthy of study.

Reprinted with the kind permission of