Models of Creativity: Analysis or Creativity-Fellows or Foes?

Originally Published in Fair Value

President Ronald Reagan, Speaking after talks with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at the Reykjavik summit in 1986, infamously said that what was most needed between the superpowers was “Trust… [adding, after a dramatic pause]… but verify!” 

Trust but Verify

The apparent contradiction made headlines around the world, helping to foster an approach that led to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and the removal of around 80 percent of the nuclear warheads in existence.This phrase is actually not Reagan’s at all, but an old Russian proverb that serves to illustrate that a counterintuitive tension is often the most effective way to break down those barriers that impede step-change progress. Its wisdom is now commonplace, aided by the growth of technology that gives confidence to more attitudes: “trust trading,” for example, is a standard practice among progressive retail partners; customs checks are made on random samples; we trust our people but verify their output…

How Trust but Verify Applies to Business

All of this is intended as a prompt to reflect on how we might apply similar thinking to our organizations. What, as business leaders, can we do to foster the relationships and environment that supports the creative progress we need? And how do we balance the need for innovation with the equally necessary reassurance that our actions are founded on more than a leap of faith?Fresh thinking is essential to progress. Without it, we stagnate, our horizons narrow, and our competitors overtake us. At a macro level, the impetus for change is essential for human flourishing-it’s no coincidence that when innovation dries up or is curtailed by dogma, we talk of “Dark Ages” or “closed societies.” History is littered with examples of the damage this causes, just as it also confirms the benefits of freethinking and the open society.We all know this, and yet the reality is that when it comes to our own circumstances, creative leaps can be scary and uncertain, evoking what the historian Robert Hughes brilliantly described as “the shock of the new.” His interest lay in the arts, but the same sequence of “disruption, resistance, and progress” is seen in the scientific and industrial revolutions that preceded our modern era. And today, the pattern continues, most obviously in the digital sphere, which has supercharged the speed and reach-but also the risks-of creative innovation.It is a mistake, however, to think of creativity purely in terms of inspirational genius. As James Dyson, the billionaire UK engineer and inventor, has pointed out-practical progress is seldom made in the manner of Archimedes in his bath or Isaac Newton under the apple tree. Rather, it’s an iterative journey that sharpens our notions and intuition through a process of trial, error, and adjustment. Dyson has filed over 4,000 patent applications, and yet he claims none of his ideas were truly unique. What? Made the difference is his commitment to the hard hours of testing and adjustment that irons out the flaws and solves problems in a piecemeal way.Dyson also argues that innovation flourishes most in an atmosphere of creative tension, where ideas are robustly and competitively challenged, often in partnerships or teams, in pursuit of a common goal. We see this pattern time and again in art and science: Picasso andBraque, Darwin and Wallace, Lennon and McCartney… The relevance for business leaders is that innovation works best when it’s integral to, and not isolated from, the day-to-day realities of the organization. Indeed, research has shown that transformation and development teams work most effectively and come up with the most productive ideas-when subject to the same rigorous critique and analysis as our everyday processes.

Ground Break Creativity Is Rare

Ground-breaking creativity is also a rare event-were it is not; then change would simply overwhelm us. The reality is that most great ideas take the form of an inspirational leap which is then refined through marginal gains that make the bigger difference. As an apt illustration, when Dick Fosbury revolutionized the high jump at the 1968 Mexico Olympics, he won by a mere 2cm, clearing 2.24m for gold-today, after universal adoption of and, critically, refinement to his groundbreaking technique-the world record stands at 2.45m.

Creativity Takes Work

These sorts of gains come not from pondering on the stars but from analyzing what works best, finding ways to improve on the idea, and being open to our failures. The writer Matthew Syed explores this idea in his deeply persuasive and accessible book, Black Box Thinking. Syed cites the aviation industry as the ultimate example of progressively learning from both failure and innovation-its embrace of objective analysis taking air travel from what was once the riskiest to what is currently the safest form of mass transportation.

Analysis Helps Creativity

The analysis is, therefore, the bedfellow, and not the bugaboo, of practical creativity. For by measuring and learning, not only do we sort the wheat from the chaff, we also help the good become great or, more often, just that little bit better. Malcolm Gladwell has a wonderful podcast that explores this process through the evolution of Leonard Cohen’s song, “Hallelujah.” The piece took years to gestate, slowly improving its form and lyrics to become one of the most recognized classics in modern songwriting.

Little Bit Better

The operative phrase in the paragraph above is a “little bit better.” That’s something different from reinvention, and yet ironically, it requires a similar mindset. Though on reflection, maybe it’s not ironic at all for now, I think about it, the most analytic people I’ve worked with are among the best innovators -and almost all creatives I know are deeply analytic in their approach.Which brings me back to my opening example. For Ronald Reagan to make the breakthrough with Russia, he needed a creative leap of the type scientist Edward de Bono described when he wrote about shifting perspectives by throwing off old patterns. But to make it work for the gains to truly stick-he needed something more, something that the great American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, might have taught him- “The heights by great men reached and kept were not attained by sudden flight, but they, while their companions slept, were toiling upward in the night.”

Relative values – and the Barbenheimer phenomenon.

You’d have to have been in a cultural wilderness this last month not to be aware that the two most talked about films of this summer are almost diametrically opposed in their style and substance. That said, the simultaneous release of Barbie and Oppenheimer is arguably a marketing masterstroke, generating thousands of column inches and an equivalent commentary on social media. Interestingly, the critical consensus is that both movies have their merits, with an appreciation of their differing qualities that are encapsulated by the use of the term ‘Barbenheimer’ to describe seeing them both side by side.

This mutual appreciation of two very different offerings has neatly coincided with my own exploration – indeed, growing fascination – with how we create the best conditions for the growth of happiness and well-being. Or, to be more precise, my awareness that despite the criticality of these goals to the quality of our lives, there are no clear and obvious means to measure and calibrate them other than through internal experience. 

Let me try to explain.

For most of my adult life, and certainly my business career, I’ve held in tension two convictions that have guided my actions and my decisions. Indeed, the strain between them and how we might embrace it is the underlying theme of my book of essays, Fair Value – reflections on good business.

Numbers Don’t Lie

The first assertion is that ‘numbers don’t lie.’ This refers to the need for financial acumen, the ability to correlate and interpret data, and an acknowledgment that we have a duty as leaders to respond to reality as it is rather than how we might wish it to be.  

Values are Critical to Performance

The second is that values are critical to performance.’ Indeed, I’d go further and say that in business terms, values and purpose are today more important than the pursuit of pure profit or return on capital or whatever other fiscal measure we might choose to highlight.  

Does either help with Internal Feelings?

Neither of these convictions, however, helps us to accurately measure those goals which arguably matter most of all, such as happiness and contentment, or their counterparts, sorrow, and anxiety.  Almost by definition, these higher-level concepts are abstractions, resisting the specific quantification that a trained statistician so craves. 
Take, for example, my love of PG Woodhouse, an author whose wit and humor have given me (and millions of others) immense pleasure, without his writing ever being highbrow or having claim to the literary genius of, say, Shakespeare or Steinbeck — both of whom I enjoy too.  Is my pleasure from any one of these authors better or more important than the others, and if so, how do we measure that difference?

We All have Preferences 

All of us will have experienced something similar to the example above, for part of being human is the ability to hold preferences, be they for music, architecture, landscapes, foods, or humor…   Just as we have different desires for less tangible satisfactions such as security, contentment, and personal growth.  We know as well that over time, and in changing circumstances, these wishes will evolve and vary, which explains why one day we might choose to watch Oppenheimer and the next take as much pleasure (albeit in different ways) from Barbie.

My key interest here is less philosophic than it is practical. 

Moral Relativism vs Absolutism

In the 2,500 years since Plato, our best minds haven’t found a watertight alternative to what’s known as the problem of relativism. This perhaps explains why the questions I’ve been wrestling with these last few months don’t neatly fit into one article. But despite our lack of objective measurements, the reality is that most of us don’t truly live our lives in a way that assumes all pleasures to be equal, just as we don’t think there’s no difference in mortality between acts of cruelty and kindness.

Business and Moral Relativism

At its core, what concerns me is the real-world problem of how we best manage our businesses and organizations (as well as our family lives and careers) to align with what we might summarize as our ‘happiness and well-being.’  Or, more specifically, how might better promote the variety of perspectives and preferences that make us who we are and yet are so problematic to rank and measure in any objective way? 

And finally, there is the question that interests me the most.

As businesses and organizations, can we shift our emphasis towards a greater personal fulfillment and yet stay true to the twin convictions of ‘facing reality’ and ‘values inspired performance,’ which remain key to tangible success?  In other words, can we find a Barbenheimer solution that embraces a greater range of aspirations, existing side by side and making contributions that may not be equal, but are collectively beneficial?  
Cracking that conundrum, it seems to me, would be a real breakthrough for the good.

Giving to Ourselves and Others

Giving to Ourselves and to Others

Originally Published in Fair Value

The face looking at me from the newspaper is perhaps six years old. It’s a young boy in a makeshift tent, mud on his cheeks, hands clasped as if in prayer. The caption tells me he’s lost his home and that winter may take his life. I think it’s his eyes that move me most, speaking of a horror that no child should bear. My palms feel sticky as I pick up the phone, text HELP, and make a donation to the Syrian refugee appeal.

Fundraisers Happen Frequently

Fundraisers like these have become part of the fabric of our lives—they are in our magazines, on TV, and even on posters on the subway. So commonplace are these images that we learn to filter them out. In the newspaper I was reading, there were similar appeals for cancer research, wildlife conservation, homelessness, and victims of domestic abuse. At times, it seems there’s no end to the call on our goodwill. And that should not be surprising, for the urge to alleviate suffering is surely part of our humanity. Indeed, to have no sympathy for the pain of others is a mark of a psychopath. And yet we cannot credibly respond to every cry for help. In the United States, there are estimated to be 1.5 million registered nonprofit organizations, and in the UK, around a third of that number, with similar proliferation of social ventures across the developed world.

Nonprofit organizations as the Third Sector

This “third sector,” as it’s sometimes called, has become a significant part of our social infrastructure and, in many ways, it’s as competitive for our attention as the mainstream economy. We choose our causes, and from the natural disorder of what is effectively a market for our hearts, there emerges a growing wealth of charity in the broadest and most generous sense of that term. Or so the theory goes. The notion of charity as the desire to eliminate suffering is sometimes contrasted with a broader vision of philanthropy and the quest to find lasting solutions for the root causes of our problems. We tend to think of philanthropists as a rich few, often historical figures with a social conscience. In liberal democracies, much of their role is now given over to the state, with nonprofits filling the gaps and addressing more immediate and particular needs.

Government vs. Nonprofit: Charity Source

To my mind, the distinction is somewhat academic. All of us are aware that the problems in Syria or Somalia-or even our neighborhood-are the result of forces that ought to be fixed. But we also know that hungry bellies need feeding, and traumatized children will not survive winter in a tent. Those caught in the crosswinds of circumstance are deserving of both our immediate attention and our efforts to make a greater and longer-lasting change. And, mostly, the two approaches go hand in hand. Very few larger charities are focused only on the here and now, and yet, understandably, they will seek to leverage our more visceral responses to raise funds and build awareness-just as they will lobby the rich and famous, be they individuals, governments, or corporations, for larger donations that offer the promise (and reflected aura) of a legacy difference. But for many of us, all of this can seem somewhat removed, which is surely why so many smaller organizations still thrive in the face of what’s become a quasi-corporate competition for our sympathies. A remark often misattributed to Winston Churchill is, “We make a living by what we get, but make a life by what we give.”

Donations and Volunteering are Different 

It nonetheless contains the truth which lies behind our desire not only to donate cash, which-good though it is-can feel like conscience appeasement, but to volunteer and campaign for causes, which-although they may seem peripheral to others-are closest to our hearts. I recall a colleague complaining to me, not unkindly but in frustration, about the fundraisers at his local school. They were so inefficient, he said; hours spent baking cakes and running raffles, when frankly if everyone who cared had simply donated twenty dollars, they’d have raised twice as much in half the time. He was probably right, but of course, he missed the point of the exercise. We get our children involved in community work as much for the lessons it teaches them as the difference they can tangibly make.

Volunteering Helps a Community

Of course, the definition of community is wider now than ever. For some, it remains rooted in their neighborhood, their church, or school. For others, that sense of belonging might come from their workplace, their hobbies, or their ethnicity. This is a good thing, for the diversity of interests leads ultimately to richer lives for us all and, I would argue, a voluntary sector that better reflects our needs and concerns than any interventionist design could hope to do. This is why, wearing my corporate hat for a moment, we should resist calls for overregulation of the nonprofit sector.Instead, we should encourage involvement and giving of different sorts-awarding tax breaks and stipends to those who volunteer, for example—and promoting new models of contribution that draw on our collective efforts as well as our cash. Throughout my career, I’ve had the privilege to work with many gifted individuals and have seen the progress that their flair makes possible. It’s common for the leaders of many different faiths to ask their followers to gift a percentage of their income but consider the impact if all of us offered a percentage of our talents. For some, that might mean baking cakes-and it’s good that they do—but for an academic say, it could be directing a percentage of their research at social issues, or for executives like myself, advising on strategies and governance.

Volunteering Builds Community 

In the US and the UK, nonprofits are typically seen as a substitute for state funding, but there are other approaches that we can learn from. I’ve already mentioned the roles of the churches and faiths, which are prominent in many cultures. Across much of mainland Europe, there is often a more social-corporate model, with close cooperation and even contracting between the state and charities. In Scandinavia and the Netherlands, where high taxes and high-quality services are the norm, the emphasis is on volunteering and participation.

Modern Philanthropy

The pool of our talent is limitless, and it is here, I believe, where the potential for modern philanthropy lies. Lasting social solutions are seldom designed from above; rather, they evolve through an iterative process of progress and refinement underpinned by care for the outcome. This asks more of us than the adverts and appeals that surround us and requires leaders to step forward and encourage others to do the same. But here’s the thing: it pays us back in spades. Short of utopia, there will always be a role for larger organizations, and thank goodness they are there. But to have a wider, more caring society, we need to bridge the gap between ourselves and those in need with something more tangible than simply texting HELP.

Fear and the Price Tag of Trust

Originally Published in Fair Value

As a young boy growing up in Peer, it was natural I’d want to learn to ride a bike. For though Belgium is not awash with heroes, we had all heard of Eddy Merckx, widely regarded as the world’s greatest cyclist.

The problem, at least at first, was that I wasn’t very good. No sooner would I start pedaling than I’d panic and crash to the ground? After yet another painful tumble, my father once exclaimed, “The problem is, you’re so afraid of falling that you forget to push through.”

Fear and Stress are Human

Fear, of course, can be both physical and mental. In acutely stressful situations, we trigger hormones that have their evolutionary root in our ancestral environment. When faced with danger, our bodies tell us to either fight, flee, or freeze. The symptoms include heart palpitations, sweaty palms, and the need to pee! Psychologically, our attention is drawn to the immediate, our focus narrows, and we act according to our instincts rather than any deeper reasoning.

I sometimes wonder if there’s a political equivalent. In the US, as I write, the nation is in the midst of the Trump-Biden presidential campaigns. The anxiety is palpable and, in many ways, more so than any policy differences. Rustbelt America dreads the return of an out-of-touch elite; the graduates of Boston abhor what they read on Twitter; our banks are concerned about a move to the Left; our destitute remain fearful of the Right. It comes to something when even the postal system has been politicized for fear of fraud in what’s regarded as the home of freedom. 

Something similar is happening in the UK. The issue of Brexit has paralyzed British politics for the last five years and arguably longer. Business is disrupted, investment is delayed, and uncertainty and mistrust are endemic. Despite a referendum and a general election, there is no sign of a consensus that might unite the nation in a common endeavor. The schism between those who would fight and those who would flee is as divisive and draining as ever.

Balancing Interests is Fundamental for Business

Imagine if we were to run a business this way-if, there were no requirements to balance the interests of stakeholders but rather to meet only the needs of those who held the most sway. Such a model would tear our companies apart, destroying value for all through the pursuit of a blinkered agenda. If I have learned anything as an organizational leader, it’s that sustainable progress requires a broader and longer-range perspective than the hollow promises of trouble-shooters and partisans. 

This is not to say that decisive action is never required— procrastination can be as deadly as impetuousness. But it is that good business must do more and better than decide by the majority or follow homogenous agendas. That’s why diversity is so important. We thrive, and make better decisions, by considering a variety of perspectives; by ensuring we have not only social, ethnic, and gender balance in our teams but something of the same in our modes of thinking—we need creatives and disruptors just as much as we need hard-nosed operators and cautious finance directors.

The historian Niall Ferguson has spoken of the lack of empathy in contemporary political debate, as if putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes is to concede the unthinkable, to legitimize the other who threatens our sense of safety. Ferguson is an erudite academic, a Stanford fellow who must cringe at the gaucheness or superficiality of any other populist political agenda. And yet, perhaps more than a commentator, he has sought to understand and communicate its appeal, acknowledging that while populist leaders have a loose relationship to facts, they also call out truths that are deeply felt by many. His theme is not that these are noble politicians but that unless we allow ourselves to look beyond their rhetoric and acknowledge the concerns that underlie their appeal, we will not make progress together. We need to listen and try to understand the views and concerns of others than ourselves, even if we are convinced that they are “wrong.”

It’s Important to expect the Best of Our Leaders

To be this generous is difficult. My response to the political decisions I perceive as foolish or unjust ranges from anger to despair –and especially so when there is a disingenuity to those delivering the message. In a sense, it’s a cognitive equivalent of the fight or flight phenomenon. My values tell me there are lines we must not cross, and on these, I am firm. But I also know that politics is not an ethical exercise-that that weighs more heavily than what ought and that the pursuit of power has its own self-rationalizing dynamic. To expect better of our leaders is better held as a hope than an expectation. 

Hope, nonetheless, is a powerful counterforce to the problems of the present. It’s why all leaders trade on vision and why those in business must do likewise-though ideally, with more veracity and sincerity than their political counterparts. Vision-in the sense of laying out a positive future for our companies-is in many ways what modern leadership is most about. To succeed, we must bring others with us, keep our word, and win the trust of more than a slim majority.

The Price Tag of Trust is Fundamental

The cost of fear-or, put differently, the price tag of trust is intangibly vast. In football management, the term “lose the dressing room” means to have lost the confidence of your players. It invariably ends in tears. After the financial crash, our banks spent millions of dollars revisiting their values – a decade later they’re still trying to convince us. The police and other public bodies are under similar pressure- Black Lives Matter is but one example of injustices that are deeply felt by those who’ve lost faith. 

When our fears are most immediate-and most beyond our control-we, seek salvation in simplicity. That’s why in a crash, the demand for gilts and gold will rise-a “Rush to quality” is what it’s known as. We look to authority, too, whether that be through prayers or deference to hierarchies that compensate for our f of impotence. Salvation means, literally, to be saved from ruin-it strikes me the appeal of populist politics is something similar. 

In certain situations, this approach may be appropriate. When faced with a hurricane, most of us know it’s best to follow the advice of the experts. But to resolve more complex problems and overcome discord that is deeply rooted, we must look beyond simplistic panaceas. We must pool our knowledge and ideas and have the courage, as leaders, to give way to the wisdom of others. To overcome fear, we must find what unites us before addressing what divides us.

In his magnificent book, “Sapiens: A brief History of Humankind,” Yuval Noah Harari chronicles the progress of humanity. Eschewing the usual chronology of princes and kings, he examines how, as a species, we have made such remarkable progress-reflecting on what it is about our abilities and psychology that has taken us from a few hundred thousand to eight billion individuals. And at root, his answer lies in our ability to work flexibly together, using language and reasoning to keep faith with ideas that bind us in common causes-be those money, nation-states, laws-and, more recently, in historical terms, companies, and international institutions.

I take strength from his long-term perspective. Not only in the stoic maxim of “this too will pass” but in the knowledge that regressive periods, such as the one in which I believe we’re currently mired, are blips on the curve. There are more millennials in China than the entire population of the United States-no amount of retrenchment will resist that commercial imperative and the opportunities it brings. We are, on the whole, freer today than we have ever been; we are less likely to die from conflict, have longer life expectancy, and have better education. Many of our deepest fears are trivial compared to those our forefathers took in their stride. 

There are exceptions to this optimism-the climate crisis is perhaps the most obvious, and we shouldn’t live on the basis that “all will be well in the Twenty-second Century.” But as I learned as a boy, the surest way to fall from a bike is to focus only on the wheel in front of you. To make collective progress-be that in business, politics, or as people-we must have faith in our future, care for each other, and a trust that extends beyond tomorrow. 

My father was wrong when he said I wasn’t pushing through; the problem was that I wasn’t looking far enough ahead. 

The Fair Value Equation

Originally Published in Fair Value

Not Far From my London house is the Charles Dickens Museum, a three-story Georgian terrace where the author chronicled the life and poverty of Victorian England. From here, it’s a short walk to many of his novels’ famous settings: Smithfield Market, the Old Curiosity Shop, and the now-repurposed workhouses that were once a commonplace feature of the city. 

We have come a long way in improving the social conditions that inspired novels like Oliver Twist. Indeed, it’s said that were it ever possible to return to those times, a modern-day visitor would be traumatized not only by the sights but by what they would smell! The sanitary conditions of London were so poor that for several summers in the 1850s, it was described as the Great Stink

Imagine for a moment what that must have been like-not in Dickens’s comfortable home but in the filth and hopelessness of the slums which surrounded it. Imagine, too, the bass note of fear that accompanied a life without healthcare, decent education, or fair access to the law where the refuge of last resort was the workhouse, a fate so dreadful that only the desperate ever entered. 

It’s sobering to think that these conditions existed at a time of relative peace and prosperity in what was then the most powerful nation on earth. 

Fairness and Value

That they were tolerated was not so much for want of resources but as a lack of empathy with those who suffered the consequences. Questions of fairness and value were regarded as matters of charity or evangelism rather than deriving from our fundamental rights or the duties of a compassionate state. The dominant social ethic of the time was framed by the idea of the deserving and underserving poor, a belief (from those with power and privilege) that we flourish or fail through our efforts and industry alone. 

Such views are now rightly seen as naive, but we are far from abandoning them. Indeed, since the dismantling of the USSR and the reinvention of China, the Western capitalist model of meritocratic enterprise has relegated more egalitarian alternatives to the fringes. And in many ways, that’s a good thing, for it’s evidentially true that industry and incentive reap both individual and collective rewards. 

Starting Points Matter

The difference today is that we understand the race of opportunity is far from fair-that; while our endeavors make a difference, our starting point has a significant bearing on the progress we are likely to make. This is why we have free and universal education, why we outlaw discrimination, why children are protected from poverty. Modern-day meritocracy recognizes that in a world where rewards are unequally spread, the competition for them should be as equitable as possible—at least, that’s the theory! 

In practice, we all know that inequality, and the burdens that come with it, is still rife. We know, too, that while there is no merit in being born into money, wealth and success follow hand-in-hand, just as surely as social mobility is the devil’s only job for those without privilege. The pursuit of what the philosopher John Rawles called “true equality of opportunity” remains a work in progress, albeit most developed nations have a positive trajectory. 

In sharing these thoughts, I’m deeply conscious that I have fared especially well in the lottery of life’s chances. I like to think that ambition and ability have played their part, but it’s impossible to deny the blessings I’ve had. Psychologists tell us that a significant determiner of our prospects can be something as simple as being read bedtime stories as a child—I came from a house full of books and a family that encouraged me to study; that alone is priceless. I also benefited from an enlightened system of social welfare that provided me with education, health care, and, ultimately, a choice of roads to travel that are a world away from the dead-ends of nineteenth-century London.

Collective Values Matter 

Today, I spend much of my time commuting between the US and Europe. Both are wonderful societies in their way-and we should largely rejoice in what they’ve achieved. But if there’s a single difference between my experience of people’s lives in these two economic powerhouses, it’s the prevalence of residual anxiety that is rooted in inadequate social provision for large numbers in American communities. The most common question my European friends ask me—invariably with a sense of incredulity—is why the US, the richest and most powerful nation on earth, is so reluctant to provide universal, free-to-access healthcare. 

Levels of Compassion Matter

It’s not my purpose or my place to delve too deeply into politics. The reference to health care is more a reporting of the transatlantic attitudinal differences than any polemic on my part. Rather, I’m reflecting on how our collective values have impacts that go so much deeper than our fiscal systems and the scope of the services our governments provide. I call this the fair value equation, measuring the worth of our society in terms not only of what it produces but also of the compassion it shows and the well-being that results. 

The business has much to teach us here. The reflection above might imply there is a conflict between the two goals, but in practice, we know the best companies have the most progressive policies, treat their people with care, and show concern for the environment . . . It’s no coincidence that there are few organizations of this size that operate today without a clear statement of values. 

And furthermore, it’s no surprise that those organizations which found their policies on “true equality of opportunity” have the highest levels of engagement. This isn’t because they pay higher wages, for the relationship between remuneration and employee commitment is weak. True engagement and the discretionary effort which follows comes from a combination of involvement, progression, fair and equitable treatment, and, most importantly of all, a commonly held belief that everyone is a fully valued member of the organization, regardless of their seniority. 

Societies should support their Citizenry

Returning to our governments, if, as societies, we provide less than is necessary for citizens to feel they have a fair stake in their communities, then we should expect engagement of a different sort. History shows us that the biggest threats to our democracies and freedom have come from those who feel excluded-in the despair which follows, it’s all too easy to be persuaded by simplistic solutions that play to our survival instincts. The roots of fascism, nationalism, and what today we call populism lie not in a rational assessment of our best interests but in the sense of hopelessness and the fear which comes with it. 

In Northern and Western Europe, the socio-political model is based (significantly more so than the US) on the provision of universal public services, underpinned by a wide-reaching safety net that, if not exactly eliminating, at least dulls that bass note of anxiety I spoke of earlier. Counter to nineteenth-century thinking; the result is not a loss of incentive or productivity from those at the bottom of the social ladder. Indeed, the countries with the most comprehensive welfare systems have the highest levels of intergenerational social mobility.

We’re in it Together

Meanwhile, the US, far from being the land of opportunity, has one of the poorest records in this regard any enlightened leadership doesn’t mean there are no hierarchies or that remuneration and reward should be equally spread. But it does mean we must recognize the pursuit of success is a joint endeavor and that we flourish most when we nurture the prospects of all. If-on the contrary-we, exclude sections of our workforce, deny them fair, or provide only insecure contracts-then we lose out opportunities on their full potential. In practice, then, the two sides of the fair value equation operate not in conflict but in concert. If our care lacks depth, then commitment will be shallow-but so too the opposite and therein lies our opportunity. 

Pursuing this alternative course can require a leap of faith—not least because there will always be some who seek to game the system. But I’d argue this is a small price to pay, for the alternative is not so much a race to the bottom as a burden that weighs us down as individuals and societies.

To lighten the load, we need surely to share it not as a penance but in the knowledge that unless we do so, gravity will win, and all of us are diminished as a consequence. 

We might be mindful too of the fates of Mr. and Mrs. Bumble, the workhouse-keepers in Oliver Twist. Their hearts were said to be impervious to tears; ‘waterproof’ is how Dickens’ described them. But as the story, and their pursuit of self-interest, unfolds, they “were gradually reduced to great indigence and misery, and finally became paupers in that very same workhouse in which they had once lorded it over others.” 

The Coins in Our Pockets 

Originally Published in Fair Value

The coins we carry in our pockets are in many ways remarkable. Their heritage, as tokens of nominal value, stretches back to the very origins of trade. From the first crudely minted discs to today’s complex designs, coins have enabled more than mere exchange: they facilitate our movement, support complex transactions, and are founded on communal trust. In a sense, they are a physical embodiment of millennia of human industry and invention—the ultimate everyday symbol of our collective achievements.

And yet, how often do we stop to examine them? Unless you’re a numismatist like me, I suspect you seldom give them much thought. This is a pity, for their designs alone can remind us of what we owe to others and the past. On every US coin, for example, is minted the motto, e pluribus unum (Out of Many, One), which refers to the union of states and the idea that we are more than the sum of our parts.

In writing the essays in this book, I’ve come to reflect on my personal journey, not only as a leader in business but, more broadly, as a father, statistician, and sports fan. No matter how we define ourselves or measure our success, I’m more conscious than ever that unless we live like Robinson Crusoe, we must all give thanks and pay tribute to others. Those of us who’ve risen to senior positions have an even greater obligation to do so.

Working and Collaborating with Others Matters

Malcolm Gladwell, in his debut book, The Tipping Point, wrote of the importance of Mavens-those persons whose knowledge and wisdom plays a vital role in the adoption of popular trends. Often, in organizations and social movements, we can trace seminal decisions back to their influence. At a personal level, too, most of us can name individuals to whom-either directly or by way of a connected thread— we can link the progress and direction of our lives.

Early in my career, I was fortunate enough to work at a financial organization for a leader who combined the expectations of hard work and analysis with a softer side that took time to encourage a young man to make the most of his talents. It was through him that I first learned the value of communicating with care and the power of modesty as a means to motivate. He showed me, too-and with great patience on his part-that mistakes are part of our progress.

Firmness of Mind Matters, but so does Action 

Later, on my first appointment as a CEO, I was blessed with a chairman who taught me much about the need for the firmness of mind. Leadership—and indeed many of the big decisions in our lives can be beset by doubtful voices, which, if we allow them to become too loud, result only in mixed messages and vacillation. It was through him that I learned to marry an openness to new ideas with a necessary clarity of purpose and direction. As we’ve seen, Bertrand Russell, in The Conquest of Happiness, talked of something similar: when faced with conflicting options, he said we must act on the best available information and then hold to our decision unless or until there is clear evidence to the contrary.

The reference to Russell illustrates that great minds have never been more available to us. Bookshops and libraries are a wellspring of wisdom-so to the internet if we use it with care. In this respect, some of my mentors are people I’ve never met-and, yet through their works, I’m constantly learning, continually challenged, and forever curious. It has long struck me as a sadness that so many college graduates give up their studies to begin their careers. That’s not to say we should all be academics in our spare time, but maintaining that essential curiosity feeds and pays tribute to the wonderful gift that is our collective understanding.

Mentorship and Positive Role Models Matter

I learned this from my father, a quintessential polymath and my greatest mentor and friend in life; the debt I owe to him and his gentle influence cannot be overstated. Of course, when I say debt, I really mean gratitude, for, like all the best mentors, he would not wish for payment. This reminds me of a former colleague who had an unrelenting belief in our duty to make better decisions, always seeking to test and improve for the benefit of all. He was one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met and yet, far from displaying the hubris of certainty, he tenaciously challenged the status quo, blending a scientific mindset with a kindness and warmth that spoke to and quietly enhanced—my personal values.

And isn’t this what great mentors do?

Epiphanies Happen but Not All the Time 

Very few of us experience a “Road to Damascus” moment that changes our outlook overnight. Indeed, my core beliefs in liberalism, meritocracy, and a duty of care to those less fortunate have not radically changed since my college days. But by learning from the perspectives and wisdom of others around me, those convictions have been enriched and refined. I hope this never ceases; I hope, too-as, they would remind me—that I remain open to the evangelism of a sort, for there is merit in radical thinking if we are to make step changes. Liberté, égalité, fraternité the motto of the French Revolution (and on the reverse of its Euro coins)-is a useful reminder that the values we hold most dear were once heretical thoughts.

But whether our knowledge is founded on education or epiphany makes little difference to our dues. Science and mathematics are a ten-thousand-year endeavor; democracy-and much of our philosophy-comes from ancient Greece; the very languages we use to communicate are founded on social constructs. Similarly, today, our industries, our health services, our transportation careers, and the opportunities which come with them are built on the efforts of our forebears and contemporaries.

In writing these essays, I’m clearer than ever that the idea of the self-made person is contradictory to an interdependent, multicultural, increasingly global world. We are, all of us, carried on the shoulders of giants. Even a genius like Leonardo da Vinci served as an apprentice; those of us less gifted are-in a sense-bound to a lifetime of learning from others. We should see that as joy-not a trial, as a credit, not a debit—in the balance sheet of life. Or perhaps, as two sides of the same coin-the many and the one, each dependent on the other.

An Alternative World Cup

For the last month, the eyes of the sporting world have been fixed on a Middle Eastern Emirate, one-tenth of the size of New York State. In what has been the most political FIFA World Cup to date, the litany of controversies has, at times, threatened to overshadow the spectacle. Like most fans I’m thankful that sport has ultimately shone through; but like many others, I’m left uneasy at the wider context and particularly our willingness to wash over issues that we would not tolerate at home.

From media coverage in the run-up to the finals, I was surprised to learn that Qatar is effectively a modern creation, gaining independence as recently as 1971. It’s a ruling system, however, is nearer to medieval. The Emir (Sheik Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani) holds all power, appoints his own government, controls the courts… and no doubt sanctioned the bribes that allegedly secured the World Cup finals in the first place. In a country with a population of 2.5 million, fewer than 320,000 are citizens, enjoying a per capita income that’s the fourth highest in the world.

Qatar is Not Free

The quid pro quo for these native Qataris is the sacrifice of their freedom. They are caught in the classic position of a ‘complicit elite’, knowing their country is out of step with modern values but fearful that change would harm their privileged position. And so they — and to some extent, we too — live with the absurdity of hosting the showpiece of a sport that promotes diversity, inclusion, and opportunity in a tin-pot nation-state that does precisely the opposite.

Of course, not every nation in the World Cup finals has a liberal system of government. Of the 32 countries, less than a quarter are classified (albeit extremely toughly) as ‘full democracies’ by the longstanding Economist Intelligence Unit survey. More positively, the Freedom House Index would rate around three-quarters of free societies in the broadest sense. Notwithstanding the variance, there are a number of participants from what are clearly authoritarian regimes, including the hosts, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

FIFA Gives the Games on Human Rights & Democracy

Thinking about all this, I began daydreaming of an alternative format in which the games were decided on values rather than goals. In my imaginary world, FIFA stood for the International Federation of Freedom and Association — with contests that matched the countries on their human rights and democracy records, playing extra time with political engagement, empowerment of women, or lack of corruption. How might the teams do then I wondered, and who would reach the round of eight, semis, and ultimate play-off?

Looking at the various indices for democracy and freedom you could be forgiven for feeling depressed. Whole swathes of the world’s population live under repressive regimes or what is euphemistically described as ‘hybrid’ systems. The Middle East — except for Israel — is wall-to-wall autocracy; Africa has a few beacons of hope but is otherwise pretty bleak. And let’s not be complacent about those closer to home — to my mind, one of the greatest sadness of this century has been the retreat of democracy in countries such as Hungary, Turkey, and the majority of the Balkan States. 

But if this paints a gloomy picture, there is brighter news from my fantasy alternative…

For in fact, the results would not be that different to those which played out. In the real world England thrashed Iran and drew with the USA (seems about right?), Argentina beat Mexico, The Netherlands trounced Qatar, and Saudi Arabia failed to make it through the group stages. I’m cherry-picking here of course, but with a few exceptions (Canada and Switzerland really ought to have done better) and recognizing that there has to be victors, it’s been a strong World Cup for values.  Morocco has been the surprise and perhaps outlying team (they rate at best mid-range on most indices) — let’s hope their success on the field acts as a fillip for their country’s freedoms too. 

More Freedom Often Means More Talent

In many ways, these results should be no surprise. For there’s long been a proven correlation between liberal democracy and the unleashing of talent. Some — me included —would argue it is more causal in its nature. The very act of freeing people from restraints turbocharges the abilities and creativity we all possess in some measure. And from these richer pools of opportunity emerges, ultimately, the flair and genius that we see in Messi and Mbappé. Does anyone seriously think they would have been as likely to flourish in Russia?

This capacity transcends wealth too. Qatar and the Middle Eastern emirates are a-typical outliers in that other long-standing correlation — the one between freedom and prosperity. They may have the cash to build stadiums but until they change their systems, they’ll never have the capital to compete. In contrast, consider the progress of Croatia, a far from perfect or affluent nation, but it seems to me, one determined to look forward not back. In six World Cups, they’ve been runner-up twice and bronze medalist once. Don’t tell me that’s nothing to do with their history and struggle for independence.

And so to the final. For all that I am European by descent, I was neutral in the values stakes. On the one hand, we had France – arguably the cradle of modern democracy; on the other Argentina, a nation that, despite many issues, has transformed itself from the days of dictatorship and military juntas. It ranks second only to Uruguay in the Southern American democracy index. I was indifferent too on sporting grounds; may the best team win, I thought as the game kicked off. 

World Cup 2022 Final

How appropriate then, that what followed was perhaps the greatest ever final — the old and new guards of footballing genius slugging it out over ninety minutes, the extra time, and eventually penalties. So good was the game, that in the end, for neutrals at least, the result was almost incidental. Because what had really won, was not just a team —and certainly not Qatar as a host — but the sport as a whole, and most importantly, the values it stands for. 

That is something for us all to celebrate.

Reflections On a Lesser Known Wimbledon, by Jozef Opdeweegh

The London district of Wimbledon is synonymous with its namesake tournament and those two weeks in July when the world’s media and tennis fans turn their attention to this otherwise quiet suburb for the Wimbledon Open. Beyond the courts, the town is awash with boutiques and coffee bars; its young professionals, are no doubt attracted by its heritage as the home of my favorite

But wander just a mile or so from its high street, you’ll find a new and very different stadium that has an equally fascinating — and important —story to tell. It’s the home of AFC Wimbledon, a not-so-famous football team, that in a mere twenty years has risen, phoenix-like, from the ashes of a firestorm of dispute that destroyed a club and disenfranchised its followers.

The story of the original Wimbledon FC is the stuff of a comic book legend. After decades in the minor divisions, the team rose in consecutive seasons to the top tier, winning the FA Cup in 1998. Around the turn of the millennium, their fortunes declined, and lacking a permanent ground the owners summarily uprooted the club, moving it 60 miles north to Milton Keynes, a town with no previous connection. A new identity of Milton Keynes Dons was created, and today, they are solidly placed in League One of the English pyramid.

From my perspective, the interesting part of this story is not so much the fortunes of the football teams. Rather, it’s the decision of the owners to relocate a club with a hundred-year heritage to a town that wasn’t even built when it was first founded. At the time of the proposal, the Football Association approved the move, arguing that the owners could do as they wished — after all, it was their asset to manage or market as they saw fit.

The fans, however, saw things differently.

There’s a famous quote about soccer by Bill Shankly, a former manager of Liverpool FC. ‘Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that.’ The point he was making is one that the owners of Wimbledon were tone-deaf to: that football is about more than a balance sheet; that the fans are as vital as the players; and that the values and heritage of a club can’t simply be traded like a commodity on the stock exchange.

In the case of Wimbledon FC, the fans turned their rage into a more constructive rebuilding,
founding a new club and eventually, crowdfunding a remarkable stadium. It’s a monument to passion and a belief in the interests of those who care most – the new club is controlled by a supporter’s trust, is embedded in its community, and its team has risen through the ranks to compete (ironically, alongside Milton Keynes) in leagues one and two of the English professional system.

The story though has wider relevance. It raises questions about the interests of stakeholders and the potential conflicts with owners and custodians. Consider the controversy over Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter and the uproar from some quarters at his changes to policy and approach to free speech. The exodus of many users to the open-source alternative Mastodon has perhaps echoes of the response of those disenfranchised Wimbledon fans.

I’m not going to comment on the pros and cons of Musk’s takeover, not least because it’s
entangled with left and ring-wing politics, making any assessment too sensitive and subjective. But what’s clear, is that the millions of Twitter users can’t simply be ignored. Nor, as one of the leading social media platforms, should the wider implications of the company’s policy on freedom of expression, accountability under the law, or the ability to protest.

Listening to stakeholders in business doesn’t mean that change will always be watered down. It’s true that in many large organizations there can be institutional resistance to reform. But conversely, there are times when those employees closest to the coalface know that organizational transformation is necessary for long-term value. Nor does it mean that unpopular measures should be shirked — it’s worth acknowledging that in relation to my opening story, the town of Milton Keynes now has a thriving and well-supported football team.

What I’m really getting at here is being attentive to the importance of purpose and mission in those companies and organizations that play a significant role in our lives. We all know that businesses must make a profit, but that can’t today be the sole meaning of their existence. Equally, non-profit and public service ventures — in the arts, sport, and education — must balance their social objectives with a reality check on affordability and remember that the bigger goal is not so much their particular passion, as a healthy, diverse, and flourishing society.

I’m convinced that the key to navigating this maze is having a compass that’s sensitive to values that are commonly held by all involved — be those owners, employees, and customers, or governments, peoples, and their allies. For it is our shared beliefs, applied with some pragmatic flexibility, that bind us together in difficult times. Values can also — quite legitimately — be a way of establishing lines that others may choose not to cross. And that’s fine, so long as we are not mismatched in our understanding.

In seeking such constructive and cooperative outcomes, I believe it’s vital that no one version of the truth be allowed to ‘out-shout’ or cancel another. It’s an irony that those most vocal in calling for freedom of expression, or safe spaces for their views, are often deeply intolerant to alternative perspectives. More than that, it’s inefficiency and a fast track to failure, for in the long term there are no more static companies or countries than those who brook no dissent.

Every leader, no matter how sure of their strategy, should remember Lyndon Johnson’s epithet, ‘if you’re not listening, you’re not learning.’ And in doing so, train their ears to hear the notes that matter, filtering out the background noise to better recognize when their plans are out of key with others who care too. Thirty years into my career I’m more attentive than ever to those metaphorical sounds. Experience is a privilege and a powerful asset, but it’s nothing if applied without due regard for the values and purposes which underpin the more tangible measures of success.

This year, AFC Wimbledon met Milton Keynes Dons in the early rounds of the FA Cup. Despite some stirring of rivalry by the press, the match went off without rancor. In the twenty years since the upheaval, the Football Association has changed its rules and an owner can’t just uproot a club today; meanwhile, the respective fans have found a new focus and moved on from the past.

Wimbledon’s new stadium is called Plough Lane, the same name as the original club’s ground. It’s a fitting blend of the old and new, of learning from mistakes and looking to the future. And perhaps most of all, of holding true to the values that show how clubs, businesses, and communities of any sort, are more than the sum of their parts.

4 Principles For Adaptive Leadership

When considering the qualities needed to lead an organization, especially in times of disruption and uncertainty, the ability to adapt is often one of the most coveted qualities for leaders. As such, I’ve reflected on the tremendous amount of change and adversity that we have collectively faced as a result of the challenging but necessary COVID-19 lockdowns. In the past months, just as businesses were on the cusp of returning to the office and resuming normal routines, the Delta variant quickly demanded laborers and managers to alter their course and reconsider how to keep employees safe.

This is only one of the more recent examples of the disruption we have experienced in the past two tumultuous years. Factors like variants and spikes in infections make it apparent that this need for an adaptable and responsive approach to leadership will continue to be the norm. But one thing that will impede progress and growth is panic. With this in mind, I believe that leaders and managers must take a step back to look at the full-wide picture before proceeding with new strategies moving forward. 

But simply being able to “adapt” or showing “adaptive actions” is not enough: organizations that wish to employ an adaptive leadership style must cultivate a few key characteristics to ensure optimal performance. In recent years, many business leaders have realized that the single-figure, top-down leadership model is outdated and impractical. No single person can solve every problem, which brings in the need for adaptive and collaborative leadership.

While leadership styles have been transformed over time throughout the years, adaptive leadership, in particular, embraces learning and continuous growth. Leaders shouldn’t be afraid to try new tactics to solve problems. They should also encourage innovation and creativity from their employees, even if the solutions don’t always work.

Let’s go over the 4 principles to guide adaptive leadership: 

  1. Leading Through Reflection

Reflection is both an internal and external process that promotes self-awareness, understanding, and improved critical thinking skills. Learning to be present, aware, and attentive to our experience and interactions with people throughout the day is an important element of adaptive leadership.

  1. Developing Clear Organizational Purpose

Studies and surveys demonstrate that organizations founded on strong social values have more engaged teams, attract talent at less cost, have increased employee retention rates, and enjoy more positive customer relations and brand reputation. Leadership in the next decade will require greater attention to these issues, not only as a requisite of political correctness but as a means to drive performance.

  1. Cultivating an Unbiased Mindset

An ideal group leader should take a selfless and unbiased approach to leadership and credit the company’s success to the contributions of every member and not himself alone. As such, leaders should never let personal desires and feelings interfere with decisions associated with the group and should source collective views from members of their team before taking any action.

  1. Leading With Empathy

Employees will be more committed to the success of the company if they feel inspired by leadership. A successful company generally boasts a roster of employees who enjoy working there. Giving employees a voice, equipping them with the knowledge they need to succeed, and inspiring them to drive the company forward is beneficial to the company at large.