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.”

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 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.

The Diversity Dividend

Throughout my career, I’ve worked with many executives who take pride in having an ‘open door’ policy. Their approach is founded on the idea that every employee should feel able – and indeed, be encouraged – to make suggestions on the policy and performance of the organization. It’s an excellent ethic and an important signal from those notionally at the top that the best insights often come from colleagues who are closest to the action. I try to keep my door open every day! 

Staffing for the Diversity Dividend isn’t Easy

But the idea that by living this policy, we are open to truly different perspectives can be misleading.  At its most basic, the diversity of opinions we receive rather depends on who comes through the door. If our organization is overwhelming peopled by white middle-class graduates, then it’s likely that the views expressed will converge around that particular cultural outlook. Similarly, as was typically the case early in my career, if the gender bias is predominantly male, then the feedback will have its equivalent limitations.  

The need to embrace difference is rightly higher than ever in our consciousness and increasingly enshrined in legislation and corporate governance.  A growing culture of meritocracy is helping too, driving social mobility not only in companies but in schools, universities, and recruitment processes.  The examples I mentioned above include race, social class, and gender, but diversity definitions also extend to age, sexual orientation, faith, disability, and even cognitive mindset.

Many Organizations Still Have Homogenous Thinking

This latter point is especially interesting because, from a pure performance perspective, it’s arguable that the key benefit of diversity is to challenge our most comfortable notions with constructive alternatives. A Board made up entirely of extrovert thinkers – regardless of their race, gender, or social class – is less rounded and adaptive than one that includes a compensating balance of more reflective mindsets. We have long understood that the most successful teams are built on a mix of mutually supportive skills, and yet too many organizations are still characterized by homogenous reasoning, even if roles and responsibilities are well-defined.

It seems to me that opening the ‘doors of our mind’ to thinking differently is perhaps the greatest diversity challenge.  Only entrenched bigots would today deny the moral force of, say, ethnic and gender equality; most of us go further and acknowledge the wider definitions and categories I referred to above.  But it is something slightly different – and indeed, especially difficult – to diversify our internal rationality and logic. If you doubt this, think for a moment about your attitude to personal risk and ask what it would take to change your mindset.

Diversity Dividend – There Are Legitimately Different Methods of Reasoning

Risk is not necessarily the best example, but it serves to illustrate that there are legitimately different methods of reasoning and that true wisdom comes only after listening and considering the full range of relevant perspectives. This is what I call the ultimate diversity dividend. Embracing difference in both its external and internal manifestations will reward us at every level and every day, not only because it is right ‘in and of itself’, but because a flexible mindset – in tandem with a diverse organization – will deliver better and more sustainable decisions. 

Before concluding, eagle-eyed readers will have noticed that I referred above to ‘relevant’ perspectives. It’s a small but often overlooked aspect of diversity that’s worth a moment’s reflection, too. 

If I have a health issue, I would be well advised to consult with a range of medical practitioners, but I’m unlikely to solicit the views of the local mountaineering club. On the other hand, if I were in need of an environmental risk assessment, they might be an interesting group to call upon. The point is that both tangible and cognitive diversity needs to be appropriate to the task; as my children remind me, asking folk over fifty for their views on the latest popular music is not the best focus group.

But even then, there may be exceptions.  So, while the door of my office is not open for anyone on the street, the doors of my mind are never firmly locked. And you know what – and here’s a thought to finish on – there being so is one of the greatest joys in my life. From people to politics, faith to agnosticism, age to youth, ethnicity to orientation… it is surely our variety and difference that makes our lives so worthwhile. That’s a dividend more valuable than gold, and the really beautiful thing is that it’s freely available to us all.

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.

Does a fish stink from the head?

The phrase ‘a fish stinks from the head’ is a common expression that refers to the criticality of leadership in organizations. Typically, it’s used when strategies are failing and direction is unclear. The implication is that those at the top need to shape up, demonstrating the commitment and behaviors that are required to get back on track. At root, it’s founded on the notion that those in positions of authority are central to success and have a responsibility to lead from the front.

And I agree. Taken as a whole, the expression contains an underlying truth that we do well to remember. But like all aphorisms, it’s also a simplification, and if followed too literally can blind us to other, more subtle, aspects of leadership that are just as vital to maximizing performance.  Not the least of these is listening to the well of talent, experience, care, and attention that’s embedded in those with less senior positions.   

I was reminded of this last week when reading the summary of the report into the holding of parties at the center of UK government during the strict lockdowns of 2020.  At the time I was living in London and can well understand the anger of the British public at the apparent disregard of the rules by their elected leaders. The idea that the lockdown applied only to the ‘little people’ is classic ‘stink from the head’ behavior. 

But it was a line about the fear of speaking up that caught my eye. What the report also highlights, is that not everyone working in Downing Street was happy with the slack attitude of those at the top. One especially relevant passage states:

Some staff members wanted to raise concerns about behaviors they witnessed at work, but at times felt unable to do so. No member of staff should feel unable to report or challenge poor conduct where they witness it.”

This is bang on the money, and while shocking that it should be the case in central government—where presumably, the vast majority of employees will be highly intelligent and astute individuals—it is not uncommon in many organizations. The result is that their talent and experience, and perhaps most importantly, what I referred to earlier than their ‘care and attention is lost to any assessment of the overall direction of travel. At worst, this can result in tragedies far greater than the fallout of a political scandal.

In the 1990s Korean airlines had one of the worst safety records in the world, despite having well-trained pilots and the same planes as equivalent companies across the globe. Flight recordings of high-profile crashes demonstrated that communication in the cockpit was shaped by a cultural hierarchy that meant subordinates were unwilling to question those in authority.  Even when fuel levels became critically low, co-pilots of the now infamous Avianca 52 fight to JFK airport did not directly challenge or inform the captain who in his tunnel vision had lost sight of these critical details.  The plane crashed just outside New York.

The history of the Korean airways has been well documented, with popular summaries in Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers and Mathew Syed’s, excellent Black Box Thinking. What’s relevant here, is that to solve the crisis, Korean airlines embarked on a program designed to ensure that all on the flight deck had a voice, and were able to speak up when they had concerns. What’s more, their speaking out was to be seen not as a problematic challenge to authority, but a positive contribution to the overall safety and success of the mission. 

In the case of passenger airlines, the need for coordination and collective contribution seems obvious to us now. Indeed, the hierarchical deference of Korea was always much less of a problem in those cultures (such as the US) where there is a lower prevalence of what is sometimes known as ‘power-distance’.  But as the recent report into the UK government—and countless examples of company failures—demonstrates, there’s still a long way to go in ensuring free-flowing communications up and down organizations.

The reality is that large companies are just as complex to steer as an airliner, or for that matter Ten Downing Street or the President’s Office. The need, therefore, to pay attention to the concerns of those closest to the implementation of decisions is absolutely vital.  No leader has all the answers; even the best can become distracted or fixated; their very distance from subordinates can distort perspective and lead to well-meant but wildly misconceived judgments.

This is why it’s equally vital that we have cultures and values which counteract these tendencies. The worst boardrooms are not necessarily those lacking in experience, it’s those that are echo chambers, reinforcing the perspectives of a single leader or an elite few. The history of the last thundered years is one in which the reach of communications has proliferated beyond any recognition, and yet so many of its worst tragedies—from the First World war to the Great Depression to China’s Cultural Revolution, to name but a few—could all have been avoided had subordinates spoken out sooner. 

Of course, those speaking must also listen. Somewhat ironically, given the title of this post, fish do not have ears as such, but they do have intense sensitivity to sound and vibrations around them—in some species, it’s integral to their bones! No doubt UK Premier Boris Johnson wishes that he’d listened more to the concerns of those in his own office – for a politician supposedly in touch with the people, his oversight is astonishing. Whether he’d have paid attention is a question that most of those who sit in judgment on him will now answer for themselves. What’s beyond doubt is that in his laxity he’s lost control, and that regaining it may well be beyond him. 

There are lessons here for us all.

Demanding the truth

New subordinate looking at hospitable boss welcoming her to take her workplace

Modern physics tells us that all reactions and events are a consequence of four fundamental forces of nature. Three of these – electromagnetism, the strong and weak nuclear forces – are not immediately obvious to the layperson. Despite the growth of popular science, most of us don’t pretend to fully understand the complexities they involve. But the fourth force – gravity – is not only all around us, it’s intuitive to the way we live our everyday lives. 

All of us, at least from an early age, understand that if we drop a cup of water its contents will spill to the floor. We also know that although gravity may appear weak, it’s ultimately insistent. It takes the weight of the world to keep my laptop anchored to my desk, and yet I can lift it with ease—or at least, I can for a while! Try holding your arm at shoulder height without assistance and see how long you last… Nothing escapes gravity, least of all our vanity in thinking we might cheat it.

I open with this metaphor to science, because I like to think that over recent months, we’ve been witnessing a pull of a different sort. In domestic politics, the Coronavirus pandemic, the environmental crisis, and even the world of sport, I sense the persistence of truth weighing ever heavier on those who would seek to cheat us (and perhaps themselves) with illusions and lies. 

As I write, the UK is in political turmoil over the behaviour of those in positions of power during the lockdowns of 2020; in the US we are seeing something of the equivalent as more facts surface about the practices and character of our last administration. Only last week, in a bizarre series of events, we saw the undoing of Novak Djokovic in the face of evidence that even he couldn’t ‘wish away, no matter how strong his will to win. 

These are topical and even somewhat humorous examples of what some might consider being a long-overdue comeuppance. But the malaise of self-deception—as well as that of misleading others—is one that afflicts many businesses and their leaders too. Most often, I sense it’s not so much a matter of intent to deceive, and even less so of malice or prejudice. Rather, the denial of facts in our strategies and predictions stems from a mixture of wishful thinking, confirmation bias, and even good old-fashioned pride.  

Which as we know, often comes before a fall!

The deep truth is that facts, like gravity, will inevitably win out. Markets in structural decline cannot will themselves to grow; organizations with toxic values cannot tweak them into acceptability; and while chasing unprofitable business may shore up the top line, it will surely tell a different story in the end. As one of my former colleagues used to say, ‘we must face reality as it is — not as it was, or we would wish it to be.’

Telling the truth, especially when others don’t want to hear it, can take real courage. Typically it is easier to sugar the pill, and of course, in our personal friendships, there are times when we might judiciously keep our counsel. But when we have a formal responsibility to others, it’s vital that we ground our decisions (and the actions which follow) in our best judgment of the facts as we see them. 

Objectivity, analysis, and truth to data are as integral to good leadership as are inspirational words and a compassionate spirit. We may convince ourselves otherwise, but awaiting our self-deceit will be what the Greeks knew as nemesis: the inescapable downfall that is the consequence of our arrogance. 

The good news is that our nose for the truth is intuitive too. Following it isn’t complex; we know when we are deceiving ourselves, or hoping, fingers crossed, for a miracle to save the day. And so it should be no surprise that others can sense this too. Those leaders who act with honesty and integrity in the face of vested interests or established dogma will be rewarded with loyalty and admiration that in the long run gives them leeway for the mistakes that all of us inevitably make. 

But if staying’ true to facts’ is one of the hardest qualities of leadership, then so too is being open to opinions and ideas that challenge our perceptions. I don’t believe that truth is relative – at least not in the context under discussion here—but I do recognize that none of us has a monopoly of it. Our job as leaders, like that of scientists, is to listen, observe and make decisions based on the best available evidence. In that way, our failures, as well as our successes, can add to the body of knowledge, so long as we declare them both for what they are. 

I remember at junior school being told the story of Isaac Newton’s epiphany as an apple fell from a tree to hit his head. Whether that tale is fact or myth doesn’t really matter; what’s important is that it helped to explain a phenomenon that we instinctively knew to be there. Perhaps, to understand the power of truth, we need to see more high-profile exposures; more of our politicians, businesses, and even some of our supposed sporting heroes shown to be what they are. Only then can we appreciate our world as it truly is —the good and the bad; the honest and the cheats; the facts and the lies.  These are the forces of ‘our nature’, playing out in the harmonies and discords around us every day. But for all the clatter they create, it is the bass note of truth which, like the pull of gravity, quietly and insistently sets the tone and tempo of progress for the good. We do well to listen out for it among the noise.

Leadership: What Makes a CEO Successful

joseph opdeweegh sitting at a pool party

No two business leaders or executives boast the same leadership style. Because circumstances always vary, there is no correct, one-size-fits-all way to lead. Nevertheless, there are certain traits excellent leaders share. Not only do these traits drive the company forward, they also foster admiration among employees.

Jozef Opdeweegh, known as Jos, has served for over 17 years as CEO of public and private companies in global technology, distribution, and supply chain optimization. Opdeweegh has extensive experience leading different groups of people and teams of varying size in multiple industries.

His long career as a leader has provided him with intimate knowledge of the traits a good executive should display. These traits or attributes are not only crucial for the success of the company but also to assure employees are inspired and empowered by the CEO. Such an environment results in positive growth.

Opdeweegh has outlined 5 traits that make for a successful CEO, and he has included observations from former employees.

1. Makes Decisions Decisively

CEOs, like most leaders, must make numerous daily decisions, both large and small. A great leader can make tough decisions and take accountability for subsequent consequences. According to the Pew Research Center, “Intelligence and decisiveness are considered ‘absolutely essential’ leadership qualities by at least 8-in-10 adults.” The same study goes on to note how men and women both agree that being honest, intelligent, organized, and decisive are also integral qualities. The capacity to make decisions, especially tough ones, is seen by employees as a trait of a strong leader.

2. Engages People

The ability to engage people is an imperative trait for a CEO, and it is one well-recognized by people who have worked with Opdeweegh. Former employee Tim Oglesby says, “One of the key things you need in a leader is the ability to be engaging. Jos is very engaging with people in various roles. It could be the associate driving a forklift in the warehouse, all the way to the top including team leaders, the executive team, shareholders, and potential investors. Jos is able to engage a broad team and get everyone on the same page, moving forward in the same direction.”

Oglesby has worked with Jos in different capacities for over 10 years. He first worked with Jos at Syncreon as CIO, at Americold as CIO, and then at Neovia as CTO. At each company, Jos presided as CEO.

3. Puts Employees First

Typically, when thinking about the hierarchy of an organization, the CEO is at the top, followed by the management team, and then come the rest of the employees. Opdeweegh focuses on flipping that pyramid upside down and putting employees at the top. Doing so puts more emphasis on employees who have direct contact with customers. Putting employees first also makes for a better communication flow. Not only does this leadership style empower employees, but according to former employee Carey Falcone, it can create a completely different environment.

“When you flip that pyramid upside down, it starts to seed a different culture. Jos truly created an environment where people were focused on a common goal but not limited by the traditional way of getting there. He encouraged people to think outside the box and to speak up. Jos fostered an environment where everyone started to think about how they could drive the business forward,” says Falcone.

Carey Falcone was recruited by Jos to come work with him at Americold. He credits Jos’s leadership style and the culture Jos created as key things that attracted him to the role and working relationship. Falcone served as the EVP and Chief Customer Officer at Americold for over two years. When Jos left to become CEO of Neovia, Falcone went with him and worked as the EVP and Chief Commercial Officer for three years.

4. Communicates Clearly

Leaders and CEOs must have excellent communication skills. They have to be able to communicate clearly and effectively, not only to their management team but also to the broader organization. A study by Navalent found that “top executives are consistently transparent and balanced in their communication. They effectively translate their view of business potential and challenges, as well as expectations for action using succinct, direct and readily understandable language in doses that are easily digestible. They devote time to their connections.” Communication is invaluable in the world of business, especially between a CEO and his or her team.

5. Inspires People

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. For example, employees consistently rate Google as one of the best places to work. 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. Carey Falcone agrees, saying, “The most important people were the people who actually touched our customers. The senior leadership team was truly there to empower, support and enable people who were customer-facing to really do their jobs. Management supported them and showed them they had everything they needed to be successful.”