Time for a break

Another Advent Calendar of blogposts comes to an end. Thank you for following. I hope you’ve found something worth reading here over the past 24 days. I’ve tried to leaven my tendency to the dyspeptic with more constructive fare. The Nick Cave post has been the most popular of the series. He has a discerning fan base who seem to find their way to Nick Cave related corners of the internet quite quickly. Unplanned, the series began and ended with reflections on accessing one’s whole self. Significant, perhaps, that I didn’t get round to writing about my own experience with this until the end of the run.

I’m taking a break from blogging now to make my overdue contribution to the festive preparations. I will resume posting in the new year, but not on a daily basis. Have an enjoyable break. Happy Christmas, happy holidays, however and whatever you celebrate.

Advent Calendar blogposts

  1. On bringing your whole self to work
  2. The benefits of dual nationality
  3. The serious business of playing the fool
  4. From toolkits to relationships: getting real about what happens in coaching
  5. Feeback without tears
  6. Nick Cave as coach
  7. Embrace boredom
  8. Messages from history for Brexit Britain
  9. Shaping disaffection is the way to mend broken politics
  10. Taking the pulse of an organisation
  11. Why write?
  12. England’s shame
  13. Beyond codes of ethics to ethical maturity
  14. Generating expansive conversations with open space
  15. A moderate proposal
  16. The leaders we create
  17. Tracking down Conquest’s law on organisations
  18. The thoughtlessness behind organisational perversity
  19. We’re better than this
  20. Britain’s duff leadership culture
  21. Grounds for optimism
  22. On getting it wrong
  23. Exploring voice
  24. Time for a break

Image courtesy Marilylle Soveran .

Why write?

What’s the point of writing? Amid the torrent of tweets, snaps and status updates, the verbiage of fake news and the dreck of junk mail, why would we need more words in the world?

And yet we do. We constantly need to write the world afresh. For all that some authors, such as Jane Austin, endure, mostly the great writing names of an age fade away. Who now reads Graham Greene or Kingsley Amis? Even Martin Amis? The Neapolitan Novels are today’s Dance to the Music of Time.

Writing is an act of engagement with our world in the here and now. Note, this is so even of historical fiction or sci fi: it normally reflects contemporary concerns. How could it not do since it is shaped much more by the filters and perceptions of the age and culture in which it is formed not that which it is about?

But writing need not necessarily be a public act. Writing as engagement with the world is an act we can all get in on.

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Embrace boredom

I’ve been re-engaging with deep work by listening to an old podcast by Cal Newport introducing his ideas on the subject.

In order to create more focus in one’s work, it’s not necessary to transform one’s life to achieve black belt status in the art of concentration. Adopting three simple maxims can shift the dial:

  • Plan each week to do just five hours of deep work
  • Embrace boredom
  • Eliminate unnecessary social media and news browsing

Actually, maxims two and three are variants of each other. Many of us convince ourselves that there is a productive justification for engaging in social media. But social media usage soon becomes a habit for filling ones idle moments with cognitive stimulation – that is to say, staving off boredom. Just look around you on any rush-hour train. Most people who are travelling alone will occupy the time staring at their phones. And a good many of those travelling with someone else will do so too.

I’m increasingly convinced that there isn’t enough boredom in life. Absence of stimulation has become an anxiety-provoking state: almost as if we have assume we have an existential right not to be bored.

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On bringing your whole self to work

wholeperson

Pilita Clark seems to have taken up a role in the FT, previously occupied by Lucy Kellaway, debunking fashionable corporate nonsense. Her latest piece takes issue with the trend to encourage employees to “bring your whole self to work”:

“This fatuous phrase has blossomed into ever wider use in offices around the world, where it masterfully suggests a company … is so anxious to please its workers it is happy to have them behave at work as they would at home. This is patently untrue. Companies want workers who are industrious and easy to manage. Workers, for that matter, are generally looking for companionable, civil colleagues who get on with the job at hand.”

Part of the problem that Pilita identifies is that nobody really know what bringing your whole self to work means: it covers everything from sharing your personal life with colleagues to bringing your dog into work. If her interpretation is true, it suggests that the notion of bringing your whole self to work has become so devalued through overuse as to be worthless.

This would be a shame since it has honourable roots in the human potential movement.

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I, Tonya shows the role of power in achievements

triple axel

Before Christmas, I wrote a blog post with the title Effort more than talent is the key to achievement. True enough. But how could I have forgotten to mention another critical determinant: power?

Craig Gillespie’s film I, Tonya – starring Margot Robbie as the American figure skater, Tonya Harding – shows us how power, or the lack of it, can frustrate even the most promising blend of effort and talent.

Tonya Harding had both in spades. She was famously the first American woman to achieve the phenomenally difficult triple axel jump in competition (and only the second in the world). Her skating career came to an end after she was implicated in an attack on her fellow competitor Nancy Kerrigan. But, as portrayed in the film, this incident arose out of a wider nexus of class and gender relations that had held her back from the outset.

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Here ends the Vogel Wakefield Advent Calendar

It was only in the last week of November that I conceived the idea of writing a blog post every day in the lead-up to Christmas. I was inspired by my email provider, Fastmail, whose Advent calendar blogs I have enjoyed over recent years.

For various reasons, I’ve written very few blog posts over the past couple of years. In part, this has been because I’ve felt the world to be moving too fast for me to fashion my thoughts into timely and relevant written pieces. I wondered if giving myself a commitment to publish every day might break the logjam. I made the commitment semi-public by telling folk about it and announcing my intention just once on Twitter. This created enough expectations of me to be motivating; but not so many that the stakes would be inhibiting.

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In praise of philosophers and other experts

philosophers

I haven’t much time for the anti-expert sentiment that came out of the referendum campaign. But the Brexiteer blogger, Pete North, has made an articulation of the case against expertise that makes sense to me. He takes issue with the the narrow economistic perspective advocated by the corporate sector and he rightly points out that other considerations are at play in Brexit:

“There seems to be a quest to seek out a perfect answer to a complex question. But there is no perfect answer because you have to hold this Brexit crystal up to the light and see the many reflections it casts. It is entirely a matter of perspective and it extends beyond the realms of economics and into the domain of identity, culture, heritage, class and a myriad of rational and irrational concerns, all of which have equal standing. So diverse are the views that there is only really one way to settle it. Democracy. Imperfect though it may be, it is at least fair.”

Much as I agree with the sentiments expressed, this doesn’t amount to a convincing case against expertise. Rather, it underlines that what we take to be expertise in public debate is much too narrow.

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England: the nation with a special place in Europe

The English and Their History by Robert Tombs is a monumental book covering the story of England from the 7th Century to the present day. Published in 2014, it’s a pertinent insight into our national identity. While the whole of the UK is leaving the EU, it is English nationalism that is a driving force behind it.

Tombs shows that an English nation was established well before 1066 using the language of old English which was suppressed by the Normans but revived in the fourteenth century. A long history of conflict with Scotland overhangs much of the story prior to the Acts of Union. The union is sometimes portrayed in the nationalist perspective as something close to England’s annexation of Scotland. But the union also meant England was subsumed into Britain. Scotland retained a national identity, England less so. And Tombs’ history becomes more blurry after union: it’s hard to pick out England’s story from that of the broader UK.

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Don’t let the urgent crowd out what’s important

Dwight
Dwight Eisenhower, focussing on what’s important

It’s a given in most management roles that there is more work to be done than there is time available to do it. But it’s with increasing frequency that clients are talking to me about their difficulties in deciding what to prioritise in their unrealistically demanding workloads. In such conversations, I reach for the urgent and important matrix. This is an approach to time management popularised by Stephen Covey in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and inspired by the former US President, Dwight Eisenhower.

In a lecture in 1954, Eisenhower said, “I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”

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Survival is insufficient: lessons for leadership from Station Eleven

shed

Station Eleven, a novel by Emily St. John Mandel, depicts the collapse of modern civilisation when a flu pandemic sweeps across the world and (twenty years later) the dystopian society that is established by small clusters of survivors. I read it on the recommendation of the Financial Times’ business books podcast – although I refrained from listening to the episode until I’d completed the book. I enjoy it when novels appear on lists of business books, something that happens too infrequently. In truth, insofar as fiction provides insight into the human condition, almost any novel is more rewarding of a leader’s time than a business book, most of which are mediocre. But I can see why Station Eleven caught the FT’s attention.

The novel portrays how utterly dependent we are on organisations and the technology we manage, and how fragile is the fabric they weave. The virus that initiates the story originates in the Republic of Georgia but spreads rapidly in two respects: those infected develop symptoms within hours and are dead within two days; and, in an interconnected world, it is transmitted around the globe before most people are even aware that this disease in a distant land threatens their country. In Toronto, where the novel is initially set, chaos breaks out in the first 24 hours as hospitals are overwhelmed, parents fail to return home to their children and the mobile phone networks become congested. Within a few days, the familiar presenters on the television news networks disappear, to be replaced by whoever is still able to staff the office. Within a fortnight, the networks are off air. In short order, the electricity grid collapses as the staff needed to operate it die off; with it goes the internet, eliminating at a stroke the world’s knowledge. Motor transport becomes impossible and, before long, the surviving population settles in whatever locations they had reached when the plague took hold (for one group, a provincial airport to which their plane had been diverted) or to which they can travel on foot.

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