Blackkklansman’s bleak conclusion offers a glimmer of hope in dark times

Can compromised organisations be turned into a force for good in society, and can individuals exert positive impacts in organisations whose dark side overshadows their light? These questions are put by Spike Lee’s compelling film Blackkklansman.

A dramatisation of the story of Ron Stallworth, a black Colorado police officer who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan, the film zeros in on the intersection between the two organisations, the Colorado Police Department and the Klan, in the late 1970s

Both are responding in their way to the liberalising forces that have swept through America in the preceding years. The police are encouraging the recruitment of ethic minorities. The Klan are donning suits and attempting to sanitise their rhetoric, in order to take their hateful message mainstream. There are elements within both organisations which resent the liberal turn. Beyond the police, a third organisational player, the network of black power activists, poses awkward questions about the rationale for liberalising. Stallworth strikes up a relationship with the leader of the local activists. She categorically dismisses the idea that a racist police force can be reformed from within.

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The betrayal of purpose: reflections inspired by The Lehman Trilogy

Ann Treneman’s review in The Times of The Lehman Trilogy at the National Theatre concludes: “It ends badly in 2008, of course, but you knew that.” When I read the review, I took this to be a flippant comment. Having seen the play, I realise that her observation is more salient than I grasped. Stefano Massini’s saga runs for nearly three and a half hours in Sam Mendes’ production and only the opening and closing seconds deal directly with the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008. The playwright’s interest is in the preceding century and a half as he interweaves the related threads of the evolution over three generations of the Lehman family from immigrant arrivals to scions of the establishment, the transformation of the company they founded as a shop in Alabama into a dynamo of American capitalism, and the shifting sands of the Lehman family’s relationship to their Jewish heritage. It’s a tale of our times, told from the past.

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Engage a coach to save humanity from itself

Humans are a clever species. Look at the world we’ve constructed. The very name homo sapiens describes us as wise. But somehow we’ve come to live in a way that is inimical to our nature and destructive of our wellbeing. The organisations in which we work are part of the problem. They are incapable of maintaining bonds of trust with their employees, and obstruct our efforts to sustain our closest relationships.

This is the thesis of A General Theory of Love by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini and Richard Lannon which attempts to explain the science behind our fundamental need for human connection. Written by three professors of psychiatry, it was published in 2000. In my layman’s reading, its scientific authority has been overtaken by more recent neuroscience. But its date of publication is significant. At the start of a new century, the book aimed to debunk the mythology – whether psychodynamic or behaviourist – which shaped our understanding of emotions through the 20th Century. Insofar as these mythologies remain influential today, A General Theory of Love remains a relevant read. Indeed it seems prescient in its cultural criticism of how Western societies have developed so as to deny our physiological need for attachment, and the social maladies that thereby arise.

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Abstract nouns are rarely the solution in organisations. But they could be.

Some years ago, I was happy to make the acquaintance of Valerie Iles, a leadership consultant whose domain is healthcare. Like me, she brings an interest in mindfulness. But she has a great ability to draw on a diverse range of other ideas. This year, she held a seminar to hand over her body of thinking. I was already running with it. But, in the months since, I’ve enjoyed re-reading some of her articles.

One that stands out is Valerie’s admonishment against reaching for abstract nouns. This is not the usual tirade against meaningless management coinages but a philosophical challenge to how leaders conceive their strategies.

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18th Century insight on 21st Century complexity

Who, these days, speaks for conservatism, the philosophical orientation that is cautious of change? We have an answer in the small band of Tory rebels, led by Dominic Grieve, who have won for Parliament a right to decide on the final Brexit deal. But the very fact of their struggle against their own party shows that cautious conservatism is not much in vogue.

My question is prompted by reading Jesse Norman’s 2013 biography of Edmund Burke, one of the founding thinkers of conservatism. Jesse Norman is a Conservative MP and current government minister. But I imagine he might be out of sorts with his party since the philosophy he describes is not much reflected in current Conservative practice. His book demonstrates, though, that even if Burke is out of fashion with the Tories, he still has much to say to contemporary Britain.

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Nick Cave: the transcendent power of music

bad seeds

The most memorable and moving cultural event I experienced this year was seeing Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds perform at the London Arena in September. In fact, I could say that in any year I see the band in concert. But this year was especially poignant.

Rock music has acquired roughly the position in our culture that jazz had when I was growing up: the breakthrough art form of an earlier generation, kept on life support by an ageing cohort of afficionados. Nick Cave has been in the business a long time and manages to observe the boundaries of the form while keeping it fresh and innovative. He surrounds himself with musicians of the highest calibre and inventiveness and produces music that spans the spectrum from hard-edged, dark, aggression to the most heart-wrenching and romantic ballads. Nick Cave himself is a consumate performer: he strides the stage with visceral energy and has an electric relationship with his audience.

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Remembering Cindy Cooper

London’s community of mindfulness practitioners lost a guiding light this year with the death in March of Cindy Cooper. Cindy was my teacher and sometime supervisor for about ten years. During that time, I frequently reflected on my good fortune to have encountered her. She combined the integrity and wisdom evident among the best practitioners in her field, with a warmth which made people feel they had a deep connection with her. In this, she embodied the value we gain from working with a teacher and learning in groups. She helped generate a depth of understanding that could never arise simply by practising alone.

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Effort more than talent is the key to achievement

growth bw

In conventional thinking, the people who get on in life are those who are brainy or talented. But this apparent truth was overturned by the Stanford University psychologist, Carol Dweck. Through many years of research, she found that being labelled as talented could quickly become an obstacle to achievement. It turns out that effort is much more important than talent.

This simple but important finding is presented in Carol Dweck’s book Mindset. The key insight it contains is that people learn and develop best when they adopt a “growth mindset” – open to learning as a challenge, relishing setbacks as an opportunity to learn – and flounder when they adopt a “fixed mindset” – defensive of their identity, frightened to take risks in case they fail. The fixed mindset values innate talent over cultivating potential.

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Jasper Johns shows us what mastery means

flag

I was somewhat nonplussed by the Royal Academy’s Jasper Johns exhibition, which ends this weekend. His renowned work is undoubtedly pleasing. Partly this a function of his portrayal of the familiar – flags, numbers, targets – which he renders unfamiliar through multiple repetitions and subtle variations. But more, it’s to do with how his repetition strips out meaning and defies interpretation. So you’re drawn into his artistry: the texture of his paintings of the flags, the attractive form of his numbers.
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Deep work is the key to doing anything useful in the knowledge economy

The premise of Cal Newport’s Deep Work is that deep work is what creates value in the knowledge economy but our culture encourages people towards distraction. Therefore opportunities exist for those who can prioritise depth. The book outlines strategies for doing so.

Newport defines deep work as:

“Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”

Its antithesis, shallow work, is:

“Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.”

If the thought of a life of concentration sounds exhausting, the good news is that it is not necessary – in fact, would be counter-producive – to try to spend all one’s working time in deep work. Newport says the aim should be to minimise the shallow and get the most out of the time this frees up by committing three to four hours a day to deep work. A certain amount of idleness is necessary to make sure the time spent in deep work is productive and creative.

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