Cutting ties

A neck tie is a curious thing – a long, thin piece of cloth that serves no practical function, wrapped around a man’s neck, where it dangles in a perfect position to collect any stray drops of spaghetti sauce.

A tie separates head and body, physically and symbolically.

The police in Britain have thought about this. They wear clip-on ties, so that an officer can’t be strangled by their tie. Yet the tie remains an icon of male business attire in most of the world. How fitting.

I was reminded of this at yesterday by Tara Swart, during a talk she gave at the MCT HR conference in Istanbul (where I also gave a talk). A neuroscientist and leadership coach, Tara spoke of how most people in business talk and act as if the mind and the body are somehow disconnected from each other – as if the one does not affect the other. Something we know to be scientifically wrong.

This is common sense too. Indeed, it is so obvious it ought not to be news and yet somehow it is. In his famous 2006 TED talk Ken Robinson observed that academics regard the body as a means of transporting their brain from one meeting to the next, yet we largely ignore the intimate relationship between mind and body. Descartes still has a lot to answer for.

The tie, unabashed and unembarrassed, hides the idea of severance and disconnection between mind and body in the open. Flaunts it even. An idea that plagues us but which is so widespread we barely notice.

Might this be changing? A strong theme of the conversations the conference speakers had with Turkish business leaders was the importance of feminine qualities to the future of leadership. And in the main, women don’t wear ties.

At Ataturk airport, on the way home from the conference, I started reading a book given to me by another one of the speakers, Steven D’Souza entitled ‘Not Knowing’. He quotes Nassim Nicholas Taleb (author of ‘The Black Swan’) who says: “it is not a good idea to take a forecast from someone wearing a tie”.

And on the Turkish Airways flight back to Madrid I noticed that they had an interesting variation on the safety video. As well as advising ladies to take off high heeled shoes (‘which may tear the escape slide’) they also invite men to loosen their ties.

I would go further.

Rather than loosen ties, I think we should cut them off, abandon them, burn them, bury them or take them to the thrift shop. We should embrace the idea that the head and the body are both part of the mind, literally and metaphorically. To separate them is to deny part of who you are and to limit what you are capable of.

The old ones are the best

In an interview last year, I was asked why we use the arts and humanities so much on the Oxford Strategic Leadership Programme.

To me, the question revealed a couple of assumptions. First, that the most important knowledge is proto-scientific, technical and in the main, rational. And, as a natural consequence, that it is the most recent theories, the ‘latest research’ we should pay most attention to. These assumptions are, I think, very widespread, which is what made it a natural question to ask. I also think they are mistaken. So I answered with another question.

‘Why would you ignore the collected wisdom of thousands of years of human inquiry?’ I replied.

We are easily seduced by novelty and recency and can quickly become ‘fashionistas’ of thought. This is upside down. My feeling is that there is a kind of inverse law in play, along the lines of ‘the more recent it is, the more likely it is to be trivial or inconsequential’.

If you are grappling with anything that involves a consideration of human nature (and frankly, who isn’t?), if you are looking for deep understanding, for an explanation of why we act as we do, then you are going to need, at the very least, to include the long view of human thought.

It is a bit like biomimicry. Yes, it is a nascent field, but biomimicry bases itself on three billion years of research in the massive R&D lab that is ‘life on planet earth’. Surely the collective wisdom of thinkers and doers throughout the ages is more likely to hold solutions to important human issues than an up to the minute MBA?

So, if you want to learn proper grown up stuff then the old ideas are the best. Or to put the same thing the other way around, that if you only concern yourself only with new learning, you are unlikely to come across anything that is great.

Quit while you are ahead

It struck me recently what a skill it is knowing when to stop. Marshall Young (Director of the Oxford Praxis Forum), who I work with at Oxford, seems to me to be a past master at this.  A couple of weeks back we were having a typically rambling conversation when, as is often the case, a striking idea hailed into view (it was to do with the difference between an economy and an ecology). We spent some time exploring the idea, made some connections and identified some actions and then, quite naturally Marshall then drew that part of the conversation to a close and we moved on. I realised that isn’t the first time he has done that. He tends to let the natural rhythm of the conversation dictate the length of the meeting, rather than let the length of the meeting dictate the rhythm of the conversation. Since people seem to schedule everything rigidly these days, that’s incredibly rare. The diary rules the dialogue. Which makes for a lesser quality of conversation.

It also strikes me that there is great skill here that I (and many other people) could do with practising, instead of talking an idea to death through over-enthusiasm, which I am apt to do.

I’ll stop now.

Two Be

I find myself thinking about the theme of permanence and change and the balance between again. Hardly surprising perhaps since in Spanish, it is woven into the language. Castillian has two verbs to be – ‘ser’ and ‘estar’. The first is used for things that are deemed to be permanent – like where you are from (or which football team you support). The second is used for things that are deemed to be temporary – like whether you are hungry (or married).

At Oxford in November it struck me that this distinction is useful for leadership development. Leaders need to not only develop their capabilities and capacities (the ‘ser’) but, perhaps more importantly, develop the practical judgement, in the moment, as to which approach, and which personal qualities are more appropriate in that particular context (the ‘estar’).

A shame then that so few of our participants speak Spanish, since the distinction inherent in the language would make this very easy to explain. Looking back it is funny to think how odd the idea of there being two verbs to be, and now how completely normal it becomes over time as the very structure of the language becomes incorporated into the fabric of the way you think.