Learning about leadership from bankers :)
Posted March 17, 2009on:
How do you greet a banker?
I did the two-step shuffle down the aisle of the aircraft, muttering apologies here and there, bobbed and weaved like Muhammed Ali determined to get to my seat quickly, without being run over by bags-on-wheels, or clouted over the head with duty free wine as someone swings it into an overhead locker.
Blessed relief. My seat! Unfold the seat belt. Move the blanket and pillow. Plop myself down. Greet my neighor. Start chatting civilly.
It turn’s out my neighbor is an ex-banker. I catch my breath for a moment, feel my pupils dilate slightly, and I burst out laughing. A test of social skills, perhaps?
How do you greet a banker who helped design the Titanic of the UK economy – the ship that would never sink?
He’s a idiot, he’s a fool, he’s knave . . . do I greet him with contempt, anger or curiosity? Sell him something perhaps. He’s gullible after all.
Behind my impulse to laugh is a mix of embarrassment (for him) and traces of British irony – can’t fix it so you may as well live with it.
The natural born salesman, on the other hand, approaches life differently. He understands that everyone should take initiative – all the time, every day, where ever we find ourselves.
These three attitudes correspond to three prominent ways of we talk about leadership.
In the heroic idea of leadership, which we often associate with American movies, an individual leader rises to the fore, points to the horizon, and carries us off to our salvation. It’s deemed hard to do. That, of course, is just a belief to justify rewarding some people a lot more than others.
We have this idea in British culture too. In the biography of Winston Churchill, Gathering Storm, it is clear that Winston had strong ideas about saving his country, long before there was any call to do so.
The trouble with heroism is that outside the moment of heroism, we look more than a little batty.
The ironic story line of leadership runs a little differently. It goes like this. I tried. It didn’t work out. What a plonker I turned out to be. So I will go back to the status quo. It is not so bad after all.
We come together at the end of the story in a ‘group hug’, where no one wins or loses, and there is no challenge at all to distribution of rewards. We celebrate the status quo. Very British, of course.
Irony is funny when it is done well, and often awesome in its execution. But it is a form of narcissism. We do so love preening ourselves in the mirror. It is such a good excuse to do nothing!
Personal leadership is a new label for understanding leadership in the networked world. The salesman who promptly sells something to the ex-banker (a new job or a new Caribbean island, perhaps), sees the world as a network where everyone is influencing everyone else in their small way. Tacky when I talk about a salesman, but very important as the world becomes more networked.
This genre, with its understated label, is a version of the heroic – where we are each our own hero traveling our own hero’s journey. It’s inspired by author Joseph Campbell, who believed that all good stories have a heroic structure. We set off on a quest, meet a number of challenges on the way, overcome them, and return home in triumph to a new challenge – how to integrate our new life with the old.
In the cloud
Though this genre is a simple heroic form, and individualistic to boot, it fits neatly into our every increasingly networked world, where each person really does influence the world, and can influence the world.
I imagine Earth from outer space with a blanket of mist around it, cocooned in a mohair mesh of internet messages. Anyone with an internet has free access to the cloud. They need skills, but little is stopping them entering, and influencing, that space.
Swirling with others
But, of course, others are doing that too. At the same time. So, it is an ever evolving space and requires a new way of thinking.
Life becomes less a matter of right and wrong. To predict an outcome requires the world to change slowly. At the minute you believe you are doing the right thing, someone, maybe a ten year old in a rural village in India, does his own thing, and changes conditions and renderes your calculations incorrect.
To play in the new connected world, we have to play. We have to be ever present. This bothers people who are not used to taking into account what a ten year old is doing in rural India. It scares the pants off the old guard.
Learning about personal leadership in the cloud
Well, I might be squirming on behalf of the banker sitting next to me. And maybe he is a fool or knave. But just maybe, he also understands banking sufficiently to see where banking is going.
Maybe, he will straighten out the mess and be our new hero of tomorrow?
Let me ask.
So where is banking going? Where do you see banks in the future?
[And if he is heading towards his Caribbean island, maybe I can cadge a invitation for a holiday. Have I lived in England too long? Well, this will be an interesting flight, anyway. I always talk to people on planes.]