synthetic authentic


“The word that is too often missing from leadership studies is judgment.  Everybody involved in the business is desperate to appear scientific: academics because they want to get research grants and consultants because they want to prove that they are selling something more than just instinct.  But judgment is what matters most, and it is hard to measure.  It takes judgment to resist getting carried away with one quality (such as decisiveness) or one measure of success (such as the share price).  It takes judgment to know when to modulate your virtues and when to pull out all the stops.”

Schumpeter – The Economist June 8th, 2013

We know that even wise and experienced leaders can make appallingly bad choices with catastrophic results.  This is often because their judgment has been clouded by an untempered ego, they have ignored the warning signs, and they have sought and received unreliable feedback.  These problems seem easily remedied but many organizations are ill equipped to help their leaders take such measures.



I wrote a letter a week over a 15 year period starting from age ten.  Over the years, what started as a chore became a pleasurable activity.  Curiously, the discipline of filling two sides of a sheet of A4 every Sunday morning, whether I wanted to or not, became a welcome challenge: How can I make the recitation of a week’s mundane events interesting?

Part of the joy of letter writing involves the choice of materials, such as the writing paper and writing implement.  Of course no one cares about such things these days, since the advent of the word processor.  In fact, with the exception of Christmas cards, no one relies on “snail mail” for personal correspondence any more.  After all email is so much quicker.  Besides, with one’s entire life posted on Facebook and Twitter for the world to see, what is there to write about?

I think we have all lost something through this transition to electronic correspondence. Firstly, the ability to quickly draft and immediately re-draft everything we write creates a much more edited result.  I think it makes us less transparent, or at least it allows us to present a sanitized version of ourselves which would have been much harder to accomplish with pen and paper.  Secondly, and I realize that this contradicts my first assertion, dashing off a quick email or Facebook post entices some of us to be much more superficial and even flippant in what we say.

Third and most importantly, we deny each other the tactile pleasure of receiving a letter in the mail that has required thought and effort on our part.  The physical labour of writing, the choice of paper and pen, and even which stamp to use.  No one else will get a letter like that – it’s tailored for the recipient.  Even the time taken for delivery allows the delightful possibility that our news is no longer news.  And of course we miss out on the best part of letter writing: receiving a reply.




I recently read about Alice Stewart, a pioneering industrial epidemiologist whose work on the dangers of low level radiation was aggressively opposed by the establishment.  Because she was pitted against a powerful lobby group, her work was starved of funding in Britain, and she was frequently shunned by her peers.  Nevertheless she persevered and was finally vindicated when the permitted levels of radiation for the public was reduced by two thirds.

What I found particularly interesting about Alice Stewart’s approach was her partnership with a statistician by the name of George Kneale, whose job it was to prove her wrong.  As the evidence mounted, he became less and less able to disprove her findings, thereby lending more and more weight to her claims.

In our anxiety not to be proven wrong we are tempted to surround ourselves with people who agree with us.  We seek out those who will “like” our Facebook posts, leave supportive comments on our blog, and re-tweet our 140 character views of the world.  Isn’t it more important to find people to critique our work so as to help us find our errors, and in so doing quickly put us back on the right track?




Barry Schwartz, Dorwin Cartwright Professor of Social Theory and Social Action at Swarthmore College, makes the following statements about wise people:

  • They know when and how to make exceptions to rules;
  • They are good at improvisation, necessary because problems tend to be ambiguous and ill-defined;
  • They possess and use moral skills in service of others; and
  • They are made and not born.

A propos the last item, he believes that they gain wisdom through experience.  In a work context, they need encouragement to try new things, permission to fail, and opportunities to find wise mentors.  If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you will know that all of these things are close to my heart.

Schwartz says that practical wisdom of this kind is less common in our culture today because of our over-dependence on rules and incentives to protect against error.  Each time something goes wrong, we layer on more rules to ward off disaster and we tweak incentives in the hope that employees do the right thing out of self-interest.  In doing so we reinforce the notion that employees cannot be trusted to do the right thing on their own accord.

Relying on rules and incentives takes discretion out of the hands of employees.  It also gives them fewer opportunities to practise wisdom, and discourages them from acting wisely.  Is it any wonder then that low morale and mediocrity is so pervasive in our institutions and corporations today?




Alex Osborn, co-founder of legendary advertising firm BBDO, is credited with inventing the concept of brainstorming – the synergistic process by which a group can produce more ideas than all of its individual members working alone.  This idea has been embraced wholeheartedly by corporations worldwide since its introduction in 1942, and continues to be widely used today.

“There’s only one problem with Osborn’s breakthrough idea”, says author Susan Cain in her book Quiet.  “Group brainstorming doesn’t actually work.  One of the first studies to demonstrate this was conducted in 1963.  Marvin Dunnette, a psychology professor at the University of Minnesota, gathered forty-eight research scientists and forty-eight advertising executives, all of them male employees of 3M, and asked them to participate in both solitary and group brainstorming sessions.”

“The results were unambiguous.  The men in twenty-three of the twenty-four groups produced more ideas when they worked on their own than when they worked as a group.  They also produced ideas of equal or higher quality when working individually.”

“Since then, some forty years of research has reached the same startling conclusion.”

I find it astounding that this myth was debunked fifty years ago and yet corporations still insist on using brainstorming and focus groups for idea generation today.

Susan Cain continues: “The ‘evidence from science suggests that business people must be insane to use brainstorming groups,’ writes the organizational psychologist Adrian Furnham.  ‘If you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority.’”

I couldn’t have put it better.

Susan Cain.  “Quiet – The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking”.

Ping Pong

The Obituary in the February 23rd, 2013 edition of the The Economist tells the life of Chinese table-tennis champion Zhuang Zedong.  Specifically, it recounts Zhuang‘s chance meeting with US table-tennis player Glenn Cowan in Japan in April 1971.  Cowan had stepped into the Chinese team’s bus in error.  Suppressing his instinctive reaction against “the imperialist enemy”, Zhuang gave Cowan a gift, recognizing him as another human being, and spoke some words of friendship.

“So started ping-pong diplomacy.  Mao (Zedong) saw the photos of the two of them, grinning broadly, getting off the bus together, and immediately invited the American team to China.  During that visit America lifted its 20-year trade embargo, and in February 1972 Richard Nixon visited China, the first American president to do so in Communist times.  To please Mao, who thought he was so good at it, Zhuang continued to play the sportsman-diplomat, telling puzzled Westerners that victory and defeat were much the same, since life and death always went together.  Most important, everyone kept smiling.  Both leaders credited ping-pong for the change, with Mao declaring that a tiny ball had moved the great ball of the Earth”.

Have I already said that small and apparently insignificant incidents, handled graciously, can have historic impact?  I think I might have.