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The best thing anyone ever said about learning

At least this gets my nomination. First made known to me years ago by my brother Bill, of whose independence of mind, resourcefulness, and creativity I have always been in awe. Thanks again, Bill.

The best thing for being sad . . .  is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.

The Wizard Merlin to the future King Arthur, in The Once and Future King by T.H. White

On Serving Calendar Soup at the Leadership Luncheon

When I was very young, there was a book in our home called Lazy Bear Lane by Thorne Smith*. I haven’t seen the book in over 50 years, but one passage has stuck with me ever since. The main characters, for reasons I’ve forgotten, were stuck with no resources and nothing to eat. But they did have a printed calendar, each page of which contained photographs of vegetables and other foodstuffs. They boiled up a pot of water and carefully tore out page after page from the calendar, wadded these up, and dropped them into the pot with anticipation and with close attention to the pictured flavors, textures, and aromas. The resulting soup, they found, was delicious.

While I suspect the intended lesson of this episode (this was a book from the depression era–before my time) was one of “mind over matter” or of the benefit of a positive mental attitude, a different lesson now occurs to me. Leadership, learning, and change are hard. How tempting it is to settle for appearances–for the veneer or superficial imitation of the real thing.

When accomplished and experienced people are exposed to new thinking, it’s not easy for us to adopt it fully. Doing so means that we didn’t know it all already. There’s a natural vulnerability in learning something new, and this vulnerability may be hard to accept–and even harder to admit to others.

So we settle for Calendar Soup. We take credit for a full belly and a satisfying meal–when nothing much has really happened, and we’re still hungrier than we think we are or can admit.

*Thorne Smith was also the author of the Topper series, made into very successful films, radio and TV programs in the 30s, 40s, and 50s. Our family copy of Lazy Bear Lane disappeared over the years–unfortunately. A copy today is worth several hundred dollars.

This may explain why so many business people aspire to be coaches or consultants

From the management/leadership gurus Calvin & Hobbes:

Calvin is sitting, forlornly, in something like a sidewalk lemonade stand. A large hand-written sign says:

“A Swift Kick in the Butt! 10¢!”

Hobbes: “How’s business?”

Calvin: “Terrible!”

Hobbes: “That’s surprising . . .”

Calvin: “I’ll say! Everybody I know needs what I’m selling!”

Doubt: A Best Practice in Managing Change?

It’s tempting to think that doubt is the enemy of visionary leadership and transformational change. Maybe that needs another look.

Malcolm Gladwell recently reviewed a new biography of the economist Albert O. Hirschman in The New Yorker (“The Gift of Doubt,” June 24, 2013). Hirschman was “a planner who saw virtue in the fact that nothing went as planned.” One theme of his work is the creativity that emerges–under the right circumstances–when things fail to work out as planned. As Gladwell describes it:

The entrepreneur takes risks but does not see himself as a risk-taker, because he operates under the useful delusion that what he’s [sic] attempting is not risky. Then, trapped in mid-mountain, people discover the truth–and, because it is too late to turn back, they’re forced to finish the job.

Success, in other words, comes at least sometimes from failure. Or in Nietzche’s dictum, “That which does not destroy me, makes me stronger.”

If, as Hirschman believed, this is a general principle–if, in other words, Murphy’s law ALWAYS applies–isn’t there a lesson here for change managers? Why should we be surprised when the plan doesn’t go well? Why should dealing with that eventuality produce a back-up or contingency plan, instead of being an essential part of the original planning? Why do we hope that, with heroic change-champions and effective cheerleading, that we will beat the odds?

While no one likes a nay-sayer, perhaps some quotient of doubt–“this may not work”; “things may go wrong”; “we may not be anticipating all the potential problems”–is essential to effective execution of change. And what if the realistic assessment of doubt and the diplomatic but direct communication of risk are as important a part of the change agent’s role as optimism, confidence, and persuasion?

The leadership lessons of Gen. George Pickett

Perhaps we can learn as much from poor leadership models as from good ones. Here’s one author’s description of the Confederate general associated with the infamous charge on the third day of the battle of Gettysburg, the sesquicentennial of which was celebrated in the North and perhaps lamented in the South this summer:

“Whatever moments he could spare from self-adornment were devoted to the neglect of his duties . . .”

From Gettysburg: The Final Invasion by Allen C. Guelzo (Knopf, 2013).

If this sounds like someone you know, take note. If it reminds you of what you see in the mirror every day, spend less time looking in the mirror. If it reminds you of me, for God’s sake let me know.