Earlier this week, we wrote about Malcolm McLaren, a man who was very much the product of an art school education. Though a believer in individual enterprise, and a vendor/creator of clothing, films and music, it’s debatable that he saw himself as a businessman or a manager – what McLaren seemed most interested in was in promoting ideas (and provocation and forment too). One of the many things that were striking about him – especially in a man who worked in tailoring, and who understood the power of metaphor – was his approach to handling relationships. Although he famously said of the Sex Pistols – his main vehicle to fame/notoriety – that they were “like my work of art. They were my canvas”, his almost abstracted interest in ‘the event’ left him blindsided on the consequences for the human capital of his enterprise. Described by a man hired to ghost his autobiography (never to be completed) as “the Brian Clough of pop who should’ve managed England”, his enthusiasm for ideas and maximising the intensity of the moment – despite the testimony of his friends since his death of a capability for great kindness – lead to some stark accusation from the raw materials of his work of art: the people.

Curiously and possibly unexpectedly, he seemed aware and ready to acknowledge this failing, as an extract from an interview shows: 

Momus: What do you make of the accusation in there [the film, “The Filth and the Fury”] that you were somehow sculpting with human flesh and that that somehow… 

McLaren: Well, we did. Well, it’s true. I don’t deny any of the accusations. But I think, from where I stood, it was a hell of a lot more fun than it was made out in that movie. It was hysterical at times. And very, very exciting.

Reading that, I remembered a section of Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman, which we reviewed recently. In it, Sennett describes the skill of a cook in wielding a knife, using just the minimum amount of force necessary to achieve the task in hand. Like many of the activities Sennett explores in the book, it’s a description of a practitioner who has spent endless hours not just mastering processes and techniques, but developing a true mastery of both the tools at their disposal and the nature and the responses of the materials with which they work. Yet for many of us in our working lives, the materials that we work with are often each other – other human beings. Not a point lost on Sennett – a sociologist and philosopher, but also a humanist – as the following extract from an Independent interview with Boyd Tonkin illustrates: 

In the age of the buttoned-down manager, Sennett celebrates the mind, and the hand, of the rolled-sleeves artisan. But don’t mistake his praise of the self-improving craftsman for the Ruskin-Morris school of small-scale, non-industrial handwork that has exerted such a pull over British imaginations – not to mention home-furnishing choices. “It’s a holdover from the Victorian past to imagine that you understand good quality work and tangible practices by referring to skilled manual labour,” he argues. His nostalgia-free ideal craftsman (who may, of course, not be a man) will these days be found in the lab – or on the software-development campus – more often than at lathe or loom.  

“That’s why there’s so much about science in the book. Because a laboratory is a modern workshop.” Working at MIT, “What interested me about the scientists was that the really good ones haunted labs. They weren’t sitting in an office dictating from afar. They wanted to know what went right and went wrong.” Hands on, they learned how to solve problems – and find new ones. “That’s how people get better.” 

This hands-on, getting involved, seeking understanding and ‘exploring what went wrong’ approach reminded me of other parallels too: the Exceeding Expectations report from the Work Foundation, where this personal style and approach was part of the description of the exceptional leader (as judged and assessed by those being lead). We gave the report a fuller review, but the following extract makes a key point here: 

If the report’s findings could be summarised in a single word, it would probably be ‘relationships’ – ie people are the true focus of the best leaders, rather than systems or processes. Their aim is not to control or to impose a way of doing, but to enthuse, motivate and encourage: they seek to give space and voice as much as responsibility. “ 

This need for leaders to provide freedom of voice and scope is something else that surfaced in Sennett’s The Craftsman, as noted in the Guardian’s review

Sennett makes a case for such “lost spaces of freedom”: spaces in which craftsmen can experiment with ideas and techniques, risk mistakes and hold-ups, lose themselves to find themselves. “This is a condition for which people will have to fight in modern society,” he writes. 

But I was also thinking of a much older publication, one that was first mentioned on this blog in a review of a TV documentary about Warren Buffett. It seems uncontroversial to describe Mr Buffett as a successful man: that’s a little like calling an ocean ‘moist’. But Buffett is clear about his biggest influences, prime among which is Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends and Influence People (the title of this post is, of course, a Dale Carnegie quote). As we wrote: 

His lesson from Carnegie was simple but powerful – handling people is a key skill. Buffett credits much of his success (and colleagues and commentators agree with his assessment) on his abilities to persuade, engage and charm. He believes that praise is a business tool, and that encouraging people and giving them aspirations is a more effective way of influencing their behaviour than ‘nagging’. 

Carnegie’s book launched a thousand quotes of its own, of course, many of them pursing variations on this essential theme, and pointing out that one way to engage the respect and enthusiasm of other people is to demonstrate your own enthusiasm and respect for them: 

If some people are so hungry for a feeling of importance that they actually go insane to get it, imagine what miracle you and I can achieve by giving people honest appreciation this side of insanity.” 

Carnegie also illustrated his argument with the words of others, including one sentence that seems particularly apposite: Carlyle’s advice that “A great man shows his greatness by the way he treats little men.” This is advice that Buffett seems to have taken very much to heart, but is also born out by The Work Foundation too: as materials to work with go, human beings are both complex and sensitive to the way in which they’re handled. Another long-established adage should have popped into your head by now – the one about people joining organisations but leaving managers. 

Unlike chefs, artists, builders or countless other workers with an enormous variety of materials at their disposals, as managers of ‘human resources’ we face a unique challenge: handled inexpertly, insensitively or so as not to achieve the best outcome, our materials may spontaneously decline to take part in our work anymore. In a post at the Practice of Leadership blog called Are you a Leader or just a Boss?, George Ambler defines that difference as mostly concerned with aspects of individual behaviour and treatment of others, and quotes an anonymous poem: 

The boss drives group members; the leader coaches them.
The boss depends upon authority; the leader on good will.
The boss inspires fear; the leader inspires enthusiasm.
The boss says ‘I’; the leader says ‘we.’
The boss assigns the task, the leader sets the pace.
The boss says, ‘Get there on time’; the leader gets there ahead of time.
The boss fixes the blame for the breakdown; the leader fixes the breakdown.
The boss knows how it is done; the leader shows how.
The boss makes work a drudgery; the leader makes it a game.
The boss says, ‘Go’; the leader says, ‘Let’s go.’

There’s another old cliché about us getting the leaders that we deserve: this close to a general election and with the air full of talk of hung parliaments and electoral reform, that’s probably not an argument to lift the lid on at the moment. But something like the obverse can be just as true: leaders – or should that be ‘bosses’ – get the staff/followers that they inspire. Though Oliver Wendell Holmes wasn’t referring to management styles when he gave the world one of his greatest quotes, consider the following words in the light of the role of line managers and leaders in ensuring that their team’s abilities are developed and inspired to their fullest potential: 

The truly great tragedy is the destruction of our human resources by our failure to fully utilize our abilities, which means that most men and women go to their graves with their music still in them. 

Truly great cooks don’t just master a repertoire of techniques and recipes, they develop a relationship with the ingredients that they use. Part of a really fine meal is the equivalent of recruitment – making sure that you have the finest quality of ingredients on hand, and ensuring they’ve been stored and handled so as not to damage or diminish them, but another part is (to use a phrase I’ve heard cross more than one chef’s lips) respecting the ingredients. Knowing how to handle each ingredient and each combination to bring out the fullest flavour, and to enable them to shine to their greatest potential, is – for chef and manager alike – the essence of true skill. So if you’re going to be responsible for human resources, don’t just make a meal of it – make the finest meal the ingredients can provide.

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