June 2010


Though their governments and economies may rise and fall, countries have one lasting trump card: national pride is a potent force. A force strong enough to effectively close much of England yesterday afternoon, remove traffic from motorways and leave every checkout in my local Sainsbury’s completely queueless. Which is one reason – probably the reason – the French Minister of Sport was tasked by President Sarkozy to have what was presumably neither a quiet nor a soothing word with the national football team during a World Cup campaign marred by in-fighting and threats to ‘strike’ in a sense totally unconnected with goal scoring. ‘Sporting behaviour’ embraces more than a strictly athletic meaning: it also invokes respect, team play and a bit of basic decency.

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It’s an unusual comment to make about a book that is as much about philosophy and cultural conditioning as anything else, but I’d argue that Michael Foley sells himself short by sub-titling his latest book “Why Modern Life Makes It Hard to Be Happy’. Over the course of 230-odd pages of the paperback edition, I nodded in agreement numerous times, dog-eared many pages and inserted post-it notes to flag insightful gems and pithy commentary. I also laughed out loud to the extent my eternally patient partner wondered equally ‘out loud’ quite how an apparently august tome could be having such an effect. The answer is that Foley’s writing is as funny (and, in places, rudely so – the sensitive should perhaps skip the chapter on ‘The Absurdity of Love’) as it is sharp. I hope other reviews will by now have put the author’s mind to rest: writing at his publisher’s website about the project, he commented that:

Worst of all, if the book ever got published it might be classified as Self-Help. A happy clappy smiley face? God forbid.”

I was happy at many points in reading it, but the urge to draw smiley faces evaded me. The book may have illuminated, informed and provoked, but it did so without any suggestion of ‘seven easy steps’ or ‘all you have to do is believe’. (As you may recall from our review of ‘Flip It’, that kind of book doesn’t win favours here.) On the contrary, it pointed a verbal shotgun at these suggestions and pulled the trigger with gusto. If a reality check is one of the best forms of self-help, this book could replace an entire section of your nearest bookseller franchise outlet (probably while firmly suggesting they turn down the piped music).

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One contemporary syndrome is well-known: we live – and particularly work – in a swirl of emails, text messages, bullet lists, strap lines, soundbites, instant updates, each constantly interrupting each other for our attention and each giving us what – at least in their individual context – are the key points. And bonus marks are awarded for those who prune their message down to just the one key point. The modern way to conjugate the verb ‘to communicate’ might almost be:

  • I communicate critical messages
  • you distribute messages quickly and widely
  • he or she knows that important things are happening
  • we have some jigsaw puzzle pieces, but possibly not all of them
  • they are wondering if anyone has the lid of the box so they can figure it all out.

Collectively, we have not so much lost the plot (although that might be rather too polite) as replaced it with a few sub-headings and a selection of sketches from (and again I might be being too polite) a storyboard. Never mind eh, there’s obviously lots happening and it’s all terrifically exciting …

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… or to quote another pop song from the now seemingly innocent days of punk, “Accidents Will Happen”. Elvis Costello was, of course, singing (well, after a fashion) about romance: the accident that is pre-occupying many of us currently is a less happy topic. As the pun-loving Mr Costello might have put it, we’re all in Deepwater now. But the Louisiana oil-spill is providing some fascinating examples of how the modern world sees leadership, contemporary thoughts on ‘responsibility’, and of how and when we consider ourselves to be ‘victims’.

As several million gallons of crude oil cause serious damage to the coastlands of the Gulf of Mexico, there is endless press coverage. What is strikingly odd about this is that very little of it appears to be about the coastlands, or those in the region whose livelihoods are under serious threat. Instead, we’re witnessing a political and media storm focusing on President Obama, BP CEO Tony Hayward, and – reminding us of the historic importance of alien substances in American waters – the Tea Party. In this strange version of the world, BP has become ‘British Petroleum’, a name it stopped using in 2001: the tagline it adopted at the time – and still uses – has, however, acquired an aura of prescience: ‘Beyond Petroleum’. Reaction and commentary on the consequences of the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion have certainly spread with the same depressing scope as the oil. It would be odious to draw comparisons (and recent references to 9/11 seemed to be willingly misread to stir just such a sense of odium), but the spheres affected by the verbal and political response are also being damaged.

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There are innumerable pop-psychology quizzes to play with on the Internet: endless opportunities to classify yourself as one type or other of something you’ve probably never even contemplated before or would only undergo with a trained psychotherapist and a flask of hot sweet tea on stand-by. I’ve just completed several that offered to enlighten me as to my animal personality. Despite one or two friends having pointed out I’m essentially an otter (a reference that you either will or won’t understand), the Internet assures me that I’m a grizzly bear. Or a dolphin. Even a unicorn. All good, clean fun, albeit in a rather silly way. But surely, if we were to ask the right questions, we’d find out that a large percentage of us in our working lives are more like ostriches than anything else?

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Two posts from the wider blogosphere looking at leadership behavior and the working environment that it creates (to see a complete list of all our signposts to some of the Web’s finer moments, see our Crackers page). (more…)