Beyond Technique … One More Time

By | October 14, 2016

“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”

Stephen King, “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft”

My ruminations about leadership continue.

Mastery is a two-edged sword. It’s important that we master the skills and knowledge needed to perform competently in our chosen fields of endeavour. And in a world full of nails some facility with a hammer is essential. But that’s not the world in which most of us live and move and have our being. It is, rather, a world that constantly pushes us past the edges of what we know into one characterized by uncertainty. In this world, mastery of one thing to the exclusion of all others can become a liability rather than an asset. How, then, are leaders to prepare themselves for the reality of that kind of world?

In earlier Random Riffs I’ve thought about that “something more” as the need to develop and nurture a particular kind of disposition or aesthetic sensibility. I can’t describe it well, but I know it when I see it; when I’m in its presence. Whatever it is, good jazz musicians possess it. It’s a willingness to go wherever the uncertainty that is at the heart of the improvised musical performance takes them; the kind of performance that requires them to put down their hammers; to kill their darlings.

Almost eighty years ago, American business executive and author of books about management theory and organizational studies, Chester Barnard, had this to say about what I’m trying to get at here. The essential skill for the leader, he said, involved “sensing the organization as a whole. It transcends the capacity of merely intellectual methods. The terms pertinent to it are ‘feeling,’ ‘judgment,’ ‘sense,’ ‘proportion,’ ‘balance,’ ‘appropriateness.’ It is a matter of art rather than science, and it’s aesthetic rather than logical. At its core, leadership is an art, not a science. Without art, leadership is merely management.”

I don’t believe that what Barnard is talking about here can be taught. I do, however, believe that it can be learned. I’m going to give what that learning might look like a shot. I would love to have known Chester and have spent time with him. I can, however, tell you about a man I did know and with whom I had many wonderful conversations.

The public record will show that Eric O’Connor S.J. was a founding member of the Canadian Mathematical Congress, dedicated to mathematical research, outreach and education, and the Thomas More Institute, an enterprise devoted to adult learning. What you knew immediately when you were in Eric’s presence was that he was a learner. Here’s a little story that will give you a sense of him.

Eric was returning to his home in Montreal from a mathematical congress in San Francisco by way of Toronto where he was to speak at a seminar about the history of the Thomas More Institute and its experience with adult learning. I was to pick him up at the airport and take him to the event. Over dinner I asked him how the congress had gone. “It was wonderful … I was corrected by a young mathematician. It turns out that something I’d believed for most of my career as a mathematician turned out to be wrong.” I asked him in what way was that wonderful. “It means that I will no longer persist in error.” He spoke of the experience as a kind of liberation and he was delighted by it. He then added, somewhat ruefully, that it was unlikely that he’d have enough time left to work out all the implications of the liberating insight. But for a time, at least, he’d “no longer persist in error.” As it happened, Eric would die several weeks later in a bookstore, shopping for Christmas presents for friends. It was shocking but fitting.

He was memorialized by colleagues and friends of the Thomas More Institute with a book consisting of transcripts of interviews where he was the interviewer and others in which he was the interviewee, discussions he led and those in which he was a participant, and lectures he delivered and which he invariably managed to turn into dialogues. The book’s title says it all: “Curiosity at the Center of One’s Life.”

Curiosity was indeed at the center of Eric’s life and, unlike Socrates, trial lawyers and faux group facilitators, he only asked questions for which he didn’t know the answers. His questioning curiosity led him to actively cultivate relationships with all sorts of people in business, in academia, in communities in all their configurations, and in the arts. And his curiosity was served by a remarkable capacity for suspending judgment and listening. He had, as we jazzers say, “big ears.” He spoke of learning as “something in which we all can take marvellous delight” and coming to new understandings as “a conscious joyous act.” He was, as pianist Bill Mays said of musicians he loved to work with, “egoless and fearless.” There was no method here; just a willingness to engage others and to go wherever the conversations led.

So there’s that: curiosity, a capacity for listening and a willingness to egolessly and fearlessly engage others. Then there’s this.

A group of us from the Thomas More Institute community were having a conversational jam session about adult learning. One of the participants, an artist, was talking about the struggle he’d had with an assignment he had been given when he was doing some post-graduate work in New York City. He was to visit art galleries and find a painting that “grabbed” him. When he did, he was to write an essay about it. He told us that he had no trouble finding a painting that, as he put it, seduced him. It was the essay that gave him the trouble. He spent hours visiting it in the gallery and, despite his fascination with it, found there was nothing he could say; he didn’t know how to talk about it.

The deadline for submitting the essay loomed. You or I, having been seduced by a painting, could get away with saying that we know nothing about art but we know what we like and we like this painting. But for a postgraduate painter schooled in the history of art, that wouldn’t do. He spoke of feeling absolutely defeated by the painting as, late one might, he took the subway home after yet another visit with his subject. It was during that ride that he said (and I vividly recall his memorable phrase) “I gave up and put down my proud apparatus.” And it was at that very moment he said that the painting began to speak to him and as he listened to it, the essay wrote itself. Apropos of proud apparatus, in the same conversation in which the painter told his story, someone spoke of people “who don’t wear their learning lightly.” This is where mastery becomes an impediment; where wielders of hammers treat everything as nails.

It put me in mind of something Brian Dennehy said when asked about the rigors of doing two plays at the Stratford Festival with matinees and evening performances. “When you’re tired you can’t erect those elaborate barricades between yourself and your audience. It’s amazing how many great performances come out of that inability to protect yourself.” I’ve heard Shakespearean actors say that you don’t play Shakespeare, Shakespeare plays you. And, continuing with the theme that’s emerged here, I recall the writer, Timothy Findley, in the Q&A following a reading, saying that at a point in writing a recent novel, he wanted one of his characters to murder someone … and the character refused! “I had no choice,” Findley said, “but to let him have his way.” The creation had taken on a life of its own.

I come back to Chester Barnard talking about the importance of leaders being able to sense the organization as a whole because, without the art of that sensing, leadership is merely management. What he’s getting at here is the necessity of putting down your proud apparatus and let whatever it is you’re involved with speak to you. Technique, as essential as it is for doing certain things, can be a serious impediment when performing in complex and uncertain environments.

Eric O’Connor is the model for me. His curiosity, to which he gave free rein no matter where it took him, led him to ask real questions. He hadn’t consciously developed “big ears” as a listening technique; he developed “big ears” because he really wanted to hear the answers. It was, as the title of this essay suggests, beyond technique. And his curiosity led him to keeping eclectic company‒he’d have hated gated communities in all their many manifestations. That’s how he came to develop and nurture the sensibility; the disposition so essential for effective leadership.

As a jazz musician I can tell you this: Technical mastery you can acquire through practice in solitude; the really important stuff I’ve been going on about here is what you learn in the company of others. Success in this is a social achievement.

If I have any advice to give leaders and would-be-leaders, it is to emulate Eric by getting out there with curiosity as your guide, engaging others by asking real questions and with big ears for the hearing of the answers. In other words, get out there and jam! If nothing else, you’ll make some new friends who will think you’re brilliant because you had the good sense to be interested in them. And, apart from the cost of a coffee or a pub lunch, it’s free.


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