Managing in the shadow: Beyond technique

By | January 28, 2014

In the last Random Riff, Beyond Downton Abbey, I found myself wondering what management development might look like if we were to take seriously the fact that much of what goes on in any system is disorderly, unpredictable and, at times, downright chaotic. Let’s face it; plans are often merely a pretext designed to make winging it appear to be a rational activity. This, when all is said and done, is the domain of Mid-Stairs; the fraught arena in which visions and mission statements become operationalized. But these transformations are human enterprises where not entirely rational people work with incomplete information and differing views about what will constitute satisfactory outcomes. So the question becomes one of figuring out how to enable managers to function effectively in such an environment.

There’s no shortage of stuff out there that aims at helping managers become more skillful and knowledgeable – I stuck “management training and development” into Google and got 477,000,000 hits. But I know that in that place T.S. Eliot describes as being between the idea and the reality; between the conception and the creation where the shadow falls, something more than skills and knowledge is required. I’m not sure I have a name for that “something” but I do have some sense of it. Whether or not I can make sense of that sense remains to be seen. A couple of little anecdotes involving two of my favourite actors, Brian Dennehy and Dame Judi Dench, shape my sense-making imagination. I’ve used them before and will simply lift the following paragraph from an earlier Random Riff. (A variation on “I couldn’t have said it better myself.”)

A couple of years ago, Dennehy appeared at Ontario’s Stratford festival as Sir Toby Belch in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and as Max in Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming. In an interview at the time, when asked about the grueling schedule and how he handled it, Dennehy said. “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.” And Bill Nighy, talking of Judi Dench in an interview with Charlie Rose, spoke of vulnerability. “She has something which is inexpressible – she does something which very few people attempt – she arranges somehow to arrive on stage, as it were, unarmed. She then allows the play, the evening to happen to her. It requires enormous courage. It means without tricks; it means without a Plan B; it means without some sort of strategy or safety net that’s going to get you out of trouble. She has access to her compassionate sensibility. She’s beyond clever.”

Clearly Dennehy and Dench have mastered their craft, but what they achieve in their performances is beyond technique. I came across this from Alan Alda’s memoir, Never Have Your Dog Stuffed And Other Things I’ve Learned.

When I started out as an actor, I thought, Here’s what I have to say; how shall I say it? On M*A*S*H, I began to understand that what I do in the scene is not as important as what happens between me and the other person. And listening is what lets it happen. It’s almost always the other person who causes you to say what you say next. You don’t have to figure out how you’ll say it. You have to listen so simply; so innocently, that the other person brings about a change in you that makes you say it and informs the way you say it. The difference between listening and pretending to listen, I discovered, is enormous. One is fluid, the other is rigid. One is alive, the other is stuffed. Eventually, I found a radical way of thinking about listening. Real listening is a willingness to let the other person change you. When I’m willing to let them change me, something happens between us that’s more interesting than a pair of dueling monologues. Like so much of what I learned in the theater, this turned out to be how life works, too.”

And so it is in the world of jazz. Jazz pianist, Keith Jarrett, echoes Alda when he says, “If you can’t listen, you can’t connect.” As important as knowledge of musical theory and facility with one’s instrument (“chops”) are, the best improvised performances happen when jazzers arrive on stage unarmed; or, as Bill Mays put it in one of my favorite formulations, “egolessly and fearlessly.”

What I’m trying to do here is to find a way of describing a disposition that, while acknowledging the importance of technique, manifestly transcends it. But here I am, 857 words into this attempt, and just about convinced that I’m not up to the task. I can’t bring myself to imagine “strategic humility” or “tactical irony” or “egoless fearlessness” or “simple tools for authentic communication” as components of a management development program. And yet, for all that, I can say with certainty that I know when I’m in the presence of those who possess the disposition I’m trying to get at here. I know whereof I speak – in my life as a jazz musician, I regularly keep company with people who go on stage unarmed.

On the first Sunday of every month, I do a jazz vespers at St. Jude’s Anglican Church in Oakville. In addition to the regular “house band” – bassist, Chris Banks, drummer, Tim Shia, and me on piano – we invite two guest musicians who may or may not have previously played together and the quintets we assemble are invariably first-time combinations of players. When I call to hire them for the gig, all they ever want to know is how to get to the church and at what time I’d like them to arrive. Rarely will they ask what tunes we’re going to play or if there’ll be charts. And they never ask if there’ll be a rehearsal!

While I’m not at all sure that what I’m talking about here can be taught, I do believe it can be learned. But that learning must, as it is in the jazz community, be grounded in a culture that nurtures it. And it’s not skills and knowledge I have in mind when I speak of nurturing – it’s values that have to be nurtured. In The Management Myth, Matthew Stewart has this to say. “Beyond building skills, business training must be about values. Values aren’t something you bump into from time to time during the course of a business career. All of business is about values, all the time.” Someone once said that if you put culture and strategy into a ring together, culture wins every time. In the matter that I’ve been musing about here, I’m thinking about the values that people experience in their every-day working lives and the values espoused by the organization in its annual reports and mission statements … people have a way of noticing when they’re out of sync.

I’ll end with this. At a large gathering of the faithful, an Anglican bishop was making the point that as youth were the future of the church, their faith should be nurtured. He ended, waxing passionately but metaphorically sloppily, by saying of nascent faith, “Whenever you see that spark, water it.”

Perhaps the February Random Riff will consider the ways in which Upstairs might avoid watering sparks.

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