Saturday, June 29, 2013


"Boss" is an uncomfortable word for me, even though I have been the boss of somebody, sometimes many somebodies, for 46 years.

The word offends my notion of myself as a person who helps people discover the way to do things, rather than telling them how to do it. Give them the destination, but not the map. See how they make out. Help them learn. Nudge them a little from time to time when they get too far off track.

That doesn't work with everyone, but it usually does.

Not a buddy, though. That never works. You learn that pretty quickly.

I recall hiring a woman who had been at home for a couple of decades, raising her children. She said she liked the idea of having a boss again. So it's not always a negative term.

Some people have told me I'm a "good boss." Others have been less flattering. I've had some good bosses, too, and a few I didn't like.

But, at the end of the day, when all is said and done, when we're between a rock and a hard place, when the horse is out of the barn, when it's time to fish or cut bait, when the cows come home, when life gives us lemons, if somebody must be the boss, I'd rather it be me.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The best laid plans

In the excitement of launching a new undertaking, optimism usually runs high. Natural, of course, as one would hardly embark on a new adventure if pessimistic about its success.

Sadly, the task often, perhaps inevitably, turns out to be much more difficult than initially anticipated, and optimism turns to despair as things get bogged down and ruin threatens.

Paradoxically, the anxiety that follows from such rash acts may very well produce results much greater than the original objectives.

This is the gist of Malcolm Gladwell's New Yorker review of a new book, Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman, which focuses on the life, achievements, observations, and thinking of the recently deceased economist.

Gladwell cites the Karnaphuli Paper Mills in East Pakistan as an example. The multimillion-dollar mill was built near vast bamboo forests that unexpectedly flowered and died, making them useless for papermaking. There was great anxiety that fuelled a search for a solution, and the ultimate result was a much larger, more sustainable, more diverse supply chain that involved bringing bamboo from around the country, research into faster growing species, and the use of other kinds of lumber, all of which collectively brought great success.

Hirschman pointed out that, despite being viewed as risk takers, entrepreneurs are mostly attracted to propositions that they do not perceive as risky. When the harsh reality sets in, they must get creative to avoid a loss.

Of course, this is at odds with the traditional belief that careful planning, by avoiding such problems, will produce the best result.

I can attest to this on the basis of my own modest business adventures. Business school professors had drilled the importance of planning into my head, implying that failure was mostly a result of insufficient forethought. But in the real world, unforeseen complications always cropped up, and the final outcome was often quite different from what had been envisioned when starting out.

Hirschman suggested that anxiety is, in fact, the emotion that drives people to find solutions. In its absence, complacency takes over.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Questions for the 21st century

When information is coming at you in torrents, too fast to process, how do you avoid drowning? When change is happening at lightning speed in every facet of existence, what do you build on? When today's truth is tomorrow's falsehood, what can you believe? When your leaders routinely lie and cheat, who can you trust? When uncertainty is the only certainty, how do you make decisions? When computers erase careers because they can make decisions faster and better than people, how do you plan? When education no longer ensures a decent life, how should you advise your children? When your identity may be stolen, when your computer may be hacked, when your government spies on you, when details of your life are bought and sold by faceless database owners to enrich themselves, how can you avoid feeling like a pawn in someone else's game?

Fortune used to favour the brave. Who is favoured now?

Friday, June 14, 2013

The landfill harmonic orchestra

In an era when school music programs are under attack by the cost-cutters in Canada, it is inspiring to see the lengths to which people elsewhere will go to ensure that their children have an opportunity to create music.

Can't view the video? Click here.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Black and white

"You can only think black and white, and not grey."

That is Niki Lauda, one of the great Formula 1 drivers, talking about decisions.

Lauda's point is that even a bad decision is better than no decision. As he says, if you see that you've made the wrong decision, you can correct it. At almost 200 miles per hour, amazing reflexes are required for this to be true, but I take his point.

A decision allows you to move on.

Indecisiveness means that you are directionless. Time is wasted, momentum is dissipated, opportunities are lost, the game moves on without you.

And if you happen to be a leader,  all of this applies to your entire team.

In other areas of life, the ability to recognize shades of grey is desirable, even essential. But not when it comes to decisions.

Black and white only.

Which will it be?