This post is one in a series where I am I’m going to take each of Sarah Bakewell’s twenty attempts at Montainge’s answer to the question ‘how to live’ and re-interpret them as an answer to the question ‘how to be a leader’. If that baffles you (and if you haven’t read the rest of the series, why wouldn’t it?), you can read my explanation here. You can find earlier posts in the series on my blog.
Q: How to be a leader? A: Avoid the Dark Side
One of the things that makes Sarah Bakewell’s book so interesting is that it is not just a biography of Montaigne or a condensed version of the essays. It is also a history of thinkingabout Montaigne. Generations of writers have been fascinated by Montaigne’s thinking. He is like a contemporary blogger in as much as he writes about himself in plenty of entertaining and occasionally mundane detail; he is like a psychologist in that he reflects on what it is to be him in a way which encourages readers to say ‘yes; I recognise that in myself’; he is like a philosopher in that the reader can string the thoughts together to find a way of being (which is what I guess I’m doing) and he is like a literary novelist in his use of language and the structure and plotting that sits behind his writing. All of these threads form the rope that pulls Montaigne from the Middle Ages to relevance today.
But as much as any school of thought might like to wear his clothes and claim him as their own, Montaigne’s frustrating inconsistencies make him impossible to own. One group who wanted him but couldn’t shoe-horn him into their philosophy was the Romantics – the Mary Shelly types, not the Adam and the Ant ones. Their belief in violent emotion, their yearning for the release of the human spirit from the constraints of civilisation and their identification of passion as the source of all that is good about humanity seemed to have an overlap with some of Montaigne’s essays, particularly around his relationship with La Boetie, but for every piece of confirming evidence they could find, there is a contradictory one. The qualities he valued were curiosity, sociability, kindness, adaptability and intelligent reflection – all of which calm rationality is acres away from the romantic ideal of the genius artist starving in a garret. There was one incident in particular where Montaigne proved himself to be very much non-U for the Romantics. In around 1580, Montainge visited Torquato Tasso, an Italian poet who had literally driven himself into lunacy to produce his masterwork Guerusalemme liberata. Montaigne felt irritated that the poet had wasted his talent by allowing himself to ‘burn out’ in this way. In a plea for moderation and constraint, Montaigne refused to see Tasso as an heroic ideal but rather an exercise in self-indulgence: ‘The archer who overshoots the target misses as much as the one who does not reach it’ he wrote. For Montaigne, Kurt Cobain was wrong: it isn’t better to ‘burn out than fade away’. Its better to be still here and finding ways to keep the flame burning.
I haven’t really seen anyone ‘burn out’ at work, but the tendency to indulge in destructive passion does exist, something Freud described as the Thanatos principle: the drive towards death and chaos. I’ve seen strong views lead to passionate disengagement in the way the Romantics may just recognise. While the likes of Tasso and Cobain are hard to imagine commuting to the office every day, there are echoes of their traits in those for whom SNAFU is a mantra.Rebecca West tells us that only half of each of us is sane – the other half:
‘..is nearly mad. It prefers the disagreeable to the agreeable, loves pain and its darker night despair, and wants to die in a catastrophe that will set back life to its beginnings and leave nothing of our house save its blackened foundations’.
There are people at work who are genuinely attracted to the bleakest interpretation of every situation, for whom every change is negative and every management initiative a manipulation to their disadvantage. McGregor tells us that managers have a default orientation to believe the best or worst of people and that success lies in recognising when the opposite interpretation should apply and I’ve seen the sense of this, as far as it goes. But McGregor’s underpinning principle is that all people are manageable and I’m not sure that is true for those who have truly succumbed to Rebecca West’s dark side. The trick for me has always been about acknowledging the difference between the majority of folks whose heart-felt cynicism is rooted in a desire for the success of the group and the ‘Walking Dead’ for whom organisational ‘death and chaos’ is the only viable future.
It takes time and attention to understand whether people have really turned into the walking dead but the leader’s duty is to the team and the performance. You will meet people in your career whose desire for disaster needs to be accommodated at their cost rather than your own and the team’s. Its dirty and messy work but sometimes sacking people is the best thing for all concerned. For those who aspire to leadership I say, be like Montaigne and avoid those on the dark side.
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