May 14, 2012

Of control freaks and artists

A couple weeks ago I was in New York, gorging on sushi, egg-white omelets, affordable Starbucks coffee and INSEAD reunion madness. (And yes, there were a "few" job hunting expeditions as well). Every year (since last year), the INSEADers of "the Americas" (so very Chris Columbus) have a little shindig with exciting panelists and high-brow debate followed by a fancy dress party in true Fonty fashion (this year's theme: Mad Men - without all the Lucky Strikes).

The panelists were CEOs and professors, all of a duly impressive caliber (and mostly male, but hey, it's business school after all), debating the question of what makes a leader - as an individual, as a company, as a political bigwig. Most of it sounded very sensible and I'm sure the speakers know better than me, but there were a couple points I took issue with.

The first was when a CEO of a rather large company involved in real estate stated with conviction that being a leader is the bee's knees because you get to control everything. Wow, really? You mean, like God? Now I'm sure that leadership attracts a lot of control freaks. Like yours truly. The vision of that blessed state where you get to tell everyone what to do and make them to it your way or else - heck, it's what us anally retentive neurotics have been salivating over since we reached kindergarten.

But in my experience, becoming a leader means learning to let go. Because you won't be able to control everything. There's always going to be someone making you do something you don't want to do (another department, your competition, your clients, the government, your priest, your significant other, whatever - there's always someone). And all those people you shout orders to from up high? Well, chances are they're not going to do things exactly the way you would have done it. Because they're people, not robots. Not clones. Not you. To avoid popping an aneurism you will just have to learn to relax and work on your tolerance levels (as my friends and family keep reminding me).

So I don't know what kind of leader this panelist is (a male one, by the by), but leadership to me is the most out of control situation there is.

The second point had to do with the welfare state, which got quite a bashing. Fair enough, the European welfare state model hasn't performed very well of late. So I understand why the unanimous position on the panel was that the State should get out of the way and let individuals (i.e. entrepreneurs) take over and kick-start the economy. But one of my favourite INSEAD professors had noted earlier on in the day that leaders are like artists. And if that is true, I think it may be worth remembering that, historically, art has blossomed when the State has gotten involved and supported the arts, and shrivelled without that support. So is it so outrageous to suggest that, in a time of crisis, the State should become more, not less implicated by supporting budding leaders (through education, small business loans, what have you)? Long live the welfare state and government involvement, I say - it's just a question of definining what welfare and involvement we need for leadership to blossom like a Titien.

Well, that's enough attempt at seriousness from me. Next up, I will do my best satisfy W's request and go back to some spiritual introspection and what not. In the meantime, please go forth, enjoy the sunshine, lose control and support a local artist.

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