Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Oaks rather than mere iron

It’s always fun, or at least more often fun than it is instructive, to work your way through those self-help books that teach you all the wisdom you need to succeed in business, society or indeed life generally.

They tend to pick anecdotes carefully to illustrate their points. That makes me think of a vital principle from that unquestionably valuable book, Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking fast and slow, “what you see is all there is”. We chuckle over one anecdote that seems to make an author’s point and conclude that it’s representative, rather than exceptional, and therefore proves a law. Often that’s a wild presumption.

Ryan Holiday’s The Obstacle is the Way is the latest of these texts that I’m working through, and it’s certainly proving fun. That doesn’t mean I’m convinced: he argues, for example, that we need to focus on the thing in front of us, the task to be undertaken immediately, and not be distracted by visions of the remote goal. I’m convinced that it wouldn’t take long to find a book arguing, with equal conviction, for the opposition point of view, backing some variant of “not seeing the wood for the trees” to argue that without a vision of the whole, the work on any detail is likely to be misguided.

One of Holiday’s better anecdotes concerns Sam Zemurray. In the early years of the twentieth century, he was involved in a struggle with one of America’s leading corporations, United Fruit, for ownership of 5000 acres of land in Guatemala, ideally suited to the growing of bananas. The problem was that two individuals were in dispute for ownership of the land, so who could sell it?

United Fruit shipped in high-powered lawyers and set to work examining all the documents so they could establish, beyond all doubt, who had title to the land. This was an array of resources their competitor couldn’t match. That was a game they were bound to win.

Zemurray simply called in both putative owners and bought the land off both of them. So he paid twice. But he had the land. 

He beat them by playing a different game.

What Holiday doesn’t mention is that Zemurray later engineered a coup in Guatemala and eventually won control of United Fruit himself. A role model? I think perhaps not.

Still, he showed great ingenuity in winning that first battle. Ingenuity and above all, flexibility. That’s the notion I want to focus on.

Another book I’m not so much reading as listening to – one of the beauties of dog walking – is a biography of George Thomas. He was, in my view, probably the best of the US Civil War generals, and perhaps even one of the best generals of any war, anywhere in the last couple of centuries. He never lost a battle, he won the Union’s most comprehensive victory, and he never wasted his men’s lives in hopeless, glorious, criminal charges.

One of the generals who served with him, and later became President of the United States, James A. Garfield, said of him that he was “not a man of iron but of living oak”. That description struck me as highly attractive. Unlike iron, living oakwood is strong and yet adaptable, in that it will bend with the wind to avoid breaking, though it can also withstand a great deal. Above all, it is, as Garfield’s words especially underline, alive with all that implies of warmth and openness to other living beings.

That in turn got me thinking of a more recent time when “iron” was used as an epithet for character. The “Iron Lady” was Maggie Thatcher. She was truly iron in just the way that Thomas was not. Inflexible, sure she was right, she purused the objectives her ideology dictated to her inexorably and without compassion.

Her baleful shadow hangs over us still . Britain has been pursuing Thatcher-style austerity for seven years, with the stated aim of reducing debt – which has doubled. It still regards “regulation” a dirty word – and the terrible fire that killed at least 80 in Grenfell Tower has shown where that leads.

The difference now is that signs are beginning to emerge of a tiredness with this dogmatism. Far more people voted against the Tories in the recent general election than many of us expected. The most recent social attitudes survey shows opinion beginning to harden against austerity . And the decision to prosecute people, 30 years on, for the deaths of 96 people at the Hillsborough football stadium disaster interestingly includes charges that health and safety concerns were ignored, as at Grenfell Tower. Generally, the terms “health and safety” tend to be followed by the words “gone mad”, to make the notion a favourite butt of the anti-regulation crowd.

Well, maybe just as people are realising that austerity can be bad for your health, they’re also waking up to the fact that health and safety are to be cherished rather than despised.

Could this be the dawning of a time for people of living oak rather than iron ladies?

Those who emulate the ingenuity and flexibility of Zemurray, rather than Thatchers obstinacy?

Although perhaps we needn’t going quite so far i following him as to back coups in vulnerable foreign nations...

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