From my recent reading, which I had time to go through on a long, long, uncomfortable and vexing – CX, what a disappointment, never again – flight from one side of the world to the other.
First, some paras from an FT lunch with UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, from the November 17 edition, touching on both epistemic rationality and the latest news about US-NK relations that I wrote about earlier today:
From his first wife, who died 20 years ago, Guterres learnt other, more subtle skills. She was a trained psychoanalyst, and encouraged Guterres to put politicians – and politics – on the metaphorical couch during negotiations.
“A crucial lesson for my political life is this very simple [psychological] analysis,” he explains. “When you have two persons in a room, you do not have two, you have six: what each person is; what each person thinks he or she is; and what each person thinks the other is. This is the reason personal relations are so complex. But what is true for persons is true for groups, and countries,” he adds.
“This is why there are pre-emptive strikes. So what is essential for me, [with] Russia and the United States, or North Korea and the United States, is to make sure that these six become two, that the perception aligns with the realities.” That is hard, I observe. “Very hard,” he sighs.
Next, a para in an FT piece ‘Slow Burn – a gripping podcast about Watergate’, by Fiona Sturges, touching on poisoning the well:
[Journalist and author Leon] Neyfakh reveals how, when [wife of President Nixon’s attorney-general Martha] Mitchell finally told her version of events, thus revealing the skulduggery at the hear of the Nixon administration, few took her seriously. The president’s aides had leaked stories to the press about her fondness for alcohol, thus damaging her credibility. That she was later vindicated led to the invention of the phrase “the Martha Mitchell effect”, where a person’s outlandish claims are deemed delusional by psychiatrists despite their veracity.
From the FT’s lunch with author Edward St Aubyn, from the October 20 edition:
St Aubyn is, at his best, a moralist – someone who looks certain permanent features of human nature straight in the eye and for whom it is sentimental to suppose that we could overcome them. “There have always been parents who have been narcissistic, preoccupied or who simply don’t like children,” he says. “There are thousands of forms of parental behaviour which have deep psychological roots which are to do with the nature of human beings.”
What sort of parent is he? “I’m not the sort who replicates the things he loathed most. But I remain the sort of parent who, as a result of what he loathed most, is in the shadow of a sort of over-compensation. So many parents are so hypnotised by what they hated that by doing the opposite they create a new set of problems.”
From the FT’s lunch with family law lawyer Sandra Davis, from the October 6 edition, sentiments that recently caused James Damore to be fired from Google, but which are uncontroversial when stated by a woman:
Unusually for the top of the legal profession, women dominate those lists. To Davis, this is not surprising. “Clients are emotional, they’re under stress, they need support,” she says. “So the skills you require are not just strategic legal skills, they’re softer skills as well – how to communicate difficult messages, how to support people when they’re breaking down.”
From Stefan Stern’s FT article ‘Boardrooms’ missing voices undermine risk management’, from the November 16 edition, touching on the need to seek out contrary information and be receptive to bad news:
One seasoned consultant to many boards says there are two types of [General Council]. “There is one who puts the interests of the company first – not the CEO, not other directors, but the company. This sort is quite rare. There is another type who will say to you, ‘Oh yes, I can see that this is a serious problem, but I could never tell the CEO.’ These conversations are more common and can be quite shocking.”
A good chief executive will be on guard against the danger that he or she is not receiving all of the necessary information from colleagues. However, all-powerful bosses may find that bad news does not get through to them quickly. The board and senior management team need truth-tellers whose careers will not be damaged – and preferably are seen to be boosted – by their candour.
And lastly, from Edward Luce’s excellent write-up of his lunch conversation with the brilliant and brave Daniel Ellsberg, touching on the nature of risk and decision-making:
I was keen to go further back in Ellsberg’s life than that. When he was 15, his father crashed the car that was carrying his family. Ellsberg’s mother and younger sister were killed. Ellsberg nearly joined them. He was in a coma for almost four days. How has that affected him? “The car crash alerted me to the possibility that the world can change in a flash for the worst,” he says. “That is the story I have been telling myself for more than 70 years.”
But in the past few months he has been revising what he thinks of the tragedy. “Was it really an accident?” he asks. His new answer is complex. It also goes some way to explaining why Ellsberg is more worried about human fallibility than most people.
The tragedy occurred on the July 4 holiday in 1946. Ellsberg’s mother wanted to drive to Denver from Detroit, where they lived. She forgot to book a motel for the fir so they slept on the dunes of Lake Michigan. Ellsberg and his father shivered under blankets on the beach for most of the night. His mother and sister slept in the car. “I remember my father hardly got any sleep,” Ellsberg recalled. “I also remember waking up in the middle of the night and seeing falling stars, this shower of meteors – I’d never seen so many.”
The next day, Ellsberg’s father kept saying he was too tired to drive, and suggested they pull over. But his mother said they should press on. At some point in the middle of Iowa’s cornfields, Ellsberg’s father must have nodded off at the wheel. They veered calamitously off the road. “‘Accident’ is the wrong word,” says Ellsberg. “It was an accident in the sense that nobody intended it to happen. But both my parents knew the risks and they took the gamble anyway.”
Ellsberg relates this calmly but sadly. He also draws the natural parallel. “Nuclear war is also an accident waiting to happen,” he says. “The world has been preparing for nuclear catastrophe – for the end of civilisation – for 70 years now. I know: I have seen the plans.”
The incident taught Ellsberg that leaders whom you trust and even love – like his father – can gamble for little upside with everything they hold dear. “He should never have been driving,” Ellsberg says. “My mother should have listened to him.” It was a straight road. There were no other cars. “It was not as if we were hit by a meteor,” he adds.