SUMMER is that time when busy people of power catch up on their reading, cultivate a tan and reacquaint themselves with their families.
It can also be a good time to think deeply, catching up with serious route planning.
In the 19th century, statesmen withdrew for months to their country estates to read and ruminate — and to romp.
Life has sped up since Benjamin Disraeli’s day.
These days, celebrities can afford themselves this luxury, while top musicians are known to take off for years to well-appointed country barns. However, our top managers, business as well as political, rarely permit themselves the opportunity to seriously recharge the batteries for months.
Nowadays, leaders are constantly on call, like doctors, shunted in limos and jets from one gathering to the next. Is it any wonder that so many are prone to mistakes and to short-term thinking?
There are exceptions to the rule.
Warren Buffett is known to greatly dislike what he terms ‘noise’ — by which he means the endless outpourings from media outlets, and meetings.
Buffett spends much of his working day reading — and thinking. He restricts himself to one meeting a day, so it is said. Judging by the long-term trajectory of the share price of his investment vehicle, Berkshire Hathaway, it is an approach that works.
Brian Chesky, founder/CEO of Airbnb, in an interview with Fortune magazine, told how he has adapted to a corporate life he hadn’t planned for himself. Chesky’s interviewer, Leigh Gallagher, wrote that the technology sector has upturned the traditional view of the leader of a company of great size, who would have demonstrated leadership potential by working his way up the ladder, filling a series of “leadership in waiting” positions.
These days, young people like Chesky are thrown into leadership positions by default. Chesky put it succinctly : “It is not natural for someone like myself to be at art school, to be then unemployed and five or six years later to have ‘this’.”
By ‘this’, he means a company with 2,000 employees, servicing 34,000 locations and with a current market value of $24bn. He has sought counsel from a variety of people in leadership positions.
Key sources of advice have included Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook; Tony Ives, chief design officer at Apple; George Tenet, former head of the CIA, and Buffett.
Sandberg, for example, suggested that Chesky develop the knack of asking “probing questions”, cautioning that people “stop telling the truth to the CEO”.
Tenet stressed the importance of maintaining visibility, of ‘walking the park’. He used to send people handwritten notes. Chesky’s key ‘takeaway’ is that one should go to unexpected sources for insight.
Another is that one should ‘bank’ the ideas gleaned in the process. Upon meeting Buffett, Chesky immediately penned a 3,600-word memo, which he sent to his team.
The 33-year-old stresses the importance of remaining “crazy”, of “not listening to the voices that say that something is not possible.”
The iconoclastic investor, Peter Thiel, put it more bluntly: “Don’t fuck up the culture.”
Above all, Chesky believes in “refilling the reservoir”, which is why he takes time off on Thursday mornings for yoga sessions with his girlfriend.
High-flyers reach late July with little but air in the tank. But once the batteries are recharged, perhaps then it is time to pause for thought.
The pols are gearing up for election time, the selling season. The bankers sense recovery and opportunity for new profit, even as they sweep away much of the huge mess left after the last lending blitz, and draw the benefits from dirt-cheap ECB money.
Some of our manufacturers are busy retooling, seeking to capitalise on a weak currency and on a workforce still happy with a job, not willing to overreach themselves with stiff pay demands.
The bureaucrats prepare to meet new masters, or to cope at least, with fresh faces at the top of their respective ministries. Retailers look to restock, as the tills gradually start ringing again. The farmers gear up for growth, but fret about prices. Business people look over their shoulders at the threat from the disrupters, the techies, retail discounters, American property types.
A good time, then, to pose a few tough questions to themselves. Our temporary rulers should. Four-and-a-half years on from the general election, and with some respectable achievements to look back on, is it not time for a shift of gear, from short-term crisis management to the longer game?
And for our business leaders it’s time to wonder whether they are investing enough in people and plant, and doing so in the right way, hammering those roof tiles into place while the sun still shines during this phase of the economic cycle?
What has emerged from the banking inquiry is that many of our leaders were lacking in curiosity, real independence of mind, when they headed for the wall, bringing many of the rest of us along with them. In this clubbable world of ours, pols meet up with pols, journalists stand each other drinks, builders hug builders, solicitors schmooze other solicitors; birds of a feather flock together, flapping like penguins.
It was always thus. But the lesson from people like Buffett and Chesky is that it is good to break out of one’s comfort zone, to challenge oneself by drawing on companionship and advice from well beyond one’s normal circle and by accessing new sources of information. Ireland is still standing, but many of its people are wounded and angry.
Our leaders need to engage with such people, but they also need to reach out to the people with dreams, the ones who can create opportunities for others. Many such people have already taken flight for places like London. They need to be wooed back, at least part-time.
But they won’t touch the place with a barge pole if they sense that it is not being imaginatively led by its political, business and financial leaders, by its top bureaucrats and trade unionists, and if they sense, moreover, that they are not wanted.
Our leaders need to engage with the people best-equipped to fill their shoes when they grow weary of the chase. Examine the lives of creative figures in business, people like GPA and Ryanair founder, the late Tony Ryan, who drove himself and others forward without mercy, yet who somehow retained space in his life for his imagination, allowing for real creativity.
Ryan collected art and restored Georgian houses, even while he hustled for huge deals and traversed the globe. Few will live a life like that, but many could yet have real impact.
But, to really last, they may need to learn how to pace themselves and learn how best to draw on others. The time spent now by the pool, or on the mountain, could indeed be time well spent, even if it appears to slip by in a haze.