Nigel Nicholson has written a remarkable book on Leadership. It’s called the “I” of Leadership. It’s about the identity of leaders and how strategies of seeing, being and doing can help shape someone’s leadership identity.
Drama, Destiny and Deliberation
In every life there is an amount of destiny (things that determine the course of your life), drama (events that happen) and deliberation (choices to be made). You can accept your destiny and follow the course of your life, or you can decide on doing things differently. The drama in your life can be devastating but can also be an opportunity to do something. Every crisis is an opportunity. And even when that’s a cliché, we must choose between undergoing shifts in life or shaping them.
Very often we are surprised by events that pop up. We did not look for them. It’s like a train stopping at the platform you’re on. You can decide to get on the train or not. You don’t know if there is going to be another train. And you don’t know exactly where the train is bringing you and how fast it’s going to drive. Getting on the train is a risk. Not getting on the train is also a risk.
That train could be the train of serendipity. Good things that happen to you.
Zemblanity is the oppositie of serendipity. It’s a word William Boyd used
So what is the opposite of Serendip, a southern land of spice and warmth, lush greenery and hummingbirds, seawashed, sunbasted? Think of another world in the far north, barren, icebound, cold, a world of flint and stone. Call it Zembla. Ergo: zemblanity, the opposite of serendipity, the faculty of making unhappy, unlucky and expected discoveries by design. Serendipity and zemblanity: the twin poles of the axis around which we revolve.
Armadillo, by William Boyd, 1998.
I like the word zemblanity. It’s something we all have in ourselves. We do stupid things by design. And when doing them we know that we are getting in trouble. And yet, it’s extremely difficult to conquer zemblanity. It’s an inherent part of our being. Sometimes we say something is stronger than ourselves. Zemblanity usually is.
We can exploit serendipity and try to master zemblanity. But that requires insights.
Becoming a leader means that we have to learn to lead ourselves first. And for leaders to do that, they should know themselves first. But they usually lack this insight. Or they don’t act upon it. I am personally intrigued by historic figures like Leni Riefenstahl, Albert Speer, William Taylor, Henri Ford, J. Edgar Hoover, Franco, … In particular Albert Speer is a fascinating personality.
Albert Speer was Hitler’s architect. He designed mega complexes for the Third Reich. He designed Germania, Hitler’s new capital. Germania was well depicted by Robert Harris in his novel ‘Fatherland’. But he started as the organiser of the Nazi manifestations in Nürnberg. And he ended up as the organiser of the war effort as minister of armaments. In that capacity he became responsible for an organisation that used forced labour. Yet, he denied that he knew.
To many it is simply not possible that he did not know. But he created an image – a narrative. Whilst people did not accept his innocence, he was the only top nazi who did not obey Hitler’s orders to destroy Germany. So whilst he was with one leg in the regime, the other leg was already headed towards the future. Speer has been described as politically naive, vain, blinded by power, seduced by the perspective of becoming the greatest architect ever. Whatever the truth, he could be acquitted. He has spent 20 years in Spandau prison, got out, wrote a book and became rich. His autobiography is his narrative. At the trials of Nürnberg he had been very composed and came with a narrative that saved him from the gallows. During his 20 years of prison he had ample time to elaborate and refine the narrative.
Hannah Arendt speaks about the banality of evil, when she reported on the trio of Adolf Eichmann in Jeruzalem. How could normal people like Eichmann – and by extension like Speer – have committed such atrocities? The word Banality does not refer to the fact that these atrocities were not exceptional – they were – but that the atrocities were executed by people who did not think, who were stupid. Albert Speer certainly did not think he was stupid, and he wasn’t. But his narrative is not very credible and in light of historic evidence also unacceptable.
But I guess he needed that kind of narrative to keep himself in balance. Psychologists call this dealing with cognitive dissonance. If something bad happens which is in contract with personal beliefs, we want to explain and reduce the negative value of the event. It’s a defence mechanism.
I think that narratives are a form of way of dealing with the cognitive dissonance and a sign of mental health. If we can tell the story of our lives, with all the events, we have taken control of our lives. If we can give a place to all the successes, failures, feelings of regrets, zemblanity and serendipity we have created a sense of identity.
I have enjoyed the discussions with colleagues about their and my narrative a lot. It’s a luxury to be able to think about what has shaped our identity. And what is even more interesting, is the shaping of the future. Our identity is not a construct of the past, ruled by destiny and dramas. We can overcome the mechanics of time by deciding on what the narrative of tomorrow should be.