When putting together a talk, I’m a big one for quotes. I can’t seem to resist them, and end up peppering my general message with the words of the great and the good. Quotes are my go-to places, way-markers during the journey of the presentation itself.
This is by no means a bad thing of course, as quotes frequently represent the distilled knowledge of a life well lived, or a moment of brilliance under duress, or perhaps just the musings of a fine mind looking back on decades of experience. Perhaps it’s not altogether disingenuous to occasionally lean on the words of others, as “all stories are theft” – there’s a quote right there you see, can’t resist, albeit it’s one of mine. That seems a fairly fairly pretentious way to start this blog, so perhaps a better one is “all writers are liars” (thanks to Clive James for that). Anyway, now I’m addicted, knowing that if I’m trying to say something, it’s pretty much guaranteed that someone, somewhere, at some point, has said it slightly better than me. And in they go.
And so, what particular quotes might do the trick for 2020 I wonder? Well, first we need to set the scene.
I think we can all agree that this has been a fairly tumultuous couple of years in Britain (with the three horsemen of Brexit, Political Bedlam, and Market Uncertainty only now taking a turn round the winners enclosure, steaming gently after a hectic last furlong). During such a period of external unpredictability, the strength of an internal culture has never been more important. Inherent in that, so inextricably linked they are almost one and same, is how to deal with things going wrong.
Henry Ford said “Failure is simply a way to start again, this time more intelligently.” That’s absolutely correct, but to deal with failure and move on requires a strong culture, one of understanding, cohesion, mutual support, and an ability to learn the lessons for the future by coolly analysing the mistakes of the past.
Barack Obama’s speech at John McCain’s funeral – one of the great oratory performances of our times – made a similar point (so I’m in reasonable company here). He noted that McCain had not only risen to the highest levels of government, but that he had also endured extraordinary hardships as a PoW in Vietnam, and indeed had his deepest convictions put under inordinate pressure during the latter stages of his political career. Obama noted that these were the moments when “iron became steel”. He went on to say that during these times “each moment, each day, each choice is a test. And John McCain passed that test again and again and again”. In other words, it is the dark days, and how you respond to them, that ultimately define you.
Any successful organisation or individual will have experienced moments of profound failure, and will have based their subsequent rise on the deepest elements of their culture. Get this right, create an environment that allows the exploration of the limits of performance without fear of retribution, and it is truly something special. By doing so you “throw out the sand bags and let the balloon soar” (Stephen Fry). And if the wheels really do come off, and you emerge battered and bloodied, before the rebuilding commences you can rest assured “that there’s always tea and cake” (my mum).