Over the course of the programme, we’ll be exploring a variety of themes and ideas. You’ll notice in our Nutshells that we often refer to cultural icons who have been living embodiments of some of the ideas we’re discussing. Below we list exemplars of foundational ideas from our first module: Socrates, David Bowie and Ella Fitzgerald.
Being credited as one of the founding fathers of Western philosophy is a pretty decent legacy by any objective standard, but for an ancient Greek philosopher who never wrote down any of his teachings, it might seem miraculous. But that’s how we remember Socrates, whose memory was – thankfully – preserved after his death by accounts of his conversations and dialogues written by his students and followers, notably Plato and Xenophon.
Unsurprisingly, it’s hard to piece together many reliable details of Socrates’ life. Apart from a stint serving in the Athenian army, he seems to have spent his entire life – he lived from 470 to 399 BC – in Athens itself. He was a controversial figure at the time, mocked by the playwright Aristophanes, known for being notoriously ugly and for wandering around Athens barefoot and in tattered old clothes, with little regard for personal hygiene. Philosophically, he is perhaps best known for what’s become known as the Socratic method, a means of interrogating an argument or viewpoint through a series of probing questions (in wishing to be seen as an ignorant inquirer rather than a teacher, he might also be seen as a (very) early pioneer of modern-day coaching). His views on everything from piety to democracy made him popular with the Athenian youth, but his unconventional worldview eventually caught up with him. At the age of 70, he was tried on charges of impiety and corrupting young minds and sentenced to death by poisoning by a jury of his fellow citizens.
The manner of his death has only reinforced his impact over the centuries, especially as it’s Plato’s Apologia Socratis, his account of Socrates’ own defence at his trial, that captures many of the great man’s most enduring philosophical tenets: that ethical virtue is the only thing that matters; that an unexamined life is not worth living and, handily for a man about to be condemned to death, that a good human being cannot be harmed because, even in death, his virtue will remain intact.
It’s an idea central to Socrates’ defence that makes him the first of our Future Talent Learning Transformational Heroes. As a traditionally educated Athenian citizen, he would have known from an early age of the aphorism inscribed on the opening to the Delphic Oracle: “know thyself”. At his trial, he recounted that when the Oracle had revealed that he was the wisest man in Athens, he responded not by boasting or celebrating, but – in true Socratic style – by trying to prove the Oracle wrong. He decided to find out if anyone knew what was truly worthwhile in life, because anyone who knew that would surely be wiser than him. When no one could give him a satisfactory answer – although many tried – he realised the Oracle might be right after all. He was the wisest man in Athens because he was the only one prepared to admit his own ignorance rather than pretend to know something he did not. And that’s why he devoted his life to the mission to expose what he considered to be false knowledge, uncomfortable as that might have been for the Athenian power elite. It was a mission, of course, that ultimately led to his death.
The Socratic paradox that the only true wisdom lies in knowing how little we actually know is a startling piece of self-awareness that has resonated down the ages. And in his willingness to embrace self-examination, he represented, by his own admission, a threat to a deep-seated human tendency to avoid answering deep or tricky questions about ourselves. Socrates teaches us that striving to “know thyself” is a route to living what he would have considered a virtuous life – what we might call a good one. That’s not a bad starting point for a learning programme devoted to making us self-aware, transformational leaders.
Reinvention: David Bowie
As one of the most remarkable cultural icons of the modern era, it’s easy to forget that David Bowie was far from an overnight success. By 1972, Bowie had been trying to break into the music mainstream for almost a decade. His one hit song, Space Oddity, was the exception rather than the rule. The young, insecure David Jones, dogged by a history of family mental ill health and battling life’s challenges had yet to emerge into the charismatic and confident artist we all remember.
But the years of struggle had not been wasted. During that time, Bowie began to immerse himself in a range of spiritual and philosophical thinking that was to become central to his life and his work. And at the heart of this was his study of Tibetan Buddhism; in fact, in the late 1960s, he reputedly came close to becoming a Buddhist monk. The community of Samye Ling’s loss might have been music’s gain, but Bowie’s Buddhism never left him. In 1997, he spoke of his studies leaving him with two life-defining ideas:
- a sense of change, that everything is transient; like everything else in the universe, we are in state of constant flux, and
- that investigating our “self”, a continual journey of self-discovery, is fundamental.
It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that Bowie’s career was based on an extraordinary succession of characters and styles, each unique and different, and each part of a deliberate sense of curiosity and reinvention. Faced with that early 1970s stalling of his career, for example, Bowie chose adopt the persona of a rock star, becoming Ziggy Stardust, perhaps one of the best examples of faking-it-till-you-make-it ever. And the rest, of course, is history: by saying he was a rock star, he became one.
And that’s not the end of the story. When Ziggy became too much of a burden, Bowie abandoned him, reminding us that there was never to be any “definitive David Bowie”. Throughout his career, he continued to experiment with fluidity in music, gender, sexuality and fashion, deliberately immersing himself in different thinking, media, genres and cultures as part of his creative process. For Bowie, writing songs and making music was always about making sense of the world by increasing his own self-knowledge. From Ziggy to Aladdin Sane to The Thin White Duke, change and reinvention became a technique by which he not only became that cultural icon, but also challenged and overcame his own demons and challenges.
Bowie’s ability to embrace change, to seek it out, to adapt, makes him a perfect Future Talent Learning Transformational Hero. Thinker and writer Herminia Ibarra urges us to continue to change our own story, growing and adapting as our own leadership identity grows and changes. Staying true to ourselves in all circumstances will only take us so far. Instead, she exhorts us to jettison out-dated ideas about ourselves and try on new personal narratives fit for new situations and challenges. Being prepared to embrace Bowie’s “stream of warm impermanence”, to be able to embrace change and operate outside our comfort zones, is one of our key tenets of transformational leadership. Like Bowie, it’s only through this personal exploration and experimentation that we can embark on a life-long journey of self-knowledge that makes us better, more effective and well-adjusted leaders.
Adaptability: Ella Fitzgerald
First Lady of Song. Queen of Jazz. Lady Ella: just three extraordinary descriptions of one of the most famous singers of all time, Ella Fitzgerald. Known for her flawless vocal style, technique and energy, she recorded over the course of a long career of more than 75 albums alongside dozens of hit singles that topped the charts around the world. Born in 1917, and after a difficult adolescence, like David Bowie, she found her home in the world of music, working her way up from The Savoy Ballroom in Harlem to become a global singing sensation. By the time of her death in 1996, she had garnered 14 Grammy Awards, a US National Medal of Arts and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Fitzgerald’s vocal versatility was legendary, but, first and foremost, she was a jazz singer. And jazz means improvisation, a musical style based on spontaneous invention and creative collaboration. Scat singing, where sounds and syllables are used instead of words, and “quoting”, referencing other songs while improvising, were techniques honed by Fitzgerald’s years of performing both solo and alongside jazz legends such as Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong.
They were skills that were to come in handy in February 1960 when, already an international superstar, she gave an unforgettable performance in Berlin that consolidated her reputation as a jazz goddess. On the set list was the jazz standard and huge hit Mack the Knife. Fitzgerald sang the song flawlessly until about halfway through, when she forgot the lyrics. At that point, in front an expectant audience of thousands, she might just have lost her cool. But no. Instead, she simply improvised, scatting her way to the end with nonsense syllables and improvised words. The result was a performance that far exceeded anything the audience might have anticipated.
That performance was not just a supreme example of grace under pressure; it also showcased a mastery for improvisation that became legendary. Top jazz critic Will Friedwald considers her to be the all-time master of quoting, recalling that he once went through one of her songs bar by bar and “pulled out 50 songs that she quoted in, like, five minutes”. That’s quite a skill.
Fitzgerald’s legacy is extraordinary in many ways: as a remarkable performer; a role model for black women, and one of the first singers to prove that the voice is an instrument in its own right. But it’s her ability to improvise that makes her an especially worthy Future Talent Learning Transformational Hero.
As leaders in a business world not unlike the unpredictability of stepping onto a stage to perform – with all the unknowns that entails – our ability to respond in the moment, think on our feet, problem-solve and adapt has become a crucial underpinning for success. Like Fitzgerald, we need to master the art of what EQ guru Daniel Goleman describes as “having flexibility in handling change, being able to juggle multiple demands, and adapting to new situations with fresh ideas or approaches”.
Remember, too, that jazz improvisation is not just about individual skill; it also requires high levels of trust and collaboration. Ella’s free-styling in Berlin in 1960 was only possible because her fellow musicians were able to adapt as she did. Adaptability is also about a willingness to be changed as well as to change, listening to other people and – in the words of improvisational (improv) theatre – adopting “yes, and…” approaches to accept and build on others’ ideas. Like Fitzgerald on that Berlin stage, we need to embrace whatever comes our way as an opportunity, learning to reframe mistakes and curveballs as the chance to accept, explore and make use of ideas that might not otherwise present themselves. That’s what being an adaptive leader is all about.
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