Leadership of the Mundane
What do these people have in common: Ernest Shackleton, Aung San Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela, and Michael Flatley’s accountants? Regardless of your definition of leadership, most of you would agree that the first three individuals have demonstrated leadership qualities in their respective lives. But what do Michael Flatley’s accountants have to do with them? Yes, I’m referring to Michael Flatley of Lord of the Dance, and yes, I am talking about his accountants, not him. I’d say that a large part of these people’s lives is mundane — tedious, repetitive and boring. And there is nothing wrong with being bored because, in my experience, boredom and leadership are intertwined.
I have been obsessed with the concept of leadership and boredom ever since I read an interview of Michael Flatley by Kristen Page-Kirby during my long boring commute several months ago. As a trailblazer who brought the Irish folkdance to mainstream stages around the world, Michael Flatley is a leader in his own right. He was making his final tour before his retirement and was reflecting on his career in that interview. I was moved by his statement:
“That’s our proudest achievement, the people. … Not just the dancers — the accountants, the lawyers, the truck drivers. There’s no end to the relationships. I’ve had the same wardrobe girls every night for 20 years! These are relationships that are forged over a lifetime; if I’m proud of anything, I’m proud of that. These young dancers, taking them from what was a folk dance to the world stage — that’s something.”
He thanked his accountants? I had never heard anyone thank their accountants, their lawyers or their truck drivers. I happened to read this interview during the award season, so I paid particular attention to the acceptance speeches. The winners thanked their families, their teachers, their agents, their producers, the cast and crew, and the list went on until the music played. “Are accountants part of the crew in the acceptance speeches?” I wonder. The only accountants that I heard mentioned were the PricewaterhouseCoopers auditors that were guarding the Oscar results. Nobody thanked them, and some people even giggled awkwardly when they came on stage. For Michael Flatley to call out his accountants, and for Kristen Page-Kirby to notice the importance of his statement and captured it in the precious limited space of her column, I could not have been more touched. I am not an accountant, but I grew up professionally among accounting and finance professionals. I understand the work, the importance of it, and the challenges that come with it. I understand these people. Nobody ever thanks them. They tend to hear from people when something goes wrong, and “to hear from” is only a mild way to put it.
Accounting can be mundane. It is about keeping processes and information reliable, on time, standardized, and transparent. Keeping consistency is difficult. Keeping consistency day in and day out is more difficult. Keeping consistency in a changing environment, amidst unexpected events or for demanding stakeholders is even more difficult. For me, the most difficult thing of it all is to keep your mind alert, interested, or even excited about the process which never ends until you stop. And a lot of us just don’t want to do that. However, instead of saying that we don’t want to do it because it is difficult, we say that we don’t want to do it because it is boring. We want to escape the boredom to do something exciting or adventurous, or something with a bit of drama.
But why can’t most of us sit and be with boredom? I wonder if it has to do with what we learned as a child. So, for several months since my obsession with leadership and boredom began, I was checking out several children’s books under children and boredom at my local public library. Most books that came up in the search fell into one of these two categories.
The first group: Children are bored. Then something magical happens — a cat in the hat walks into the room; a cardboard game sends the children into a bizarre adventure in another world; a mysterious package arrives with a phantom tollbooth inside; or a series of adventures involving giant animals happened on the farm — and the children’s lives are no longer boring.
The second group: Children or the main characters are bored. Then they start doing something to escape the boredom — A girl feels compelled to prove to a potato that kids are not boring; Princess Antonia is bored, so she runs away with her friends on a big adventure; or in a children’s story version of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s biography, Tonio was an accountant, told his coworkers, “I am bored,” started writing, and eventually wrote The Little Prince.
In these examples, boredom is portrayed as something bad. You have to get away from it either through some magical intervention or through your own action. You have to prove that you are not bored or boring. Even my favorite author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry gave up his job as an accountant to write because he was bored!
There are no books with the message that says, “Hey kids! Life can be mundane, and it’s okay. There are times that you will be bored, and you are going to be with it. There is nothing to do until there is, and when something really happens, it can be magical and rewarding!”
I spend most of my adult days worrying about having accurate and timely data for decision making both for me and for others, about having processes in place to gather, report and analyze high-quality data, or about motivating people to follow the processes and use the data. In general, I worry about structures, processes, systems, staffing, and whether those elements run like clockwork to support a strategy. Innovation and positive outcomes do come out of these efforts, but aren’t my days mundane? I have yet to see The Cat in the Hat, Jumanji or The Phantom Tollbooth magically show up and relieve me, or others, from our mundane days. And given our roles and responsibilities, we can’t just walk away and do something more exciting. You don’t want to see your payroll accountant run away with his or her princess friends, do you?
Why can’t we have children’s books that are truly about boredom? If we can teach children to accept boredom, we actually introduce them to an aspect of leadership.
The president of a $200M business unit once coached me, “Change management is about being a broken record. When you lead people through change, you keep repeating and repeating the message over and over again.” I was on his team and was helping him make changes in various aspects of the business unit, from the front end to the back end. Several months into it, it felt like we were still going through the same old routine, and change didn’t seem to come fast enough. The business unit president reminded us that we were on the right track and we just had to keep working at it until we saw results. Until then, it would be tedious, repetitive, and boring. Leadership is not always exciting, adventurous or dramatic.
If we look at the life of Ernest Shackleton, of Aung San Suu Kyi and of Nelson Mandela, a large part of it is also about keeping a mission consistent in a changing environment or amidst unexpected events — whether that means keeping a group of people inspired to fight for their own survival, for democracy or for equality. Keeping consistency is difficult. Keeping consistency on such a large scale — for both themselves and those who rely on them — is difficult. How could they keep their respective mind alert, interested and excited about the process which would never end unless they gave up? Why didn’t they get bored and stop?
Being with the boredom takes inner strengths and skills. We can use boredom as a way to discuss patience, endurance, consistency, and other great qualities of a leader. These lessons are even more important in this day and age when we are over-stimulated by content. It takes less than a second to “like” something. There is little time to absorb, reflect and respond to information. There is little time to be with anything.
One book that might have come close to my dream about boredom is Jonathan Fenske’s Barnacle Is Bored.
It starts with a lone barnacle under a pier saying, “I am BORED. Bored. Bored. BORED.” Then, he went to describe, “Every day is the same. The tide comes IN. … The tide goes OUT.” The story goes on like that until something happens and it changes his perspective. I am not going to spoil the ending and tell you what happens, but I wish that the story just stopped with the barnacle embracing the ups and downs of his mundane days. I wish the takeaway were, “Hey kids! Life of a barnacle can be mundane, and it’s okay because sometimes that’s what life is.” And there would be an opportunity to talk about patience, endurance and consistency, and leaders who have to use those qualities to survive and to inspire others to accomplish their respective missions.
If you know of a children’s book that focuses on boredom, as what it is and not what to run away from, please email me. Or write one, and let me know. Many of us, myself included, could use that book.
For more stories on leadership through the lens of children’s literature, please visit childrenslitforleaders.com.