Useful Concepts -#10- Lawrence of Arabia’s Trick

Here’s a scene from one of my favourite films:

LAWRENCE: Allow me to ignite your cigarette.

He strikes one of the SERGEANT’S matches and lights the CORPORAL’S cigarette. Then, he extinguishes the match by very slowly closing his finger and thumb upon the flame, his face very attentive the while. It is a trick the other two have evidently seen before but which evidently still fascinates.

SERGEANT (dispassionately): You’ll do that once to often. It’s only flesh and blood.

LAWRENCE returns to his work, murmuring: Why, Michael George Hartley, you’re a philosopher.

CORPORAL (amiably): You’re barmy.

(…)

The CORPORAL is preoccupied with a burning match which he proceeds to extinguish between his fingers.

CORPORAL: Ow! (Indignantly) It damn well ‘urts!

LAWRENCE: Certainly it hurts.

CORPORAL (cajoling): Well what’s the trick then?

LAWRENCE: The trick, William Potter, is not minding if it hurts.

I have not been able to find any evidence that this scene depicts anything that TE Lawrence used to do or say. Though there is certainly evidence that the scene is consistent with some of his actions and strongly held beliefs.

So, for example, one of his biographers, Robert Graves tells us about Lawrence’s behaviour at the time Lawrence was supporting the Arab Revolt:

“A few days later Lawrence began hardening himself for his coming campaign, tramping barefoot over the coral or burning-hot sand. The Arabs wondered why he did not ride a horse, like every other important man.”

From another biographer, John E. Mack, we have evidence that TE Lawrence also advised other people not to express grief or pain. After TE Lawrence’s brother Frank was killed in the first World War, Lawrence wrote to his mother:

“If you only knew that if one thinks deeply about anything one would rather die than say anything about it. You know men do nearly all die laughing, because they know death is very terrible, and a thing to be forgotten till after it has come.

There, put that aside, and bear a brave face to the world about Frank. In a time of such fearful stress in our country it is one’s duty to watch very carefully lest one of the weaker ones be offended: and you know we were always the stronger, and if they see you broken down they will all grow fearful about their ones at the front.”

Or how about this scene? On one campaign in the desert, Lawrence noticed that one of the men, Gasim, was missing and the man’s camel was found riderless. Despite the risks to himself and his entire undertaking, Lawrence turns back to retrace the day’s journey to find him. Eventually he does. The man is confused, nearly blinded by exposure to sun and dehydrated. After Lawrence gives him water and puts him on a camel, Gasim moans and cries about the pain and thirst. Robert Graves describes the scene that ensues:

“Lawrence told him to stop, but he would not and sat huddled loosely so that at each step of the camel he bumped down on her hind-quarters. This and his crying spurred her on to greater speed. Lawrence was afraid that she might founder, and again told him to stop, but Gasim only screamed the louder. Then Lawrence struck him and swore that if he made another sound he would be pushed off and abandoned. He kept quiet then.”

So Lawrence’s trick could be read as being simply about the repression of pain and suffering. Certainly some of his biographers have found plenty of opportunities to interpret his actions, words and demeanour as repressed pain and traumatic experiences coming to the fore. But, much as some aspects of his life suggest psychological symptoms of things he didn’t deal with fully, a strategy of pure repression doesn’t fit with what we know of the deeply introspective man who was given to psychological self-examination and wrote about himself and his motives openly in letters and in his book, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

Still, if it was the case that Lawrence’s trick was purely about not giving voice to pain, he might still have some support, even in these times of public outpourings of grief, social media oversharing and celebrities baring all their emotions, from people who reckon that the immediate expression of our feelings following traumatic experiences isn’t as helpful as is widely thought.

In his book Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change, Timothy Wilson writes about the evidence for the effectiveness of a widely applied method of treating people who have suffered traumatic experiences, Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD):

“The premise of CISD is that when people have experienced a traumatic event they should air their feelings as soon as possible, so that they don’t bottle up these feelings and develop post-traumatic stress disorder. In a typical CISD session, which lasts three to four hours, participants are asked to describe the traumatic event from their own perspective, express their thoughts and feelings about the event, and relate any physical or psychological symptoms they are experiencing. A facilitator emphasizes that it is normal to have stressful reactions to traumatic events, gives stress management advice, answers questions, and assesses whether participants need any additional services.”

But actually when it was properly studied, it turned out that people who have undergone CISD have more post-traumatic stress disorder, were more anxious and depressed and less content with their lives. Wilson concludes that “making people undergo CISD right after a trauma impedes the natural healing process and might even ‘freeze’ memories of the event.” Another approach, championed by Wilson turns out to be more effective: Instead of debriefing the traumatised person, “we could ask him to complete, on four consecutive nights, a simple exercise in which he [or she] writes down his [or her] deepest thoughts and emotions about the experience and how it relates to the rest of his [or her] life. That’s it—no meetings with trained facilitators, no stress management advice—just a writing exercise.” As it happens the conclusion about the writing exercise is more positive:

“In the short run, people typically find it painful to express their feelings about traumatic experiences. But as time goes by, those who do so are better off in a number of respects. They show improvements in immune-system functioning, are less likely to visit physicians, get better grades in college, and miss fewer days of work.”

The point here then is not to repress painful experiences, but neither is it just to express pain, whether in a controlled or uncontrolled way.

“Not minding if it hurts” is exactly the point. “Minding” suggests letting the mind do its work with something, in this case with the pain. Letting the mind take a grip of it, churn it around, amplify it, crystallise it,  freeze it. The trick is not minding.

But neither the historical, nor the Lawrence of the film knew about these studies. Here are three points about dealing with pain that we can see from Lawrence’s biography which may amount to TE Lawrence’s trick:

  • Practising the endurance of pain in small ways when you don’t have to, so that you’re better able to endure it when you’re forced to. This is what TE Lawrence was doing when he was walking on the burning sand. In that way he endured in a small way the thing that he must have endured in a massive way during his famous desert marches, days spent in the desert. On one of these occasions, according to Robert Graves

When he started he was very weak with dysentery brought on by drinking the bad water at Wejh: he had a high temperature and also boils on his back which made camel-riding painful. With a party of thirteen men […] he set out at dawn through the granite mountains on his hundred-and-fifty-mile ride. He had two fainting fits on the way and could hardly keep in the saddle.

  • Being mindful of the impact that expressions of pain or grief could have on others. His treatment of Gasim seems cruel and inhumane. In order not to panic a camel, Lawrence threatens a human being who spent a day suffering physical and mental anguish with further pain and possible death.  But that inhumane treatment might have stemmed precisely from the belief in the ability of the human being to do otherwise than simply expressing the pain that he was suffering in the moment, while the animal can’t help but act on the cries it hears. The same principle is also in evidence in Lawrence’s advice to his mother not to show her grief at a son’s death openly, in case it makes others worry over “their ones at the front.”
  • That ability to do otherwise stems from a fundamental understanding of what it means to be a human being. TE Lawrence wrote in 1927:

“It’s my experience that the actual work or position or reward one has, doesn’t have much effect on the inner being which is the important thing for us to cultivate.”

This belief in an inner being that is untouched by external conditions – pain or freedom from pain, comfort or discomfort, life or death – looks fundamentally Stoic to me. But Lawrence also saw it in the culture and beliefs of his companions in the desert campaigns, and in the desert environment itself:

“The common base of all Semitic creeds, winners or losers, was the ever present ideal of world-worthlessness.”

“The desert Arab found no joy like the joy of voluntarily holding back. He found luxury in abnegation, renunciation, self-restraint… His desert was made a spiritual ice-house, in which was preserved intact but unimproved for all ages a vision of the unity of God.”

 

Should We Let the Change Curve Rest in Peace?

A lot has been written about why change programmes fail. But the fact that some of the fundamental things change managers are taught about change are decidedly dodgy often evades blame.

You don’t have to be in any kind of management training for very long until someone starts talking about the change curve. This is the idea that people who experience any kind of organisational change go through the stages of denial, anger, bargaining and depression before they reach acceptance of the change and potentially even enthusiasm. While they are going through these stages they feel progressively worse about the change, so the theory goes, though ultimately – after they reach the acceptance stage – they will be happier. The work of the skilled few who are change managers then is gently to nudge the naturally “change resistant” many all the way along to the sunny uplands of change acceptance.

The change curve is based on the work of the Swiss-born psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross who described the “five stages of grief” in her bestseller On Death and Dying. I’m sure she did some good things to raise awareness of the increasingly depersonalised treatment of dying patients in the modern world. (Among other things, she described how patients more or less disappeared as individuals among the machines they were linked up to, with the medical establishment caring more about the data they could read off the machines than about the needs of the patient. This was in 1969, five years before Robert Nozick envisaged human beings as indeterminate blobs hooked up to experience machines.) I’m sure she also did some good things for hospice care and for grief counselling.

But the psychological establishment has long been suspicious of her teachings. (I would know. My mother told me.) The mundane reason for that was that her findings about the five stages weren’t replicable in other studies. Even she herself regretted later in life that she had expressed the five stages as a relatively rigorous framework for grieving and said it wasn’t meant like that. Many grieving people, according to her later statements only go through at most two of the five stages, or so.

But there was plenty of other stuff of which to be suspicious. At some point in the seventies she started believing that death wasn’t really a thing and arranged for spiritual mediums to channel communications with the dead at her care centre Shanti Nilaya (Indian names must have helped credibility in the seventies). At least one of her favoured mediums got into trouble for sexual misdemeanours. (These took place during his sessions to put widows in touch with their deceased husbands.) When someone flicked a light switch during one of these sessions that clearly needed to be held in the dark, the medium turned out to be presiding over the whole thing entirely naked with the exception of a turban on his head. (That was probably around the same time at which the Tibetan monk, spiritual master, alcoholic and chaos merchant Chögyam Trungpa aimed to help people in their spiritual development by forcing them to strip naked during parties.)

Despite the fact that the model of the five stages of grieving was disowned by its own creator as a rigorously applicable model and denounced by experts more widely, it lingers on in management training, like the spirit of a dead person haunting the living.

Now, it could be argued that, even if it doesn’t apply to the dying or the grieving, it still happens to apply quite well to those experiencing organisational change. But I don’t believe anyone has provided any empirical evidence for that. The model is only ever invoked with its Kübler-Rossian credentials even after those have expired. Even if it wasn’t for that, there are other reasons we should be suspicious of it:

First, a kind of obvious point, that experiencing organisational change, that is to say, in most cases, getting used to new processes, using different systems or working under a changed culture is in no way like the death of a friend or relative. We could quaintly imagine some people so attached to the way they do their jobs that any change feels like a death but I don’t think there’s anything in that. It’a a pretty patronising rationalisation of why the “change resistant” are the way they are. The death of a person in pretty absolute. It doesn’t even make sense to say change – for some people – is like the death of a loved one, though less so. When it comes to the death of a person, then if something seems quantitatively less so, it’s probably qualitatively different.

Second, perhaps the main point, change is dynamic. It’s an illusion to think that there is a point at which you can say, the change has happened, now it’s time for everyone just to move along the change curve and embrace it. Change has to keep happening through ongoing conversations and communication, through ongoing effort to implement it, otherwise it won’t happen.

Take, for example, change in the form of political events. A country has decided in a referendum by a relatively narrow margin to leave a political, economic and cultural union it had been part of, and helped construct, for decades. While the referendum result is binding on everyone, it would be wrong and undemocratic to expect that those who argued against this change should just stop having their views and beliefs. It would be wrong to expect them not to want to test the legal, economic and political implications. It would be wrong to expect them not to question every detail of future policy on matters such as immigration, trade, the environment and so on. While they can be asked to accept the outcome of the democratically held referendum and must do so, clearly we would expect them to want to ensure that their values and interests are represented in the way that the decision to change course is implemented over years to come.

Neither would we expect those on the “winning” side simply to be able to sit back and see the change happen. They will have to continue to make the case, flesh out the vision for the future, solve a myriad technical issues and continue to fight for the optimal interpretation of the expressed will of the people. They are expected to be able to show that their plans are legal, that they can offer a compelling idea of the future and to meet all of the concerns they now face. They need to engage people widely, make use of a broad range of talents and keep providing leadership. They need to do all of these things, rather than spend time trying to jog some people along a change curve, imagining that it is merely the psychological hang-ups of those who hold opposed views that keep them stuck on a downward change curve and prevent them from embracing the change.

While this is a macrocosm of fairly big political change, the same would also apply in the microcosm of organisational change. The job of the change manager starts, it doesn’t end, with the decision to make changes, or even with the development of a positive vision for a future end state. He or she needs to keep communicating the rationale for change, engage people in working out the detailed problems and solutions that will be encountered, have answers to questions or a way to work them out.

Of course it is much easier to just frame the whole situation as a case of change enthusiasts being hampered by the change resistant who are stuck in one of a standard five stages. But to do that would be to misunderstand the task of driving change until it is implemented.

Three Things I Want to Learn From Roger Federer

  1. How to serve that fast
  2. How to hit a one-handed backhand like that
  3. How to win a grand slam tennis tournament

Ok, but seriously now…

With the exception of David Foster Wallace’s 2006 essay “Roger Federer as Religious Experience,” it is probably inadvisable to look for too much metaphysical insight from the activities of sportspeople.

Continue reading Three Things I Want to Learn From Roger Federer

Did We Spend Too Much Time Talking About Leadership And Not Enough Doing Management?

[Warning: the following paragraphs contain graphic scenes of leadership training that may be upsetting to some readers. None of it happened at the organisation that currently employs me. Neither at the last one I worked for. The organisation where it did take place is now a very different organisation under very different, erm… leadership.]

Picture a generic conference venue. Between 100-200 “Senior Leaders” of the organisation are dotted around the big room trying to eke out a few more minutes of their tea break, grabbing another free cup of tea and another cookie.

But there’s no such thing as a free tea. The Leadership Coach paid to deliver the next session has other ideas. She strides onto the stage and sends a piercing whistle across the room. Not for her the more customary way of calling the meeting to order – that would be grabbing a microphone and saying things like, “er, excuse me, could you all… excuse me… could we get back to our tables please? Hello… everyone?” for a while.

No, the Leadership coach has a purpose, a can-do attitude, she’s not a conformist and so she whistles at people. It certainly has some kind of effect. People are back in their seats as she talks, punctuating certain words with a shouty rise in volume: “You have a RECEPTIONIST in your organisation who RECOGNISES me when I come in and KNOWS MY NAME!” This is good work, underlining her point that everyone in every organisation can be a leader in some way or other, and at the same time subtly hinting that she is a frequent visitor to the building, leaving it to the imagination what important talks she’s having at the most senior levels on those occasions.

And that wasn’t the only such occasion. A few months earlier or later, at another “Senior Leaders Conference” much the same group of people was told to by a different leadership expert to “be themselves, but more” as a path to charismatic leadership. And this time the speaker underlined his point by putting up a slide showing Nelson Mandela in the famous rugby shirt episode. It’s not like coming up with this example took a PhD in leadership studies. The episode had only just been a focus of a major motion picture. But to be more like Nelson Mandela was a big ask of the audience – pale, stale and prone to fail, as one unkind and overly cynical colleague described it. Continue reading Did We Spend Too Much Time Talking About Leadership And Not Enough Doing Management?