A lovely addition to ‘Why you need to develop a First-Rate Intelligence’

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If you enjoyed my recent article, ‘Why you need to develop a First-Rate Intelligence’, I think you’ll also value the response I received from one of my readers.

Mike Harwood is a former RAF Pilot who rose to become a senior officer and the Head of British Defence Staff in the US. He now runs his own strategic consultancy, Matrix Blue.

We have known each other for several years (though never actually met). I was delighted to receive Mike’s thoughtful response that expands on the F Scott Fitzgerald quote that sparked my original piece.

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”

I share Mike’s response and my original post below that. I love his thinking. Moreover, I am encouraged that there are still plenty of women and men of character, intelligence and insight out there.

It is easy to lose sight of that in our often shallow, noisy and antagonistic (not-so) social media landscape.

Here is Mike’s response.

Great stuff, Mark.

I too studied Fitzgerald.  My own enduring lesson came from seeing a page of his handwritten manuscript.  Hardly a sentence did not have amendment.  Every word was scrutinised for its right to exist.  And that other wonderful author springs to mind, Hemmingway, and his “The best writing is re-writing”.

It delighted me to discover they didn’t get it right first time (as per Edison).  It taught me perseverance, curiosity, and to be less fearful of that thing which, at a certain moment in time, looks rather convincingly like failure.

It also taught me that Superman does not exist.  Oh, there are most certainly exceptional individuals, and those blessed with eye-watering talent, but rarely for every minute of every day.

That’s why, as I’ve got older (sadly I learned this later than I would have liked), I’ve valued the diverse members of ‘the team’.  Diverse because of their intellects – the way they think and not simply how clever/intellectual they are – rather than the colour of their skin and those other attributes we mistake for true diversity.

The challenge for leadership and for followership is therefore twofold: to function with opposing ideas in one’s own head, but also to function as a team when there are opposing ideas in the room.


My original article


Why you need to develop a First-Rate Intelligence


I’ve always been fond of English literature and have an English degree. 35 years on, I still remember loving one of the set authors, the American F Scott Fitzgerald.


Fitzgerald is best known for his works, ‘The Great Gatsby’ and ‘Tender is the Night’.

But the darker side of Fitzgerald’s troubled soul was explored in his collection titled ‘The Crack Up’. Its most famous quote is his observation that.


“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”


I am not sure that I understood its meaning as a young man. Now it speaks to me loudly as a keen observation of what is lacking in so many of our leaders and in our public discourse.


Dumbing it down

I write this just a few years after the unedifying Brexit brawl and a few weeks before the 2020 US Presidential election. Without getting into the morass of either, there is a uniting theme. ‘Leaders’ of all persuasions – and the increasingly politically-polarised mainstream media – portray a world of simple choices. “In or out?” “Liberal or bigot?” “Clown or King”?


The truth is inconveniently untidy

Our real world is of course far less binary. As leaders, we have to navigate our businesses and people through uncharted waters in the face of accelerating change and continuous disruption.


‘Last-year-plus-a-bit thinking’ no longer cuts it. We have to innovate, to trust our gut, to guess, to make-it-up. We must be prepared to fail and treat that failure as a positive step. COVID has merely supercharged this storm.


Against this reality the ‘cast-iron’ proclamations of our leaders on e.g. budget forecasts, renewable energy targets and (always-in-the-future) ‘wins’ are, literally, incredible.


Holding the tension

Politiicians simplify everything because they believe they must to get message ‘cut through’. It’s true that complex messaging can get lost (or twisted) in translation. Sadly, it may also be true that the childlike parroting or mantras like “jobs and growth” is effective in the confines of an 8-week election campaign to a largely unthinking and unquestioning electorate.


It’s a harder game if you are leading a business – large or small. Dumbing it down doesn’t work across 52 weeks. To navigate our way to a successful post-pandemic future, we must develop Fitzgerald’s ‘first-rate intelligence’.


We need leaders who can hold apparently contradictory forces in a positive tension. For example, the need to improve productivity with fewer staff whilst simultaneously improving the level of people care.


Simplexity is key

Rather than dumb it down, we must smarten it down. Think of the effort that smart phone designers put into creating one digit, intuitive ‘buttons’ that sit on top of literally thousands of options and permutations.


In the same way, our leadership needs to be both simple to understand, yet nuanced and bespoke in the way it is felt by an individual. I call this ‘Simplexity’ – the complex made simple (accessible and elegant). It puts a premium on ideas, collaboration and innovation – all qualities we are in desperate need of right now.


Up for the challenge?

As leaders we need to step up. We need to think at a higher-level and we need to think twice.


Firstly, about the solutions to the new challenges we face.


Secondly, about the best way to connect those ideas to move, inform and inspire those we lead.


For a generation or more, leaders have been asleep at the wheel – able to succeed simply by repeating cookie cutter solutions. As is now clear, that time is past. Our public life and democracy itself is in trouble. We need the ‘first-rate intelligences’ as defined by Fitzgerald a century ago.


Are you up for that challenge?

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