Smile or Die

I stopped off in Waterstone’s at Charing Cross yesterday to find a book recommended on Aboodi Shabi’s stimulating website. It’s an angry and insightful book called ‘Smile or Die’ about how positive thinking has marginalised critical thinking. Good stuff. But also of interest was its location in a new section called “smart thinking”.

It made me wonder what sort of thinking was to be found in the rest of the shop. I didn’t research that but I did have a brief look at what was in the “smart thinking” section. It had some books by Malcolm Gladwell, the latest Daniel Goleman, Freakonomics and The Men Who Stare at Goats. I wondered what the criteria were for inclusion because there is a thin line between simple wisdom and hokum. It struck me that the books that I recognised all challenged assumptions, lazy thinking and restrictive commonsense, often bringing the insights of scholarship to a wider audience.

I like to think that there is some wisdom on those shelves, made accessible by keeping it simple. Lots of these books are relevant or have implications for leadership. And it seems that much of what I offer and explore when I am teaching leadership is in fact conceptually pretty simple.

And in my work with executives young and old I find myself offering ideas about leadership that are not only simple but far from new. A couple of years ago I heard two passionate presenters introducing what they called “the new leadership”, drawing on Goleman’s work. Grumpily, I thought it was only ‘new’ if you count Lao Tzu’s teachings as ‘new’. So I got quietly cross with the presenters and left.

But I should not have. Wisdom is timeless but to be heard it needs to find the right contemporary expression. Something may be old hat to me but it can (and thankfully sometimes is) mind-blowing for someone with different experience to me. And there is so much noise, so many unexamined assumptions and so much self-serving ‘commonsense’ that if we find a simple truth that helps us make sense of the world and be more effective in it, then we should repeat it until we hear lots of people saying it back to us. Or as Andre Gide put it:

Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again.


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