Skating On Thin Slices


Back in April 2013, I set a challenge for myself by asking my followers on Twitter to select three words that would form the subject matter of my next blog post. You can read the resulting post here. It was great fun crowdsourcing a topic in this way so I thought I’d start 2014 with a post with the same beginnings. I am grateful to Julie Drybrough, Perry Timms and Kate Griffiths-Lambeth for the three words that kick me off in 2014. They are: Lovebomb (Julie), Anticipation (Kate) and Fervour (Perry).

Wayne Gretzky, nicknamed “The Great One”, racked up some astonishing stats in an ice hockey career spanning over 20 years: leading point-scorer in NHL history; more assists than any other player has points; only player to total over 200 points in one season, something he managed on four occasions; over 100 points in 16 professional seasons, 14 of these coming consecutively; holder of 40 regular-season records, 15 playoff records, and six All-Star records; winner of the Lady Byng Trophy for sportsmanship and performance five times. Gretsky’s record marks him out as something of a phenomenon and his well-known quote, “Skate to where the puck is going, not to where it is” has been seen as a neat summation of what some see as the skill of anticipation. The German philosopher Edmund Husserl founded the study of phenomenology, seeing it (as Wikipedia has it) as primarily concerned with the systematic reflection on and study of the structures of consciousness and the phenomena that appear in acts of consciousness. Husserl saw anticipation as an essential feature of human action. More recently, Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Blink” dealt with the opportunity we have to make accurate snap judgements based on attuning ourselves to clues that abound around us, if only we can train ourselves to recognise (or thin-slice) them.

Gretsky’s almost supernatural reading of the game allowed him to anticipate where the puck was going to be and to make sure he was there to play it. Those of us with an interest in creativity and innovation at work and in workplaces are often offered up ideals that seem uncanny in their conception and not the preserve of mere mortals. The snake oil salesmen and self-professed gurus out there would have us believe that they have a monoply on this kind of expertise. Gretsky had a more pragmatic view of where his excellence came from:
“Some say I have a ‘sixth sense’ . . . Baloney. I’ve just learned to guess what’s going to happen next. It’s anticipation. It’s not God-given, its Wally-given. He used to stand on the blue line and say to me, ‘Watch, this is how everybody else does it.’ Then he’d shoot a puck along the boards and into the corner and then go chasing after it. Then he’d come back and say, ‘Now, this is how the smart player does it.’ He’d shoot it into the corner again, only this time he cut across to the other side and picked it up over there. Who says anticipation can’t be taught?”

In emotional terms, anticipation is the pleasure, excitement, and anxiety we experience in considering some dearly wished-for good event. There are those amongst us who wish fervently for a radical change in the way we go about work. I’m frequently one of them. This fervour is, however, tempered by a pragmatic reading of the entrenched, systemic dogma that keeps us in the jungle, the better to obscure a view of the horizon. We often describe working life as being at the coal face, or with our nose to the grindstone. Hard graft and getting your hands dirty to supply pollutants and deplete precious resources. I prefer to propound upon a more elegant analogy as we evolve how we think about, and talk about, work. It’s still about working up close with stone, but it is the marble of the sculptor rather than the fossil fuel of the miner. Picasso said that sculpture is the art of the intelligence and emotional intelligence, the link between fervour and anticipation, is, for the moment, a key factor in effective leadership. Rather than chipping away with your nose mere millimetres from the mallet and chisel, we need to stand back, as Walter Gretsky taught little Wayne, and see and learn to sense the world around us, the beautiful figure inside the block of stone. After all, optimism (itself a form of anticipation) is a key factor in EQ.

Synonymous with fervour are words such as passion, ardour and emotion. September 2012 saw the publication of a book entitled “Love Bombing: Reset Your Child’s Emotional Thermostat” by Oliver James, a clinical child psychologist. James’ has developed a new method, lovebombing, aimed at resetting the emotional thermostats of children aged three to puberty. It entails the parent spending a period of time alone with their child, offering them unlimited love and control. It purportedly works for a wide variety of common problems; from defiance and aggression to shyness or underperformance at school. According to James, conventional wisdom recommends more control, not less, when a child is not complying, and stricter, firmer reactions to undesirable behaviour.
Anyone with an interest in leadership and workplace management will recognise the spectrum covered here from Taylorist command and control on the one hand to the freedom-centred, democratic principles of WorldBlu on the other. Kahlil Gibran said that work is love made visible, and, whilst many of us would shy away from talking about love at work, most of us would agree with the positive potential effects of devolving control away from “management” and into the hands of employees and showing them we care enough to trust them. If we give them back control, they can determine for themselves the best time to step back, to anticipate, to kindle fervour for their work and, yes, to learn to love it anew.


One comment

  1. I am in awe at your ability to produce such a fluid and thought provoking post out of three such disparate words. Thank you Sir – a masterful and enjoyable read. (Even better than I anticipated!)

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