Act 1: “I Declare the Symposium Open!”
On the morning of April 25, 2016, Cass’s 3rd MBA London Symposium was declared open by Dr. Sionade Robinson, the Associate Dean of MBA Programmes. The Symposium is undoubtedly the school’s flagship event of the MBA calendar. Over the course of a week, Cass showcases the impressive network the school has within London industry and academia circles and brings together MBA students and leaders for a mixture of keynote speeches, workshops and tours.
The date, as Sionade had deliberately pointed out in her opening address, also coincided with the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, which occurred on the 23rd of April, 1616. Exactly why this was important to highlight however I didn’t immediately recognise.
Fortunately for me, Sionade went on to explain that the connection made between our Symposium and Shakespeare was to actually highlight the work of his close friends, John Heminges and Henry Condell, without whom, she argued, the work of dear Willy would have been largely forgotten. You see, Shakespeare, as brilliant as he was, never got around to publishing any of his work. That responsibility was actually picked up by his friends Heminges and Condell, who put in a considerable amount of hard work to published the now famous First Folio. Sionade used this example to highlight the often forgotten role of teammates and indeed followers in a leader’s success. It was a fair point I guess, however, was there more to this Shakespearian plot than merely that?
As you may presume, I wasn’t entirely convinced with this parallel. Sure, if one of my cohort was upstanding and delivering a moving soliloquy every other week I’d make certain that I was uploading it to YouTube for history’s sake, but other than that….?
I digress. Sionade’s reference to good old Bill the Bard had obviously captured my attention so I planned to investigate it further. Except that this Symposium week ahead looked to be very busy, and also promised to be so interesting, that my curiosity on this particular subject would need to remain parked for some time. I would do it later I told myself.
During the week I was privileged to hear from and engage with a variety of leaders recalling their steps as they challenged their own attitudes, honed their craft and ventured onwards into unchartered territory. Indeed, Explorers and Discoverers was the central theme of this year’s Symposium. And, in keeping with that theme, we also heard from experts in emerging trends such as artificial intelligence and virtual reality, disruptive FinTechs who are taking it to the big banks and also from traditional businesses who are reinventing themselves to suit the new complex business world. It was incredibly interesting and at stages was truly inspiring. (If you would like to see the actual agenda and full list of speakers click here.)
However, it wasn’t exactly that straight forward.
After my MBA I plan to return to Australia and take on a leadership position at the company I was working at prior to coming to London. In that context, the experience during the London Symposium was, as I said above, enlightening and yet at the same time, somewhat overwhelming. With so many different speakers, experiences and differing points of view it was sometimes difficult to make sense of the key lessons or messages so that they could be applied to myself and my own experiences. Like a good wine, perhaps these lessons just needed more time for me to fully come to grips with them. It was a pretty intense week!
It was at this academic impasse that I got a chance to return to Sionade’s original Shakespearian metaphor. (I was procrastinating from real work at this stage, so obviously my research on this tangent was particularly good!)
I learnt that Heminges and Condell published the First Folio in 1623. It contained a total of 36 comedies, histories and tragedies generally accepted to all be written by William Shakespeare and remains to this day the only reliable text for the majority of his work. As Sionade had pointed out, without their passion, commitment and knowledge, this publication simply would not have been possible. Characteristics that were all held by the speakers we met during the symposium in fact, but still, this didn’t help me totally contextualise the week. So I dug a little more.
I soon realised that it wasn’t just their hard work, passion and talent that made it all happen. There was more to their success than that.
In 1623 the paper industry in England was still in its absolute infancy. At the time, the majority of the rag paper used within England was imported from a few specialists in France. There were also only a handful of printing organizations within London that had the technology and capabilities to handle the intricate typesetting and quantity of printing. To put this into context, the Bank of England developed the technology to print banknotes in 1694 – 71 years later!
Clearly then, Heminges’ and Condell’s responsibilities in delivering their Folio for little Billy extended far beyond the mere verifying of text. They had to manage the entire complexity of the operation too. An operation that included the long supply chains throughout Europe, the application of innovative printing technology and the careful co-ordination and motivation of publication teams to realize their final dream. (All of this without a mobile phone and an email account too I might add!)
Success, I now know, is complex. Its not just leadership, and not just management – there is a logical but probably unexplainable mix of the two in my opinion. I don’t know what I’m talking about really but I believe Stefan Stern, who was the MC for our Symposium and a regular commentator on leadership, would agree with me. In a recent review for the FT of another leadership book he stated that “By and large we speculate a bit too much about leadership, and worry too little about management.” (Read more here but lets for the moment at least just assume his opinion vindicates mine!)
So with that revelation now embedded within me, I now understand that just like the experiences we discussed during the Symposium, there was a lot more going on behind the scenes untold that helped bring about, in this case, Heminges’ and Condell’s success. Theirs, and indeed those we heard of during the week, cannot be understood in terms of a 5 bullet point post, such as “Lesson 1, 2 & 3….,” although we seem to always try. This was what I was trying to do with the Symposium. Its futile.
Of course, authors of LinkedIn articles would often have you believe that success is easily understood in “5 Key Lessons”, or something similarly benign, but these are extremely crude interpretations and simplifications of the facts. Rough simplifications often leave inexperienced students of the game, like myself, dumbed down and ill-equipped to handle greater responsibility. I’m sure (or hope?!) the authors of these articles understand this problem and assume that we wouldn’t take their “5 Step Plan” as gospel. However, inexperienced readers seem to eat these news feeds up all too quickly with recklessness. Its a 1st World Problem I know but these bite sized “How-To’s” pose a real and genuine risk to both future leaders and those that they lead. My advice for any new students young or old is to read with responsibility and take care out there.
And it is responsibility that I argue is the message (rather than the lesson) one should take take from the 3rd Cass MBA London Symposium. The volume and variety of speakers, who in their own right all delivered meaningful ‘tips’, as a whole allowed me to understand the sheer breadth of a good leader’s responsibility is wide, very wide. And Shakespeare’s death, surprisingly, reinforced that idea.
As a leader and manager, everything becomes your responsibility – not to micromanage and control but rather to look after and ensure you are getting the best out of the resources available. And given my immediate plans after my MBA, it is timely message to receive indeed.