Please, Sir, can I have some more?

Please, Sir, can I have some more?

“Think for yourself and question authority” said Timothy Leary, psychologist and writer (1920-1996). Most people would agree with that, probably without a second thought. But it needs a second thought because both bits of advice are more difficult than we imagine. To think for ourselves is not, as some would believe, simply to have an opinion about everything – the ‘know-all’ of the sixth. Questioning authority is not merely criticising.

A mentor and friend of mine, Sir Peter Reynolds, who died recently, made his biggest impact on me by teaching me to think beyond what I saw and heard and, above all, what I had been indoctrinated with as a child. Thinking back over our 47-year friendship I can see that my ability to question everything, including, when necessary, his views and advice, was largely a result of the long chats I had with him. As we travelled many parts of the world together I had the opportunity to know him better than most people. He described me as ‘an enigma’.

Our chats were sometimes business based, sometimes personal based and always world based. Trying to sum up what I learnt from him I would say that it amounted to a combination of freely expressing common-sense, honouring the personality of the individual and engaging people in a way that produces collaboration and results. No easy task-master – he was my boss for nearly twenty years – he nevertheless managed to convert the rather damaged raw material of me into a happy and reasonably successful human being.

Questioning authority was always a feature of working with him. A rebel from his youth – he was only a year older than me – he had no easy time either when young or later in life. His progress through the ranks of business involved dealing with people who were not only stuck in their ideas but positively ossified in their behaviour. The hierarchy of authority is what had made them rich and they were not going to drop it. You were always ‘on parade’ with them.

Times were changing even then. Not technologically at anything like the pace they are today but socially enough to disrupt the even tenor of the age. Such disruption caused hardship to many and a need for astute adaptability for all. Questioning authority had become a skill requirement. Many got it wrong and suffered in the process. Positive and constructive criticism didn’t guarantee that you got what you wanted but it gave you a fair chance.

You have to judge if you need to question authority. The first lady admiral of the US said she believed in seeking forgiveness rather than permission. Do you actually need to question authority? Who said so? What are the consequences of your disobedience if you get it right? Or wrong? About 80% of the things we want to change we can change simply by changing them. The other 20% aren’t so easy. They need the art of verbal seduction.

The usual gimmicks for persuading people are for the birds. Overt flattery, false concern, egregious attention are all obvious sales tricks of a long-past generation. The people you are trying to persuade know you don’t mean them and they feel cheated that you think them so shallow. Verbal seduction is a combination of reason and charm. Both have to be real.

There is no substitute for genuinely caring for people. We don’t teach it enough. We teach observing and summing up but not caring. Is it so difficult to care about other people? Sometimes it is frustrating because our resources are limited and we cannot help everyone. Mother Teresa had no difficulty with that. “I help the one in my arms”, she always said.

Business, technological development, making money are all about discipline and determination. They require people to implement them. Even so, everyone is an enigma. I think it is the most flattering thing you can say about people. It means they are all different, not consistently, not predictably, not rationally. Just different. You do not care about a marble statue but you care deeply about the clay that is being formed into something beautiful. I am grateful that I was taught the beauty of the individual. It has enabled me to question authority with understanding and gratitude as well as with doubt.

Our mentors die because they are human. Their influence doesn’t die because it is passed on from one generation to another. My longest-lasting and most influential mentor has gone. I am deeply grateful for all that he did for me. It is up to me to see that his influence survives.

That will be your situation one day, too.