The Plague, by Albert Camus
Albert Camus’ The Plague seemed like an obvious place to start. The novel was published in 1947 and is set in the French colonial city of Oran, in Algeria. Although some claimed the book was an allegory about the Nazi occupation of France, in fact Camus reached back a century to a cholera epidemic that hit Oran in 1849. The story is told through a number of characters, the first of which is a doctor who treats the first plague patient.
What stands out is the level of denial. Although there is clearly something wrong with the city’s rats, who are dying in the streets, no one wants to cause a panic by saying so. The doctor confronts a city father at the train station with his concerns and, even as a station worker walks past with a box of dead rats, the official insists there’s nothing to worry about. It’s interesting how Camus captured the denial and the fear that taking action might be bad for business, even as everyone was beginning to notice that something was happening. As the city borders locked down, the people of Oran realized they were trapped.
That was early April, just as masks and waiting in line at the market had stopped feeling like a temporary emergency measure and were starting to feel normal. The shock, announced just before the first emergency measures, that South By Southwest had been cancelled was still hitting all of us in Austin, as was the idea, whether one was a fan or not, that the NBA was cancelling its season. Like the citizens in Oran, our lives were in lockdown and it was hard not to feel our homes had become walled cities.
The Splendid and the Vile, by Erik Larson
Late in April, a friend suggest I read Erik Larson’s book about Churchill’s first year in office in 1940. Asked to form a government on the day Britain declared war on Hitler’s Germany, there was no denial in Churchill’s approach and the story of how he used the months of the Phony War to build up the country’s defenses – particularly the air defense – is one of the great leadership and management stories of all times. But the most remarkable parts of the book were the journal entries from the Mass-Observation organization, which had been formed two years earlier to recruit volunteers to keep daily diaries.
The diaries were supposed to help sociologists understand ordinary British life, but during the months leading up to the Nazi blitz and then the months of the battle of Britain, when Londoners stood on the rooftops of their buildings and watched the waves of Luftwaffe bombers overhead, heard the bombs falling, and saw the blossoming, fiery explosions, their entries took on a deeper importance. Thousands and thousands of diarists shared their daily experience of the blitz and two trends emerged: the first was the comforting quality of tea, which “ran through the diaries like a river.” The second was the feeling, before Churchill ever said it, that in standing up to Hitler and his attacks this was their “finest hour.”
At Reservoir, we had been using that phrase with clients for weeks at that point, hoping we were right, and wanting clients to approach the lockdowns, furloughs, and remote work protocols with a positive outlook. Reading about the men and women of London (and other cities as the bombing spread) reminded me of Londoners I met when I lived there in the 1970s, who still referred to the war as the best years of their life.
Could this be true of our experience in the pandemic of 2020 and 2021?
A Woman Lit by Fireflies, by Jim Harrison
As the year moved into May, as markets and political statements continued to wobble, made worse by the rhetoric of presidential campaigns, I focused on finishing the first draft of the book I was working on, Being Essential, set to be released on February of 2022. And I was reading Jim Harrison’s A Woman Lit By Fireflies and wondering why Harrison didn’t have the Nobel Prize in Literature. The protagonist of the story, realizing her life is a trap (a lockdown, in 2020 terms) simply gets out of her car at a highway rest stop and while her husband is inside, climbs over a fence walks away into the cornfields. She leaves the prison she’s constructed in her life to start over again, to find her transformation. Many people I was working with, both clients and colleagues, were envisioning their own watershed moments that month.
There were signs that maybe things would sort themselves out. The President announced Operation Warp Speed to accelerate the development of a vaccine and that felt good, even though we were approaching 100,000 deaths from COVID-19. We needed that kind of good news, because the financial outlook was grim: a 38% drop in GDP on an annualized basis and 26 million more Americans unemployed that just six months before.
And then, on May 25th, a policeman knelt on the neck of a Black man named George Floyd and everything seemed to explode. Watching people rioting and looting stores, watching police smashing into peaceful crowds with tear gas and night sticks, holding their own form of riot; hearing pundits on both sides of the arguments calling for more action, it reminded me of what previously had been our worst year ever, 1968, the year of the assassinations, the year when it felt like the world was on fire. When, on June 1st, the President ordered tear gas, mounted police, and helicopters to clear demonstrators out of Lafayette Park so he could walk across it for a photo opportunity, him holding a bible in front of St. John’s Church, I turned off the television.
I knew I had to read a great deal farther back in history.
Musashi, by Eiji Yoshikawa
In Japan, a great battle in the year 1600 brought to an end a century of incessant warfare between feudal lords that had brought the country to its knees. The Battle of Sekigahara, established the Tokugawa dynasty and restored stability that lasted for more than 250 years. The novel was written in the 1930s and follows two very famous historical figures: Miyamoto Musashi, regarded as the greatest Samurai in Japanese history, and Takuan Soho, an affable and artistic Zen monk who became a confidant and advisor to some of the great leaders of the emerging Japan. His letters to leaders are still widely read in Japan.
It seemed to me that if I could walk alongside the minds of a Samurai and a Zen master, I would have a better sense of how to look at this decade in America, when it felt like our country was coming apart at the seams and a global pandemic felt like the least of our problems. With those two characters in my head. I thought I might have a better lens on our time.
It worked. Before long I was able to look at everything happening across that summer as an extension of every civilization. Sometimes there are good leaders, sometimes there are bad, but most times societies are run by human beings trying to do the best they can with the limited understanding they have. What are Republicans and Democrats anyway but Romans in neckties? The knowledge that we had been through this kind of societal insanity before made it easier to think about how to lead in times of disruption.
The secret of the Samurai is not to fight with strength but with attention. A warrior like Musashi understood that where his attention went his sword would go. His art was to use his attention to move his opponent off balance. Just one percent off balance and a swordsman has lost the ability to respond.
So it is with a leader. Takuan’s advice to leaders was to be always aware of where they placed their attention. “Look with real attention at the way the world is now,” he wrote to a leader, meaning that, like a swordsman, where your attention goes, that is where you can affect change.
We used that with our clients, watching for leaders who were trying to impose their anxious will on results instead of focusing on where their attention was. We taught a practice of radical self-awareness in which the leader is constantly asking questions about where she is and why, about who he is being and, in response, what he wants. That mastery of attention changes the ground on which the leader plays. And in the summer of 2020, we saw that clients who could call themselves back to attention were getting remarkable results from their organizations.