Friday, October 26, 2012

iClouding the Issues - Performance vs. Perception

I've always been a fast reader. I've never before sustained a back injury that meant I had to lie in bed for two consecutive days. I hope I won't again. But last weekend I took what advantage I could from the enforced rest and pain meds and read two biographies - Walter Isaacson’s tome about the late Steve Jobs and Christine Nixon's book "Fair Cop" which she co-wrote herself. Their personalities are starkly contrasted.

Jobs was most likely a narcissist (and this is referenced in the book). He could brook no criticism, routinely re-invented the truth, took credit for other people's ideas, mostly after rubbishing the idea first, screaming and berating those that proffered it, then coming back a week later with the same one. I don't like the way he favoured his son over his daughters. It's true he was also obsessed with quality, elegance of design and believed almost anything could be done, and he was usually right. No hurdle was too high or too wide in the pursuit of something artistic, simple, functional, beautiful and life-changing. Some of his colleagues and staff worked out that if they weathered each storm, it would pass without too much collateral damage. But this required a level of resilience that perhaps only people who were as passionate as he and prepared to work each day in the presence of genius and obsessive perfectionism, could do. Some have said similar things about working with James Cameron (Titanic, Avatar).

Nixon in contrast came to her calling early as a daughter of a high ranking policeman. She impresses as a woman who lives to her own deep principles; principles and beliefs which rarely fail her but in another world entirely to Palo Alto and Silicon Valley. Despite many attempts by those so opposed to her appointment and her philosophies to cast her in the stereotypical 'pink' role of too soft mother figure, she possesses her own inner confidence and determination. She weathered her own violent storms, most of which she never initiated. She is a model of compassion and resilience, no- nonsense and decisiveness even if she later thought a few of her decisions weren't her best. But she didn't scream and rant and rave, then sometimes cry to get her way as Jobs did.

I have walked into the Apple Stores on 5th Avenue and Soho and been overcome by the passion and the dynamism of customers and staff alike. Steve Jobs was a once-in-a-generation phenomenon. I love what he brought the world but not the way he went about it. I realise I admire him and respect his legacy; the strategic way he went about changing music, movies, books forever but I don't like him (and I rarely think that about anyone).

Nixon sits more comfortably with me because with her we can have our cake and eat it too. We can celebrate the successes she had in reducing crime, improving the way police handle domestic violence situations, reflect the community they serve in their greater diversity without having to justify or rationalise tyrannical rule.

I can't judge how well Craig Thomson performed his role as National Secretary of the HSU. That's not what anyone is talking about. He still insists he's done nothing wrong and I'm no hand writing expert (did he or didn't he sign receipts for escort services?) but that's starting to sound so Lance Armstrong! However Thomson is entitled to a fair trial. Sympathy for his union members and his wife doesn't make him innocent or guilty. He just can't help it if no-one wants to sit anywhere near him in parliament.

Many of those in the blogosphere who revered Lance Armstrong did not want to believe he'd done anything wrong. We can so easily get sucked into excusing ethical wrongdoing because we are blinded by charisma or wondrous achievements. My fervent wish is that anyone who has to work at the receiving end of behaviour most of us would deem unacceptable do so as a matter of choice and not because they have no other way to earn a living.

Does the end ever justify the means? Every part of me wants to say no. The manager that bullies to get the job done behaves unacceptably. The overzealous union delegate who throws the rule book away at EBA time is doing the same. Intent does not always equal impact. Life dictates that sometimes we will have to sit with the uncomfortable duality of admiring someone's lofty achievements without excusing the way they went about it. Our conscience must demand it.

In the troubleshooting work I do with organisations when people stuff blows up, often my best contribution as the 'cheeky outsider' is helping them see both performance and perception clearly in the light without being blinded by one or the other when making just and ethical decisions on next steps and consequences.