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The Artisinal Leader

For many years, we’ve treated leadership as an acquirable skill in the same way as we teach children art. We give them the tools, explain the theory and expect the magic to happen. For a long time, it worked well enough. Progress in the last few decades has been through efficiency and automation leveraged by good management practices and for the most part, leadership training was a good way to knock some of the rough edges off harsher management styles.

That’s a long way however from artisinal leadership. Leadership founded on a love of both the art of leadership, and whatever it is the organisation delivers. In these areas, leadership is an attitude and a disposition, powered by curiosity and a sense of the infinite game – the pursuit of something important for its own sake.

As the quantitative skills that got us to now are increasingly replaced by the “C”s that are needed to take us to next – compassion, clarity, connection, collaboration and creation – we need more from our leaders. An infusion of possibility. A glimpse of something beautiful. Qualities that harness our senses and our heart as much as our logic and intellect.

It’s hard work. It involves becoming fascinated by what we do, no matter how mundane. It needs us to access our inner three year old. Three year olds don’t find anything mundane.

If we wait for our calling, we might wait a very long wait. We have to look for it where we are. Once we understand that, and exercise the discipline to look for the interest and beauty in what we do, then surprising things can happen. We may not fall in love with our job, but we learn to look at things differently, and as that happens we see with new eyes, and open ourselves up to that which might be our calling.

As the mundane disappears, eaten by technology, we would do well to find an area where we can absorb ourselves and apply our abilities to create things of beauty. To bring out the artisan in us.

When we have our calling, leadership follows naturally.

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How big is an Artisan’s market?

Relationships are at the heart of an artisan’s market. It’s their relationship with their work – the work after all is the client. It’s who they serve. Then there are those who buy the work, for whom a relationship with the artisan, or at least the idea of the artisan is central.

People pay premium prices for a pair of Hiut Jeans for many reasons, not least the ongoing dialogue. Every pair of Jeans is signed by the person who made them. There is a constant stream of interesting, useful and creative output on “doing one thing well” that, whilst building relatonships, is also great marketing. The personal relationship is the brand.

There’s an interesting spat at the moment between Brewdog and the Advertising Standards Authority over a recent advertisement celebrating Brewdog becoming carbon negative in, er, fairly robust language. The conflict between establishment and iconoclast is personality based amd memorable. The paradox of course is that far more people have seen the ad because it has been banned. Brewdog win. Nobody has a relationship with the ASA.

There is clearly an upper limit to an artisan’s market size. At some point, they tip over into mass market, and lose their artisan credentials. When does that happen?

Going back to Hiut, with each pair of jeans signed by the maker – that’s a relationship. There’s another through the highly personalised marketing. There’s enough scope to build a really good business, but not a huge business, which means that at least in their own lifetime, artisans need to have a concept of “enough”. It might wel be the case, as for many artists that the demand for and financial value of their work increases after they have left us, but in their lifetimes, they have finite production capability whilst maintaining the relationship with the work.

We face the prospect that an entrepreneur has the opportunity to make billions, but that the artisan in limited to a few million. The limiting factor is relationships and as Robin Dunbar has shown, we cannot maintain meaningful individual relationships much above 150. The brand can extend that a little, but not much whilst maintaining the direct artisinal relationship. Nobody has a personal relationship with Uber, or Facebook, a Bank, or an insurance company no matter how much they spend on advertising.

The good news is that the constraint is a powerful friend, If you have a limited audience, if you have all your eggs in one basket, you have to look after that basket really well. You have to maintain those relationships at every moment. Once relationships erode, they rarely restore.

So for all us aspiring artisans and iconoclasts who are prepared to put up with an upper limit of customers in the thousands rather than millions, and a wealth ceiling in the millions rather than billions from doing work that we love the question is:

What is it that we will commit to that drives us to focus so closely on so few and put our relationships on the line?

Sir Tim Smit, iconic founder of Lost Gardens of Heligan, and the Eden Project, gets it.

Bankers and investors always talk from the outset of the need to establish an exit strategy, a way out when things go wrong. This may be why Britain is not the easiest country in the world in which to turn dreams into reality. In my view, if you really believe in something you should allow yourself only one exit strategy – death. It concentrates the mind most wonderfully. If those around you trust you, they will draw comfort from your conviction. If they don’t, you deserve to fail.

Once we understand that the adventure begins. Everything else is sightseeing..

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Reflections 22nd November

What’s on my mind

The power of stories and play.

It was triggered by listening to Yuval Harari talking about his latest version of Sapiens – a graphic novel version, and why he wrote it. In essence, one of the main reasons that we Sapiens won out over Neanderthals (who had many physical and cognitive advantages) was our ability to work together in large numbers, and the reason we can work together in large numbers is our ability to tell each other improbable stories, and make them come true. It’s a fascinating thought

It’s all very well us saying “show me the evidence”, but the evidence won’t motivate and engage like “tell me the story”. In a time of uncertainty such as we are in, we can either obsess with the evidence (which is going to be backwards looking, and often more threatening than inspiring) or we can weave stories, and then go after them.

This then is a time for stories. About what we see, and what we’re going to do. When we are bombarded with doom from those who profit by it, from advertising dependent media, or social media sources of dubious provenance, it’s down to us to craft our own stories.

I found this interview with Yuval Harari fascinating for the reasons behind his use of a graphic novel, and his take on stories.

HowTo Academy

What’s making me think

Learning Through Play. If we are going to harness the power of ambitious stories, then using the creative power of play is a natural ally. This ten minute read from the FS blog on how we can play with number, and the implications for wider creativity is a great read.

The company we keep. This HBR article suggests that graduates from elite universities outperform their peers from lower ranked ones – but not by much, and it’s changing. The top univiersities are not the automatic pass they used to be.

Business and Art. A wonderful short monologue from Steve Marshall of Ashridge Business School. Found in Alan Moore’s newsletter, which contains many other treasures. You can find it, and him, at Beautiful Business

A quote

“People are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others.” – Blaise Pascal

Where I’m focusing

It is increasingly clear to me, as we watch large centralised organisations, from companies to Governments, flounder in the face of complexity that the change we want for ourselves will not come from them. It will come from us, working together in small commited groups, playing with ideas and developing our own propelling stories in pursuit of more than money.

I’ve put together a simple website as somewhere to focus.

Have a great week.