There Are Two Kinds of People In This World…

In a piece called Late Bloomers, Malcolm Gladwell describes writer Ben Fountain, who wandered for decades doing research before he became an overnight sensation.

By contrast, some writers (Melville, T. S. Eliot) instinctively knew their minds and needed no research beyond inspiration. The same is true of painters: think of Cezanne (the wanderer) vs. Picasso (the intuitive).

Reading Gladwell, I suddenly recalled Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western Clint Eastwood vehicle, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. In the film, Tuco (the Ugly –  Eli Wallach) and the the Man with No Name (the Good – Eastwood) exchange a meme – “There are two kinds of people in this world, my friend –” followed by parings like, “Those who have guns and those who do not.”

When Sergio Leone and Malcolm Gladwell agree, I submit, you can be confident you’re on to something. Which is, itself, an example of the thing – we humans have a passion for dichotomies.

Whether or not there really are two kinds of anything in this world – we insist on dividing them up that way. It’s a primary sense-making rule for us.

Famous Pairs

  • Men and women, black and white; up and down, day and night.
  • Debits and credits; assets and debts; good and evil; owns and lets.
  • Angels and devils; sound and sight; pens and swords; heavy and light.
  • Classic and modern, north and south, east and west, your ears not your mouth.
  • Innies and outies, type one and type two; comedy and tragedy, feeling up and feeling blue.
  • Eastern and Western, right handed and left, smooth and anarchic, clumsy and deft.
  • Cloudy and sunny, shiny and rusted, aggressive and passive, trusted and  distrusted.

And on it goes.

Reality isn’t binary; our view of it is.

The Primacy of Two

It’s not that we don’t love threes: witness 3-legged stools, the three musketeers, three strikes you’re out, thesis-antithesis-synthesis, the Holy Trinity, and the Three Stooges.

But after that things fall down. Consultants are in love with 2×2 matrices (see my “Rule of the Axes” in – wait for it – You Too Can Be a Strategy Consultant – Three Secret Tools).  But notice, the power of matrices rests in the combination of two binary lists.

When you get to five, forget it; that’s when you start needing mnemonic devices to remember (the SMART model, Every Good Boy Deserves Fun, SNAFU). Heck you might as well be doing Top Ten lists.

No, the upper limit of natural human organizational ability is three; and if we had our druthers, we’d really prefer to be dealing with twos.

The Good and the Bad

It helps greatly to dichotomize the world so efficiently. Think how easy our lives are made when we can label things hot or cold, stop or go, left or right.

Of course, some things in life don’t benefit from such a lack of nuance. Interpersonal relations, politics and trust come to mind. The trick is remembering when to dichotomize and when not to.

But wait – that’s another dichotomy, please forgive me. After all, to err is human; to forgive, divine.  (Damn, did it again).

Roses are red, violets are blue;

Some jokes rhyme–some don’t.

But at least that’s another two!

Invictus: Real Leadership, Real Management

This week we’ll be exploring the theme that business is inherently personal, and that we’ve forgotten that fact to our detriment.

Last weekend I saw the movie Invictus, Clint Eastwood’s latest, about the early days of Nelson Mandela’s presidency in South Africa. It stars Morgan Freeman (of course) as Mandela, and Matt Damon, as captain of the hapless rugby Springboks, South Africa’s version of the Chicago Cubs.

Mandela knew that the Springboks were as hated by the black population as they were beloved by the Afrikaaner whites. His insight was to see the power of reconciliation that could be achieved if the team were to pull off the equivalent of the 1980 US Olympic hockey team’s victory.

The movie reviews are mostly positive; even the critical ones suggest that Eastwood got the critical story right. And the true story itself is so enormous that it needs no embellishment. For my part, Eastwood has rounded the sharp edges over the years, and increased the role of heart. For me, he has earned the right (since as far back as The Good, the Bad and the Ugly et al) to jerk my heart around pretty much as he wishes.

But this is a business blog, not a movie blog.

The Best Way to Lead, and the Best Way to Manage

We meet Mandela just after he has been elected president, after nearly 30 years in prison. His power lies in the overwhelming respect he merits by forgiving all those who imprisoned him.

In his first meeting with the Matt Damon character, Pinnear, Mandela asks him a question: How do you lead? Pinnear’s answer is clear, and Mandela delightedly agrees with him.

The best way to lead is to lead by example.

Mandela leads by refusing to fire the white former security officers, thus personally demonstrating reconciliation of the highest order on Day One of his administration.

The second question Mandela poses is, what is the best way to manage? And his answer is equally clear.

The best way to manage is through inspiration. And the best way to inspire is to demand of others things they cannot themselves conceive of accomplishing.

As Pinnear’s wife asks him how the meeting went, it dawns on Pinnear that Mandela has just acted on those two questions–by asking him to lead the hapless Springboks to (gasp) the World Cup championship, a goal he himself could hardly conceive of.

Leadership and Management: Whatever Happened to Role-modeling and Inspiration?

It was only 15 years ago that Collins and Poras conceived of BHAGs–Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals.

It was 21 years ago that C.K. Prahalad suggested that Strategic Intent–basically a "stretch" view based on direction, discovery and destiny–should inform strategy.

Warren Bennis has been preaching for many decades now the importance of role-modeling.

Yet what do we have these days?

  • Chuck Prince, former CEO of Citibank, says "As long as the music’s playing, you’ve got to get up and dance." Role-modeling? I don’t think so.
  • The image that remains today from "Shoeless" Joe Jackson’s 1919 conspiracy to fix the World Series is that of a kid saying, "Say it ain’t so, Joe!" In other words, dismay at the betrayal of a role-model. The fallout from today’s flame-out by Tiger Woods is discussed more in terms of brand image than of leadership.
  • The dialogue these days about the financial meltdown is centering on compensation incentives and structural reform. Management by inspiration? Not in evidence lately.


The point is not whether scientific management doesn’t have its place; surely it does. But that place has been overdone to the detriment of both leadership and management.

This is not some untested thesis. Mandela accomplished some remarkable things by applying these human principles to an "organization" of some 50 million people, and to problems as intractable as racism. Makes Citibank look like a walk in the park.

Whether you liked the movie or not, Clint Eastwood is channeling a message for our times.