A lesson in leadership from Douglas Adams

Abstract: The true power of a leader’s voice lies in a lesson from science and space…

There’s a pivotal saying in the world of journalism: content is king, context in King Kong. In brief it means that whereas what is said in a burst of text is important, its accuracy and correct interpretation – and therefore its impact – is ensured only if it is placed within the correct frame of reference. This same saying should be the preface of every handbook on sound leadership.

Like every other science journalist I whooped with joy and punched the air when the Mars Curiosity rover completed its treacherous voyage to the red planet and settled, on cue, into its predetermined landing area. It was the accumulation of years of commitment, insight and wisdom from hundreds of dedicated scientists and thinkers from all over the world. The only mission that was then going to be more daunting was trying to get others excited about it, to see its relevance, and to try and begin to understand both the scope of the challenge and the possibilities that Curiosity could uncover.

This is where context needs to kick in.

Many years ago I attended a presentation at the Durban Natural History museum that had a profound effect on me. It was about the wonders of space, an area of which I had little knowledge outside of a cursory understanding of astrophysics. One of the slides showed a sliver of the night time sky – a blanket of darkness sprinkled with thousands of sparkling lights. Space, as we know it.

The next slide changed everything. It was the same stretch of space examined using the Hubble telescope, looking deeper into the darkness and bringing everything into clearer focus. What it showed was that almost half those lights thought to be stars, were in fact galaxies, each containing billions of stars. Space had suddenly become that much bigger.

But that wasn’t the end of it; because to truly understand the scope of the image it needed context; and here it is: the slide showed only a portion of space the equivalent size of 20c piece examined from a distance of 25 metres.

Now crunch the possibilities and get a context that is closer to home: if all those stars in that minute patch of sky are in fact galaxies, each with billions of suns; how many planets must there be in the whole universe, and how many of them must be home to exciting life forms? Putting it another way, how crucial is the role of humans in the universe, and how important, really, is the brand of shirt you wear?

It’s easy in the day-to-day drill of edging the economy along to get bogged down in the minutiae of life on this planet. We’re all too familiar with the stresses of business; and staff, as they scurry about their day, somehow find the time to find fault in just about everything. They do this because they lack perspective – they haven’t been imbued with the correct context, and, as leaders it is our responsibility, nay, our morale duty, to pick up the light and guide them.

But how? The secret is to select the right time, and dazzle them with a pep talk – a speech they’ll never forget because it’ll put everything into context and say something along the lines of, “given what you now know, is what you’re worried about really all that important?”

This means coming up with a line or two that is unquestioningly brilliant and preferably witty. It can’t be too well-known because you’ll just seem lazy; it can’t be well-used or it’ll just sound too clich├ęd; it can’t be obscure or it’ll just lack impact; and it can’t be inaccessible or you’ll just seem disconnected from your audience.

Luckily enough, I have just the one for you – the opening lines of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Gide to the Galaxy:

“Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small un-regarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.”

Originally published in the September 2012 edition of Leadership magazine