We woke up to a new post-referendum country yesterday morning. Well, we woke up to the beginnings of some upheaval at the very least. Things are going to be very complicated for a while. As an owner of a business both in the UK and The Netherlands I, like most people who voted, have no real idea of what the implications on my long term future will be. This wasn’t a vote about policies or grounded in logic, facts or a clear road map either one way or another. The remain/leave campaign has been talked to death and I don’t want to write about my standpoint (though for the record I am a remainer), but watching Mr Cameron outside No.10 made me think about something more general than the intricacies of discussions on battle buses and TV debates over the last few months and that in reality means we won't see very much change in the long term.
Our Prime Minister cut a sorry figure as he addressed the media yesterday. His resignation speech could be boiled down to a simple message; 'with my head and my heart I tried my best, I promise’. How, for a man so certain of himself for so long, espousing the virtues of his ever changing policies, ridiculing others for theirs, could it come to this? The answer is one that was provided for me in a different context a few months ago. Problems like this are so often caused by people who don’t understand the limits of their own capabilities, or if they do, aren't willing to share them. A simple lack of understanding that you are not equipped to deal with the situation you are in or the journey you are embarking on is not a great place to be. Couple this with the ambition innate in almost all of us and the rhetoric pumped at middle and upper class youngsters that the sky is the limit, you can do anything, be anything, and the potential for a perfect storm is created.
Over a lifetime this can breed a position where someone believes they are capable of anything, dealing with any situation and possessed with the skills, vision, leadership and authority to overcome any task. In fact it all seems like fun, a bit of banter, some good old fashioned hard work too of course. There’s some scrapes and some u-turns, but with you at the helm telling everyone you know what to do, what really is the worst that can happen.
The last three years with Makerversity have been a rollercoaster for me personally as I grapple with exactly this. I’m from the privileged leafy suburbs of North London, I bought and sold a house in the capital (yes I'm part of that problem too) and in 2013 I took a big risk* to start a business that has since blossomed very quickly.
When you take risks, push yourself and things go well, it’s easy to think that it’s because of you that things have played out that way. While this isn’t a fallacy, it is more complicated than that. It also doesn’t mean that because you’re good at one set of things, you’re equipped to deal with the changing personalities, pressures and scenarios that continually present themselves when you’re leading something dynamic, be that a startup business or a country. The other side of this is that people start expecting you to have the answers. It feels like you would let people down if you don't. The realities of working with people in this position can be frustrating even when things are going well. There is little space or time in modern business or politics for people in this position to openly evaluate their skills, but once you assume a role it's absolutely essential you do so and you're honest with those around you about what you don't know. It is very very difficult to explain to someone intelligent and successful that they don’t know what they don’t know, and how not knowing is a huge risk. In many respects I spent the first 18 months of Makerversity feeling more and more confident in my abilities to create whatever I wanted. I have spent the subsequent 18 months slowly learning all of the things I’m not good at and trying to find the people much better placed than me to do all of those things instead.
It's important to say that I am a huge advocate of taking risks, trying your best and putting yourself in positions that you're uncomfortable with and learning through action not theory. It's a huge part of who I am (or want to be) and most of the people I look up to do the same in some way. However, what is equally important is to do so with a sense of realism about your situation, capabilities, weaknesses and strengths and to help others with whom you're involved understand this to the best of your abilities. If you are able to be brave in the choices you make, be braver in your self-appraisal and in sharing that. The problem if you don't is that the people around you believe you have the answers, they trust that if you didn't you would say so. They place their futures in your hands, base their decisions on yours.
Start a business or a life in politics and not being aware of or mitigating against your own shortcomings will for a while at least be ultimately be your problem. Your business never takes off, you aren’t elected - that’s about as far as the shockwaves reverberate. Go much, much further before the wheels fall off and you’re ignorance will bring down a lot more people than just you. There will always be shit and always be a fan when you’re at the top of something. The more you understand what you don’t know, what you can’t do, the better your chances of avoiding a collision.
Over the last three years including some long stays on the West Coast, I’ve seen and worked with many other people who are grappling with the this issue. More worryingly still, I've met many people like this who should be worrying but aren’t. This ignorance regarding the limits of ones own capabilities causes a huge amount of damage in the business and civic world. Indeed the damage done is particularly as a result of those who are by and large very good. Some people are brilliant but none are perfect. However, the two can get muddled when riding the rollercoaster of success.
The problem with brilliant, privileged people is they will go far and once they’ve gone far, they’ll believe they can go further and further. This confidence can be very convincing, even alluring to those around them and for some will eventually propel them to the top. Once there, having never stopped to question their invincibility, they probably won’t see the shit or the fan before they collide.
David Cameron is a man of some intelligence and charisma and I don’t believe he’s a bad person. He doesn’t believe he’s a bad person himself of course, but what has just dawned on him is that perhaps he is no economic genius, judge of the public mood, nor a particularly good leader. Cameron's premiership will be remembered for his unequivocal assurance that whatever agenda he was pushing at any given time was 'the right thing for Britain'. He was a chameleon Prime Minister lurching from one thing to another as the winds of opinion changed from the Big Society to migration. The one thing he always was as a leader, at least in public, was certain he was capable and certain he was right.
Unfortunately for him the realisation that he might not have been came too late and it’s ruined his chances of a favourable legacy. Unfortunately for the rest of us, his lack of personal awareness means as a nation we find ourselves in a bizarre position that will likely negatively affect millions of people. But, of course, he did try his 'bestest'.
There are almost certainly many people in the startup world who will see the same boom and bust as Mr Cameron as a result of the same ignorance. Or if not ignorance then fear of appearing weak or stupid. A rapid rise to the top, realising you're ill equipped too late in the day. Who knows, I might not have realised the depths of my inabilities either and could one day find myself on that pile, inadvertently dragging others down. I hope not.
What I do hope for is that we turn a corner in the way we hear from business and political leaders. Is it so hard to say 'I don't really know', 'I'll speak to someone who knows more about that than me and come back to you' or 'I'm probably not the best person to do that'? If you understand this and others do too, then plans can be made, experts can be found, risks can be mitigated and most importantly in many respects, trust can be built.
There are two forms of trust - the trust of belonging and the trust of reliability. You trust your family because you belong to them. You know they're far from perfect, you know their foibles but you trust they will do their best for you. Even when things go wrong, the trust of belonging remains strong. Trust generated through reliability is much more brittle. Your phone stops working, your train is late and within seconds trust is gone. The trust of belonging is built on a mutual understanding of honesty, character and capabilities. Until we're able to properly appraise this in public, we won't see a change in the way we trust our business and political leaders. The brittle boom and bust rise and fall will continue, and there will always be the bitter taste of having been cheated or lied to when things fall apart.
There are two examples of leaders exemplifying this trust of belonging I've been aware of in recent times. One is very close to me, and that's my business partner Joe Smith. When we started Makerversity Joe continually made clear to everyone that we were just some guys trying something difficult. We weren't sure where it would go or whether we'd be any good at it, but we were giving it our best. Through this we were able to generate realistic expectations and a great deal of trust and belonging from those who came on board. As Makerversity has grown, the pressure to 'be seen to be more professional' has made it harder to retain this honesty, but I think thanks to Joe we still manage to, by and large.
The other example takes us back to 2009 and the surprise appointment of Alan Johnson MP as home secretary. He "acknowledged his lack of economic experience, saying he was being "chucked in the deep end". Asked by the BBC what his first move would be in the job, he joked that it would be to "pick up a primer in economics for beginners". He was ridiculed for this, but I am a huge admirer of his honesty and self awareness. It made me trust that he was seeking advice, canvassing opinion and decisions he made would be considered and researched properly.
I would love to see more people like Joe and Alan in positions of responsibility. Whether you're riding the wave of privilege or genuine brilliance, go for it but constantly question yourself, your proficiency in any given situation. When you are responsible for others salaries, benefits, citizenship and wellbeing, you damn well owe it to them and yourself to understand and communicate the limits of your capabilities, affording them agency to make their own informed decisions. In fact when you start to it can be very liberating as you let those better than you come to the fore.
Oh and if this resonates and you're wondering how to go about objectively assessing your own capabilities don't ask me to help, I’d be rubbish at it.
*A big risk in the context of starting Makerversity is very different for me than many people. The worst case scenario of failure would probably have been to move back in with my parents, who would have looked after me and supported me. With their help and that of my good education (which I can attribute to a mix of their support, the postcode of our family home and some inheritance from my grandfather) I would probably have been OK again within a year, and have a great story to tell about that big risk I took.