Archive for April, 2012

The personality of organisations

(Written 29th April 2012)

Dear All,

Towards the end of a sports festival day at Wynberg Boys High School the story was told of an older couple who had, some 20 years ago, sent their sons to prominent boys’ schools in the southern suburbs of Cape Town. And at the time of their choosing those schools Wynberg was never considered a suitable school for their brood of young men. But they went on to say that if they had had another son now, they would have no hesitation in making Wynberg their first choice. So why the change?

May I state from the outset that I consider Wynberg to be one of the finest educational institutions you will find anywhere in the world; but I hasten to add that while it has, in it’s 170-year history, always been a good school, it has not always been a great school. For instance, there was a time around the 1970s when the school was in the doldrums and I was very fortunate to have been party (in a very small way mind) to the setting of the direction in which the school was to develop since the mid-1990s.

In expressing my thinking on this matter it is perhaps necessary to point out that since I do not read MBA-type literature this phenomenon may well have been studied in some formal way, and if it has, then perhaps someone could tell me by whom. In the meantime let me say that it has been my experience that the development of a healthy, vibrant organisation is a delicate weave of a large number of factors such as circumstance, history and events, opportunities and skills, organisation and management, but most of all it is guided by the vision of the person in charge. Moreover, in this process the organisation comes to reflect the character and integrity of the person at the top. I have also found that it works the other way round. Organisations that may once have been vibrant soon become moribund when the person in charge lacks vision. Worse is that corrupt leaders soon corrupt the ‘personality’ of the organisation they represent. Let me give you some examples.

Some 10 years ago I had occasion to be part of a group who were working to rebuild a struggling manufacturing organisation in America. The business in question had been run into bankruptcy and I had been offered the opportunity to be part of the team that would nurse the company back to financial health. It was a marvellous challenge; there was a lot to be fixed which I am happy to say went well for the most part. The disappointment however was that the new owner’s vision was not actually to build a sound company, but to tart it up and to sell it to an unsuspecting investor. I soon found out that there was a good reason why the new boss spent a great deal of his time in litigation, he was the most mean-spirited person I have ever met and it soon became apparent that the ‘personality’ of the company had also become deceitful and mean. The owner had no integrity and neither did the company. I did not stay long.

Since the fall of apartheid South Africa has had the mixed fortune of having had presidents from opposite ends of the visionary spectrum. It is probably not an exaggeration to say that the sheer presence of Nelson Mandela saved the country in the 1990s, giving rise to the temporary sense of a rainbow nation. For a short while the nation actually adopted the magnanimous personality of that great man but sadly it was not to last. Just 15 years later the country has a president without vision and without credibility; and it shows in the everyday lives of its citizens. Jacob Zuma’s mumbling of puerile questions has taken the place of debate and his slow reading of pointless statements has taken the place of actual messages to the nation. Worse is that the prevailing personality in the country is one of secrecy and graft. South Africans have become a corrupted nation.

On the other hand, I have over the last 15 years had the great privilege to get to know the Headmaster of Wynberg, both as a friend and as someone in charge of an institution for which I have a great affection. Not only is Keith Richardson a man of integrity but he is a man of vision involved in a great work… educating young men. While continuing the work begun by his immediate predecessors, Rowan Algie and Bruce Probyn – that of returning the school to greatness – he has done more than that. He has imbued the organisation with a philosophy that reflects his character. He has given it a personality that has made Wynberg the school of choice.




Written April 2012

Dear All,

How shall we define the wayward and mysterious and outcast thing that we term humour – that is forever a pillar-to-post outcast from the stern laws of reality, and yet forms so intimate a part of (and even embodies) all truth about which there is an eternal ring?” Herman Charles Bosman’s introduction to the essay ‘Humour and Wit’.

Every time I re-read A Cask of Jerepigo: Sketches and Essays (Human & Rousseau, 1964) I look forward to that gem on page 167 in which Bosman writes about what is quintessentially Bosman, ‘humour’. As he points out, if it is true that “humour is born out of the emotions and wit springs from the intellect, then I would naturally be prone to look upon wit as being to some extent an intruder, I, who am by nature suspicious of the intellect, fancy that in its dark recesses there lurks a specious cunning (in wit) whose purpose is to gloss over with trickery the soul’s deficiencies”. But “humour is something that stands apart from (any social use and psycho-physiological functioning) ibid. Humour must be approached from the side of the eternities, where it stands as some sort of battered symbol of man’s more direct relationship with God.”

Frank Muir in The Oxford Book of Humour Prose proposes a useful way to classify wit, buffoonery and humour. In the introduction to that entertaining collection he suggests that wit is concerned with ideas, buffoonery with deeds, and humour with people. Incidentally, Muir also makes the claim that the English originated humour, quoting Sir William Temple’s 1690 essay titled ‘Of Poetry’ in the collection Miscellanea II, but I don’t think that to be generally true. Certainly wit, buffoonery, satire, sarcasm and irony all have cultural connotations that make them characteristic of certain peoples and periods; but humour, as I like to think of it, is universal and timeless. As can be seen in the table by Fowler, the province of humour is ‘human nature’ and the audience for humour is ‘the sympathetic’. Perhaps it is just that the English were the first to develop the expression and acceptance of humour, an expression that does not reject, but that embraces the oddities, embarrassments and eccentricities of human behaviour.

Table from Fowler's Modern English Usage, 2nd ed. Reprinted 1980

It is often suggested that modern mass media, mainly television – that chewing-gum for the eyes – has put an end to our access to fine humour. It is suggested that the barrage of bland, crude and easily accessible comedy to which we are subjected in films, TV and YouTube will make sure that we never again will look upon the likes of the golden-age humourists such as Dickens, Twain, O. Henry and Bosman. I don’t think that to be true… humour has always been part of us, and always will; although I readily concede that modern living has made it much more difficult to find people of great humour. It is a sad thing that the clutter and noise of interconnectivity drowns humour. That is because the expression of humour is always subtle, quiet and gentle. Humour never takes centre-stage, it never forces its way into the conversation.

Voltaire by Huber (watercolour)

So, how do we find the expression of humour? To be honest, I am not sure, but I recognise it when I see it… it looks like Huber’s magnificent watercolour of Voltaire, that friend of mankind, smiling the smile of reason. And as I look at this marvellous face I am reminded of the story attributed to Voltaire who, when on his deathbed, was asked if he rejected the Devil and all His works? Voltaire apparently replied, “This is no time for making new enemies.”