I woke up last week to screaming headlines about David Cameron ‘chillaxing’ at the NATO summit in Chicago when he should be working. What is he doing enjoying the Chelsea-Bayern penalty shoot out, harrumphs the Daily Mail, when he should be saving the free world?
This comes hard on the heels of ‘revelations’ that “DVD Dave” watches films in bed with his wife – shock horror - and also has an impressive score on the addictive iPad app Fruit Ninja.
What alarms me about these headlines is not the track record of our current Prime Minister but the unhealthy assumptions about work they rest upon. These are four classic ‘work confusions’ I see every day when I am helping clients work in smarter, more creative and interesting ways.
When I was growing up everyone had something to say about the virtue of working hard. I learned to sweat is noble, to strain is virtuous.
I can’t recall anyone encouraging me to work well. Years later in the corporate world I see people still valuing exertion over elegance every time. Actually, while high performance may require you to put in the effort, sustained high performance is all about conserving energy and interleaving intensity with rest. Only robots can work at peak output 24/7. Criticise a Prime Minister for relaxing if you like. I see it as evidence he is, well, human. It has become fashionable to praise leaders for being ‘driven’. I think this explains why a good deal of top CEO posts are currently held by quasi-Arspergic types only inches from burn out. Do we really want leaders who only work? If we did, Gordon Brown would still be at No 10.
There was a time when you could assess someone’s output by how many acres we had ploughed, trees felled or tons of coal dug up. In these post-industrial times it is less easy to give hard proof of how productive you have been during the day. Instead people have perfected the art of looking busy. And David Cameron has broken this cardinal rule. If he had stayed in the meeting room, brows knotted, sleeves rolled up burning the midnight oil, perhaps the papers would have had less say. In fact they’d probably be on his back for being all work and no play like his manically conscientious predecessor Gordon Brown.
The criticism of Cameron has an important message for business, where the accepted wisdom is that serious problems need to be tackled with appropriate brow-knitting seriousness. Business people feel they need to look all serious to be taken seriously. My observation is that the more serious you become in your thinking, the more real and massive the problems appear. By contrast, in the arts world, where I’ve spent a lot of my own life, the attitude is reversed. The bigger the problem, the more playful you need to become. As the great director and writer Ken Campbell would famously say: “This is all far too important to take seriously”.
Having spent the last couple of years studying meeting cultures at leading international businesses and small businesses alike for my new book Will There Be Donuts? I am struck by how often we confuse ‘a meeting’ with the act of Meeting; mistaking the noun for the verb. We’ve come to think that a meeting is something that happens in an airless room around a big formal table. It isn’t. We’re forgetting that the act of meeting covers a huge range of human interactions and can happen virtually anywhere. The real work of a meeting often happens in the down-time between formal sessions. Indeed, the whole purpose of a facility like the rustically informal Camp David is to encourage leaders to unwind and really connect as people. When people do really meet, rather than what I call ‘nearly’ meet, old enmities can break down and new solutions can be found. That is presumably why Obama invited the G8 for a ‘VIP Sleepover’ last week. In the book you’ll find examples of where this kind of ‘real connection’ has helped avert war, resolve conflict, invent new ideas and create fresh wealth.
So, whatever you may think of David Cameron, let’s not be hypocritical. Let he (or she) that has never vegged out cast the first stone. If DVD Dave watches films in bed, so be it. Better – and less spooky - than reading Hansard into the small hours while Sam stares at the ceiling. And “chillaxing” isn’t getting in the way of work, it’s an essential part of the process.
Now take this meeting test to discover the shocking amount of money your company is losing in wasted meetings.
David Pearl, founder of the business inspiration agency Pearl Group, acts a creative adviser to business leaders internationally. His new book Will There Be Donuts? Start a Business Revolution One Meeting at a Time is published by HarperCollins.