Julia Middleton of Common Purpose gives me the creeps

At the 2014 CSCLeaders programme, there was a talk by Julia Middleton. She was the founder and CEO of Common Purpose. CSCLeaders is run by Common Purpose and is the current incarnation of the Commonwealth Study Conferences founded by HRH Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, in 1956.

I’ve been trying to work out what it is about this woman’s speaking that gives me the creeps. Surely it’s more than the fact that the head of a company that trains business people should be capable of delivering a speech without cue cards. I wonder if she uses them because she enjoys the little repetitive ritual of donning and doffing her spectacles? Is it to give her hands something to do? At any rate I trust that public speaking is not on their curriculum, or this glaring shortcoming places huge question marks over the rest of what they teach.

I know very little about Common Purpose except what I have gleaned from their website; but what I see makes me uneasy. For one thing there’s an incontinent splashing-around of the word ‘leader’. It’s a good word that does not deserve to be thus cheapened by over-use. I detest it when politicians use it for themselves, and it’s not just because I happen to know the German and Italian translations of “The Leader”. Politicians are people delegated by the rest of us to run things – and by “things” I mean as little as is absolutely necessary. When politicians assume the title of ‘leader; it seems to coincide with their arrogating the right to stick their grubby fingers into matters that are none of their business. And anyway, it is up to others to bestow the ‘leader’ title upon someone. Assuming the title for yourself is gauche and a nonsense.

Back to Julia Middleton and her speech (btw she calls herself a leader). Within the first minute she indulges in hagiolatry with respect to her father. It was cringe-making when Margaret Thatcher did it, it is no less so here. There is nothing wrong with passionate admiration for a parent, but keep it to yourself. If you want to quote them in a speech call them “someone I used to know” – or some-such.

Middleton employs a device beloved of George W Bush to draw the sting from a comment believed to be otherwise too harsh. It’s a phony smile that doesn’t extend to the eyes. She deploys it first at 2:33, and my toes curl.

The content of the first half – or thereabouts – of the speech concerns ‘core’ and ‘flex’. If you are desperate to know more watch the speech, but they are merely the sort of elementary concept that you find in self-help books at the lower end of the market. There: I’ve just saved you around ten minutes of your valuable time.

She then swings into the subject of a book she appears to have written on the subject of ‘cultural intelligence’. Intelligence can mean mental acuity or information acquired covertly. This is neither. Having forced myself to yawn and wince my way through this I can best sum up ‘cultural intelligence’ as a rather flabby variety of relativism. That’s another ten minutes I’ve saved you.

At 26:42 “I thought last night, and I thought ‘what are the eight things I’m going to suggest to them…”

What, in heaven’s name, is the value of a list that starts out with an arbitrary number of empty spaces which you then set about filling? A proper list creates itself the other way round with a range of items which you then count and write down. This is pitiful!

What really bothers me is that the above list is intended to help the audience embark on a week of this sort of thing. Who the hell is so under-employed that they can afford to throw away a week of subjecting themselves to such pointless garbage? You’ve got to be a bit of a lame-brain, a masochist, or an exceedingly conscientious blogger, to sit through this 35 minutes. I actually sat through it twice, not quite believing that it could be quite as awful as I’d thought. That counts as ‘above and beyond the call of duty’.

Anyone in that audience with genuine leadership qualities as distinct from being a sad little individual, desperate to belong to a self-satisfied clique of similar souls, would demonstrate it by making their excuses and leaving for the real grown-up world.

Imran Khan has huge charisma; but he needs a little tuition

In February 2013 Imran Khan addressed the Oxford Union.

There is an introduction from Adnan Rafiq. It ends at 3:45, and Khan begins speaking at 4:08.  The intervening 23 seconds is filled by ecstatic applause. This is from an audience too young ever to have watched him play cricket; but then the man does ooze charisma. My wife (who is old enough to have watched him play cricket) peered over my shoulder and remarked on how good looking he still is. I shall try nevertheless not to hate him too much to be dispassionate about his speaking.

Immediately I give him credit for shooting the speech from the hip. He could do it better, but at least he is doing it.

Let’s examine how he could have done it better. After a little too much preamble (about which I shall say more later) he launches the main thrust of the speech at 5:25. He does it with the single word, “Leadership”, and then proceeds to define it. He aims to operate a  tripartite structure by giving three essential qualities for leadership –

  • Vision
  • Conquering of fear
  • Integrity

That would be excellent except that he contrives that each of those elements has subdivisions and qualifications that muddy the clarity, not just for the audience but for himself – he slightly loses the thread a couple of times. This vision, he says, should be selfless; courage should involve a degree of self-criticism; and lastly he tends to confuse integrity with credibility (the one is purely moral, the other can be concerned with skill). Suddenly therefore the definition of leadership is not tripartite but manifold. He needs to revisit his three sections, slightly re-define and re-title them so as to encompass the qualifications and thereby achieve the tripartite aspect that he evidently was seeking.

He follows all that with a section that can best be described as ethos. He talks about his cricketing experience and the leadership that is required of a team captain. He narrates the battle he had, building a cancer hospital in Pakistan. He speaks about how he refused to compromise his principles for self-advancement, and so on. It’s all good stuff, but the mistake here is that his ethos is following his argument, whereas it must precede it, because ethos should be an underpinning to provide the platform on which the argument stands. You could justifiably claim that Imran Khan has such a high public profile that he doesn’t need ethos to give his arguments credibility, but that is not an argument for putting ethos in the wrong place: it’s an argument for leaving it out.

So this is an overview of the layout of his speech.

  1. Preamble – principally Thankings, and with some slightly sentimental references to his sons being in the audience. Just over one and a quarter minutes of it.
  2. His definitions of Leadership
  3. His ethos.

I would either lose the ethos completely on the grounds of redundancy as argued above or I would slip little illustrative anecdotes into the three elements that define leadership.

And I would put the thankings somewhere else.

But where? Ay there’s the rub! Thankings are often overwhelmingly appropriate and we have to find somewhere for them. On the other hand bald openings are so powerful, that it is a terrible pity when your opening is forced to follow something else. If, for example, there is a formal greeting – “Your Royal Highnesses, my Lord Mayor, Ladies and Gentlemen…” then there is no way out. But thankings can be inserted towards the end…

“Finally, I’d like to say how much I appreciate having been given the chance to come here today. Your committee has been wonderfully welcoming… etc.”

Since this speech was delivered, he had that dreadful accident during his political campaign when he fell from a hoist. As I write, that was just over a month ago and he is now out of hospital. I wish him a speedy and complete recovery. 

Javed Akhtar introduces a debate.

In early April I critiqued a speech by the brilliant Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, made at the 2008 India Today Conclave.  He was preceded by Javed Akhtar whose speech we shall examine today.

Contrary to the still picture you see there, this is the right video. Javed Akhtar, as an award-winning scriptwriter and lyricist is not exactly obscure and he has spoken at this conclave in previous years, but on this occasion he is the chairman for a debate between two other speakers – and the first of them is pictured above. What Akhtar has to do is set the scene, and that is not an obvious or simple task.

Is he just a glorified warm-up man? He could be. Is he just an animated menu, a face and voice to tell you what to expect? He could be. This is one of those functions that simply becomes what you decide to make it. Like so much else that happens on a speaking platform it is not a case of what is right or wrong but what can be made to work. Whatever else he does, he is responsible for establishing the decorum

He starts at 1:00 and finishes at 10:15. He begins with his own ethos. Much of this involves references to people and matters that presumably resonate with the audience but to which we are not privy; so having identified it as ethos I shall move on.

The debate centres around the question, “Is spirituality relevant to leadership?” From 3:40 Akhtar addresses the question without trying to answer it because that is the job of the subsequent speakers. Shooting from the hip he flags up questions as to what leadership and spirituality are. I can’t fault that.

Nor can I fault the way he delivers it. He speaks slowly and has the confidence to deal in long pregnant pauses which are highly effective. He also demonstrates how you can convey intensity without volume – he has moments of pouring high-octane energy through very quiet passages. It’s a very effective technique.

When listing the supposed qualities of leadership and spirituality he uses both asyndeton and polysyndeton. He also drops a small anaphora into the mix at one point. I repeat that this is all unscripted, so it becomes clear that here we are watching a very skilled, literate and articulate speaker.

And as I declared at the beginning this function of introducing a debate becomes what you make it. The verdict on his performance therefore hangs on the question of whether this short speech works. I think it certainly does, and it also lays down a very good decorum. Job done.