When No One Is Watching: The Generous Strategist

Goya, Fight with Cudgels

Goya, Fight with Cudgels

One evening some years ago I was returning home on the bus after playing football at Paddington Rec. It had been a satisfying game overall: John’s jinky runs down the wing; Dylan’s early goal and late tackles; Tim’s frustration with lost pace and youth.

I had the whole team’s kit in a big blue holdall with a view to washing it for the next match. (In my later years I found I could contribute more off the pitch than on it.) I alighted at the Angel and crossed the main road onto Camden Passage.

Suddenly there was a woman’s scream from down the street, and a young man came sprinting towards me.

I’d say I’m generally pretty slow to assess situations, but in this instance I had my wits about me. I could see a shiny leather object flapping at the man’s side as he accelerated towards me. He had evidently stolen a handbag from the woman still shouting in the distance.

The thief looked fit, fast and strong. Now he was very close. I froze to the spot. What to do?

With a rush of blood to the head I took my big blue holdall and drove it straight into his midriff. It was like a training manoeuvre I’d rehearsed in rugby practice when I was a kid.

We both flew dramatically to the floor. Somewhat startled and out of breath, the thief stared me straight in the eye. Then, without a word, he was up and off, into the cold dark night, leaving a small red clutch bag on the pavement behind him.

I rose to my feet, dusted myself down and returned the bag to the victim. She was too upset to be grateful.

I looked to left and right.

Alas. No admiring bystanders. No congratulatory applause. No security cameras recording my feat for posterity. I wouldn’t be appearing in tomorrow’s Evening Standard.

A melancholy thought struck me. I’m not a particularly brave person. This would probably be one of the rare occasions when I’d have something to be proud of. But my heroism had gone unseen, unrecorded, unremarked.

So often in life our best moments pass without comment. Our best jokes go unheard; our sharpest looks go unnoticed; our most romantic gestures go unwitnessed. It’s the difference I guess between the real world and the movies.

Although nowadays we are more than ever concerned with validation, affirmation and endorsement, we most of us learn at an early age that we can’t live life for an audience - because an audience is not always around when we need it.

Indeed some would say that the best measure of a person’s character is his or her unobserved behaviour.

'Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.'
CS Lewis

‘Quality means doing it right when no one is looking.’
Henry Ford

There’s an important lesson for the world of work here. Whilst careers cannot progress without recognition, we shouldn’t pursue recognition as a means of progressing.

We’re none of us impressed by the colleague who performs with an eye on the top dog; who is endlessly agreeing with the big cheeses, echoing their opinions, applauding their successes; who sends self-aggrandizing, celebratory emails ‘cc my boss.’

The great John Bartle felt strongly that planners should contribute ideas without claiming authorship; that there was more chance of collective success if individuals were not striving for acknowledgement; that the best strategists were generous at heart.

‘Success has many parents, failure is an orphan - be happy to let others take the credit and success is more likely.’
John Bartle

I’m sure he was right. In my own experience, the moment we have a dispute over input, the output suffers; the moment we seek ownership of an idea, we reduce its chances of being realized; the moment we demand personal credit, we diminish esprit de corps.

There have been times over the years when the planning discipline, individually and collectively, has been desperate to assert the value of its contribution; yearning to be recognized as first among equals. I’ve always taken this as a sign of weakness, not strength. It’s certainly unattractive.

Ultimately the generous strategist will get noticed. Not for individual authorship perhaps; but for serial contribution to collective success; for ongoing participation in a winning team.

There was nothing else for it. I hoisted the big blue holdall onto my back and made my way wearily home – time to have my tea, watch some telly and wash the sweaty kit. Unseen, unnoticed, unobserved.