VPs ... are they real people?

VPs ... are they real people?

Juan Cottier Juan Cottier
Director & Lead Geologist at MMbbls Limited

To start with, if you don't like colourful language (aka swear words) then don't read any further. That said, I could implore you to never, ever, do an internet search on "Fournier's Gangrene" and yet some people can be so masochistically inquisitive that they'll still ignore me. So again: please don't read any further.

To start with, if you don't like colourful language (aka swear words) then don't read any further. That said, I could implore you to never, ever, do an internet search on "Fournier's Gangrene" and yet some people can be so masochistically inquisitive that they'll still ignore me. So again: please don't read any further.

Are VPs real people? As brevity is the soul of wit, I will make this nice and short; yes, they are real people.

I've never been one for reading those leadership books that can only be bought at airports but I was however at an oil company where everyone, and I mean everyone, received a copy of Stephen Covey's "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People" a multi-million dollar global best-seller. Everyone got a copy because one member of Top-Management thought it was worth reading. I didn't read my copy.

Shortly afterwards there was a follow-up book, it was called "The 8th Habit of Highly Effective People". Why anyone would want to write a second, almost identical, book immediately after writing a multi-million dollar global best-seller I can't begin to fathom. I didn't read the sequel either but I guess the 8th habit was probably, "always jump on a gravy-train" or "make sure lists are complete".

You need to read the classics to understand VPs (my catch-all acronym for executive management). After all, the ancient world revolved around powerful men striving towards immortality whilst everyone else merely tried to get to the end of the day alive. Machiavelli's "The Prince" and Sun Tzu's "The Art of War" have already been hijacked by the leadership faux-philosophers, their advice is obvious and, as both books tend towards of list of statements, they aren't very thoughtful or flexible. Plus they're both a bit too 1980s Gordon Gekko for me.

Shakespeare will always lay out the full nature of the human condition and therefore also covers leadership: Henry Vth, wastrel-come-good; Julius Caesar, authoritarian passé; Othello, flawed overweening personal pride; King Lear, inability to heed counsel. But I like Homer's "The Iliad"! If you want heroes The Iliad has them, and if you want villains The Iliad has them too. Which works very well as most people's comments on VPs usually polarise towards Hero, yay! Or villian, booo!

But the characters in The Iliad, like VPs, are more complex than simply Hero/Villain.

In The Iliad the heroes are also the villains, they change through time and they depend on the point of view of the observer, be that the reader, the fickle Olympian gods, or Dante Alighieri. Dante put all the Greeks in Inferno and all the Trojans, who through Aeneas were the progenitors of the Romans and so the Italians, in Limbo (and as non-Christians, as much as I'm sure Dante attempted some very creative rule bending, he simply couldn't put them in Paradise).

Achilles is the perfect demi-god warrior but also stroppy and petulant. Agamemnon is the great-king over all of Greece and yet blinded by his own belief in strong leadership. Paris, lover, slayer of Achilles and adjudicator of the Goddesses ... or ... a wet blanket, marriage wrecker and coward (he uses a bow rather than a hero's sword). Odysseus is the thoughtful diplomat and cunning tactician who then took 10 years to cross the Aegean (a trip that countless families do whilst on a spring-break week-long yacht-charter. 10 years fighting and then 10 years getting lost? My sympathies are with Penelope).

Map: Courtesy of Google Maps - Troy to Ithaca - Hardly an odyssey. NB: If you simply ask Google Maps for directions from Troy to Ithaca you get a very different map ... as anyone local to New York State will already know.

They are all both heroes and all villains, except for perhaps Hector who comes out of all this as the untouchable dream-boat, until he gets trounced by Achilles who then drags Hector's body behind his chariot around the walls of Troy. Comprehensively "touched".

The problem we have with VPs, and I do mean we, is that it's easy to be simplistic (is that tautological?). We readily praise them and even more readily vilify them. Because it is easy and it suits us. But they don't have to be end-members; either philanthropic business geniuses or Flaubertian diabolical egotists dining on flamingos' tongues and vipers blood. There is plenty of middle ground.

So here are three VPs whom I have known:

1) Leading a small domestic company which within 5 years became an internationally known E&P. Known for making hard choices quickly and continually on the go ... and yet she sat down with me one morning when I was junior Ops Geologist and helped me through a log interpretation of a exploration well just faxed in (Hey Grandad! What's a fax?)

2) Taciturn and always straight to the core of a problem with terrifyingly perceptive questions ... and yet I found myself in a mountain bar with him in British Columbia where we played pool, drank tequila and talked about our respective cars (he had a Subaru, I had an Alfa) ... you know, he was like ... a real person.

3) Firm and confident, tough and all powerful ... and yet seen outside a gym in Norway at 6am weeping and demanding, "You must let me in. Don't you know who I am?". Quick note to all: you really cannot go round telling any Norwegian what they must and must not do. They have a trillion dollars in their sparegris. We don't.

Let's admit that these are complex personalities that should not be simply cast as hero or villain. Plus, most of us don't know what we are talking about. We don't know what's involved and we're not doing that job. As my dad says:

"There are a thousand times more goals scored from the touchline than from the penalty box."

I don't know the pressures involved, but at least I know that I don't know. To quote Dante again:

"A lot of top guys have dark moods ... Winston Churchill drank a quart of brandy before breakfast ... Napoleon was a moody fuck too"

Just to clarify: that was not Dante Alighieri of 13th Century Florence, that was Silvio Dante of 21st Century New Jersey.

If you really want to know if your VP is a deep-down decent person then the fool-proof test is the "Elevator Test". Opportunities to carry this out are few but the results are unequivocal. The test is this: your elevator arrives and the doors open, your VP is standing in the centre of the elevator and you walk in. If they move to one side and make space for you, then they are OK. If they don't and ignoringly, wordlessly insist that you shuffle around to the sides and corners, then they are not OK. Simple.

Or, in the words of an old-school, Yorkshire brass-banding friend of our family:

"There's a very fine line to be drawn between being a character and being a cunt ... and tha's just crossed it."

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