April 17, 2015
A man’s life of 50 years under the sky
is nothing compared to
the age of this world.
Life is but a fleeting dream, an illusion —
Is there anything that lasts forever?
This song was a favourite of a 16th century Japanese warlord, Lord Oda Nobunaga. Famously, he sung and danced this Samurai song before one of his most defining and famous battles: the battle of Okehazama. The Oda clan had been suffering rout after rout as the Imagawa clan and it’s allies were pushing on the last Oda castle. With scarcely a thousand men under his command, the untested Nobunaga faced an oncoming force of roughly ‘only’ 25,000 men. His retainers estimated the enemy forces numbered 40,000 and counselled Nobunaga to surrender to the Imagawa clan. Nobunaga dismissed these concerns and went to bed for the evening. In the morning, he led what men he could scrounge up into the valley where the Imagawa troops were camped and ambushed them while they were celebrating the earlier victories. Nearly the entire Imagawa force was annihilated and its commanders were killed. Japan learned Nobunaga’s name that day. He would continue on to conquer a third of the country and become one of the defining personalities of the Sengoku Jidai period and one of the most famous in Japanese history. Not bad for a 26 year-old whose former tutor committed suicide out of shame for unable to make something of the young lord.
Why am I reading this in a blog about Europe?
This is relevant to the failures of many western societies in promoting a future of mediocrity. According to Foreign Affairs and the Economist, among other publications, we are entering a time where creative talent will be the deciding factor in the success of many sectors: an idea economy. Yet, it would seem that many countries and their economies would rather embrace the safe bet instead of taking risks in creating a dynamic 21st century economy. In recruiting, we are drawn to elite graduates with perfect track records, despite recent articles stating that “elite” educations aren’t much more valuable than those from mid-tier schools. Like many things the people make the value and not the bricks that make buildings.
If we are to seek out creative talents, then those with failures should be seen as infinitely more valuable than those who never had the imagination to fail. Creativity is like any skill and is strengthened from its use. This means generating new untested ideas. If all of someone’s new ideas never fail, the person is either an unparalleled genius who intuitively understands the world or a fraud. It is entirely more likely the are the latter. Originality means taking risks and opening oneself up to failure. It is also the source of innovation and creation; it all begins with a vision.
Lord Nobunaga built his success on his creativity. He innovated with firearm tactics: a then recent introduction to Japan. He also surrounded himself with men of talent, such as Totoyomi Hideyoshi, who completed Nobunaga’s goal to unify Japan. Hideyoshi was the son of a peasant soldier, but it was through recognition of his abilities that Nobunaga would make him his most trusted retainer. This is a common path for great people throughout history. Cao Cao, a late 2nd century Chinese warlord, similarly surrounded himself with talented officers and this appreciation of talent was responsible for his victory in the battle of Guandu (200 AD) versus the aristocratic Yuan Shao. Yuan Shao belittled his advisers who did not share his aristocratic birth. One such officer, Xun Yu, defected to Cao Cao and allowed him to win a pivotal victory by razing the grain depot at Wuchao.
Modern western countries themselves have a fixation on “aristocratic” institutions: the McGills, Oxfords and Harvards of the world. This is wrong-headed and unhealthy for both the public and private sectors because the admissions policies of these institutions are established to weed out creativity before it ever has a chance to influence the institutional culture. These institutions would never have admitted men like Hideyoshi or Nobunaga.
Creativity is not only for artists. It is key to having a vision for this world. It is the ability to see and do what others cannot. It is especially essential in leadership roles: in administration and traditional leadership. No one was ever inspired by a rallying cry of “more of the same!” Those who are unable to embrace and adapt to the times are destined to be forgot as another grey face in a suit; such faces are an epidemic in Brussels. It is a city that seeks out such individuals and then wonders why it fails to inspire anyone to anything. The very ideas that make the European ideals popular, in Europe and abroad, go completely unnoticed and eventually are ground under the feet of the slow and steady marching of lobbyists.
From where I stand, many of Europe’s failings stem from this central problem: an under-appreciation of talent. Too much focus is put on the “old boy network” and not enough is on acquiring and promoting individuals with the ability to independently think and decide for themselves. A hierarchy must have leadership at every level. A warlord needs his generals, who need their majors, who need their lieutenants, who need their sergeants. Only selecting people who are unable to point to their failures and how they learned from and overcame those failures is appointing a hollow class of professionals, who likely will never rise to anything greater than the position they are appointed to, until they are over-promoted and are unable to deal with the responsibilities they’ve acquired. History is full of such individuals, but has no record of their names.C. Shannon