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The Art of Fairness:
The Power of Decency in a World Turned Mean
by David Bodanis
More books on Behaviour
When Danny Boyle was asked by the 2012 Olympic Committee how he planned to stop 10,000 people from leaking details about his spectacular opening ceremony, he had a simple response: "Let's just ask nicely." He didn't confiscate people's phones. He didn't make them sign nondisclosure agreements. He didn't even pay them. He recruited 10,000 volunteers and not one of them broke the secret he called "a surprise". Even Prince William and Prince Harry were shocked to see their grandmother parachuting into the stadium then joining them in the VIP section. "It was," says David Bodanis in the introduction to this fascinating book, "a perfect night".
"I've always," he says, "been fascinated by a simple question: 'Can you succeed without being a terrible person?'" For him, and for many of us, that question took on greater urgency in the age of Trump, but it's the question that hangs, unspoken, over almost every workplace. The evidence seems clear. Bullies win. Nice guys finish last. Game over.
The Art of Fairness aims to show not just that the game isn't over, but that there are other, better ways to play and win it. For Bodanis it's a personal and intellectual quest and one he's extremely well equipped to take on. He has written books about politics, the Enlightenment, the birth of electricity and Einstein. His book E=mc2 was a bestseller. He has been a popular speaker at Davos and at companies such as Google and Goldman Sachs. He must have met his fair share of corporate bullies, but after many years exploring this issue he has concluded that "decent people also often make it to the top, even in hard, competitive fields".
Boyle had a reputation as a considerate man long before the ceremony that made a nation proud. He knows, Bodanis shows, how to build the respect, trust and loyalty that makes a good team. But he's also strategic and canny. In his brief sketch of Boyle’s approach to the ceremony, Bodanis draws out three characteristics he believes are essential for all successful leaders: listening without ego, giving in a way that builds trust, and defending without vilifying. He also shows, in a paragraph under each, how those might apply to leaders in a pandemic. It's already clear why the UK isn't doing well.
In the first half of his book he tells stories that illustrate some of these principles. He starts with Al Haynes, the captain of an aircraft flying from Denver to Chicago in 1989. There's a loud bang. The controls jam. The aircraft is set to roll on its back and then plunge. Over the next 20 pages, Bodanis gives a heart-stopping account of the action Haynes took, in what one aeronautic historian described as "one of the finest displays of airmanship since the beginning of aviation". Many aircraft have crashed because captains haven't listened. Known for being respectful to his colleagues, Haynes "elicited the opinion of everyone in the cockpit in a quick and systematic way", and saved 185 lives.
He tells stories from medicine, which show the life-saving value of listening "without fixation", and from business, which show the economic as well as social value of treating staff well. He shows how the Empire State Building was constructed, by a team led by a gruff but kind depressive, in just over a year. He contrasts the approach of Steve Ballmer, the chief executive who took over from Bill Gates at Microsoft, with his successor, Satya Nadella. Ballmer, whose zero-sum philosophy caused Microsoft to miss out on smartphones, social media and key aspects of the cloud, was described by Forbes as "the worst CEO of a large publicly traded company". Nadella, whose attitudes to others were transformed by his experience of having a severely disabled son, was last year named FT Person of the Year.
He tells the story of Ursula Graham Bower, a debutante turned anthropologist who built such a deep bond of trust with her Naga tribesmen neighbours that they joined her in becoming effective guerrilla fighters against the Japanese in the Second World War. And he tells the story of Captain William Bligh, famous for the mutiny in 1789 on his ship, Bounty. Bligh was foul-mouthed and brutal, all too ready with the cat-o’-nine-tails. He was also generous and kind, often giving up his bed for sailors whose hammocks were soaked, and introducing free time for music and dancing. Bodanis picks him as an example of a man who could behave extremely badly and extremely well. It’s the heart of his argument that the choices we make will tip us, and those around us, one way. He quotes the economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who said that about 10 per cent of the population would always be considerate, about 5 per cent would always be selfish, and the rest could go either way, depending on what they saw others doing.
The second part of the book takes two examples of men who shifted from one to the other. The first is a shy young man with a limp and a Jewish girlfriend, whose dream was to write poems, novels and plays. The second is a spoilt man born to money, known for his arrogance and snobbery. The first is Joseph Goebbels, who became Hitler's propaganda minister, the second Franklin D Roosevelt, architect of the New Deal.
Bodanis is a superb storyteller and his account of these two transitions is riveting. His description of the techniques Goebbels used - discrediting the press, calling democratic institutions 'fake', silencing dissent - is chillingly familiar and shows how easy it is for things to go horribly wrong. His account of Roosevelt's new-found empathy for the disadvantaged also shows us how things can go right.
Bodanis's Reading and Reflections at the end runs to more than 20 pages and reminds us that being a 'nice guy' is as complex as any other art. It would have been nice to have heard about a few more women, since nice women face an even tougher task. Never mind. Bodanis is clearly one of the good guys and this book is a cheering, timely, inspirational reminder, as we witness a new dawn in the American presidency, that they - we - can succeed, without losing our souls.
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