Sandford Borins

Sandford Borins, Ph.D.

Sandford Borins is a Professor of Management at the University of Toronto. He writes, blogs, and teaches about narrative, information technology, and innovation.

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October 23rd, 2013

Captain Phillips: A Great Movie, for a Different Course

Government, Narrative

I saw the movie Captain Phillips a few days ago, curious about whether it would be appropriate for my narrative and management course. It’s a great movie, telling a true story of survival with drama and suspense.

The movie portrays each of three interacting organizations – the crew of the container ship Maersk Alabama, the band of Somali pirates, and the US Navy ships and Seals deployed to rescue the container ship and its captain – sympathetically. The crew members do everything they can to keep the pirates from boarding and, when the pirates have boarded and seized Captain Phillips, bravely continue with passive resistance and sabotage. We come to understand the pressure upon the pirates to satisfy the extortionate demands of their warlords that prevent an easy solution to the dilemma. The US Navy commanders and crew do everything possible to seek a negotiated, non-violent solution, resorting to violence only when there was no other alternative.

The movie was very much a vehicle for Tom Hanks’s vivid portrayal of a man under extreme duress for most of its duration and in a state of shock at the end. The New York Times critic A.O. Scott recent referred to Hanks’s “extraordinary emotional display in the final scenes.” He can certainly expect at least an Academy Award nomination.

But does all this make for an appropriate movie for a narrative and management course? Even though the movie has considerable organizational content, my answer turns on the question of genre. In his article comparing Captain Phillips to two recent releases – All is Lost and Gravity – Scott referred to these three movies as instances of “individual stories of adversity and the struggle to survive in limited space.” I have another rubric for this genre, namely movies of “people (usually men) in boxes.” Other particularly distinguished exemplars of this genre include Apollo 13 (1995) and the tale of a German U-boat crew das Boot (1985). Much of the action in this genre focuses on technical mastery, figuring out what modifications or adaptations are necessary in order to enable the machine, and the people in it, to survive in a hostile environment. Granted there may be an interpersonal or organizational process involved in determining the modifications, but the interaction with technology is still at the heart of these movies. And the suspense that is a necessary part of the genre turns on whether the modified technology will work. Captain Phillips fits this genre as well because it involves the crew using the ship’s technology to thwart the pirates and the Navy using both tracking and weapons technologies to free the ship and its crew.

In contrast, the genre of film I often use in the narrative and management course is that of “people (usually men) in a room making decisions.” Three exemplars would be Twelve Angry Men (a jury), Thirteen Days (an interdepartmental advisory committee to the president), and Lincoln (a legislative body, the US House of Representatives). These movies involve a great deal of talk intended to persuade, rather than interaction with technology. This is simply a different genre. Further, I expect that the students in my courses are more likely to be engaged in their working careers making decisions in rooms than managing technology in boxes.

This is not to say that managing technology raises no interpersonal issues – indeed, it does. I could imagine developing a course on narratives about “people in boxes” based on movies such as Captain Phillips, Apollo 13, and das Boot. I think the best place to teach it would be in an engineering faculty or military academy. The interpersonal dimension would be extremely valuable to engineering and military students, who tend to think linearly and hierarchically. But that context is very different from that of a management faculty. Captain Phillips is an instructive, suspenseful, and entertaining movie, unfortunately not for the course I teach now.


October 17th, 2013

Susan Delacourt’s Shopping for Votes: Playing the Ball or Playing the Person?

Federal Election, Narrative, Politics

Over the last few nights, I devoured Susan Delacourt’s well-written and thoughtful history of political marketing in Canadian federal politics. The title makes the important point that marketing ideas have now moved into the political realm through election campaigning and the communications function of government.

Delacourt traces the history of political marketing back to the Fifties and follows its evolution to the current day. She puts particular emphasis on the importance of polling and data analysis that divides the population into sociodemographic groups and then locates members of those groups on a constituency-by-constituency basis. This leads parties to design their campaigns, in particular party platforms, to secure the votes of enough members of their target groups that they win the election. The Harper Government represents the state of the art in this practice, with its use of its Constituency Management Information System to gather information about voters, its narrowly focused policies targeted at the marginal voters who are close to its core, and its permanent election campaign, highlighted by attack ads. The Conservatives have recognized that their path to power depends on winning the votes of the Dougies and Ricks-and-Brendas, not the Marcuses-and-Fionas or the Zoes. Delacourt also shows how the NDP benefited in the 2011 election by emulating the Conservative approach and the Liberals were decimated by ignoring it.

Delacourt’s analysis is spot-on for policy, because policies can be designed and precisely targeted to groups of marginal voters. It is questionable, however, whether it is equally relevant to the other component of the political product, the party leader. Party leaders are unlike policies because they are constantly visible to the entire polity, and cannot convincingly present themselves as entirely different people to different audiences. The implication of the political marketing approach for the party leader is that she should focus on her main target group, and then make herself as acceptable as possible to that market. In essence, the leader becomes a follower. Thus we have Stephen Harper projecting an image of hockey dad and writing a book about hockey history because it will appeal to the Dougies and Ricks-and-Brendas. Delacourt also notes that Jack Layton appealed to francophone Quebecois when he was able to come across as “le bon Jack,” a good guy, a regular guy.

This approach to leadership also includes attack ads aimed at leaders of opposing parties. The Conservatives’ successful attacks on Dion and Ignatieff combined negative stereotypes for their occupation – professors – with, particularly in Ignatieff’s case, a strong anti-elitist trope.

The approach to leadership developed by Harper’s marketers hides his considerable intelligence as much as possible to portray him as a regular guy with the regular interests of his constituency. Rob Ford has taken this “regular guy” approach even farther, projecting an image of the leader as regular boor and borderline perp.

It seems to me that, whether supporters or critics, voters want something different in a political leader. We want vision, the ability to articulate it, and the strength of will to achieve it. Rather than a mere reflection of ourselves, we are looking for someone who is exceptional in some way. Obama, Thatcher, Reagan, JFK, Trudeau – even Arnold Schwarzenegger – all present a more compelling vision of leadership than the political marketer’s. I don’t think the political marketers have thought as deeply about political leadership as they have about sociodemographic polling or boutique policies.

The book stimulated personal reflections in two areas. Like Michelle Kofman, who complained to the National Post (p. 279), I too received Jewish New Year greetings from Stephen Harper. The irony of this is that my grandparents and parents, in response to the anti-Semitism of the first half of the twentieth century, changed their surname from Borinsky to Borins. Nevertheless, the Conservatives’ political marketers found us and targeted us.

Delacourt writes at length about the legendary Liberal advertising writer Terry O’Malley. I haven’t seen him for decades but I remember him warmly. When I applied to Harvard College in 1966, O’Malley was the alum who interviewed me. We hit it off very well, had a great interview, and I’m sure his evaluation contributed significantly to my being accepted. So he played a life-changing role for me, which I’ve always appreciated.

My congratulations to Susan Delacourt for her thoughtful and thought-provoking book.


September 28th, 2013

Our Man in Tehran: Revision of a Revision

Government, Narrative

The original story of the rescue of six US diplomats from Tehran in 1980, recounted in the media at the time and a year later in Jean Pelletier and Claude Adams’s book The Canadian Caper, heroicized the Canadian embassy officials, most notably Ambassador Ken Taylor, who sheltered the diplomats and helped them escape. These accounts were extremely cryptic about the role played by the CIA and about certain details of the story, such as the identities assumed by the six Americans, when they were smuggled out of Iran.

The Academy Award-winning movie Argo explored the role of the CIA, in particular agent Tony Mendez, in creating a story and identities for the six diplomats. Mendez was the hero in Argo, and the role of the Canadians almost reduced to that of innkeepers. Argo was soon criticized for taking liberties with the facts – an entirely invented concluding chase scene with police cars in hot pursuit of a jumbo-jet taking off – and failing to contextualize the story – yes the Canadian Government wanted the Americans out of Tehran quickly, as the movie states, but because of concern that Pelletier and other journalists who had the story would go public, a rationale it omitted.

Our Man in Tehran is a recently-released documentary that, based on interviews with observers of the Iranian Revolution and participants in the Canadian Caper, attempts to set the record straight. It is a revision of Argo, but not a negation of Argo. We do not return to the original pre-Argo understand of the Canadian Caper, but a deeper understanding that incorporates the activities of the CIA, the Canadian diplomats on the ground in Tehran, and the Canadian politicians in Ottawa.

Argo begins with a 5 minute comic book style summary of three decades of Iranian history leading up to the revolution. Our Man in Tehran, using lengthy interviews with then CBC correspondents Joseph Schlesinger and Carole Jerome, provides a much more comprehensive and nuanced view of the failings of the Shah and the dynamics of the Revolution that began when he fled Tehran. We are left with a better understanding of why Iran’s Islamic revolutionaries came to see the US as the great Satan and to storm its embassy.

Not only does Our Man in Tehran focus on Ken Taylor, but it also tells us about First Secretary John Sheardown, who was omitted entirely in Argo, but who sheltered some of the diplomats. (Sheardown passed away last year, but his widow Zena eloquently told his story).

A second Canadian omitted from Argo, but present in Our Man in Tehran, was political officer Roger Lucy. Lucy’s key point in the movie was that the CIA initially erred in the fake entry visas it placed in the forged passports because the dates were based on the western, not the Iranian, calendar. Lucy caught the error, and the passports had to be redone.

In his interview, Ken Taylor informed us that he was referred to by President Carter as “our man in Tehran,” because he led an effort to cooperate with the Americans by providing reconnaissance of Tehran, intended to be used in their planned military action to extricate the hostages being held at the US embassy. Taylor also discussed the CIA’s exfiltration plan, mentioning that the Canadians put together plans to have the six diplomats pose as either Canadian agronomists or a Canadian film crew intended to tell the “real” (hence sympathetic) story of the revolution. “But,” sighed Taylor, “the CIA wanted to do the Hollywood thing.”

In their interviews, then Foreign Minister Flora MacDonald and then Prime Minister Joe Clark recounted their decisions to support Taylor’s initiative in every way, including authorizing the production of fake Canadian passports. Because Opposition leader Pierre Trudeau was criticizing them for not being more supportive of the US, they decided to take him into their confidence by briefing him about the situation. They were astounded that Trudeau continued to “play politics” by keeping up his public criticism.

Lucy’s, Taylor’s, Clark’s, and MacDonald’s reflections all represent instances of someone putting their own story into the historical record, getting across their own point of view, or settling some historical scores. The Canadian caper was an important episode, and this is their right. I don’t know if any of them – like former CIA agent Tony Mendez – will write their memoirs. Memoirs, of course, are the traditional vehicle to tell your own story from your own point of view and to settle a few scores. But the documentary at least served as an opportunity.

As a spectator, I appreciated the new perspectives and information the documentary provided. It lacked the pace and dramatic tension of Argo – “the Hollywood thing” – but it told an essential story. It concluded with Bill Daugherty, a CIA agent who had been taken captive, held in solitary confinement, and tortured, pointing out that we rarely recognize real heroism, and Taylor’s work was certainly that. The Canadian Caper included smart tradecraft and a willingness to take risk in exercising that tradecraft, and both are worth remembering and celebrating.


September 18th, 2013

Cialis Ads: Minimalist Narrative

business, Narrative

I’ve been presenting ads that use narrative in my management and narratives course. Canadian Cialis ads are an interesting example of minimalist narrative, in which the ad tells only part of the story. For the story to make sense, the audience must supply the rest. Ads for treatments for erectile dysfunction are necessarily inexplicit, because television advertising codes prohibit portrayal of the end for which taking Cialis is a means.

Two recent ads have been shown repeatedly during baseball games because a large proportion of the viewers are middle-aged males, the target market for Cialis. They can be found on YouTube with the titles “Cialis curfew” and “Cialis opera.”

In “Cialis curfew,” a mother negotiates a curfew with her teenage son. The son asks to stay out until 8 p.m. and his mother “negotiates” an agreement that he return no later than 11. The son is nonplussed by his mother’s lenience, while at the end of the ad, the mother flashes a “cat that swallowed the canary” grin. The ad ends with an off-screen narrator saying “Cialis: ask your doctor.” We never see the mother’s partner, whom we’ll assume is her husband and the boy’s father, but we understand that the mother has been so lenient so that she and her husband can enjoy themselves early in the evening uninhibited by the presence of their son.

In “Cialis opera,” a middle-aged couple arrive late at the opera and take their seats. When the audience breaks into applause following an aria, they smile at one another in a way that suggests intimacy and satisfaction. The ad ends with the visual “Cialis: ask your doctor.” While we hear the opera, no words are spoken by the couple or anyone else during the ad. We understand that they are late because they have enjoyed themselves, aided by Cialis.

(“Cialis opera” brought to mind a personal anecdote. A year or two ago a middle aged couple arrived in the stands at a baseball game in the third inning. They were both very attractive, the male so much so that I thought he was a celebrity whose name I couldn’t remember. Recalling “Cialis opera,” I almost asked him whether he used Cialis or Viagra, but thought better of it.)

Not only do the ads illustrate minimalist narrative, but they illustrate the point that visual media show rather than tell. The three actors involved – the mother in “curfew” and the couple in “opera” – are excellent at suggesting through their facial expressions sexual anticipation in the former and sexual satisfaction in the latter.

These ads provide a sharp contrast with earlier Viagra ads in which middle-aged men are witnessed in the morning hopping around like bunny rabbits or energetic school boys. These ads were meant to convey delight at having achieved sexual satisfaction aided by Viagra but, to my mind, infantilize the men. Erectile dysfunction already infantilizes men, because it deprives them of an ability that defines male adulthood, while the Viagra ads present the restoration of that ability in a manner than further infantilizes them. The Cialis ads, on the other hand, present adult sexuality – the delightful anticipation of sex and the soul-restoring satisfaction of having had it – in a mature and realistic way. And that is why this student of narrative thinks they are effective.


August 24th, 2013

Remembering Myer Brody’s Contribution

business, Education

Myer Brody passed away a few days ago. He made a major contribution to the Department of Management at UTSC during the period I was chair. I knew something about his contribution from my interactions with him over the years, but learned more at his funeral and Shivah.

Myer earned his Ph.D. in Economics at Wharton in the late Forties. He didn’t have an opportunity to embark on an academic career then because, as an only child, he had to take over the family’s paper manufacturing business in Scarborough. The business thrived, and Myer’s family thrived. After the death of Myer’s first wife Florence (Faegie), Myer’s close friend (and my cousin) Steve Borins introduced him to a single friend, Mimi Fullerton, and soon Myer and Mimi were an item, and then married.

In 1990, at the age of 64 Myer sold his business and by then his children from his first marriage were adults and on their own. Myer had no need to work but was not willing to settle into traditional retirement. Myer thought of resuming the academic career that had been interrupted at the start. Steve Borins once again played the role of matchmaker, introducing me to Myer. Steve’s timing was perfect. I was the founding chair of the Division of Management and Economics, as it was then called, at the University of Toronto at Scarborough. We had lots of courses to staff but, more than that, I was looking for people who could connect the department to the world of business.

Myer and I hit it off right from the beginning. I forget which course I first asked him to teach, but within a few years he was teaching courses in three areas: entrepreneurship (which he knew intimately from personal experience), finance (his dissertation field), and strategic management. Myer was in effect teaching a full course load for tenure stream faculty. Stipends for part-time instructors are set so low that Myer was doing this for love, not for money.

Mimi told me that on Myer’s teaching days he woke up all charged up with energy and purpose. A relative of Myer’s, Harold Wadlinger, gave the first eulogy at the funeral, recounting that Myer invited him in to give a guest lecture in his entrepreneurship class about the challenges of selling a business. Harold said that the connection between Myer and his students was palpable, and that it was obvious that Myer was a born teacher. One of my colleagues, Chris Bovaird, told me that he shared an office with Myer and that on days they were in together, they didn’t get a great deal of work done, but had wonderful conversations. As chair, I knew that Myer enjoyed teaching, but what Mimi, Harold, and Chris all told me came as news to me.

The second thing Myer did for the department was organize a Business Advisory Committee. Most of the members of the committee were entrepreneurs and executives whom Myer knew. The group met every six months and proved enormously helpful to me as chair as a sounding board on whether we were delivering courses and programs that adequately prepared our students for management careers. The group was also very helpful on providing advice about the department’s strategy within the university. When resistance from the Economics Department at the St. George Campus to our management-focused vision forced us to find new partnerships for graduate appointments, the business advisory committee was strongly supportive of our decisions. Finally, then Principal and Dean Paul Thompson frequently attended the committee meetings, which enhanced our credibility and his support.

I regret that the Department no longer has a Business Advisory Committee. Our strong Co-op program, which was just getting launched when Myer was on the faculty, now provides considerable input on how to ensure that our students have the skills organizations seek. But we lack strategic advice coming from a non-academic practitioner perspective. One of the other roles of a Business Advisory Committee is to help with fund-raising, and unfortunately our Department has had an ongoing weakness in that area.

Myer continued his retirement career for a decade. Then one day he came to me and said, quite definitively, that he was turning seventy-five, and it was now time for him to retire. We celebrated Myer’s contribution at our end-of-year party and gave him an original photo by Bev Abramson, a well-known photographer who had, in her first career, worked as co-ordinator for our Co-op program. I was delighted to see that the photo of a man enjoying a cigar, taken by Bev in Cuba, had a place of honour in Myer’s home. I admired Myer’s sense of timing, in knowing when it was time to move on, and then moving on.

The Department of Management at UTSC has now been in operation for 22 years, and has grown and thrived since its founding. Many of the faculty and staff who were there at the outset have moved on to other programs or retired. Many new faculty and staff have joined who are only dimly aware of our history. We have achieved our current position because of the contributions of our founding generation. Hearing the things I heard about Myer reminded me that any organization’s leaders have limited knowledge of all that is happening in the ranks. I’m delighted to learn, in retrospect, how much teaching at UTSC Management meant to Myer, and I want to recognize how much he contributed.