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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November 17th, 2013

Two Perspectives on Alice Munro

Narrative

My curiosity stimulated by Alice Munro’s receiving this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature and having previously read only one of her short stories, I bought her most recent collection “Dear Life.” My intellectual and emotional reactions were quite at odds. Intellectually, I found the stories well-constructed, subtle, and occasionally surprising in their resolutions. Emotionally, I found them depressing in their depiction of the repressive social structures and customs of the Canada of my parents’ generation, especially in small-town southwest Ontario.

I’ll expand a bit on both reactions. My recent research on managerial narratives has involved structural analysis. From reading just 14 of Munro’s stories, I could see recurring patterns of plot structures, themes, characters, settings, and choice of narrator. It struck me that Munro’s entire corpus of work – some 150 stories – would be great material for structural analysis. This brought to mind the one Munro story I had read some 20 years ago. It was for a course on psychoanalysis and literature, and the instructor chose it because it so clearly illustrated some of the basic themes of Freudian analysis. I don’t remember which story it was, though I’m sure I would if I re-read it, and I don’t remember all of the Freudian themes. One I do remember, however, was what is referred to as “the primal scene,” and I encountered that theme three or four times in Dear Life.

I could imagine applying to SSHRC for a research grant to undertake structural analysis of Alice Munro’s corpus of stories. The coding and analysis would readily occupy a small team of graduate students for a considerable length of time – something SSHRC encourages. The problem is that I’m a management professor, and the English literature professors who populate the review committee would never permit an invasion of their turf by a management professor, even if he has compiled a strong record for the structural analysis of stories concerning management, organization, and politics. They would say that the politics of the family is so different that my qualifications are irrelevant.

The second perspective on Munro is more personal. My late father’s family grew up in rural southwestern Ontario, specifically the town of Markdale. My grandfather was a successful businessman who owned three creameries and became reeve of Markdale. My grandmother, however, was a difficult person, who erected barriers between herself and the world, and reinforced the barriers by drinking. My grandfather began a long-standing affair with his single book-keeper. News of the affair became public and the family left for Toronto. But the book-keeper came too, and the affair continued. This long-standing dishonoring of my grandmother insprired rage on my father’s part, and anger he felt toward my grand-father darkened the rest of their lives. As a child, I was aware of the anger, but not of its origins. That understanding came later, as I became an adult, and after the passing of my grandparents and of my father.

Reading Alice Munro’s stories, many of which have as their theme family dysfunction and illicit sexuality, and their setting a repressive neo-Victorian society, brought back to mind my grandparents’ and my father’s story, and my own feelings of sadness about it. In a way, Munro was telling their story. Had she known their story, she could have embellished it and turned it into an exemplar of her art.

I’ve resolved to read more Munro. And, who knows, maybe in my retirement, after having completed the structural analysis of more managerial fables, I’ll shift my perspective to analyzing her disquieting vision of the politics of the family.

 

November 10th, 2013

Remembering Philip Gray

Narrative

How likely is it that the funeral of a ninety-one year old man who died without family in a land to which he immigrated in his late sixties would be attended by two hundred people? The unlikeliness of this outcome shows the esteem to which Philip Gray was held in the community he had adopted as his own.

Gray was a Scot who served as the pilot of a Lancaster bomber in World War Two, flying sixteen missions with his entire crew emerging unscathed. He subsequently married and moved to New Zealand where he worked as a public servant. After the death of his wife and his retirement, he moved to Canada. Gray was a great story-teller and published a superb book about his wartime experiences in the RAF, titled Ghosts of Targets Past. (I discussed its “gritty realism” and thick description in my blog post of November 8, 2010.)

The Canadian Air and Space Museum, based in Toronto, inherited a dilapidated Lancaster that for decades had stood on a plinth at the Canadian National Exhibition. A group of devoted machinists were restoring the Lancaster. Gray came to the museum every weekend to sell his book and to serve as a link between the shell of a machine and the events decades ago in which it, and the men who operated it, played such an important role.

The point repeatedly made in the eulogies at Philip’s funeral yesterday was that service was an essential aspect of his life. Bearing witness at the Museum was an act of service. Volunteering at Traveller’s Aid at Pearson Airport was an act of service. Attending his church every Sunday and writing for the church newspaper were acts of service.

Philip had a great story to tell, and he told it. But he did so with precision and modesty. People were drawn to him. I met him when I began taking my young sons to the museum. He was the guest of honour when we had a birthday party there for Alexander, our older son.

The most moving speaker at the funeral was Wayne Short, another person who met Philip at the Air and Space Museum, and then invited him over for one Sunday dinner. Philip became a close friend of his family, and the Shorts ultimately became Philip’s surrogate family at the end of his life.

Thus, it was in recognition of his service and his friendship that so many of us came to Philip’s funeral. Occurring just before Remembrance Day, it reminded us that that, while Remembrance Day marks a collective national experience, that experience itself is the sum of hundreds of thousands of individuals’ stories. And Philip Gray’s was a truly inspiring one.

 

November 1st, 2013

I Confronted Rob Ford. Will City Council?

Politics

In my way, I confronted Rob Ford. On a mid-March Sunday, my nine year-old son and I were leaving the ROM while the Mayor was grand marshal for the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. From the sidewalk I shouted “crook,” “idiot,” and “fat pig.” My son was astounded at his dad’s unruliness. The few other bystanders all laughed.

If I were to accost the mayor today under similar circumstances, I would shout “liar,” “crackhead” and “drunk.” The emerging consensus of public opinion and civil society is that he must resign. The problem is that Ontario municipal politics has no recall mechanism and, without political parties, Toronto council has no procedure for a vote of confidence or leadership review, as would happen within a political party.

The question that arises is whether council can improvise. Councilors could propose, and then debate, a motion of censure. Councilors could also act as if the office of mayor were vacant by refusing to engage with Ford, refusing to communicate with him, or to attend meetings he calls or chairs. Doing either or both would take a measure of political courage. The councilors whose collaboration would be essential for such actions to succeed would be Ford’s traditional allies and supporters. Are they, at last, ready to desert him?

Two analogies come to mind. Oliver Cromwell’s words dismissing the Rump Parliament were used three centuries later with devastating effect in the 1940 confidence vote on Neville Chamberlain’s government: “Depart, I say; and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!”

There is a scene in the movie Twelve Angry Men where the most bigoted juror makes a long speech revealing the extent of his race hatred. The other jurors physically separate themselves from him and one of those who originally stood with him declares “We’ve heard enough. Sit down. And don’t open your mouth again.”

Do Toronto’s civic politicians have the moral courage to confront Rob Ford and, one way or another, force his resignation?

 

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.