‘Everyone should think like me’ No, they shouldn’t Part 2

Imagine a football (soccer) team where every player is a striker. Makes sense, surely, because strikers score the goals? So let’s have a team of strikers. Do that, and the team will lose every match.

The result would be the same if every (American) football team only had quarterbacks, or a cricket team only had fast bowlers, or a baseball team only had pitchers. It would be equally disastrous if an orchestra only had trombone players, or a shipbuilding yard only had welders, or a Formula One team only had drivers, or an army unit only had snipers, or a ship only had navigators.

The obvious point in all these examples is that everyone in a ‘team’ can’t be alike. No matter how wonderful some skills are, a team can’t have only that skill. When everyone is the same, the team won’t succeed.

That was the point made in the last blog.[1] A strong team can’t be homogeneous; it must be heterogeneous. The team can’t consist of lookalikes, but of people with diverse instincts, ideas, and abilities.

In this blog I want to show what that can mean in practice by explaining a system used widely by management experts. It’s not the only system, but this one is known and practised round the world. It is worth our attention.

Before getting into the details, just a short bio about its designer.

Raymond Meredith Belbin – known by his middle name – was born in 1926 in the south east England county of Kent. He might have struggled to get a place at the University of Cambridge in 1945 because World War II had just ended, and universities were swamped with applications from ex-servicemen. But few of those ex-servicemen wanted to study Classics. Meredith did. He was in! But after two years he wearied of ancient Greek and Latin literature, and switched to studying psychology. That had both career and personal consequences – career wise, because he learned to analyse human behaviour; personal, because he met a fellow psychology student called Eunice, and she became his wife. One degree completed, Meredith started another, this time a doctorate focused on the Psychology of Ageing in Industry.

After Cambridge, Meredith got a research fellowship which took him to over a hundred companies, assessing how work patterns change with age. He combined that with work for the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, looking at how the talents of underprivileged people were used or wasted. One of Meredith’s key findings was that the underprivileged suffered from low self-esteem in the work place unless put in exactly the right role for their skills. Only then did they have job satisfaction. It was a significant finding for Meredith.

Through connections his wife had in her professional work, Meredith was invited to do more research linked to a college at Henley-on-Thames. Meredith, Eunice and three others studied management teams in action. Business games were used to assess the interactions and contributions of each participant. It was the beginning of Team Role theory. Eventually that became the subject of Meredith’s ground-breaking 1981 book ‘Management Teams: Why They Succeed or Fail’.[2] Now in its 3rd edition, it was named one of the top 50 management books of all time.

So the mission began. In 1988 Meredith, Eunice and their son Nigel established Belbin Associates to share Belbin Team Roles worldwide. It continues today, with management and individuals around the globe using Belbin’s model to assess the effectiveness of their teams. These days Belbin Associates operate from a base just outside Cambridge. They tell their own story of how Belbin Team Roles came about at: https://www.belbin.com/about/our-story.

Let’s move on now to understand what Belbin’s Team Roles are all about.

The fundamental thesis  Behind Belbin’s team roles lie some fundamental assumptions:[3]

  • Individuals are brilliant, but insufficient on their own
  • Groups are good, but only when working well together. Belbin says: ‘What is needed is not well balanced individuals, but individuals who balance well with each other’. And: ‘Do you want a collection of brilliant minds or a brilliant collection of minds?’
  • Success depends not on the strengths of individuals, but on the strengths of the team.
  • The strongest teams have a diversity of characters and personality types

Belbin sees teams differently from how they all-too-often exist in corporations and not-for-profits where the same group exists from year to year. For Belbin, that model is too static:

‘The classic way for a team to fail is to ignore the context in which they’re working. A team should not be comprised of people who are in it as a matter of entitlement. It should be something that grows, something that’s flexible – people come in and out. Like actors on a stage, there are exits and entrances. Projects are often rolling affairs and you need different people at different stages.’[4]

That last sentence, that you need different people at different stages, is key to his team roles.

Belbin’s Team Roles    Belbin originally identified eight roles, but later added one more. Each team role, he says, is ‘a tendency to behave, contribute and interrelate with others in a particular way’.  He brings these tendencies together in ‘nine clusters of behavioural attributes’. These useful behaviours – ways of thinking and acting – are important for a team’s success.

So, is Belbin saying an ideal team has nine people? He is definitely not saying that. The right people can likely cover two or three team roles each. Belbin favours a team of only about five in number.

Just below I summarise each of the nine team roles. However, you will find these roles presented more fully, clearly and colourfully at https://www.belbin.com/about/belbin-team-roles and, in a different but still very useful form, at: https://www.ifm.eng.cam.ac.uk/research/dmg/tools-and-techniques/belbins-team-roles/

The nine roles are divided into three groups of three. Each role is one which a good team needs, so there’s no ranking of roles, as if some are more important than others. Have a look at the table, and then read my explanatory notes below it.

CoordinatorMature, confident, focuses on team’s objectives, involves everyone, delegates wellManipulative, offloads work
Resource investigatorEnthusiastic, explores opportunities, makes contactsMay be over-optimistic, can lose interest
TeamworkerCooperative, listener, diminishes frictionIndecisive, avoids confrontation
PlantCreative, idea generator, problem solverCan ignore details, forget to communicate
Monitor evaluatorSober, strategic, weighs optionsMay be overly critical, uninspiring to others
SpecialistSpecialist knowledge / skills, single-mindedNarrow focus, may dwell on details
ShaperMoves group forward, loves pressure, dynamic, overcomes obstaclesCan provoke and offend others
ImplementerMakes strategy workable and efficient in delivery, practical, turns ideas into actionMay resist changes to their plans
Completer FinisherPainstaking. Near the end, scrutinises for errors, polishes and perfects proposalsMay worry unduly. Does not readily delegate

As you can see, there are three columns in the table. The left hand column has the role titles. The middle column combines qualities and skills. The right column details (what Belbin calls) ‘allowable weaknesses’ for the person in that role.

As mentioned earlier, there are three groups of three. That’s how Belbin sets out these roles. Others name the first three ‘people-oriented roles’, the middle three ‘cerebral roles’ and the last three ‘action-oriented roles’. Personally I don’t find these group titles helpful. Surely every role is people-oriented, involves thinking and leads to action.  

My thoughts on some of these roles:

  • The ‘coordinator’ is very likely the chairperson of the group. This person directs the agenda, and largely enables all the other roles to happen.
  • I hope everyone has ideas, but I also recognise that a ‘resource investigator’ kind of person is needed. Someone who sees possibilities others don’t is an asset. In my experience super-confidence of success is hard-wired into these people, so they tend to disbelieve when told ‘that won’t work’. They can also be impatient with the painstaking work of transforming ideas into workable solutions.
  • The ‘implementer’ is the person who can make new ideas workable within an organisation or business. That’s especially important when the team includes ‘outsiders’ who have great theories but which can’t work unless adjusted to fit the required context.
  • The ‘completer finisher’ role was missing in many of the teams I’ve led. It’s the person who can bring everything the team has decided into a manageable and attractive form, whether it’s to present to a board of directors, to a staff gathering, or to volunteers and supporters. Often it’s assumed the chairperson will do that, but the coordinator role involves different skills from the completer finisher.

Almost lastly, some more general thoughts about this system:

First, what I like about Belbin is his identification of the key roles that need to be covered within a team. Most of us could likely think of other roles, but those I can imagine could fit under one of Belbin’s headings. Also, I respect that Belbin’s system has been around for a long time now, and these nine roles gel with the thinking of thousands of leaders.

Second, I’ve been part of many groups which didn’t cover all these roles. That’s bound to happen. Even if we can’t remedy the gaps, it’s very necessary that we recognise what we’re lacking. For example, I watched a group recommend wholesale changes to the way an organisation was run. Significantly, not a single member of that group worked for the organisation. That was a strength because they could bring a fresh perspective. It was also a weakness because their fresh perspective wasn’t feasible. If they had recognised their lack of an implementer, and brought in such a person before finalising their recommendations, a lot of trouble would have been avoided.

Third, it’s important to repeat that nine roles doesn’t mean nine people on a committee or team. Nine is only the number of roles that should be covered, but some people can be effective in two or even three areas.

Fourth, Belbin’s tool can be used to educate team members about their particular role(s). And, as important, to help team members know what is not their role. In my experience, most people asked to join a team think they can contribute to every part of the team’s work. Certainly, every person matters equally but every opinion is not equally right. I’ve listened to group members argue dogmatically about subjects they know nothing about. I learned to stop them. They could influence views unwisely or simply waste the group’s time. Far better is to help people understand where their contribution is most needed, and how to listen while those with different expertise speak in other areas.

Fifth, just as psychometric tests don’t define exact personality types but tendencies, so there’s flexibility in respect of who is suitable for these roles. Someone who doesn’t naturally incline to a role may be open to learning how to fulfil it. That may not be ideal, but it may be a very good second best.

Sixth, what if a group is formed and almost no-one at all has any of the skills necessary for these roles? Unfortunately, that’s not uncommon. It’s particularly a danger when a large group is asked ‘Who’s willing to serve on the new team we’re setting up?’ Perhaps eight volunteer, so they become the team. But no-one vetted those eight. Maybe the main reason they’re free to participate is because no-one deemed them suitable for any other team. So, my advice is: a) Don’t ask for volunteers – appoint people to teams; b) Do your best to ensure that what that group exists to do isn’t vital for the organisation’s success; c) The leaders who allowed such a group to come into existence need to rethink their own leadership skills.

I’ll finish with three other details about Belbin and Belbin Associates.

  • At the time of writing Meredith Belbin is 96 and continues to live in the south of England.
  • He is a visiting professor and Honorary Fellow of Henley Management College in Oxfordshire, England.
  • If you go to the ‘Contact’ page at www.belbin.com, you’ll find this: 1) A promise that if you call them, you won’t hear an automated menu of options because an actual person will answer the phone; 2) You can make contact by calling, emailing, using social media, or by sending a letter to Belbin Associates, and the address for your letter is given. I have never before seen a website with an invite to write an actual letter!

That last point – about sending a letter – is utterly charming. It has lifted Belbin Associates even higher in my estimation.

[1] https://occasionallywise.com/2022/07/23/

[2] ‘Management Teams: Why They Succeed or Fail’, published by Routledge, 208 pages. ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1856178072

[3] I’m mostly using my own words and summary, but sometimes adopting phrases from Belbin.

[4] From an interview with Meredith Belbin c.2004 by Jane Lewis: https://www.belbin.com/media/1391/belbin-edgemagazinearticle.pdf

‘Everyone should think like me’ No, they shouldn’t

Confession time: I’ve chaired meetings where opinions came thick and fast from north, south, east and west, and I’ve sighed inwardly: ‘Why can’t they all think like me?’ If only they did, I reckoned our business would be much more efficient and harmonious – and we’d be finished in half the time.

It wasn’t as if I hadn’t made the issues clear – diagnosed the problem, clarified the goal, identified challenges, presented the solution. Surely they’d all immediately fall in line? What more could they want?

What they wanted, of course, was to consider the issues from other angles, for other ideas to be aired, for other solutions to be considered. What was going wrong? The answer was simple: my vision was my vision, and not their vision.

And, inconvenient though that was, I was missing precisely the point of having a team or task force, or committee. When working well, a group will generate better strategies and better results than any individual could achieve.

Why is that true? And how can a group work well? Hopefully there are some answers here.

But, first, is there ever a time for autocratic leadership?

The simple answer is ‘yes’, and here are four situations when it’s necessary.

When there’s an emergency    There’s been an earthquake. People are trapped under rubble. If there’s not immediate action, many will die. Someone must take charge, give orders, and get people rescued. There isn’t time to form a committee, have meetings, delegate tasks. The sole priority is action.

When there’s an imminent deadline    I was involved in radio broadcasting, supplying local radio stations and the BBC. The pressure was on when a live show was about to go on air. The programme producer and his team would have shared ideas and planned the programme earlier, but on the morning of broadcast only one voice gave orders. The producer called the shots. With the show about to air, no-one disputed the producer’s instructions.

When the only expert is the leader    It’s an uncommon situation, but sometimes only one person really knows what to do. Here’s a scenario. You’re a novice climbing in the Alps or Himalayas, part of a group led to the top by an expert mountaineer. Suddenly, as if from nowhere, you’re caught in a blizzard. Visibility is near zero. The wind almost throws you off the mountain. The temperature plummets to a dangerous low. How will anyone survive? Only one person has been through this before. Orders are shouted: dig in the snow, get roped together, shelter from the biting wind. The mountaineer is the expert, and everyone’s life depends on following orders immediately and without question.

When obedience to commands is essential    The chain of command is critical in the military, especially in combat. The commander’s battle plan is the agenda; there is no other. If circumstances demand change, the order comes from an authorised officer. Groups can’t gather on the battlefield or flight deck to share their opinions. Nor can a private decide their strategy is a better one. In the cauldron of war, following orders is critical.

There are critical times, then, when forming a team is not the right thing to do. Teams, though, may have met earlier. For example, no senior commander decides a battle plan without input from other officers. But once the attack is launched, or a deadline is near or an emergency happens, it’s not discussion time. Everyone falls in line with one person’s orders.

But autocratic leadership isn’t the norm. Those circumstances are extreme or unusual. So, let’s now think about everyday situations, and find wisdom for how committees and teams should work in normal circumstances.

Why do we need a group at all?

When I was young and foolish, I solo-organised a day conference for about 200 attendees. To be honest, even at the time I didn’t think planning everything myself was a great idea, but my life was crazy busy, I was seriously over-tired, and I just wanted the job done without hassle. So I did it alone. I decided the programme, I booked the facilities, I appointed the speakers, I managed the budget, I organised volunteers, I allocated tasks, and on the day I became the go-to person for every problem. Mostly it worked. But I was exhausted, knew the event could have been better, and vowed never to be a one-person committee again. And I never have.

But why not? After all, it worked.

Yes, but it didn’t work well. That conference wasn’t the success it might have been.

What I’d needed was a group with members not like me. Let me explain why.

  • Flying solo as a leader is simply foolish. The work is too much, the decisions too often only the leader’s way of doing things, the process too tiring, the programme too narrowly focused, the expertise too limited, the responsibility (and the blame) too burdensome.
  • A good group is one with members who are not like the leader. It’ll consist of people with different experiences, ideas, skills, and personalities. That’s not obvious to all leaders. Why not? Because they love homogeneity. My dictionary defines homogeneous as ‘of the same or a similar kind or nature’ i.e., people like ourselves. We’re comfortable around people who think like us and act like us. But that’s a problem. Let’s imagine you’ve formed a team totalling ten, much better than relying only on your own wisdom. You congratulate yourself for multiplying the store of wisdom ten times. No, you haven’t. If they’re just like you, you haven’t multiplied wisdom at all. All you’ve created is a group with the wisdom of one, but replicated nine times.
  • That’s why there’s no benefit if everyone thinks like you. There’s no added brainpower. There are no additional gifts. When we have people who can think differently and do things we can’t do, that’s gain.
  • In other words we need heterogeneity. My dictionary defines heterogeneous as ‘diverse in character or content’. Then each person in the group can ‘bring something different to the table’. New ideas, new approaches, and even new goals emerge. That’s a powerful group. Yes, it’s more work to bring together and hold together, but it’s absolutely worth it.

What are the leadership challenges with bringing together a well-functioning heterogeneous group?

  1. Believing you need it    No-one becomes a significant leader without a healthy dose of self-confidence. We believe in ourselves. We trust our judgments. We know our abilities. True, but that all too easily becomes an unhealthy dose of self-confidence. We imagine we don’t need support, or guidance, or counter-argument. When we meet resistance, we just push harder, squashing the opposition. That’s almost always unwise. The hard truth for some of us is not that we don’t believe we need a team around us, we don’t want a team around us. They might spoil our plans. But leaders with a healthy self-confidence are humble enough to know they need others, and strong enough to lead a group whose thinking is different from their own.
  2. Being told your ideas are limited or wrong    Surrounding yourself with a team who say ‘yes’ to everything you propose is pointless. That’s just the 1+9 wisdom I described earlier. Sadly, though, many leaders have a tough time listening to views which clash with their own. Their strongest instinct is to argue back, and prove the alternative idea won’t work or isn’t as good. I’ve seen that done. It silences the person who spoke up, and usually everyone else in the room. After all, who wants to be next to experience the leader’s put-down? And, if there isn’t a put-down, the leader’s response may be, ‘Thank you for that idea, let’s park it for the moment… Now, next…’ and the alternative thought is conveniently forgotten. If a leader isn’t open to anything but their own opinion, it’s best not to waste everyone else’s time. A good leader is a humble leader. They don’t lack plans, but they’re willing to take the best from others to elevate small ideas into great strategies.
  3. Getting the best from a diverse group takes skill    A truly heterogeneous group won’t think alike. They’re not meant to. The goal of the team isn’t identical thinking, but to apply their diverse skills towards the group’s purpose. A goal has probably been defined already for the group. It might be a fund-raising target, or recruiting more volunteers, or spreading the organisation’s message, or improving internal communication, or enhancing working conditions. The task is given, and the team’s job is defining the best way to achieve the goal. So, first, the leader ensures the group understands its role. Second, the leader helps each person know their particular, distinctive role, and what their role isn’t. That helps prevent person A telling person B what B should be thinking or doing. Third, the leader keeps each person focused on their unique role, because role-drift is common. Don’t most of us think we could do someone else’s job better? Fourth, the leader needs to blend soft and hard skills: soft, to encourage each person in their role; hard, to be firm about the purpose of the group. Fifth, the leader needs to be secure in their ego, not claiming personal glory but constantly praising and celebrating the group’s success.

I’m conscious all the above sounds difficult. I won’t pretend it’s easy. But it’s much needed. I hear people groan about committees or task groups, that they’re time-consuming and never achieve anything. That’s not fair for I’ve seen great groups achieve marvellous results. But, sometimes, those criticisms are dangerously near to being true. We must do better. And we can. This has been part one of a look at could be called ‘team dynamics’. Next time we’ll look at a world famous method for bringing the best from a team. Want a hint? It began with a man whose middle name is Meredith.

Unintended consequences

Like most golf courses, the fairways of Augusta National Golf Club, host of the annual Masters Tournament, were mowed in both directions – one stripe (or section) mowed from the teeing ground toward the green, and the adjoining one mowed from the green back toward the tee. That’s obviously efficient – when the ride-on mower gets to one end, it just turns around and mows back the other way. But, so it’s said, some elite golfers complained that there was an advantage or disadvantage depending on whether your ball landed on grass leaning back towards the tee or leaning forward towards the green. There was less resistance to the ball when it dropped on grass tilted toward the green, so it went further. The distance our drives go, they said, shouldn’t depend on which stripe of grass it lands on. The Augusta Club thought about that, and solved the problem. It cut all the grass only in one direction – leaning back towards the tee. That was not at all what those players wanted. But it’s what they got; their complaint had resulted in an unwelcome, unintended consequence.

I’m not sure that story is entirely true, except that Augusta these days does mow its fairways from green back to teeing ground. Not that it actually matters. Scientific tests have shown that neither direction of mowing makes any difference to how far the ball runs.

The point of the story, though, is that words and actions can very easily have unintended consequences.

When I first experienced severe back pain (in my teens and twenties), I was made to lie on a hard board placed on top of my bed’s mattress. On another occasion I lay on the floor beside my bed. Such practices were the wisdom of the time. Except – at least for me – they weren’t at all wise. The pressure of the hard surface made my back much worse. An unintended consequence.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in early 2022, many commentators explained that the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, did not want a NATO-member country right on his border. The invasion was to prevent Ukraine ever being that nation. But that invasion made both Sweden and Finland afraid they might be a future target of Russian aggression. So both these traditionally neutral, unaligned countries applied for NATO membership. If granted, which is likely, that will seriously displease President Putin. Why? Because Finland has an 830 mile (1340 km) border with Russia. The goal he did not want – a NATO country as his immediate neighbour – he looks certain to have. An unintended consequence.

We all attempt things which don’t work out. We don’t pass an exam, our auction bid fails, our house plants die, our penalty kick misses the goal, our application for promotion is rejected, the car we repaired won’t go. And so on. But unintended consequences aren’t about trying and getting nothing. They’re about trying and getting something we didn’t expect.

That happened to me back in the days of four-ring electric cookers when two rings on our cooker stopped working. To do nothing would have left us with a barely usable cooker. Being a man of action I set out to fix what was broken. I took all the rings off, so I could see how they were wired and fitted. That went well, other than it didn’t help me diagnose the problem. Actually, only my dismantling went well. My reassembly went very badly because, when I finished, instead of two broken cooker rings we now had four broken cooker rings, and I couldn’t repair any of them. But this is a bad/good story because my attempts to fix the cooker had two unintended consequences. First, that cooker died completely. Second, we bought a much better cooker.

We all experience unintended consequences. To help you survive them, I can offer one reality check and two encouragements.

Reality check: Life is neither predictable nor controllable

Normally we expect our plans to work out as intended: that the plane we’re booked on will fly; the meal we’ve prepared for guests will taste good; our car will run smoothly. But none of these are guaranteed. The plane might have a faulty engine and never take off (I’ve experienced that); the meat may be left in the oven so long it’s become a burnt offering (I did that); the car won’t go because it was filled with diesel instead of petrol (someone else did that). The old saying that ‘Man proposes but God disposes’ reminds us not everything works out as we expect.

That’s true even when there’s a very carefully crafted business plan and big budget. Most major supermarkets have installed self-checkout facilities. You scan your own goods, then pay, and then go. It avoids a queue at a cashier checkout. Surely that’s good? But a survey of 1000 customers found 67% had problems at self-check kiosks. By the time they got assistance, sometimes more than once, they’d have been quicker going to a cashier. So, customers weren’t delighted. Surely the stores benefited? Maybe not. It’s not clear that businesses have found self-checkout helpful or profitable. The idea of getting the customer to do work previously done by cashiers must have seemed good to management, but:

  • The self-check machines are expensive to buy and install, and they need regular, costly maintenance
  • They often break down, perhaps causing the kind of queues for customers the system was supposed to avoid
  • Customers don’t enjoy scanning their own items so they buy less
  • Staff still have to be employed to assist customers with difficulties
  • More shoplifting happens through self-checkouts than traditional cashier checkouts, and that’s costly.

Installing self-checkout facilities was not a whim, but a carefully worked out plan and investment to boost profits, and to please customers by speeding them through the scan/pay/go experience. But the plan didn’t deliver only benefits. As the bullet points above show, there have been unwelcome and unintended consequences.[1]

The reality is that a sizeable percentage of all our plans don’t work out the way we intend. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t define goals and might as well give up on organisation. We should aim for the best and do our best to achieve it. But be humble – we may not have thought of everything. And be flexible – things may have to change. And be accepting – life rarely involves a straight line from A to B, never mind from A to Z.

Life is neither predictable nor controllable.

Unintended consequences may be more significant than anything we intended

It’s 2003, and a second year Harvard student is creating a website. He calls it Facemash. Many might think it inappropriate, because the site gives his fellow Harvard students the chance to compare two photos and decide which one is ‘hot’ and which is ‘not’. His initial thought is to use school facebook[2] photos – many of which he thought ugly – and put them alongside images of farm animals. In the end, he copied images from several facebooks, and got users to choose the ‘hotter’ person. In its first four hours online Facemash attracted 450 visitors and 22,000 photo-views. It began to take off on other campuses, but the Harvard administration then stepped in and almost expelled the student.

But in January 2004 that student, Mark Zuckerberg, began writing code for (what he initially called) TheFacebook. All he intended was a website that would link everyone on the Harvard campus. He had no thought beyond that. But much more happened. By December 2005 (what was now called) Facebook had six million users.[3] The estimate for 2022 is almost three billion monthly active users worldwide. All that Zuckerberg intended was to link Harvard students together. But the unintended consequence has been an unprecedented take up and growth. People have strong pro and anti feelings about social media, but undeniably Facebook’s story over less than 20 years is truly remarkable.

The chances that our unintended consequences will be like those encountered by Mark Zuckerberg are very close to zero. But we can learn that unanticipated consequences need not be unwelcome consequences. It’s very possible that the unintended consequences in your life will be greater and more wonderful than anything you anticipated.

And that brings me to the final encouragement.

Unintended consequences can be absolutely, excitingly, life-changingly delightful

Here’s my story of exactly that.

My career beginnings were in journalism, leaving school and starting work with The Scotsman (which, never short on modesty, has for decades described itself as Scotland’s national quality newspaper). My first year with the paper was mostly journalism studies at college, then followed by two years full-time as reporter and sub-editor. It was during that time I made my Christian commitment and only months after that I felt I should prepare for Christian ministry. That would mean going to university. I didn’t have the qualifications for entry, so I began studying at evening classes. But severe back pain halted all work and study for about two months. I recovered but realised I’d never get into university with part-time study. I resigned from The Scotsman and enrolled full-time at a further education college. One year later I had the passes needed to enter the University of Edinburgh.

I began alongside thousands more freshers. One of the other new students at the University should have arrived one year earlier, but her intended course of study was being revamped so they’d cancelled the previous year’s admission. Hence she began the same year I did. We met within a few weeks, and three years later Alison and I got married. That was undoubtedly the greatest wisdom either of us ever had. And, well over four decades later, being together keeps getting better.

But very easily it might never have happened.  What if I had done better at high school and gone on immediately to university? What if I’d made my Christian commitment some other time? What if I hadn’t been sidelined by bad health when I first tried to improve my qualifications? What if Alison’s course hadn’t been pushed back a year? But all these factors, all these circumstances, strangely and wonderfully had the unplanned, unforeseen, unintended consequence that Alison and I met.

In my opinion, there’s a lot to be said for unintended consequences.

[1] Much of the information here is from https://edition.cnn.com/2022/07/09/business/self-checkout-retail/index.html

[2] Albums with photos of every student.

[3] Information from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Facebook


The year is 1346, the location is Crécy, and the Hundred Years’ War between France and England has begun. The French and English armies face each other. Between them lies an estuary of salty marshes; not a good place to fight.

This is the age of chivalry, and a French knight rides out. He halts his horse, and shouts a challenge. Would any English knight dare to joust three times with him? There is silence. No-one moves. Then a voice – an English voice – roars that he accepts the challenge. The two knights take their places. Each army cheers for their hero. The knights charge. Their lances glance off shields, but no-one falls. They pick fresh lances, and again they charge. Lances strike shields, and the English knight’s shield shatters. He picks his third lance, but now has no shield. To fight on is to die. Yet he will. His code says he must. But another code saves his life. The French knight dismounts. His sense of chivalry will not let him take advantage. He will not attack a defenceless opponent. The knight walks to his foe and announces the fight over. The Frenchman is a warrior with a deep sense of fairness, a man of virtue.[1]

Virtue feels like it’s in short supply these days. Politicians seem willing to take advantage whenever they can. Top executives are applauded for ruthlessness.  Cheating happens in many sports. Footballers ‘dive’ in the penalty area, countless dark arts are practised in rugby scrums, Lance Armstrong was never the only cycle racer using drugs, cricketers have been guilty of roughing the ball with an abrasive. Golf is, to some extent, the exception. It has had cheats, but most judge it one of the fairest sports because players will penalise themselves for actions no-one else could have seen. I’m glad to play a virtuous sport.

(The next paragraph gives some ‘ancient’ background about virtue – skip ahead if you wish.)

More than 2000 years ago, Greek philosophers had much to say and to debate about virtue. Virtue, they argued, was essential for a life of well-being. Plato (writing around 380 BC) believed there were four virtues: wisdom, courage, self-discipline and justice (justice for Plato meant acting in ways that produce well-being). Plato’s pupil, Aristotle, thought a life of virtue was crucial for what he called eudaimonia, happiness in the sense of living well. Writing in 325 BC, Aristotle said that ethical virtue is not ours by nature but acquired and developed by practised habit. Virtues are choices which create the kind of disposition, or inclination, that makes a human being good. In other words, the virtuous person will make good moral decisions.

Personally I like Aristotle’s emphasis on virtue as a choice and a practised habit. But the hard reality is that we live in a world where many neither make that choice nor discipline their lives to be virtuous.

I can’t solve that. There’s no pill and no process that produces virtuous people. But, in what follows, I want to make a case for why virtue matters. It might inspire us to choose virtue as our default ‘disposition’.

Virtue matters because where would we be without it?

I was playing in an important golf match. Joe was my fellow player, and we were marking each other’s scorecards. I drove my ball right and it rolled just off the edge of the fairway. Joe had gone left and was far away from me. I looked at my ball, and saw a small twig lying beside it. The twig wasn’t touching the ball, so I moved it out of my way. But immediately my ball then rolled about an inch (2.5 cm). A small leaf of the twig must have been underneath the ball, hence it moved when I took the twig away. I put the ball back, played out the hole, and told Joe I had scored five.

Joe looked at me quizzically. ‘Surely you had four?’

I explained, ‘I picked up a twig and my ball moved. I replaced the ball before playing but I have to add one penalty shot’.

But Joe said, ‘Alistair, you don’t need to do that.’ He meant I shouldn’t bother about it.

I insisted. ‘I have to do it. I couldn’t be at peace putting in a score that I knew was wrong.’

‘Well’, Joe said, ‘you might be the only golfer here today who’d do that.’

Really? Sadly, yes. The vast majority of golfers wouldn’t breach any major rules, but Joe was right that many would ignore small infringements, especially if they hadn’t gained any advantage.

I’m not wired that way. I want everyone to play to the same rules because, if they don’t, the outcome can’t be fair. And if people breach minor rules, perhaps they also breach major rules. Then the person who wins is simply the best cheat. And that can’t be right.

That was exactly the point of the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), when he defined right actions on the basis of a categorical imperative. Here’s Kant’s formula for deciding right or wrong actions: ‘I ought never to conduct myself except so that I could also will that my maxim become a universal law’.

His meaning is actually very straightforward. He’s saying: My action is right if I could want everyone to do it. Therefore, lying must be wrong because, if everyone lied, all normal human interactions would be impossible.

And Kant would say cheating at golf must be wrong because you could never want everyone to cheat. Competitions would be ruined if everyone cheated.

Kant’s principle is relevant in countless situations. If everyone broke speed limits, there would be carnage on the roads. If everyone stole from their neighbours, communities would be destroyed. If shops faked their weighing scales or checkout scanners so that you were under-supplied but over-priced, customers would flee. Hence – by asking if we’d want everyone to do something – we know whether it’s right or wrong.

We need virtue. We must believe most people are telling the truth, charging us fairly, and keeping to common-sense rules. Without virtue ordinary human relationships would be impossible.

Virtue creates better leadership

Harry fitted perfectly the profile of a results-driven leader, a man who (metaphorically speaking) would kick down a door rather than waste time finding a key. He demanded his staff do whatever was necessary to achieve goals, even if that meant cancelling vacations and working all hours. He shouted cruel insults at under-performers, and forced his staff to ignore inconvenient procedures and regulations. Staff trembled when Harry came into their office. He was feared, disliked, and lacked any respect from his team. Here’s the odd thing. Harry didn’t achieve great results. In fact his department’s performance was below average. Why? Several reasons. First, the most talented staff were also those able to get another job, so they left. Second, his team strove to have work done by Harry’s deadlines, but could never do their best work under that pressure. Third, some were so offended by the person they called hellish Harry, they refused to sacrifice themselves just so he could look good. Harry had a serious virtue-deficit, and after three years he also had an employment deficit.

Contrast Harry with any manager or executive you’ve known who was known for her virtues. Perhaps she took time to know her team, cared about their well-being, ensured they had a healthy work-life balance. Perhaps she made sure the work-flow was evenly distributed. Perhaps she praised people for great work, and was gentle with corrections. Perhaps she got everyone together for a snacks and celebrations event whenever a project was successful. Perhaps she defended her staff when top management were critical. Perhaps she knew the names of her team’s partners, spouses and children. Is it any wonder that leader’s team performed well above average. They enjoyed their work, respected their leader, and gave their very best every day.

It’s obvious which of these leaders radiated virtue. It’s not surprising which was the better leader.

The virtuous person is trusted

Once I could afford better than ‘hardly-fit-for-the-road’ cars, I’ve dealt with car salesmen. (Why do so few women sell cars?) Almost all these sales people were perfectly groomed with sales pitches perfectly presented. Whichever car I looked at was the perfect car for me. Everything was utterly wonderful about it. And there were amazing finance deals on that car. Nothing would be a barrier to me buying there and then. One younger salesman in America told me we would definitely agree on a price for one of their brand new cars before I left the showroom. I offered $1000. He didn’t agree. I left the showroom.

Over-hyped sales presentations turn me off. But when I dealt with Jim and (some years later) with Mark, I met salesmen who’d clearly never been to sell-them-quick school. They were almost reserved and totally devoid of hype. They listened when we told them what kind of car we wanted, what our price goals were, what car we’d be trading in. When we looked over cars and took them out for a test-drive, they gave honest answers to questions about a car’s reliability, fuel consumption, servicing needs. If I criticised something they addressed the issue but they didn’t deny any problem existed. Above all, each of these two gave us time, and not once did they try to pressurise us into a decision. Guess what? We bought cars after dealing with Jim and Mark. In fact, because Mark had looked after us so well, I asked to speak to his manager, and told him that Mark was exactly the kind of salesman we found helpful, and that his approach had seriously influenced us in buying our new car. I hope Mark got a bonus.

Because of the qualities they showed, we trusted Jim and Mark. How can anyone buy from a person or business they don’t trust? Whether it’s a salesperson or a company, a good reputation is crucial to make sales or win contracts.

In short, the virtuous person is trusted. And trust is the essential basis of a relationship for business, for friendship, and for marriage.

The virtuous person will tend to make good decisions

That’s exactly the logic behind what’s called ‘Virtue Ethics’. If we follow Aristotle’s view: a) that virtue is a choice, and b) it must be developed by practised habit, then we have the following:

  • A person who wants to be virtuous
  • A person constantly developing a virtuous attitude
  • Consequently we have a person who will make good, virtuous decisions.

They won’t be infallible. No-one is perfectly virtuous, so no-one’s decisions will always be good. But the virtuous person’s decisions will more often be right than the decisions of people with no concern for virtue.

For many years after I made my Christian commitment (which was at the age of 18), I wondered how to make right choices. Late teens and early twenties are a time of many major decisions – some related to work, then about going to university, which courses to take, where to live, how to spend money, about girlfriends, and eventually about getting married. But how could I know the right decisions? As well as obvious things to do – including prayer and asking friends – I finally settled on a good thought: I’ll almost never have one hundred per cent certainty, but if I sincerely want to do right and to honour God and then make choices that fit with that ambition, then I will never go too far wrong. I could put that in fewer words: if I always seek to act virtuously, my decisions will never be far off the mark.

I believe that how your life is centred determines your choices. There’s an old saying which goes something like: ‘Samantha’s life was bounded on all sides by Samantha’. In other words, Samantha was utterly self-focused. Everything had to be done for her pleasure, to suit her desires, to prosper her ambitions. Every decision reflected where Samantha’s life was centred.

But what if Samantha’s life was centred on virtue? Then Samantha’s choices would be very different. Instead of being selfish, they’d be selfless. Instead of being indulgent, they’d often be sacrificial. Instead of using others, she’d often serve others. And so on.

Good decisions flow from a life centred on virtue.

To sum up, I believe it’s time for virtue to be revived. We may not adopt medieval chivalric norms, but we can choose lives of integrity and worth. Virtue is so needed today: for relationships with neighbours, colleagues, business partners, fellow students, communities. We also need virtue in wider society, for civility in discourse, for honesty in government, for fairness in business. And we need virtue in world affairs, to be able to trust what world leaders say and respect what they do, for trade to be conducted fairly, for action to be taken so that especially the world’s poor are benefitted.

I looked up virtue in dictionaries. The eighth meaning for virtue listed in one dictionary was ‘valour’, and valour comes from the Latin valēre, to be strong. I like that. To think and act with virtue/valour shows strength. Why? Because the self-discipline and courage required for virtue comes at a price which only the strong will pay. May God help us.

[1] The account of the two knights is borrowed from The French Knight’s Guide to Corporate Culture, Cautionary Tales with Tim Harford, https://timharford.com/2022/06/cautionary-tales-the-french-knights-guide-to-corporate-culture/ Apparently the two knights became lifelong friends.