Magistra Vitae

Narrare la Storia per ricordare il futuro

Memoria e resilienza

PA-3389259-11-1024x697.jpgIl pericolo a cui si sottopone una società che tende a dimenticare minaccia anche le aziende. Si parla sempre più spesso di resilienza, ma ormai è appurato che molte delle organizzazioni più robuste lo sono per aver superato in qualche modo una o più near death experience. Quando i dipendenti più anziani lasciano l’azienda e i documenti che testimoniano la crisi scompaiono in archivi polverosi o vengono digitalizzati in un supporto da molti terabyte, sconfinato come i sotterranei dell’Area 51, ci si convince che ormai si è immuni, che non può succedere di nuovo, perché ci siamo già passati e sappiamo come guardarci dal pericolo.

Eppure, nella società come in azienda, conservare gelosamente la memoria è uno dei pochi modi possibili per osservare l’evoluzione della cultura. Infatti dimenticare serve per smettere di confrontarsi col passato, mentre la stoffa di cui è fatta la storia intreccia alla trama dei fatti l’ordito delle nostre interpretazioni. Ed è proprio il modo in cui queste ultime evolvono a parlarci di noi, a permetterci di comprendere cosa stiamo diventando e di fare scelte consapevoli per tentare di orientare la deriva, lenta ma inarrestabile, di qualunque cultura.

Grazie alla cara amica Renata (…), che me lo ha segnalato, in merito a questo tema riporto un bell’articolo di Jo Ellison, comparso sul Financial Times lo scorso 9 febbraio.

Nota: non posso fare a meno di avanzare le mie riserve sul passo dell’articolo dove di parla di cliodinamica. Il biologo (?) Peter Turchin, dell’Università del Connecticut e i suoi collaboratori lavorano in un ambito di ricerca multidisciplinare incentrato sulla modellizzazione matematica delle dinamiche storiche. I risultati confluiscono regolarmente nella rivista «Cliodynamics: The Journal of Theoretical ad Mathematical History». Mi chiedo, quanto le regolarità che questi studi cercano nel tessuto della storia dipendono dalla “trama” e quanto dall'”ordito”?

Riconosco di sapere assai poco in fatto di cliodinamica (mi sono occupato seriamente solo di fluidodinamica e già lì fare previsioni non è uno scherzo), ma sono tra coloro che guardano con sospetto e scetticismo a quelli che cercano di trovare “leggi storiche”. A non voler pensar di peggio, viene subito in mente il monaco Michael Stifelius che indicò il 18 Ottobre del 1532, alle 8 del mattino (quando si dice “la precisione”), come il momento della fine del mondo, in base a complessi calcoli fatti a partire dall’Apocalisse di Giovanni.

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Among the various anniversaries marked this week we passed a quiet milestone: after 28 years, two months and 26 days, the Berlin Wall had been toppled for longer than it stood. Modern Germany must now wrangle with its post-post-wall identity.

It seems extraordinary — not least because it makes me feel ancient. When I was a child, the Berlin Wall coloured so much of my world view. As I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, the shadow of the wall and its misty vistas were a fact of cultural life, understood via John le Carré or the lives of the musical and sports prodigies absconding from the east.

The wall was sinister and yet curiously glamorous to behold from the safety of the suburban west. As the physical manifestation of two opposing politics, it was a handy primer, too. We all understood that the east was a world of spies, danger and government omnipotence, where citizens were cruelly denied basic freedoms like Levi’s jeans or McDonald’s. That was them and this was us and here was a border to draw a line between the two.

Thinking about the wall all dismantled and long ago has made me feel awkwardly nostalgic. What does it mean, then, that I feel in no way moved by the centenary celebrations marking the Representation of the People Act? The anniversary of the first act of suffrage in Britain to allow all men and 40 per cent of women to vote (younger, poorer women were only granted that right a decade later) should have offered a moment to reflect on female achievement and how jolly far we have come.

These women were my sisters, my ancestors, people to whom I should have felt a blood connection, and certainly women to whom I owe a huge debt. But looking at faded black and white portraits of women chained to railings and waving political placards failed to stir the same emotions. They seemed so far away.

The story of the women’s suffrage movement is no longer a living memory; there are no voices left to recall what it was like. Maybe that’s why, without the grit of human experience, my appreciation of a moment that should have felt profound just felt like a random date in the calendar — another anniversary in the very long ago.

As students we are taught history in episodic instalments: we study the brutish years of early man, the Romans, the Tudors, the Victorians, the suffragettes, and so on, but we rarely consider the elasticity of historical perception. Without context, it’s near impossible to really appreciate our proximity to history, or the significance of world events until long after they’ve happened.

“Did cars exist when you were little?” asked my daughter when she was about six years old. She could parrot away about Norman hill fortifications and motte-and-bailey castles all day, but her understanding of the past was so abstract that its landscape had become infinite. She thought that I had spent my childhood perambulating around in a pony and trap, and ploughing fields with an ox.

Thankfully, the privilege of living in a democratic society that assumes certain freedoms means we’re allowed to be complacent about the where and when. I’m not worried my voting rights are about to be taken away. Likewise, my daughter assumes cars will be a feature of her future.

But we can scarce afford to take anything for granted. In an essay written for the Huffington Post last year, the writer Tobias Stone argued that “most peoples’ perspective of history is limited to the experience communicated by their parents and grandparents, so 50-100 years. To go beyond that you have to read, study and learn to untangle the propaganda that is inevitable in all telling of history”.

He used his theory as a warning: without making the effort to remember, new demagogues will rise, votes will be extinguished, wars will break out. And new walls will be built.

Science would seem to back him up. In America, the ecologist, evolutionary biologist and mathematician Peter Turchin has pioneered the study of cliodynamics, looking for meaningful patterns in history. In a 2012 study of US history, he argued that periods of violent, chaotic unrest, including major wars, were the inevitable result of a 50-year cycle that would peak every other generation. Many historians have charted similar patterns that have found us going to war, voting for tyrants and exterminating each other in tragically predictable cycles.

Becoming complacent about our past can have dark consequences. Just this week the Polish president Andrzej Duda signed a law mandating fines or imprisonment for people who accuse the Polish population of complicit in the crimes committed by Nazi Germany, and banning the use of phrases such as “Polish death camps”.

More than 70 years after the war’s end, the law will effectively rewrite the historical narrative at the exact same point at which it begins to fade from the collective memory. The Poles will be permitted to place the Holocaust deeper into the blurry fog of history. Just like the wall is now a remnant of an era long ago for the generation that has followed me.

We say we shall remember. And yet we tend to forget. Or perhaps we just want to.

The Thucydides Trap


ON JULY 2nd an American guided-missile destroyer sailed within 12 nautical miles (22.2km) of Triton, a tiny Chinese-occupied island in the South China Sea. It was on a “freedom of navigation” operation, sailing through disputed waters to show China that others do not accept its territorial claims. Such operations infuriate China. But they have not brought the two superpowers to blows. So far.

Graham Allison, a Harvard scholar, thinks the world underestimates the risk of a catastrophic clash between China and the United States. When a rising power challenges an incumbent, carnage often ensues. Thucydides, an ancient historian, wrote of the Peloponnesian war of 431-404 BC that “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.” Mr Allison has examined 16 similar cases since the 15th century. All but four ended in war. Mr Allison does not say that war between China and the United States is inevitable, but he thinks it “more likely than not”.

This alarming conclusion is shared by many in Washington, where Mr Allison’s book is causing a stir. So it is worth examining his reasoning. America has shaped a set of global rules to suit itself. China has different values and different interests which it would like others to accommodate. Disagreements are inevitable.
War would be disastrous for both sides, but that does not mean it cannot happen. No one wanted the first world war, yet it started anyway, thanks to a series of miscalculations. The Soviet Union and America avoided all-out war, but they came close. During the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, when the Soviets tried to smuggle nuclear missiles onto Cuba, 90 miles (145km) from Florida, there were at least a dozen close calls that could have led to war. When American ships dropped explosives around Soviet submarines to force them to surface, one Soviet captain thought he was under attack and nearly fired his nuclear torpedoes. When an American spy plane flew into Soviet airspace, Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader, worried that America was scoping targets for a nuclear first strike. Had he decided to pre-empt it, a third world war could have followed.

China and America could blunder into war in several ways, argues Mr Allison. A stand-off over Taiwan could escalate. North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong Un, might die without an obvious heir, sparking chaos. American and Chinese special forces might rush into North Korea to secure the regime’s nuclear weapons, and clash. A big cyber-attack against America’s military networks might convince it that China was trying to blind its forces in the Pacific. American retaliation aimed at warning China off might have the opposite effect. Suppose that America crippled China’s Great Firewall, as a warning shot, and China saw this as an attempt to overthrow its government? With Donald Trump in the White House, Mr Allison worries that even a trade war might turn into a shooting war.

He is right that Mr Trump is frighteningly ignorant of America’s chief global rival, and that both sides should work harder to understand each other. But Mr Allison’s overall thesis is too gloomy. China is a cautious superpower. Its leaders stoke nationalist sentiment at home, but they have shown little appetite for military adventurism abroad. Yes, the Taiwan strait and the South China Sea are dangerous. But unlike the great powers of old, China has no desire to build a far-flung empire. And all the wars in Mr Allison’s sample broke out before the invention of nuclear weapons. China and America have enough of these to destroy the world. That alone makes war extremely unlikely.

This article appeared in the Books and arts section of the print edition under the headline “Fated to fight?”

The Economist

Commentary on “Renaissance Florence Was a Better Model for Innovation than Silicon Valley Is”


Here is an interesting article on the Harvard Business Review, by Eric Weiner. I always like this kind of article, because I understand and I share the willingness to carve out of our experience something useful in a creative way.  On the other hand, I know that a metaphore is nothing more than a metaphor, and that you must be very careful to avoid rough anachronisms, in trying to force history to say more than it can tell.

Urban planners the world over yearn to replicate the success of Silicon Valley: witness Thames Valley (England) and Silicon Oasis (Dubai), to name just two of these attempts. Invariably, these well-intentioned efforts fail for the simple reason that they’re trying to replicate the wrong model. Silicon Valley is too new, too now, to glean lessons from. Those hoping to launch the world’s next great innovation hub would be better off looking to an older, even more remarkable genius cluster: Renaissance Florence. The Italian city-state produced an explosion of great art and brilliant ideas, the likes of which the world has not seen before or since. This hothouse of innovation offers lessons as relevant and valuable today as they were 500 years ago. Here are a few of them.

Talent needs patronage. The Medicis of Florence were legendary talent spotters, leveraging their wealth with selective generosity. That was especially true of Lorenzo Medici, better known as Lorenzo the Magnificent. One day when he was strolling through the city, a boy not more than 14 years old caught his eye. The boy was sculpting a faun, a figure in Roman mythology that is half man, half goat, and Lorenzo was stunned by both his talent and his determination to “get it right.” He invited the young stonecutter to live in his residence, working and learning alongside his own children. It was an extraordinary investment, but it paid off handsomely. The boy was Michelangelo. The Medicis didn’t spend frivolously, but when they spotted genius in the making they took calculated risks and opened their wallets wide. Today, cities, organizations, and wealthy individuals need to take a similar approach, sponsoring fresh talent not as an act of charity, but as a discerning investment in the common good.

How can we leverage this lesson, in practice? In my opinion, the focal point is having a clear perception of one’s own strengths in pursuing one’s goals. The Medici knew well the importance of being magnificent in their strategy: it was clearly a key value driver, it was one of the most effective reliability indicators and we must not forget that the fortune of the family was based on the development of the banking business. That is not philanthropy: it is marketing! When the strategy in not clear, the opening of the wallet for ‘patronaging’ is quite impossible, because the firm is already spending too much on too many initiatives: could it be an indicator?

Mentors matter. In today’s culture, we tend to value youth over experience and have little patience for old-fashioned learning models. Ambitious young entrepreneurs want to tear down the corner office, not take lessons from the people in it. However, the experience of innovators in Renaissance Florence suggests this is a mistake. Some of the greatest names in art and literature willingly paid their dues, studying their craft at the feet of the masters. Leonardo da Vinci spent a full decade — considerably longer than was customary — apprenticing at a Florentine bottega, or workshop, run by a man named Andrea del Verrocchio. A good artist but a better businessman, Verrocchio surely spotted the burgeoning genius in the young artist from an “illegitimate” family, but he nonetheless insisted Leonardo start on the bottom rung like everyone else, sweeping floors and cleaning chicken cages. (The eggs were used to make tempera paint before the advent of oil.) Gradually, Verrocchio gave his charge greater responsibility, even permitting him to paint portions of his own artwork. Why did Leonardo stay an apprentice for so long? He could easily have found work elsewhere, but he clearly valued the experience he acquired in the dusty, chaotic workshop. Too often, modern-day mentoring programs, public or private, are lip service. They must instead, as during Leonardo’s time, entail meaningful, long-term relationships between mentors and their mentees.

In my humble opinion, this part of the metaphor is quite weak. Leonardo started working with Verrocchio when he was a just kid and there are many other important differences between that time and today, from this particular point of view. Basically, Leonardo couldn’t easily have found work elsewhere, he had to spend that decade for becoming able to open a his own bottega. Moreover, might we say that, nowadays, ‘mentors’ are ready to give way early to their ‘mentees’?

Potential trumps experience. When Pope Julius II was deciding who should paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo was far from the obvious choice. Thanks to the Medici patronage, he had become well-known as a sculptor in Rome as well as Florence, but his painting experience was limited to small pieces — and little in the way of frescoes. Still, the pope clearly believed that, when it came to this “impossible” task, talent and potential mattered more than experience, and he was right. Think of how much that mindset differs from what we do today. We typically hire and assign important tasks only to those people and companies who have previously performed similar jobs in the past. A better approach might be to take a page from Julius II and assign difficult tasks to those who don’t seem like the best fit but who can succeed (often in a more innovative way) because they have demonstrated excellence in another field. We need to bet on more dark horses like Michelangelo. Is it risky? Yes, but the potential payoff is enormous.

I suppose that Mr. Weiner does not know well, I mean in details, what happened in 1506, in Rome. Basically due to the lack of money, Giulio II had to stop the pharaonic project of his own burial monument. Michelangelo was working on it and he went on a rampage: he ran away in Florence and Giulio threatened the Medici to have him back in Rome. Was he in love with Michelangelo? Was he mad? Of course not! The point is that he didn’t simply want a well done fresco: we wanted to send a clear message to all the visitors of the Cappella Sistina, about the power of the papacy: Giulio was used to wear a sword and he died of syphilis; he wanted a Sibilla cumana thought by Michelangelo: with the biceps of a culturist.


Again, this is not about innovation or ‘assigning difficult tasks to those who don’t seem like the best fit but who can succeed because they have demonstrated excellence in another field’.

Have a look at the unfinished Giulio’s burial monument:


Do you see the point (and the biceps)?
This is about effective communication of a corporate mission!

Disaster creates opportunities. Florence reminds us that even devastating events can yield surprising benefits. The city’s Renaissance blossomed only a few decades after the Black Death decimated the city, and in part because of it. Horrible as it was, the plague shook up the rigid social order, and that new fluidity led directly to artistic and intellectual revolution. Likewise, Athens flourished after it was sacked by the Persians. A period of upheaval almost always precedes a creative awakening. Innovators must internalize this lesson. They need to constantly ask themselves, “What good can come from this? Where is the opportunity hidden amid the distress?” Consider Detroit’s attempt to remake itself into something other than Motor City as car industry employment declined, or New Orleans’s slow but steady efforts to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina. Don’t aim to restore some glorious — and likely illusory — past. Instead, leverage catastrophe to create something entirely new.

Uhm… do really disasters create opportunities? Is it a general rule? I would not be so sure, and above all, I would be careful in avoiding any confusion between correlation and causality! That’s an old consultancy trick, isn’t it? Again, in learning from history we are not allowed to force it: we are used to read history and to choose what upheaval and creative awakening are, looking through thick glasses.

In this regard, watching ‘Steve jobs‘ the movie can be helpful: can success be the coming back to a ‘wrong’ idea, notwithstanding a disaster?

Embrace competition. Renaissance Florence was rife with rivalries and feuds. The two giants of the age, Leonardo and Michelangelo, couldn’t stomach one another, but perhaps that’s what propelled them both to produce such fine work. The decades-long feud between Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi had the same effect. When Brunelleschi failed to win the commission to build the Gates of Paradise in Florence, he traveled to Rome to study ancient structures, like the Pantheon, then brought those lessons home to build the city’s iconic landmark, the Duomo. The Florentines appreciated the value of healthy competition. We’d be wise to do the same, recognizing that both “winners” and “losers” benefit from it.

That is exactly what I mean when I warn against historical creativity: the idea that the feud between Leonardo and Michelangelo had propelled them both to produce such fine works is ‘not even wrong’. On the contrary, the history of artistic competition in renaissance is full of blow downs, I would be sincerely reluctant in indicating it as an example of fair play. On the other hand, it can be helpful if we want to show that the rules of the game in the business are still the same, even after centuries. That is exactly the reason why we are allowed to learn something from history, always with some caveat.

Note: this narrative is not completely fair: the project was approved because Brunelleschi asked Ghiberti to openly patronize it! When the committee saw that his competitor agreed regarding the technical feasibility, they approved, but they asked Ghiberti to join the project, obviously!

Seek out and synthesize ideas. Florence was not exactly a democracy, but its leaders recognized the importance of injecting fresh faces, and ideas, on a regular basis. For instance, the bylaws of the Opera del Duomo, the committee that oversaw construction of the now-iconic cupola in the city center, demanded that leadership change every few months, no matter how well the group was performing. They knew that nothing torpedoes a creative endeavor as quickly and thoroughly as complacency.

The leadership change was not intended to avoid complacency: that’s ridiculous! The fact is that the bylaws of the Opera del Duomo had a lot of problems to deal with, including the black death which killed the master builder!

The Florentines (and especially the Medicis) also looked to different cultures and the past for inspiration. They dispatched emissaries far and wide in search of prized ancient Greek and Roman manuscripts. This was not cheap — a single book cost, in relative terms, as much as a car does today — so every acquisition was carefully weighed, its potential value patiently considered. They recognized that innovation involves a synthesis of ideas, some new, some borrowed, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Uhm… again, I suspect that Mr Weiner is overinterpreting history.


Final considerations

I believe that history is a great tool for interpreting what happens today in our firms. Human behavior and deep motivations are basically always the same. We can learn from the past. On the other hand, we must be always aware that those are metaphors, therefore we can use them as interpretative maps only with much care.


L’insostenibile dinamica del cambiamento

Johann Friedrich Struensee

Johann Friedrich Struensee

Poco prima che scoppiasse la rivoluzione in Francia, in Danimarca, per un breve periodo, il sistema delle regole vigenti venne radicalmente sovvertito in modo del tutto incruento. A quel tempo la Danimarca era governata da un manipolo di oligarchi che manovrava un giovane re, dopo avere indotto in lui una grave nevrosi, grazie a un’educazione criminale. Le manifestazioni di tale nevrosi divennero tali, a un certo punto, da indurre costoro a cercare un medico il quale potesse aiutarli a tenere sotto controllo il sovrano: nevrotico andava bene, pazzo no.

Quel medico si chiamava Johann Friedrich Strunsee.

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Crisis management


President John F. Kennedy’s defense secretary, Robert S. McNamara, famously stated that “there is no longer such a thing as strategy; there is only crisis management.”

Sul blog di MissionMode mi sono imbattuto per caso in un bell’articolo sulla crisi dei missili cubani del 1962, uno degli episodi storici che maggiormente utilizzo in aula.

Da Roma a Parigi in un mese


La relazione tra lo spazio e il tempo, almeno in una certa accezione, è storicamente determinata. Infatti la nostra idea di distanza geografica è completamente diversa da quella che dovevano avere i nostri antenati un paio di millenni fa, quando Ancona era più lontana da Roma di quanto non lo fosse Tunisi. Per rendersene conto basta guardare le isocrone della curiosa carta geografica con cui ho aperto questo post.

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Mankind are so much the same, in all times and places, that history informs us of nothing new or strange in this particular. Its chief use is only to discover the constant and universal principles of human nature.

David Hume

Circostanze della leadership

Apsley Cherry-Garrard, dopo 36 giorni di marcia in pieno inverno australe, luglio 1911

What is the use of A running down Scott because he served with Shackleton, or B going for Amundsen because he served with Scott? They have all done good work; within their limits, the best work to date. There are jobs for which, if I had to do them, I would like to serve under Scott, Amundsen, Shackleton and Wilson—each to his part.

For a joint scientific and geographical piece of organization, give me Scott; for a Winter Journey, Wilson; for a dash to the Pole and nothing else, Amundsen: and if I am in the devil of a hole and want to get out of it, give me Shackleton every time.

They will all go down in polar history as leaders, these men. I believe Bowers would also have made a great name for himself if he had lived, and few polar ships have been commanded as capably as was the Terra Nova, by Pennell.

Apsley Cherry-Garrard

Lessons learned from the polar ice

By Tom Brady

Dr Edward Wilson sketching the Beardmore Glacier, photographed by Captain Robert Falcon Scott in December 1911

With the recent 100th anniversary of the conquest of the South Pole, stories of survival and death on the seventh continent were prevalent. Roald Amundsen arrived first, in December of 1911, followed about a month later by Robert Falcon Scott, who got there on January 17, 1912. But Scott’s ordeal on the ice, recounted in the notebooks he kept as his five-man team struggled and failed to complete the 1,300 kilometer journey to safety, has almost relegated Amundsen’s accomplishment to a historical footnote.

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Dame di ferro

Una delle critiche a cui mi capita di dover rispondere al termine di una sessione sul tema della leadership condotta con il metodo della narrazione storica è: “…ma non c’è nemmeno l’ombra di una donna!”.

Be’, la questione è meno banale di quanto possa sembrare di primo acchito. Di solito, infatti, ribatto in modo molto semplice e diretto: “ha perfettamente ragione,” dico, “vuole allora essere così gentile da propormi un nome?”.

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