I am beginning to realise how important it is to have a sense of humour. Not just because it makes life more enjoyable, but because it draws attention to things, that you can then do something about. I am learning this from Marshall Young, who I work with at Oxford. For example, he used to call old Oxford of the dreaming spires, the ‘theme park’. Not something you would catch many Oxford dons doing.
Marshall’s joke made me laugh and think. As a result I started to think in a very different way about the role of old Oxford in particular on the leadership programme we both worked on. It gave me a new understanding of how the programme worked, the importance of aesthetics, space and the effect they have on the participants. It completely changed how I understood what we were doing. It also led to a new a rich line of inquiry about the use of physical space in executive education and training in general. Not bad for a throwaway joke.
He did it again recently. I was designing another programme and mentioned that I was going to bring in a colleague, Stewart Morgan, to talk about a model called ‘The Trialogue’. Marshall knows both Stewart and the model and, with a smile, suggested the the model was ‘a fig leaf’ and that all that mattered was to get Stewart into conversation with the participants.
I thought this amusing enough to mention to Stewart who replied ‘Well, perhaps it is a fig leaf, but a fig leaf covers your important bits, so I am pretty glad to have it.’ Which made me realise that what we needed was fig leaves all round. That would help everyone make sense of a very complex timetable, making the conversations we wanted, more likely.
I don’t think Marshall does this consciously. But his sense of humour and levity are part of who he is and that quality encourages the mind to dwell on things it might otherwise ignore.