I am not Afraid of Death

At Copenhagen Jazz Festival I had the privilege of attending a concert by Brazilian legendary artists Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil. It was in many ways an extraordinary experience.

Former Minister of Culture Gilberto Gil captured my attention with his song “I am not Afraid of Death.” His intense and hoarse voice made the distinction between of the act of dying and death itself. While he certainly was afraid of dying he wasn’t afraid of death itself. “Death is what happens after me.” He sang. “But I am the one who has to die.” Drumming his guitar like a beating heart.

Gilberto’s claim has it’s roots in history. Facing a death sentence Socrates famously argued that he could not fear death as he did not know what it was. Danish Philosopher Søren Kierkegaard furthered this idea arguing that fear needs to relate to an object e.g. dogs, war or an illness. Thoughts about death lead to anxiety which, unlike fear, doesn’t relate to a known object. To Kierkegaard anxiety was a simultaneous feeling of attraction and repulsion. When standing at the edge of a cliff one can fear falling. Simultaneously, one may feel an impulse to throw oneself intentionally over the edge. Kierkegaard called this feeling of anxiety “The dizziness of freedom.”

Não tenho medo da morte / Jeg er ikke bange for døden

(Translation into danish)

Não tenho medo da morte
mas sim medo de morrer
qual seria a diferença
você há de perguntar
é que a morte já é depois
que eu deixar de respirar
morrer ainda é aqui
na vida, no sol, no ar
ainda pode haver dor
ou vontade de mijar

A morte já é depois
já não haverá ninguém
como eu aqui agora
pensando sobre o além
já não haverá o além
o além já será então
não terei pé nem cabeça
nem figado, nem pulmão
como poderei ter medo
se não terei coração?

Não tenho medo da morte
mas medo de morrer, sim
a morte e depois de mim
mas quem vai morrer sou eu
o derradeiro ato meu
e eu terei de estar presente
assim como um presidente
dando posse ao sucessor
terei que morrer vivendo
sabendo que já me vou

Então nesse instante sim
sofrerei quem sabe um choque
um piripaque, ou um baque
um calafrio ou um toque
coisas naturais da vida
como comer, caminhar
morrer de morte matada
morrer de morte morrida
quem sabe eu sinta saudade
como em qualquer despedida.
Jeg er ikke bange for døden
men, ja, bange for at dø
hvad er mon forskellen
ville du nok spørge
altså, døden er først bagefter
jeg er holdt op med at trække vejret
at dø er stadig her
I livet, i solen, i luften
man kan stadig have ondt
eller lyst til at tisse

Døden er først bagefter
der er ingen tilbage
som jeg her og nu
tænker på det hinsides
der vil ikke være noget hinsides
hinsides vil allerede være
jeg ville ikke have fødder eller hoved
hverken lever eller lunger
hvordan skulle jeg kunne være bange
når jeg ikke har noget hjerte

Jeg er ikke bange for døden
men bange for at dø, ja
døden er efter mig
men den der skal dø er mig
min ultimativt sidste gerning
og jeg skal være til stede
som en præsident
der giver magten til sin efterfølger
jeg skal dø levende
vidende at det er nu jeg skal afsted

Så i dette øjeblik, ja,
jeg vil lide, hvem ved, en kollision
en blodprop, eller et fald
et kuldegys eller en berøring
almindelige ting i livet
som at spise, at gå
dø døden dræbt
dø døden døende
hvem ved om jeg vil længes
som ved ethvert farvel

Sailing the Career Ship

Not long ago I presented my career to Senior Management. Preparing for the presentation, part of a talent programme, I became astonished. I realised that in almost a decade with the company I have not been able to predict one single career move. Actually, at no moment of my entire career I have been able to foresee where I was going 2 months in advance of any job change.

This is a radical finding for someone who built his career on the ability to predict the future. Having spent years predicting behaviours of customers and competitors I should be able to predict my own career. Well, apparently not. Even though I have had lots of plans and even though I have put considerable energy into realising them reality always ended up being quite different than I had anticipated. Mostly better. While I have certainly had bumps on the road most of my career has been fun and exciting.

So what happened? Well, career plans are strategies. And while it is always good to have a solid strategy not all goes as planned in execution. When this happens we of course need to ask ourselves whether we really prioritised our resources according to the intended strategy or whether there is something else at play. A certain level of bifocal vision is required. Staying on strategy but at the same time asking oneself “What is trying to emerge?”

emerging_strategy

Human beings are story tellers. Most of us would rather believe in a good story than grey figures on a sheet of paper. Looking back at our past it all makes sense. It becomes a story. As Kierkegaard famously said. “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” Moving forward in our careers can feel like navigating a boat. You cannot control the sea and you cannot control your career. What you can do is to optimise your chances of safe passage and learn to be lucky…

In the Search for Excellence

In 2010 I was tasked with establishing a Sales & Marketing Excellence function. Being the only HQ function with sales included in the title could prove to be both a strength and a weakness. Certainly, we were to operate in an environment where sales was a much decentralised matter. However, combined with marketing – an increasingly centralised matter – it became a strength. The almost inevitable slogan-like vision Bringing marketing and sales closer together was an ancient quest for optimising the forces of yin and yang.

It was the word excellence that concerned me the most. Common advice was to become the centre of excellence. But what did that mean, exactly? Wouldn’t one expect brand teams to be centre of excellence for their brands, market access teams centre of excellence for payer engagement, etc.? Was excellence equal to specialist expertise?

Fate took me to Lagos, Nigeria, where we were implementing a new business approach. After a rather chaotic arrival I got a glimpse of excellence in the parking lot. The car licence plates claimed Lagos to be the much sought after centre of excellence.

Nigeria licence plate

Licence Plate. Lagos, Nigeria

While I certainly meet some very gifted and competent people in Lagos I left Nigeria with more questions than answers as to what excellence really is. Although, I did use the above picture in future introductions to the function.

Nigeria not for sale

House not for sale, an innovative business model. Lagos, Nigeria

It was clear that excellence – like innovation – must be something you strive for through certain behaviours (and possibly attitudes).
We are usually able to claim something to be innovative once we see it. How will we be able to measure whether something is excellent? To find the answer I had to trace the word excellence back to its roots in the ancient greek word arete which back in the day meant an outstanding fitness for purpose – the act of living up to one’s full potential. In this sense excellence can be measured by how capable a company or an individual is of fulfilling its purpose. Capabilities – as recommended by Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen – can be evaluated along 3 dimensions, namely, resources, processes and priorities.

In summary the role of an excellence function is to optimise the company’s resources and processes, and align priorities towards the fulfilment of the company’s purpose. Whatever that may be.