Skip to content ↓

Nice Guys Can Finish First

There is just time for one last visit this week to the splendidly entertaining ‘Great Tales from English History’ by Robert Lacey, to consider two men who are widely regarded as national heroes, though each had feet of clay like the rest of us.  And then it is time to move on, conscious that English history told like this is essentially based on Thomas Carlyle’s assertion that our past is really just the biographies of great men.  I will, however, return to the theme next week, with the help of David Mountain’s ‘Past Mistakes’ to try to show that it is actually much more complicated than that.

Lacey describes how the story that Admiral Horatio Nelson placed a telescope to his blind eye so as to ignore an order during the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801 was yet another example of a legend devised after death.  The detailed account by Colonel William Stewart, who was standing beside Nelson on the quarterdeck at the time, makes it clear that Nelson certainly did ignore a signal to leave off action, but his ‘turning a blind eye’ was not described until five years later, the detail of the telescope was added three years after that, and no contemporary picture shows him wearing an eye patch.

A few years later, at the Battle of Trafalgar, Nelson lay dying in the medical cockpit below deck on HMS Victory, its walls painted red to camouflage the blood that splashed everywhere.  A bullet from a French sniper had broken his back, opened an artery and entered his lung.  He knew the end was coming, so he turned to his flag captain, Thomas Hardy, and said, ‘Take care of my dear Lady Hamilton.  Kiss me, Hardy.’  In later years the Victorians could not bear the idea that Nelson had asked another man to kiss him, and came up with the suggestion that he really said ‘Kismet’, from the Persian word for ‘fate’ or ‘destiny’.  But the account by the surgeon Dr Beatty was quite definite.  Captain Hardy kissed the dying man twice – on the cheek and on the forehead.

Finally, when Winston Churchill famously said, ‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few’, he was right that there were no more than about two thousand pilots involved in the Battle of Britain in 1940.  However, Lacey points out that every fighter pilot depended on an extensive and complex pyramid of support staff – radar technicians, the observer corps, searchlight and barrage-balloon operators, chart plotters, telephone operators and engineers, dispatch riders, signallers and runway repair crews, not to mention the mechanics who produced, maintained and repaired the planes that enabled ‘the few’ to win their dogfights.  The author concludes with some justification that the inside story of the Battle of Britain was the triumph of the many, not just the few.

In his book ‘The Art of Fairness’, David Bodanis puts together a compelling argument that success does not have to be reserved for those who lack the milk of human kindness.  Looking at leaders around the world in the last few years, and throughout history, you would be forgiven for concluding that terrible people often succeed, and I will let you think of your own bogeymen, and bogeywomen, to illustrate the point.  But Bodanis counters that decent people also often make it to the top, even in hard, competitive fields, and they can help shift matters for the better.  It is just often not noticed because more monstrous egos tend to grab our attention. 

I can happily recommend Bodanis to you for a summer read.  He displays compassion and balance throughout, and there are plenty of interesting stories to illustrate the points he makes, with case studies on people as diverse as Captain William Bligh and Dr Joseph Goebbels, and some interesting anecdotes that could be transferred to a variety of settings.  For example, he says that you don’t have to love someone to respect them.  You don’t even have to like them.  If they are fair, and you see their competence, that’s enough, and I would certainly be happy if my epitaph included the words ‘fair’ and ‘competent’.

The idea that ‘Nice Guys Finish Last’ came from the baseball coach Leo Durocher in the 1940s, and the idea has since gained traction because it is compelling.  Being polite and fair and gentle is all very good, but it seems like a description of the dull manner of partner your parents might like you to marry.  In a crisis, it is natural to want a more hard-driving person working on your side.  But Bodanis assesses this as a false opposition.  Although being gentle in all circumstances will likely mean you get walked over, fairness does not need to mean being meek.  On the contrary, when applied well, he highlights, it can crush most bullying types.

‘Efficiency wages’, we are told, is a term used by economists to describe a situation where businesses pay more, treat workers better and get more motivated staff as a result.  Progressive business schools are apparently full of examples.  But he says we would do well to remember the physicist Enrico Fermi’s remark, when presented with explanations of why there was likely to be a multitude of advanced civilisations among the stars.  ‘Then where is everybody?’ he gently asked.  If what progressive firms do is so effective, why doesn’t every organisation run this way?  The answer is that generating gratitude is far from being the only way to succeed.

I laughed out loud at the story of American football quarterback Bart Starr and his relationship with the coach Vince Lombardi, who sounds like he was the Sir Alex Ferguson of his chosen sport, a man who achieved great results but at quite a cost to the wellbeing of many of those around him.  Shortly after Lombardi was appointed to coach the Green Bay Packers team for which he was playing, Starr said, ‘I could hardly wait to meet a man who went to church every day.  I worked for him for two weeks, and then I realised that this man needs to go to church every day.’

John Kenneth Galbraith, head of price control in America during World War Two, concerned with gasoline rationing and much else, reckoned perhaps 10% of the population would always be considerate, about 5% would always be selfish, and the rest – the 85% great majority – could go either way, depending on what they saw others doing. Since I first heard about something similar a few years ago, I have often referred to the 20:70:10 ratio, whereby 20% of people will embrace what leaders ask them to do with enthusiasm, 70% will largely do as they are asked and 10% will not, regardless of any action you can reasonably take to encourage them.

My favourite quotation from the book was from the philosopher Bertrand Russell, who once said that if you declared all Englishmen were fools, you’d be attacked by an irate nation.  But if you said that ninety per cent of Englishmen were fools, then everyone in the nation would comment on your perspicacity: how had you managed so well to recognise the idiots they were surrounded with?

Bodanis concludes that there are plenty of terrible people in the world, as always, but they are in a minority.  Far more are neutral, swayed by whatever appears successful.  When systems are set up to make life harder for the worst sort – and what they hate most of all is seeing their unscrupulous or ineffective actions revealed – then everything positive we have seen can pour out: the transmission of accurate information; extra gratitude to wield; fresh sources of creativity; enthusiastic alliances – which strikes me as much-needed optimism at a time when it is not at all easy to feel positive about the world.

Paste in video URL and save page via the "Edit" tab at the top of the page