Thursday, 24 June 2010

The effective response to insurmountable problems

The question of how to deal effectively with insurmountable problems is absent from most management books. Even in advanced business courses, the study of ethics is reduced to little more than avoiding conflicts of interests and ensuring compliance with stock market regulations.

However, the truth is that people must sometimes deal with extreme difficulties. If you doubt this statement, open the business pages of today's newspaper and take a look. In the worst companies, abuse, lying, and stealing are the order of the day. Even corporations that devote massive efforts to recruiting the best people will inevitably find themselves with 1% corruption in the factory floor and in the boardroom.

Chances are that, sooner or later, you will have to confront insurmountable obstacles and make a difficult decision. In extreme situations, the right answer never comes easy. What will you do when factors outside your control constrain your choices? How will you decide when all alternatives carry negative consequences?

The story of Boethius and Cassiodorus provides a forceful illustration of two strategies for facing extreme difficulties. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Italy was taken over by Ostrogoth tribes. In the year 494 C.E., Theodoric became king and ruled the country for the next 30 years.

Boethius was only 25 years old when he moved from Greece to Italy in order to work for Theodoric, the barbarian king. Boethius' own writings reveal that he was conscious of the dangers of accepting the job, but he believed that, somehow, he would be able to survive and prosper.

The initial five years of Boethius in Italy were a resounding success. His intellect and readiness to ethical compromise allowed him to rise quickly through the ranks. On the eve of his 30th birthday, he was promoted to the leading position in Theodoric's bureaucracy.

That was exactly what Boethius had been looking for. The dark aspects of his job were unmistakable, since it involved passing many an arbitrary death sentence. At the same time, the post provided him ample resources to devote to his life's passion: translating Aristotle's work from Greek into Latin.

The tide turned in the year 525 C.E., when Theodoric, on the basis of rumours, had Boethius arrested and charged with treason. Did the sudden loss of freedom and possessions take Boethius by surprise? Had he not witnessed himself many times that, at the court, intrigue often weighs heavier than truth?

After Boethius was put to death, Theodoric appointed Cassiodorus to head his administration. The new job-holder had been a friend of Boethius and knew that, in the barbarian court, success was transient, enemies many, reversals of fortune frequent, and consequences brutal.

Like Boethius, Cassiodorus loved books and had joined Theodoric's bureaucracy in order to be able to study and write. On his first day on the job, Cassiodorus decided that he would not make the same mistake as his predecessor. He would not compromise his principles and give way to evil.

For a while, everything went fine. In trials, Cassiodorus passed mild sentences. In correspondence, he softened the words dictated by the king. In religious disputes, he kept silent and out of trouble. Nevertheless, the time came when he found himself enmeshed in a life-or-death conflict.

After Athalaric succeeded Theodoric, the Ostrogoth court split into factions, each possessing equal forces. When Cassiodorus was put to choose between the camps, he did something that no one had done until that time. Instead of deciding for the lesser evil, he quit.

Seen in retrospective, it is obvious that Cassiodorus had spent years preparing himself for that moment. Within weeks, he sold everything he had with exception of his 600 books. He said farewell to the court, loaded his volumes on a ship, and vanished.

The ship circumvented Italy, traversed the Adriatic Sea, and headed to a secluded Greek province. There, Cassiodorus purchased a modest farm, founded a monastery, and devoted the next decades to studying and writing, as he had planned from the very beginning.

Had Cassiodorus stayed longer in Italy, he might have accumulated immense riches. His decision to leave danger behind led him to a life of relative poverty. We don't know if Cassiodorus lived happily ever after, but records show that he became 100 years old.


[Image by zoutedrop under Creative Commons Attribution License. See the license terms under]