The Slipstream Effect

12 May 2021

I was running yesterday morning in Hyde Park - must be done - and I noticed that every time I was passed by another runner, a regular occurrence, I upped my pace. Instinctively I wanted to keep up and I was pulled along at least for a while.

This led me to reflect on slipstreaming generally.

As a matter of physics, slipstreaming is the phenomenon where a fast-moving object creates a pocket of air behind it which enables a following object to use less power in maintaining the same speed as the lead object - conserving energy for that deft passing manoeuvre. One hears the term often in the context of motor car racing. Thus, Junior Johnson (no relation) was able to use slipstream to make up for lack of straight-line speed and nip past the car in front just in time to win the 1960 Daytona 500 race. It is also valuable to cyclists and, interestingly, a similar effect causes geese and cormorants to fly in V formations.

Of course, the tug to improve which I experienced in Hyde Park was more in the way of emotional slipstreaming than the real thing but it has made me think more about what pulls, or drives, us on. What gets us out of bed in the morning, what makes us stretch, what makes us strive?

In no particular order of importance, here are seven thoughts:

1. Purpose

You may, or may not, be a Miley Cyrus fan but she has a point when she says “It’s all about the climb”. In a corporate context, purpose is being seen increasingly as genuinely important - not as a branding tag-line but as the golden thread which can shape strategy, motivate the team and excite investors. We see this at, for example, BP, ITV, NatWest, Reckitt and Unilever.

Purpose is also important for us human beings, particularly in later life. When we are younger we tend naturally to find purpose in seeking a partner, getting a job which we enjoy and building a career. When we get older things become more complicated. We may well find ourselves leaving the warm embrace of institutions that we have worked in for many years, where we are sustained by the drugs of relevance and status, and seeking a new kind of purpose. This is intensely personal. Some will find it in charitable work, others will look for another “job”, write that book or get that golf handicap down. But most people will surely need the pull of some “reason to believe”.

And purpose needs thinking about. When I finished at the law firm I had been part of for many years, I was initially seduced by the idea of opening a wine bar called “The Advocate General” specialising in wines from the South West of France but, well, that idea did not withstand early stress testing.

2. Reputation

A few years ago I was part of a panel presenting on “resilience” to a group at a law firm. One of my co-presenters was a lecturer from a business school. She opened her contribution by saying that, for her, the starting point in thinking about resilience was the answer to this question: “What is the single thing which is most important to me?”. Slightly to my surprise (I hadn’t seen this coming), her reply to herself was “My reputation”.

Her thesis was that her reputation was very precious to her, fundamentally conditioning the view which people she respected had of her, jobs she might be offered and her sense of well-being. In the words of Warren Buffett - “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently”. So, for her, resilience was in large part about, on the one hand, doing good work and looking after others and, on the other, avoiding doing things, or being associated with people or organisations, which might harm her reputation. That allowed her to sleep at night.

I’m sure that many will empathise with this. The nurturing of a good personal reputation, and avoiding risking it, are critical drivers. This is all the more so given the pervasive and all-seeing nature of the internet and social media. Which said, one cannot be holier than thou here. Judgement is important but often luck plays a big part - for example, in the case of the diligent non-executive director of a company which fails when the business cycle turns against it.

3. Fear of Failure?

It is trite, but we all crave approval and look to minimise the risk of disapproval.

It is 11 pm on a December evening in 1969 and I have a Latin exam tomorrow. The realisation hits me, wham, that I just don’t know my Caesar texts well enough (“Cum Caesar in Galliam venit”, but that will only get me so far). I am relatively new at the school and Latin is a subject that I like. I am fearful of the embarrassment I will feel when my indifferent results are pinned to the wall at the back of the classroom in due course. So I conclude that two more hours of Caesar will be more valuable to me than two hours of sleep - for the avoidance of disappointment.

In the end, it was OK and I felt that those two hours were worth quite a lot of marks. For many of us, I feel sure, the desire to acquit ourselves well in an exam, a meeting, a presentation or a cross-country race is an important motor driving us on. It’s the Benjamin Franklin point - “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail”.

A friend of mine at university, by the way, had a rather different view. He felt that it was vital to be relaxed before an exam and so, for the week before finals, he lay in a darkened room and rested - only getting up now and again to check a point. As it turned out he didn’t get a great degree and later said ruefully: “I found that I was very relaxed - but I had no knowledge”.

4. Applause

Lin-Manuel Miranda is the astonishingly talented actor, rapper, director and producer who wrote Hamilton. I wholeheartedly recommend his Desert Island Disc interview with Lauren Laverne in which, among other anecdotes, he talks about his experience of rapping with Barack Obama at the White House as being “not unstressful”. It is an inspirational way to spend 45 minutes.

Early in the piece, he describes being cast as the Pirate King in The Pirates of Penzance, the school musical, at the age of 14. “I just remember the applause at the end of that thing, feeling like that was the most gratifying sound I had ever heard and I feel like I have been chasing that ever since.” For him, applause is immensely rewarding - something he just has to chase. The same must surely be true for the millions of performing artists worldwide - a reward for all those hours of practice, learning lines and sheer hard work.

We should reflect upon the sense of loss which these artists must be feeling after more than a year of on and off lockdown, not to mention the economic price they have paid. The same must be true of teachers and lecturers. It is rare for a teacher to get a round of applause at the end of a lesson, but the contented closing of exercise books and after-lesson questions will be a reward for careful preparation and energetic performance. Not the same over Zoom - even with those little hand clapping signs.

5. Comparison

It is the human condition, for better or worse, to compare ourselves with others.

This has good and bad aspects, in both the personal and business worlds.

It is clearly important for business leaders to be good role models and to inspire others. The achievements and behaviours of CEOs like Alison Rose at NatWest and Bernard Looney at BP will naturally influence many who work in their organisations. In a similar vein I, as a young partner at my law firm, would sometimes arrive home in voluble frame of mind and my wife would say to me - “Have you had a meeting with Steve today?” - spotting the fact that this particularly effusive client’s style had left its mark.

Comparison can be more troublesome, however, when it triumphs over all else. One sees this in professional service firms which run transparent differential reward models for the remuneration of their partners where everybody knows how much everybody else earns. It is not unusual for Partner A to be very well paid but still unhappy because he or she is earning slightly less than a peer, Partner B, whom they regard as no more successful than they are. The relativities can be distracting and pull against collaboration. Of course, this can drive Partner A to try harder - but share less, with potential impact on clients who are looking to the firm for the team effort.

6. Family, Friends - and coming together to offer acts of kindness

It goes without saying, but we all strive to look after our family and our friends.

More striking, and affecting, is the human desire simply to help and to be part of a team which is doing something important without looking for monetary reward. When I went for my first Covid jab at the annex to a town hall near where I live I was struck by how charming and helpful all the volunteers were. It was a genuinely lovely and uplifting experience. There was an evident coming together to support a national effort. As Pilita Clark observed in the Financial Times, it was reminiscent of the volunteering wave which supported the Olympics in 2012:

“Helping out at the Olympics, and even more so a vaccination centre, offers the chance to be part of something which is larger than oneself; socially desirable and historically significant. Who among us in the corporate workforce gets up each day expecting anything like that?”.

7. Trumpets

There is something strangely evocative and uplifting about the trumpet, played well.

Many years ago I was taken by a friend to see Wynton Marsalis and his band and, by some great good fortune, we lucked into seats in the front row. It was an amazing evening as Mr Marsalis’s virtuosity with the trumpet is remarkable. And if you have not heard Alison Balsam play LiberTango, you have missed something special. Here she is from the Last Night at the Proms in 2009

I know that not everybody will share my trumpet passion but, for many of you, there will certainly be an instrument or a piece of music that touches the soul and takes you to another place.

That’s a kind of slipstream.

Christopher Saul

Christopher Saul provides independent trusted advice to senior executives and key stakeholders within publicly quoted and privately owned businesses and professional service firms. His areas of focus are governance, succession and the moderation of differences.

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