Stanley Tucci’s film ‘Final Portrait’ about Giacometti’s protracted but wonderful painting of the American writer James Lord in 1964 was released a couple of weeks ago. Lord wrote a book about the experience.

I could find only one reviewer who fell as completely under the film’s spell as I did. But I found the dissenting reviews so helpful: true insights into the unspoken expectations so many of us are working under.

To be clear right up front – you really, really don’t have to like the film. (It is slow, understated, ambiguous, and deals in impressions – I think beautifully – rather than strict narrative)

The power, however, of what is never made explicit is worth thinking about.
Some of the themes in the film link directly to themes I encounter constantly in Leadership training and coaching work. And this is knotty stuff. There’s no simple or binary answer.

For example – insecurity.

Giacometti is consumed, ravaged, by alternating periods of what almost reaches satisfaction and then consuming hopelessness that all (he) is worthless. Apparent destructiveness marks the shift of mood.

I’ve seen that in the workplace, haven’t you?

How much raging and roaring stems from fear of inadequacy? Can the rest of us respond to that fear, rather than the noise?

For example – perfectionism.

Clearly linked to insecurity, but here in the simple sense of restlessly tinkering and toying with projects. Giacometti started again, re worked, took another view, repeatedly. The results may be genius. But for most of us, knowing when to stop or simply leave well alone would amount to genius. In 1964, Lord created a final cut-off time. He effectively took the work away at the right moment.

For example – leaving much unsaid.

There is no back story – to any character – in ‘Final Portrait’. The result is a powerful concentration on how characters react to and with each other. They reveal more potential and depth. The viewer hasn’t been presented with a finished, polished, no-more-needed ‘bio’.  How often does this habit of exchanging sanitized and complete ‘stories’ of ourselves and our work get in the way of what might be actually happening?

Or more importantly – what might be possible?

Leonardo said art was never finished, only abandoned.

Permission at last!

Leaving things undone: a creative act.



Gradually it all tumbled out…

Directionless leadership (check), loss of mojo (check), loss of purpose (check), the feeling that things used to be better (check).

Was it just him, he asked?

(No, it isn’t just him. Many coaching sessions surface this sort of mood and morale level at the moment.)

We talked about the sorts of policy initiatives that the Board might think about.   It was the loss of story and purpose that seemed to be most important.  The theme of a lost ‘golden age’ for the business seemed to be gnawing away at morale.

Then, spookily, the conversation took a sort of mini- manifesto turn.

The next day I looked for some real-life manifesto material to season, in a light-hearted way, the next session.  Might it not be helpful to look for examples of how to write a new story, how to re-energise and re-invigorate with new ideas?  To look to what might be possible, rather than become trapped in the ‘lost golden age’ narrative?

In the absence of any completed hot-off-the-press-real-life manifestos in the second week in May, I began to look a bit further back in history.


An example of a complete and devilish understanding of the very thing that had
concerned me. A beautiful example of how to cynically employ a ‘lost golden age story’ to support happiness and purpose surfaced.

The Monster Raving Loony Party published a manifesto in 1997 that included the setting up of a new Government Department:

We will remind people of how good things used to be. Since no one can now remember a time when things were good, we all need help to dream of a wonderful by-gone age when everyone was paid in golden sovereigns, no-one was ill or died, the weather was perfect, and you could get 200 pints of bitter for a quid.
Monster Raving Loony Party 1997 ‘

It must have happened.

And, alas, it’s working.


Penny Hunt's blog coffee conversations

Business as usual in the café today: lots of activity. Some bare feet, extravagant smoothies, jabbing of fingers to make a point, T shirts and bags. A normal day at the office. A productive buzz and hum circles around the tables at a height just above everyone’s heads.

Except for one corner.

The meeting going on there is serious, mostly in suits. And in the way these clichés go (leaping up and shouting ‘I’m true!’) the meeting configures itself into ‘this is very important’ mode, with one person talking at the others. The lucky recipients are using their laptops – to misquote Mark Twain – as defence rather than illumination.

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Am I being mean? My eyes are drawn back to them. It looks so familiar, so miserable, and so old fashioned. The suit thing is irrelevant, you know. I’ve watched the same unintentional dance in a TV production team. Each becoming a role: an invulnerable, perfect, component of the whole.

I have worked in a Whitehall Ministry and a hip marketing company this week.

They were similar.

Superficially one felt formal and academic, the other childlike and energetic. One was monochrome and restrained, the other self consciously groovy and colourful.

In both places any visitor was instantly clear about what was normal, expected, and valued.

I think a regime is authoritarian if it enforces a way to think and be. It doesn’t matter whether that way is deferential and thoughtful, or informal and whacky: both colonise their employees. The organisation becomes a regime, a sort of factory, and as individuals join it they must adapt and become the ‘type’ that the factory requires in order to survive.

I’ve read that the coaching industry, encompassing wisdom on leadership, business success, achieving goals, has grown exponentially over the last decade.

I am bemused. We seem to me to be less, not more, ready for the modern world in which we must do business. Somehow, the thinking around the ideas of ‘organisation’, ‘culture’, ‘success’ seem to have become embalmed rather than liberated.

The factory model of business can’t solve the sorts of issues that are just beginning to pop their little heads above the surface (The basic idea of annual growth for example. We’d need several billion solar systems if growth was the way to go )

The factory model of business can’t nurture our full capabilities and talents because it lives on adaptation and conformity. Too much ‘hyper rational’ thinking excludes and closes down possibilities – and people.

Let’s choose some qualities we might think we are going to need.

Co-operation perhaps? A modest ability to see a bigger picture? A genuine interest in others that winkles out the best they have to offer? Good listening perhaps, so that unformed thoughts can be encouraged, synthesised and built upon? Empathy? They sound sort of desirable, don’t they? (Strangely, phrases like ‘man-management’ or ‘performance optimisation’ don’t spring onto the list).Blog_for_June_122x1

I don’t have an answer, but I do have a hunch. I suspect that thing to do is to encourage these sorts of qualities. Just about everyone has them when they start out. So the best thing you can do (apart from doing your best – I’m quite old fashioned about that) is ensure you never go native. Keep a healthy, human, connected to yourself – ness.

I look again at the corner. One loud voice: check. No interaction: check. No connection: check. Fear: check. I wish I could say it got better. It ended exactly as you would have predicted. Lots of automatic nodding.

May I suggest that you ignore recent best-seller advice?

Don’t lean –in. Lean out.

Penny works with senior people who want change.

Her approach is unconventional, and fun.
By challenging perceptions, creatively re-framing situations, and reclaiming their energy and bravery, her clients create new options and successes for themselves and their businesses.
If you’re feeling stuck and want to get moving again, contact Penny: