What is Thought Leadership anyway?

Anyone reading this post within the first few weeks of its publishing date will likely be here because they once followed me on RollingAlpha.com, my blog on economics, personal finance, and the trials of the Zimbabwean economy. This post explains why I am shifting gear into a new personal site, and why I’m even writing at all. First, some history.

We’re bad thinkers: the RollingAlpha.com context

In early 2012, I had just finished my accounting traineeship at Ernst & Young, and I had also just submitted my Masters dissertation (I had spent two years reading almost everything that had been written academically on Hyperinflation, and summarised that into an “Economic Historian base case” for how and why hyperinflations happen). My academic work on hyperinflations had pulled me into the Libertarian sphere of influence, because hyperinflations are typically the work of bad Central Banks. Frederick Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, Murray Rothbard, and the whole Austrian School of Economics are really the starting point for the anti-Central Bank, anti-government, anti-regulation Libertarian ideology. My (Austrian) supervisor took my thesis, and reconstructed it into a justification for the return of the Gold Standard – which is what got the work academically published.

Of course, he did not realise just how bizarre I found that idea. You’ll see my views around money reappear on this new blog, and I think that most (if not all) hyperinflation episodes in history would direct you toward far better solutions than the gold standard. So stay tuned for that.

But the main point here is that I found myself confronting a reality where real events were being reordered to fit a particular way of thinking. Libertarians love the idea of a gold standard as a solution to misbehaved Central Banks. So even if the evidence points you to a different conclusion, it is better to re-arrange the evidence to arrive at the conclusion you prefer. This experience lead me down a personal rabbit hole around bias and prejudice, and how those influence our decision-making.

And what became clear (to me, at least), is that while we might argue for an empirical and informed approach to good living – this is something that we actively reject in practice.

How bad decisions are made

Here’s an example of how your decision-making should work:

  • Belief: I believe that home ownership is a better financial decision than renting.
  • Experience: I browse houses, and do my math, and realise that it’s significantly cheaper to rent a house right now.
  • New Belief: I believe that renting is a better financial decision for the time being. I’ll keep an eye on the property market, and look to buy when it swings the other way.
  • Outcome: I begin looking for a place to rent.

Here’s how this actually works in practice (most of the time):

  • Belief: I believe that home ownership is a better financial decision than renting.
  • Experience: I browse houses, and do my math, and realise that it’s significantly cheaper to rent a house at the moment.
  • New Belief: I believe that renting might not be such a bad financial decision, but I still believe that home ownership is better in the long term, and I want to get going with a mortgage. Also, to be honest, I’m not sure about my math here. And actually, I think my quality of life would be better if I just owned a house that I could call mine.
  • Outcome: I buy a house.

These outcomes are completely different. In the longer term, both outcomes may turn out to be bad ones (First Version me might get a terrible landlord, Second Version me might end up in a house that I can’t afford). They may also turn out to be good (First Version me gets a great rental deal, and then buys that house when the market is right, directly from the landlady with no middleman costs; Second Version me buys a house in an area that turns out to be up and coming, and interest rates come down just after I buy).

The outcome is not really the problem, per se. But the thought process is.

Because here is the second outcome, done better:

  • Belief: I believe that home ownership is a better financial decision than renting, but I also believe that home ownership is a better long-term decision to make, even if it seems more expensive right now. I know that I’m a victim of my own biases – but because of them, I know that I’ll invest in what I own by spending money on the house rather than spend it on holidays (which is how I would spend any hypothetical rental savings). That is: home ownership will make me a better saver of my own money, because I’ll pay down the mortgage as quickly as possible.
  • Experience: I browse houses, and do my math, and realise that it’s significantly cheaper to rent a house at the moment. But I see that the key cost components come down to transfer duty costs, initial renovations, and the length of the mortgage period.
  • New Belief: I want to buy a home, but I need to look for an option that comes from a fairly new development with a trusted developer, so that I won’t have to renovate. And I need to look for a price point that minimises the transfer duty. I will also budget to cover 150% of the monthly mortgage repayments, to shorten that mortgage period.
  • Outcome: I buy a house within those parameters.

The trouble is that this “good thinking” is a difficult skill to develop, and it does not happen naturally. Firstly, it requires discipline to evaluate your internal decision-making. Secondly, it takes real courage to cut against your internal tide and/or to redirect the internal tide to your best advantage.

And if this is what happens at a personal level – then imagine how that extends into the familial, communal, national and global frames of decision-making.

This is the context that RollingAlpha.com grew out of. Mostly, I focused on financial and economic stories where I could offer a different perspective to the common arguments that were out there. And more importantly, where I could test my own biases and bad thinking.

What that meant for me

Over time, my thinking changed.

Right wing ideology began to sound to me like an echo chamber of deep anxiety (“Am I really free, or am I being controlled by large institutional forces (ie. central banks and regulating governments run by a liberal and woke elite) with too much influence over how I live my life?”). Left wing ideology began to sound to me like an echo chamber of deep anxiety (“Am I really free, or am I being controlled by large institutional forces (ie. corporate monopolies and religious institutions run by a conservative and over-privileged elite) with too much influence over how I live my life?”).

Meanwhile, I settled into a resting state of ideological pragmatism, where I mostly just wanted to avoid the pull of hysterical anxiety.

Which is where I really began to run into trouble. Because once I reached that point, everything began to feel quite repetitive. I mean, how many times can you respond to a “Rent or Buy” question with “It depends, and here are some helpful examples”? Or, rather, how many times can you respond to a “Rent or Buy” article with “You’re going to do what you want anyway, so here’s an older post that I wrote already and you’ve already ignored”?

I had hit a writer’s block where it felt like I had run out of things to say. Call it a content depression.

This was exacerbated by two other developments.

Back in 2017, I had written a series of posts declaring that Zimbabwe’s hyperinflation was coming back. I then watched President Mugabe publicly warn the economic dissidents who were spreading vicious rumours that hyperinflation had returned. I received warnings that my name had appeared on a watchlist, and I found myself in unplanned exile in South Africa. Fortunately, that episode ended a few months later, once the Zimbabwean coup-that-was-not-a-coup happened.

Obviously, that incident gave me serious pause. My actual work takes place across Southern Africa, and it was a real risk to my own livelihood to find myself cut-off from Zimbabwean travel (but probably not a risk to my life – I don’t want to be unnecessarily dramatic here). And that really felt counter-productive. I think my work makes a bigger difference in real life than any blog post could hope to achieve.

At the same time, I faced another general concern. Over time, I had built up a group of developers and designers around me who had helped put the site together, and re-work aspects of it. I found that some of them were retaining unusual access rights over my site that I had never agreed to. Everyone that I had worked with was aware of how much of my time and energy went into RollingAlpha.com. An odd power imbalance crept into some of those conversations, and I was left with this lingering sense that the more I invested in the work on the site, the more vulnerable I became. In retrospect, this is some paranoia speaking – but it was what I felt at the time.

So as a pragmatist, I looked around and saw a lot of convincing reasons to step back from the site.

But it really was the content problem that I kept coming up against. In particular, this tricky question: “Are you offering anything important, really? Because if not, why take on the risks, even if some of them turn out to be trivial?”

And while I’m sure I’ve bored you all by this point, I’m going to share a little more around this.

A Personal Anecdote about Therapy

I think it’s clear by now that I have a deep respect for healthy thought patterns. Some folks like to go to a Virgin Active to get their physical exercise – for me, a therapist’s room is the equivalent for your mind. Of course, you can go to one and drink smoothies, and wonder why you’re continuing to carry all this excess mental weight. If you land up with the wrong trainer, they can do lifelong damage.

I’m going to extend this metaphor a little further.

I’d argue that just going to gym is not generally a good end in itself. If you’re going to work out and get a nice body, you want to go to the beach some time and show it off. If you’re preparing for some event, then you need to get out there and run that marathon, or do that cycle ride. You want to train for something.

And I find a therapeutic practice is much the same. With every therapist I have worked with, I have always reached a point where I was done talking, and ready to be out there doing.

That’s how you figure out whether you’re on the right track, and if you were even working on the right things.

And I’d reached that point with RollingAlpha.com as well. I’d done a lot of thinking and writing about economics, money, finance and ideology – it was time to live it out a little.

So let me tell about what I’ve done with my time away.

Fish farms and currency crises

My working life is something that I kept quite separate on RollingAlpha, but this is a new chapter.

I’ve spent the last decade or so as CFO of a regional petrochemical transporter group (based mostly in South Africa and Zimbabwe), and also as de facto CFO of a large FMCG warehousing and distribution group, and also as CFO of an aquaculture group operating in Mozambique and Malawi. I’ve done all those roles simultaneously, which has taken its toll. The good personal news is that I stepped back from the FMCG business at the end of last month.

Some folks might be thinking “Good grief – that’s some workaholism right there.” Others might be saying “I’m sorry, but there’s no way that you could have been effective. That’s far too much split attention.”

Certainly, there were periods where the conflicting demands were a problem. But for most of that time, this was the exception, rather than the rule. And when it became less of an exception and more of a rule, I took steps to step back.

But consider the upsides.

A strategic CFO operates like the lead player in a engine-building board game. You hire in people, you build in systems, you build in reporting timeframes, you build in meeting timetables, you build in management and KPI processes, you build in cash flow management rules. You get handed a set of cards to play (with a list of challenges attached to them – tax returns, exchange control environments, labour rules, etc). You play the best hand you can, and then you’re off to the races. You have long-term strategic plays, where you’re trading up and across (with teams, systems and financing). And each round (or reporting period), you’re checking in to monitor how well your financial engine is working, and whether it’s moving in the right direction.

If you only work in one environment, you only get one feedback loop. If you are playing multiple games on the same board, you get multiple feedback loops. This means seeing what works in real time. And when you’re in macroeconomic crisis, you get to see both the impacts and the solutions across multiple business sectors. That general sense of economic crisis was widespread in the last five years. For example, during 2019, Zimbabwe had at least four different currency regimes. Then, as we know, there was a global pandemic for three years, with each country trying to control it and regulate it differently. And I’ve been part of disaster responses for three tropical cyclones in three different countries.

In order to access this kind of feedback in a typical setting, you have to engage consultants, who have studied the cards of other players, and how they have played them. But that is once-off assistance, expensive to engage, often out-of-date in a high risk environment, and it’s being delivered by observers rather than someone with actual skin in the game.

Whenever I am asked to justify the conflicting demands on my time, I often reflect on the inherent bias that we have toward specialisation. Since Adam Smith proposed it, we’ve become accustomed to the binary idea that specialisation of your labour mean doing something well, and doing multiple jobs means adequacy at best.

That is not my lived experience. There is a middle ground in there, where the sum is a lot greater than the parts. It’s akin to the adage that if you want something done, give it to someone that is busy. Somewhere on that continuum, it’s possible to do more than one thing really well, and have those multiple tasks be synergistic.

Of course, the underlying assumption there is an ability to manage your time, and how to not feel overwhelmed under pressure. That’s something that you learn, as it turns out. And I’m reasonably adept at the first, and I’ve found a way to cope with the second. We’ll get into that, down the line.

And in the end, I think that there is some proof in the pudding. It’s only anecdotal evidence, for sure, but I’ve only stepped back when everything had grown too significant for me to control on my own. That’s not what happens when you’ve been neglectful. That’s what happens when a business has reached the scale of being multiple operations at once, and you need to hand it to a good card player who knows how to handle that.

And apart from work

A few things. Mr Rent or Buy here finally bought a house. It was a good financial decision. I checked.

During Covid, I spent six months away from my home. Over that time, I negotiated what it means to have friendships without proximity, and how to honour them in silence. I’ve not let that one go.

I’ve travelled. I’ve buried a parent. I’ve searched for guidance, only to find that there are no real internet resources out there for how to deal with grief when you have no time to spare for it.

Somewhere in this, I’ve become a semi-proficient Byzantine chanter. There was a period of around 18 months where I was doing two hours of lessons a day, four or five times a week. I’m also not sure where I found the time.

Is it relevant here?

I think it should be. We live in a human context of incredibly rich and diverse historic cultures. The Byzantine chant tradition was first ordered into a series of modal forms in the 8th Century CE, meaning that it had existed for centuries before that. It comes from a pre-literate time, when the primary mode of teaching was oral. We have nothing like it in Western Culture. Imagine centuries of musicians, dedicating their lives to composing theological and hagiographical poetry into carefully structured hymns. These hymns each have their order and place, and are rotated through three calendars of time, which interweave and reflect on each other. Over time, through practice, the most beloved and valued compositions have filtered to the top.

When you deep-dive into that kind of human accomplishment, where each daily service has its own quality and resonance, that cannot but change the way you order everything else.

It also helps with grief, by the way.

Back to the question: what is Thought Leadership, anyway?

I’ve struggled with this question for a long time, because it feels really delusional to assume that you have anything different to offer, or that anyone would really care enough to read it.

But we have a difficult time ahead of us, and life is hard. It’s very lonely. And when we look for the tools to cope with that reality, I see people trying to change their reality rather than live within it. That’s what echo chambers do to us, I suspect. We rail against governments, against corporations, against the “violence” being perpetrated against us by our friends and family – as though our unhappiness is environmental, and if we just rail hard enough, we can change the environment.

I don’t like that. And I refuse to live under those assumptions.

And recently, I’ve been feeling a certain obligation to share some different assumptions that make complexity liveable, and even preferable. I almost hope that sharing them becomes an act of gratitude – to document these life lessons, in case someone might need them.

But I’m also wanting to try something that I haven’t seen before. Instead of focusing on one speciality to write about, I’m going to write about many things. Specialisation takes for granted that the environment is stable. When things are unstable, you have to become good at a number of things, very quickly, all at once.

I’m not sure what to call that. Multidimensional thinking? Cross-specialisation? Economic intersectionality?

I don’t know if that’s thought leadership. But maybe it’s a start.

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