The Genius of Places

Having just returned from a three week working tour of Dubai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Mumbai, London and Marseille (with extra pit stops in Singapore and Dubai in between), the genius of places almost shouts at me.

Dubai’s genius is to offer a modern example of what a flourishing Middle East can look like. Albeit currently in economic doldrums, needing perhaps to make peace with the fact that the bubble is gone and real growth is now needed, Dubai is a tolerant, eclectic, cosmopolitan, visionary city with guts and a measure of class. And from Dubai if you head to Turkey, to Jordan, to Lebanon, you see some of the shoots of the culture of the region that deserve to be watered, supported and extended. It’s a far cry from the raving nihilism of Al Qaeda or the medieval iniquity of the Taliban.

Singapore’s genius is to show how a controlled experiment in democracy can produce a vibrant, thriving, diverse, stimulating country. It is a polyglot of cultures, an epicenter for business, a culinary crossroads, a place where greater expression is becoming increasingly possible.  30 years ago it was a Malarial swamp. Decry the one party rule there as much as you like, but it’s an engaging place to nurture a family, run a business, and be near the most dynamic growth region of the 21st century. Moreover, give them time…the story is far from being fully written.

We were next in Hong Kong, arguably the freest economy on the planet, with a skyline to rival New York’s, and a pace, intensity and energy, very reminiscent of the Big Apple. The Fragrant Harbor is world class in every sense. And whether China comes to more resemble Hong Kong or vice-versa is an open story. It is Asia’s “world city” as the PR tag line proclaims. And while freedoms have been constricted, they haven’t been eliminated. It’s a springboard TO China, and a springboard FROM China…a city where entrepreneurial people built an extraordinary economy from virtually nothing. It is the quintessence of value creation. From the stunning efficiency that abounds everywhere, to gastronomic delights like Roast Goose and 3 star Michelin Cantonese culinary temples, from top-notch IT to world-class cultural events, Hong Kong rocks!

We went on to Mumbai — teeming, a study in contrasts, wealthy ghettos co-existing with abject poverty, a clanging 24/7 set of multi-sensory stimuli. But it is also an important economic engine for the world’s largest democracy — which manages to transfer power peacefully — and for a primarily Hindu country, they’ve had a Muslim President and a Sikh Prime Minister (promoted by an ex-Roman Catholic “Kingmaker” in Sonia Gandhi), and an extraordinary track record to date in creating economic value. They need to deal with infrastructure issues, improve sanitation and more…but there is a genius to this sprawling, cacophonous, vital, human enterprise incubating powerhouse.

We arrived in London — still a showcase for its past, as well as  hub of culture, distinction, sophistication and focused energy. London communicates that delicate balancing act between the gravitas of the past, and the edginess of the present. The restaurants shine, the cab drivers quip engagingly, the theater audiences are au fait with the historical or cultural references and the nuances of bon mots, people are by and large well turned out, and an 5 mile jaunt through Hyde Park throws up the whole panoply of cultures and ethnicities that make London such an intoxicating brew. Hatchards is my favorite book-store to browse in, I love the eclectic Hunan’s restaurant where they scowl if you ask for the non-existant menu but tapas style fiery Hunanese cuisine comes out until you ask them to stop, the whimsy of the Cinammon Club (a wonderful modern Indian) being housed in the old Westminster Library always tickles me, and the Neopolitan tailor (Rubinacci) across from the Connaught whose gusto for your sartorial well being truly underscores “the dolce vita” cannot but help upflit you. And for something quintessentially British (other than Hatchards of course), the fusty but reliable Scott’s is nearby to repair to for oysters and Grilled Dover Sole after perhaps a visit to the Royal Gallery and a Blanc de Blancs in the Coburg Bar of the Connaught. Such is London!

From London for a Leadership Journey to Marseille and then the Languedoc. Marseille, though being one of the great port cities, has a reputation for being seedy. But in the Vieux Port (the Old Port), with the right bouillabase and glass (or two) of Tavel Rose, all that fades away into obscurity. The Languedoc in turn was Roman France, and neighboring Provence as it does, it is replete with Mediterranean Gallic charm, cuisine, artisans, wine, olive oil, and stunning Roman remains like the Pont du Gard (the greatest surviving Aqueduct in the world), the amphitheater in Arles or the stunning Palais des Papes (Palace of the Popes) in Avignon. There is a sensuous, elegant, charm and artistic and aesthetic depth to this place, that sends you out stimulated, vital, with your senses questing and alert having been awash in such truly abundant but diverse stimuli. In response, your smile has more depth, your chagrin more poetry, your insights are dappled with that golden Provencal light that illuminated so much of the work of masters like Cezanne and Van Gogh.

Each place has it’s own genius, and while we went to some highly distinctive ones, our ability to fathom what each can contribute to us, rather than a litany of their irritations and shortcomings is the way to underscore and heighten our overall perspicacity. It is also a way to better irrigate our souls.

We landed from all this and headed out for another Leadership Journey, this time in more prosaic seeming Illinois and Wisconsin. But the open spaces, and the beaming countenances, the lack of sophistry and the presence of welcome, the essential characer of pride in one’s work and community, all had their own enchantments, and with those in view, the limitations present were far less…limiting.

Seeing possibility, evoking it, celebrating it and helping to actualize it,  is the essence of  life and leadership.

Wallow in the genius of the places and people you encounter! From that basis, you will be best positioned to notice where to help, and how to help those very people grow.