Jan Ketil Arnulf believes that both Norwegian leaders and he himself benefit from repeated encounters with reality. As long as they don't involve trains.
A professor is standing on the platform at Ås Station. The platform is full of tired commuters on a bitterly cold Friday morning. Jan Ketil Arnulf has plenty of time, otherwise he would have driven his electric car to his workplace at BI in Nydalen.
“I have a difficult relationship with everything about trains,” he explains.
In the past he has criticised NSB, and now Vy, for what he calls a dreadful train service. He has written articles about it. and he has promoted emergency brake campaigns. Once, when the trains were standing still, he even cycled the 25-mile stretch between Ås and Oslo.
“I wouldn’t say that I like to provoke people, but it is my privilege as a professor and teacher to get people to see things from different angles. I believe that you can learn a lot of good things from that.”
He eagerly explains the ritual which is about to unfold as the train slowly glides into the station. About the hunt for a good seat.
In his capacity as a psychologist and researcher he has been interested in organisational psychology and leadership for a number of years. He talks about how leaders both lead and learn best if they work with action strategies, rather than being performance-driven. It does not help to know what the goal is if you do not know how to get there.
“There are very few people who stop smoking because they have been on a course. You stop because you avoid smoking. The latter is much harder than understanding that it is hazardous to health. In the same way, leadership is something that you learn best at work, when you are able to translate theory into practice.”
The doors open and with a few quick steps Jan Ketil secures a vacant seat, before he deftly fishes out his laptop from his rucksack. The Professor falls into deep concentration as he studies some Excel spreadsheets containing analyses of his employer’s research on leadership training.
The hunt for reality
Like Dean Executive, he is responsible for developing BI’s further education services. He has previously written about how effective action strategies develop from having repeated meetings with reality. The information that students receive in the classroom needs to be mixed with large doses of reality.
“My ambition is for us to be somewhere where people who are already working can visit and enhance their perception of reality in ways which they will subsequently be able to apply in practice. It’s not always that easy.”
But what does he do himself in order to seek out reality?
“Well that’s something you’re faced with all the time, but it’s also all about your attitude. Personally I have always liked having contact with organisations. One of the most interesting things about my job is travelling around and visiting companies to see what they’re doing and how they do it.”
Inside the train a father tries desperately to get his small boys to calm down. One of them says that his little brother is a troublemaker. “So are you”, his father counters. Jan Ketil talks about meeting business leaders and companies at both home and abroad.
“Once I joined the board of a company when they said that it would be great to have someone who was educated, because “between us we only have a total of four years attendance at sixth form college”. That wasn’t a problem for them. They had a turnover of NOK 100 million.”
"I wouldn’t say that I like to provoke people, but it is my privilege as a professor and teacher to get people to see things from different angles. I believe that you can learn a lot of good things from that."
Jan Ketil sees his chance to move to a window seat. Next to him a young woman is applying copious amounts of makeup and perfume to her face. The BI professor recalls a visit to a company in China where they manufacture almost all of the black bands we hold onto on escalators.
“They had a mix of people which shouldn’t work, but they were still doing extremely well. Even so – they had developed to a point where they needed to develop their own organisation in order to move forward. At that time they didn’t possess that knowledge. I am sure that BI can offer companies like that knowledge about how they can engage in more innovative and creating thinking. How they can attack complex challenges.”
The train passes Nordstrand, but Jan Ketil ignores the beautiful view. He has seen it many times before. He talks about leadership theories which are dying out and new ones which are emerging.
“BI’s success is part of a development in society whereby we have understood that designing and changing organisations is a constant necessity. And that when we change organisations, we also need to change our leadership methods.”
Many leaders are scared and confused by the digital revolution. The BI professor believes that many people, including himself, are struggling to accept the consequences of the arrival of computers in the workplace. How they have gradually become a colleague who thinks faster than us and makes decisions that we are unable to explain.
“Our brains are being sneakily programmed all the time by the technology that we’re creating. I don’t know that the end result will be, because our models of the brain are based on leadership back in the 50s and 60s. Among the generation which is currently growing up, digital technology will become part of their brains in ways which are hard for us to understand.”
A few metres away the toddlers’ father has managed to distract his troublemakers by getting them to count the number of cranes in Bjørvika. Jan Ketil philosophises about the “digital fog” where people have too many or too few expectations about digitalisation.
“I don’t believe that people have quite understood that the brain is not constant, but an open system which incorporates the thought tools that we create, such as language, songs or writing. When our brains are gradually changed, this also means that leaders need to think differently than they did before.”
Language course in the woods
His interest in languages has helped him to embrace technological aids. A few years ago he learnt Chinese. In the woods. Using an app.
“I usually say that my most important teacher was my dog, but he was actually blissfully unaware about it all. The point was that I had time to myself and the knowledge was readily available. It is a very difficult language to learn, but out in the woods I was able to spend time on making weird Chinese sounds.”
On his way from Oslo S to the underground, Jan Ketil sends a text to a colleague in order to double check that his analyses are correct. A few stops before Nydalen the professor smiles as he admits that the seventh language he is trying to learn helped with a few challenges at home.
“I have become involved in a small problem, because I have a magpie in my garden at home that I talk to. My wife thinks that this is a bit of a problem.”
He eagerly talks about his relationship with Maggie the magpie as he leaves the underground and heads into the BI building. By imitating the magpie he is trying to understand how she communicates.
“We’re great friends. It’s very difficult to make magpie sounds, but she has taught me to do that.”
Just before we go our separate ways, he shows two colleagues in the lift a selfie of himself and the magpie.
“Don’t you think we look great?”
Half an hour after he entered the doors of BI, winter arrived in Oslo. The snow settles over the city and Bane Nor report a signal fault at Oslo S and delays. In a few hours Jan Ketil will travelling home again. If his train is running.
Text: Eivind L. Johansen
Photo: Torbjørn Brovold