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Stalin wasn’t Stalin. Lenin wasn’t Lenin. If ‘Gaia’ wasn’t Gaia. What’s in a name?

This post is a musing. Be warned.

My geography professor friend Dave told me recently how James Lovelock came up with the name Gaia for his theory that the earth acts like a living organism, and has regretted the name ever since.

Apparently he was in a pub (possibly – in a village, anyway, so maybe in the village pub)with his friend William Golding (yes, Lord of the Flies author William Golding) and explained the new theory to Golding, who promptly told him he should call it Gaia.

They may have had a few pints beforehand, because Lovelock misheard him and for half an hour was trying to figure out why Golding had told him to name his theory after a water funnel that appears in particular seas in the southern hemisphere (called a ‘gyre’ – I’ve probably mis-spelt it. Geographers chuckle at this kind of thing) and how on earth Golding knew the word.

When the confusion was cleared up – that he should name his theory after the idea of an earth spirit or goddess – he agreed. And now regrets it.

You see Lovelock was a serious NASA scientist – a leader in his field and a master of hard facts. But, that name has trailed mysticism in its wake and ever since he has been ‘tainted’ with the aura of a hippy scientist. This, he feels, hindered his message from getting through to hard-nosed politicians and the rest of the scientific community.

Now we know Gaia theory is probably right. But we might have come to that conclusion ten years earlier if he had given it a different name.

The power of names, it occurs to me, cannot be over-stated. Lenin, Molotov, Trotsky, Stalin…These were not real names. They were acquired. They had to be, as these revolutionary leaders had to disguise who they really were in the years they worked under cover.

But – and I was a historian for a while so this has always fascinated me – would the cult of leadership around Stalin have been quite as unbreakable if he did not go under his chosen name, which means “Man of Steel” and instead was known by his Georgian provincial name of Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili…

Malcolm Gladwell has written convincingly in Blink how we sub-consciously defer to taller leaders, including research that shows if you are tall you are more likely to become a leader and be paid more. These sub-conscious cues – height, sex, even name – carry more weight in success or failure as a leader than we might think they do.

So, maybe the first thing you should do if you aspire to be a successful leader (of yourself and of others) is change your name…


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