Monday, October 22, 2012

And Still I rise.

The question would be not why I have selected this poem but, why would I not select this poem!

Maya Angelo’s ‘And Still I Rise’ was introduced to me when I was 11 or 12. I don’t remember exactly when but as a young black woman in an inner city school in London, I was blessed to have an English teacher who encouraged, coerced and insisted that we black girls, read work by black women. He would say over and over again ‘they can tell your story’. He was right that they were part of the documentation of the lives and the experiences of black women.

When I read this poem for the first time and for the many times over the years that I have turned to this poem, I now understand the strength, passion and motivation that I derive from reading a poem about my experience which has certainly  kept me going as a leader.

And Still I rise speaks to me as a leader because I am part of a group whose history says I am not supposed to be here.  My leadership journey has been a long one and when my mother died at my tender age of 16, it really was as the English would say ‘make or break’. I decided to make it (for better or for worse). At 18 I went onto university and had the pleasure of spending many hours with men and women from the Caribbean and from the continent who taught me about the history of the pan African movement, of enslavement, of the relationship between the industrial revolution, the UK banking system and the extraordinary amounts of money which were made during the years of enslavement of my ancestors who provided free labour on the plantations in the Caribbean, the USA and here in the UK.

As a student as I sat in many seminars defending what I knew would be a part of my responsibility as a black professional when I had achieved my degree. The debates in my seminars were often loud and sometimes aggressive as the significance of my being a role model and a mentor to black people who may not have had the confidence or the ability to experience higher education was a complete enigma   to my middle class white counterparts. I knew that the all white class did not understand when they said ‘why can’t you just do what you want’ and I remember laughing  as I looked at their worlds where their self identities, expectations and judgements had not be pulled apart and desecrated through an on-going media onslaught which black people face each day.  I was 19 years old and I was rising…
Out of the huts of histories shame
I rise
Up from a past rooted in pain, I rise
I am a Black Ocean leaping and wide
Welling and swelling, I bear in the tide
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts my ancestors gave
I am the dream and the hope of the slave
I rise
I rise
I rise
This is history’s shame for the treatment of African people during the enslavement and movement between Africa, The Caribbean, the USA and the UK where millions of African lives were lost, and continued to be disposed of as, somewhere, African people, the people from whom I descend, were seen as less than human and hence, undeserving of any rights. When Maya states that…
You may shoot me with your words
You can cut me with your lies
You can kill me with your hatefulness
But like life I’ll rise….
The poem defies subjugation and passivity. It celebrates one of the most significant things that I as a black female leader can have, which is believe in self against the racism and the sexism, which could constantly undermine how  I move forward. Damn it, Maya is making no apology….
Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise?
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
As a leader these are crucial lessons as there are always people who expect me to fall, to fail to not be great at what I do. As a leader, the question is what do I expect from me? What comfort zones do I walk in and which ones do I choose to move beyond?

I come from a long line of achievers and from people who are still achieving…against the odds. The African people who were enslaved are people who had dreams, ambitions and plans for their lives. They were unable to make these real. I am able to make mine real and as a leader, I bring rhyme, storytelling and laughter to my work for my humanity and my humility have taught me that, to rise to be the best I can be is the truest testimony to the lives of those who were lost.
I am the hope and the dream of the slave, 
So, naturally, there I go rising
Thank you Maya Angelou.

Mbeke Waseme

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

How did he know?

When Major Robertson received news that the Colonel had lost radio contact with a Battalion, he wondered which of his new recruits could be tasked with going into the woods at night to ascertain their position. It was a difficult choice, but he decided to ask Lieutenant James Finlay, his new platoon Commander.

James had trained at Sandhurst, before being sent to the front line early in 1945 to reinforce the Seaforth Highlanders. He arrived towards the end of the battle of the Reichswald; his first and only Company Commander was Major Hugh Robertson, who had been in the theatre of war since 1942.

James had two strong impressions. These woods were exceedingly spooky, and the addition of excellent enemy snipers at very close range made everybody trigger-happy. Tension and vulnerability were all around: he was scared.

By contrast, Major Robertson had just returned from 7 days R&R, to discover that he had lost almost his entire Company. Of the three platoons who had joked with him just a few days before, a mere handful had survived the battle in the Reichswald. His loss was agony: from El Alamein to the D-Day landings, he had marched, fought, lived and laughed with these men. Moreover, the war was so near the end: the Rhine crossing just weeks away. Facing him was a massive influx of new faces, in whom he must quickly identify strengths and weaknesses. 

He knew:
  1. Excellent men could turn to jelly when the scents and sound of war were all around.
  2. You could distinguish the professionals from the amateurs only through testing.
  3. Fear was the most destructive of enemies.
To test his mettle, Hugh asked his new Lieutenant to look for the Lost Battalion. Sixty years later, James Finlay relates what happened:
“ I write my memoirs and remember the night in Feb. 45, when after a night skirmish, I was digging in when Hugh came to my position saying: 'The Colonel has lost the battalion and wanted someone to go and look.' I was frozen with fear; to go out in the dark woodlands seemed a certain equation to be shot at by both sides, as I put it. He was sensitive to my abject fear and said: 'Jim White will do it.' How did he know? Lt. White was carried in later after stepping on a schu mine. No one said anything, but I was rather shamed. A fine man."
These few words encapsulate what I was taught about leadership, and which affect my practice to this day. 
  1. Patience: it takes time for a boy to learn a man's job.
  2. Tolerance: if you cannot say anything positive, say nothing.
  3. Watchfulness: prior to the critical situation, identify capability.
  4. Decisiveness: once you have made your choice, accept the consequences.
So gentle was the test, that, sixty years later, James is still wondering how Hugh knew that Jim White would do it.

Linda Jane McLean

(Linda says "My sincere thanks go to James Finlay for writing this account, for his permission for me to record it publicly, and for giving his time for my interview.")

Thursday, October 4, 2012

I believe in you

My mother - the fabulous Marcy Heft - taught me that life is a gift.  And there are only a few things to do in exchange for this gift:

- Be amazed.  Notice the tiny little miracles that are all around you. Savor it.
- Take good care of each other.
- And be the very best you that you can be.

These are my navigational tools, and my practice.

My parent’s pure and unconditional love, honest communication with each other and with us, and their appreciation for the little things gives me this deep reservoir - this giant chasm - of belief in my self and in other people. Even people I have not yet met.

It allows me not just to wish for peace - but to be peace. And to have a calm and peaceful grounded place from which to navigate in my work with groups and individuals. To ride the waves of how life sometimes happens, take in each moment, and b-r-e-a-t-h-e.

Because I carry inside me this amazing seed of love and belief from my parents, I know I have quite a bit extra to share. Some years ago I made a promise to let people know that I believed in them, and to say so. My colleagues, clients and students hear me say this often - but especially when they wonder if they will do a good job, stretch into new territory, or take that leap of faith to make a change. “I believe in you.”

One day I was dining in a restaurant and I asked the food server what she dreamed of doing. She said she was passionate about becoming a teacher but did not know if she would be a good one. “I know you will be a marvellous teacher,” I said, “because you care so deeply about being a good one. I believe in you.”

Six months later I returned to the restaurant for lunch. She saw me at the door, brought her co-worker up to me and said to her co-worker, “This is the woman who believes in me!”
And she told me a story.

She was serving during a busy lunchtime and noticed that a woman dining alone in the back of her section of the restaurant was sobbing quietly. She did not know this woman, but she walked up to her, knelt by her side, touched her knee and said quietly, “I believe in you.”

Passing it on.

I once saw a television interviewer ask their guest, “What would you like to be remembered for?”  I would be happy to be remembered as the woman you knew - or maybe even didn’t know and never saw again - who believed in you. Who reminded you how amazing you are.

Lisa Heft

Saturday, September 8, 2012

The three circles of leadership

I continue to be inspired by John Adair and his Action Centred Leadership theory. Although I am a facilitator and teach ACL frequently, I find it incredibly inspiring because the theory and model is so simple. At first I thought it was too simple, but as I heard John say in March, the model is simple but never simplistic. What I have learned is that simple means easy to understand and most of all easy to implement.

Being rather practically-minded, I like to test theories in real life to see just how good they are. ACL is represented by 3 Circles – Task, Team & Individual – and John suggests that the model represents the common needs that are present in all groups. The trick for the leader is to be aware that these needs could be present at anytime, in varying degrees, and must know how to meet them, as best he or she can, within the constraints of their organisation. I chair a local businesswomen’s network and when I first became its leader, it was quite tough. No-one knew me, the group was past its heyday so membership numbers were falling and the group was made of up very different personalities, some stronger than others. I was also replacing a very popular Chairwoman, so the jury was out!

With my eye on the 3 Circles, I realised that needs associated with all the circles were present in this group. Within the task circle there was a need for me to create my vision of how I wanted the group to develop and for us to have some sort of direction. I also needed to communicate that out to the group and to engage their support. But I could sense that the team & individual needs were more pressing. I knew I had to get to know these ladies, one by one, if I was to re-unite them as a team, behind me as their leader, bearing in mind we meet only once a month and all run our own businesses. Our only commonality is the network group.

Some ladies were quite unhappy about certain aspects of the group and asked to speak with me. I met with everyone who asked and listened to all their advice and their dissatisfaction. I took on board some points and let others quietly fade. But by listening and acknowledging the greater experience of those ladies, the bonds grew stronger. I decided we needed a stronger group identity to meet the needs of the team circle, so we developed a new website, encouraging our members to profile their businesses. I also ran marketing sessions, asking everyone to contribute about our group and what we stood for.  The total inclusion and involvement of our members brought us closer together as a team and the needs of that circle began to be fulfilled. Some 18 months later, our group has grown from 6 to 30 members and I’m proud to say we are a thriving group again. I continue to keep an eye on the 3 Circles and ensure that all our members are treated with respect and treated as individuals. Any voluntary contributions are always acknowledged.

I’m not sure if this is what you are looking for but I found the practice of John’s model invaluable to my leadership of this group and it worked!

Sarah Christie

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Inspiration from General Slim

Slim’s Story

“Anyone can be great in victory: it takes defeat to test character to the full.”

Slim held the ragtag Burma Corps together in 1942 for 800 miles of constant fighting and almost constant defeat. He was driven northward losing soldiers to death and disease all the time. After 3 months and 13,000 casualties the battered remnants of Burma Corps reached India, to reorganise, regain strength, to train harder and to recover the will to fight. The Japanese were defeated at the Battle of Kohima and the 14th Army swept south to retake Burma.

Slim on Leadership

Slim’s story sets the scene for the foundations for the fight-back. He focussed on Morale, that quality which will move a group of people to give their last ounce to achieve something. It has, he suggested, three foundations:

- Spiritual: there must be a great and noble aim in which the team believes
- Intellectual: all must be convinced that the aim is attainable and that the leaders have earned the confidence of the team
- Material: the team must have the tools for the job

Impact on me

I have never been in a situation as testing as those that Slim experienced. But the foundations above have informed my own punier attempts at leadership. For me, three things were vital to get right: the Aim, the right Skill Mix and the Commitment to Communicate.

Meeting the Aim

Everything should flow from the Aim. It will need questioning and testing. At the end, you as leader must own it and all your people must be confident that they can achieve it.

Getting my own aim right became important when I was asked to form a new military communications unit with 200 men and a hangar full of vehicles and radio equipment. The aim was to be an effective unit..

I told the team on 2 January that we would take our first trip into the field as a fully equipped and trained unit on 1 February. The team was horrified, said it would be a mess and indeed it was just that. But we learnt from that and exercised for a week each month for 6 months until we were good. We could do that because at the start we saw what we had to achieve.

Getting the Skills Mix right

When I ran a newly formed unit, I chose my top team. I made a great mistake by choosing people like me, with the same weaknesses. So ideas that should have been questioned at the top went unquestioned until they hit irritated people on the ground.

The leader must choose people who will challenge and test initiatives.

Committing to Communicate

I joined up two teams of several thousand military and civil servants in MOD. The amalgamated team was then halved. The civil service suspected that I would favour “my” military.

So we focused on communication: a top team meticulously balanced between military and civil and constant feedback to all on what was happening.

Anonymous by request

Friday, August 24, 2012

The who, why, what and how of who you are and want to be

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, first published in 1989, is a self help book written by Stephen R Covey. It has sold more than 15 million copies in 38 languages and presents an approach to becoming more effective if you align and organise yourself to some universal principles.

The first three habits are about self mastery - be proactive ; begin with the end in mind and put first things first – to help move you from dependence to independence. While the next three are about interdependence and working with others: think win/win, seek first to understand, then to be understood and synergize. The last habit – sharpen the saw – is about balance and renewal.

I have been in business for more than 30 years and have experienced a wide range of different approaches to management and leadership from a variety of companies and a number of senior executives. Having observed the good, the bad and the unnecessary, it is clear that personal development, attitude and belief are key differentiators in providing everyday leadership to inspire those around you. While the tone is set from the top, the rhythm is provided by everyone and not necessarily always in time or in tune. It took me some time before I realised this.

My first management position was with an oil company and I was fortunate to have access to good training, was encouraged to make the most of it and to be responsible for developing myself right from the beginning. This grounding put me in good stead as I have made use of whatever training has been available in any of the companies I have worked for and been an avid reader of business books, new thinking and emerging ideas. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People being all of that, but more significantly a book that I read as I began to practice being a manager and one that I have returned to periodically for the simplicity of its messages, its coherence and the timeless principles upon which it is based.

For these are applicable every day no matter the size of the company, team or set of circumstances as the art of good management and subsequently great leadership rests firmly with the individual. It’s personal. You have to manage yourself before you can manage others and have to be “ in lead of yourself “ before you can expect anyone to ever follow you.

The result of this is that you are able to put more of your focus and attention to people, strategic and important tasks while the technical, tactical and urgent tasks take less and less of your time through better organisation and attitude. More importantly though, as this approach cascades through your team, the whole team and organisation becomes more effective, more responsive to change and has more capability to adapt.

This was particularly needed in the 90s as the oil crises provoked a drive for substantial cost savings due fundamentally to the threat to the companies very survival. In my department’s case this lead to us searching for strategic partners; applying an extraordinarily collaborative business approach to solving challenges that none of us had ever experienced before and outsourcing the whole team. We literally needed to invent a new way of working not just for ourselves but also for our new external partners as we choose people for the new organisation based on their best fit to the role and not who were they employed by. The alliance delivered some extraordinary results and essentially succeeded by aligning performance to a common objective, incentivising everyone to achieve their part and collectively removing every obstacle that was in the way.  This was only made possible through investment in people and their development to encourage them to grow as individuals; and in team building to develop a common culture and environment of mutual support and success, irrespective of your original employer.

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People helped considerably in achieving this and proved to be a remarkable set of simple principles which are easy to understand and pass on. Moving people individually and collectively on a journey from confrontation to cooperation to eventual collaboration as people and companies realised that win-win was the only acceptable result for all.

And what a journey it is, because it is truly one without end. The great thing about self discovery is that you keep discovering more about yourself !  For me, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People initially provided the picture of how previous discrete pieces of training and learning I had received actually could come together before becoming the foundation for how I could operate in a new way of working and thinking to accomplish great performance; to being the model for helping others come to terms with a completely new way of working.  Fundamentally though it has helped me throughout answer the questions raised about myself - the who, why, what and how of who you are and want to be – as you occasionally reflect,  review and realise that it is not as easy as you thought it might be to be that leader you expected to be of yourself.

Roger Whittaker

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Respecting our forebears and future generations

To those who have gone before … and to those who are to come

I’ve been thinking hard about who has inspired me so far in my life and I think my late dad, not unexpectedly has influenced me most. A hard working, fiercely passionate Welshman, an original and innovative thinker who immersed himself in his work as a schoolmaster. He was a self-effacing man who saw potential in all his students and led initiatives to develop people who had been written off by the education system. He wasn’t in favour of elitist approaches and was as concerned about the distance travelled by an individual within the constraints of the educational framework of the day. He was an advocate of developing approaches to suit individual needs – thus academic achievement wasn’t his sole measure of success and he supported the introduction of vocational achievement and comprehensive education. The students he developed valued how he valued them as people.

The quote above was written at the front of Dad’s work on recording the family history. It says to me something about respecting our forebears and future generations and leaving a meaningful legacy. It also says something to me about valuing people and seeing ourselves in the context of our culture, heritage, environment and everything that makes us who we are – recognising diversity.

Dad sacrificed career success for maintaining his principles and values which made him my hero time and again. His motivation in life was not to amass great wealth – just enough income to afford a house and home and to fuel his addiction to the smell of new cars – albeit affordable ones, and to have made a difference to people who would otherwise have been more disadvantaged.

I cannot think of anyone who has influenced me more.

The Policeman and the Poet

Leadership should be exciting. Leaders and followers should unite in a creative pursuit, each inspiring the other to perform miracles. When we witness such leadership we hear language which reflects that inspirational quality, language which touches our sense of humanity and which paints a picture of what might be if we just step out of the ordinary and the safe.

But that sense of excitement is all too rare, and the language of leadership is in a sorry state of affairs. Too often it is the sterile language of the sharp suited consultant, exhorting us to re-engineer our business processes to drive out efficiencies through leaner delivery mechanisms. What we really drive out is the passion and creativity of those we lead by constantly regurgitating the jargon of the management text book.

It’s something to do with emotion. Great leadership is an intensely emotional affair, and to be truly inspirational it has to come from the heart. We may be able to change minds through an appeal to the intellect, but we only inspire by revealing something of our deeper selves, by daring to be different in a world which demands conformity.

When I became a chief constable I knew that I wanted to demonstrate that style of leadership, but to be honest, it felt more than a little uncomfortable. We don’t do emotion, and we tend not to step outside of the orthodoxy. So stumbling across a short essay by George Goens entitled “Leadership and Poetry” was a defining moment. Even the title spoke to me, and George’s message that “leaders should write organisational poetry” inspired me to be braver. Not only had I found someone who wrote about leadership as I intuitively felt it should be, but he also wrote about it beautifully.

George uses the metaphor of leader as poet to illustrate the true nature of the leadership role. Not a role to be defined by measurement, systems and process, but rather one to be defined by an exploration of the human condition, where we find purpose and meaning through creative relationships. It is a powerful and inspirational message.

But it’s a bit daunting to tell a roomful of police officers that you want them to be organisational poets. The Service is not by nature introspective. Nor are police officers generally comfortable with the expression of emotion or the exploration of values. What worries me most is that as the financial climate gets tougher, the space for that discussion gets squeezed even harder, just when we need it most.

So I have tried. I have tried to speak from and to the heart and I have encouraged others to do the same. I have tried to use words and to tell stories which resonate with the values and beliefs which brought people into the Service but which sometimes get smothered by the cynicism that policing can breed. Most of all I have tried to celebrate public service as a noble calling and I have tried to make the people I lead proud to have answered that call.

Thank you George for helping me to write my own bit of organisational poetry.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Doing homework with my Dad

What book, poem, film, speech, painting, quote, story, or person (or whatever) continues to inspire your leadership?

My father and him helping me with my school homework.

What is it about this piece that inspires you and helps sustain you as a leader? 

Whenever I had a difficult homework question I remember asking my father for help. My father would help me, but the problem was that he wouldn’t give me the answer or even the short route to finding the answer. Instead, he would start at the very beginning and explain the whole problem (sometimes even the whole principles behind the subject area) and all the layers that I had to understand in order to solve the problem and do my homework. Now to a 13 year old, this was sometimes excruciatingly long-winded and I would beg him to just give me the answer so that I could get on with the rest of my homework. And he always suggested that it was better that I learned and saw the whole problem instead and that the time would be worth it.

Whenever I am working with others or leading a team and people come to me with a problem or a puzzle, I remember my father and his patience at explaining the whole picture and allowing me to come up with the solution. Sure it take much longer and some days I wish I could just give someone the answer…but I want an empowered team of people who know that they can come to me for information and knowledge but that I expect and hope that they come up with the solutions.

One time my mum even took a photo of us sitting at our dinning room table with my books spread across the whole table and discussing the latest homework question. This is the image I see in my mind every time I start to discuss the latest issue with a colleague and hope that I can be as patient and understanding as my father was with me.

I suppose he was doing what the famous saying talks about “give a man a fish and he eats for a day, teach him to fish and he eats for a life-time”, but to me it is still “doing homework with my dad”.

Friday, July 27, 2012

What do you need to improve?

Of all the scenes in films that can be used to portray leadership at its best there is one scene from “Shirley Valentine” that shows exactly what we should not be doing. The pupils in Shirley Valentine’s school are being put through an assembly where they have to answer questions put by the headmistress. Shirley has already been labeled a difficult pupil and has no chance against the class pet, Marjorie.

When the headmistress asks a question, “What was man’s greatest invention?”, that no one—not even Marjorie—answers correctly, Shirley gets a chance. She answers, “Miss, it was the wheel, Miss.” Furious, the headmistress spits out, “Someone must have told you!” No glory and no house points for Shirley. In fact, quite the opposite. The next scene shows Shirley in the schoolyard obviously having given up, smoking a forbidden cigarette, and saying, “It’s crap. It’s all crap.”

I saw this shortly after a coach told me about interpersonal expectancy effects (also known as self-fulfilling prophecies) and this made a particularly big impression on me. My way of incorporating this insight into my leadership style is to use inquiry wherever possible. Instead of assuming that the person who hasn’t delivered is unmotivated and / or incompetent I assume from the beginning that their non-performance has to do with factors I can’t see and I ask them, “What would you need in order to get your part of the project done well and on time?”. And then I listen to the answer. Not only has it, in many situations, kept me from demotivating and alienating someone the way Shirley was alienated. It has the added benefit that I have found out useful information. 

Just two examples: I learned that the laws in new EU member states are still in the process of being harmonised with EU legislation making it more or less impossible for anyone to give a definitive answer to questions about the legal position. I’ve also discovered that the exchange rate from Ukrainian hryvnia fluctuated heavily the day before financial results needed to be reported - in euro - devastating the country manager’s figures. With the real information we were able to work out more appropriate measures for dealing with the uncertainty. Above all, our relationship, and thereby our cooperation, was strengthened rather than damaged.

What does this have to do with Shirley Valentine? 

Think of it this way: what might Shirley have been able to achieve if her teachers, instead of labeling her “difficult” and behaving accordingly, had continually ascribed ability and motivation to her from the beginning and asked what she needed to do a good job? She might have achieved almost anything. That is the kind of power we have over the people we lead.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Tomorrow has not yet arrived

Give us today our daily bread (The Gospel of Matthew Chapter 6 verse 11 The New International Version of the Bible. Pub. Hodder and Stoughton)

Choosing a verse from the middle of the Lord’s Prayer might seem odd. After all it makes no direct reference to the task of leadership nor does it at first glance appear to offer much inspiration. Perhaps quite the reverse with its focus on the here and now combined with what sounds almost like a cry for help.

Surprisingly, as I lead organisations through major change, and work with fellow leaders doing the same, I find significant encouragement and wisdom from these few words. Specifically they remind me of the importance of what I do today. I know, of course, that leadership is about the future. I am to help lead people into unknown territory. Nonetheless, as an activity, leadership happens today in the present moment. My words, my thoughts and my actions today help shape the future. As I said to a colleague recently “ We only have today to do the task of leadership - tommorrow has not yet arrived ”.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not arguing that we should’nt plan for the future. As a leader I am reasonably expected to do that. However, I live within the constraints of the 24 hours I have been given. What is significant is what I do with these hours not the time I may, or may not , be given in the future. Living with this truth keeps me on my toes and much more aware of what I do and say than otherwise might be the case.

The plea for bread in this Bible verse always reminds me that as a person and a leader I have a wide variety of needs that can only be met from outside of myself. I can’t get away from the reality of my own need for the basics of life. If I try to be self-sufficent as a leader I find myself quickly coming a cropper, losing motivation, making errors and lacking clarity. I continue to learn to pay attention to my needs, not in a selfish way, but in a manner that respects my own human-ness and fraility. As a Christian believer this also means paying attention to my relationship with God as a source of leadership strength and wisdom.

You may have noticed that this plea for bread is a community plea “Give us today our daily bread”. It goes to the heart of the reality that ,whilst my role as an individual leader can be significant, leadership happens in the context of community. Many leaders playing their part together, acting, speaking and asking powerful questions that focus our efforts on the vision of a better tommorrow. I am not usually on my own as a leader. I am prompted to reflect on the role I am called to play in the leadership communities of which I am a part.

The unspoken implication of this verse and the whole of the Lord’s Prayer is that I am also a follower. So when I do my work as a leader I am daily called by this prayer to remember that I must also work at followership and do so to the best of my ability. I think all of us involved in leadership regularly need to consider to whom, or what, we give our allegiance.

Stefan Cantore

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Pygmalion & Oz

A great leader who inspired my own convictions about leadership said to me that it all begins with understanding not the leader, but the led. Immediately, I began to understand what had happened during the last 18 months of working with him.

I had raised my game, I had begun to accomplish more than I had believed was possible for me – it seemed as though I was flowing with a forward current, not battling against it.


It was because my boss believed in me; he trusted in me. I recalled how he spoke to me: “John, I see you...” and there would follow a description of a problem solved, a task accomplished, a challenge overcome.

His expectation of me was that I would succeed and, with real energy, this propelled me in the direction of his expectation.

I asked him about it and he related to me Ovid’s ancient story of Pygmalion. Pygmalion was a Cypriot sculptor who carved a woman out of ivory. His statue was so realistic that Pygmalion fell in love with it. He offered the statue presents and eventually prayed to Venus, the goddess of love. She took pity on him and brought the statue to life. Pygmalion and his statue, now alive and a real woman, married.

There is something about the fervency of Pygmalion’s wish for the statue that awoke the life within. I now understood the last 18 months a lot better. My boss had seen potential in me and he used that power of expectation to sculpt the reality accordingly.

“But wasn’t that risky?”, I asked, “I mean, I could have let you down – you could have got it wrong...”

“You were always going to come through, John, you just hadn’t realised it yet. But I knew – and you did! Look, if you are going to be a great ‘Pygmalion’, you just have to take the risk. That is what getting the best out of people – being a leader – is all about. It is a huge responsibility and, more, a privilege. If you don’t take the risk, you cannot be a great sculptor”.

And ever since then, that is how I have tried to be when I have had the privilege of leading people. I learned from that wonderful boss (no, human being!) that I have to see people not as they are, but as they could become – their potential. And this expectation itself powers them in that direction.

This fundamental truth of leadership, based on understanding the led, has been reinforced for me by the story of the Wizard of Oz. In this multi-level story, there is no magic force at work, but there is real power. It is, I was reminded again, the power of expectation.

The Lion found courage not by having courage magic’d onto him, but by being given a medal – after all, all courageous creatures have medals. (It was the same for the Tin-Man who found his heart after being given a ticking clock; and the Scarecrow felt he had a brain once he had been given his diploma.) The medal signifies courage and the lion grew into the new expectations that were had of him: ‘as a man thinketh, so he “is-eth”’!

And this is how I try to lead my leadership life. By believing in the unlimited potential of people and working with them to coax, shape and, yes, sculpt that reality. Every day I look for the equivalent of medals, or ticking clocks or diplomas for my people.


Because the real lesson I learned was that the power of expectation spreads exponentially. Leaders do not create followers, but more leaders.

“If I accept you as you are, I will make you worse. However, if I treat you as though you are what you are capable of becoming, I help you become that.” Goethe

John Kirwan

Giving some hope

What book, poem, film, speech, painting, quote, story, or person (or whatever) continues to inspire your leadership?

I ran the Race for Life with a lady who had terminal cancer. We ran the race holding hands, as I am a cancer sufferer myself. When it was over and we crossed the finish line, she said "Thank you for giving me some hope", and I couldn't work out what she meant (because she was terminal), until I told this story at an event for leaders during my time at the County Council. Someone in the audience commented that "even when things seem desperate and hopeless, it's important to notice the people who need a hand, especially when you can be bothered to travel the distance with them."  

What is it about this piece that inspires you and helps sustain you as a leader? In other words, tell me the story behind your selection. 

Going the distance with people, and not in front of them, continues to sustain my leadership.

I had been back at work for two years following a close shave with cancer, and had managed to secure a senior post in relatively short time. From here I progressed to leading and managing. One of my tasks was to facilitate workshops for senior managers in my organisation, and it was at one of these that I told the story of the Race for Life.

I had arrived at the common in Southampton along with thousands of other women, some with memorial notices on their shirts depicting the faces of loved ones lost. Race for Life is an emotional occasion, and I noticed a lady quietly sitting with tears rolling down her face. I sat with her and asked her about her sadness. 

She had terminal cancer, and had come to the Race with her husband and 4 year old daughter who had gone to find some ice cream. In spite of her pain, she chose to run the three kilometers, and I felt very humbled by her bravery. I offered to run with her, and she held out her hand. We ran the whole distance together hand in hand. When we crossed the finishing line, we did none of the air punching, or cheering you might expect. We just hugged each other and she said "thank you for giving me hope". She then left, and my family came over and gave me hugs and kisses. I never saw her again, but kept thinking about what she meant by giving her hope, because she had told me she was terminal. It wasn't until I told the story at the leadership class, thinking that this might inspire others to literally run the race in terms of leading groups, when someone piped up and said

"even when things seem desperate and hopeless, it's important to notice the people who need a hand, especially when you can be bothered to travel the distance with them."

That what sustains my leadership style. I don't want to look back at those following an "example", I want to work with them - I want to be bothered.

The leadership paradox

“To be a person means to have learned the secret and paradoxical art: to go out, and yet remain within; to exert power yet exercise restraint; to transcend, and yet remain oneself; to be in movement, yet to be in total repose”

This quotation (from The Way of Paradox: Spiritual Life as Taught by Meister Eckhart) gets to the heart of a fundamental conundrum of leadership. By asking us to make an integration of seemingly contradictory elements, it highlights a juggling act that leaders must learn if they are to be truly effective. 

It reminds me to pause in the midst of action, ‘touch base’ as well as encourage people I work with to do the same. This is about doing my best to move beyond kneejerk reactions; see the bigger picture and be responsive to specifics of the moment. It isn’t a soft option; when the pressure is on and the clock is ticking I find it fiercely difficult, requiring rigour, discrimination, humility and commitment.

A recurring theme for myself and my clients is feeling we have to do more, faster. Like Alice in Wonderland we are running as fast as we can to stay in the same place. I know from my own experience that when everything around is speedy it takes courage to stop and reflect, even for a moment.

Let’s face it speed is exuberant, eager to embrace change and get things done. It’s high-powered, confident and heroic – just ask Jeremy Clarkson! Speed = success; it drives economic growth, stays ahead of the game and gives an exhilarating buzz. But too often speed= superficial; with its short term view, blinkered focus on the next quarter and reckless ‘JFDI’ mindset. Speed plays a part in financial meltdown, social injustice and environmental devastation. In my heart I know that those well meaning but unhelpful interventions and decisions I am most ashamed of have often been made speedily.

A culture of speed plays to our inadequacy; sometimes it seems whatever I do it’s never enough. This can push me into over compensating; living falsely outside of myself, just skimming the surface. I’ve seen this result in burnout and an erosion of integrity that leads to abuses of power, hubris and career derailment. This quotation inspires me to do my best to live and lead not just from the surface; to see beyond roles, image and status and find a deeper, more ‘soulful’ place to stand as I work in the world.

For me, these practical, profound and provocative words represent a call to embrace contradiction; to experiment with reflective risk taking, to remain calm and connected in the midst of action, show restraint while being decisive and allow paradox to shape my notion of what it means to be a leader. I may never fully achieve all this but the journey should be interesting! 

Begin it

Until one is committed, there is hesitancy,
   the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness.
Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation)
   there is one elementary truth,
   the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans:
That the moment one definitely commits oneself,
   then Providence moves too.
All sorts of things occur to help one
   that would never otherwise have occurred.
A whole stream of events issues from the decision,
   raising in one's favour all manner
   of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance,
   which no man could have dreamed would have come his way.
I have learned a deep respect for one of Goethe's couplets:

Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.

This passage is a quotation from William Murray’s book, The Scottish Himalayan Expedition (1951). It is pinned to the notice board in my office, and it catches my eye on a regular basis — sometimes a daily basis. I know it off-by-heart, and I hold its sentiments in mind, often unspoken, because in certain moods and at certain times of really needing self-leadership, I can hardly bear to say its words, such is the power they still have to inspire and encourage me.

I am intrigued by the deal it offers — that my energy, my commitment and my caring are attractive, contagious and powerful enough to influence others and bring closer my potential and my dream.

Me and Providence : Providence and Me — it’s an intoxicating thought!

I do know, however, that my energy, commitment and caring certainly have the power to motivate me, if only I will take William Murray’s advice and begin it.

I believe that boldness has genius, power and magic in it, and I am also intrigued by this belief. The creativity and achievement that I experience when in flow is familiar to me. I know that it is attractive, because I am similarly attracted to follow those whose genius and power I perceive. It’s the magic that I find really beguiling.

I know perfectly well that magical thinking is irrational and escapist, and probably a displacement activity, but it is also wonderfully intuitive and visionary and absolutely essential for those of us, who, like me, are more motivated by the potential of the future than the reality of the present. Without magical thinking I may not give myself permission to be bold — to seize the day — and that would be a great pity, because so often it works very well.

Alastair Wyllie

Single minded courage

What book, poem, film, speech, painting, quote, story, or person (or whatever) continues to inspire your leadership?

The picture of Shand Sivewright driving his own vehicle independently is an image I keep with me at all times. For someone so totally disabled, this was a huge achievement. It is on my blog under “A Story of Courage”, which his own self-effacing account of part of his journey to get the car.

What is it about this piece that inspires you and helps sustain you as a leader? In other words, tell me the story behind your selection.

Shand was incredibly single minded and courageous.

Although unable to lift a cup or feed himself, he had confidence in his own abilities and was determined to drive. So profound was his disability, that, pushed bodily to one side in his wheelchair, he was unable to rectify his position.

Nobody supported him in this venture. Doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, Consultants all told him that it couldn’t be done. However, he had done his research, and was convinced it was possible. Such was the strength of the opposition that he asked a friend to assess if the actuality measured up to what he had read. His friend returned with a positive and glowing report.

Thus, the man who could do nothing, who had sat at home waiting on people to dress him or feed him, became of use to Society again. The effect on my perception of leadership was dramatic.

This outstanding effort made me study how it was done – how it was possible, with your eyes fixed on the goal, to pursue it relentlessly. He taught me

- That support should be mustered wherever possible. However, if failing to gain support, faith in your own ability must be unshakeable.
- To have a plan and to focus on that with complete concentration.
- The importance of networking. It was one of his key skills, and he demonstrated the importance of having friends when it comes to fund-raising – and brainstorming.
- He demonstrated to me that great powers of persuasion were necessary – and patience when dealing with some areas where others were unfamiliar. Time for them to catch up was essential.
- To look for every possible chink of light – and pursue it – using bargaining tools if necessary.
- Never forget to listen: and 
- Never reject what anyone else is telling you.
- Your staff will improve your systems for you, if you pay attention: if you do not blame the individual, but question your own systems and communication. 
- How to make allies were made, foster trust, establish credibility, and achieve progress.

For example, he asked the Social Work Department to assist him with his costs on the second trip to America for his “Final Fitting” in the car. (Bearing in mind that they were not “Allies” in this project, I thought he would be refused). In exchange for the subsidy, he offered to research Independent Living in Indianapolis. They were interested and his trip was subsidised.

John Major’s imagination and initiative put this goal within reach. It would never been attempted had that first encouragement not been offered by the Government.

Make heart to heart contact

I have been on a leadership journey, sometimes reluctantly, for much of my life (in retailing, big ticket consulting, small business, leadership programmes and executive coaching, family, amongst others). Much of that time I worked on gut instinct and would have had difficulty answering questions about the kernel of my leadership beliefs.

A few years ago I was introduced to and quickly became a member of Soka Gakkai International, a world peace and spirituality lay movement ignited by and based on Nichiren Buddhism. My leadership inspiration is a great man called Daisaku Ikeda, the worldwide leader of SGI. Through his role modelling and inspiring leadership, and from a low base and controversial start in Japan, SGI, over 50 years, he has catalysed a thriving and successful organisation of 12 million people in 192 countries.

I have never met Daisaku Ikeda, and probably never will – he is in his eighties and travels less these days. But through him and countless others who he has inspired, I have been able to crystallise my personal coda of leadership. So I hope this neither an advert for some faith group, nor a homage to a man of proven world class achievement, but a statement of my personal beliefs about what really matters in leadership at all levels and in all situations.

I think it crystallises in five beliefs and practices.

1. Try to make heart to heart contact

In the end, I believe it all comes down to relationships – winning work, inspiring action, building shared goals, parenting; they are all different sides of the many faceted crystal of life. Relationships are based on authenticity. Be it face to face or when I am in front of a group, people are literally and metaphorically looking me in the eye and asking themselves “Do I trust this guy, can I see his belief in what he is saying?” I owe it to them, therefore, to be authentic and congruent in word and deed; with luck and belief in people, I will get back what I give and so will others.

2. Look for the best in people and encourage them to do likewise

In Buddhism we call it looking for the Buddha in other people. People are inspired by others who can see in them what they are often blind to in themselves. Not false positives, but genuine potential, tempered by the blockages, inhibitors and defence mechanisms that life throws up. Not pipedreams, but genuine encouragement to aspiration based on glimpses of what they could be. For me, that requires positivity tempered by honesty – if I can’t share what I see and what my intuition is telling me, how can I expect them to get beyond their often challenging realities.

3. Have the personal courage to live your values

I wish I could say I always have... but I know that when I do, I always have a positive impact, even in adversarial conditions.

4. Recognise that others have to take personal responsibility for growth

Tempting as dependency is for someone who sells professional services, ultimately it is a recipe for comfort and vanity rather than growth. Challenge people to follow their dream, even have a dream, confront their ghosts and challenges. Be there for them, make suggestions and comments. But insist that they take responsibility – it’s their life, their business, their future. If I help, the most successful often remember...

5. Remember that leaders need followers - not sheep but partners in growth

Givers gain in life - so give feedback freely and with authenticity and ask for the same in return. In my life and increasingly that of people I meet in a networked global ecosystem, leadership is a collaborative endeavour and life a series of gigs rather than a rise to the top in a monoculture. And as people go through organisations, quality feedback is in increasingly short supply and often is substituted by a misguided collusion with “leadership” behaviour. Recognising that you need support is the first step to being able to create the heart to heart relationships that are so important to me, and being prepared to prompt mutual feedback is a critical part of that.

I’m still on my journey, and some of these have always been instincts. But the inspiration I have found from my contact with Ikeda’s organisation has enabled me to articulate them loud and proud – hopefully to good effect – in every aspect of my life.

Helping others learn to fly

In June 1996 I arrived at Her Majesty's Prison (HMP) Swaleside as a new Principal Officer (middle manager) having completed nearly three years as Senior Officer (first line manager) at HMP Maidstone. This was a time of intense personal development as I had also just commenced the Diploma in Management Studies with Brunel and I was eager to try my newly learned skills in this exciting new role. At that point I saw my career in 3 to 4 years chunks with a distant possibility of becoming a Governor before I retire.

The following October a new Governor took up post at Swaleside, John Podmore and he was to have a lasting impression on my career as well as my leadership style. John influenced many areas of my leadership and management style but I particularly remember how he enabled me to see I was capable of much more than I had previously realised. John saw in me far more potential and ability than I did and he very skilfully coached me to understand what I was capable of. In time I came to understand what John saw in me and the safe but steady career ambitions I arrived with were slowly replaced with a sense of anything was possible.

In order to get the very best out of our aspiring future leaders the people who coach and mentor them must be able to properly assess their full potential and understand their capabilities. It is then possible to stretch them, widening their horizons, supporting them to grow so that they start to believe they are capable of so much more. In the wrong hands or with a less skilled coach/mentor potential future leaders can be lost which is deeply damaging to them and can deprive firms of potentially high performers. 

As I progressed through the middle management ranks at Swaleside, John continued to develop my leadership skills through carefully managed projects covering strategic, organisational and cultural issues, all the time discussing the challenges I faced and how I could progress beyond them. I have looked back on that period with colleagues who were similarly influenced by John and who also progressed to senior management and we agreed that during that time we ‘learned to fly’. I left Swaleside in 2000 having qualified with distinction in my DMS and a renewed sense of belief that I could achieve my ultimate ambition to be a Governor. 

Four years later I took up my first post as Governor of HMYOI Rochester followed by posts as Governor of Swaleside and Maidstone prisons. I am in no doubt the seeds for my future success as a Governor were sown in that time with John when with the right encouragement and care he showed me what I was capable of.

I have tried in my career as a Governor to nurture and develop talent drawing on the my experience with John at Swaleside. I have mentored a number of managers who showed considerable potential and supported them through the journey to senior positions. In order to get good people you have to let good people go and I was fortunate enough to work with people who recognised this and so I have followed this with managers I have held in high regard working for me. By encouraging their development and helping to broaden their own horizons we arrive at the point where I can do no more for them and I then support the right move to continue the journey.

Stephen O'Connell

Being an example

Katherine E. (Katie) Boyd (1921- 2009) continues to inspire my leadership.

Katie volunteered for political and public-policy causes. She was reportedly at ease in activities ranging from attending state dinners (See, for example, Guest List for the State Dinner in Honor of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and His Royal Highness The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh) to handing out campaign leaflets at a commuter light-rail station. Katie was for decades perhaps the most successful fundraiser in northern California for Republican causes. She knew whom to ask, how to ask, and when not to push. She copiously sent thank-you notes. As far as I know, she did not ask for anything in return for her efforts. Also, she supported people who supported her causes.

For example, in 1989, I accepted an offer to serve as a Commissioner in the United States General Services Administration (GSA). An earthquake delayed my flying to Washington, D.C., to report for work. I called Katie. Without hesitation, she invited me to spend a night in her husband Bill's and her guest bedroom. I started the next day close to the reopening San Francisco International Airport.

Permit me to infer from patterns some principles I believe Katie exemplified:

a) Do whatever you can.
b) Ask for whatever you should.
c) Provide appreciation.
d) Support those who support your causes.
e) Try new outreach.
f) It may not be necessary to tout your role.
g) Lead by being an example.

Katie's success and practices inspired my work for (and beyond) my three plus years with GSA.
At an early staff meeting, I told leaders of our 2,000-person group that I was there to serve our country (g). Based on at least (a), (b), and (e), I introduced and advocated new or underutilized concepts. People brought many of these to fruition. In the case of one procurement improvement concept, people reminded me that the "opposite" political party controlled of Congress. During my service, I never publically mentioned that initiative (d) & (f). Today, the Government-Wide Acquisition Contract (GWAC) is widely used.

Some people cautioned I should not advocate more change than appropriate. I tried to hone my leadership accordingly (b) & (d). Various career-employee leaders proposed initiatives. I endorsed many of these projects and avoided trying to have more role than that of advocate (a), (d), (f) and (g). We launched a nationwide grassroots initiative to improve governmental service to the public, even though we had neither charter nor budget to do so (a) & (e).

Principles (a) and (e) inspired my trying to establish new working relationships between GSA and other agencies. Some attempts worked. Others did not.

Years later, I send many "thank you" emails to current colleagues (c) & (g). Memories of Katie remain unique sources of inspiration.

Beyond expectations

One of my life lessons has been patience.

In the book, The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, a bored, young boy named Milo, begins a transformational journey through a phantom tollbooth that popped up in his bedroom. One of the first places he visits is the Land of Expectations. In this land he learns that “Expectations is the place you must always go to before you get to where you're going. Some people never get beyond expectations.”

This phrase hidden in a children’s book reverberated within me. I recognized it was profound although I did not fully understand it until I applied it to my mindset as a manager. My management style, sourced by my perfectionistic tendencies was to micro-manage. I was convinced that I was the only one who could get the job done in the proper way by the deadline. So I found fault with my employees and judged them because they did not meet my expectations. Where I was headed was efficiency, productivity and star performance. My expectations were that everyone had the same life lesson as me. Never had I considered going beyond expectations.

What I learned, as did Milo, was that each person on my team had lessons to learn, their own unique lessons and therefore their unique developmental paths to follow for advancement. And what each needed to grow and evolve was different from my path. I needed to learn to be more patient. So I began to look at the situation through a new lens, one that recognized and even valued how different we all are. Now I operate from a different perspective, knowing that people bring their own unique talents and gifts to bear as I do. With diversity of lessons, we have greater assets to capitalize on.

When I began respecting and appreciating my staff for who they were and not whom I thought they ought to be, the work environment became more friendly and open... and curiously, more productive. As I lived this lesson more thoroughly and practiced it more frequently, I became more patient with “foibles and faults” and even, with self-amusement I might add, began to become more patient with myself. To this day I don a big smile when someone says to me, “Thank you for your patience.”

Teri-E Belf

Thy soul, the fix'd foot

As virtuous men pass mildly away,
    And whisper to their souls to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say,
    "Now his breath goes," and some say, "No."

So let us melt, and make no noise,
    No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move ;
'Twere profanation of our joys
    To tell the laity our love.

Moving of th' earth brings harms and fears ;
    Men reckon what it did, and meant ;
But trepidation of the spheres,
    Though greater far, is innocent.

Dull sublunary lovers' love
    —Whose soul is sense—cannot admit
Of absence, 'cause it doth remove
    The thing which elemented it.

But we by a love so much refined,
    That ourselves know not what it is,
Inter-assurèd of the mind,
    Care less, eyes, lips and hands to miss.

Our two souls therefore, which are one,
    Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
    Like gold to aery thinness beat.

If they be two, they are two so
    As stiff twin compasses are two ;
Thy soul, the fix'd foot, makes no show
    To move, but doth, if th' other do.

And though it in the centre sit,
    Yet, when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,
    And grows erect, as that comes home.

Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
    Like th' other foot, obliquely run ;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
    And makes me end where I begun.

John Donne A Valediction Forbidding Mourning (written 1611 published 1633)

I immediately thought of this poem when I was wrestling with how to communicate my sense of personal ethics to a group of learned academics attending an Ashridge conference on global leadership ethics.

The theme for the conference was the global ethical leadership compass, which started me thinking about just how poor a metaphor this is. In a navigational compass, magnetic north is slowly drifting from Canada to Siberia over disputed territory, and wanders many miles a day. It changes depending where on the planet you are standing when you take the reading, and is affected by local magnetic fields. The poles are about to swap over in any case, and, because opposites attract, magnetic north is actually more correctly the 'south' pole anyway. So it is indeed a perfect metaphor for relativism in ethics.

Then I remembered sitting in a classroom overlooking the quad at Madras College in St Andrews while the legendary Andrew O. Lindsay introduced us to the poetry of John Donne. I was particularly struck by the metaphor of the drawing compasses in this poem, and I was tickled to discover an Ashridge connection. John Donne was in fact Secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, Baron Ellesmere and the father of the first Earl of Bridgewater, who bought Ashridge from Elizabeth I in 1604. Donne was sacked from his post for secretly marrying his boss's niece and ward, Anne More ('John Donne, Anne Donne, Un-done'). Izaak Walton, a contemporary of Donne's, says that Donne wrote the Valediction in 1611, when he was leaving for France on Government business. In the poem, he talks about the compasses' fix'd foot, in his case, Anne, whose 'firmness makes my circle just.'

This is how I feel about ethics, that my leadership stems from a sense of moral rootedness. In my case, my fix'd foot is my Christian faith. When I teach ethics on the Ashridge MBA, I use this metaphor to help emerging leaders to identify their own fix'd foot, so that they might be more consciously guided by it in their decision-making.

Eve Poole

Simplicity is resolved complexity

"Simplicity is resolved complexity"

This famous aphorism from the sculptor Constantin Brancusi encapsulates for me how the simplification of forms which was crucial to him as an artist applies to the way that I seek to work with colleagues and partners.

That doesn’t mean being a solitary individualist living in a garret! Nor do you need to be a mystic. I think it’s a good rule of thumb for us all.

A successful Brancusi sculpture has coherence but also precision. It is the product of persistence and an understanding of the material - the way in which it has been constructed reflects whether it is wood or bronze or stone. There is respect for difference in seeking out the essence which can then be captured and described in a way that connects with others.

I should own up at this point to being a bit of a wonk. Yes, I’ve worked on developing policy and legislation and intellectual coherence has been a value in many of the organisations in which I’ve worked. But I believe that the fundamental journey followed by Brancusi in creating a sculpture is very similar to the one that we follow when confronted by the need to make sense of what can often appear close to chaos.

The great truth that I think Brancusi expresses is that there is a nub, something at the heart of the issue that can, often through sheer perspiration, be identified and that doing so releases the energy and the creativity to take things forward. Often it’s not easy and describing the steps on the way and giving people the confidence to take them is one of your main roles. Sometimes nerve needs to be held in the face of external pressures.  But you tend to know when you have arrived; things seem clearer and the foundations on which to build can be discerned. At that point the journey back to simplicity accelerates.

A perfectly formed Brancusi sculpture is a prize worth all of the effort and the energy involved in its creation. I wish I could afford one but the systems diagram for that conundrum needs a little more work.

Kevin Lloyd

Margaret Thatcher & personal responsibility

After much thought, the first leader who motivated and inspired me was Margaret Thatcher.  The most significant words from Mrs. Thatcher are actually the ones which are most often wrongly quoted by her opponents even today.

It was when she said 'there is no such thing as society'. To put that into context, she was responding to a journalist interviewing her about crime and violence. The interviewer said 'isn't our society to blame for all this crime and violence' to which she responded 'No, there is no such thing as society, just individual people who are responsible for their own actions' or words to that effect.

I absolutely believe in taking full responsibility for my own actions and have carried this through into my own business and other organisation which I have been involved in.  This has lead to a genuine 'no blame culture'.

Everybody makes mistakes and obviously most of the time they really didn't mean to.  In my business if something goes wrong my attitude is that it is the systems's fault and therefore my responsibility. I set up the system and therefore something is missing from that system which could have prevented the mistake. So, together we fix the system and the individual who made the mistake knows that they are not to blame.

Even if somebody makes the same mistake again I don't blame them. What good would that do.  You can't change the past, you can only change the future. Together with the person who has made the mistake twice we come up with a fail safe and change the system again. The system is at fault, not the person.

Mark Orr

Friday, July 20, 2012

Up the organisation

My views of leadership were strongly influenced by Robert Townsend in the late 1970’s when I worked in car hire management. (Robert was more successful than me.) My favourite observations from his book (Up the Organization: How to Stop the Corporation from Stifling People and Strangling Profits):

True leadership must be for the benefit of the followers, not the enrichment of the leaders. How do you spot a leader? They come in all ages, shapes, sizes and conditions. Some are poor administrators, some are not overly bright. One clue:  since most people are mediocre, the true leader cans be recognised because, somehow or other, his/her people consistently turn in superior performances.

Townsend then quotes Peter and Hull “As for the best leaders, the people do not notice their existence. The next best the people honour and praise. The next, the people fear; and the next the people hate….” (The Peter Principle) And in translation from Lao-tsu “When the best leaders work is done the people say, 'We did it ourselves!' "

My favourite Townsend quote is:

"No-No’s Reserved Parking Spaces: If you’re so bloody important you better be the first on in the office. Besides, you’ll meet a nice class of people in the employee’s parking lot"

This has got me into trouble more than once with senior managers!

Below is given a clue as to why Townsend might still be considered a great leader:

Robert Townsend (1920–1998) was an American business executive and author who transformed Avis into a rental car giant. After WW2, he was hired by American Express in 1948 where he became senior vice president for investment and international banking. Then in 1962, Lazard Freres bought Avis, a struggling rental company that had never made a profit in its existence. “One of the partners, AndrĂ© Meyer, convinced Townsend to leave American Express and become CEO of Avis. Under his direction as president and chairman, the firm became a credible force in the industry, fuelled by the “We Try Harder” advertising campaign (1962–65). Avis also began to have profits, which Townsend credited to Theory Y governance. In 1965, ITT acquired Avis, leading to his departure as president. After leaving Avis, he became a senior partner of Congressional Monitor (1969). He wrote the widely acclaimed essay on business management "Up the Organization", which spent 28 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list upon its publication in 1970.” (Wikipedia)

Working class heroes

I was brought up in the early 1950s in Burley, a working class area of Leeds. My early heroes were Alf Tupper a character in the Victor comic and Robin Dewhurst who lived at the end of our street.

Alf Tupper was a true working class hero. He had no money and no family advantages but he was a great long distance runner who trained hard on a diet of fish and chips and defeated his more privileged rivals by shear grit and ability.

Robin was  a few years older than me and fanatical about Rugby league, a skilled player he welded a disparate group of us into a makeshift team willing to play rugby whenever and wherever we could. Robin’s commitment his rugby knowledge and skill and his care for us and sense of fair play made him an outstanding leader. He went on to play for the Leeds Team and later to coach them.

Both had a lasting influence on my leadership style.. Drawing on my forty years experience gained in prison and corrections work the key lessons are remarkably consistent with what I  admired in my childhood heroes.

- Leadership and management skills must be combined and never regarded as separable.

- Each decision counts. Decisions must fit within the overall strategic direction even when dealing with emergencies which may offer real opportunities to move forward. Occasional adjustments in the face of difficulties are sensible but turning tail for a short term advantage is a huge mistake.

- Leaders need to know their business well and be seen to demonstrate that knowledge rather than rely only on a stream of data or what their immediate subordinates tell them.

- Decisions, even when made under pressure must be operationally right. Implementation of change needs to be thorough and effective. No one will follow an unsuccessful leader who gets things wrong.

- The long term direction and purpose of the organisation must be made clear and consistently and effectively communicated. Humane corrections must have a moral purpose recognising the humanity  of offenders and their potential to improve.

- Good leaders use their skills to manage and influence the wider environment so that the organisation is able to be more successful. Communication with external stakeholders must be consistent with internal messaging.

- Determination and resilience are key leadership qualities as is a willingness to listen to uncomfortable messages. and an understanding of front line staff and their work.

- Above all leaders must have absolute personal integrity. Leaders who cannot be trusted will never really succeed.

The prize for good leadership the field of prisons (where I work), is that reoffending can be reduced and the public made safer. This requires an integrated delivery by skilled staff who are genuinely interested in offenders and understand them but who set clear boundaries while offering the practical support and encouragement that inspires offenders to break free of crime.

Phil Wheatley

Tell me and I forget...

What book, poem, film, speech, painting, quote, story, or person (or whatever) continues to inspire your leadership?

Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn (Benjamin Franklin)

What is it about this piece that inspires you and helps sustain you as a leader?

All my professional life I have been struck by the difference between remembering and learning. This may not be that surprising for someone who has been at various times a teacher, an author and a publisher. But there is a truth in the difference that continues to inspire me in my role as a ‘leader’.
While we are growing up we are taught to remember - to churn out facts or apply formulae that get us through exams. We are not taught to learn - at least not in formal education.

Learning and remembering are not the same. Anything remembered can be forgotten. Anything learned is for life. Is it possible to 'un-learn' how to ride a bicycle for example?

Real learning comes when we take risks. We have to fall off a bicycle before we learn to ride.  Sadly, we are taught not to take risks, but rather to give the expected answers that we have learned by rote. If we left it to schools to teach us how to ride a bicycle they'd have us studying a manual and remembering how to take the thing apart and put it back together! At school I was taught French in this way, expected to remember grammar rules and sheets of vocabulary that were promptly forgotten the minute I’d written down what I had stored in my mind for the exam.  Thus, in the real world, when faced with the opportunity to think outside the box, to take risks in order to learn something new, we are conditioned not to. We operate within artificial boundaries set by social or corporate memory – or ‘the way we’ve always done things’.

In an increasingly competitive and changing business environment, leaders need to nurture creativity, not suppress it. And we need to assess and reward people based on what they have learned and continue to learn - not merely remembered for the purposes of gaining a qualification or ticking a box at an interview.

In the education publishing world that I inhabit, innovation is the key to survival, to growth and to contributing to a better education perhaps than the one we had. Innovation comes from learning and from applying that learning to the products and services of the future. For an organisation to learn, the individuals that are the heart of the organisation need to learn, to take risks, to fall off the bicycle, to question ‘the way we’ve always done things’ and to feel supported in doing that.  As a ‘leader’ this means I have to strive to encourage risk-takers, to foster creativity and reward innovative behaviour. This is achieved through involving people in the decisions and directions the organization takes. Every day.

And so I look to Benjamin Franklin’s words for inspiration. Tell staff what to do and they’ll soon forget. Teach them what to do and they’ll remember, but never question the process or try to improve it. Involve them and they will learn, improve, thrive, innovate and ultimately drive the organization to success.

Mark O’Neil

Lead, follow or get out of the way

What book, poem, film, speech, painting, quote, story, or person (or whatever) continues to inspire your leadership? 

Lead, follow or get out of the way (Thomas Paine)

What is it about this piece that inspires you and helps sustain you as a leader? 

This quote has been my touchstone whenever I believed I was in an irreconcilable situation and I have offered it to my clients many times when they have been over-challenged by change.

My father was a toolmaker, engineer and general manager in the manufacturing industry.  He had the gift of plain speaking and he told me about Thomas Paine and this quote when I was an adolescent.

My parents had decided to separate and I did not want my father to leave.  I thought if I could intervene in some way (emotional blackmail being the usual adolescent weapon of choice) I could lead them both back to sense – my sense.  I was facing a harsh reality, the first of many, that required me to exercise my judgment and my father patiently explained that so was he.  He taught me what it meant to ‘Lead, follow or get out of the way’.

He told me that there were only three things a person could do when confronted with any difficult situation – in business or in life - but that there was only one choice to be made.  He also told me that I would have to make this choice many times in my life and that the choice would not always be the same one.  The choice required judgment and judgment was a skill to be learned and practiced, all one’s life.

Sometimes it would be right to lead.  Sometimes it would be right to follow good leadership. When I found myself in a situation where, after much consideration, I could not bring myself to lead or to follow then the most helpful and sensible thing I could do would be to get out of the way.  In that situation, where I had to get out of the way, it was because I lacked experience, understanding, know-how, inspiration, courage, conviction, or faith and this was a clear indication that the situation was probably not my responsibility anyway.

Thomas Paine’s quote suggests that until you are confident in the leadership of the other or of yourself, then it would be best to step aside and let the next opportunity come along.  My father was wise enough to know that in life and in business opportunities (and threats) knock more than once and trying to lead when you are not able to or do not have the support of others is foolhardy.  Following where you do not have the conviction and faith in another’s leadership is a recipe for disaster.   Getting out of the way, leaving the path clear for others to succeed may be the most helpful and sensible decision.  Abstention is a form of conscientious leadership.

In the end, after a period of separation (and after I left home and got out of their way), my parents reconciled.  They found a way to follow each other’s leadership.

Faye Sharpe