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Hot Heads and Cold Hearts

What is your experience of having a discussion with a colleague, friend, acquaintance, about an issue over which you disagree strongly? My experience, and observation, of these discussions personally, in the media and in the public realm, is that there is typically a lot of heat and a not a lot of light. Arguments are fired across entrenched identity-defined battle lines, and a key virtue seems to be to emerge with one's preconceptions unchanged. 

This morning, scanning my social media feeds, I think I've got at least a bit of an idea of what is going on in our culture. Let me try it out for your assessment...

Is it possible that many (or most) of our interactions, particularly with people from other 'tribes' in the political/economic/organisational/theological domains, are characterized by hot heads and cold hearts, rather than by cool heads and warm hearts? 

What do I mean by this?

Well, it seems to me that the best way to work together, to thrash out difficult and complex problems and arguments, is to combine a warm heart (a genuine respect, regard and even love for the other) with a cool head (a non-anxious, calm, dispassionate openness of mind to deeply and rigorously engage with all the evidence and arguments). This is the exact opposite of what we experience so often - cold hearts (a disdain and hatred at worst, a disengagement at best, for the other) and a hot head (a mind so controlled by fight or flight, so driven by feelings and passion, that it cannot do more than rehearse emotional precommitments masquerading as ideas). 

Can you see how building a culture of warm hearts and cool heads would go a long way to enabling us to work together to address all the complex challenges we face (in our families, workplaces, cities, nation states and globe)?

It is all too easy for to inflame heads with demagoguery and to douse hearts with the icy chill of contempt. We need followers who will not walk this well-trodden path, but will rather demand of their leaders the very opposite. And we need leaders who will have the courage to mobilize followers with love - love for others, even those with whom they  disagree, and love for the truth, even when it contradicts or confuses long held beliefs. 

What do you think? 

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Lessons in resilience

Last week I spent half a day with a group of incredibly positive, entrepreneurial, welcoming and friendly women. Nothing unusual about that you might say? Well, no, except that this was in a community house in North Kivu, in the Democratic Republic of Congo and all of these women were victims of Gender Based and Sexual Violence (which is a polite NGO way of saying that they had all been raped by (groups of) soldiers or men in their community. Some had as many as 10 children, all were desperately poor. And yet. 

Knowing their background it was impossible to leave the house without being inspired and moved by their strength, their joy and their resilience. I think of resilience as the capacity to bounce back from hardship or setback and in those terms these ladies of Wamama Simameni are a NASA space launch to my one-legged hop!

Experiencing such extraordinary resilience has got me thinking a great deal about personal and organisation resilience. It seems to me that all our wealth, all our personal safety and secure middle class ‘first world’ lives can leave us seriously lacking in resilience. We are prone to fall in a heap when faced with setbacks. Now I totally get that having slightly less resilience (or even a lot less resilience) is a small price to pay for avoiding gang rape and poverty, but I do think that we, or certainly I, have much to learn and develop in this area. 

There is a reasonably large body of literature on the topic of resilience, but let me offer some thoughts I gleaned from Dan Pink, writing in “To Sell Is Human” about being a successful salesperson. We increase the likelihood of bouncing back from hardship if we train ourselves to avoid thinking 3 things about setbacks:

1. It’s  Personal - no not necessarily! Much of what happens to us is not in the first instance about us. People hurt us for all kinds of reasons, most of which have to do with their own evil and failings

2. It’s Pervasive - no, just because we are suffering or hurting in one area does not mean that all of our life is now damaged. We need to limit our perception of the setback to the areas of our life it truly effects.

3. It’s Permanent - no, most likely it is not permanent. Things will get better. We do heal. We do move on. We do recover. We are not eternal victims.

So there you have it. These women of the DRC epitomise this mindset. The challenge now is to learn from them and train this mindset and capacity in ourselves. 

 

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Gullibility, cynicism and pious platitudes

There seem to me to be two tendencies at work in our culture. One is a tendency to great gullibility - people seem ready and willing to believe all kinds of silly, unsubstantiated platitudes and claims. Critical thoughts appears not to be valued. Of course, an observant reader might ask, on what basis do I make this claim? Close and careful reading of many blogs and social media posts all baptised in a dose of my slightly grumpy curmudgeonly spirit would be the (scientifically baseless) answer.

Pesky questions aside what we see is that all that has to happen is a statement is made with a measure of certainty, or posted online on top of an pretty photo and hey presto, this is now going to change the world!  I call this “the promise of pious platitudes” - the mere act of reading, and perhaps ‘liking’ or ‘commenting’ or ‘sharing’ this platitude makes you think that you have somehow grown and improved as a moral being, that you have actually accomplished something by way of personal growth or changing the world. Would that it were that easy! 

The other tendency, which seems diametrically opposed to the first, is our tendency to be cynical and sceptical about truth claims made by established authority figures. The weed of anti-authoritarian cynicism grows in the fertile soil of disappointment - we are let down by bad science, bad corporate leaders, bad religion, bad political leaders etc. We imbibe  suspicion with our mother’s milk and grow up wary and distrustful. 

Here is my hypothesis behind this strange combination of tendencies. I suspect that there are a few factors at work.

Firstly, we suck up pious platitudes because in reality they have no power behind them and make no great moral claims on our lives. On the other hand, our cynicism is a strategy to limit the power of truth claims which lay strong claims on our lives, and/or which are made by those who have power behind them to enforce such claims.

Secondly, I think it is just really hard work to be intellectually critical, to engage with ideas on the basis of their underlying representation of reality, or their lack of falsification through experimentation. In the explosion of information and exponential growth in specialisation, even experts can’t be experts in very much! So, we retreat into the psychological comfort of palatable platitudes, and give up on intellectual curiosity.

Thirdly, as a teacher of mine often said, perhaps there are just a lot of idiots in the world!

Why, you might ask, do I even worry about this? Mostly because bad ideas hurt people, whilst good ideas help people flourish. And if we are those with influence over others, we must make every effort we can to ensure that our ideas are true, that they will equip ourselves and those around us to flourish in the world as it is. All leadership ultimately is thought-leadership. What do you think?

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What if doing good makes you poor?

There is a lot of talk in leadership and business circles about ‘values’  and ‘character’ and ‘emotional intelligence’ and ‘doing well by doing good’. “Wonderful!” you might say. And you’d mostly be right. Yet there is a disturbing thread that ties all these discussions together. The underlying sell to business leaders is that being good, doing what is right etc will be a smart business decision that will increase your long term profitability. I totally get why consultants, authors, keynote speakers and spruikers sell their product like this. I have been known to do it myself! 

So what’s the problem with this? Isn’t it true? Well, the fundamental problem I have with this is the deficient ethical framework within which this discussion is embedded. The premise is that I will be and do good, if it is profitable for my company (or myself). What this is saying is that in fact the greatest good is profit maximisation. Now happily, in the way the world is wired up, there are lots of occasions when doing what is truly good does in fact result in a healthy, profitable, sustainable business. But not always. There are many examples of dishonest people and companies prospering. The converse is also true - there are plenty of times when honesty is not the best policy for financial gain. So here is the challenge: Is our conception of, and commitment to, being and doing what is good and right and true, robust enough to guide our behaviour even when it goes against our economic interest? What if treating my staff the way I would want to be treated makes me poor? What if telling the truth limits my corporate success? 

The difficulty with this is twofold. Firstly it requires a belief in an objective moral order that stands over and above economic self-interest, or enlightened pragmatism. Secondly it requires leaders who have the intestinal fortitude, (or gonadal greatness!) to live out these beliefs in the face of adversity, criticism and suffering. It seems to me that our culture, our organisations, our people are (in some cases literally) dying for want of leaders whose lives are fearlessly guided by a moral compass that points to what is truly True. What do you think?

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Depression, pride and teamwork

I have discovered this weird paradox about myself (and I guess I can extrapolate this to others as well). We tend to take for granted what comes easily or naturally to us, and long for, or envy, those things we see in others, which are less developed in ourselves. Today I spent a great couple of hours talking with a friend and colleague about a whole bunch of leadership/change the world kind of stuff. As we talked my friend made a comment that really struck me. He said, “I am a ‘getting things done guy’, that’s why they paid me so much at the bank. I am great at seeing things through to the finish line.” There is no comment he could have made that would have provoked as much ‘personality trait envy’ as that. You see, I am just the opposite. I am a great, “let’s have a million ideas about what could get done” kind of guy. My brain spins off ideas at a rate that exhausts even me! I find myself thinking that my life, and work, would be so much easier, so much more productive if I just had a slightly higher need for completion. On days when I am feeling a little down about myself, or discouraged by life, I can fall into cycle of disparaging my strengths, envying other’s strengths and beating myself up about my weaknesses. On the flip side, when my idea-generating brain gets something really great going I start to inflate with a sense of my own greatness and pride starts to capture my heart.  Not a great way to live!

Is there a better way? Well yes. You see I only get depressed, or proud, when I succumb to a flawed conception of reality. When I think of myself as an individual, who in isolation has to change the world etc, then I am inevitably set on a path of disappointment and depression when I struggle, or intolerable pride and arrogance when I have some success. The truth is, all of life is done in relationship with others. The way to avoid depression or pride is to realise that I have to do life in community. That actually my friend and I working together can make a far greater impact for good than the sum of our individual efforts.

In healthy communities, in high performing work teams, in great marriages and strong families, we make our best contributions as we all bring our natural gifts and abilities to the table, working out of our strengths, while collaborating in such a way that none of our weaknesses sabotage the undertaking. What I love about this, apart from the increased impact on the world, is that it frees me from both  depression/self-hatred (I am valued, my strengths matter, I can make a difference with who I am) and pride (I am constantly aware that it is not me who is responsible for any success). Of course, it is possible for teams or groups to fall into organisational depression or pride, but that is a topic for another post!

 

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The power of daily habits

I have become a huge fan of daily habits. If we want something to become part of our lives, then we need to do it every day. Think about it - it is much easier to keep a rolling ball moving than to start one from rest. So it is with the helpful and healthy practices in our lives. 

To illustrate, let me tell you my flossing story. For years a succession of dentists would tell me that I needed to floss. My brother-in-law, who is a dentist, even encouraged me by telling me that I only needed to floss the teeth I wanted to keep in old age. So, I would start flossing, I’d do it every day for a week or so, then I’d give myself the night off, which would make it easier to skip another night, and before I could say “gingivitis” it would be months since I’d flossed. The turning point for me was resolving to floss every night, no excuses, no nights off, ever. It’s been two years now of daily flossing, and I have become the kind of person who flosses. I don’t even think about it. It is now second nature. 

If there is great power in daily habits, skipping a day unleashes the full force of inertia. I have resolved to blog every day (Monday to Friday). It’s been busy, but no busier than normal (if I’m honest). What happened was that I skipped a day, which became 5, and suddenly it got increasingly difficult to get the 20 minutes I need to put fingers to keyboard. Inertia set in very quickly because blogging is not yet second nature to me. It is still early days and daily writing is not yet part of who I am. However, I know that, give it a year or so, and it would be unthinkable that I didn’t write each day, no matter how busy. 

I use an app on my iPhone to help me keep inertia at bay. It is called ‘Lift’ and it enables me to track my daily habits. I have been working on 4 new habits and can say with some satisfaction that I am on a 22 day streak for at least one of them (11 is the best I managed with blogging so far…)

What daily habits do you want to build into your personal life, your family, or your organisation?

 

 

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Awe and Expectation

Many years ago a marvellous lady, Edith Schaeffer, introduced me to the idea that life was a tapestry (she went on to write a book by that name). As she explained it to me we are all threads on a giant, divine tapestry being woven together in a perfect, intricate, eternal design. However, we don’t see how the threads all connect or the pattern they form. It is like we are looking at the back of the tapestry, full of loose threads and with unclear designs. One day however, and this we have to take on faith, we will see how all the threads join up to form the final tapestry. Then we’ll finally see clearly the significance of all the seemingly chance meetings in our lives. We’ll know that in this tapestry of life there are no random encounters. Why is the metaphor so powerful? Let me illustrate.

Today I met 4 guys for lunch. One of the men decided he wanted to draw this group of his friends together. We only had the one friend in common. However, as we talked, there was a great sense that in fact there was much more in common, much more going on in our lives, than just one friend. The tapestry metaphor fills me with wonder and expectation in times like these. Nothing more might come of our lunch. But then, who knows what wonderful part of the tapestry our short lunch might become? Who knows how the threads of our lives might be woven together?

Wonder and expectation are two ‘states of being’ that are so common in childhood, but which we loose all to quickly in adulthood. Our lives are greatly diminished by this. I am so grateful to Edith Schaeffer and the gift of her metaphor. It regularly helps me experience such wonder and expectation. 

No accidents. No coincidences. Nothing wasted. All will be made beautiful.

I hope this helps you experience a little awe and expectation today.

 

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Give me wisdom...

How many times do you read of a key leader in our culture who is described as ‘really wise’? If you were to write down the top five words that you would want people to use to describe you, would ‘wise’ make it to your list? In all the major faiths and philosophical traditions wisdom has been understood a highly significant virtue, perhaps ‘the’ virtue to which a leader should aspire. It seems to me our culture, and our lives, are greatly diminished by our current undervaluing of this cardinal virtue.

Wisdom can be tricky to define, though we all know it when we encounter it. I think of wisdom as the ability to connect a deep understanding about the nature and structure of reality with a particular path of action. Wisdom works as we understand how the world actually works - that we have therefore have a deep epistemic humility - which is a fancy way of saying that we recognise that though we can know a lot about the world, our knowledge is always limited, biased and therefore must be open to revision and change as we grow and as we encounter more of the world. A wise person understands not just abstract laws of nature, or physics, but has a deep understanding about the nature of personal reality, of the mysteries of the human heart, an intuitive grasp of the almost limitless, yet strangely similar and patterned ways that people behave and relate. Now to be wise a person must be able to bring this knowledge to bear on a particular choice, or action. Wisdom becomes evident over time as we observe the outworking of this bringing together of knowledge and choice. My advice, or choice, is shown to be wise, or unwise, over time. What matters is that this choice results in human flourishing, in good outcomes, as these choices are made and lived in the world. 

Now, imagine being a person who is able to consistently make wise choices in all areas of life - organisation leadership, personal finances, marriage, parenting, friendship etc? Imagine the influence for good you can have on all those around you. Why not make the pursuit and development of wisdom one of your life goals? It is for me. I want to be someone who people come to because of my wisdom - that they sense that from me they will get a perspective and advice that will, if taken and acted upon, lead them on paths of flourishing and blessing. I have a long, long, long way to go, so I’d better get off this screen and get moving…

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The Gift of Limits

Have you ever wished you could make do with less sleep so that you could get more done in a day? Have you ever pushed yourself so hard at work that you have ended up unwell? Have you ever trained or exercised so hard that you have injured yourself? More significantly, do you find these, or similar behaviours and thoughts, a regular pattern in your life? If so, can I suggest that you stop and take a long hard look at what you are doing to yourself and why? 

We live in a culture that relentlessly pushes against all kinds of boundaries. A world that tells us that we can and should live in an uninterrupted upward spiral of success and achievement. We are constantly told to compare ourselves to everyone else and to use the resultant envy or discontent to spur us on to more work, more study, more risk, more debt, etc. Now don’t get me wrong, I am all for competition and hard work and success. However, I have also come to realise that we all operate within certain limits, or ‘givens’ of our situation. I only have certain hours in the day. I need this much sleep. I only have this much intellectual processing power. I only earn this much money. I only have this much energy. I can get angry at these limits, I can fight against them, or I can come to accept and value them as a gift. 

Embracing my limits, my ‘givenness’ as a gift is a path to emotional and spiritual freedom. I am me, and all I can do is succeed at being the best me. I am not Warren Buffett. I am not Jack Welch. I am not Rick Warren. 

I find the practice of a Sabbath a helpful discipline to encourage me to embrace my limits in a healthy way. As Jews have done for thousands of years, one day in seven we need to say ‘no’ to work, to relentless striving, to competing. This voluntary imposition of a limit on our work sets us free to work hard the remaining six days, and also sets us free from the involuntary experience of our limits which come from burnout, bankruptcy or breakdown.

Does this mean that I won’t make as much money as I think I should? Quite possibly. Does this mean that I won’t reach the level of organisation influence and leadership I aspire to? Perhaps. But does this matter? Not really.

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The Power of Paying Attention

In a break between meetings towards the end of a long, long week, I lay down on my office floor doing some stretching, deep breathing and quiet thinking. As I lay there, I looked around at my bookshelves. 6 book shelve full of books which I have read over the past 20 years (not including the 150 or so on my kindle which I’ve read over the past couple of years). It struck me that these books have shaped who I am because I have given them an enormous amount of my attention. Think about it, our attention is a finite resource and where we spend it has a huge significance on the eventual shape of our lives. So if I give a lot of attention to TV and to mindless entertainment I will become a shallow celebrity obsessed imitation of a human being! If I give lots of my attention to myself, I run the grave risk of becoming trapped in my narcism (see previous posts for some thoughts on this). I give a lot of attention to understanding the needs of others, then I am going to become a person full of love and compassion. I have spent 20 years giving lots of attention to the writings of great people to help me understand the nature of God, of myself, of others, of organisations and of our society, and I hope and trust this has made me a man who can actually now be of use to lots and lots of people in all kinds of ways. 

Sounds pretty simple doesn't it? However there are some challenges with this.

Firstly, we don’t often think about how we ‘spend’ our attention. It just ceaselessly flows from us.

Secondly, our attention wanders down the path of least resistance - self, TV, Facebook etc. It takes effort to invest our attention in challenging things like learning a new language, developing our spiritually, understanding the needs of our kids.

Thirdly, the effects of how we spend our attention creep up on us over time. This means that years, indeed most of a lifetime, can pass before we reap the consequences of frittering away our attention on unimportant, or even downright destructive things. The investment horizon for attention is many years. 

So let me invite you to do some homework this weekend. 

Step one: conduct an attention audit - think back over this past week and ask yourself, ‘to what did I really pay attention this week?’ 

Step two: now ask yourself this question, ‘if I keep paying attention to things I paid attention to this week, without change, what sort of person will I be in 10 years time?’ 

Step three: then ask yourself, ‘is this who I really want to be, and if not, what changes do I need to make in where I invest my attention?’

(As an aside, it is entirely possible, and helpful, to apply this way of thinking to the organisations we lead. Try it out with your team on Monday!)

What did you learn about yourself, or your team? 

Can I help you on your journey?

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Conflict in work and life

“Conflict always occurs at the boundary of a shared task”.

Of all the things I learned in 3 years of studying for a Masters Degree in Organisation Dynamics, this is the phrase that continues to bob up into the front of my mind at least once a week. The reality is that because I live with other people, work with other people, play sport with other people, I have lots of opportunities to observe this truth in action.

Here are 3 reasons I have found this little statement tremendously helpful:

Firstly, it reminds me that conflict is an inevitable price we pay for working with others on a shared task. I can avoid conflict only by avoiding working on shared tasks with others. Realising all the benefits of collaborative work makes me happy to pay the price of conflict. The benefits outweigh the costs.

Secondly, it reminds me that conflict is a pointer to important boundaries, and I should welcome it as an important diagnostic tool. The presence of conflict alerts me to the fact that there is room for improvement in the way we have designed and carried out the shared task. Expectations, work flows, resources might need to be re-aligned to get the work done more effectively.

Thirdly, this helps me de-personalise conflict. If I see conflict as a result of work arrangements, rather than personal deficiency, then I am not going to attack, or run away from, the other person. Rather, in a calm manner I can work with the other to get to the structural cause of the conflict. I end up playing the ball, not the man, which typically makes for a much more productive workplace, family, church etc.

What conflict are you facing right now? Does this framework help?

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Self-forgetfulness - an overlooked key to sucess

We are a culture which is obsessed with ourselves. We are constantly thinking about ourselves, taking and posting photos of ourselves, comparing and contrasting ourselves to others, reading books (and blogs!) to help us develop ourselves. How much time and energy is spent in organisations the world over as people constantly position themselves for promotion, filtering every decision that is made through the lens of self-advancement. The wheels of our self-obsession are constantly spinning and it is exhausting. Self-absorption is as addictive as any substance bought from your  corner drug dealer!

One of my favourite authors, Dr Tim Keller, has written a marvellous booklet called “The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness” (available from Amazon). He makes a wonderful case for the personal, relational and spiritual freedom that comes from self-forgetfulness. It is only as we forget about ourselves for a moment that we are truly free to consider the needs of others, to serve them and advance their wellbeing.

Think about this for a moment in an organisational setting. Don’t we all want leaders who are truly, deeply ‘self-forgetful’ - men and women who have stepped off the treadmill of self-obsession and self-interest and are genuinely concerned for the good of others, for the flourishing of the organisation? Is not the paradox here that such leaders will find others gravitating to them and that they will in fact out perform and out-produce those whose primary drive is the self? Our interests will be met most readily when we are not worrying about our interests being met!

Here is another sobering thought I had - you can’t fake self-forgetfulness. You see, if I am controlled by self-obsession, then this will ‘leak’ out into all my interactions. Just as it is said that horses can smell the fear of nervous riders, so I believe that followers can ‘smell’ the odour of a self-driven leader. It is the stench of death. On the other hand, there is nothing as sweet as being in the presence of someone who has forgotten about themselves and is wholly concerned with you, your wellbeing and the success of your organisation.

What kind of leader are you?  What do you need to change today? 

Can I help?

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Resilience and love - unlearning parental lies

There is a great paradox to parenting and growing up. Developmental psychologists conceptualise this in different ways, but essentially to become a healthy child our parents have to lie to us - they have to lead us to believe that the world is safe and that we are at the centre of this world. Babies need strong safe hands and available nurturing breasts! The wonderful thing is that for the majority of us, we do experience the world in this way in our early life. It is also wonderful that it continues to be partly true of the world - the world can, and often is, a safe place, and people in the world will, very often, meet our needs.

However, to flourish as adults in this world we need to learn that this is not a full description of reality. In fact, like all lies, these are so effective because they are half-truths. Yes, the world is safe, but it can also be hostile, mean and destructive. Only as we experience this, adapt to it, modify our childlike expectations of an all-good, all-safe world, can we develop the resilience we need to succeed with life as it actually is. Similarly, it is true that our needs are often met by others, but it is also true that everyone else has needs, that ours aren't at the centre of the universe, and that sometimes, many times, our needs won't get met exactly how and when we want. We have to learn that we are in a constant dance with other people, meeting needs and getting needs met. Only as we learn this dance of other-person-centredness can we develop healthy adult relationships. 

This kind of growing up is hard work. Many people prefer the illusions of childhood. Our consumer culture works best if it can relate to us an emotional infants - after all what better customer could there be than a cashed up adult with no capacity for delayed gratification, but who believes that their needs are the most important thing in the world? Gosh, as long as my product offers the promise of safety from a dangerous world, or gratification from a withholding world, you will buy whatever I am selling!

If we fail to unlearn these half-truths we end up stuck as fragile, anxious narcissists. We are toxic to ourselves and toxic to the people we work with and the organisations we lead (even though we might in fact get rewarded and promoted as a result of our dysfunction).

So what is the solution? Grow up. It's not easy, but it is good. Learn to live in the truth. This is the only path to true freedom.

What do you think?

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People and Profits - the Challenge of Leadership

Here are two truths about human beings.  

1. We are made to flourish in relationships. 

2. We are made to work. 

Both of these are essential to being truly human and fully alive. This helps us understand why loneliness and unemployment are so destructive. One of the things which  I have learned as I have lived and worked in a variety of countries and cultures is that we very often fail to integrate relationships and work in our organisations in healthy ways. Typically what I see in places such as Australia, the US, Canada, the UK, is that we prioritise work over relationships. We see this reflected in the rise of understanding of ourselves as ‘homo economicus’ - who and what we are is reduced to our economic worth, the extent to which we contribute to growth in the GDP of our country.

To the extent that what really matters is the wealth creation that results from our work, we start to view people as means to this end. We use people to make money. One of the challenges that this presents is that this strategy can be very, very lucrative. We can make a lot of money whilst we treat people as means to an end. 

However, it is one of my central convictions that truly great leaders are able to rise to the challenge of building organisations and businesses that simultaneously create wealth through work, and also enable people to flourish in relationships. The key is to design our organisations, and equip our people, so that we do good work, together. Our workplaces need to become environments where we can experience good, healthy relationships while generating a profit for shareholders.

Lest this seem too ‘soft’ and ‘leftish utopian dreaming’ it also seems to me that organisations that enable workers to flourish as persons-in-relationship will have a significant long-term advantage over organisations that use and diminish people. People treated well are profitable people. 

The great thing about leading an organisation is that we get to lead entities that enable people to flourish by doing good work in good relationships. What a privilege. What a responsibility. 

Can I help you as a leader step up to this challenge?

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Shame - the death of innovation and learning

I am 11 years old. Miss Robinson, my all-time favourite teacher is talking. I am in class 3A, Highlands Primary School, Harare, Zimbabwe. I love reading, so when Miss Robinson asks a question about the book we are studying as a class, my hand shoots into the air. “Yes Mark, go ahead.” Joy and anticipation as I stand up to gain the accolades of my peers and the approval of the teacher whose approval matters more than anything to me. As I open my mouth to speak I notice gasps, sniggers, laughter from my classmates. I look down. I am stark naked. Standing exposed in all my prepubescent glory. I drown in a sea of shame.

Now thankfully this never actually happened to me, but the memory of the nightmare which woke me in state of near hysteria 30 years ago is etched into my consciousness. Shame is one of the most unpleasant of all human experiences. We are all familiar with it and we all try hard to avoid it. Mostly this is a good thing to do. Shame avoidance helps us keep our clothes on (at least in public), it is essential for much of our social interaction and communal life. So what’s the problem?

Shame is a good servant but a lousy master. Without the risk of shame, we will never try anything new or different and we will never learn anything new. To innovate, to try something new, entails the real possibility that we might fail. For most of us, failure brings with it a healthy dose of shame. Failure strips away our covering of competence, it kicks away our sense of being in control. So much better to always do what we always done than risk the shame of failure. Similarly, to learn something new means having our ‘not knowing’ exposed. If I can’t tolerate the shame of not-knowing, of being ignorant, or limited in my understanding, then I’ll never be able to learn. 

So what do we do? If we want to grow as people, if we want to lead innovative, learning organisations, then we have to keep shame in its proper place. Fear of it cannot control us. We must realise that while it is painful, it is not fatal. We must give ourselves, and the people we lead, permission to fail and to not-know, to acknowledge that this is painful because it is shameful, but to embrace this as the price we must pay for personal and organisational growth. 

Are you controlled by your fear of shame? Do you use the threat of shame to control those around you, those over whom you have influence? What do you need to do to be set free, and to set others free, from a controlling fear of shame?

What do you think?

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"Focus" as a key to personal growth

Are you totally happy with who, and what, you are? I'd like to say that I am, but that would be lying. There are always things that I want to change, areas in which I need to develop, skills I need to develop. Then you add to that sizeable list all the areas that others, like my family and colleagues, rightly observe opportunities for improvement, and I can end up completely overwhelmed and demotivated. 

Here's a trick I have found to work quite well. Write down all the things you want to/need to/are told you should change. Now spend a bit of time thinking, or praying, or talking over with a close friend, this list. Ask yourself 2 questions:

  • which of these things will bring the greatest benefit to me if I succeed in changing it?
  • which of these am I most motivated to work on?

Keep thinking and talking until you get one thing that is the best combination of these two answers (it may take a little while).

Once you have done this, commit yourself to a time during which you are going to focus all your 'change energy' on this thing. You've still got to use all your 'daily living energy' to get through what you are already doing, but focus whatever energy you can muster for change on this one thing. Keep the list of all the other things handy, reassure yourself that you'll get to them in time, but give yourself the emotional and psychic freedom to focus on the task at hand. If it will help, set a date when you will start focussing on the next area of growth.

Now obviously there is a lot more that goes into personal growth, but what do you think about this as a helpful start?

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Managing a difficult or underperforming boss

Wouldn't it be great if we all only ever had great bosses? The painful reality is that all too often our bosses are not all they should, or could be. What do we do in this situation?

Before you even think about approaching your boss and letting them have it with both barrels of your  most 'constructive feedback', make an appointment to meet with yourself and interrogate your motives, your ego, your feelings and your performance. Start with these questions:

  • do I really want what is best for my company and my boss?
  • have I worked hard at seeing things from my bosses perspective?
  • do I have a history of conflict with my bosses, and if so, what might it be in me, in my history and my heart, that causes such conflict?
  • am I giving in to the tendency to see my boss as "all bad" and myself as "all good"? The reality is that no-one is either, ever!
  • is my attitude towards my boss the same attitude I would like those I manage to have towards me?

Now, having engaged in some healthy introspection, and given attention to those areas of yourself that could do with some improvement, you are now ready to think about some 'upward management'. Here are some things you can do to increase the chances of this working well:

  • deal directly with your boss - don't spend six months gossiping, whining and whinging behind their back
  • ask to make a time to speak to them, that works for them
  • be very clear about what practical behavioural changes you want from them. For example you might say, "to help me do my job effectively I need you to respond to my emails within 24 hours".
  • deal with one issue at a time
  • be prepared to negotiate, offer trades and compromises, and to ask for time to think about what they have said and come back to them
  • end every meeting by thanking them for listening to you and affirming your commitment to helping the company succeed

What do you think? Has this worked for you? Can I help in any way?

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Doing your least favourite job well

Today I spent 3 hours poring over spreadsheets, putting together the first draft of our church's budget. On the scale of things I naturally enjoy and am good at, poring over spreadsheets probably ranks 2 out of 10. The thing is, it is just something I have to do. So, what do we do with those things in our work, or lives, which we have to do, but which, for whatever reason, we really don't enjoy?

Here's at least part of the answer - find a way to create the conditions for doing the job that will help you engage and do it well. For me, I have found over the years that I can do pretty much any job, no matter how boring, if I am doing it with someone else (particularly if that someone is good company). I have also found that I have to do such jobs at a time of day when I have lots of energy, say early to mid morning, because these jobs drain me of energy like nobodies business. The final thing I have learned is that I need to find a physical context that will help me keep my energy and engagement high. So my 3 hours with spreadsheets happened with a great colleague, starting in mid morning and finishing up in our local restaurant. Great person, good time, helpful context. 

So what do you need to do those things you don't enjoy, but have to do? 

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The Power of a Coach

I had my first formal coaching session today - on the squash court. I have been playing for about 18 months, picking up bits and pieces of advice from the pro at our club, and from other players, and improving fairly quickly (a genetic advantage of highly trainable muscles and great hand/eye co-ordination). However, in the past few months it had become clear to me that my progress had stalled. My lack of progress was reducing my enjoyment of the game. It was also increasing the likelihood of injury as I compensated for poor technique with increased effort. 

One hour on the court with the pro and I can already see the difference. Oh. My. Goodness. I can't wait to get out on the court again and put it all into practice. I can't wait for my next coaching session. 

All of which made me wonder why it is that we don't use coaches more often, in more areas of our lives? Going back to the post of yesterday, maybe our motivation is lacking - we really don't want to improve that much? Maybe our ability to find a coach is lacking - after where do you go to look for coaching on marriage, or leadership, or parenting, or diet, or getting managing your depression? Maybe it's too expensive to pay for coaching?

Here's my commitment - I need to find someone to coach me as a professional speaker/coach/consultant. 

In what area of your life could you benefit from the services of a coach? What's stopping you getting one? Can I help you?

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BJ Fogg's Behaviour Model

Today I learned about a new model for behaviour change developed by BJ Fogg of Stanford University. It is super simple, but at first reading seems to make a whole lot of sense, both from my prior reading but also as I reflect on my own experience of changing my behaviour (in positive ways!). 

So for those who have not yet clicked the link and read it themselves, the essence is:

Behaviour = Motivation + Ability + Trigger (B=MAT)

I discovered my friend Fogg from an app, Lift, which has built an app and a social network to help people change using Fogg's model. 

I am doing some more reading and thinking on how this meshes with the modified self-determination theory which I use in my leadership development. I'm looking forward to getting to try out the integration on the next bunch of managers/leaders I get to train. 

Any thoughts?

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