Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Wrong thing well or right thing poorly. Which do you prefer?

People at the top (however you define that) are more in need of support, coaching, or even just “an ear” than most, and yet they are the least likely to get it. High achievers are afraid to show any limitations. Asking for help – whatever that form takes – is to admit weakness, and our culture does not take kindly to ‘weak leaders’ who need help.
So, how do we want our leaders to be? What is our model of the perfect leader?

If we don’t expect them to need help, then I fear we are expecting too much of them, and, at the same time, we are creating a ‘vicious cycle’ from which we won’t escape.

The norms and mores of our society have created unrealistic expectations, and as a result we see smart, ambitious people who are less productive and satisfied than they should or could be. Anxiety about performance compromises progress, resulting in lower levels of risk-taking and plateauing careers.
It is not unusual to see high potential achievers avoiding tough projects so as to avoid failing, or being seen to fail, so that they do not mess up their image.
In other words, many people would rather do the wrong thing well, than do the right thing poorly.

What’s the way out of this bind - this conspiracy of ‘under-achievement’?

Well, responsibility has to start with the individual. There has to be a recognition of one’s own fears, derailers and limiting beliefs. Coaching is a hugely powerful tool to help people towards that personal insight which is necessary before moving forward. From this state clarity emerges, and people start to recognise that they must be courageous and step out of the comfort zones they have been hiding within.

Progress is only achieved by taking on new learning experiences, and indeed failing at them. Being vulnerable, humble and open to learning are pre-requisites to success and continued attainment.

Here are some practical steps that you can take (courtesy of Thomas J. DeLong and Sara DeLong, the Paradox of Excellence, Harvard Business Review, Jun2011, Vol. 89, Issue 6)

Put the Past Behind You
Everyone’s had negative experiences when undertaking new challenges, but we tend to overplay past bad experiences and make irrational comparisons with our current situation. Painful memories can be put to work as aids to our improvement, rather than remain obstacles to change.

Use Your Support Network
High achievers are, typically, very independent and don’t consider that they need a lot of help. As they rise in organisations, they may become ever more reluctant to admit to fear, or confusion, or incompetence. They may also confide only in others who tell them what they want to hear, and not what they need to hear. So, seek honest feedback, genuinely and openly, from as wide a network as possible, however painful it may feel, and use it to learn and grow.

Become Vulnerable
Become more comfortable with uncertainty or acknowledging mistakes with people who are close to you. There is a high chance that some of the people around you are also high achievers and have similar behavioural reactions as you, so when you make the brave step of being vulnerable, you set a great example to those around you that invites them to do the same.

Focus on the Long Term
Major goals can withstand interim setbacks. When you stay focused on the big picture, you can afford to give yourself some latitude to take a few wrong turnings or make a few mistakes. Long-term success requires willingness to commit to necessary short-term risks.

Monday, 20 February 2012

You Cannot Lead without Inquiry

Too many people in positions of authority operate from a position of fear. Fear of not knowing, fear of being found out, fear of looking incompetent, fear of losing what has taken them years to attain.  This is true in companies, public service and politics. People who are in these positions are rarely stupid.  Being smart is usually a big factor in them getting to where thet are. But, once they are there, something seems to kick in which is profoundly 'anti-learning'. To paraphrase the great Chris Argyris, "Smart People find it tough to Learn".


Today's story in The Nation of Hamza Kashgari, a 23-year-old journalist, who faces potential death for daring to question, shines a powerful spotlight on the fear with which 'leaders' operate. As a species we progress by learning.  We are problem solvers, we are cognitive thinkers, we naturally question, challenge and inquire. It is by doing so that we have overcome the multitude of obstacles that have stood in the way of our evolution over millenia. But, we do not and cannot stand still. To do so would consign the human race to extinction, probably through self-destruction. More than ever before, we require enormous learning on a global scale. We need creativity and innovation, we need it networked and con-joined, we need collaboration, we cannot afford to shut down any avenues of possible learning. We need advances, leaps of logic, and 'open and questioning minds' that will take our species forward together to solve the biggest problems we have ever had to deal with - drought, famine, economy, conflict, climate change, energy, pestulance, AIDS, malaria, and the list goes on.
Shutting down inquiry, especially in our young people, is a fast-track to self-destruction. It may preserve the 'Leaders' position in the short term, it saves face, it avoids embarrassment, it re-asserts authority and quells insubordination, but all at the expense of 'learning'.  The best Leaders through history have demonstrated that they contnue to change, they recognise that the circumstances that surrounded them while getting to where they have reached are continously changing, and so must they. They adapt, they are flexible in their approach, and they continuously learn. They do this by continuing to ask questions.  They do not fear that they will be seen as incompetent in doing so. They encourage others to do the same, they create a safe and open space for inquiry, because they know that this is the surest way to keep learning.

I wish Hamza well in his fight for justice and his right to learn.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Golf or Curling?

I've just returned from one of the most interesting games of golf I've ever had. I asked the pro at Ridgeway Golf Club if the course was open AND was it playable. No problem he says, there's been a few out there already. On the way in I had spotted patches of the white stuff out on the course (it is after all up on the Caerphilly Mountain road). This never prepared me for what was to follow. 
Every green was like concrete, and some like ice rinks. Some of the fairways resembled glaciers, and of course, did I have anything other than white golf balls in my bag? Of course not. This was the one day in the year that orange, yellow, blue, anything but white would have been ideal. But, I treated it as a challenge, and actually thoroughly enjoyed this variant of the game. A brush and a curling stone would have been more useful on the greens than a ball and putter. I had the course to myself. Hmmm!! Perhaps there was a reason for that. But, never believe the Ridgeway pro when he tells you the course is playable. Always insist on checking for which sport he means.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

New Year Resolutions - courtesy of Woody

I love the simplicity and humble nature of this New Year resolutions list by Woody Guthrie.
New Years Rulin's
Although simple there are many profound and meaningful words of wisdom that would not look out of place in any good 'self-help' book....

"Dream Good"
"Stay Glad"
"Keep Hoping Machine Running"
"Love Everybody"

and my personal favourite,
"Learn People Better"

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Another breakdown in our society?

Reading an article in the Scottish Review the other day got me thinking about the perennial question of whether our society (or more accurately the people who inhabit our society) are sliding down the greasy morality pole. Now, you may ask why, in a year that has seen some dramatic riotous events ranging from Tahrir Square at the beginning of 2011, to the streets of London in the summer, was I prompted to think about this subject by what, in comparison, is a rather mundane, albeit troubling, scene on a rural country bus in Scotland. Good question, and I'm not sure. Perhaps it is easier to explain away the large scale events with labels such as revolution, social change, unemployment or overthrow of tyrrany. However, when we see or hear about 'bad behaviour' by a small number of youths, causing disruption or offence to innocent people who are going about their daily lives, we reach out for old and over-used phrases such as 'breakdown in the social fabric of our communities', or lack of 'social cohesion', or simply 'I blame the parents!'. Tabloids will often follow these headlines up with arguments that predict our society sliding into social turmoil, an apocalyptic vision of civil disorder, the lack of any moral compass amongst the youth of today. This is the daily diet the media feeds us on. They have an obsession with fear mongering, and fear is triggered easily in humans, so it is an easy outcome to generate. Are things really so much worse, and are they really becoming worse with each generation? Am I alone in remembering how awful our history has been, and how low our predecessors have sunk in the name of humanity. Without even having to touch on events such as the holocaust, the slave trade or Hiroshima, what about the razor gangs of the 20s and 30s or what about the football hooligans of the 70s. We can't keep sweeping these under the carpet and re-writing history as if things have never been so bad. Things are not changing as dramatically as the media would have us believe. The liberal-minded, middle classes and aspiring working classes have always gasped in horror when confronted with what some people are capable of. What does change are individual people, and gaps do emerge between different people's expectations of good and bad behaviour. The wider the gap becomes, the more people are shocked and horrified at what other members of their species get up to, and they distance themselves from it. Perhaps a natural reaction, but not a new one, and not a sign that this generation's behaviour will result in any more of a breakdown in our society than has happened before.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Why aren't Business Leaders more like Athletes?

It suprprises me that our aspiring business leaders and even general managers in corporations and in public service do not dedicate more time to brain science. I liken this to the world of athletics. An athlete's primary job is to run faster, or jump higher or throw further. Sounds simple. But it is now well-recognised that to be the very best and to achieve the nano-second advantage that might make the difference between gold & silver or even between qualification for the olympic team and staying at home, athletes need to know a lot more than 'just' their traditional training programme. In the course of becoming the best they can be, they become well-versed in areas of muscle physiology, nutrition, anatomy, cardio-vascular mechanics, as well as some important principles of the the way their brain works through relaxation techniques, managing and channelling emotions and positive visualisation exercises. So what do we need and expect from our leaders? Problem-solving, decision making, emotional intelligence, an understanding of what motivates people, an ability to engage and quickly establish rapport with others, conflict management and resolution, negotiation skills, an ability to manage their own emotions, an engaging communication style, and the list goes on and on..... It seems to me that having at least a rudimentary understanding of the way the brain works and the neuroscience that underpins our emotions, drives, moods and behaviours would be invaluable to anyone who counts even one item of this list of activities within their professional responsibilties. Why wouldn't someone who wants to be the 'best they can be' seek to give themself every advantage in achieving that vision? Athletes do. They are constantly seeking the 'edge' that might just put them on the top of the podium. Their body is 'the tool of their trade'. The brain is no less the tool of the executive or business leader's trade. Why not take the opportunity to gain a greater understanding of how it works and fine-tune it's performance? It might just give you that vital edge and take you to the top of the podium.