The Heart of Leadership

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My audible groan is not appreciated. They are looking at me without warmth.
I slightly surprise myself – oh, bugger. Did I make that noise out loud?

What is on the table at this particular design meeting is the integration of a case study. This case study, or variations of it, has been used for the past 4 years with great success. It enables a venerated Professor type from London School of Harvard Tech or wherever to join the programme and work with the leaders. He talks them through something about growth in emerging markets. It’s interesting. They do stuff on it. They discuss and puzzle. They learn.

I really like the Prof – he’s looks good for his age (I’m guessing 60?) and has been doing this leadership stuff for over 30 years all over the world. We have this amazing conversation about a recent Desert Walk he undertook. I totally get why we want to work with him. He’s charming and experienced and avuncular – a natural mentor for the guys trying to create growth in emerging markets. A foil for the raw ambition 70-hours-a-week behaviours that are happening.

And I’m groaning because to the depths of my soul I believe that what would be most in service to this group of leaders, is not another technical, building mind-muscle challenge. They’ve got this. They are a smart, committed, fairly hungry ( if a little knackered) group. They can think their way through complex, VUCA whatever conditions. Demonstrably? They are all OVER that stuff.

What this group of leaders is lacking is joined-upness and trust in each other. The emotional maturity to share without churlishness. The empathy to understand how their behaviour impacts on their team and the grace to accept that sometimes, it’s not great.
The willingness to admit they are scared to let something go, because their need to be perfect and capable and strong means failure is not an option….even though that need is waking them up at 3am and they are a shell the next day, ergo more like to fail.
The recognition that their deep need to always be right and clever means someone else has to be wrong and stupid – and that sometimes, that’s a shitty choice.

The ones who have emotional maturity have been doing the hard graft for ages – building relationships, sorting out issues, oiling wheels, making things work by getting under the egos. Where what is valued is mental dexterity and logical outcomes, this emotional work goes unrecognised, unsung and those who undertake it often don’t value it themselves/ are slightly embarrassed about it – but an engine without oil grinds to a halt…

What the group of leaders we are designing for is lacking is a language to express this stuff – a means of articulating the fear or the joy, the disappointment, the paranoia, the impatience, the shame – and if you can’t talk about it or write about it, draw it or walk with it… if it is nebulous and shadowy and can’t be named, how can you ever work with it?

This can be gnarly work – coming face to face with your nasty, with the bits of you that haven’t contributed to your high-flying career thus far – the Case Study is a breeze in comparison. An easy option. The lovely comfort zone.

For some, emotional, relational stuff is literally learning a new language – something unspoken before, something they don’t understand – it can take a long time… your accent might always be terrible….how embarrassing.
Some folk find working with this stuff overwhelming – they feel the absence of something they “ought” to have and equate that to failure – so run madly from it, muttering about Fluffy crap, no place in business…only to be faced at some point in their lives with the inevitability of lifestuff – death, divorce, illness, change….and then it can all come crashing down.

So why ask leaders to look inward and build their emotional capacity? Easier to stay cerebral and crack on….

Because work without heart leads to heartless outcomes – and we need leadership who operate with compassion and care more than ever. This is not a platitude, it’s a thing – an actual thing. We talk about the future of work, of improving working lives – but a good future requires leaders who can access empathy, compassion, generosity, failure-as-learning and make decisions about their people, resources, markets etc with some ethical and emotional intelligence. A case study in emerging markets kind of bypasses that bit.

I say some of this at the design meeting – not all of it, because me on a soapbox isn’t anything particularly useful at this stage… and we talk about how to get the connection part, the relationship part more front and centre…. and slowly something more heart-felt & human emerges and I’m glad…..

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When they arrive they are polite, slightly scared or bored and the conversations involve a lot of comparisons and competitive niggles. Fast movements, rapid talk. Status games, power games, jostling, laughing….

They leave, days later, quieter, less scared. Less bored. They know each other better. They know themselves better. For some, this is still not right or good – the world seems altered and that’s uncomfortable as all hell – they will very quickly try to recreate their status quo. For others, and the people they lead, it is the beginning of, or the next steps to master, this new language, with all that can bring.

Working in Less Obvious Ways.

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I’m over it.

To be honest, I’ve been over it for days – the news, the TV, watching the politics and the games and the claims and the counter claims. The inauthenticity of pre-prepped speechifying. Entire massive hulking gnarly issues conveniently disappeared. The egos. The stubbornness and blindness. The platitudes and clichés. The energy it takes to sense-make in the midst of all of this.

My deep need to hold to a change narrative that involves kindness, inclusiveness, tolerance, creativity and collaboration….My lived experience that true lasting change doesn’t happen without some of these things. How very sorely tested that belief feels right now – like I’m a dreamer, an altruist, a hypothetical tree hugging cloud-starer who doesn’t understand real power and politics.
Only I do…. I just don’t have the appetite to play that game. That mean, selfish, self-serving game.. which at the same time seems necessary…. And if I’m not in the game, how can I ever affect it?

It’s a puzzle.

What I’d say to my clients is: step back. Look after yourself for a while. Stop engaging with the poison around you, it will soak into your being. Go find some anti-venom. Find connection. Love. Kindness. Stuff that sustains you. Find purpose. Get folk round you who you trust and enjoy. Get stronger. Refocus. Return with renewed, different vigor. Work from there.
There is more power and courage in walking a different path, than re-treading the old ones. If you feel that stepping away is woose-ing-out, take heart..it’s only that way if you stay gone – the world needs you here. Stepping away might be just what you need… but come back. Gentler, stonger, heartfilled, joyeous, detoxed.

Physician, heal thyself.

So I’m taking my own advice for a bit. Turning off the telly. Listing to music which lifts or soothes. Seeking out those who nurture and refresh me. Walking the dog. Having silence around me. Cooking good food. Attempting to run a little faster. Putting time in on my travels to see the world through less-tainted eyes.

In a conversation recently, there was an element of: lucky you. That you can do that. In your job. You can just potter about & mull on stuff.
Nope. That’s not how this works. Running a business is rarely a part-time thing, if you want to make an actual living out of it. I’m carving that time. Intentionally. Trying to hold some regard for myself and others around me.
This is the work – my work – in all of the madness.
To look after myself and those around me.
My reach isn’t National.
I hold no power to put money in your pocket
This work could so easily be written off as unimportant….
But it’s not. It’s more vital now, to counter hate-filled, venomous, broken-ly furious narratives that take us down paths of division and separation.

I’m here and I’m part of this…. So I’m working to do the best I can… in less obvious ways, perhaps, but I believe they have power.

image courtesy of Brutallyhonest.org

After the Laundry, The Ecstacy?

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I don’t know where to begin.

this is not a “normal” fuchsia blue blog post – It feels more personal.

When you wake up and hear something that you cannot compute, mentally or physically… The UK is leaving the EU. We are choosing to leave our rather odd home for 43 years, presumably to downsize…
My first response was kind of horrified. No no no no.. what? What? I mean… What? And then I was so angry I could spit. Deep visceral fury at the TV. At authority. At those who voted to Leave –I’m muttering about idiots, biggots, using delicious swear words, harsh and blue with venom injected right into them … you name it, it came. And the worry – my business. The markets tumbling dramatically…My precious fuchsiablue. Wee and wily, not globally important, but the thing that sustains me and folk I love and cherish. Now under threat through nothing I have done…. It left me livid, speechless and confused.
And the white male voices given microphones, feeling my own prejudice and bigotry run free… knowing I’m not immune from looking at another and wishing them elsewhere…..
My faith in humanity leaking away..
My urge to run home, North, where social justice and a less bitterly phobic angry narrative seemed to run.
My need to talk to others.. to sense make.. help me. Help me sense make?
A sense of powerlessness and redundancy…. I want to take my teddy and go off in a huff.
How confusing. The day before I’d blogged about love. Where was mine? Where was my compassion? My generosity?

Then last night I went back to the After the Ecstasy, the Laundry blog post I wrote in the aftermath of the Scottish Independence Vote. The vote had gone the way I expected. I wasn’t in shock. I was working from a more calm, rational place. What I said then, I hold to now.

Today feels different. Today I’m moving away from the personal affront, getting over myself and looking at what happened in a different way.

I think the vote to leave was inevitable, in many ways. I think people who have been disaffected, who have not been heard, represented, cared for, listened to and spoken for get really tired of being in that place – or really pissed off about it. I think there are amazing MPs and local authority folk who try to get them heard. I think there has been a sneering arrogance at the highest eschelons of politics for too long. I think humbleness, humanity and the notion of being a Public Servant has been too far away from the thinking and the actions of those who are more concerned about to leaving a personal legacy.

I think the parallels with some of what happens in Corporate / big organisational life are painful.

I think it is a case study in the need for diversity and inclusion in thinking and action. I think it’s been missing for too long. I think the hate-filled bile that I occasionally heard was the existing power system setting itself up to reject that diversity and inclusion. Diversity would challenge the power status quo. The power status quo REALLY likes things as they are. Diversity needs to be labelled as “bad scary threat”. .. but the paradox is that power had to align itself to the powerless to get the job done.. and now of course, the powerless have more of a voice and …oh.. that’s a challenge to the Status quo….
Yup.. we are about to live in even more interesting times.

I’ve lived in interesting times before in my life. What I learned was a few things:
No sudden moves. When the world around you appears to tilt on its axis, inaction is often the best course of action. Go slowly. Wait and watch. Think and reflect. Do bits of stuff and see what happens, but don’t make Big Plans and Try to Make Stuff Happen. That’s not how it works. Life is a series of conversations and unfolding circumstance. The recovery after the big stuff tends not to happen fast. Go with that.

If you want to alter what’s happening “Out There”, Start Here. With yourself. First. Work on your own responses. Work to be better, kinder, less of a git and encourage others to do so too. The rage and the fury etc? know they are there pay attention to them, and work to do better. And I mean that – pay attention to the bad stuff.. don’t’ brush over it like an inconvenience – That’s part of what just happened here. It leads to long-term disaffection and disconnect.

Don’t walk away. Stay with the situation, even when it gets tough. Put folk around you that remind you of the daftness of any given situation. Have a place to rage or cry or bang the table… then get up and keep going… contribute as well as you can to change, to the world you want.. that stuff.

And look after yourself. This referendum stuff has been bruising…. If you are bruised, you need salve, rest and a lot of fresh air… go do that, rather than raging at the telly.

I don’t know how this goes. But I know I need to work with what comes.
Think I found some of my love.
Interested in where you are at. x

Stories & Telling & Asking & More

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Yes – I’ll help set up a storytelling zone. In the exploration of the social age, I’ll happily find a place for folk to gather and talk and think and question and share. I’ll make a nook – a place to hang out and meet and mull. Laura will make a Newspaper office right next to it, handing out nips of whisky and chatting over typewriters…..stories created here & captured there…. That works.

Stories? Sure, that’s part of what life and work is about – your story, our story, the story of the organisation; tales of the unexpected and of the known – specific tales that bring hypothesis somewhere more understandable or tangible… the Theory is this: my Reality is that…. Ah.. this is helpful – I can see more clearly now.

If I coach you, we work with your story – your narrative of yourself. How you see yourself and tell yourself to others. How you know yourself. What you allow yourself to do.. or not do… or think… or say… I’ll offer counter narratives.. can we re-write this together? Can this be a different tale?

As the Safari unfolds, I hear metaphors & how useful these can be to work with. How a shared story helps people gather and understand. How the plea for Purpose in organisations is also a plea for a simple narrative – what do we stand for here? Will you stand for that with us?

I hear about working in small streams; river tributaries that might eddy or might flow out to the ocean; I hear of someone quilting – piecing odd fabrics together to create something beautiful and new and original.. the pieces becoming a whole different entity; we hear Social Media sharing not as an act of self-promotion, but as an act of generosity – sharing content and knowledge specifically to generate change… the self-lessness a thing I forget about at times in the midst of broadcasted cultivated messages….

And so much I don’t know about stories – what do we do with messy narratives that don’t follow a proper arc? The archetypes available… the questions you can ask: are we in an organisational tragedy? Comedy? Farce? So much still to learn, to ask, to discover.

Catherine and Selby work with creative voices. Poetry and music bring narratives to life – protest songs and lives spoken into being… lyrical, lilting riffs that are unexpectedly touching, moving and powerful. The words sung or spoken have a effect that cannot easily be expressed….articulated in emotions and sensation – beyond words in many ways… I enjoy the irony.

Later, I leave early, my own fairy tale of being able to push through a flu-like cold thing truly undermined by the very factual story of shivers and temperature, of sand-papered throat and woolly brain-function. As I find myself sitting on the floor of a packed train, feeling terribly sorry for myself and telling my woes on a Slack channel to my beloved friends, Amanda asks: Would you like a story?
And I relax – Yes. Tell me a tale from beyond this train – and she does… and it is beautiful and human and poignant… and then Fi shares her Tale from the Underground… and I’m elsewhere and warmer and more connected all at once and somehow it makes things better.

There is power in stories… and in those who tell them.

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Thanks to inspirers/ co creators Geoff Stead, Carol Read, Julian Stodd, Damian Corbett,  Sukh PabialJonathan Anthony  Johanna Wyers, Amy Burvall, Stephanie Morgan  SeaSalt Learning Crew including (but not exclusively) Laura Williams, Valerie De Pauw,  Hannah Moxom, Phillip Kingsbury, Paul Draper, Rich Stannard, David Jarrett & Emily Pykett

to Amanda Arrowsmith & Fiona McBride

seek out #socialAgeSafari

Check out Spoken Artist & Poet Joseph Selby & bluegrass/ folk musician Catherine Burke

Noodling

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This has come out of the #ldinsight chat today on what have we learned from the Friday Twitter chats.

In response to the plea to let things emerge and the very lovely open space principle that “the right people will be arrive” to be in a conversation – I’m thinking about the difference between being interventionist & making stuff happen vs being non interventionist & letting stuff happen as it happens.

So I’m thoughtful that most of the client systems I hang out in err to the interventionist – lock it down on a plan, with dates and budgets. Plan. Organise. Control. THIS intervention means THESE are your Learning Outcomes (Really? They are? How do you know? Are these my only Learning Outcomes? Am I allowed more? Fewer? Where’s the part where I got a say in this intervention?)
See… too much of that stuff & it all gets a bit daft.
I’ve worked with people and systems who cannot leave well enough alone – changing for changes sake, just because they need to intervene… it’s arguably harmful.

And then there is an alternative route – emergent possibilities – working in a way that is inherently more complex (LOADS of stuff runs, mostly all at the same time, as many ideas as you have folk) Slower – it takes time to work with emerging agendas, you need to let stuff run to see where it is running & if that’s working. It’s free thinking, self-organising and non-interventionist. It’s arguably a tougher route. Certainly it requires a whole bunch of personal maturity and resilience to just kind of let stuff go.. inner control freaks start rearing their head, people can feel very unsettled …

Both suit folk. Lock it down, intervene to ensure an outcome, seems safer, faster… and then generally, in the long term, the unlocked stuff leaks all over the place, muddying the nice neat boxes constructed.
Emergent agendas – going where it goes, with whoever happens to be around, working with what is new – seem more creative, more fluid, fairer…

Which leads me to noodling.
I can noodle. It’s a bit of a fuchsiablueism – by noodling I mean I can work with a big bowl of muddled up noodles and love the complexity, follow the threads, play with the forms.. work with what emerges. I can do this for ages – it’s fascinating.
I’m also guilty of some personal noodling – blogging might be part of that – hanging out with a thought – poking at it and considering it… noodling away by myself without fully paying attention to the world around me, my context, the relevance of my stuff.
I like a bit of noodling. I like the emergent, slow stuff. I had to learn how to sit with some of it, because most of my early working life geared me to NOT NOODLE and get to the point/ purpose…that and I was not bestowed with infinite patience… it’s an ongoing battle for me

My point is: if I don’t want to disappear into some strange noodley ether, I kind of feel I have to find anchors and reality, structures and systems that allow me to come back.
When I’m facilitating, it’s as important to bring stuff back to the core point, the purpose, as it is to enable and encourage folk to go away from it. Emergent work just doesn’t work for some people. It’s freaky and weird and scary. Just like a neat 16 box matrix is likely to make me want to gently bang my head off the desk… but you kind of need both.

If I’m going to be useful to clients, to the folk in my life, I can’t just noodle.
If I want my practice to be enriched, lively and stay relevant… I have to do a bit of noodling.
It can’t be all or nothing.

Now mulling on if I can get the concept of noodling into a 16 box matrix and sell it worldwide for interventions…….

Thanks to Meg Peppin & Jo Stephenson for the inspiration

Business Translation & Keeping it Real

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This is inspired by a recent conversation with Carol Read, who is doing some extraordinary, breakthough transformation and innovation stuff in the Horizons Team, within NHS England’s Sustainable Improvement Team. I met her through connections with SeaSalt Learning & I think we have started a conversation that could last for many years…. And as we talked, I was reminiscing….

Back in the day when I was an in-house Change Consultant, working with the slightly alchemical purpose of “changing the culture” at the Postal Authority in Jersey, I had an “ah-ha!” moment.

I’d been invited to present to the Board – what has happened, what we are planning to do next, budget stuff (something along the lines of: can you find us some money to do up the staff canteen to show we mean we are going to change and improve the whole business, inside and out? I’m recommending we don’t go down “fur coat no knickers” change route…etc)

I had the standard 10–15 minutes slot, which inevitably rolled over as questions needed to be asked and answered. Part of the Board’s interest was the future, unsurprisingly. In our world, at the time, one of the best ways we could stay competitive was to innovate. We were a small Postal Service, which meant we were, potentially, more agile and able to trial stuff across the operation than larger set-ups in, say, the UK or Germany.

One way we could innovate was to be a test-bed for new delivery methods or tracking tech; we could look at new ways to produce “direct mail” (you may call it Junk mail. 10 years on and I still feel I have committed a sin calling it Junk Mail); we could look at pick-and-pack fulfilment as an income stream (Amazon was in its infancy – we were looking to learn from their model). All these future possibilities…

And I remember going back to my desk, slightly fuzzy-headed with the whirl of future-promises & tech and experiments…. And looking at the list of stuff I knew we needed to get done now. The canteen upgrade suddenly seemed very….unsexy…. but still deeply necessary… and I found it hard to reconcile.

The Board that day were all future and commerce and budgets and business opportunities (as it should be) and I knew this stuff wouldn’t mean a hill of beans to the day-to-day experience of a Postie or a member of the Counter staff until it arrived (typically in bubble-wrap, with a training course & a lot of head scratching) in front of them.

Not because they were daft, or didn’t have ambition or vision. Not because they were lazy or backward or didn’t care about the job – far from it. They were so focussed on doing the job – getting the mail out getting customers served – that what was important was there here-and-now. That was what was real.The lived experience of the place being too hot or cold. The inconvenience of parking. The canteen ruled with an iron fist by the cook who was resolute about the food offerings available.. with chips….

And so my epiphany was this: the need to Translate.

I had (I believed for a while) invented a notion: Business Translation. I saw the language of the Board – all broad brush & future tech & strategy & hypothetical circumstance vs the language of the Operation – specific & tactical, and day-to-day tangible. Separate languages – or perhaps it was just different patois – but the Change work seemed to be about bringing those two closer together. Working closely to articulate and decode “that future stuff” so we could make the here & now actions more purposeful and (dare I say it) aligned.

It all seemed so simple. Just translate stuff.
Mostly, this thought took the team to good places. At the core of our Change methods was: how do we explain this is in different languages? The way it showed up varied. We paid more attention to our internal comms, we cut back on some actions that seemed overly grounded in future flim-flam or in the compromises that come with “this is how we do it round here”. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it burned.

Looking back, much of what we did was “push” and direct and broadcast. If I were to have my time again there, I’d have done a lot more of the pull/listen/adapt the big ideas stuff. I’d still have the fights with marketing about too-tight constraints on internal branding, but I’d probably be a little less strident in my confrontation… I’d listen more.

At the core of the change work, I still believe it’s about translation. Creating better conversations, spaces to think together, action that is communicable… that stuff. Too high falutin’ and it’s ethereal & wispy. Too grounded and it is ludding and static.

I’m grateful to Carol for the conversation – about the dreamy innovative cool stuff & the need to work closely with the here and now to deliver it.

The Poetry of Propaganda – (AKA when the “soft stuff” gets hard core)

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How do you persuade the deeply entrenched to surrender their positions?
If changing systems requires changing behaviours and behavioural change is, typically, triggered by something deeply personal (unless you go super-coercive, but that’s not an ethical/legal position most organisations would go for.. (thankfully?)) what does that mean?

When someone has made up their mind about something. About what is right or wrong. About what they can and can’t do. About what is or is not fiction or fact – and their position is harming them, or an organisation, or a country….. what actions can you take?

These are some of the questions that were raised for me from Jose Miguel Sokoloff’s TED talk as he explains how he & his team helped persuade Colombian Guerillas to demobilise.
I was first made aware of his story through the This American Life Podcast.
Sokoloff is, by trade, an advertising exec – more used to dealing with selling soap or dog food than getting involved in gnarly political/social change issues…but his reasons for taking up the challenge were, in part, emotional ones: He had never known a day of peace-time in his own country.

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