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The 3 Secrets of Happiness, Productivity and Innovation


No doubt you’ve heard it all before: the on-demand economy will exacerbate the trend toward enforced self-reliance that has been gathering pace since the 1970s. Each of us will have to master multiple skills and keep those skills up to date. We will need to take more responsibility for educating themselves, selling ourselves, through personal networking and social media, effectively turning ourselves into personal brands. In a more fluid world everyone will have to learn how to manage ‘corporate individualism’ and ‘You Inc.’
But hold on a minute; surely there’s more to us than a piece of self-imagined corporate merchandise? How do we balance the demands of 21st century work with our personality, preferences and passion? Equally, what about the people we lead and manage? What about their aspirations and passions? So the question becomes, how can we make the most of our own and other people’s intrinsic strengths and motivations for the benefit of ourselves, our friends and colleagues, and the organisations to which we may belong (if only fleetingly)?
In a seminal article in the Harvard Business Review, Why Should Anyone Be Led by You? (Later developed into a book of the same name), Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones, suggested that to be a true leader you should “Be yourself, more, with skill.” I think this advice goes well beyond leaders, I think it applies to us all. So where should we begin? Well I do like a good proverb, so let’s start with an ancient Chinese one, which describes happiness as something to do, someone to love, and something to hope for. In other words, meaningful work, close ties to family and friends, and a reasonable hope of a positive future? Let’s take them in turn.
Meaningful Work
In ‘Finding your Element’, Ken Robinson describes how making the most of ourselves is about using our particular kind of intelligence in an optimal way. In his view, the only way to prepare for an uncertain future is to make the most of ourselves, on the assumption that this will make us more flexible and adaptable. He believes that each of us should identify and nurture four things:

  • Our Aptitude – our natural facility for doing something
  • Our Passion – what gives us deep delight and pleasure
  • Our Attitude – the drive and grit to succeed
  • Our Opportunity – creating and taking opportunities to find them
    Identifying them will put us in the ‘zone’, which like the state of ‘flow’ described by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (Mee-Hi Cheech-Me-Sent-Hi if you were wondering), is where we lose track of time, we feel we are doing what we are meant to be doing and being who we are meant to be: time feels different, ideas come more quickly, and it fills us with energy.
    Close Ties to Family and Friends
    Research conducted by Robert Levering, aimed at discovering the essence of a great place to work, concluded that such a place is one in which you trust the people you work for, have pride in what you do, and enjoy the people you are working with. Ken Robinson describes it as ‘finding your tribe’, which can have a transformative effect on both your sense of identity and purpose.
    People who are like you offer validation and interaction, they affirm that you are not alone and enable collaborative ventures. They provide inspiration and provocation, allowing you to stand on the shoulders of others and raise the bar on your own level of achievement. Finally, they provide the ‘alchemy of synergy’ by modelling the three features of human intelligence, which are diversity, dynamism and distinction.
    Diversity describes the breadth of human intelligence from analytic to creative, from practical to emotional, just like the different members of a team. Dynamism is displayed by its interactivity, neurons in the brain fire and connect just like people, and finding new connections is how breakthroughs occur. And finally each of us, and the teams we form, are distinct, every person’s intelligence is unique, like a fingerprint, the key is to identify where our strengths lie and seek out the strengths of others to plug the gaps?
    Reasonable Hope of a Positive Future
    In ‘Drive’, Daniel H. Pink describes how there is a mismatch between what science knows and what business does. Fundamentally, the use of rewards and punishments to control employees is an antiquated way of managing people. To maximise our enjoyment and productivity in 21st century work, he argues that we need to upgrade our thinking on motivation to include autonomy, the desire to direct our own lives; mastery, the urge to get better and better at something that matters; and purpose, the yearning to what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves. And it is purpose that provides the essential context for both autonomy and mastery.
    According to the research cited by Pink, the most deeply motivated people align their desires to a cause greater and more enduring than themselves. As an emotional catalyst, wealth maximisation lacks the power to fully mobilise human energies, because it still begs the question: to what end. Satisfaction depends upon not merely having goals, but on having the right goals: goals that are greater than one’s own self-interest. The alternative is worker disengagement and the poor productivity, which may be one of the reasons why we currently have such poor productivity in the UK.
    Furthermore, neuroscience is now discovering that when people have a sense of purpose, especially a sense of common purpose, their brain chemistry changes. From our perception of pain, to our ability to handle difficult and challenging environments, and even our health and well-being.
    For all these reasons, each of us needs to think about how we can create a purpose and an environment that stimulates us and the people we work with. How can we all be ourselves, more, with skill?

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    Four Fatal Flaws of Poor Leadership

    failure-chalkboard-message-thumbWe can learn a great deal from good leadership but we can also learn from poor leadership. I’ve been fortunate to have experienced some really great leaders, but I’ve also suffered my fair share of real duffers. In a world that increasingly asks us to embrace change and inspire innovation I’ve nailed down my top four fatal flaws of poor leadership, and on the flip slide what good leaders can do to avoid them. They are: avoiding failure (at all costs), blaming others, denying failure and failing to decide.

    Avoiding Failure (at all costs)

    By and large, managers get promoted by showing they’re in control. So even if poor managers recognise that we tend to learn best from our mistakes and that failure is an excellent way to acquire new knowledge, they still do everything possible to avoid it. The way that the good managers resolve this conundrum is to systematically extract value from failure so that it can be evaluated and improved upon. It boils down to two key lessons:

    1. Study projects that do not work out and gather as many insights as possible from them. When something doesn’t go as planned, it’s an opportunity to challenge your assumptions and adjust accordingly.
    2. Record your insights and share them across your team or organisation. It can be a good idea to bring senior leaders together on a regular basis to talk about their failures, with a clear emphasis on learning.

    You could even try celebrating failure! Several firms already do this: NASA has a Lean Forward, Fail Smart Award; and the Tata Group has a Dare to Try Award.

    Blaming Others

    An associated tendency among poor leaders is to shift the blame when things go wrong. The danger here is that blame blocks learning. In the first place, blame stops further investigation. Second, direct reports will only be open and honest about their own failure if they trust their leaders to be fair, honest and diligent themselves. The risk is a circular firing squad, with everyone pointing the finger at someone else.

    An additional problem is that blame and disciplinary action are often seen as a way of instilling greater diligence and motivation, under the banner of: “you can’t let people get away with it.” Yet in hospitals high rates of disciplinary action have been found to reduce the reporting of errors, which in turn leads to an increase in actual errors because there is no opportunity to learn from them.

    Denying Failure

    Both of these flaws are perhaps not surprising given that failure denial is deeply embedded in our cultures and personalities. When confronted with evidence that challenges our deeply held beliefs we are more likely to reframe the evidence than we are to alter our beliefs. We simply invent new reasons, new justifications and new explanations. Sometimes we ignore the new evidence altogether. This protects our self-esteem and helps us live with ourselves.

    In ‘When Prophecy Fails’ Leon Festinger related the story of how he and a colleague infiltrated the cult of Dorothy Martin, based in the suburbs of Michigan USA, who predicted the world would end on 21 December 1954. When it didn’t happen, contrary to Festinger’s expectations, cult members became even more fervent in their belief, believing that they had saved the world. They changed their interpretation to fit the new facts. Festinger called it ‘cognitive dissonance’.

    Failing to Decide

    As Napoleon observed, ‘Nothing is more difficult, and therefore more precious, than to be able to decide.’ But if the risk of choosing incorrectly is failure you can understand why poor managers defer, delay and avoid decisions. The remedy is to be thorough and to seek feedback. It’s not fool proof, but nothing is and that’s the point.

    1. Gather as much data as you can, but beware the law of diminishing returns: data will always be incomplete.
    2. Check the factual accuracy of information.
    3. Check your own and other’s reasoning, is it logical and consistent?
    4. Is it free of incorrect assumptions, wishful thinking, errors in calculation and underestimation of risk?
    5. Seek feedback – ask others to critique your approach and solution
    6. Don’t be afraid to use your intuition (tacit knowledge) to make sense of the situation.
    7. Always carry out a post-decision review to identify errors in your decision making process.

    It’s also worth remembering that delaying a decision or not making a decision are decisions in their own right.

    The common thread running through these flaws is ‘avoidance’: if I don’t decide and don’t act I can avoid risk; and if all else fails I can deny that I failed, or blame someone else. It is a status quo mentality utterly unsuited to an environment where change is ever present and innovation is key. In this context, playing safe is the riskiest thing a leader can do. To paraphrase William O’Brien, it is better to have tried and failed, and learned from it, than never to have tried at all.

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    Leadership Lessons of Field Marshal Slim

    Field Marshal Slim

    I am a strong believer that, human nature being what it is, there is little new under the leadership and management sun. So in our September 2016 blog, I shared with you a selection of the leadership lessons from my naval hero Lord Nelson. This time, in the interests of balance, I thought it only fair that I share some leadership lessons from my army hero, Field Marshal Viscount Slim. He’s not a household name like Nelson, or even as well-known as his contemporary Montgomery, but he did write one of the best memoirs of a serving general ‘Defeat into Victory’, which covers his time in Burma during the Second World War.

    He was promoted in March 1942 to command Burma Corps and subsequently commanded the longest retreat in British military history, over 900 miles. Yet he managed to turn a disorderly panic into a controlled military withdrawal and was consequently promoted again, taking over Eastern Army (later renamed 14th Army) in October 1943. On taking command he found himself confronted by three major problems: supply, health and morale.

    Supply was a problem of weather, terrain and distance. He tackled it by giving a trusted subordinate, Maj Gen AJH Snelling, the men he wanted and a ‘free hand’ to carry out his plans. A great example of what we would now call empowerment. He tackled the health issue, with the practical application of the latest medical research; forward treatment of the sick and wounded, to deter soldiers from feigning sickness in the hope of being sent back to the comparative comfort of India; air evacuation of serious casualties, to reassure soldiers that they would be treated as quickly as possible; and discipline, he sacked three commanding officers for failing to enforce the taking of malaria tablets, which were rumoured to cause sterility. As he observed, ‘by then the rest had got my meaning.’

    But it is his approach to poor morale that I wish to focus on. The 14th Army was suffering from a record of defeat against the Japanese; lack of elementary amenities; the discomfort of life in the jungle; and feelings of isolation and homesickness (it is no coincidence that they are known to history as the ‘Forgotten Army’). In response, Slim gave great thought to what he felt were the foundations of morale. He decided they were three-fold: material, intellectual and spiritual.

    From a material perspective he felt strongly that a soldier must feel that he will get a fair deal from his commanders and from the army generally. That he must, as far as humanly possible, be given the best weapons and equipment for his task, and that his living and working conditions must be made as good as they can be.

    Intellectually, a soldier must be convinced that the object can be attained, that it is not out of reach. That he must see, too, that the organisation to which he belongs is an efficient one. He must also have confidence in his leaders and know that whatever dangers and hardships he is called upon to suffer, his life will not be lightly flung away.

    Spiritually, there must be a great and noble object. Its achievement must be vital. The method of achievement must be active and aggressive, and the soldier must feel that what he is and what he does matters directly towards the attainment of the object.

    But he did not stop there, this was not a philosophical exercise in leadership theory, he also thought about how he might put his ideas into practice.

    His approach to the material foundation was to begin by being honest. He admitted to the shortages, but he told his soldiers why that was so: because the German Army was better equipped than the Japanese and the strategic priority was Europe. Second, he stressed that each Commander would do his utmost to rectify the shortages, otherwise they would improvise or simply have to do without. But he emphasised that no one would be asked to do something unless they had the minimum level of equipment required. Furthermore, he instituted half rations for everyone, irrespective of rank, including himself and his staff, and stipulated that there was to be no distinction between race or caste with regard to treatment. This was significant because 14th Army was a multicultural force comprising soldiers and auxiliaries from Britain and the Commonwealth, including substantial numbers of Indians and Africans. A fact that is too often forgotten.

    From an intellectual perspective he began by emphasising the small wins, beginning with a significant Australian victory. He also ensured that fighting patrols and minor operations were carried out with overwhelming strength to ensure success. As well as improvements in supply he emphasised the importance of sharing information throughout his command, and began a news journal called Seac, which was issued to all troops. Reinforcement camps were also improved, to allow genuine recuperation, but at the same time discipline was enforced, the soldiers were not to be allowed to develop bad habits before returning to the frontline. He also ensured that officers were carefully selected for command. Those found not up to it were sacked.

    Spiritually he adopted a direct approach, visiting as many units as possible and speaking to groups of men. He asked all his officers to do the same and to talk ‘the same stuff with the same object’. As he himself said, “…one did not need to be a great orator to be effective.  Two things only were necessary: first to know what you were talking about and second, and most important, to believe it yourself… I found that if one kept the bulk of one’s talk to the material things the men were interested in, food, pay, leave, beer, mail, and the progress of operations, it was safe to end on a higher note – the spiritual foundations – and I always did.”

    As I said, human nature being what it is, there isn’t much new under the sun and there is plenty still to learn from Slim and all great leaders. The context and the times may have changed, but human nature hasn’t. Interestingly, after the War Slim was asked to share his experiences with business and for a time he offered his services as a high-powered management consultant.

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    Network Leadership – How To Use Networks To Get Things Done

    Network-diagramWe live in a networked world in which issues and problems, from global warming to terrorism and inequality, flow through webs of connection causing volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA). In this environment, people are beginning to question whether traditional leaders are up to the job. Equally, we are seeing the growing power of networks and the capacity they provide for people, resources, and ideas to self-organize. This has led others to question whether traditional forms of hierarchical leadership are still appropriate or whether a more contemporary understanding of leadership is needed, one which sees leadership as a shared process, which harnesses the power of social networks.

    My own view is that network leadership is not a new model of leadership, but rather a lens through which to view leadership. In the same way that hierarchies and org charts have provided a particular way of seeing organisations (often positional, directive and top-down), applying the lens of social networks to leadership provides a new paradigm, or way of seeing the world and organisations, which is facilitative, emergent and lateral, even bottom-up. In this new environment, leaders must do more than set strategic direction, inspire others, and drive execution. They also need to establish strong network performance by building, aligning, and enabling broad networks both within and beyond their organisation.

    The social network paradigm can be used to understand both organisations and communities. In organisations, networks develop largely within work groups due to proximity, homophily (the tendency to associate with people like us) and other natural human inclinations. However, some of the most important ties cut across groups: traversing teams, functions and departments. In this context an understanding of social networks can help identify cliques, silos and gaps in connectivity, which, when dealt with effectively, can improve productivity, smooth channels of communication, and spur change and innovation (see my blog of June 2015 on Social Network Analysis).

    Conversely, in community settings where there is no formal organisational structure, the paradigm can be used to identify, map and build more robust connections between community leaders and groups. Allowing public servants, community activists, and leaders in the third sector to uncover the value in their communities and connect those who have to those who need.

    In both cases formal designated leaders and leaders who emerge from within the network play important roles, but network leadership, unlike conventional top-down leadership, is more about enabling than directing. It is more about influence than control; more indirect than direct; and requires leaders to create a work environment based on autonomy, empowerment, trust, sharing, and collaboration. It is leadership understood first and foremost as a social process that creates direction, alignment and commitment without recourse to positional authority. On that basis I would offer four strategies to help you lead and get things done in a networked world.

    Lead with Understanding. Leading without authority is all about your ability to positively influence the people around you, so start by making sense of things for them. Become the go to person for answers and insights. Take time to understand the dynamic web of connections that have an impact on your collective work; identify the patterns of relationships in your personal network and the broader organisational network that will foster strategic success and those that will inhibit or undermine it; and then communicate this knowledge to your colleagues.

    Lead with Questions. If in doubt ask questions, never be afraid to speak up if you don’t understand or need clarification, but also use questions to lead. You may not be the one ‘in charge’ but you can always lead with great questions. Try out a few of these and see how they can change the course of an entire conversation or meeting:
    • What if…?
    • Have we considered…?
    • Can you help me understand what you mean when you say…?
    • What have we possibly overlooked?
    • Who else should we invite to be part of this?
    • Is the issue we’re talking about here the real issue?
    • What must be done first?
    • Can we describe what success looks like for this project?
    • What can I do to help?

    Lead with Bravery. Step up, speak up and embrace responsibility even if you are faking it at first. It is unlikely that people will follow you and trust your ideas if you seem unsure of yourself or unwilling to accept responsibility? So offer to participate in existing projects or take on new projects; dream up a new initiative; or improve an existing system. And always act with humility. If you mess up, then own up. Describe what you learned from the experience and then try again.

    Lead with Enthusiasm. Emotions are contagious. We are drawn to passionate people on a mission that we believe in. Give people a reason to follow you. Even if you’re not in charge, you can always take responsibility for raising the energy in the group and rallying people around a shared purpose or mission.

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    MBTA ‘Management by Talking About…’

    Graphic_02For the first blog of the New Year I’d like to reinvigorate an old idea. MBWA (Management by Walking Around) is rather taken for granted these days, as is often the case when a good idea becomes cliché. So to reinvigorate the importance of talking with your staff, I’d like to introduce MBTA, ‘Management by Talking About…’. Given that time is precious the emphasis here is on purposeful conversation and I want to offer four valuable conversations to have with your staff, rather than just chatting about the weekend football scores or last night’s TV.
    When it comes to the importance of purposeful conversation I think Colonel Zinoviev Konstantin Provalov summed it very well. While commanding the Soviet Union’s 383rd ‘Miners’ Rifle Division at the beginning of the Second World War, he believed that:
    ‘Authority is gained through the sum of daily conversations. One has to speak to soldiers. A soldier must know his task and understand it. Authority isn’t cheap; it is hard won. Everyone wants to live – including heroes. But knowing that soldiers trust me, I know they will fulfil all my orders and risk their lives.’
    Not a household name in Europe and America I admit, but he was awarded “Hero of the Soviet Union” in the early battles of 1941 and the quote has remained with me ever since I first read it, and was brought to mind recently while reading Richard Sennett’s’ excellent book ‘Together’. Sennett writes about ‘earned authority’ as one side of a ‘social triangle’ (the other sides being trust and cooperation), which he identifies as the key ingredient in successful organisations and communities.
    Sennett takes authority to be power endowed with legitimacy, with legitimacy defined as voluntary obedience. In war this means that soldiers will follow orders to fight knowing that it may lead to their death. This is an extreme example, and in civil society legitimacy is better framed in terms of laws people obey just because they seem right. In organisations, therefore, the leadership test for legitimacy, and thereby authority, is: will your subordinates obey you even though they might get away with disobeying?
    Like Provalov, Sennett argues that how a leader earns that legitimacy usually has more to do with small behaviours and exchanges than with any formal right or entitlement to rule. Earned authority concerns more than formal position or technical competence, it involves open dialogue with subordinates rather than rigid dictation to them. In other words, for authority to be legitimate, people who are asked to obey have to feel like they have a voice, that if they speak up, they will be heard. So how should you encourage them to speak up, what should you talk about? Here are a four suggestions for purposeful conversations.

    1. Ask employees for their feedback. Most companies ask customers for feedback about their products and services, but only a handful ask their employees the same questions. This is a missed opportunity. So in addition to asking your customers questions like “Was your problem solved?” and “Are we easy to work with?” ask your employees “Did you solve the problem?” and “Was it easy to access the tools and resources you needed to do it?”


    1. Make delegation easier – use conversations to establish trust. Delegating tasks to employees and then trusting them to make decisions for themselves can be difficult. It is easier to delegate to those you trust. You can build that trust by having conversations with your employees, observing them doing their daily jobs, and providing feedback. That way, when it comes time to delegate a task, you’ll better understand your employees’ strengths and weaknesses and know who is ready to take on more responsibility and who needs more experience or coaching.


    1. Make People on Your Team Feel Like They Belong. It is well known that fostering a sense of belonging helps reduce stress levels, and consequently improves physical health, emotional well-being, and performance. So build that sense of belonging by soliciting people’s input. Ask their opinion, and follow up with questions so they truly felt heard. Tell stories to show your own vulnerability and share your mistakes and successes. This will also help you connect emotionally.


    1. Determine whether a direct report is ready to be a manager? Measure their potential by gauging their interest in managing. Ask them what they believe management entails and what their approach would be in situations you are facing or have faced. Inquire about any experience they’ve had outside of work that could provide useful preparation. Have they been in charge of an athletic team or a group of volunteers? Seek out the opinions of their co-workers, who will have a unique perspective on whether the person is up to the task.

    It may also be worth considering how widespread such conversations are in your organisation. How might other leaders do a better job of managing by having purposeful conversations? Why not have a wander around and find out.

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    Leadership Lessons of Lord Nelson

    nelsonNext month sees the 211th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar (21st October 1805), when twenty-seven British ships of the line, led by Admiral Lord Nelson aboard HMS Victory, defeated a combined fleet of thirty-three French and Spanish ships off the southwest coast of Spain, just west of Cape Trafalgar. The Franco-Spanish fleet lost twenty-two ships, without a single British vessel being lost. It was the most decisive naval battle of the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815) and put an end to French plans to invade England.

    The British victory spectacularly confirmed the naval supremacy that Britain had established during the eighteenth century and was achieved in part through Nelson’s departure from the prevailing naval tactical orthodoxy. Instead of engaging the enemy fleet in a single line, maximising fields of fire and target areas, Nelson divided his smaller force into two columns directed perpendicularly against the enemy fleet, with decisive results.

    Nelson was shot by a French musketeer during the battle and died shortly after, becoming one of Britain’s greatest war heroes. He was also one of Britain’s greatest leaders and over 200 years since his death he still has much to teach us about the art of leadership. In this blog I am going to focus on three aspects of his leadership: creating a personal brand; participative leadership; and inspiring his subordinates.

    Personal Brand

    Nelson virtually invented the personal brand. People told stories about him: his courage during the amputation of his arm, the way he turned a blind eye at Copenhagen, and more salaciously his affair with Lady Hamilton. Yet he was also very diligent in carrying out his duties, he worked hard, in now widely used naval parlance, ‘to learn the ropes’, seeking out opportunities to improve his experience and get himself noticed. He also read widely in politics, history and literature, and spent time at home in reflection, learning, thinking and preparing for his next assignment. Furthermore, he quickly recognised that it’s not what you know and it’s not who you know that counts. It’s who knows what you know, which really matters. His uncle was already a senior officer in the Royal Navy when Nelson joined and he used his advocacy to good effect, but Nelson also took the opportunity to learn from other skilled mentors, such as Captain William Locker. Nelson served under him as a newly promoted lieutenant for only fifteen months, but his advice, wisdom and backing had a lasting effect.

    Participative Leadership

    Nelson was a very skilled participative leader. He knew instinctively how to build a team culture (his band of brothers) and this was an important part of his leadership style, which he based upon loyalty and trust. Nelson provided the framework, the overarching aims and objectives, but then gave away leadership when battle was joined. This style of leadership came to the fore at his victory at the Nile. As Captain Berry of HMS Vanguard observed:

    “It had been his practice during the cruise, whenever the weather and circumstances would permit, to have his captains on board the Vanguard, where he would fully develop to them his own ideas of the different and best modes of attack, and such plans as he proposed to execute upon falling in with the enemy, whatever their position or situation might be, by day or by night. With the masterly ideas of their Admiral, therefore, on the subject of naval tactics, every one of the captains of his squadron was most thoroughly acquainted. Upon surveying the situation of the enemy, they could ascertain with precision what were the ideas and intentions of their commander, without aid of further instructions; by which means signals became almost unnecessary, much time was saved, and the attention of every captain could almost undistractedly be paid to the conduct of the ship.”

    In short, Nelson delegated duties to competent men and let them get on with it. He explained goals and tasks clearly, and then did not interfere. He always supported his officers when they showed initiative and if things went wrong he defended them. He admired bold and decisive action in others as much as he followed this policy himself. He would rather mistakes were made occasionally than his men succumb to indecision and inactivity.


    Inspiration is the action or power of stimulating the intellect or emotions in others through affection and communication. You may be effective through manipulative and unscrupulous means, but you will only be respected as a great leader if you aspire to great ideals, and practise them personally in the way you direct your organisation or team. Nelson was an advocate for the ‘we will’ rather than the ‘you will’ school of leadership, he presented himself as a role model.

    Like all naval officers he employed formal sources of power: legitimate, reward based and coercive. But from this formal power Nelson also developed informal influence through his knowledge of the Navy, the workings of a ship and the demands of war. His reward power was limited in terms of cash and material benefits, but he never rationed praise and recognition. Nelson believed in public and profuse praise, openly acknowledging achievements. He assumed honour and recognition was as important to his crew as it was to him. Crucially, he was intrinsically motivated and this was infectious. It is difficult to inspire others if you’re not inspired yourself, so perhaps the key message to be a good leader is doing something that inspires you. Do you know what that is yet?

    A lot more could be written about Nelson’s leadership style and I would be delighted to read your own thoughts and observations.

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    Dealing with Conflict: Embracing ‘And/Both’ instead of ‘Either/Or’

    integration_0_1The EU referendum offered voters a simple binary decision, ‘Leave’ or ‘Remain’, an either/or answer to a hugely complex question. Neither was going to solve the problems we face in an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world, and either way a significant portion of the population were going to be dissatisfied with the answer. What was lacking was a shared exploration of how we get the best out of our relationship with Europe, which includes aspects of ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’, and a clear understanding of the broader needs of the British electorate in all its many guises. In the absence of shared conversation and genuine dialogue the best story won, just.

    Business leaders face similar challenges, when either/or masks more complicated and/both solutions, and when factional interests get in the way of shared needs. Should they improve existing products, services and methods incrementally or invent radically new products based on new business models. Should they maximise profits for shareholders or generate wider benefits for investors, employees, customers and communities. Should they pursue the company’s social mission or focus on the bottom line.

    Ideally, they should do both, but typically the answer is to choose one option over the other (or at least prioritise one over the other), or to seek the middle ground and find an acceptable compromise. Yet there is an alternative. That is for leaders and managers to shift from an ‘either/or’ to a ‘both/and’ mind-set, by recognising and nurturing the aims of competing constituencies and strategies while finding ways to unite them.

    Mary Parker Follett, social worker, management consultant, and pioneer of organizational theory and behaviour, suggested three ways to respond to conflict: Dominance, Compromise and Integration. Dominance means victory of one side over the other, which may work in the short term but can be counterproductive in the long run, with one side remaining disgruntled. Compromise means each party having to give up something for the sake of agreement and a reduction in friction, but again this is far from ideal as it can leave all parties dissatisfied, each having given up something of value. Finally, integration, the option advocated by Follett, means creatively incorporating the parties’ fundamental needs and interests into the solution. As she observed:

    “…when two desires are integrated, that means that a solution has been found in which both desires have found a place, that neither side has had to sacrifice anything.”

    She recognised that integrative bargaining is not always a viable option and there are a lot of obstacles in the way of cooperative negotiation: on the one hand, a natural distaste for conflict, and on the other, a zero-sum mentality. Those caveats aside, however, the method to integrative bargaining is based upon bringing real differences out into the open. Taking the example of psychology, Follett wrote:

    “The psychiatrist tells his patient that he cannot help him unless he is honest in wanting his conflict to end. The “uncovering” which every book on psychology has rubbed into us from some years now as a process of the utmost importance for solving the conflicts, which the individual has within himself, is equally important for the relations between groups, classes, races, and nations. In business, the employer, in dealing either with his associates or his employees, has to get underneath all the camouflage, has to find the real demand as against the demand put forward, distinguish declared motive from real motive, alleged cause from real cause, and to remember that sometimes the underlying motive is deliberately concealed and that sometimes it exists unconsciously. The first rule, then, for obtaining integration is to put your cards on the table, face the real issue, uncover the conflict, bring the whole thing into the open….”

    This type of “uncovering”, explained Follett, often leads to a “revaluation” of one’s desires and interests. In other words, uncovering leads people to move from position to interest-based thinking and negotiation.

    The first step is to illuminate and differentiate between people’s needs, interests and strategies. We all have the same basic needs (think of Maslow’s hierarchy for instance), but we have differing interests arising from those needs, and choose different strategies to meet those interests and needs. Conflicts arise when the strategies we choose to achieve our interests and needs stand in opposition to the strategies of others. We end up fighting over strategies and positions instead of looking more broadly for effective ways to meet our needs. For example, a need for safety and a desire (interest) to live in a safe neighbourhood can lead to two contradictory, ‘either/or’ strategies: gun ownership should be unrestricted or gun ownership should be restricted.

    There are a variety of ways to meet needs and interests, but a focus on the strategy narrows the range of solutions. It is easier to consider alternative strategies when needs and interests have been heard and named. In seeking solutions to a seemingly either/or issue, start by helping the people who are in conflict to get a full a full picture of what is important to each of them. This is the beginning of dialogue, formed by the two words ‘dia’ and ‘logos’, which can be literally interpreted as the two way exchange of meaning. It is the foundation of truly meaningful conversations that get beyond either/or and explore the possibilities for and/both.

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    Winston-Churchill-PortraitSometimes, when delivering a session on leadership, I go back to basics and start by asking what are the traits or qualities of a leader. Among the usual suspects of integrity, determination, knowledge, courage etc. reference is normally made to charisma. When pressed, however, this turns out to be something indefinable that somehow makes others want to follow you. R.J. House was more explicit, describing charismatic leaders as having an ideology baseddespite his terrible legacy, is still recognised for having had immense charismatic appeal. But the source of his charisma did not reside in him, but in the beliefs he espoused – his hatred of the Jews, his belief that all Germany’s problems stemmed from them, and his vision of how to lead Germany out of misery – all of which struck a chord with his audience, it was what they wanted to hear. On the other side of the channel, Winston Churchill was seen as a dangerous maverick in the 1930s, but the classic prototype of the stoic British bulldog under threat during the Second World War. Again in the post-war period a more congenial and inclusive leader was required.

    From this perspective, charisma is perhaps best explained by Social Identity Theory, the idea that we place people in categories that are either favourable, because they support our own identity, or unfavourable, because they are deemed to be different from us. Once categorized people are either in the in-group (us) or the out-group (them). This process also produces prototypes who emulate the social identity of the group. They are most representative of the shared social identity; they exemplify what members have in common and what makes them different; and they make ‘us’ feel different and better than ‘them’. Unsurprisingly, those closest to the prototype are likely to have the most influence. They are our charismatic leaders.

    So what are the lessons for aspiring leaders today? Well, barring those with an urge to megalomania, I would suggest the following:

    1. Fundamentally, most people want to be led. They want to have someone explain in relatively simple language, what is happening, why it is happening, what is likely to happen in the future and what we are going to do about it. In short, have your own vision and a mission.

    2. Role model the company culture as well as your team’s culture. Develop an image that mirrors the posture and profile of the organisation – what you all have in common (see our April blog). But also be sure to reflect the sub-culture of your team, what makes you and them different.

    3. Have a clear purpose for your team. Explain why they and what they do are important for the organisation, and why the organisation is important in the wider world. Why do you and the organisation exist? What unique value do you bring to the organisation and what does the organisation bring to the world? What sets you apart? And, why and to whom do you matter?

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    Leadership as Conversation


    Leadership as Conversation

    A few years ago Boris Groysberg and Michael Slind suggested that ‘leadership is a conversation’ (HBR 2012). Given our belief in the centrality of the conversation, we naturally found this idea intriguing. In short, they questioned the top-down model of leadership in the face of globalisation, new technology and changes to the economy, society and organisations. Instead, they suggested that part of the solution lay in new ways of communicating between leaders and led, which should become more conversational: ‘intimate’, ‘interactive’ and ‘inclusive’, to create trust and open up the flow of ideas and information; but also ‘intentional’ in order that the organisation can derive strategically relevant action from the debate. It is not without its flaws, but it is a great place to start a conversation.

    While leaders may use conversations to achieve their ends that does not mean that all leadership is a conversation. A leader certainly needs to engage in purposeful (intentional) conversations in order to gather as much information as possible in order to generate plans and respond to problems, but at some point the conversation must end and decisions need to be made. There may also be times when a conversation is just not suitable. For example, when dealing with critical problems or crises the leader has to take command. Taking decisive action in a time sensitive environment when collective action would take too long is the perogative of the leader. There is no doubting however, that in order to improve decisions, leaders need all the critical information, both good and bad, to help them understand what is happening. In practice however, encouraging employees to volunteer bad news often proves difficult. In part, this is down to human behaviour, which makes people reluctant to be the bearer of bad news, but it is also an aspect of organisational culture. Changing the mode of communication in organisations from monologue to dialogue is always going to be challenging.

    This was recognised by Groysberg and Slind. Differences in authority and responsibility make it difficult to have meaningful conversations, instead the leader will often be told/hear what they want to hear. Simply put, this could be described as the ‘observer effect’, whereby the presence of the leader in a conversation tends to distort what is said. There may be a tendency for people to suggest things to gain favour, impress and create influence, rather than engage in open communication. For internal communication systems to work you need to have genuine interactive leadership, which encourages and rewards a culture of sharing information and the ill-formed thought. Does your organisation have that?

    Having the right conversation with the right people is an important goal in any organisation, and when applied in the right context leadership can be a conversation. If leadership is about dealing with uncertainty and deriving innovative responses to complex problems, it is more likely to require collective solutions. In this case, leaders who ask the right questions and encourage honest answers are key. Our suggestion would be to adopt the southern African concept of Ubuntu, which encourages everyone to have an equal voice, then the leader decides

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    The Power of a Good Question

    QuestionsIn January’s blog I wrote that PSA’s role is not to tell, but to ask useful questions that will ignite effective conversation. I would add that it is also our role to help leaders to ask those same questions. We agree with Ian Leslie, the author of ‘Curious’, that those with the ability to ask penetrating questions will increasingly be in demand. Leslie quotes the former CEO of Dow Chemical, Mike Parker, who observed that:

    A lot of bad leadership comes from an inability or unwillingness to ask questions. I have watched talented people – people with much higher IQs than mine – who have failed as leaders. They can talk brilliantly, with a great breadth of knowledge, but they’re not very good at asking questions. So while they know a lot at a high level, they don’t know what’s going on way down in the system. Sometimes they are afraid of asking questions, but what they don’t realise is that the dumbest questions can be very powerful. They can unlock a conversation.

    So what are we afraid of? Leslie, drawing on the work of Michael Marquardt, identifies four reasons why people don’t ask questions: first, a desire to protect ourselves from the danger of looking stupid; second, because we’re too busy and tend to focus on action at the expense of thinking and questioning; third, because the culture discourages questioning – either because it is are authoritarian, blinded by groupthink or disposed toward action not reflection; and finally, because we lack the skills (or knowledge) to ask them (we don’t know what we don’t know).

    So what can we do about it? Be curious. Have the courage to ask the stupid question, if you can’t who can? Take time to think and compose penetrating questions that go to the nub of an issue, and ask yourself if it’s just you, or does a fear of questioning permeate your organisation.

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