Letting thoughts come

I spent some time letting thoughts come to me yesterday.

I’d been working on the design for a new coaching programme for several hours and needed a break from the design work to do some thinking.

I’d been chasing ideas all morning, but they weren’t for being caught, so I took a walk in the sunshine on my own and without my iPhone.

That was rewarding in and of itself. Connecting with the countryside and the joy of different birdsong and bufferflies on the wing, in all shapes, sizes and colours.

The experience put me in mind of a conversation between Winnie the Pooh and Rabbit in ‘The House at Pooh Corner’. The exchange comes on the back of Rabbit overhearing Pooh humming a little hum.

“Did you make that song up?” asked Rabbit.

“Well, I sort of made it up,” said Pooh. “It isn’t brain,” he went on humbly, “…but it comes to me sometimes.”

“Ah!” said Rabbit, who never let things come to him, but always went and fetched them.

What Pooh knew, in his own way, was that our unconscious has a way of allowing things to surface when we’re not really trying, and it’s a curse of our constantly connected lives that we often don’t allow ourselves time to let ideas come. Even when we’re in need of creative inspiration we often, very much like Rabbit, go looking for ideas.

More often than not, we need to let them find us.

The American poet Ruth Stone used to talk of poems barrelling across the countryside, finding her out in a wheat field, and of her running home to try find pen and paper in order to capture them. And the marvellous songwriter, Tom Waits, would tell of cursing songs that turned up when he was speeding along a freeway unable to capture the words or melody, knowing that they may never return and might well carry on, ending up at Leonard Cohen’s feet.

Fortunately, the ideas that sought me out on my walk stayed with me and have now made it in to my workshop and saved me a whole load more chasing.

Whilst coaching, I am always looking for that opportunity to allow the new thoughts that clients would like to show up, to actually surface. In order to do this, as coaches, we have to create a space.

It’s within that space that the client’s unconscious does it magical work.

The client might well be talking when the thoughts start to come. They may speak those thoughts out loud; thoughts that had never occurred to them before, or they may pause as their new thinking takes them by surprise.

Alternatively, they may be sitting in quiet contemplation as the thoughts show up and be silent for some time.

However the thoughts choose to show up for our clients, it’s important that we stay out of the way and let them surface. We have nothing to add to this process, other than our presence, to create the space necessary.

And the thoughts will come, if we just give them space.

And whether they’re just a little hum or whether they’re something transformational, they are always worth allowing to surface.

When Charismatic Leadership Fails

Charismatic leaders have the ability to communicate with people and lead on a profound, emotional level. They have the ability to articulate a captivating or compelling vision and evoke strong emotions in their followers.

Think of Steve Jobs and Richard Branson, or maybe less positively, Hitler.

Charismatic leadership is essentially a process, a series of interactions between the characteristics of a charismatic leader; the group, or tribe, that feels inspired to follow them, how that tribe identifies with their leader, and the circumstances and events that create the space for a charismatic leader to emerge.

The stars have to align but the what allows the charismatic leader to succeed initially, is their ability to communicate with members of their tribe, gain their trust and inspire them in a call to action.

A plethora of politicians over the years have developed the skill to effectively communicate; working the crowd and appealing to both financial backers and voters. For many of those politicians who have exuded an overwhelming amount of personal charisma, becoming a leader never happens, because they perhaps don’t have an underlying political acumen; the political landscape isn’t right or their charisma lands them in trouble.

When the stars do align, the charismatic leader can have a tremendous impact in galvanising a party and a nation.

Tony Blair found a sweet spot in time to lead Britain out of eighteen years of Conservative political domination. Barrack Obama was the right leader, at the right time, to lead the USA towards a more compassionate future. For Obama, his intellect, integrity and strength of character complemented his charisma to ensure that his reputation will live long after his term in office. For Blair, a fateful decision over the Iraq war left his leadership credentials rather tarnished.

In our time, both Donald Trump and Boris Johnson have had that ability to connect with people, even though both are, quite often, anything but eloquent. Their supporters have turned them in to superheroes, capable of making America great again and delivering Brexit.

They have both managed to find and court their tribes. They have allowed their egos to be massaged by those around them to the point that they find themselves in leadership positions that neither is equipped for, both in terms of acumen and integrity. Their propaganda machines have turned them in to super-leaders, urging their followers ever onwards, building that wall or getting Brexit done. The Messiah leading their people towards a new kingdom.

The problem with being the Messiah is that it appeals to very base instincts, to the narcissism of those in leadership roles who dream of being heroic, and to the dependency needs of their followers, who want to be saved or, at least, led to a better future by their Messiah. Neither is a healthy place to be and is only sustainable if, as the Messiah, you’re delivering what you promised.

When all you have is bluff, bluster and a winning smile you have to resort to fake news and lies on the side of a bus. And when the propaganda machine starts to creak and the cracks in the varnish begin to show, it’s not long before the emperor’s new clothes fall away. What is revealed is a rather unattractive personification of the charismatic leader, lacking in integrity and authenticity, ready to say whatever it takes to allow them to cling on to power.

For Trump and Boris time seems to be running out in parallel and a race to the bottom appears to be materialising between them. Their character flaws are beginning to become more important than their charisma and the end is in sight for both.

The question is, who will be the first to resign or be thrown out of office?

The Spanish Culture Club

The culture of Spanish football team Barcelona was enhanced more than a decade ago when they started to engage the players in a culture and a set of behaviours that would give Barcelona a competitive advantage.

The three behaviours that have, since that time, underpinned Barcelona’s culture are ‘humility, hard work and putting the team above your own self-interest.’

Their philosophy was very much, “Your talent will get you through the dressing room door, but it’s your behaviour that’s going to determine whether we keep you or not.” When Pep Guardiola was the manager at Barcelona, he employed former water polo legend, Manuel Estiarte, as a technical assistant and one of his duties was to watch the bench, particularly when things weren’t going so well. Guardiola wanted to know who the players were on the bench that didn’t react when chances were missed. Guardiola interpreted the lack of reaction as sulking on the part of some of those who weren’t picked to play who were not putting the team above themselves.

Someone who didn’t ever fit the culture of Barcelona was Zlatan Ibrahimivich, who was bought for €69 million in 2009 and sold for €24 million just ten ten months later. Ibrahimivich didn’t understand the culture of Barcelona and lacked the humility that they demanded. Although given the keys to a club Audi and told not to arrive at the training ground in one of his flash cars, Ibrahimivich couldn’t help himself. When things weren’t going so well for him and he was dropped from the side, Ibrahimivich arrived at work the next day in a yellow Lamborghini, betraying one of the club’s cultural behaviours, humility.

The Barcelona culture is something that Guardiola has brought with him to Manchester City, where it is evident that the players have brought in to those three cultural behaviours. This is much of the reason for them having a record breaking season in the Premier League last year.

Whether your team is involved in sports, business or some other endeavour, having a culture and a set of behaviours that everyone feels able to sign up to is a great way of creating cohesion and a sense of team identity.


Resilient Leadership

Resilient leadership

There are some enlightened businesses out there that pro-actively seek to ensure that the people working for the organisation don’t suffer from over-work and too much stress. Seriously, there are some. However you don’t have to look to hard when you’re in the world of people development to find examples of businesses that, even if they pay lip-service to the well-being of their people, are still inherently designed to extract as much out of their human resource as they can get away with.

Acknowledging this fact means that those in a leadership role should be taking steps to look after themselves and their teams to ensure that the early warning signs of stress overload are not ignored. In doing so they will also be taking care of the organisation’s resilience.

When considering their own resilience along with that of their team and their organisation, leaders might consider the behaviours identified by Everly, Strouse and Everly (2010) as exhibited by resilient leaders:

Acting with integrity
Communicating Effectively
Harnessing the power of optimism and self-fulfilling prophecy
Taking responsibility for their actions
Building a resilient culture
Using stress management as a competitive advantage

The great thing about the six behaviours identified is that they can all be learned and developed and can all be cascaded to other people within the organisation by modelling and training of such behaviours. The more that people are trained in such areas the more they are likely to respond in an effective way when they encounter some form of disruptive situation.

According to Malcolm Gladwell’s “Law of the Few” if 20% of an organisation’s workforce can be persuaded to act in a resilient way, a tipping point may be reached after which the rest of the organisation may be ‘tipped’ towards a resilient culture.

The Smell of Laziness

Jo Malone is back doing what she loves best. Picture: Contributed

I was listening to the marvellous Jo Malone, the celebrated perfumer, on Radio 4 on Saturday morning, and the conversation turned to smells that other people found objectionable. A listener suggested that the smell of washed clothes that had taken too long to dry was a smell that she found deeply repulsive, whilst her husband claimed not to be able to smell the aroma at all. I have to say that that particular smell always reminds me of baby sick, although I’m not sure why, and it’s besides the point really.

In response to the listener’s comment Jo Malone spoke forth, saying “I can’t stand that smell either, that’s laziness; that’s the smell of laziness.” Which seemed a little harsh frankly.

As someone who has been known to occasionally forget that the washing machine I had set to run before I left the house in the morning is sitting there in the evening with a full load of damp clothes festering away, I would contest Jo’s assertion. I would suggest that it’s a forgetfulness rather than laziness. After all I end up washing the clothes again on the rare occasion that it happens, thus creating more work.

But we all have our funny little ways of judging the actions, or the in-action, of others and we make rules up about what it means to us. I’m not a big fan of people being late for meetings, especially group meetings where everyone else is kept waiting, but I know that for some people that it absolutely means a complete lack of respect for someone to be late.

I challenged a young lawyer in a work-shop once who suggested that her boyfriend being late to meet her meant that he didn’t respect her. I queried whether, leaving aside his tardiness, she felt that her boyfriend did actually respect her, and she replied that yes, she thought he did. So I asked her why she had made it a rule in her life that being late meant a lack of respect. It gave her pause to think about her rules and why she’d made them.

What rules do you have that mean more to you than perhaps they should and why have you chosen to have them?

When Leaders Go Missing

Theresa May19

An odd thing happened this week on the political front. The leader of the country went missing, having just lost a vote on whether parliament supported her course of action. Mrs May has not been heard of since. The lost vote was on Thursday. She wasn’t even there to here the result, which I suppose is not a surprise. There’s only so much rejection any one person can take. She hasn’t even tweeted since Wednesday.

But if I look at this from a leadership perspective I wonder what Mrs May is thinking as a leader and what lies behind her going silent at this crucial point in proceedings. She could be taking the stance that no news is good news and that people are tired of her repeating the same message that she is battling for Britain and will keep on fighting the EU until the end, even though no progress has been made with her own party, let alone the EU. It has become a little tiresome after all.

She might be thinking that if she can just stay out of the headlines for a few days until she pops up in Brussels in a few days time where she can be seen to be negotiating and that will have bought her a bit more time; a little more running down of the clock to bring us a little bit nearer to the point where MPs might just have to agree with her, or face the disaster of a no deal exit from the EU.

Perhaps she’s ill and doesn’t want to appear weakened at this important time. Appearance matters in leadership, but everyone gets ill from time to time. It would be ridiculous to pretend otherwise. Or maybe she died and is about to be replaced by a double, and we’ll see an ever so slightly different Theresa May appear with a slightly different shaped nose and the conspiracy theorists can start to go to work.

Or maybe Mrs May has taken the opportunity to go on holiday for a few days. This was, after all, scheduled to be a week where Parliament took a recess, even though this has been cancelled. Maybe a few days of walking the hills, before the final six weeks of wrangling on all sides to achieve a deal. A chance to clear her head and to switch off from the circus, if only for 72 hours. We all need to take time out, to rest our minds and our bodies. To stop fighting on all fronts. And I think that would be reasonable this weekend, but not before communicating the fact. To just disappear on the back of a lost vote is to leave a void for speculation to enter in to, if only in my head.

Whatever the reason for our nation’s leader switching to radio silence without warning, it is undoubtedly an error. People need leadership and will fill the vacuum with someone else’s leadership if you, as a leader, are not providing it.

Oh, actually, I was forgetting, there isn’t anyone else in parliament demonstrating any leadership to fill the vacuum with.

Okay, fair enough, stay quiet Prime Minister. Let’s all take a break from thoughts of leadership for a few days and pick it back up again when you decide to put in an appearance. It’s only the future of the country at stake after all.

Playing With the Culture

soskjaerManchester United have lost their first match with Ole Gunnar Solskjær in charge as their caretaker manager, which brings to an end a miraculous start for him as the new messiah of the once indomitable football club; a club that has more recently been in the wilderness, ever since the departure of the Lord Almighty Sir Alex Ferguson.

With Ferguson’s departure in 2013 there followed a series of false prophets in the form of David Moyes, Louis Van Gaal, and the self-declared chosen one, Jose Mourinho. All have failed to deliver and failed to honour the legacy that Ferguson had left to them. Ferguson had built a culture in his 26 years in charge, a culture based on valuing the people and the community at Old Trafford that had served the club so willingly during his tenure.

That culture was swept away, along with the entire coaching staff and chips from the club menu, by Moyes when he arrived; determined as he was to stamp his own mark on the players and the staff and to signal an end to the United Way that had existed under Ferguson. Whilst Moyes lasted only ten months in the job, the damage had been done and his successor, Van Gaal, did little to try and reverse any of the changes.

One of the coaches that was asked to leave when Moyes arrived was Mike Phelan, who had been Fergusons’ assistant manager for the previous five years. Phelan was one of the first people that Solskjær contacted when he was asked to take up the management role, as he knew that the former United stalwart would have an important part to play in rebuilding the culture at United.

Solskjær has gone out of his way to connect with the people that make up the fabric of life at the Manchester club and it seems to have been well received. In the fourteen years Solskjær spent as a player and later as a coach, he got to understand the culture of Old Trafford and is now doing his best to return the club to its former glory and rebuild it’s success through the people that for the last six years appear to have been side-lined.

Solskjær now faces his toughest leadership challenge since he took over the Red Devils. With his side losing 2-0 to Paris St Germain in the Champions League and with their most influential player, Paul Pogba, being sent off in the same match, Solskjær faces the task of steeling them to face FA Cup rivals Chelsea next Monday. The following weekend they go on to play in the Premier League against title contenders and old rivals Liverpool. It could be a tricky couple of weeks that might expose Solskjær’s lack of high-level leadership experience.

Whatever happens though against Chelsea and Liverpool it is clear that something remarkable has taken place in the manager’s office at Old Trafford. Gone are the egos that came along with the former success of the leaders of the previous six years. Gone is the concept of charismatic leadership that Mourinho seemed to depend upon. This has all been replaced with a leadership that is embedded in humility, an understanding of people and a respect for the culture that underpins this particular football club.

I spend much of my time coaching leaders and helping them to understand their environment and the culture they operate in. Sometimes that requires an adjustment on their part, to work with the culture; sometimes it requires a departure from a culture that doesn’t match their values and often it’s about creating a culture, building from what’s there but working with the people around you to create something special.