Adding Not Taking Away

pancake day

Many of us are used to giving things up for lent. Chocolate’s normally my abstinence of choice although I’ve stopped eating it altogether now, so I’ll have to find something different to abstain from.

I was interested to hear Father Brian D’Arcy discussing the subject of lent this morning on Radio 2’s ‘Pause for Thought’. Father Brian explained that, as lent is the old English word for Spring, it’s a good time for looking to make positive changes as much as it is about sacrifice for the sake of penance.

I was delighted that Father Brian, in contemplating a change of direction this spring, had come up with a set of self-coaching questions for each of the six weeks of lent.

These were Father Brian’s own questions for himself: –

  1. How do I describe where my life is now? How do I describe the vision of life that I’d like to have?
  2. What makes me happy? What paralyses me?
  3. What gift or talent do I have that I’m ignoring. How can I challenge myself more?
  4. How do I handle the crises of life? Fright, fight or flight ?
  5. What 100 beautiful things in my life do I take for granted?
  6. What practical steps after Easter will I take to ensure that I keep on changing?

All of which should generate some new thinking for Father Brian, but, as he points out, these are his own questions for himself. You’ll have to think of your own.

So what questions will you ask of yourself for lent, and what positive changes will you make?

To Empathise, or Not to Empathise…


Leaders have a tough role at the best of times. Even when things are going well they are constantly having to determine how best to use their precious time and energy.

As a leader, wherever you sit within your organisation, you’ll be juggling your own time and energy between various objectives, such as working towards goals, leading your team, managing stakeholders, reviewing strategy and focusing on individual team members.

The chances are that it is the individuals in your team that lose out when the juggling act begins to falter and a ball gets dropped. This may be because you understand the strategy, the goal and the task and what’s required of the team to be working towards them.

We tend to focus our attention on areas where we’re comfortable.

Paying attention to individuals and their situation, particularly if things are not going well for them, is something you may be less proficient at, and less inclined to do. So, faced with a team member who has some issues that it would be useful to address, you may feel more comfortable with shifting your focus back to juggling other balls and keeping everything moving along as well as you can, despite the individual’s issues.

But paying attention to the members of your team and supporting them with what’s going on for them as individuals is an essential part of your role as a leader, although it’s not always recognised as such by busy leaders with a responsibility to produce results.

A few days ago I was running a ‘Coaching Skills for Leaders’ workshop, and naturally got on the subject of empathy, and how it fits within a leadership context. All of the delegates on the course had some leadership responsibility and we had a fairly broad conversation about empathy; what it is and why it is important when having a coaching conversation.

Towards the end of this discussion, one of the delegates (we’ll call her Iris) could contain herself no longer and, in an exasperated manner, spilled out her thoughts on the subject.

“That’s all very well and good, but there’s still work that needs to be done.” Iris said.

I wasn’t too surprised by Iris’s comment, as this reaction surfaces from time to time from busy leaders. I asked Iris to say more about her thoughts on empathy. Iris continued in the same vein,

“Well, I can understand that someone may be having a tough time, and I am perfectly capable of putting myself in their shoes, but they’re there to do a job and they have to get on with it.” Iris said.

Bear in mind that this was a conversation about empathy.

I asked Iris to what extent she thought she might be demonstrating empathy if, in that moment as a leader, her thoughts were focussed on getting the task done. We then had a wider discussion around being present in coaching conversations with members of your team and actually focusing on them and their issues, rather than our thoughts being focussed elsewhere.

Iris seemed to appreciate the question I had asked of her, and when it came to the practical aspect of the course, and the chance to practice the skills, she was fully present. She engaged with her coaching partner, listened with interest and seemed to be empathic. Maybe not having to worry about getting a job done made a difference, but maybe there was a change in Iris’s thoughts on the subject.

Coaching skills don’t provide the answer to every leadership situation. There are times when other skills are required.

Empathy is just one tool in a leader’s tool-kit. It isn’t always going to be the difference that makes the difference, but in the long-run your role as a leader is going to be much more effective if you are able to demonstrate empathy when the stituation calls for it.

Leading Alone


I went to see ‘Darkest hour’ last weekend; a marvellous journey into the psyche of Churchill in the days running up to the evacuation of troops from Dunkirk in 1940.

The story depicts a man standing alone; a newly appointed Prime Minister, whom nobody wants, least of all his own party. Even the king is appalled at the prospect of having to meet with him once a week.

And in this moment, Churchill is faced with the fact that the remnants of the French, Belgian and British armies, some 300,000 troops, are stranded on a French beach, awaiting certain death at the hands of advancing German troops and bombers. There seems to be little hope of avoiding the prospect of having to negotiate a peace with Hitler to avoid a Nazi invasion of Britain.

But Churchill is adamant that he will not negotiate, and is determined to fight on, despite the odds, and determined to try to evacuate the stranded troops.

With members of his war cabinet advising Churchill that negotiation is the only answer to avoid 300,000 lives being lost, he wrestles with this overwhelming dilemma. He has an alternative idea; the mass evacuation of the troops with the help of a flotilla of small privately owned sea-craft. But no-one else believes in the plan and Churchill is being pressed to opt for peace talks, particularly by Neville Chamberlain and Lord Halifax.

There follows an exchange in which Churchill proclaims, “I take full responsibility!” “Really?”, retorts Lord Halifax, incredulously. “Really! Yes Sir! It is the reason I sit in this chair.” Churchill shouts back angrily.

Despite his willingness to take full responsibility, Churchill was still a lone voice in the war cabinet and vulnerable to possible resignations, which might have seen him removed from office. At this point, in his moment of isolation and despair, we see the tremendous pressure on Churchill not to take any risks and to negotiate. When all seems lost, Churchill is visited at his home by the king who, recognising the imminent threat to the country, offers him his support.

This is all the encouragement Churchill needs to look beyond his war cabinet and to gain support from his Outer Cabinet of MPs. He makes a rousing speech in which he gains the overwhelming support of members of the Outer Cabinet, and is then able to push ahead with his decision to fight on.

The evacuation of Dunkirk was miraculously successful and the rest, as they say, is history.

We recognise Churchill now as a great leader, but at the time he was seen as difficult, a maverick, a rogue elephant, someone that had made bad decisions in the past. His fellow ministers were worried about his recklessness. But Churchill was prepared to stand alone, to make unpopular decisions and to stand up for what he believed in. The personification of resilience.

But Churchill also had his demons and wrestled with bouts of mild depression throughout his life. Those days of feeling isolated, leading up to the decision to continue to ‘wage war against a monstrous tyranny’, were surely reason enough for Churchill to find himself in a dark place. But once he had found the support that he needed from others, he was able to stick to his resolve.

Whoever you are, whatever your leadership position, you are going to need the support of others. Having responsiblity can be extremely isolating and often, finding someone to offer you support and assistance in clarifying your thinking is the key to your effectiveness and long-term well-being.

Gaining Some Perspective


casuse of death

I was talking to a friend a few days ago about the inconvenience of our bodies in the modern world. Not, that I’m looking to get rid of any non-essential elements, other than the unwanted pounds that sit around my waist.

I was more focused on the cognitive, emotional and physiological responses that we have to stress that don’t serve us particualrly well; responses that were designed for a very different time and a very different purpose.

The vast majority of us in the western world never have to run from any physical threat on a regular basis, and most people that I talk to have never had to.

And yet our evolutionary make-up is still preparing us to do just that. We have retained our ever vigilant awareness to threats to our life. There was a time when our lives would have depended on that vigelance. We just haven’t evolved as organisms to a new environment where physical threats that might cause a stress response are actually quite rare.

There were 685 homicides in the UK last year, which is devastating for those involved, but the figure is the same as the number of people who were killed accidentally falling off, or from, steps or stairs.

The statistic of 685 murders in one year compares well to the one that reveals that 160,000 deaths in the UK in 2017 were as a result of heart disease, a condition that is heavily impacted by our response to stress and has little to do with physical threats we might encounter.

When we feel threatened, for whatever reason, our amygdala is activated in the same way that it was in our primitive ancestors when they were being chased by a large predator. This tiny part of the brain still sparks off the adrenaline and cortisol release that gets our heart racing, blood pumping to our muscles, our breathing more erratic and our bodies just crying out to do something physical. And most of us just sit and worry.

Which is one half of the problem.

The other half of the problem is our capacity to think, to reflect and to speculate.

When we do have a threat response to an event, such as a problem we’re facing in the workplace, whilst we’re sitting and worrying (rather than running), we’ll stress about what catastrophic consequences might befall us; we’ll obsess about what our colleagues are plotting; we’ll berate ourselves for being inept and we’ll fret about what others will think of us. And we’re doing all of this when the amygdala has hijacked our brain and is suppressing our rational thinking

Whilst we’re doing all of this worrying (rather than running), the adrenalin and cortisol keeps coursing through our bodies, placing chronic stress on an anatomy built for acute stress and a physical response. Before we know it we have high blood pressure, an upset stomach, an inability to sleep and numerous other potential conditions that are brought on by chronic stress.

Being able to take a step back and put an adverse situation in to perspective offers a remedy to the problem that our ill-equipped stress response system presents us with. The easiest way to do that is to talk the situation through with someone who is not going to sit in judgement or tell you what you should do, but who will, instead, be your thinking partner as you rationally explore your situation, dispel your irrational beliefs.

If you’re a leader allowing your outdated stress response to have a chronic impact on your ill-equipped body, and ultimately your health, drop me a line and let’s explore your situation together, either face to face, via Skype or over the phone. Just message me here and let’s start a conversation.

Our Mission is…


I went to see ‘The Post’ last night and wallowed in the story of the newspaper and it’s battles with Nixon in the years running up to his resignation, secure in the craftsmanship of Spielberg, Streep and Hanks.

The film ends where one of my favourite movies, ‘All the President’s Men’, begins; with the break-in at the Democratic party’s national headquarters in the Watergate building. ‘The Post’ concerns the prior publication of secret Pentagon papers about Vietnam, rather than Nixon’s fall from grace.

Interestingly, the night before I went to see the movie I’d watched the leading man, Tom Hanks, being interviewed. Within that conversation he explained that when he meets the real life personalties that he goes on to portray on film he tells them, “As you, I’m going to say things you never said, I’m going to go places you never were, and I’m going to do things you never did. That being said I’m going to be as authentic as possible.”

Which raises the issue of how accurate a portrayal of events, such as these, can be.

I’ve been reading Julian Barnes’s novel ‘The Sense of an Ending’, in which the main character, Tony reminisces about his school history lessons and the notion that, ‘History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.’

Fortunately, the film is based on a wealth of documentation, some of it kept secret by the government of the day, and actually includes Nixon\s voice, as captured on secret recordings that he made of himself in conversation at the time .

The movie is about a moment in history, but is also of our time in terms of the roles of both the press and politicians. It has some interesting things to say too about the role and the voice of women in leadership positions, set as it is in a time when women were all too often not heard at all by the men around them.

Fortunately, the leading female character in the movie, Kay Graham, owned The Washington Post, and also had the strength of character to risk imprisonment and the loss of her newspaper by publishing a story that her legal advisers cautioned her not to publish.

In the scene where she decides to go ahead and publish the story, Kay Graham refers to the mission of the paper, ‘to tell the truth’, and to its duty to the American people to hold politicians to account. Interestingly, Graham has her own thoughts on the recording of historical events, and comments, “The news is the first rough draft of history.”

Although the scene may be a dramatic invention, it struck me whilst watching the story unfold, that an organisation’s mission is an important element of its make-up that serves as a reminder of what the organisation is at its heart. All too often organisations offer forth a glib mission statement that both its people and those looking in from the outside struggle to connect with.

If the mission of an organisation is meaningful and resonates with the values and the behaviours of its people, then hopefully, when the chips are down, leaders such as Kay Graham, have less trouble in making the choice to do the right thing.


Getting My Mojo Back!

expressive writing

I found myself talking about writing to a coaching group that I was training this morning. I’m intending to write a book this year on Leadership Resilience. I asked the group to coach me on the topic. They did well and asked questions that generated some new thinking for me, which is what coaching is all about.

They reflected back to me that I was saying that I’d lost my writing mojo and it had been eighteen months since I stopped writing every day. I’d lost sight of the fact that it had been that long. Although I had always intended to take a break from writing eighteen months is a huge gap. The commitment of writing my ‘366 Days of Resilience’ blog every day for a year and a day was tough and took some resolve, but I managed to complete the challenge, so goodness only knows why I’ve struggled to write ever since.

Maybe I just ran out of things to say.

A new friend of mine has been reading my blogs and took the time to send me a message a few days ago to say, ‘Wow, you can write!’, which was incredibly kind of her. She is a novelist, so I am taking it as a huge compliment, and I’m also taking it as encouragement to actually crack on and write my book this year.

One of this morning’s coaching trainees asked what was different about when I was writing every day.  I found myself answering that some of it was about having made a very public commitment to write a daily blog, particularly about resilience. There wasn’t really anyway I could stop writing without admitting to failing. So that has me thinking that a very public declaration is called for to set me on a new writing path that will lead to the publication of my book by the end of the year. So this blog is now turning in to that declaration.

I’ll keep you posted on my progress and will invite you to the book launch before the year is out.

It feels good to be back at my keyboard and allowing the words to flow.



How Good is Your Intuition?

AK27Imagine that you are given a set of cards that each have a letter on one side a number on the other. You are told that a rule applies to this set of cards that ‘if there is an A on one side then there is a 2 on the other side.’

You are then given the task of turning over the cards required in order to test whether the rule is true or false. Which cards would you choose?

Most people fail the task because they are influenced by a confirmation bias. In this instance the confirmation bias means that we are likely to look for ways of confirming the rule rather than disconfirming it.

But the confirmation bias is also responsible for us seeking out information that supports a belief that we already have and disregarding information that challenges it. And it’s just one of many biases we are subject to that results in our intuition being faulty.

Now, most of us would like to think that we have sound judgement. In fact another bias, the optimism bias, is responsible for the fact that a large majority of us would consider ourselves to have better than average judgement, which of course is not possible, just as we can’t all be better than average drivers.

Once we’ve decided that we are able to trust our intuition, then we’ll look for times when a decision that we’ve made, based on a ‘gut feeling’, has gone well and we’ll delete from our memory times when our intuition choices have resulted in a less than favourable outcome.

The reality is that sound judgement tends to come from applying robust problem solving tools and intuition comes with experience of similar situations to the one that we might be facing. Beyond that our ‘gut feelings’ are just luck; sometimes we’ll win and sometimes we’ll lose.

Just saying!