This thing, leadership

Not seen as often as we would like, the real leader. Much mentioned. Described in detail. In the classrooms, the course, the books, the blogs the magazine specials. The top 10 leadership qualities. Leading for the future. The authentic leader. Lessons in leadership. Leadership for dummies. The laws of leadership. 10 things great leaders do before breakfast.

We’ve read the books, been on the course, and got the t-shirt. You could spend your life reading leadership books, frameworks, checklists. Trying out the new approaches, the latest thinking, the recent best seller. Scratch the surface and so many are just dresing up the same old wine in new bottles. But despite the plethora of information, the investments made, so many people, so many organisations, are still getting it so wrong.

People who think they can, think they do, think they are. People who pretend. Read a book, tick a box. Read a list, check it off. Got a problem im your company? We will send people on a two day course, of course!

We all want good leadership in our organisations. We certainly spend enough time talking about it, spending money on courses to deliver it. But do we know what it really means, to us, where we are, in our own organisation, day to day?

If the strived for true leader turns up tomorrow, at your place, would you know it, recognise it, feel it? How would you know you had got it, anyway?

I hear talk of leadership, everywhere. It is the ‘thing’. The term is so overused I barely know what it means anymore. No one can seem to agree on its definition, what the qualities are, how you show it, how you live it, which type is best. But then again, if we did, the books would stop selling. The links would stop circulating.

I do know that the answer isn’t in a top ten list. I do know that I can’t put it in a checklist and tell people to follow it. I do know that a quick course isn’t a cure all. Leadership isn’t universal, it is contextual. What it means to me, to my organisation, my industry, the people I work with, is different to you and yours. So define it for you and your place.

Create your own leadership list.

Creating the best workplace on earth

I’m listening to the opening keynote at CIPD13 by Gareth Jones and Rob Goffee, who are talking about creating great places to work.

They argue that effective leadership excites people to exceptional performance, and exceptional performance is not a luxury for organisations, but a necessity for survival.

People want effective leaders, and they want those leaders to be authentic. But authentic leadership needs authentic organisations. The new task of leadership is to create organisations in which employees can find their authentic selves, and follow their dreams. People spend most of their lives at work – so employees need to be able to be themselves there.

Leaders must be able to answer the question: ‘why would anyone want to work here?’

Goffee and Jones believe that employees want these things, in their dreams.

– Difference. Not just diversity, but a chance to be different, to celebrate difference. Cohesion without homogenisation.

– Radical honesty. To know what is really going on. No spin. No sanitisation. Share information, don’t hoard it. Tell the truth before someone else does.

– Extra value. To be able to work in an organisation in which your strengths are magnified. Employers and employees adding value to each other. Letting people grow through what they do.

– Authenticity. To know what the organisation stands for. Not a wordy mission statement sitting unread on the corporate intranet but a real sense of where the company has come from and where it is going.

– Meaning. To do work that really means something. Meaning comes from many sources; connections, community, cause.

– Simple rules. To work somewhere free from stupid rules. Have good rules. Simple and agreed ones that make sense to people, and feel fair.

So, could you answer the first question: why would someone want to work in your organisation? And if you are a leader, why would anyone want to work for you.

How does the organisation you work stack up against these criteria?

Can we DREAM of creating a great place to work?

Let HR lead the way.

Please Sir, can I be empowered?

I attended a networking event recently, where I found myself talking to a business leader who bemoaned to me that his people didn’t take action. Didn’t take the initiative. ‘They just need to be empowered’, he said to me. I asked him what this would look like, how he would know when he had it, when he had been successful in creating this empowered organisation. He looked at me for a while. ‘They’ll just get on and do stuff, without waiting to be asked’, was the reply.

The problem with the conversation was twofold. Firstly, look at his first statement. There is no recognition, that he, as a senior member of staff, has the responsibility for creating this environment, this belief within his team that they can and they should. That it will be okay, and there won’t be any blame, repercussions, liability.

There are some people that will just make the decision for themselves to take the ownership, make the decision, assume the power. To JFDI, if you will. But they are few are far between. Most people need to be told that it is okay. They need reassurance and guidance, a signal. And this is the responsibility of the leaders of the organisation.

When people ask me for permision to do something simple, everyday, straightforward, I see it as a failure. A failure that I have failed to communicate to them previously that it okay for them to make their own decision, just get on and do what they think is best, weigh up the pros and cons and crack on.

Telling people it is okay is just the start. You need to continually show that you mean it. Recognise people for trying, deciding, getting on with it. Encourage those that step forward first. Inspire the rest to do the same. Even if the whatever it is doesn’t work out quite like it would have done if you had done it, made the call, signed some formal approval document, then embrace it just the same.

If you really want empowerment that is. it’s a nice sounding word. Its sounds collaborative, engaging, like the sort of thing a good leader should want. But not everyone is ready for the reality of handing over their power to others.

Leaders. If you want empowerment then it is your job to create it. Create the culture in which people feel that they can. Power is vested within you by virtue of the role you hold, your job title with the important sounding words. Only you can give it away to others. Let them know the parameters in which they can work, and then get the hell out of their way.

Be brave. And let someone else JFDI.

Being the change

I wrote a blog earlier this week, about how one individual, standing up and speaking out, can make all the difference. Can start something, all by themselves. So today, I decided to take my own advice, and start the change I wanted to see.

Like plenty of companies, the building in which I work is fairly bland, uninspiring. It’s grey. We went for the practical carpet (grey). Then we added some practical filing cabinets (also grey). And then some practical furniture (much of it, grey). It wasn’t quite 50 shades, but it wasn’t far off.

I wanted to change it. Inject some colour, some energy, some light. I wanted to make it a nicer place to come to, for everyone.

I could have got some quotes for the work. Written a business case. Requested some Cap Ex. Got the official sign off and engaged a contractor.

I could have waited for all the time that process would have taken. But I didn’t want to. I wanted it done, now. And more importantly, I would rather spend my budget on something less boring instead.

So today, I painted the office. I went off to the DIY store and got some brightly coloured paint. I roped in a dozen other willing people, and for three hours this morning we painted the communal areas in our building. Pink, purple, blue.

I put out an internal comms asking for help. I promised nothing but biscuits, and a sense of doing a good thing. A something for the common good thing. And a willing few answered the call.

For three hours we came together as a team. People that donn’t normally work closely together, came together. We played music, we sang and we laughed while we painted. After three hours of hard work, our offices are a nicer place to be.

And it felt awesome.

Be the change you want to see…
at work
at home
within yourself
as a leader
every day.

Let HR lead the way.

Reasons to do Nothing.

Have you ever seen a messed up, mixed up organisational culture? I’m fairly sure you have. If it’s not your own, there have been a fair few in the news lately. Organisations, or parts thereof, that are unhealthy, unpleasant, ailing, even toxic. Where bad practice or bad behaviour lives and breathes.

When culture is broken, minimisation, metaphors and excuses abound.

It’s always been like this.
It is what it is.
It isn’t that bad.
It’s just how it is here.
It’s their (someone, anyone’s) fault.

When there is something broken within an organisation, it is usually in plain sight. Whether it is leadership, culture, behaviour or just one single individual, it’s rarely hidden. You may not always understand the cause, but you know when something stinks. It is easy to tell ourselves that if we witnessed something wrong we would take action, but research consistently shows that we are actually much more likely to ignore it, look away, minimise it, do absolutely nothing.

Most people, when faced with a challenging situation, become passive observers. Sitting on the side-lines, watching the drama. And then when the shit hits the fan, people queue up to say that they saw it coming, that everyone knew all about it, that it was the way things have always been around here.
So what stops people making changes, speaking out, challenging, changing? What holds people back, what makes them wait for permission, for someone else to take charge?

Some of the answers to these questions lie in social psychology.

You may have heard of the bystander effect. This suggests that the greater the number of people who are present to witness a problem, the less likely it is that any one individual will actually do anything about it. They will simply stand and watch. The effect has been researched many times, particularly in relation to people’s unwillingness to get involved in an emergency situation. There are multiple examples from both research and real life, where bystanders just do nothing, even when others are in severe physical danger. Applying this to an organisational context, employees are more likely to stand at the water cooler and bemoan the problem than help make an improvement, engage in solving a problem.

There are reasons why people don’t act, or don’t feel that they can. One of the key influencing factors is the extent to which people feel that they have a degree of responsibility; is it really up to them? Do they feel sufficiently engaged with an organisation, individual or situation to do so? And won’t someone else just come along and do it anyway? Someone more qualified, suitable, whose job it really is?

They think the issue is Somebody Else’s Problem. This is a psychological effect whereby individuals dissociate themselves from a problem or issue, even when it is in critical need of attention, because they make assumptions that it will be done. But not by them. By the often fabled but rarely seen Somebody Else. The notion that whatever it is, it is Somebody Else’s Problem releases the individual from the need to act. Responsibility is diffused. Somebody Else will do it.

This all sounds a little negative so far. But there is one big positive. What the research also shows is that if just one person acts, it can have a big impact. Once someone acts, engages in the solution, others will follow. The paralysis is broken. So if you want to see change in your organisation, stop waiting for Someone Else. As the saying goes, be the change you want to see. If you see something broken, wrong, in need of attention, then speak up, speak out, be brave enough.

Take the responsibility. Let HR lead the way.

Fear and FOMO


Recently, I’ve not been too well. A stomach thing which turned into a horrible thing.

Pain that left me prostrate on the floor, often weeping. It would come without warning, and then leave again just as fast, leaving me exhausted, unable to eat, uncomfortable. Fearful.

The Pain was one thing, but the Fear was another.

Fear of when it would return, Fear of leaving the house just in case, but mostly, Fear of its cause. I became consumed. I researched my symptoms obsessively. I cut food out of my diet, gave up dairy, wheat, spicy food. (I didn’t give up wine of course. I was scared, but I wasn’t that scared).

I constantly thought of the worst case scenario. Fear consumed me. The Fear was huge in my mind.

After much prodding, poking, scanning and pints of blood, it’s nothing serious. Just a dodgy gallbladder. It needs to come out.

And just like that, the Fear was gone.

Why? Two reasons.

The Fear went away because I had knowledge, information, power. I was able to make a plan. Ignorance feeds fears. They thrive in the gaps of knowledge and communication. Knowing nothing is scary. Information, knowledge, truth. They set you free. If the news is bad, good, indifferent or unexpected, knowledge is control. Knowledge gives you power.

This applies to the employment and organisational context too, not just the health one. Think of the employee who has heard the rumours of redundancy, closure, merger. Even if they find out that yes, their position is impacted, you can finally plan, take action, own the situation.

You can’t guarantee the future. You can’t always have good news. But you can tell your employees the truth, even if it is unpalatable. Yes, a few might exit stage left, by either scouring the job adverts or just engaging a bit less. But most of them will thank you for it, dig in with you and endure the tough times. They will recognise your authenticity.

Leaders. Take away as much fear as you can. Tell the truth, unless you have got a very good reason not to.

One final thing. The second reason that the fear has gone, is that I have booked into a hospital that has WIFI. Apparently I was the first person to ever ring up and ask this. Maybe I should reflect on that a little…. but I probably won’t!

The Culture Tree


‘Culture is a slow growing tree. In the beginning it needs protection. But after a couple of decades the culture will be stronger than you are. You need to work with it, not against it. Culture is a powerful but fragile thing. If you burn down the culture tree, it takes a long time to grown another one’.
Wally Bock

This might be less a blog than an extension of someone else’s metaphor; but a metaphor that creates for me the most vivid image.

Organisational culture is made of up many things. It includes our beliefs, values, behaviour, norms. The history, the narrative, the past and the present. How we do things around here. That which is shared. The way we collectively are.

Just like a tree, culture is strong, deep rooted, slow growing, but always changing. Trees bend, shed leaves, can be healthy or diseased. They may thrive, but even the strongest can be felled by the wind. Or someone can just take an axe to it and chop it down.

Whatever the organisation, most trees will outlast the individual leader.

We talk of the wisdom of the crowd. For me, the culture is the crowd, and the crowd is the culture. Culture is owned and created by everyone in the organisation: each individual leaf on the tree makes up the whole; who the organisation really is.

As leaders, we have a responsibility to tend our culture tree. Fail to look after it, fail to act, and the damage will be long lasting. We must never forget it isn’t about us, the short term decision, the immediate operational priority. Employees have long memories. They will not forget is you cut down your tree, ignore your espoused values, ignore who you say you are. In the challenging business environments that many of us face every day, we may forget that as leaders at the top of own trees we have the power to influence all the way down, through, around. Trees cast long shadows.

Look after your culture tree. Do not water it with fears, distrust, disconnection, poor communication, poor leadership, lest it bear a toxic fruit.

Camera April 13 114

From A Poison Tree by William Blake

And I watered it with fears
Night and morning with my tears
And I sunned it with smiles
And with soft deceitful wiles

And it grew by day and night
Till it bore an apple bright
And my foe beheld it shine
And he knew that it was mine

And into my garden stole
When the night had veiled the pole
In the morning, glad, I see
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.