Archives for posts with tag: Leadership

Hanging in our bathroom at home is a lovely framed Ken Duncan photograph that depicts a small wooden row-boat anchored in the still waters of a wide blue lake. The caption reads-“Silence is sometimes the best Answer’. I couldn’t agree more. (I have attached it below in case some of you are feeling stressed right now. Take a minute…breathe… and look at it…)

Recently, I have been participating in Linked-in conversation regarding how to deal with an ‘Insubordinate employee’ and as I was writing my response, that lovely image came to mind, so I offered some perspective to the group.

I thought it may be worth sharing this with my wider audience, in case it might be of use.

From the outset, the use of the term ‘Insubordinate’ irked me. It is an old military term and despite being ex-military myself, I find it smacks of oppressive thinking, low E.Q. and an inflexible mind.

I have not found very many situations where a leader using a Socratic investigative method has not been able to determine that there is far more to the situation than someone simply saying ‘No.’  The word ‘Insubordination’ has no place in the modern business world.

The simple truth is that ‘normal’ people do not usually get up one day, dress for work and say to themselves “Today-I am going to get myself fired.” There is always a reason.

For many years as a leader, performance management arbitrator, lecturer and consultant, I have consistently applied the methodology of Aviation Human Factors Investigation in dealing with performance issues.

So what has that got to do with dealing with ‘Sonia the Serial Stuff-up’?  Well, it has to do with the ‘Why’.

Quite often after an aircraft accident, you will hear the term; ‘pilot error’ bandied about by uneducated commentators but in reality, it is never used in aviation investigations because we know that situations almost never arise out of a single event and unless you address all of the causal factors, you are likely to see the same thing happen again. It is this kind of thinking that had made aviation the safest widespread technological endeavour in human history.

As leaders, we sometimes have too little objectivity and let our emotions get away from us. In Naked Leadership® I coined a term known as DIS-connecting. (No I didn’t invent the concept of disconnecting your toaster before sticking a knife in it to retrieve an errant muffin – that is natural selection at work!) 

The DIS is short for Dynamic Internalised Separation and the key is that it is Dynamic. You must actively take time to divorce your emotions from any comment you might make in tense situations. There is a complex cascading biochemical reaction that occurs when we are under stress (i.e. an employee telling us to do physically impossible things with ourselves) and it inhibits rational thinking for both the manager and the team member.

So best to sit down with your team member and ask them to start at the beginning and tell you everything.

Naked Clue #2′ is Ask Questions and Shut Up and Listen” for a reason. It works… My favourite opener is to sit back and ask  

So Jenny-What’s up?

If they start babbling incoherently and defending their actions you can say: “Hang on a second – sit back and take a breath. No-one is getting shot today – I just want to find out what this is all about”.

It is amazing the relief you see on their faces and they then quite often feel obliged to be honest because you have treated them calmly and fairly. 

The more carefully crafted questions you ask and the longer you listen without speaking – the more you will find out. Any good detective or military interrogator knows this. In my case, even when I think they are finished speaking, I count to ten mentally, before saying anything. Usually the thoughtful silence will bring out more information. I repeat this until I can get to ten seconds without further comments and then I ask another open question related to the event.

If you are patient you will eventually find out what has caused this issue and then you can deal with the source of the problem, rather than chopping of the head of the person who happened to inadvertently bring it to you.

I have experienced very few situations where the person offering the inappropriate statement or action will not apologise at the end of the conversation and as a bonus; you have usually found that this situation affects more than one person, so you have an opportunity to benefit the whole department or company.

It takes much more time than shooting someone but the benefits far outweigh the costs…Image

A long time ago, someone (almost certainly not Edmund Burke) said words to the effect that “All that is required for evil to prosper is for good men to do nothing.”

While this sentiment has probably been used to justify all kinds of horrors (as it is dependent on the definition of ‘evil’ in the minds of the initiators), there is much to be said for a thoughtful approach to this concept.

How many leaders have failed to challenge the clearly inappropriate behaviour of a more senior person due to fear about their own job security?

How many times have we rationalised away this obligation with a ‘nothing will change’ mental salve?

To be an effective leader you must embrace a certain amount of risk to yourself in order to ensure a safe and fair working environment for your team. It takes courage and a healthy dose of persistence but despite a degree of risk, it is almost always worth the effort.

As another another saying of uncertain parentage puts it; “Some days you get the bear and some days the bear gets you” but this should not stop us from trying to right a wrong or stop harmful behaviour. You can climb a tree or hide in a hole to avoid the bear but it will be uncomfortable, you can’t do it forever and it’s a bit hard to maintain the moral authority of a leader from the bottom of a pit.

I mention numerous times in NAKED LEADERSHIP®, the essential truth that as a leader, your job is not about you – it is about your team. If you won’t stand up to improper treatment of your people, who will?

This however, can be a personal and professional challenge because it requires us to be objective in an often emotional circumstance and that can take some doing… It is for this reason (and perhaps it is fitting as I write this on Remembrance Day) that we also consider how easy it is to portray people unfairly. Leaders and employees can demonise each other and often battle lines will be drawn, giving the grievance a life of its own. Work can become like trench warfare with each side dug in and mentally hardened to any thought of compromise.

This is why war is for the most part, predicated upon convincing the public at large that ‘those people over there’ are evil or ‘not like us’, so let’s get rid of them. The mob mentality must be energised and people’s thinking brought into line for our own internal ‘moral compass’ to be overcome.

Facts and reason must be avoided at all cost.

Yet conflict, whether in a relationship, at work or in world politics is often engineered to hide our own inadequacies, to divert attention from more important issues and deflect responsibility. A manager who is insecure, fearful or inept can lash out and look for ‘victims’ upon whom they can unload the blame for their own failings. They can quite deliberately set the conditions for failure in order to ‘get rid’ of someone they dislike. Often this person may be more skilled and capable than themselves. They can exaggerate the ‘threat’ posed by the employee in order to engage others’ emotions and give weight to their claims.

As thoughtful humans, Naked Leaders need sometimes to say: “This far and no further.” If we are not willing to take some heat to protect our people then we are not leading – we are merely administering resources.

Importantly however, there is no point ‘hurling yourself against the wire’ you will only remove from yourself, the ability to help your people. Over the years, I have learned (at some cost) to first, disengage my emotions and carefully and quietly gather and examine the evidence. Reportable incidents need to be verifiable or at least credible. (No sane person would go to war on the basis of dodgy information. Would they?)

You may be angry about what is occurring but to be effective, you cannot let this cloud your judgement. You MUST Disconnect because make no mistake: It takes planning, thoughtfulness and patience to defeat destructive people.

After verifying the evidence, my preference is always to approach the ‘offending person’ and ask a series of careful questions that will reveal their motivation and if appropriate, manoeuvre them into realising that what they are doing is having a negative impact on people and importantly, that it will stop them getting the results they need. In effect, I try to engage their ‘self-interest’ gene. If I receive a negative reaction and they don’t alter their behaviour, it’s time to move on to Plan B.

The key is to use the system effectively to escalate the concerns without appearing to be on a ‘mission’. You may be surprised how often things can be solved when a more senior person is informed. If this doesn’t work, at least more people know about the problem. Keep going up the line. If you do not follow the procedures, this can come back to bite you as you will be seen as unnecessarily adversarial.

If you persist, something will usually be done to correct the behaviour because it becomes too widely known for senior leaders to do nothing. They will appear weak if they sit on their hands.

Fixing problems most often can be achieved by using the system effectively. I have had some experience in winning HR battles on behalf of clients or friends by taking this route. In fact, we won-every time and a big part of it was doing the homework and knowing the rules/policies (often better than the HR people).

You can put the company in a position where they either act on their proclaimed values, policies or procedures or they don’t. If they don’t they can expose themselves to legal action, and they know this. It’s a bit like a game of chess. It takes patience and persistence but you and your people will most often be the victors without going to war…

And isn’t that a better way?

Well it looks like it is safe to blog again.

The Australian election is over and the US has managed to kick the can down the road again with the debt ceiling and budget.

In watching the spectacle facing our cousins in the U.S., it struck me how challenging is can be for a leader dealing with intransigence.

U.S. President Barack Obama, having convincingly defeated his opposition in the last election was faced with a far-right faction that had taken control of the Republican Party.

Republicans, seemingly hostage to its ‘Tea Party’ members whose spokespeople such as Congresswoman Michelle Bachman have perfected the non-sequitur, the logical fallacy and just plain bizarre behaviour (witness her patronising comments during a visit to Egypt) apparently sought to re-run the election they lost by imitating a 6 year old.

“I’m going to hold my breath until you say I won!” (and repeal Obamacare!)

Most moderate Republicans were aghast at this behaviour but seem to be able to do little about it.

In some ways, (ironically given their position on the political spectrum) this seemed to mirror the rabid Union organisations in 1970’s Britain who seemed to have a strike every other week because they could and never mind the damage.

As someone who lived and worked in the US for nearly a decade, I am somewhat familiar with the US political system but for most outsiders this behaviour was simply incomprehensible.

Despite some of the silliness in our own recent election, Australia really does have a benign system – mainly because it is compulsory to vote. In having this law, we basically marginalise the fringe elements while still allowing them a voice. It is simply not possible for an extreme faction like the Tea Party to function in our system in the same way as they do in the US. They would be drowned out by the majority of us who live more or less in the middle of the political scale.

So how is this leadership issue?

Well it was fascinating to me to watch President Obama stay out of this fight. Rather than giving the extremists legitimacy he basically ignored them and through his intermediaries, called their bluff.

Gutsy but it worked… After all he had a mandate from the electorate and more specifically, a mandate for the Affordable Care Act (known as Obamacare) which was front and centre during the election campaign.

The subsequent Government shutdown with all its consequences forced moderate Republicans to face their extreme elements and force a surrender to common sense. While in disarray, they now have a chance to rebuild the party as one that can work with the government to actually get things done.

As anyone who has read Naked Leadership knows, I advocate actively seeking common ground, parking your ego and working with people but sometimes after hard negotiation or solution seeking, and having come to a decision for your organisation, you have to stay the course.

Winston Churchill, a very conservative (and often wrong-headed) leader who did many things right in the crucial moments, once declared:

“Never give in, never give in; never, never, never, never — in nothing, great or small, large or petty — never give in –  Except to convictions of honour and good sense.”

Sometimes people forget that last bit.­

When faced with unreasonable intransigence, a Naked Leader will make an assessment as to the value of further negotiation, consider the overall good of the organisation, regardless of the personal or political cost – and do the right thing.

Doing the right thing can be the hardest course and can cost a leader much stress, anxiety and even their job – but it is always the right course.

We can attempt to rationalise away selling out to extremists but the damage we do to ourselves and the long term health of our organisation and its people is immense.

Sometime No means No and you must stand firm and hang on for the ride…

It is why you’re a leader…


A look at most companies’ values or customer service statements will usually reveal words describing their commitment to excellence, passion for their industry and the enthusiasm of their employees.

The thing is, for many organisations this is just aspirational fluff.

In fact, it has been my experience both in observation and immersion that despite these lofty goals, many managers are threatened by passionate and enthusiastic employees. Rather than seeking these people out and nurturing them, they are instead seen as a threat, someone to be kept in line. Exuberant, creatively offbeat people are squeezed into boxes in which they wither.

Yet some of the world’s most successful companies, such as Google, Apple, Zappos and Southwest Airlines do the opposite and encourage their people to be unorthodox in their thinking and to express themselves in creative ways. Zappos the world’s biggest online shoe retailer only started in 1999 and now sells over a billion dollars of products every year. They keep their creative edge with off-beat activities where “Employees often lead spontaneous office parades, occasionally accompanied with cowbells and managers are required to spend 10–20% of their working hours “goofing off” with employees outside of the office.[1]

Apple’s Steve Jobs was a brilliant creative thinker and marketing genius but also from all reports a tyrant when it came to mediocrity. He could not stand half-hearted attempts at anything. His encouragement or more accurately his demand for innovation created one of the world’s greatest companies and a cultural icon but it was not done by stifling passion

While we don’t have to go to the extremes of creative geniuses like Jobs or rush out and buy cowbells to emulate Zappos, we can nevertheless take lessons from their achievements and adapt them to fit our environment. You never know where the next key advantage will come from, so why not engage your team?

No…Better not. Why? Because it’s scary. You might not be able to control where the ideas go or to keep your workplace a quiet as a tomb.

I have never understood this mentality. If you have the courage to carefully nurture the creative and social side of your people, team collaboration and motivation becomes a self- sustaining reality. If you create an environment of tolerance and trust and demonstrate your own passion for what you do, you will reap amazing rewards but again, for many managers this is far too scary.

After all, you will have to allow your team to disagree with you. You will need an open mind in order to explore their ideas no matter how unusual. You will have to be more skilful at keeping them within the focus area and you will have to accept scrutiny of your own performance by your team and who would want to do that? It takes emotional maturity and confidence to steer the ship while allowing the kind of course deviations that may get you to your destination earlier or allow you to find treasure in an unexpected place.

No…Better to shut it down. It is too unpredictable. And that is what happens in many cases. The passion and enthusiasm is squeezed out of the team like juice from an orange. The ‘believers’ as I like to call your best assets are dispirited and leave. Typically the perpetrators of this misguided conservatism are middle management. Senior leaders usually understand the need for this creativity and passion but often do not communicate directly with the ‘doers’ nor do they scrutinise the actions of unimaginative middle managers who lack vision and wish only to control their fiefdom.

Tragically this is where the organisation or parts of it atrophy and the most valuable people leave to wander the employment wasteland in search of a home – somewhere they can offer their unbridled passion and enthusiasm for their craft.

You will find creative, passionate people in all areas of your business, even the seemingly mundane ones and they can sometimes be tricky to handle but if you make the effort that will give you more than any five other people and in today’s incredibly competitive world, isn’t that worth the effort?

Leaders like anyone else, are prone to mistakes, missteps, emotional decisions and other foibles.

We are human but we are also in a position to have a degree of power or influence over others’ lives. As Spiderman was told after discovering his super powers-“With great power comes great responsibility.” Now before you think I am going ‘Sheldon-esque’ on you, our arachnophile was given wise counsel.

It is a relatively common failing of leaders to let their emotions dictate their actions or at least influence them. This is very dangerous. As leaders we must remain above the fray. We have to be seen (and act) as impartial, fair and objective. If we fail in these things we will seriously undermine our workplace relationships and thereby our reputation and credibility.

When we feel our emotions beginning to influence us, it is time to dis-connect.[1] You cannot make an objective assessment while angry or upset or even extremely happy. It simply doesn’t work. We have probably all made a decision (in a moment of giddy optimism) that we came to regret. Worse is making decisions or acting while angry with someone-particularly if those people report to us. NEVER-NEVER-NEVER ‘go after someone’. It will be obvious to all and will sooner or later be your undoing

The reality is that it is rare for people to do things with ill intent. Really… 99.9999999% of people in the world are generally honest, hardworking and ethical, so if they have made an error it is usually an honest one. That is – one borne from misunderstanding, misinterpretation, lack of training or some other human factor.

If we treat mistakes this way and seek to correct the causal factors rather than – in some form- punishing the person, much better results will be had because they will be inclined to ‘own’ their mistake rather than denying or defending it out of fear. (This is a lesson learned at great cost and now enshrined in aviation safety.)

This pro-active behaviour is never more important to exhibit than when WE make a mistake. When a leader makes a mistake it is essential that we stand up and own it. This does not make us appear foolish or flawed but rather honest and ethical. If we expect others to follow us it is critical that they see us correcting ourselves and acknowledging missteps.

In this way we can build a culture where people self-report, so that future mistakes can be avoided rather than made and then hidden.

[1] For how to Dis-connect see Chapter 6 in NAKED LEADERSHIP

An essential requirement for a leaders (or any thinking person really) is the ability to have our minds changed by new experiences. A recent blog I read referred to this as being ‘Interested’  (  I believe that too many people are only interested in what is immediately in front of them. This is understandable to a degree, as we all have busy lives. Between work, children, friends and household tasks there seems little time for other outside world. However, if we find ourselves immersed in the immediate to the exclusion of all else, we lose the opportunity to explore context.  We live in a big world and there is much going on. We (and more importantly our children) have information available to us of which previous generations could only have dreamed. The internet can bring us to any part of the world in seconds. In an ever more interconnected and multi-cultural world we can access information and perspectives that were only previously available to the very wealthy and well-travelled. Where once we were isolated nations in a big world we are now a global village and we will only become more interconnected as time moves on. That is why expanding our sphere of interest can be not only exciting but life changing. Whether you are travelling via aircraft, cyber-space, international TV news or documentary, exploring other countries, regions, cultures and languages can be extraordinarily rewarding. This is also crucially important for the generation following us. We need to expose our children to as great a variety of experiences as possible in order to bring up thoughtful adults and probably the best way to do that is by travel. Openness to a different point of view, even one that challenges us or makes us slightly uncomfortable is a very healthy thing and of course the best way to experience this is by immersion. Over the years, I have observed that the most bigoted, critical and ‘one-eyed’ of people – those who are willing to see the worst rather than the best in other people,  cultures, countries and traditions, are usually those who have not travelled. Travelling allows us to be out of our comfort zone, in someone else’s environment, perhaps not understanding the language or the culture and to have to survive and get by. It is positively mind expanding. The layers of colour, texture, emotions (including fear, uncertainty and wonder) can fundamentally change our view of the world and ourselves.  I have been fortunate to experience visiting and living in other countries and it has changed me in significant ways.  When in another country I have taken pains to be ‘interested in as much as I can absorb. Whether on horseback in the amazing rift-valley city of Petra in Jordan or being escorted by armed guards through the teeming cities of Pakistan, stuck in a Paris traffic jam or wandering in a Malaysian market, I have endeavoured to make sure that I take in the detail, the faces and the background with which I am confronted and to ask myself what would it be like to be at home here? What are they thinking? What is their world really like? How do they see us? The other amazing part of travelling is the kindness with which I have been met. The one lesson I have taken away is that the world is an amazing colourful and intriguing place populated by people who want the same things as we do. So the next time you hear aggressive accusation, generalisations, bias or bigotry or less obviously the subtle misrepresentations in some of our news media, remember two things- the real story is always in the background and – you can change the channel. As John Kennedy famously said after the Cuban Missile crisis… ”in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”

Perhaps the simplest way to start expanding your perspective is to look around you as you walk or drive around the city or your suburb. Take time to observe  people, listen to random conversations and pay attention to the world of your fellow humans. There are, as they say, 7 billion stories.

Are you interested?

I have just been to see the new Sherlock Holmes movie which apart from being very enjoyable was a richly layered visual feast for a period adventure film. In fact it was the kind of film that you need to see more than once in order to pick up the many levels of detail. In discussing it afterwards with my partner, she reminded me of one of the concepts I have used for many years in my leadership work. To encourage leaders to avoid living, working and making decisions based on a surface appreciation of the workplace (or the world at large), I encourage my participants to watch a favourite DVD but rather than focussing on the main actors and the ‘A’ story, to focus on the background, the sets, the extras and so forth. It’s a bit tricky at first but once your brain gets used to it, it is remarkable what you can pick up. In contrast, our fast-paced world with its instant news and endless commentary makes it easy to be swept along with the tide of uninformed opinion (which is one of the reasons I avoid watching commercial television news). It seems that the sensation of every situation is ‘amped up’ in order to drive the viewer to the required conclusion. Current affairs programmes are worse. That tabloid newspapers are even worse still goes without saying but in essence, they seem to me to be hard at work to prevent us asking enough questions to challenge their presumption or conclusions regarding the subject being discussed. The move to ‘infotainment’ almost drives me to despair. Radio ‘personalities’ spout their (often factually incorrect) opinions and when their most egregious errors are pointed out – their excuse is that they are ‘commentators’ not journalists. Too late- damage done… The thing is, that life is always less simple than it appears. In this complex world we need more critical thinking. We need to teach our children to question what they are told and to ask for proof. We must set the example for them by questioning when they voice strong opinions, by offering alternative viewpoints and by challenging absolutes when offered. When I am confronted by a strong one-sided opinion, my practice is always to ask questions like ‘”Is that always the case?” or “Are you saying they’re all like that? All 1 billion?” or “Exactly how many times does that occur” or “Where did you find those statistics?” Very often it is obvious that emotion has supplanted reason. This is fine when watching a movie but not when living as a responsible human in the world. Conflict in most forms, results from assumptions, fear, stereotypes and a lack of rational thought. When people offer “That’s just what we believe” as a justification, I walk away. Living a superficial, unquestioning existence is not for me. The 99% that is hidden and that requires exploration and interest to enjoy -now that’s the juice. The exhilaration of discovery, of an opinion changed by a delicious experience; of the magnificent texture of an alternate perception that most miss – now that’s for me… So if you go and see Sherlock Holmes, focus on the background every now and then-you will see why…

Leaders can often find themselves in difficult positions. Circumstances may dictate a change of direction, re-evaluation of an approach or a change in a program for the benefit of the business and of course, some people will complain if it is not explained properly and some will complain regardless but this is not usually a big deal and it is mostly business as usual within a short time. Spare a thought however, for politicians. (What?  Sympathy for pollies?) Well think about it – we elect them to represent us and our wishes in a general sense, in the management of our country, state or city but life in the public arena can make you a big target. As I watch the US election process and to a ‘less strange’ extent ours here at home, I find myself noting that we can sometimes put our leaders in an impossible situation.

If they make a campaign promise which because of political opposition or economic circumstances cannot be fulfilled, they are a ‘promise breaker’ and not to be trusted. If they change their mind following a vigorous debate or public opposition they are a ‘flip flopper’ and not to be trusted. If they press on to execute a decision that has now become unpopular they are arrogant or indifferent to the public’s wishes and not to be trusted. If they should have a lapse of character or judgement they are not worthy of public office but that begs the question: Can you hold public officials to a higher standard and if so, what is that standard? Surely as our representatives they represent us in more ways that numbers. They are also representative of our beliefs, feelings on matters, likes and dislikes and national character and – as they are human – our flaws… That is, they are likely to fall in the normal range of behaviours that can be expected from the public at large but when they do we want them strung up and at the same time their story splashed all over the media and repeated for as long as they are in office

I believe that we are often too harsh in our assessment of our elected representatives. If we are continually critical when unpopular but essentially correct decisions are made, we risk driving them into a position where they make only politically acceptable decisions and we end up getting nothing done and the country suffers. (See the recent US challenge with attempting to reduce their deficit.)  Sometimes painful and unpopular choices have to be made for the long-term good and leaders have to stick to their guns despite the opposition and the damage it may do to their re-election chances – but isn’t that why we elect them?