Friday, August 5, 2016

But just tell me what to do!

Have you said or thought so much?  Has one of your direct reports voiced this to you?

We like a challenge us humans.  It is all part of the hero’s journey. Overcoming obstacles and stretching ourselves to reach a goal, is a key source of motivation and satisfaction in our professional and personal lives. 

But we can sure like the easy path.  Particularly when time is limited, stakes are high, the pressure’s on, we may easily withdraw, shrink, hide, defend and relinquish responsibility to the other.

And for completely justifiable reasons.  It may be the most appropriate response we know given what we know.  We may be just implementing our very loyal strategies that have got us out of similar situations before. 

It seems that through parental, societal, cultural, political, economic programming we have conditioned ourselves to prioritize answers, advice and direction from others – to the detriment of our own growth and path.    Even though leadership can come from anyone at anytime, the ‘Great Man’ theory seems to be firmly entrenched in our psyche, business and politics.   Notably during uncertain and volatile times, we like the idea of someone saving us. So we turn to the ‘other’ to get them to do, what we don’t want to do ourselves. Our reflexive response becomes “just tell me what to do (in this project/for this client/in my career”). It is easier to do that than self reflect and manage the responsibility which comes thereafter.

As Hollis writes, “to recover our own personal authority is a daily task imposed upon all of us by the soul”. 

With that task, we may want to explore...

  • Being aware:  We give ourselves credit for recognizing this tendency we have, in the first place.  And with a healthy dose of compassion and curiosity, notice when it happens.
  • Understanding triggers: What is going on for me when I default to others? What triggers such a response in me?
  • Challenging beliefs:  In these instances, what am I believing? Is it true? What is it like to live with this belief, in mind, heart and body?  What would life be like if I wasn't believing that?
  • Building self-efficacy: As adults we consciously can build our self-efficacy, our self belief and confidence in the ability to exert control over our own motivation, behavior and social environment. This may include, for example, acknowledging our successes, being self-compassionate, quietening the inner critic’s voice and expanding our skills and interests to build up resourcefulness.

As leaders we influence the environment which people perform. What can we do to encourage people to reclaim their personal authority in the workplace?  These questions may help with reflection and action:

  • What’s my leadership default option?   Am I quick to give advice, provide direction or do I seek to help people to come up with their own ideas and solutions through inquiring and coaching?   What is behind my propensity to give advice and opinions rather than asking?  To what extent do I allow people to talk about their concerns and fears? 
  • What ego state am I operating from?  Transactional Analysis offers a valuable perspective on how we interact with people, through 3 parts of our personality or ‘ego states’.  In terms of our thoughts, feelings and behaviours, we operate from our experiences (‘child’), significant influencers (‘parent’) or in the present (‘adult’). Simplifying it for illustrative purposes, if we operate from a ‘critical parent’, it may just trigger a ‘rebellious child’.  Being aware of how our behaviour impacts on others transforms communication and performance.
  • What is my intent/agenda? Sometimes as leaders we ask or hide behind a coaching relationship, a question, the impression we want the person to take initiative, but then we undermine them, as we have already made the decision or set the objectives. This is why it helps, particularly in formal 1:1s and meetings,  to be clear and ‘contract up front’  about expectations e.g.: whether we intend to depart information, seek input, want to brainstorm. 
  • Or in summary, what is missing?   What am I noticing about how people are feeling and behaving? What do they need – more meaning, a sense of direction and purpose? Or to be valued, believed in and listened to more? Or do they need more structure and clarity? What will I do to help fill the vacuum?


own photo (Mallorcan sky)

Hollis, James (2005), Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life, Gotham Books (US)

Napper, R and Newton T (2000) TACTICS: transactional analysis concepts for all trainers, teachers and tutors and insight into collaborative learning strategies, TA Resources Ipswich, UK, section 4

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Do nothing - perfectly

‘Do nothing – perfectly’.

That was an instruction at a recent Satipatthana meditation course I attended recently.  

8 days of sitting on a mediation cushion, doing nothing but observing one’s sensations with equanimity.

To ‘do nothing – perfectly’ takes some doing.  It's hard work.

Your mind starts wandering, flicking between memory and hope.  Rather than staying aware with non-judgement, you find yourself evaluating and assessing each sensation rising and falling – like, don’t like, hate, bored.   You engage those faithful strategies of positive self talk, to keep motivated and focused, but all they do is distract you from the real work of learning to be in the present.

On the meditation cushion, as in life, we will do anything to do something, rather than nothing.   Jon Kabat-Zinn, who has been fundamental in bringing mindfulness to the West so beautifully plays on a familiar action slogan, to say “don’t just do something, sit there”.

Learning to notice ourselves, to be aware, equanimous and self-compassionate in our meditation, helps us in our daily life.  Particularly in those times when we are in the grip of a conversation, in the daily rush and juggle or when faced with a pressing issue, and come up against our familiar triggers, ever-present wanting and old fears.  If in those times, we can ‘do nothing – perfectly’, even for a split second, we can find new ways forward.   

As a partner, as a friend, to ‘do nothing-perfectly’ can be the ultimate in acceptance. Other times it simply gives each other space, time and energy to see things differently.

As a coach, to ‘do nothing- perfectly’ can be just the thing to create the necessary shift within the coaching relationship to help the coachee move deeper into self-awareness and resourcefulness.

As a leader, to learn to ‘do nothing – perfectly’ helps us to lead in this VUCA world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.  If we can viscerally experience sitting in this zone, and be able to suspend judgement and remain open and curious on the mediation cushion, we have a better chance of doing it in the workplace.  It may mean we get skilful at being wholly and utterly in the presence of our direct report,  giving them our full attention.  It may mean being more comfortable in encouraging silence as a collective, in a busy team meeting.   It may be about being more courageous to stand back from your own agenda, to reconnect with a deeper wisdom.

Indeed, what leadership actions and political decisions would have benefited in these last few weeks, if not ever from taking up Lao-Tzu’s challenge..

Do you have the patience to wait
Till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
Till the right action arises by itself?



Sunday, June 5, 2016

How great are you?

Every so often a human being emerges to remind us of the greatness we are capable of.  Muhammad Ali was such a being.

He was The Greatest.  He told us so and he showed us how to fight for that title, in the sports ring,  in front of a microphone, in humanitarianism, in facing illness.   A man who had the courage to stand by his principles and stand up to those in power. A man who amongst his notable acts, sacrificed his title and the prime time of his career rather than kill Vietnamese.  

Such a great man, such a great leader can tip us back into buying into the “Great Man” theory of leadership made popular in the 19th century.  The likes of historian Thomas Carlyle believed that the capacity of leadership is inherent, that leaders are born not made.  Effective leaders were seen as those gifted with divine inspiration and who due to their particular characteristics of charisma, intelligence and wisdom were the ones able to have a decisive historical impact.

The flaw in sticking with this theory is that it fails to account for context, change and human potential.  We can end up putting such great people on a pedestal – which in itself is understandable. There are indeed extraordinary people.  It is just a waste of the inspiration and gifts they have for each of us.   Worshipping them from afar detaches us from the possibility that they have entered our life, our consciousness to offer us different ways of relating to ourselves, to others and the world.

We can admire Ali’s attitudes, actions and achievements.  Celebrate him for just being him.  And we can use that admiration to dig deep to access the qualities we admire in him, in ourselves.  

We may never be as pretty...but we can believe in ourselves.  We can fight for justice, freedom and equality. We can show bravery and courage in what we do. We can demonstrate our faith and integrity.  We can explore new ways to improve our own natural talents.  We can help others.  We can show grace. We can take risks. We can keep our mischievousness.  We can embody paradox....

Images via google images and ©Flip Schulke