On leadership

23/04/2015 § 4 Comments

I am trying out my poetry on an unsuspecting world! This comes out of reflecting on the whole cult of “leadership” in business and organisations.



“Can you be a leader,
if you have no followers?look up2

Strangely, desiring followers
diminishes you as a leader.

Since leadership is about knowing yourself,
tapping into the wellspring of life deep inside you,
and being true to that.

It’s about trusting that if you cleave to your truth,
followers, if followers are needed, will appear,
as may critics, false friends and true opponents.

If you desire followers,
it’s a distraction from your inner inquiry,
it stokes the ego, not the truth.

True leadership is not something you can do.
It’s something you surrender to.”


Meeting customer demand? Don’t make me laugh!

26/09/2012 § Leave a comment

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses” Henry Ford

How often have I heard it said that what drives business behaviour is customer demand. Why do supermarkets sell so much food of low nutritional value?  “Customer demand.” Why do auto manufacturers continue to make highly inefficient vehicles when for years they have had the technology to make far more efficient ones? The same “customer demand”. British newspapers continue to fill their pages with stories about murders and rapes and celebrities because “that’s what the public want”.

This is a convenient and simplistic truth, but it is far from the whole story. Because it would be equally true to say that businesses shapes and drives customer demand. 30 years ago in the UK, for example, customers were not demanding strawberries in winter, mangoes or papayas. The supermarkets spotted an opportunity to increase sales and introduced these offerings. Sometimes businesses even manipulate the customer to get them to buy. This can be very subtle, such as carefully choosing which goods to place at which height on the shelves to maximise sales. Or it can be not subtle at all. General Motors and other auto manufacturers succeeded in shutting down large sections of public transport in the 1930s and 1940s in the US to make people more dependent on cars (to read more on this story, search for “Great American streetcar scandal”).

Yet there are limits to how far a businesses can go in influencing customers, even strong brands like Marks & Spencers. 15 years ago or so they invested heavily in boosting their organic food offer, trusting that customers would see the benefits. They didn’t – people weren’t ready for it at that stage. “One of the biggest mistakes we’ve made“, Marks and Spencers  called it at the time. Of course there is far more interest in organic food these days – they were just too early.

A more mature way to understand the business/customer relationship is to view it as co-evolution. Neither is wholly independent – the businesses don’t passively sit and wait to see what the customers want, nor does the business cynically manipulate the customers into buying what they are selling. There is a co-evolution, a co-creation going on. As is happening in nature all the time.

Of course it doesn’t stop there. Businesses and their customers are embedded in a complex living systems we call society, which in turn is part of a larger complex system which we call the planet, which in turn is part of a larger complex system we call the universe. A business co-evolves in relationship with its staff, customers, suppliers, neighbours and the universe.

Many of us intuitively know this. But it is not a popular view.  This is partly because the public don’t want complex explanations to complex problems – they want simple solutions and someone to blame if things go wrong.  Those who sit at the top of the corporate tree are expected to “run” the business. They have to present the illusion that they are in control in order to justify their excessive salaries. Yet the simple truth is that they are not in control and cannot be.

Yet I also sympathise with the CEO who is facing an investor analyst asking questions about his or her plans for the business. Can you imagine what the analyst would say if the CEO explained that he couldn’t really say because the business was in co-evolution with its customers and with the universe! He’d be wheeled out in a straitjacket. It’s much easier to explain that he is looking to drive growth through pro-actively meeting customer demand. This is what the analyst expects him to say. He is, after all, also in co-evolution with the organisation.

It seems to me that perhaps our greatest need as a society at this time is to co-evolve in our understanding and patience so that we accept that some things are complex and are not in anyone’s control. And that we need spaces where we can have deep discussions to explore big complex issues.

Complex isn’t it? Time for a cup of tea….

On woods and trees, organisations and people

08/03/2012 § 1 Comment

“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” ~ Anais Nin

Photo: karpati from morguefile.com

We each see the world in a different way, from our own perspective. Things that are glaringly obvious to some of us are invisible to others. If I look at writing in Chinese it is meaningless squiggles – to someone else it can be the most enlightening thing they have ever read. A botanist can look at a meadow and see 50 different species of plant – to others it just looks like grass.

I was reminded of this truth last week, after I attended an event with the theme “Ownership – the only thing that matters for long term growth? Ownership is one of my themes, as regular readers will know, and it seems to be something of a hot topic at the moment.

Although the event was billed as a forum, it was largely about entertainment and “networking”, the focus of the event being three business celebrities giving their opinions on the theme. The first speaker (a market fundamentalist perhaps?) thought it would be a good thing if there were more competition amongst forms of ownership. The second speaker was adamant that any connection between ownership and growth was insignificant in comparison to the importance of leadership and management.

So far, so unsurprising. But the third speaker managed to both entertain and surprise me. A seasoned business journalist, he was the master of the pithy and witty phrase. He started off by saying he saw an organisation as a biological system rather than a machine. He then, with considerable insight I felt, listed various ownership models and associated behaviour patterns. Partnerships, he observed, are good at maintaining ethical standards because knowing you are personally liable for your colleagues actions means you keep a close eye on him or her. Cooperatives have poor management because the members are not sufficiently involved in the business to hold the management to account, or move them on when they are not working. Ditto with other mutuals (such as building societies and mutual assurance companies). But mutuals do tend to be more resilient than shareholder-owned businesses because they have less incentive to take big risks.

What took me aback was that after all this analysis, which matched much of my own observations, he concluded by saying that he agreed with the previous speaker that leadership and management was far more important than ownership. It seemed to me that this contradicted pretty much everything he had said before. It was certainly inconsistent with a view of an organisation as a biological system. He talked of management as if it was a small group of people who ran the business. Yet in a biological system, management is an emergent property of the system, not a function of one small part. And since ownership is a vital part of the system, it has a major effect on the management. If you want good management then of course you pay attention to who you appoint in key roles, but you also need to set up structures and processes that connect those people with the rest of the organisation and with the outside world, that support them in their work and that hold them to account for their actions and decisions. This is how you get better management over time – by creating a better system.

At first I couldn’t understand why this intelligent observer couldn’t see the contradictions in what he was saying. But in fact this blindness to the system effects in an organisation is, in my experience, quite normal. People see the individuals that their eyes present them with, and don’t see the patterns of behaviour that lie behind, that influence their every thought and action. Society blames the individual (Fred Goodwin, David Cameron, whoever) and ignores the system.

To me this is a classic case of not being able to see the wood from the trees. If you want to understand trees, studying lots of individual trees is a sound approach. But if you want to understand the wood, then as well as studying trees, you need to pay attention to the whole network of relationships between all the elements of the wood; the trees, the birds, mammals, insects, microorganisms, rain, air, and so on. It is called life ☺

I find the rational mind struggles to cope with all this complexity, but the intuition can do this quite effortlessly. So most doctors, schooled ruthlessly to use the rational mind, struggle to understand more holistic approaches such as homeopathy, acupuncture, Chinese medicine and so on. They are focused on the parts, which they can see and touch and feel, rather than the relationships between the parts. Of course you can’t actually see a relationship – you have to intuit it. This is why, in a time and a society where rational thinking is still the dominant way of engaging with life, I get blank looks or denials when I tell people that if we want to see different behaviour in business or in society as a whole, we need to look at the system. For me it is obvious but most people don’’t seem to see the relationships and hence are not aware a system even exists. One of these left brain types once famously said “There is no such thing as society”. She just couldn’t see it.

But then, seeing the world as a set of relationships is just one way of seeing the world. It’s my way. What’s yours?

I really don’t know life at all

10/11/2011 § Leave a comment

I was just listening to a song “Both Sides Now” by Joni Mitchell from the album of the same name that came out a few years ago.  It is a fabulous recording, made by her in her maturity and quite different from the version (which I also like) she did in 1969 on the album ”Clouds”.

I noticed while listening that part of the magic of this latest version is the contrasts: her rough old voice and the smooth sound of the strings of the orchestra; the pretty melody she sings and the simple four notes repeated over and over in the background by the violins; the way she deliberately varies her pace and inserts pauses here and there, while the orchestra keeps a disciplined, metronomic rhythm. Somehow it works – it sounds absolutely right. The whole is much greater than the sum of the parts.

It takes great talent and artistic maturity to carry this off. Benjamin Britten does it, on a recording of English folk songs I have that he recorded with his friend Peter Pears. While Pears sings the tune, Britten on the piano seems to avoid it, either playing something completely different or playing the tune a couple of beats after Pears has sung it.  Again, it works, giving new life to songs that are 100s of years old.

This reminds me of something I often reflect on – that the finest work is produced when you take diverse elements and allow them to express themselves in all their beauty and brilliance, while somehow melding them into a whole. Bringing the different parts together doesn’t diminish them, it amplifies them, takes them to a higher level.

The human body is like this. The lungs are absolutely amazing at what they do, the heart beats again and again, 35 million times a year, your skin keeps you dry yet breathes, the brain is more complex than a city (!), and so on. They have hugely diverse functions. Yet when we meet a human being, an amalgam of all these parts, we experience the extraordinary whole, not just the parts (unless we are in the medical profession, but that’s another story…).

Organisations at their best work this way too.  At Kingfisher, where I used to work, the CEO excelled at attracting and retaining the best people and allowing them to thrive. It seems that Alex Ferguson, Manchester United manager, has that quality too. That is why these leaders last (both lasted more than 20 years at the top) – they permit others to shine, while getting them to work together.

To me this is another example of the mystery and wonder of life. It reminds me that, like Joni, I really don’t know life at all….  So I will go back and listen to Benjamin Britten.

The tortoise and the hare – a parable for our times?

31/10/2011 § 1 Comment

“I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” Oliver Wendell Holmes.

I think I am starting to understand the parable of the tortoise and the hare.

The other weekend we went for a family walk near Fritham, an unspoilt part of the Forest where we don’t go very often. We haven’t had great success with going on walks with Lucas – he tends to complain, as I suspect many five year olds do when dragged on a walk by their parents. But it was a lovely day and we decided to give it go.

Sure enough about 10 minutes into the walk, it started: “I’m tired”, “Are we going back now?” It would have been easy for us to get frustrated and either ignore his complaints or simply give up and head back to the pub. Instead we tried to adjust to meet his needs – we took a more interesting path, we engaged him in the occasional race, we stopped when he found a particularly interesting stick or leaf. In the end, we walked for 2 ¾ hours (partly because we took a wrong turn). Remarkably he only started complaining about being tired towards the very end, by which time we were tired too.

This got me thinking. How many times in life, when encountering resistance of some sort, do we either ignore it and plough on regardless or give up. Seeking instant or at least rapid gratification, we are not ready to deal properly with difficult situations. Yet most of the best experiences I have had have come when I have persevered. This is certainly true in relationships.  Many of my most important relationships with others have gone through a sticky patch at some stage. Working through the issues that come up are a necessary part of strengthening and deepening the relationship.

And I am starting to see there is a universal theme here. I have always liked the quote that I introduced this post with. It seems to me that the complexity he is talking about can be experienced as some sort of internal or external resistance, a practical obstacle or a complex emotion that arises. If you simply treat this resistance as an obstacle to be overcome, you may hurry to clear it, or you may give up, and either way you are missing the point.  These are foothills that must be scaled before you can start the true ascent of the mountain. Not only are they an essential part of the journey, they are a great opportunity to learn, to gather skills and knowledge that can prove invaluable in the greater tests ahead. You come through the foothills in better shape, with deeper understanding of what you have taken on. Or, equally usefully, you learn that this is not the mountain for you.

Perhaps the key insight I have taken from this is that finding the right pace is critical. Dragging Lucas on a forced march, trying to get him to keep up our adult pace, simply wouldn’t have worked; being willing to slow down allowed us all to keep going far longer than we would have expected. It reminds me of the time I climbed a 4000m mountain a few years ago. We were accompanied by a highly experienced guide, who had a mantra to help us get to the top. ‘Slow is steady, steady is fast.” In other words, find the right pace, one that you can keep at all day, and stick to it. If you do this you may achieve far more than those who are fitter and stronger but who start off at a rush.

And why do I think this is a parable for our time? Because our adolescent society, powered by cheap fossil fuels, continues to act like the hare, rushing into challenges (health care, education, international peace, you name it), seeking the quick solution, and ending up repeatedly disappointed, while the approach of the tortoise, the slow, steady, patient approach, is the only one that offers the prospect of providing long-term, proper solutions.

To focus or not to focus…

09/08/2011 § 1 Comment

“The morning sea of silence broke into ripples of birdsongs; and the flowers were all merry by the roadside; and the wealth of gold was scattered through the rift of the clouds while we busily went on our way and paid no heed.” Rabindranath Tagore

It is bad to be distracted, isn’t it? Real leaders are focused, disciplined, single minded. Stopping to pay attention to peripherals can only slow us down, prevent us achieving our objectives.

This is absolutely true, but it is not the whole story. It assumes we know what our objectives are. Too often, we skip out or shorten the vital stage of identifying our objectives, a stage which needs the opposite of focus – it needs perspective. Too focused or single-minded an approach here can be very harmful. A proper process needs to bring in information from multiple perspectives, in all sorts of forms. Otherwise we make poor choices. Pursuing the wrong objectives in a focused way is worse than being unfocused.

For me, the failure of public and private organisations to find a proper perspective, and thus to work out their true objectives, is a major cause of their unhealthy behaviour. If tobacco and alcohol companies had proper perspective, would they really continue pushing for increased sales? If the department of education had proper perspective, would it continue trying to “manage” schools and teachers from above? I wish the tobacco companies would be a bit less focused, a bit less efficient at their marketing!

Excluding vital information from our field of perception inevitably leads, over time, to disconnection, dis-ease and dysfunctional behaviour. If we don’t stop and smell the roses sometime, we eventually lose our sense of smell and the roses all disappear.

I think about this as a head or heart dynamic (it could equally be seen as a male/female dynamic). The head seeks focus, the heart seeks perspective. Neither is right in all circumstances – they each take turns to lead.

We can use the head to help us distinguish between useful distractions (which might include exercise, lunch, a good holiday, reading poetry, watching TED videos) and less useful ones (my list includes shopping, most of what the TV and newspapers produce, reading e-mails, much of the time anyway….).  The heart can help us know when the time is right to allow ourselves to be distracted and when it is time to focus.

This can be seen in the evolution of this blog over the last 6 months, mirroring what has been going on for me. When I launched it, I decided to focus it on the connection between sustainability and business. However I soon found that it had a life of its own. I could have reined it in but my heart told me that the right thing to do was let it wander, to be distracted, just as I was being distracted.

This has been a very rich time for me, full of sharing and learning and adventure. I have watched lots of TED videos, read lots of poetry and had amazing conversations!  But I feel I have reached a turning point – a time when I need to start being more focused. Apart from anything else, my savings have run out and will no longer support my wanderings.

Thus I intend to focus my blog more, particularly exploring the area of dialogue which is something that I am more and more drawn to. I intend to create space for people to talk together.

So I might stop writing for a week or two while I focus….

What does leadership mean to you?

30/03/2011 § 5 Comments

“Resist more and obey less”. Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

I am thinking about leadership.

We are rather obsessed by leadership. There are countless books on leadership (at least 21,000 on Amazon, and that’s just under “business”), leadership training courses and I know several “leadership coaches”. Business executives are constantly exhorted to model themselves on Jack Welch, Steve Jobs or Winston Churchill. Yet we seldom if ever talk about its opposite – conformity. This is striking since in most organisations it is conformity that is the norm, not leadership.

I need to be clear what I mean by leadership. Leadership is not the exclusive domain of those at the top of some organisational chart – the CEO, the Prime Minister, the headmistress. Anyone can be a leader: my granny, setting an inspiring example of how to live with love and humour; my 4 year old son who, when the spirit takes him, refuses to do what he is told (and drives his parents mad, but I wouldn’t have him any other way); Grace Darling, rowing out to rescue 9 sailors from drowning; Rosa Parks refusing to surrender her bus seat to a white man.

To me, leadership is closely linked to integrity – it is about being true to yourself, having the courage of your convictions. It comes from a place of love and trust, a belief in the fundamental rightness of the universe that gives you the confidence to be who you are, not who you think you should be.

Organisations are very good at suppressing leadership, at all levels. It was part of the original design brief for the corporate form, to make sure the owners can exercise control over the company. A little bit of control is not a bad thing, when done in the right way. After all, I have to exert some control over my son to stop him running out into the road, or eating 6 ice-creams a day. But too often the control is restricting and prevents people achieving their potential. After all, those doing the controlling are fellow human beings – just because they are more senior, or have more experience, or are better at playing politics, what gives them to right to tell others what to do?

Of course some people like being controlled. They have a deep need for it and really struggle in an environment where there are few boundaries. I remember interviewing a senior executive at one large German retailer that was known for giving considerable authority to store managers. This gave them real resilience, allowing the business to cope much better than others in market downturns. But the executive explained to me that not all store managers were up for it. They had several cases where a store manager recruited from a competitor wanted to be told what to do, and eventually had to leave – he couldn’t cope with such levels of freedom.

I suppose I have been thinking so much about leadership recently because I have been considering re-engaging in some way with large corporations, the world I left 9 years ago. It is a strangely scary thought.

In the early part of my corporate career I definitely chose conformity over leadership. I blindly accepted the corporate creed, buying into the notions that limitless growth is both desirable and achievable, and that putting shareholder value first is a perfectly sensible and indeed moral thing to do.

Later on, life became more complicated for me, as I started to question these central tenets of corporate life. Yet I felt intimidated by the enormous power of the corporate machine and didn’t dare to speak my mind. I would discreetly buy my fair trade products but not dare to question our own aggressive purchasing policies.

Part of the reason for not speaking out was that I wouldn’t have known what to say. But mainly, I suspect, I doubted my own leadership. I lacked the self-belief to stand up and ask challenging questions to which I had no answers. In fact I can now see that this willingness to go into the unknown is one of the key tests of leadership. Rosa Parks couldn’t have known what the consequences of her action might be. But she was willing to act, and then trust.

Still I have this nagging doubt: if I were to re-enter the corporate world, would I lose my integrity? Would I be obliged to leave my values at the door, to pretend to be someone I am not. Would I become corrupted?

Yet the answer to this is clear. If I am called to do it, I have to try. To turn my back on leadership is to turn my back on life. The only way of being sure of avoiding failure is not to try in the first place.

Besides, large businesses are absolutely crying out for some real leadership. It is time that more of us stepped up, into that scary, vulnerable place where we really find what we are made of.

This is what leadership means to me. What does it mean to you?

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