The Power of Deep Democracy

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I recently experienced my first Deep Democracy workshop as a participant and it was a real eye-opener.  It is simple yet powerful, and has the potential to create real transformation, not just routine actions for improvement. It was born out of  South Africa’s transformation from apartheid to democracy, and is used by leaders and facilitators from all walks of life. The process enables voices to be heard that are often left unheard, and mines the inherent wisdom hidden within the system by resolving tension and conflict.  (see Deep Democracy).

The process invites people to step into different perspectives or roles, some of which they may not be in agreement with.  The conversations that emerge from these different perspectives are illuminating. New information is surfaced, new possibilities emerge and collective wisdom that has been buried within the system is given an opportunity to reveal itself.

At a time when people all around the world are questioning what is real, what is true and what is fake news, the very meaning of democracy is under challenge. Who runs things? Is it the politicians?  What is the role of the media? And what about the technology giants, such as Facebook, Google and Amazon?  Where do we go to seek our answers and who can we rely on to reveal the truth about what is most important for us?  Continue reading

It’s Lonely at the Top

I have long been a fan and admirer of Andy Murray, so naturally I was delighted for him when he recently reached the pinnacle of his sport by being crowned the world’s number one-ranked male tennis player. Amazing!  Perhaps even more amazing when we reflect on the fact that he comes from a small town (Dunblane) in a country (Scotland) with practically no history to speak of in the game of tennis.  His journey to get to the top has been far from easy.  He has played in an era which has been dominated by three other great players, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, an era that most tennis experts agree has been the most highly contested period of excellence in the men’s game – ever!

And here he now stands. On top of the world.

So, what next?  Well, the only certain thing about being world number one is that the day
will come when you will no longer be world number one.
 Sorry to introduce such a note of pessimism to proceedings, but that is the stark reality.  It’s a lonely place being out on your own. Not everyone has enjoyed it, and not everyone has coped well with it.  Andre Agassi has described how miserable it made him, and John McEnroe found it lonely and exposed. He once said, “You’re out there on your own island, and you feel like you’re disengaged, not only with the rest of the world, but the rest of your competitors, some of them friends.”andy_murray_practice_27107035063

This is similar to how many CEOs, Business Owners and Leaders describe the feeling of being at the top, or out in front of their organisations and companies. It can be a lonely place.   Continue reading

Lazy Leadership

Is this the age of Lazy Leadership? Well, before you answer, perhaps I should explain a little more about what I mean by that term.

No-one ever said that leaders need to be popular. In fact we probably need to be wary of leaders who appear to be universally liked. Those who are, in my view, are either at the head of a very slick and dangerous brain-washing machine, or are simply not tackling the tough stuff that people don’t like to hear.  (See We get the Leaders we deserve).

Here in the UK we have experienced a number of major political episodes in the last couple of years, from a Scottish Referendum, to a General Election, and more recently, an EU Referendum, and both a Tory and Labour leadership battle.  And we are currently in the final lap of the US Presidential marathon (or Trumpathon).donald-trump-creative-commons-via-flickr_659823

Perhaps it is because so many of these events have been reduced to simplistic binary choices that the quality of political debate has deteriorated. Complex issues, that do not necessarily have straightforward solutions, have been reduced to simple soundbites, creating polarised debates, resulting in divided electorates and divided nations.

High quality leaders navigate complexity and ambiguity, and do not allow themselves to be drawn into the downward spiral that is satisfied merely by securing a simple majority to fulfil a political end. Instead they are prepared to tackle thorny issues that may not be popular, they recognise that alienating half of the electorate (or workforce) is not a good foundation to build from, and they understand the danger of chasing populist opinion.

Here in the UK,

Continue reading

Mining for Treasure

You could be excused for wondering whether leadership has gone out of fashion right now. Whether it be politics, business or sport, wherever you look, there appears to be a vacuum at the top, and much discrediting of those leaders who remain.

What could be going on?  Well, I think one of the problems is that we are mixed up about
what we want from our leaders. Perhaps we expect too much of them. Should they have all the answers? Should they be all-seeing and all-hearing? Is it reasonable to expect them to set strategy, direction, plan, implement, review, report and make key decisions, as well as dispense wisdom to all who seek it?   Of course not.  But, despite recognising this as impractical, and even unhealthy, as a society we are still encouraged to demand unequivocal and unwavering surety from our leaders.

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At this time, perhaps more than at any time in the past, we need a different set of skills from our leaders. We live in a VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) world where knowledge is distributed more widely than ever, where more information is instantly available than at any time in history, yet despite all that information, decision-making has never been more difficult. Those who come out of the charismatic ‘all-knowing’ school of leadership present us with dangers. Continue reading

Collusion of Confusion

People do not go out of their way to seek data that contradicts their existing beliefs. On the contrary, they will select any data they find that supports existing assumptions. We may like to believe that we are open to having our minds changed, but the reality is that we are quite fixed when it comes to our mental malleability.

Evidence for this assertion is being played out daily on our radios and televisions, as people debate the pros and cons of Brexit. There is an uncanny collective agreement amongst the public that they do not get enough facts to help them arrive at a logical and balanced position. We hear this refrain in panel discussions, question time and vox pops. “How are we supposed to know what the truth is? One lot give us a load of statistics, and then the other lot come along and tell us that is all wrong and hit us with another load of statistics.”

I watched one such programme recently, where a member of the public made exactly this
point. He levelled his accusation at one of the ‘experts’ on the panel. His complaint centred around the costs of running the EU along with an assertion that Britain should not be run by unelected bureaucrats. The expert spent a reasonable amount of time patiently 141201.unbiasedexplaining the facts. He explained that calling all of the EU machine unelected was not accurate.  He pointed out that the EU Parliament, which is made up of elected national representatives, does in fact have a veto over recommendations put forward by the EU Commission. And that the EU Council is also made up of one member from each state in the EU, each of whom will have been elected as part of their home nation’s general elections.  This was all delivered in a tone of neutrality, and with a genuine desire to help alleviate concerns and misunderstandings.  At the end, the person who had raised the original issue was asked if the information provided had helped. His response was not positive. Exasperated, he accused the ‘expert’ of simply adding to the confusion and misconceptions, and “just who was he supposed to believe?”

I suspect the data provided Continue reading

Who Do You Think You Are?

“Dad! Dad! Can I be an astronaut?”

“Don’t be stupid son. You come from Doncaster.” ~ Steve McDermott

 

Last month I published a post in the wake of the killings in Paris called Hands up if you’re scared. The thrust of the piece was about fear, and the natural (and adaptive) reactions we have to dangerous situations. It was also about the exploitation of that fear, by both terrorists and political hawks.

In addition to those external voices of doom, we also have to be on our guard against our own internal enemy. The voice from within plays into the hands of the arguments of external fear-mongers. Many people have studied and written about the many forms our internal voice takes. Sometimes we can think of it as our conscience, our guide, our fairy godmother, looking out for us and keeping us on the straight and narrow. Or it may manifest in more malevolent form, talking down your talent or competence, criticizing your ideas or dreams, mocking your attempts to break free from “who you are”.

Over many years of working with people as they seek to overcome internal obstacles, I have heard people describe their ‘inner critic’ or ‘gremlin’ in many different ways, but whatever form they take, they tend always to say the same sorts of things to us.

  • “What makes you think you can do that?”
  • “You’ll fail and look stupid.”
  • “You’ll never amount to anything.”
  • “Who’s going to listen to you?”
  • “Who do you think you are?”

Screenshot 2015-12-11 13.26.33I recommend watching this interview between Oprah Winfrey and Brene Brown. The whole interview is fascinating, but if you only have a few minutes to spare, Continue reading

Self-Awareness: The Gateway to Leadership

This article was originally published in The e.MILE People Development Magazine in Feb 2015.

Few would argue with the notion that self-awareness is a vital prerequisite for any effective leader.  It is, after all, a key building block for emotional intelligence (EQ), providing the foundation for greater self-regulation, which in turn lends itself to more astute social awareness and finely tuned social skills, including leadership.

Be careful of false promises however.  Many books and articles have been written promising great things on the back of EQ mastery.  Unfortunately, many of these words of wisdom miss the point.  EQ is not just a set of skills to be learned and used, as simply as switching on a light. True EQ embodies a mind-set and a ‘way of being’ that is imbued with honourable intentions.Unhappy Girl Looking At Her Reflection On The Mirror

It is fashionable, indeed expected, for leaders to be in tune with their emotions, to understand themselves deeply, and to be equipped with the skills to know and read others’ emotions and motivations.  There is a danger in this, however.  A danger that lies at the very heart of how we expect our leaders to be.

Leaders are expected to know stuff. To know the strategy, to provide the direction, to comfort people during periods of uncertainty, to motivate, and have answers to difficult questions about expected future changes in the market. In short, the buck stops with the leader. It’s what they are paid top dollar for, isn’t it?

And how do leaders typically respond to these expectations?  By playing the same elaborate  game of course.  By giving people what they expect.  They put on a brave face (“for the sake of morale!”) even when they are unsure. They feel pressure to come up with answers when put on the spot for fear of looking out of their depth (“you never know – you might eventually be ‘found out’ as being a fraud or over-promoted!”).  All the while, they stay outwardly calm, self-assured and in control.  In other words, they put all of their hard-learned EQ skills into practice.  The veneer of self-assuredness, and being completely in tune with people’s fears and uncertainties, proves the value of the hours spent on the books and courses to master these essential ‘people’ skills.  But, wait a minute!  Didn’t I suggest that this was all a game?

The truth is that this is playing EQ by numbers and not from the heart.   The best leaders trust themselves – warts and all – to operate from a place of openness and honesty. This means displaying vulnerability. Yes, even at the risk of scaring the workforce, by having them know you don’t have all the answers.  Leaders who can share insecurities, hand responsibility back to others, ask questions rather than provide answers, and use EQ to learn rather than persuade and manipulate, will earn greater respect and trust in the longer term.

People will sense very quickly if your words and actions have a ‘hollow’, transactional and manipulative tone, even if they are dressed up with the EQ language you have learned. Furthermore, you will be modelling the type of behaviour that will become part of the organisation’s culture and be repeated at every level.   After all, being a leader is not about you. It is about the people being led.  Are you helping to enhance their capacity and creativity? Are you empowering them to have ideas and to influence strategy?   Are they growing and developing as people under your leadership?

Self-awareness is the gateway to great leadership, a prerequisite but not, in itself, sufficient.  It is not enough that leaders use emotional intelligence; it is vital that they live it.

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About the author: Louis Collins enables people to operate more successfully. You may be struggling to implement corporate strategy, you may want to get more productivity out of yourself or your teams but don’t know where to start, or you may not be having as effective conversations as you could be. I will work with you to enable you to formulate more effective ways of leading, to raise awareness of blockers to successful ways of working, and ultimately to help you and your managers to lead more successfully.

Could your organisation benefit from raising the leadership skills of its people? Would you, or members of your management team, benefit from exploring ways to make significant improvements in personal and/or collective effectiveness and productivity? Coaching around the rich field of leadership will help provide the edge that you are seeking in 2015. Coaching has been proven to directly impact the bottom line. Simply drop me your contact details on the Contact Us page and I will be delighted to speak with you. 

Woody – Leading without authority

2012 is the 100 years anniversary of the birth of Woody Guthrie. Woody is a legend and is recognised as the “grand-daddy” of folk music tradition. But he was much more than that. He was a poet, a writer, and a social commentator. He spoke out against injustice at a time when it was dangerous to do so. He inspired new generations of musicians, from Bob Dylan to The Clash.

I attended a tribute and celebration to Woody this week in the traditional coal-mining community of Treorchy in the South Wales valleys.  This was led by Billy Bragg, who has worked closely with Woody’s daughter Nora, to put music to lyrics by her father that had never been recorded. Billy, like Woody, is a songwriter and performer in the Guthrie mould.  Politically active, angry about injustice, optimistic about humanity.  It was a touching, funny and moving tribute, where Bragg warmly and respectfully held up a lens into Woody’s world and into his incredible mind.


His legacy is enormous and more than I could ever do justice in this short post.  To discover more about Woody go check out the official website.  I do, however, want to highlight some words he penned that he called his New Years Rulin’s. These words were written as simple resolutions, and, although simple, are both profound and meaningful words of wisdom that would not look out of place in any self-respecting ‘self-help’ book….This is a selection of his Rulin’s (for a look at his original list in full go to this link)

  • “Dream Good”
  • “Stay Glad”
  • “Keep Hoping Machine Running”
  • “Love Everybody”
  • “Make up your Mind”
  • “Read lots Good Books”
  • “Learn People Better”
  • “Help win War – beat Fascism”       (note: Woody was not afraid to dream big and believe that his music could achieve big things. He famously had the words “This machine kills fascists” written on his guitar).

How appropriate might these simple guidelines be to leaders, in all walks of life, today?

Woody Guthrie was a special kind of leader. He had no formal authority, he had no position of power.  He did not command political position, nor did he operate within corporate, government or religious frameworks. Yet, he Continue reading

Leadership without accountability. Let’s hope it’s just a ‘glitch’?

Following the Enron and Worldcom scandals of a decade or so ago, we might have been excused of thinking that a new era of more authentic, honest and open leadership would beckon.  Unfortunately, the last few years have demonstrated that no industry, or walk of life, is immune from deep-rooted dubious leadership.  One simply has to mention politics (expenses scandals), journalism (the Levenson inquiry), banking (sub-prime lending) and pharmaceuticals (drug use fraud) to reinforce the breadth and depth of the malaise.

There is clearly no single, or simple, answer to what is a serious global leadership problem, but one particular story in recent weeks highlighted to me an area where leaders could at least make a start on recovering some of the confidence and trust that will take a long time to regain.  I am talking about those two pillars of leadership – responsibility and accountability.

I was dismayed to hear the statements coming out from Stephen Hester, the chief executive of RBS, last week, following the serious systems outage that caused so much concern, inconvenience and, in some cases, hardship to so many customers. After several days of uncertainty as to when the problem would be resolved, during which various spokes-people provided updates and assurances that everything was being done to bring the systems back, Mr. Hester appeared in front of the cameras, and described the problem as a software ‘glitch’. Oh dear!  This was, in my view, a complete abrogation of responsibility and accountabilty, and an insult to so many people’s intelligence.  (see attached for the anger that such simplistic responses can stir up).

One does not need to be fully aware of the precise details of the software or technology issues that RBS faced to know that dismissing the issue as a ‘glitch’ is to miss so many points about the important role of leadership.

From my experience of the IT industry, all technology & software problems can be tracked back to a failure of leadership at one level or other.

  • Who took the final decisions on how the software upgrade was to be implemented?
  • Who looked at the risk analysis and made decisions about back-ups, back-out plans, the operational window for the upgrade, the resources to be put into testing before going live?
  • Going back further in the timeline, where did the buck stop on decisions made about which technology to run with? Were compromises made, and technical advice dismissed on the basis of cost?
  • Were any other (more costly perhaps) recommendations by the front-line operational teams overruled by the executive team?
  • Is the culture within the organisation one where technicians and software engineering team leaders are encouraged and empowered to speak up and warn that things may go wrong?
  • Or are they living in a climate of fear for their jobs, resulting in them keeping their heads down, even if they are worried about some aspect of deployment procedure?
  • Was the upgrade managed by outsourced staff or contractors, perhaps with less intimate knowledge of the complexities of legacy system interfaces? Who made the decision to outsource and lay off in-house IT people to save costs?

Whatever, the answers to these, and many more questions that could be asked in a post-implementation review, the issue is that Continue reading