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,

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Dip into “The Vital Edge”

Fancy a taster of what you can expect from my recently released book, “The Vital Edge”? Have a look through the attached presentation to see what topics are covered and which sports people feature. If you have already purchased the book, many thanks for doing so. I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments on the subjects raised in “The Vital Edge”, either by leaving a review or rating on the site or here in the comments section of this blog.

You Cannot Lead without Inquiry (Update)

BLOG UPDATE:  This article was originally posted in February 2012, and I am delighted to see that Hamza Kashgari, the young Saudi writer who inspired the article, has eventually been released from his prison sentence in Saudi Arabia. If you missed the original story, Hamza was imprisoned for expressing views deemed blasphemous by the authorities.  

(see Freedom House article on his release here)


POSTED Feb 20, 2012      Too many people in positions of authority operate from a position of fear. Fear of not knowing, fear of being found out, fear of looking incompetent, fear of losing what has taken them years to attain.  This is true in companies, public service and politics. People who are in these positions are rarely stupid.  Being smart is usually a big factor in them getting to where they are. But, once they are there, something seems to kick in which is profoundly ‘anti-learning’. To paraphrase the great Chris Argyris, “Smart People find it tough to Learn”.

Today’s story in ‘The Nation’ of Hamza Kashgari, a 23-year-old journalist, who faces potential death for daring to question, shines a powerful spotlight on the fear with which ‘leaders’ operate. As a species we progress by learning.  We are problem solvers, we are cognitive thinkers, we naturally question, challenge and inquire. It is by doing so that we have overcome the multitude of obstacles that have stood in the way of our evolution over millenia. But, we do not and cannot stand still. To do so would consign the human race to extinction, probably through self-destruction. More than ever before, we requireenormous learning on a global scale. We need creativity and innovation, we need it networked and con-joined, we need collaboration, we cannot afford to shut down any avenues of possible learning. We need advances, leaps of logic, and ‘open and questioning minds’ that will take our species forward together to solve the biggest problems we have ever had to deal with – drought, famine, economy, conflict, climate change, energy, pestulance, AIDS, malaria, and the list goes on.

Shutting down inquiry, especially in our young people, is a fast-track to obsolesence. It may preserve the ‘Leaders’ position in the short term, it saves face, it avoids embarrassment, it re-asserts authority and quells insubordination, but all at the expense of ‘learning’.  The best Leaders through history have demonstrated that they contnue to change, they recognise that the circumstances that surrounded them while getting to where they have reached are continously changing, and so must they. They adapt, they are flexible in their approach, and they continuously learn. They do this by continuing to ask questions.  They do not fear that they will be seen as incompetent in doing so. They encourage others to do the same, they create a safe and open space for inquiry, because they know that this is the surest way to keep learning.

I wish Hamza well in his fight for justice and his right to learn.

Leading with uncertainty

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” ~ Thomas A. Edison

I’m getting more than a little concerned about the world’s changing attitude toward ‘risk’.


A fundamental part of our biological makeup, and a reason for the way our limbic systems work the way they do, is that we are well equipped for surviving. The very fact we are around today, writing and reading this post, is evidence of our species’ success in navigating millenia of ‘survival’ challenges. Being able to assess risk, and make decisions based on the available information, is key to that continued success. Certainty and absolute prediction do not exist in nature. The best we can do today is build up banks of data based on past events, use super-computers to model trends, and use experts to ‘predict’ based on probabilities. And, even then, it is remarkably difficult to get it right. The US Presidential elections were being predicted by political analysts and pollsters using many different indicators of what has happened (or not happened) in the past. But, they did not all get it right. Hurricane Sandy was being tracked minute by minute, modelled by the most powerful computers, and its likely course predicted by the best weather forecasters, but no-one could be certain exactly where, and how it would strike, and with what level of ferocity.

Now, I like to think that, as humans (who are inherently wired to understand probability, risk and prediction), we are tolerant and acceptant of the fact that getting predictions absolutely correct is simply not achievable.  But, I fear I am naive in this belief. I sense Continue reading

We get the Leaders we deserve?

If we accept that successful leadership helps people to take responsibility, to grow and develop, and to make hard choices, then, by definition, when people remain reliant and dependent on others providing answers, guidance and direction, and are content to let others do the work, then the leadership we get is, at best, sub-optimal.

People like to elect or hire leaders to provide them with the right answers, and not to confront them with challenging questions or difficult choices.  But, the great leaders do just that. They do not resort to using their authority to ‘implement their own answers’.  They may set out the vision, they may indicate the general direction we need to follow, but they will also put responsibility back in the hands of people to come up with the answers that are right for them and to be implemented at a pace that is tolerable.

Indeed, the more challenging the problem and the more risks involved, the more that people need to face up to the adaptive pressures and the choices that they face.  And, paradoxically, it is under these extreme situations that leaders come under the most pressure to provide the right answers.

The danger in these situations is that some leaders will Continue reading

3 Great Reads – wildthoughts

Probably the 3 best ‘thinking’ reads I have had in the last year…..Highly recommended.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on these. All quite different, but all truly thought-provoking in a major, global. big-ideas way. When you read these you do feel like you are wrestling with the genuine challenges of the planet today. Brilliant.

Leadership as an Activity

Ask people to define leaders or leadership and I’m willing to bet they will think of it in terms of people. Figures of authority. Historical figures who have led countries, movements, armies. There is no doubting that the people they mention will have been leaders (good or bad). But it misses the point about leadership. Leadership is not defined by the position or authority one possesses or has been granted. It is better thought of as an ‘activity’. Leadership is evident in the behaviour displayed by people and is measured largely by the extent to which the activity mobilises others to accept responsibility for owning issues, changing conditions and tackling tough challenges. Note, the important point here is about mobilising others. True, leaders can and often do take action and make decisions, but I believe the most significant measure of leadership is the extent to which leaders are able to focus other’s attention on the need to take action. That is the mark of true Leadership. That is what causes real change and alters mindsets, and, very importantly, does not encourage dependence.

I recommend a great read on this topic. Ronald Heifetz who wrote Leadership Without Easy Answers.
If you want to hear a review, have a listen to the attached file which I have recorded. It is less than 15 minutes in duration and will give you more insight to the content of this great book.
Book Review Audio