It’s the hope that kills you

“It’s not the despair, Laura. I can take the despair.  It’s the hope I can’t stand. ~ John Cleese (as Brian Stimpson in the film Clockwise)

Those who know me well will know that I am a long-suffering Scotland football fan. I have followed the national team for more years than I care to remember. Anyone who knows anything about sport in general, and perhaps football in particular, will recognise the dilemma that most football fans face. That is, they cannot always ‘choose’ their team.  As a professional coach and a psychologist who spends most of his life spreading the message that we all have choice, this does not sit well with ‘what I know’.  Why don’t I simply support Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Argentina or whatever team is top of the division on any given week?  That would be easy. It would take away a lot of the pain and disappointment that inevitably occurs when you follow Scotland’s world cup and euro championship qualification ambitions.scots fan in despair

But, I think that is to miss the point.
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The Danger of Conviction

What do you do if you can no longer live with the doubt…? You try to cure yourself. And the best cure for doubt is over-conviction. ~ Richard Holloway (2013)

As a Scot, I have been intrigued by the developing rhetoric of the politicians on either side of the upcoming referendum question. They hone their arguments in an attempt to win over voters to one or other side of the debate. Should Scotland be an independent country? Simple enough question, but it sits atop a mountain of uncertainty, doubt and fear.

source: with thanks to Marf (Martha Richler)

source: with thanks to Marf (Martha Richler)

Many people have already made up their minds, and nothing the politicians do during the campaign will sway them from their conviction. They are people who are clear on the question, they are certain what the answer is, and they are in no doubt. But, ultimately, the people who will determine the outcome, are the currently undecided people of Scotland. They remain uncertain, they have doubts, they have no clear conviction.

And what is it that people want to hear from their politicians and leaders when they are unsure? What engages people who are having doubts and uncertainties about the future? Personally, I want to hear leaders tell me that they understand my concerns, that they too have those feelings of uncertainty, that doubt and fear have entered their head too. I am unlikely to respond or relate to yet another ‘conviction’ speech. The sort of argument that suggests that there is no room for doubt. And, yet, what I am hearing, from both sides of the referendum campaign, are entrenched arguments, conviction statements, and a total absence of humility.

Both sides appear to have forgotten Continue reading

Leading Small Countries to Big Futures. Reflections from the edges of Europe.

I have recently returned from visiting two European countries in quick succession. The first, Scotland, is in the far North West of Europe, and has much in common with Norway and Iceland, while the other, Albania, is in the South East of the continent, and has more in common with Greece and Serbia. Two countries in stark contrast to one another in so many ways, but also with many intriguing parallels. Both are proud countries with long and rich histories, of similar relative size and population, both with rich energy reserves not yet fully explored and exploited, and both at a cross-roads in their respective journeys. The contrasts, on the other hand, are stark.

Albania is a country which has remained fiercely independent through turbulent times. When former Yugoslavia tried to annex the country, it formed alliances first with Russia and later with China, but gave up on both of these super-powers to create an isolationist state. Scotland on the other hand gave up its independence in the early 1700s, joining a Union with England, Wales & Northern Ireland to form today’s United Kingdom.

Albania is currently seeking to come in from the cold with a long term plan to join the EU. It has a long way to go to satisfy the many conditions required, even to become a ‘candidate state’. There are massive improvements required on the economy, human rights, open & transparent democratic elections, infrastructure, and more.  Scotland, meanwhile, has a proud and reputable tradition in its standards of education and democracy, as well as in its finance and legal systems. It is currently engaged in a national and UK-wide debate on whether its future is best served as an independent state once again, or to continue as part of a union within the United Kingdom.

What particularly fascinates me about these countries, and the significance of their respective moments in history, is how their Leadership will choose to navigate the challenges that will be thrown at them, and how they will communicate the key messages that they believe will bring people with them.

Albania, since being free of the stranglehold of communism and isolationism, has rapidly become a country of massive contrasts and disparity. Top of the range German and Japanese cars share the (under-developed) roads with donkeys and hand-pulled carts. The gap between rich and poor is enormous and appears to be widening. The ‘ruling class’ is accused of corruption, and that includes the current Leader, Sali Berisha. Trust in leadership is in short supply and yet the people remain optimistic, perhaps still buoyed by the recency of their freedom from the oppressive chains of communism that led to their world isolation. The challenge for the leadership in Albania will be to harness and nurture that optimism, and not exploit it, and to work relentlessly to gain trust and credibility.

Scotland is very different, and its Leadership faces a different type of battle. Scotland has been part of a union for over 300 years. The Scots people have a reputation for being cautious, pragmatic and, some say, dour. Scots do not heap praise on its famous and successful sons and daughters. They like to keep people in their place and ensure they do not get ideas above their station. This is a national characteristic. Alex Salmond, the current leader in the Scottish Parliament, who is keen to persuade the nation of the benefits independence will bring, will need to find ways to energise and mobilise the people, and overcome the culturally entrenched tendency to accept the status quo After all, it’s easier to stay where one is; our brains are wired to resist change. No matter how unsatisfied we may be (short of a life-threatening situation), our brains will do their best to convince us that what got us here is working, so “why change anything”?

What Scotland does have in its favour is its history of egalitarianism. It is a country with a heritage of social justice and fairness, and is coming from a better starting point in terms of the gap between the richest and poorest being relatively narrow, when compared with Albania.

So, why do I stress this particular point? Continue reading