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I invest a lot of time assisting people running businesses to do the right thing and to find the correct decisions for their company or organisation.  Often, to do this effectively, we need to reflect on our own practice.  Here is a thought for you on fear.

Have you been in this situation before? You are facing a dilemma and need to make a hard decision. Racing through your mind are all sorts of scenarios and distractions. A decision seems obvious, but something holds you back.  It could be that you’re racked with fear that people won’t like your decision. You might fear looking stupid. We fear that people may feel hurt, or that you might damage a friendship or a working relationship. Will making a decision be seen as me having got it wrong in the past?

So you compromise and make a decision that you think might keep the peace, or please everyone.  Or, worse still, you avoid making a decision at all.

Now, ask yourself this: what would I do if I had no fears?

Prolonged exposure to boardrooms, and listening to the war stories of respected directors, tells me that the above situation is not unheard of in the governance arena. But there can be no place for fear in decision-making for directors. They are charged with making decisions that are in the best interests of the company.  Importantly this requirement includes making decisions in the best interests of the company even if that is not in their own interest.
 
Directors are expected to make the tough call, and this can often be a daunting and difficult task.   But they cannot avoid their responsibility by ducking the hard decisions.

Perhaps the most valued asset that any director possesses is his or her reputation. Reputation risk is often discussed by directors, and an association with poor decisions and/or practices could damage that reputation. This provides a very strong motive for directors to ensure that they are making sound decisions that are in the best interest of the company. Best interest, of course, now goes beyond narrow interpretations of shareholder value, to ensuring that decisions enable the company to continue to trade in a sustainable manner, and reflect the needs and interests of staff, customers, and the wider community as well as shareholders.

But directors, like all people, are not immune to fear. They, however, may have a heightened responsibility to ensure that fear does not distort good decision-making. If we asked the question, “what would I do if I had no fears?”, then we could remove one major obstacle to the operation of sound judgement.

When you ask “what would I do if I had no fears?” then often the correct decision stares you in the face…your choice becomes clearer.

Want to learn more? I recently completed a program offered by the University of Lausanne through Coursera entitled, Unethical Decision-Making in Organisations.  Delivered by Guido Palazzo and Ulrich Hoffrage from the UL Business School, the course covered many topics, including the Enron story and Lehman Brothers collapse.  I would recommend the course to anyone interested in developing their decision making skills. I would particularly recommend it to anybody serving at Board or C-Suite level.

Amongst other things, the Lausanne course has helped me to re-appreciate the operation of fear, and particularly concerns about making decisions that might isolate you in work or social settings. The course also help be put in context the importance that leaders such as Field Marshal Bill Slim and Gen George Patton both applied to the advice “do not take the counsel of your fears”.  And the words of Max DePree: “Leaders stand alone, take the heat, bear the pain, tell the truth.”

High on the list of screens I will now apply to the difficult task of decision-making, especially at board level, will be to regularly ask myself: what would I do if I had no fears?



How do you grab the attention of your organisation and ensure that it does the right thing?

Many will say “by having a compelling vision”.  It would be nice to have such a simple exclamation.

Having a compelling vision alone is insufficient for achievement as a leader. It must be complemented by communication and relationship building skills. Peters and Waterman, in “In Search of Excellence” (1982), considered that the principal factor which seems to deliver organisational success is the manager’s ability to deal with people.

Dealing with people in organisations starts with establishing a shared understanding of purpose. CEOs cannot develop a compelling vision or a strategy on their own. Yes, they need to have an agenda, and be results oriented (results get attention), but these cannot be developed in isolation.  The reality is that the best CEOs are good at articulating the aspirations of their fellow organisational members. They are good at listening 
and observing their own people, and turning those aspirations
 into a compelling statement for the organisation. 
Simply put, the best leaders set the direction by energising the 
aspirations already in the organisation.

Articulating and communicating that vision turns it into a statement of shared purpose. The much sought after alignment of staff is more correctly described as a continuing process of orienting people towards the core objective, and to initiate actions that contribute to the achievement of purpose. And organisations become more effective as this shared understanding translates into another continuing process of always challenging what is being done – does it contribute to the purpose? Is it consistent with values? If so, is it the best way? What are the risks? Is the risk worth taking? And so on.
. Rather than being seen as the action of a charismatic or transformational leader, the purpose provides for a fundamental need in people. It is one in which they can find meaning and a sense of personal worth. It is a framework in which their contribution can be appreciated, and not just externally, but in greater levels of self-esteem and confidence. The effective managerial leader’s role then has been to capture and clarify the collective aspirations, to articulate these in a clear statement of purpose, and then to continually reiterate and reorient around that shared vision.

Two other factors are important, and can be deal breakers no matter how effective a leader has been in developing a sense of purpose. Those factors are trust and respect.

Trust is easy, and whilst it encompasses concepts such as integrity and fairness, in organisations it comes simply from making yourself and your position clear, and then honouring your commitments. That is, doing what you promise. This requires accountability and reliability, and implicitly requires you to think carefully about the commitments you are making, and recognising the impact that you are having on the organisation and its people. Max De Pree rightly talks of leadership as a serious meddling in the lives of others. Consider your commitments carefully, make them public and then honour them. Too often this becomes a stumbling block!

Respect, also, is easy. To gain the respect and confidence of staff, managerial leaders must be able to display competence in the work of the organisation, not just in “management expertise.” This is not an argument either for internal appointments, or for appointments of people who already understand your business. Many leaders entered jobs in which they have little content knowledge, and those who survive invariably go into a deep dive to understand the business and its nature. As they develop expertise, and display empathy with the joys and trials of the business, they win respect. Those who do not work to understand the business falter.

The essence of managerial leadership is to develop and demonstrate
the expertise and understanding that allows you to articulate a core purpose
 for the organisation. 
 
Translating that purpose into action is the essence of successful strategy
 and that requires you to be clear about your intentions. 
   
It is more than just “walk the talk” – it is about identifying the path 
everyone wants to walk, and then building that path as you go.



In 2002 Steve Sample, Tenth President of the University of Southern California penned the book, “The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership”   I was reminded of this great little read during a discussion with a business colleague today. Not surprising, when I found my copy it was full of many long-forgotten marginal notes and post-it stickers (also covered with my characteristically unreadable scrawl).
The key take-away of the book is that most people are incapable of truly original or independent thought, but a leader must have that ability.  Sample draws heavily on classical works from Shakespeare to Machiavelli to Abraham Lincoln to support this proposition.  As an aside, his recommendations for a reading list are fun, and…well, contrarian.
A leader’s vision is important, but just as critical is this ability to “think free” and consider a range of ideas.  I’m digging deeper into the book as I’m finding it fascinating to revisit after 12 years during which my experiences give me a richer reference point (and will probably post some further comments.
My dictionary defines contrarian as “one who opposes or rejects popular opinion”.  That certainly sounds like free thinking.  Sample pulls together a few contrarian principles “which will help a leader break free of the wisdom of the herd, and strike out in bold new directions.”
1.    Think gray: try not to form firm opinions about ideas or people unless and until you have to.
2.    Think free: train yourself to move several steps beyond traditional brainstorming by considering really outrageous solutions and approaches.
3.    Listen first, talk later.  And when you listen, do so artfully.
4.    Experts can be helpful, but they’re no substitute for your own critical thinking and discernment.
5.    Beware of pseudoscience masquerading as incontrovertible fact or unassailable wisdom; it typically will do nothing to serve your interests or those of the organization you are leading.
6.    Dig for gold in the subtext while your competition stays mired down in trade publications and other ephemera.  You can depend on your lieutenants to give you any current news that really matters.
7.    Never make a decision yourself that can be reasonably delegated to a lieutenant and never make a decision today that can reasonably put off till tomorrow.
8.    Ignore sunk costs and yesterday’s mistakes.  The decisions you make as a leader can only affect the future not the past.
9.    Don’t unnecessarily humiliate a defeated opponent.
10.   Know which hill you’re willing to die on, and realize that your choice may at some point require you to retreat from all the surrounding hills.
11.   Work for those who work for you; recruit the best lieutenants available, and then spend most of your time and energy helping them to succeed.
12.   Many people want to be leader, but few want to doleader.  If you are not in the latter group you should stay away from the leadership business altogether.
13.   You as a leader can’t really run your organization; rather you can only lead individual followers, who then collectively give motion and substance to the organization of which you are the head.
14.   Don’t delude yourself into thinking that people are intrinsically better or worse than they really are; instead work to bring the best in your followers (and yourself) while minimizing the worst.
15.   You can’t copy your way to excellence; rather true excellence can only be achieved through original thinking and unconventional approaches.
Sample records that these principles are based in a belief that leadership is highly situational and contingent.  He rightly states that “every leader is locked in a moment-to-moment struggle with the context and circumstances of his own place and time”.   The leader must work hard to master the struggle.
Reference: S B Sample (2002) The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership.  Jossey-Bass.  ISBN 0 7879 5587 6
Ends
Leadership is a diverse topic, and there is an enormous literature that surrounds it.  Social media abounds with “insights”, to the extent that I have recently begun reflecting on what I have learnt about leading over the last 30 years in the work force. Not much seems to be new!! 

 One dominant theme in the social media is an attempt to describe good leadership.  The following is an older contribution from Schmertz and Novak on the topic that seems to cover much of what is advocated in more contemporary contributions.

A good leader
  • is always willing to do the dirty work.  He’ll sweep out the store if that’s what’s required to make a project succeed.  If everyone on the team has to make a sacrifice, he’ll set an example for others to follow.
  • isn’t afraid to hire people who are smarter or more creative than himself.  He knows that if he goes to the usual mediocre sources, he’s going to end up with the usual mediocre results.  A real leader can harness the energy of creative people in a way that will enhance the entire enterprise.  Since most people “per se” are mediocre, the true leader can be recognised because, somehow or other, his people consistently turn in superior performances.
  • is enthusiastic during tough times.  Leaders who constantly complain about a bad situation can rarely motivate the troops and help them to overcome adversity.  In a crisis, optimism and confidence are even more important than experience and intelligence.
  • has vision.  In our experience there are two kinds of leader – the “lets-not” and the “why-not”.  When times are tough, the lets-not prefer to retreat, to stay with the familiar, to avoid taking risks.  The why-nots, on the other hand, are open to fresh ideas and bold possibilities.  If the old answers don’t work, they’re willing to experiment with new and unconventional solutions.
  • is tough – a quality that has less to do with personality than with character.  It’s not that the tough leader is abrasive, or uncaring, or insensitive.  It’s simply that he’s willing and able to make the difficult and unpopular decisions – and live with their consequences.
  • holds a set of philosophical principles that guide him when it comes to specific issues.  Rather than making decisions on an ad hoc basis, he has formed some conclusions about the basic objectives of the organisation and about how those objectives should be reached. By the same token, he knows that the long-term health and survival of the organisation must take precedence always over short-term gains.

See:  Schmertz H and Novak W (1986)  Goodbye to the low profile.  The art of creative confrontation.  London: Mercury Books

My present activities include doing the Harold Jarche course on personal knowledge management, PKM in 40 days , and testing the concept of working out loud.

This is challenging, as the introvert in me pushes for this process to be internalised, and screams for a completing of the work before it is shared.  Small talk stresses me out, so the thought of working out load is scary.  It’s easier for me to talk about the complete picture, not the work in progress.  Working with people and in groups drains the energy from me.  I sense a loss of control over my thoughts…I am just not good at thinking out load.

So, working out loud in the social media might offer some great opportunities…I can put my ideas out in the hope that others can help improve them without…well, without having to be social.  Really? Well, it is really a different way to been social than the team meeting, or face-to-face, or the social gathering.

With social media, I can control the level of interaction and the pace of engagement.  I can create the space I need to recharge the batteries.

I guess I can still be social…work out load…and not raise my anxiety too much.

This will be (fun) (interesting) (scary) …..

See  more on working out loud here.

Here is a little story from one of my favourite leadership practitioners, Max De Pree, that reminds us that what a leader does is important.  I often find the CEO job a rather lonely life where every move is under someone’s observation.  But rather than letting this develop into a sense of strain or tension, it is important to remember that if your actions reflect your word (or intentions) then you are being authentic and effective.
Esther, my wife, and I have a grand-daughter named Zoe, the Greek word for “life”.  She was born prematurely and weighed one pound, seven ounces, so small that my wedding ring could slide up her arm to her shoulders.  The neonatologist who first examined her told us that she had a 5 to 10 percent chance of living three days.  When Esther and I scrubbed up for our first visit and saw Zoe in her isolette in the neonatal intensive care unit, she had two IVs in her navel, one in her foot, a monitor on each side of her chest, and a respirator tube and a feeding tube in her mouth.
To complicate matters, Zoe’s biological father had jumped ship the month before Zoe was born.  Realising this, a wise and caring nurse named Ruth gave me my instructions.  “For the next several months, at least, you’re the surrogate father.  I want you to come to the hospital every day to visit Zoe, and when you come, I would like you to rub her body and her legs and arms with the tip of your finger.  While you’re caressing her, you should tell her over and over how much you love her, because she has to be able to connect your voice to your touch.”
Ruth was doing exactly the right thing on Zoe’s behalf (and, of course, on my behalf as well), and without realising it she was giving me one of the best possible descriptions of the work of a leader.  At the core of becoming a leader is the need always to connect one’s voice with one’s touch. (my emphasis)

De Pree M O (1991)  Leadership Jazz.  Melbourne: Australian Business Library, Information Australia. pp.1-3

A recent article by Josie Garthwaite (A New Generation of GMOs. Is synthetic biology on its way to our farms, markets and tables? http://ensia.com/features/a-new-generation-of-gmos/quotes:

For groups like Friends of the Earth, part of the concern is that synthesized DNA is developed “outside of nature, outside of the process of natural selection.”’

If the above view holds, then it also holds that the human species is alien to the Earth system.  The flaw in this view is that people are not part of natural selection processes operating in nature.


The application of the capabilities the people have to exert selection pressure is not “outside” of nature.  This is part of the course of nature, where better questions should be about the direction of selection pressures. 

Models that are based on a premise that Earth can be managed as if people didn’t exist do not help in our quest to address the many wicked challenges we face.

People are not an invasive species on Earth.


Posted by Shaun Coffey @ShaunCoffey