Category: Leadership
Leaders view life through the lens of opportunity

How long have I been a leader? Probably for as long as I can remember. Starting back when I took a leadership role at the local youth group, coaching a soccer team, to becoming a teacher, and finally a Head of School. All of us experience leadership when we seek to influence others (Blanchard).

Along the way I have had to face enormous challenges. Being a Head of School you would think that the biggest challenge would be dealing with a naughty student. I have had to face vexatious complaints, death threats, and conspiracy. I’ve uncovered murder plots and had to be involved in the investigation of crimes committed long before my time. As a result I’ve had police protection more than once. When you seek to serve people in a position of leadership you see will the darker side of life.

Each challenge brought new levels of stress and anxiety. Just when I thought I had dealt with everything possible, along would come something out of the blue that I would never have thought possible.

There have been many times that I have thought about giving up. It was all too hard.

There are two ways you can view these experiences. You can look at a tough situation as a victim, seeking empathy from others, or you can see it as an opportunity for growth.

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us (Romans 8:18).

Leadership is hard. If it isn’t it probably means you aren’t doing much. It takes courage, and when you get started you will come up against challenges, some predictable, but others you can never plan for.

A leader can never turn up to work having their day planned out, knowing exactly what they are going to achieve. Your work as a leader is the unknown.

Leadership is a bit like rock climbing (my son took me indoor climbing over Easter). When you look up the cliff face looks formidable, unachieveable. Half way up your arms begin to shake, particularly if you are using the wrong technique. If you look down your courage can falter and you think you can’t push on any further.

But like rock climbing, leadership is a skill, that with practise, can be improved. You only get better at it when you are faced with a new over-hang, new hold, or new rock face.

Good leaders will assess each challenge. Have I seen this before? What did I learn last time? Should I tackle this a bit differently? Who can I ask for advice? And if I make a mistake, what is the worst that is going to happen? I’ll have to apologise, adjust my strategy and give it another go.

Rock climbers, like leaders never get any better by looking at the cliff. They can learn by watching others, but the real learning happens when you hook on and give it a go.

And if your courage does falter? There is nothing wrong in knowing and accepting your limits. Every climber needs a good person to belay.

Is reputation everything?

When threatened our instinctive response is ‘fight or flight’. The emotion we experience is fear. This instinct not only kicks in when we are personally threatened, but when the organisation we work for is threatened.  The default position is to ‘protect reputation at all costs’. This is because we perceive reputation, both personal and organisational, to be our most important asset.

It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to destroy it. If you think about that you’ll do things differently. Warren Buffett

However, what happens if you are faced with a choice between protecting reputation or doing the right thing?

There are plenty of examples of the tension between doing the right thing and reputational protection. Volkswagen didn’t do the right thing when it made the conscious decision to cheat the emissions test on its diesel cars. Instead, it wanted to build its reputation as the world’s biggest car company.

Samsung is another example with its recent recall of the Galaxy 7 notebook. At enormous financial and perhaps reputational cost, they chose the right thing by recalling all the phones it had sold.

However, with the advent of social media companies are finding themselves forced to do the right thing. Would Samsung have recalled all those phones if there wasn’t such a public outcry? Up until the point of the recall a mere 35 phones out of the 1million+ sold had exploded into flames. Had they done sufficient testing to begin with, or were they, like Volkswagen, hoping to get away with it?

There are plenty of examples where people and organisations have done wrong and tried (successfully or otherwise) to ‘sweep it under the carpet’ in order to protect their reputation. This is done out of fear; fear that if they don’t protect reputation there will be loss of face, loss of business, and consequences that will have to be borne. In these instances protection of reputation more often than not involves deceit.

We have seen examples of this played out in the way institutions in Australia (and across the world) responded to allegations of sexual abuse towards children. When a young person did have the courage to speak out they were beaten into submission for the protection of the organisation’s reputation. The loss of an individual’s potential (and sometimes life) seemed inconsequential to those in leadership roles.

It takes enormous courage when faced with the choice between doing the right thing or protecting reputation, particularly if it means admitting that you were wrong. But great leaders are more interested in integrity than reputation. They are more interested in the other person than themselves.

Real integrity is doing the right thing, knowing that nobody’s going to know whether you did it or not. Oprah Winfrey

Nelson Mandela said, “I have learned that courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear”.

When faced with the choice, to do the right thing or protect reputation, what would you do? Would you allow your natural fight or flight instinct to rule you, or will you conquer your fear and do the right thing, even if it may mean reputational damage? Great leaders hold integrity far above reputation.

To coach or to performance manage: Where is the line?

I recently attended a coaching course in Singapore run by the Center for Creative Leadership. It was an intimate group of seven with two facilitators. Amongst the nine there were eight different nationalities; I was the only Australian and the only person from education. The remainder were from the corporate sector, multinationals from China, Indonesia, India and the Netherlands.

It was fascinating to hear stories from the corporate sector in relation to coaching. The pressures to meet key performance indicators (KPIs) by certain deadlines is immense. The frustration on the part of supervisors is palpable. They have a continuous internal conflict going on. On the one hand they have a deep empathy and value for people, while on the other hand, they are compelled to reach set targets or risk their own position.

These supervisors were at the course, like me, to learn how to be more effective coaches. They genuinely want to see their colleagues grow. But when do you cut your losses and shift a person to a performance management process?

The key is to never allow your decision-making to be compromised by in-justice. People are more important than KPIs. Are the targets realistic? Has the person put in their best effort to meet those targets?

My expectation is that everyone is growing, including me. This view is not at the expense of accountability. Of course I would be asking why a target isn’t met, or if there were extenuating circumstances that impacted the person’s ability to perform. But it is growth that I expect to see, and growth can be accelerated with effective coaching.

A key role of a leader, and particularly one who is focused on building trust, is coaching.

It is when a person has been supported, or at least genuinely offered coaching, and you don’t see growth that it is time to shift to a performance management process. Nothing is more frustrating for other staff than a team member who refuses to share the load and grow. Trust isn’t damaged by tackling under-performance head on. Staff look to you to deal with the issues and trust you to treat people fairly and with respect.

Trustworthy leaders value people and support their growth, but they are also have the wisdom to know when it is time to let a person go.

The Deal’s Off

We are witnessing an erosion of trust across the globe. With the inauguration of a new President all deals are off. Nothing is being honoured, not even the respect that should be given to another country’s democratically elected leader.

In years past deals were made on a handshake. A person’s word was their oath. There was no need for written agreements that contain copious pages of fine print that no-one has the time to read but wishes they had when something goes wrong.

As the economy shifts more and more into the digital space companies are becoming more and more ruthless in their efforts to make money. Your personal data, purchasing habits and interests are being sold by all and sundry without your knowledge (unless you have actually taken the time to read the fine print in the terms and conditions attached to that loyalty card, rewards card or online game).

Trust is being eroded at an alarming rate as we become increasingly focused on ourselves. Fear feeds protectionism, tearing peoples apart. There is a real risk that Trumpism and the platform which it feeds off will grow to other democracies.

At some point this has to stop. History has shown us that personal gain over the needs of others never ends well.

We can idly sit and watch the world slide ever further down the path of legalism, racism, border control, intolerance and greed, or we can choose to change the world one person at a time.

Sociologists have suggested that even the most isolate individual will influence over 10,000 people in their lifetime. Change can happen with you.

Trust is the thing that underpins every relationship. Without trust there is no relationship. Interactions become hurtful, demeaning and destructive.

But trust can be restored. How we choose to behave is within our power. The birth of trust comes when a person chooses to put another’s needs before their own; when I choose to put others before me. Life is not a game to be won.

For leaders, trust grows when we put aside our own ego and approach our roles as a servant rather than someone who is the most important man (or woman) in the room.

Trust flourishes when a leader consciously considers their practices and how they impact the people they seek to grow.

There is hope. It begins in the way we choose to live life and lead others.


Boom or bust? The Hero CEO

The new CEO has been appointed, brought in to turn around the ailing company. The Board are keen for results. Key Performance Indicators are set and the lure of a bonus thrown out.

Share prices have been in decline. The primary task is to arrest that trend, balance the budget and begin to make in-roads on the deficit. The stage is set for the Hero CEO. His ego is primed.

With an economic landscape changing before our very eyes, more and more Boards will be seeking the quick fix. Out with the old and in with the new. New strategy, new leader. The hero appointment is attractive. It has paid dividends (at least in the short-term), but at what expense?

When an organisation’s performance is poor, many leaders default to what they believe will yield quick, turn around results. They become punitive, seeking to control people through manipulation or coercion.
The Hero CEO approach rarely, if ever results in lasting positive change. Lasting change and more profound positive impact is achieved through the establishment and embedding of trust.

Compared with people at low-trust companies, people at high-trust companies report: 74% less stress, 106% more energy at work, 50% higher productivity, 13% fewer sick days, 76% more engagement, 29% more satisfaction with their lives, and 40% less burnout (Zak, P).

The road to long-term success is often the narrow, more windy road, that takes time to navigate, but the rewards far out way the patience needed to get there.

There is a stark difference between the Hero CEO and the Servant Leader CEO. Once a person realises that trust is far more valuable than any bonus, the road is chosen and the transformation begins. But it is never an immediate transformation. It takes time, vulnerability and a willingness to let go of long held beliefs as the leader chooses to forego himself.

Take the first step. Hand back back the offer of a bonus. Never forsake what is right by putting your own selfish ambition above the needs of those you seek to serve. A quick turnaround will never pay long term dividends.

Great expectations: Lost or won?

I usually write from the perspective of the leader and not from one who is being led. We are all led by others, no matter what leadership position you are in, including me. So what happens when when trust in my leader is broken? What should be my response?

I know what it feels like when trust is broken. For me it begins with a feeling of disappointment, and if not fixed quickly, the feelings escalate to a deep hurt and even anger.

I could go through the 10 leadership practices that engender trust and point out which ones he/she failed to employ in his/her leadership of me.

I could let my feelings consume me and destroy any possibility for reconciliation.

I could continue to scrutinise my leader’s actions, looking for further confirmation of their ‘inadequacy’ to reinforce my disappointment and to build myself up by saying, ‘I’d never lead like that’.

I could respond with any one, or all of these, but ultimately, they aren’t really helpful. None will have a particularly positive impact on my wellbeing (which ultimately I am responsible for), nor will they have a positive impact on the organisation I work for.

As a follower I have a responsibility in what is a broken relationship. In the words of the wise “Trust Lady” Vanessa Hall, my expectations of my Leader have not been met. For me to trust someone I have to know that they care for me deeply. So, have I told them what my expectations of them as a leader are?

Truly great leaders get to know the people they lead so they can employ the appropriate leadership practice to engender each individual follower’s trust. But when a leader has responsibility for a lot of people, or the location of their office means that they rarely have an opportunity to get to know the people they lead, it is hard for them to know what a person’s expectations are.

When trust is broken, I could meet my leader and use the ‘I’ word in my sentences, “I am feeling…”, but what is more helpful is to say, “my expectations are… I need you to lead me like…”

Give your leader a chance. They aren’t mind readers. They don’t intend to be poor leaders, or mean to leave you feeling hurt and angry. True leadership is a relationship. If no one is following, the other isn’t leading.


Know your people, they are your bread and butter

I recently met a young restaurateur who, with his older brother had opened their first business, “The Wooden Horse.” They were 18months in and going well. He was talking to a group of budding entrepreneurs, sharing what he had learned from the experience.

For someone who is just 22 I was amazed at what he had learned about leadership in such a short space of time. As he shared the challenges of running a business he identified the appointment and management of staff as one of the most difficult.

He wisely said that staff are people, they are not inanimate objects. Every person is unique and brings with them to work their own story. Once he understood this he realised that, “every interaction with each individual staff member had to different because they all have their own unique personalities. A joke with one doesn’t work with the next. Know your people. They are your bread and butter.”

I was staggered by this young man’s wisdom. So many leaders never wake up to this seemingly obvious point. Instead, they rely too heavily on their own ‘expertise’, assuming that a ‘one-size fits all’ approach is best when leading a group of people because ‘they know best’. What this type of leader is actually saying is that it is ‘all about me’.

This young man had worked out that the way to get the very best from his staff is see each of them as individuals, to know them and adjust his behaviour to support them to achieve the goals of the organisation.

One of the most common questions I am asked when sharing the 10 key practices that build trust in leadership is, “which one is the most important?” No single leadership practice is more important than another because trust, like leadership, is a socially constructed phenomenon. It is all about the relationships we form and you cannot form those relationships if you first don’t know yourself, and then the people you seek to lead. Every person has their own life story.


What leadership lessons can we learn from Donald Trump?

Ironic really, that on 9/11 the improbable happened–Donald Trump was elected President of the United States of America. The result has left the world reeling. How did this man come from joke to reality? What leadership lessons can we learn from his election?

Ultimately leadership boils down to just two things: Vision and trust. Whether you agree with him or not, you cannot deny that Trump sold a vision:

“Let’s make America great again.”

Trump’s vision tapped into the hearts and minds of the average American, who, as a result of globalisation, had been left behind by progress. Unemployed, struggling to make ends meet, the average American was looking for someone to blame, and Trump gave it to them; he put words around their anger. His vision gave them hope.

What sets a leader apart from a manager is their ability to cast an enticing vision for the future. They are able to paint a compelling picture that people want to believe in. A great leader can imagine something different, something better, something that compels people to put in the extra effort to make a reality.

Hilter, like Trump, successfully painted a vision, but sadly, painted the vision on the failings of others. Both sold their visions not by celebrating the great achievements to date, but on the failings of their predecessors. They both identified who was to blame for the people’s predicament. “If elected I’m going to build a wall and I’m going to tear up the free trade agreements. I’ll get your jobs back.” The seeds of the vision they sold was anger, it was grown out of fear and when in full bloom, will generate hate.

The world has changed, and is changing at a rapid pace. Manufacturing jobs, no matter how high a tariff Trump puts on imports, aren’t coming back. Robotics and AI will make certain of that. The vision that Trump, and all our national leaders should be selling is one that recognises and acknowledges the good that has gone before, justifies the need for transformation, and is built on genuine hope for all peoples of our planet. Visions that are sold on the basis of fear and promulgate hate are never destined for success.

The question we are all asking now that Trump has been elected is, “can we trust him?” People will only be propelled towards the attainment of a vision if they trust their leader. Can Trump deliver on his vision and, “make America great again?” Will people put in the extra effort because they know it will create something better for everyone, or will Trump have resort to promulgating greater fear and hate to achieve his goals?


A political platform to restore our education system

The media is once again filled with the gloomy news of our failing Australian education system. The natural conclusion people reach is that teachers and schools are failing our kids. However, I would assert that teachers today have a far better understanding of teaching and learning and are working harder than ever before. So what is going on?

My proposition is that we are seeing a gradual decline of our western society, a ‘degeneration’, as Niall Ferguson author of the best seller of the same name, asserts; a degeneration of the foundational institutions that make, or made our society great.

I believe that our nation is lacking a clear vision. We have allowed the premise that, ‘our quality of living will see continual improvement if we strive for ongoing economic growth’ to be our key political priority for far too long. This is the philosophy that is failing us now.

If I were interested in a political career, this would be my political platform.

Set a clear vision for our nation: “to be a nation of innovators.”

All successful organisations, and countries for that matter, have a clear vision. Singapore set a clear vision two decades ago—just look at that nation now. Australia should capitalise on its strengths. We are more creative than most. We have the capacity to be the world’s leading innovators.

Underpin the vision with three clear values: family, equality, and education.

Each of these three values are interlinked. Strong families mean better relationships, with in turn produces a better value system and a more equal society, which in turn leads to better educational results. All three working together produce more satisfying and fulfilling lives.

Our nation has become more and more unequal. From the CEOs who earn millions in bonuses, to the inequity in salaries between the sexes, all of which are just plain wrong.

We need to make our nation more equal. There is plenty of evidence to show that the more equal a society is the stronger it is. Think Finland, or the ACT for that matter, which is remarkably equal compared to all the States and would be near the top of the education league tables if it were a country.

Make policies support the values and the attainment of the vision. Policies to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor and the sexes, and policies to strengthen the family unit. Encourage parents to choose who stays home to do the vital job of raising children during their formative years by ensuring equality of wages.

The pricing of housing also needs tackling within this value. Why does Australia have the third highest house price to income ratio in the world? Why is it that we think to be someone we have to accumulate material wealth? We have allowed greed to sell us a happiness myth.

Third, the path to a civil, peaceful, and successful society is through education. Education needs to be valued more highly that it is now. There needs to be equity of access, equity of resources and opportunities, and a greater respect for the hard work of teachers.

We need to forget the competition to be in the top five as measured by PISA and forge our own identity. To be a nation of innovators our children need to read, write, and add up, but they also need to be able to work together, foster their creativity, find a passion, develop resilience, and design solutions to the problems our world faces. The education of a child is a partnership between the family and the school, not solely the responsibility of our schools.

Why is it that we can’t achieve all this? Perhaps our political system is letting us down.

This is what I have learned and try to practise: Making decisions

Leaders make decisions. Those who don’t, aren’t leading. People look to a leader to make the decisions, no matter how hard.

How a leader makes decisions tends to fall into one of the following four broad categories:

  1. The controller: the person who makes the decisions with no consultation or collaborative effort. They fear that if they don’t, they will be seen as impotent.
  2. The pleaser: the person who makes decisions for the people they want to appease. They are motivated by affirmation from the people they care about the most.
  3. The procrastinator: the person who struggles to make a decision because they fear they may get it wrong, that their decision will have negative impact on people they care about.
  4. The consultor: the person who seeks the opinion of a wide range of people before they make a decision.

We are all the product of our life experiences. In particular, our childhood experiences shape our identity, and consequently, how we approach decision-making.

I know I innately fall into the second category, the pleaser. I can’t pin-point what it was in my upbringing, but I know I have a tendency to make decisions that favour the people I want to receive affirmation from. I want to please the people I like and want to like me. This approach feeds my ego, makes me feel valued, a person of worth.

I know that being a pleaser is my weakness when it comes to decision making. Being a pleaser ultimately doesn’t benefit the organisation I am employed to serve, it serves only my interests.

Research has shown that trust is grown when I make consultative decisions, so I have to work just that little bit harder to ensure I put my ego aside and use processes counter to my nature.

Have you ever had the experience of a decision being made that has a significant impact on your work and you weren’t consulted? It leaves you feeling angry, confused, undervalued, and ultimately, it undermines the confidence and trust you have in the leader.

Those leaders who engage a consultative or collaborative approach to decision-making build a culture of trust. When a leader promotes a culture of trust and the following tends of occur:

  • positions do not matter, contribution does;
  • people are willing to be vulnerable and share ideas because there are high levels of respect;
  • empathy is exercised and everyone feels valued and their views and diverse needs are heard;
  • people’s individual strengths are appreciated and capitalised to create a cohesive team;
  • an absence of a fear of judgement prevails, regardless of the validity of the idea or contribution; and,

as a result, people are more inclined to put in the extra effort that is needed to achieve the vision.

Which of the four categories of decision-maker do you fall into: the controller, pleaser, procrastinator or the consulter? Why? What is holding you back from moving to a place where the decision-making is shared, building greater levels of trust? When it comes to make decisions I have learned that it isn’t all about me.