Challenging the invisible beast

Culture is a fascinating thing, an invisible beast, or life force. When a group of people come together to form an organisation, or community, it is like birthing a new organism. Group psychology comes into play and norms are established which govern how people behave when they come together.

You need only watch, or be at a major sporting event or concert to experience the phenomenon of a crowd taking on a life of its own, people uniting and behaving in ways that they wouldn’t on their own.

Many people under-estimate the power of culture, particularly newly appointed leaders. All the dreams and aspirations they may have for their new appointment are often dashed when they fail to realise that the biggest challenge they have is tackling the existing culture.

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast” Peter Drucker

It is very hard to act in a counter-cultural way, to change culture, particularly when our innate desire to fit in and belong tells us subconsciously not to push back against the prevailing norms, but to accept them lest we become isolated from the community we so earnestly want to be part of. Through a process of socialisation many leaders find themselves enslaved; the insidious power of the beast ensures they become conditioned to accept the social constraints, the way things are done around here. So many initiatives fail at the starting gate because of the age-old comment, “we tried that once…”

If you are a newly appointed leader here are a six tips to help you wrestle the invisible beast:

  • Spend time listening, seeking to understand the prevailing culture, “the way things are done around here”. Ask challenging questions—why is it done that way? What historical events, personalities, thinking, etc. happened to influence those cultural norms? What has been tried before and why did it fail?
  • Be a questionable person. Identify the things you don’t agree with in the culture and have the courage to lead a life that is in opposition to those things. People will see that you are different. Be true to your values and beliefs. It won’t work for you if you are acting counter to your beliefs.
  • Identify the crusaders, the nay-sayers and the influencers. There is truth in the 60-30 rule. If you have 30 percent with you (the crusaders), 30 percent ambivalent, and 30 percent against you will succeed. If you can turn around one or two naysayers, particularly those who are the biggest influencers in the organisation, the ones everyone looks to for wisdom, you will gain momentum. Fighting them never works. It just saps you of energy.
  • Take care not to get sucked into the prevailing culture, it is very powerful and you will be subsumed into it if you don’t have the courage, or strength to resist. If you feel this happening write a list of norms that you want to change and a list of the ones you want to adopt and post them on the wall above your desk as a reminder of what you hold true.
  • Develop strategies to change those aspects of the culture you don’t agree with, strategies to develop new norms. You can do this by setting up project teams, giving them specific tasks to tackle, like developing a new statement of beliefs or philosophy, or tradition for acknowledging staff, or process of feedback. Empower those teams to do the work but give them the direction of what you want to achieve. Putting a naysayer or influencer on those teams can work powerfully if you wisely select the people.
  • Once a new strategy or norm is established, commit. It takes time to embed something different so persevere. If you have done the research and thinking beforehand you don’t need to evaluate the initiative for at least 2 years. Most innovations fail not because it was a bad idea, but because people gave up to early.

Culture takes time to shift, but it does shift. 70% of an organisation’s culture is influenced by the leader so remember, you have the greatest position and privilege to change it. Use that influence to create a culture of trust.

Standardising education kills creativity

I recently made some comments in the Educator Magazine about the risks of ‘standardising education’ and the resultant impact on so called ‘21st century’ skills. The debate on Twitter raged (as it so often does).

People argued, “Are listening, working collaboratively, communication skills or something else? Indeed, is creativity, or entrepreneurialism a skill that should be taught separately or is it caught through the delivery of content?”

Some may have thought: “Browning is speaking through his hat, where is the evidence to support his argument?”

Some Twitter users contend that the debate around 21st century skills is just a rehash of skills that were equally important in the 20th or even the 17th century. I agree with their arguments. Humans have always been, and have had to be, creative. Entrepreneurialism has been around since the invention of the wheel.

With the release of Gonksi2.0, some media commentators and educators would have us believe the recommendations are an assault on content and knowledge. The debate has been a polarising one and forces the question: Should we prioritise 21st century skills or a depth of discipline knowledge?”, as if you can’t have both.

I believe we can have both. Of course students need to be able to read, write and add up, and think creativity. They always have. The current imperative is the need to foster every student’s ability to think creatively or they will not be able to thrive in a world that has, and is being, transformed by technology.

I am all for evidence-based teaching practice, but the problem with the current evidence is that it has studied practices that are most effective in teaching students to read, write and add up along with their depth of subject knowledge.

In other words, the studies have all taken place in an outdated paradigm of school.

What schools need as well are studies of evidence-based practices that foster and grow every child’s ability to think creatively, to think like an entrepreneur. You measure what you value and you value what you measure; at the moment we don’t value these ‘skills’.

My concern is that if we don’t, countries like China will surpass us overnight. Fortune 500 companies there are injecting billions into research and development. They have realised what we are slow to grasp: the value of creativity and entrepreneurialism in a brave new world.

As politicians continue to seek a standardisation of education by imposing and publishing test results such as NAPLAN and Year 12 along with a rhetoric of ‘evidence-based’ practices that lift performance in these easily measurable areas, the more we will marginalise and ignore the ‘21st century’ skills.

The secret to fostering creativity lies in our approach to teaching. We have to stop trying to control the outcome.

For example, a simple strategy like holding up an example of work to give students direction of what a teacher (or parent) hopes they will produce at the end of the unit doesn’t give them guidance, instead it says, “if your work doesn’t look like this then you are wrong.”

Strategies like this teach students to comply and not to offer their thinking or perspective on a problem or piece of knowledge.  How are such students meant to solve the problems and challenges facing the world if all they can do is re-hash what has already been tried?  Perhaps that apocryphal quote attributed to Einstein is right: the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result

The same strategies are often reinforced at tertiary level where students learn that to get a good grade they have to write for their lecturer rather than offer an opposing, well-argued alternative view. Governments do the same with all the red tape imposed on new business ventures.

The reality of our world is that there are multiple perspectives on the same issues. There are multiple ways of arriving at an answer. There are multiple things still to discover. There is new knowledge to be created. If students learn that to be successful in education they must learn to comply, then creativity is left behind at 4-years of age.

Sir Ken Robinson said, “schools kill creativity”. I believe he is still right.

We have to address this. And now is more important than ever.

Managing yourself

So much of leadership comes down to being able to manage yourself.

A number years ago I observed a person collapse under the stress of the leadership role he was in. You could tell when he was under stress. He would storm back and forth from the photocopier, muttering things under his breath as he went. He would express his views on the management of the organisation openly in his work area. He would be working late, but make it very clear that it was because the others weren’t carrying their weight.

It didn’t end well. He resigned, stating that it was all the organisation’s fault and the demands placed on him were unreasonable.

Why does it go well for some and not others? I reflected on this.

Leadership does place demands on you as a person. You are taking on extra responsibility. That isn’t easy. But you cannot begin to lead unless you know, and can manage yourself.

The best leaders never let on that they are stressed. They create a sense of calm that pervades the culture of the organisation. This helps people know that everything is, or will be ok, even in a crisis. Leaders who can do this well engender trust in them.

Great leaders are able to manage three areas of themselves:

  1. They can manage their emotions: Great leaders know themselves implicitly. They know what ‘pushes their buttons’ and how they respond in difficult situations. They have learnt to regulate their emotions like they can regulate their body temperature. They recognise when they are under stress, when they are not well, or are tired and have the wisdom to defer a decision, or empower someone else to step in if they are not at their peak.
  2. They manage their health (including sleep): Great leaders know that eating well, getting enough good sleep, and maintaining a good level of fitness helps in the management of stress. They know that a bit of time out exercising helps put things in perspective and creates some thinking and reflection time.
  3. They can manage their ego: Great leaders realise that leadership is not all about them; rather, it is about service. They know what they value and what their purpose in life is. They know that if those values and purpose are inward looking, i.e. all about ‘me’, they will never rise above mediocrity. Instead, if their values and purpose are based on a higher being, they will achieve greatness.

The last area, managing ego, is easier said than done. What does it mean to manage your ego? It means being willing to completely forgo the attention, the affirmation and the glory and readily offer it to another: true humility. In Jesus’ words, “If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for me, you will find it” (Matthew 10:39).


Toxic cultures

I heard a horrific story this morning. A fellow I was chatting to about leadership shared with me a story about his wife’s workplace. She works for a corporate in the city. Whenever a member of her team makes a mistake the boss emails all the staff highlighting the person’s error. This wasn’t a one off, but a regular practice of her leader.

Everyone who were listening to that small anecdote gasped. What is her boss trying to achieve by casting everyone’s glare on the one single person?

“So much for building trust,” muttered one person.

“It’s got to be all about control,” said another.

I was amazed, but not surprised. Poor leadership practices go unchecked because we are afraid to call them out for what they are: corrosive, soul destroying, all about the leader and his or her control and power.

There is another name for this type of behaviour: bullying.

I don’t doubt that there are plenty of other leadership practices that fall into this category, commonly used in workplaces because either the leader doesn’t know better; is under significant pressure themselves to achieve short-term targets; has been consumed with their own self-importance; and/or, doesn’t realise that to get the best out of people you have to trust them.

People suffer these practices in silence, frightened of the consequences if they do say something. In their minds the only solution is to either put up, or get out.

But if no one has the courage to call out leadership practices that are corrosive nothing will ever change. The leader will never have the opportunity to change their ways, to grow.

History, sadly, has plenty of examples of corrosive leadership practices that went unchecked and ended up with horrific consequences.

Just like our school days experiences, the bully continues bullying because we were too frightened to say something for fear of retaliation.

There is much at risk when it comes to calling out practices that go against every principle of good leadership, but in sharing experiences you can contribute to the learning of those wishing to be better.

I thanked the person for sharing his wife’s experience because it helped me check my own practice. When someone I lead does make a mistake, how to I handle it?

We can often learn more about leadership from bad examples than we do from people who are exemplary. Sadly, that’s because we take for granted those great at their job, but notice poor leadership like we notice foul air.


Parenting and leadership: interchangeable terms?

I have two grown up children, well, almost grown up. My son is 22 and my daughter is 20. Everyone said that they would grow up too quickly, and they did. I remember making my daughter promise that she would stop growing at age six, but she did anyway!

I look back on the early stages of their lives and wish I could relive it again. At the time I might not have thought so, but experience and hindsight are wonderful things.

Nobody gave us a handbook for parenting when our children were born; we kind of had to make it up as we went, remembering back to how our parents raised us and watching and learning from others more experienced.

As I reflect back on my last week as a leader I can see lots of similarities between being a good parent and a good leader. We can transfer many lessons between the two; for example:

It’s not all about you: your role as a parent is to raise an independent adult. Sometimes your child won’t like you. That’s ok. You are not their friend, you are their parent. A good parent knows it isn’t about your child liking you, and sometimes you won’t like them; but it is about you loving them regardless.

Good parents don’t play favourites: they are your children and you should never favour, or side with one over another. Your role is to show impartiality and wisdom when resolving issues between your children, helping them to grow and learn as a result of their conflict.

Great parents listen: they respect their children, valuing them as individuals, people who have a voice, ideas, passions and interests. Good parenting isn’t about creating a clone of you, but empowering them to live their own dreams.

Loving parents are willing to say sorry: It takes humility, but you have to be open to the possibility that on occasions your child may be right, and you’re the one in the wrong. Apologising isn’t a sign of weakness.

It’s about modelling: children learn far more from your actions than they do from your words. They see right through hypocrisy, but admire integrity.

Be the guide on the side: children don’t like being told what to do, particularly teenagers. They are quite capable, we don’t give them enough credit, and nine times out of ten they learn best from their mistakes. Failure is ok. Good parents are there not to judge, but to catch a child when they fall, helping them to bounce back and have another go.

And the most obvious, parents love each of their children: they know that their job is to care about every aspect of their children’s lives, not just their outward behaviour. They know that when their child is hurting they won’t be themselves in all other aspects of their life.

I hope I was a good parent to my children when they were growing up. I pray that the experience has made me a better leader to those entrusted to me now.

How does innovation occur?

When does innovation occur? Rarely, I would suggest. Most organisations don’t innovate unless they are threatened, out of necessity. If things are going along well why innovate?

The theory of the S Curve (or innovation curve) suggests that the performance of a product, or an organisation improves over time as you refine and get better at it. But then decay begins, followed by a rapid decline. We see examples of this all the time. Once great organisations disappear (think Kodak).

More often than not organisations fail to see the tipping point, the point at which their product reaches the end of its time in the spot light. Only when they realise that they are in decline (falling sales, falling enrolments, poor product reviews, etc.) do they realise that they have to innovate or perish.

The good organisations realise that they have to innovate before their current product reaches its pinnacle.

So how does innovation occur?

The secret is in your people.

When groups work well the result is usually a product of more than the sum of individual achievements.

Organisations that rely on the ‘hero’ CEO, or leader will only ever be as good as that single individual. The ideas that he/she generates will only be as great as that person’s imagination.

The role of the leader then, is not to generate the ideas, but to create the conditions for innovation to occur. Those conditions are simple. They have nothing to do with ‘innovation camps’, innovation hack-a-thons, programs or professional development, and everything to do with trust.

Humans are naturally creative beings. We all have imaginations. We love to dream. But when we come to work we leave the dreaming for lunchtime and get on with the business of our job. The boundaries for our work are put in place and reinforced with KPIs, accountability measures and deadlines (and for schools, league tables).

For innovation to occur the leader has to let go of control and allow people to dream, to ponder on the ‘what if’, and take risks with ideas that could at first glance, appear contrary to the organisation’s key objectives. Essentially, the leader has to create a culture of trust.

It is mind-blowing when the leader does this successfully. In high trust cultures people will willingly put in the extra effort. They will work harder. They will do their set job and generate new ideas and solutions. They do this because people love to create. They love to know that what they are doing is making a difference. They are naturally loyal, particularly to places that value and trust them.

How does innovation occur? It occurs when people are allowed to think, dream, take risks, try new things, collaborate and learn. When organisations realise that it is as simple as trusting their staff they will become amazing.

When trust is gone

What do you see? A kind face, a gentle man with a radiant smile?

When you see this man what do you see? A bum? Someone who has wasted their life, addicted to drugs?

Which of these men would you trust? Who would you leave your son or daughter with?

Suspend your judgement for a moment and listen.

Listen to their story.

Listen to their whole story.

Listen to their whole story first.

Suspend your judgement until you have.

The first man, the kind looking gentleman—his is the face of evil, the source of immeasurable shame, suffering and pain. Did you see it?

The other man is a person destroyed by trauma, an act of evil committed against him when he was a child. Did you see it or were you so afraid and repulsed that you didn’t stop for a moment?

Who would you trust now?

As I sat in the back row of an empty tram in Adelaide the derelict boarded. A dishevelled, unshaven, filthy man carrying a small backpack. As he boarded his eyes locked onto mine.

He took decisive strides towards me.

Please don’t sit near me.

But he did, right next to me.

He was looking for conversation. He is studying ‘human ion transfer’. His mind filled with conspiracy theories. The government is tracking him because he has uncovered their secrets, secrets of how they control the population.

“I smoke a far bit of pot you know,” said Anthony.

Suspend my judgement.

He loves studying.

He left school in Year 7.

He’s been living on the streets for years, travelling from place to place to study ‘human ion transfer’.

What happened to this man that he never finished school, that he became addicted to pot?

I look into his eyes, beyond the manic behaviour and see the deep sadness he carries. But as I see it, that hollow emptiness where joy once resided, my reaction is “mingled with a wonder and awe at how hard humans everywhere try to live, even when their days were so very difficult, even when their circumstances were so wretched” (A Little Life).

I see in this man the same I see in the lives of so many others I have met. The impact of trauma on a child; trauma that permanently altered their path to a life filled with joy and flourishing.

I have seen it in the man who has been drinking since he was 14, who now has full time carers because he cannot function on his own. I have seen it in the eyes of the man obsessed with his career but has lost everything else important to him.

I have seen what happens when a child is robbed of their innocence. When the evil selfish desires of an adult manifests itself as a heinous crime against life itself.

I have seen what happens when a person is robbed of their willingness to trust others, their deep human need to be in relationship with each other and with their creator.

Suspend your judgement.


Listen to the whole story.

Trust in the goodness of humanity, but more so, trust in the Grace of God.

Life can so sad, and yet we all do it. We all cling to it; we all search for something to give us solace.

Christ is the only place we can find it.



I have worked in schools for my whole career. There is an annual cycle in the life of a school, probably not unlike any corporation (end-of-financial-year, sales, etc.). There are patterns, peaks and troughs in the work cycles and the subsequent stress that goes with them.

Teachers work incredibly hard. At the end of each term people can start to ‘fray around the edges’ as they enter and work through the peak times. Normal behaviours are replaced with shorter tempers, anxiety and stress.

A leader’s role shifts during this time. Listening comes into its own. People will want to ‘unload’ or debrief. They invariably want to raise issues that until now they have been able to manage on their own.

‘Putting out fires’ is an expression that has been used on more than one occasion during these peak times.

It can be hard during these periods not to be drawn into the perception of a looming crisis and remain calm. You can lose a sense of perspective and forget that the same cycle happens each year.

It is a sense of calm that staff need most at this time. They need someone to listen and to assure them that it will be ok; that this period will pass and things will return to normal. And of course there may be some adjustments to the work flow that have to be made to ensure people are looked after.

The best a leader can do during these times is to know yourself and listen to what your body is telling you. If you are being drawn into the ‘looming crisis’, and the symptoms of stress are taking hold, you will be in no place to listen with empathy and provide the sense of stillness that will be the reassurance people need.

When you are stressed, tired and feeling exhausted you are also in no fit state to make good decisions.

There are a few things you can to do look after yourself and get yourself back on an even keel.

If you can, leave a little earlier than normal, block out time in your diary to ensure you can. Get regular exercise to help clear the head. Eat well and ensure you are in bed at a reasonable time.

If this is not possible, then ensure that you have prepared well in advance of the peak time by getting sleep, exercise and eating well. During the peak period you may have to forego the exercise and some sleep, but you can still ensure you eat properly.

Find someone outside of work to debrief with so you aren’t bottling up issues. This will help you relieve the pressure that will be building up.

And if none of these things are helping you then step back from decision-making and ask someone to make them on your behalf, or seek the wise council of a mentor outside the organisation.

Good leaders are able to management themselves effectively, always ensuring that they remain calm and level-head, even under significant pressure.

Who moved my cheese?

Last week a colleague lent me a book about change. “Who Moved my Cheese?” is a parable, a story about four mice who search for cheese in a maze. When two happen upon a huge store of cheese they stop their daily search and become comfortable, even arrogant in their success.

The two didn’t notice that the pile of cheese they were feasting on was diminishing each day. Not only that, it was becoming stale, even mouldy. Then one day it was gone. Paralysed by the shock, they had lost the ability to adapt, instead, their sense of entitlement caused them to become angry: “who moved my cheese?”

There are three certainties in life, death, taxes and change. Life is about change. However, the rate of change happening around us right now is increasing exponentially. If we don’t adapt, hunt for new cheese, we will become paralysed with fear and even anger.

The Weekend Australian brought more evidence of the change we are seeing. Articles like, “Future of Work”, and, “Regions must adapt to contain the pain that automation inevitably will bring”, highlight again the impact that robotics and artificial intelligence are having on jobs.

Humans are being replaced by robotics at an alarming rate. If it can be automated you can be sure it will, as corporations seek new ways to maximise profits.

“The jobs of the future will be in the few domains where humans retain a relative advantage over computers: tasks involving creativity, social interactions and the ability to respond to the unexpected.”

How are we as a nation responding to this new world order, where 40-50% of the jobs we know of today will be automated within the next decade? Even professions such as accountants, journalists, lawyers, and doctors will be impacted by automation. Will we be like Hem, who in the story of Who Moved my Cheese didn’t read the signs and believed that change would never impact him, until one day he woke up and found the cheese gone?

How is our education system changing to ensure that we are nurturing and growing young people’s creative, innovative and entrepreneurial capacities? Why are we choosing to marginalise the development of a person’s social capacity over a desire to fix the declining academic skills of our young people as measured by NAPLAN, Pisa, and Year 12?

And we can’t just blame our politicians. It would seem that every way they turn they are blocked by the Hems of the world. “Keep the status quo. We are comfortable. It will get better. We will just try harder, or throw more money at it.”

There is great wisdom in the book Who Moved my Cheese: Old beliefs do not lead you to new cheese. The longer we wait, believing that we will be ok, the greater disservice we are doing our young people. Our education system has to be transformed so we are equipping our students with capacities, abilities and skills that computers don’t have.


Who Moved My Cheese, by Dr Spencer Johnson is a great book about change and leadership.

Are leaders born or made?

The perennial question when it comes to leadership.

We all display leadership from time-to-time. Whenever we seek to influence another person, or group of people, we are leading. For example, when you get a group together to see a movie you are influencing their decisions and compelling them to do something. Leadership, like trust, is a social phenomenon–it only exists when people come together.

How far you go with your leadership will depend on your drive. Some will seek to become leaders in their work or vocation. Some have a natural talent for leadership, others don’t.

When it all boils down to it, leadership is about two things: vision and trust.

Trust can be earned. By practising the leadership skills that engender trust you can become a better leader. However, the size of the vision you can cast will determine how far you go with your leadership.

Vision has been defined as a combination of ‘a deep dissatisfaction with what is and a clear grasp of what could be’. If you have vision, you will always be able to say, ‘It’s not over’ (Gumble, N.). Some people have a natural ability to cast a vision, to see what could be, others don’t have that natural ability.

For example, when looking at places to buy some people can see potential in a run-down house, what it could become, while some will just see the run-down house, and still others will accept it for what it is and move in regardless.

Or another example: A club, church, or music group may be mediocre. Some people see the diminishing community and choose to leave and join something else. Those with the ability to vision see unlocked potential in the members and what it could be.

Without vision, seeing a different future or possibilities, you are simply managing.

Leading is the ability to take a group of people and realising the vision. This can only be done if those you are compelling to join you on the journey are willing to trust you. Otherwise you will have to resort to doing it all on your own (which will never work out as well), or coercing people through manipulation (and that rarely ends well).