Category: Leadership
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.

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.


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.

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).


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.