Monday, October 22, 2012

And Still I rise.

The question would be not why I have selected this poem but, why would I not select this poem!

Maya Angelo’s ‘And Still I Rise’ was introduced to me when I was 11 or 12. I don’t remember exactly when but as a young black woman in an inner city school in London, I was blessed to have an English teacher who encouraged, coerced and insisted that we black girls, read work by black women. He would say over and over again ‘they can tell your story’. He was right that they were part of the documentation of the lives and the experiences of black women.

When I read this poem for the first time and for the many times over the years that I have turned to this poem, I now understand the strength, passion and motivation that I derive from reading a poem about my experience which has certainly  kept me going as a leader.

And Still I rise speaks to me as a leader because I am part of a group whose history says I am not supposed to be here.  My leadership journey has been a long one and when my mother died at my tender age of 16, it really was as the English would say ‘make or break’. I decided to make it (for better or for worse). At 18 I went onto university and had the pleasure of spending many hours with men and women from the Caribbean and from the continent who taught me about the history of the pan African movement, of enslavement, of the relationship between the industrial revolution, the UK banking system and the extraordinary amounts of money which were made during the years of enslavement of my ancestors who provided free labour on the plantations in the Caribbean, the USA and here in the UK.

As a student as I sat in many seminars defending what I knew would be a part of my responsibility as a black professional when I had achieved my degree. The debates in my seminars were often loud and sometimes aggressive as the significance of my being a role model and a mentor to black people who may not have had the confidence or the ability to experience higher education was a complete enigma   to my middle class white counterparts. I knew that the all white class did not understand when they said ‘why can’t you just do what you want’ and I remember laughing  as I looked at their worlds where their self identities, expectations and judgements had not be pulled apart and desecrated through an on-going media onslaught which black people face each day.  I was 19 years old and I was rising…
Out of the huts of histories shame
I rise
Up from a past rooted in pain, I rise
I am a Black Ocean leaping and wide
Welling and swelling, I bear in the tide
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts my ancestors gave
I am the dream and the hope of the slave
I rise
I rise
I rise
This is history’s shame for the treatment of African people during the enslavement and movement between Africa, The Caribbean, the USA and the UK where millions of African lives were lost, and continued to be disposed of as, somewhere, African people, the people from whom I descend, were seen as less than human and hence, undeserving of any rights. When Maya states that…
You may shoot me with your words
You can cut me with your lies
You can kill me with your hatefulness
But like life I’ll rise….
The poem defies subjugation and passivity. It celebrates one of the most significant things that I as a black female leader can have, which is believe in self against the racism and the sexism, which could constantly undermine how  I move forward. Damn it, Maya is making no apology….
Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise?
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
As a leader these are crucial lessons as there are always people who expect me to fall, to fail to not be great at what I do. As a leader, the question is what do I expect from me? What comfort zones do I walk in and which ones do I choose to move beyond?

I come from a long line of achievers and from people who are still achieving…against the odds. The African people who were enslaved are people who had dreams, ambitions and plans for their lives. They were unable to make these real. I am able to make mine real and as a leader, I bring rhyme, storytelling and laughter to my work for my humanity and my humility have taught me that, to rise to be the best I can be is the truest testimony to the lives of those who were lost.
I am the hope and the dream of the slave, 
So, naturally, there I go rising
Thank you Maya Angelou.

Mbeke Waseme

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

How did he know?

When Major Robertson received news that the Colonel had lost radio contact with a Battalion, he wondered which of his new recruits could be tasked with going into the woods at night to ascertain their position. It was a difficult choice, but he decided to ask Lieutenant James Finlay, his new platoon Commander.

James had trained at Sandhurst, before being sent to the front line early in 1945 to reinforce the Seaforth Highlanders. He arrived towards the end of the battle of the Reichswald; his first and only Company Commander was Major Hugh Robertson, who had been in the theatre of war since 1942.

James had two strong impressions. These woods were exceedingly spooky, and the addition of excellent enemy snipers at very close range made everybody trigger-happy. Tension and vulnerability were all around: he was scared.

By contrast, Major Robertson had just returned from 7 days R&R, to discover that he had lost almost his entire Company. Of the three platoons who had joked with him just a few days before, a mere handful had survived the battle in the Reichswald. His loss was agony: from El Alamein to the D-Day landings, he had marched, fought, lived and laughed with these men. Moreover, the war was so near the end: the Rhine crossing just weeks away. Facing him was a massive influx of new faces, in whom he must quickly identify strengths and weaknesses. 

He knew:
  1. Excellent men could turn to jelly when the scents and sound of war were all around.
  2. You could distinguish the professionals from the amateurs only through testing.
  3. Fear was the most destructive of enemies.
To test his mettle, Hugh asked his new Lieutenant to look for the Lost Battalion. Sixty years later, James Finlay relates what happened:
“ I write my memoirs and remember the night in Feb. 45, when after a night skirmish, I was digging in when Hugh came to my position saying: 'The Colonel has lost the battalion and wanted someone to go and look.' I was frozen with fear; to go out in the dark woodlands seemed a certain equation to be shot at by both sides, as I put it. He was sensitive to my abject fear and said: 'Jim White will do it.' How did he know? Lt. White was carried in later after stepping on a schu mine. No one said anything, but I was rather shamed. A fine man."
These few words encapsulate what I was taught about leadership, and which affect my practice to this day. 
  1. Patience: it takes time for a boy to learn a man's job.
  2. Tolerance: if you cannot say anything positive, say nothing.
  3. Watchfulness: prior to the critical situation, identify capability.
  4. Decisiveness: once you have made your choice, accept the consequences.
So gentle was the test, that, sixty years later, James is still wondering how Hugh knew that Jim White would do it.

Linda Jane McLean

(Linda says "My sincere thanks go to James Finlay for writing this account, for his permission for me to record it publicly, and for giving his time for my interview.")

Thursday, October 4, 2012

I believe in you

My mother - the fabulous Marcy Heft - taught me that life is a gift.  And there are only a few things to do in exchange for this gift:

- Be amazed.  Notice the tiny little miracles that are all around you. Savor it.
- Take good care of each other.
- And be the very best you that you can be.

These are my navigational tools, and my practice.

My parent’s pure and unconditional love, honest communication with each other and with us, and their appreciation for the little things gives me this deep reservoir - this giant chasm - of belief in my self and in other people. Even people I have not yet met.

It allows me not just to wish for peace - but to be peace. And to have a calm and peaceful grounded place from which to navigate in my work with groups and individuals. To ride the waves of how life sometimes happens, take in each moment, and b-r-e-a-t-h-e.

Because I carry inside me this amazing seed of love and belief from my parents, I know I have quite a bit extra to share. Some years ago I made a promise to let people know that I believed in them, and to say so. My colleagues, clients and students hear me say this often - but especially when they wonder if they will do a good job, stretch into new territory, or take that leap of faith to make a change. “I believe in you.”

One day I was dining in a restaurant and I asked the food server what she dreamed of doing. She said she was passionate about becoming a teacher but did not know if she would be a good one. “I know you will be a marvellous teacher,” I said, “because you care so deeply about being a good one. I believe in you.”

Six months later I returned to the restaurant for lunch. She saw me at the door, brought her co-worker up to me and said to her co-worker, “This is the woman who believes in me!”
And she told me a story.

She was serving during a busy lunchtime and noticed that a woman dining alone in the back of her section of the restaurant was sobbing quietly. She did not know this woman, but she walked up to her, knelt by her side, touched her knee and said quietly, “I believe in you.”

Passing it on.

I once saw a television interviewer ask their guest, “What would you like to be remembered for?”  I would be happy to be remembered as the woman you knew - or maybe even didn’t know and never saw again - who believed in you. Who reminded you how amazing you are.

Lisa Heft

Saturday, September 8, 2012

The three circles of leadership

I continue to be inspired by John Adair and his Action Centred Leadership theory. Although I am a facilitator and teach ACL frequently, I find it incredibly inspiring because the theory and model is so simple. At first I thought it was too simple, but as I heard John say in March, the model is simple but never simplistic. What I have learned is that simple means easy to understand and most of all easy to implement.

Being rather practically-minded, I like to test theories in real life to see just how good they are. ACL is represented by 3 Circles – Task, Team & Individual – and John suggests that the model represents the common needs that are present in all groups. The trick for the leader is to be aware that these needs could be present at anytime, in varying degrees, and must know how to meet them, as best he or she can, within the constraints of their organisation. I chair a local businesswomen’s network and when I first became its leader, it was quite tough. No-one knew me, the group was past its heyday so membership numbers were falling and the group was made of up very different personalities, some stronger than others. I was also replacing a very popular Chairwoman, so the jury was out!

With my eye on the 3 Circles, I realised that needs associated with all the circles were present in this group. Within the task circle there was a need for me to create my vision of how I wanted the group to develop and for us to have some sort of direction. I also needed to communicate that out to the group and to engage their support. But I could sense that the team & individual needs were more pressing. I knew I had to get to know these ladies, one by one, if I was to re-unite them as a team, behind me as their leader, bearing in mind we meet only once a month and all run our own businesses. Our only commonality is the network group.

Some ladies were quite unhappy about certain aspects of the group and asked to speak with me. I met with everyone who asked and listened to all their advice and their dissatisfaction. I took on board some points and let others quietly fade. But by listening and acknowledging the greater experience of those ladies, the bonds grew stronger. I decided we needed a stronger group identity to meet the needs of the team circle, so we developed a new website, encouraging our members to profile their businesses. I also ran marketing sessions, asking everyone to contribute about our group and what we stood for.  The total inclusion and involvement of our members brought us closer together as a team and the needs of that circle began to be fulfilled. Some 18 months later, our group has grown from 6 to 30 members and I’m proud to say we are a thriving group again. I continue to keep an eye on the 3 Circles and ensure that all our members are treated with respect and treated as individuals. Any voluntary contributions are always acknowledged.

I’m not sure if this is what you are looking for but I found the practice of John’s model invaluable to my leadership of this group and it worked!

Sarah Christie

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Inspiration from General Slim

Slim’s Story

“Anyone can be great in victory: it takes defeat to test character to the full.”

Slim held the ragtag Burma Corps together in 1942 for 800 miles of constant fighting and almost constant defeat. He was driven northward losing soldiers to death and disease all the time. After 3 months and 13,000 casualties the battered remnants of Burma Corps reached India, to reorganise, regain strength, to train harder and to recover the will to fight. The Japanese were defeated at the Battle of Kohima and the 14th Army swept south to retake Burma.

Slim on Leadership

Slim’s story sets the scene for the foundations for the fight-back. He focussed on Morale, that quality which will move a group of people to give their last ounce to achieve something. It has, he suggested, three foundations:

- Spiritual: there must be a great and noble aim in which the team believes
- Intellectual: all must be convinced that the aim is attainable and that the leaders have earned the confidence of the team
- Material: the team must have the tools for the job

Impact on me

I have never been in a situation as testing as those that Slim experienced. But the foundations above have informed my own punier attempts at leadership. For me, three things were vital to get right: the Aim, the right Skill Mix and the Commitment to Communicate.

Meeting the Aim

Everything should flow from the Aim. It will need questioning and testing. At the end, you as leader must own it and all your people must be confident that they can achieve it.

Getting my own aim right became important when I was asked to form a new military communications unit with 200 men and a hangar full of vehicles and radio equipment. The aim was to be an effective unit..

I told the team on 2 January that we would take our first trip into the field as a fully equipped and trained unit on 1 February. The team was horrified, said it would be a mess and indeed it was just that. But we learnt from that and exercised for a week each month for 6 months until we were good. We could do that because at the start we saw what we had to achieve.

Getting the Skills Mix right

When I ran a newly formed unit, I chose my top team. I made a great mistake by choosing people like me, with the same weaknesses. So ideas that should have been questioned at the top went unquestioned until they hit irritated people on the ground.

The leader must choose people who will challenge and test initiatives.

Committing to Communicate

I joined up two teams of several thousand military and civil servants in MOD. The amalgamated team was then halved. The civil service suspected that I would favour “my” military.

So we focused on communication: a top team meticulously balanced between military and civil and constant feedback to all on what was happening.

Anonymous by request

Friday, August 24, 2012

The who, why, what and how of who you are and want to be

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, first published in 1989, is a self help book written by Stephen R Covey. It has sold more than 15 million copies in 38 languages and presents an approach to becoming more effective if you align and organise yourself to some universal principles.

The first three habits are about self mastery - be proactive ; begin with the end in mind and put first things first – to help move you from dependence to independence. While the next three are about interdependence and working with others: think win/win, seek first to understand, then to be understood and synergize. The last habit – sharpen the saw – is about balance and renewal.

I have been in business for more than 30 years and have experienced a wide range of different approaches to management and leadership from a variety of companies and a number of senior executives. Having observed the good, the bad and the unnecessary, it is clear that personal development, attitude and belief are key differentiators in providing everyday leadership to inspire those around you. While the tone is set from the top, the rhythm is provided by everyone and not necessarily always in time or in tune. It took me some time before I realised this.

My first management position was with an oil company and I was fortunate to have access to good training, was encouraged to make the most of it and to be responsible for developing myself right from the beginning. This grounding put me in good stead as I have made use of whatever training has been available in any of the companies I have worked for and been an avid reader of business books, new thinking and emerging ideas. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People being all of that, but more significantly a book that I read as I began to practice being a manager and one that I have returned to periodically for the simplicity of its messages, its coherence and the timeless principles upon which it is based.

For these are applicable every day no matter the size of the company, team or set of circumstances as the art of good management and subsequently great leadership rests firmly with the individual. It’s personal. You have to manage yourself before you can manage others and have to be “ in lead of yourself “ before you can expect anyone to ever follow you.

The result of this is that you are able to put more of your focus and attention to people, strategic and important tasks while the technical, tactical and urgent tasks take less and less of your time through better organisation and attitude. More importantly though, as this approach cascades through your team, the whole team and organisation becomes more effective, more responsive to change and has more capability to adapt.

This was particularly needed in the 90s as the oil crises provoked a drive for substantial cost savings due fundamentally to the threat to the companies very survival. In my department’s case this lead to us searching for strategic partners; applying an extraordinarily collaborative business approach to solving challenges that none of us had ever experienced before and outsourcing the whole team. We literally needed to invent a new way of working not just for ourselves but also for our new external partners as we choose people for the new organisation based on their best fit to the role and not who were they employed by. The alliance delivered some extraordinary results and essentially succeeded by aligning performance to a common objective, incentivising everyone to achieve their part and collectively removing every obstacle that was in the way.  This was only made possible through investment in people and their development to encourage them to grow as individuals; and in team building to develop a common culture and environment of mutual support and success, irrespective of your original employer.

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People helped considerably in achieving this and proved to be a remarkable set of simple principles which are easy to understand and pass on. Moving people individually and collectively on a journey from confrontation to cooperation to eventual collaboration as people and companies realised that win-win was the only acceptable result for all.

And what a journey it is, because it is truly one without end. The great thing about self discovery is that you keep discovering more about yourself !  For me, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People initially provided the picture of how previous discrete pieces of training and learning I had received actually could come together before becoming the foundation for how I could operate in a new way of working and thinking to accomplish great performance; to being the model for helping others come to terms with a completely new way of working.  Fundamentally though it has helped me throughout answer the questions raised about myself - the who, why, what and how of who you are and want to be – as you occasionally reflect,  review and realise that it is not as easy as you thought it might be to be that leader you expected to be of yourself.

Roger Whittaker

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Respecting our forebears and future generations

To those who have gone before … and to those who are to come

I’ve been thinking hard about who has inspired me so far in my life and I think my late dad, not unexpectedly has influenced me most. A hard working, fiercely passionate Welshman, an original and innovative thinker who immersed himself in his work as a schoolmaster. He was a self-effacing man who saw potential in all his students and led initiatives to develop people who had been written off by the education system. He wasn’t in favour of elitist approaches and was as concerned about the distance travelled by an individual within the constraints of the educational framework of the day. He was an advocate of developing approaches to suit individual needs – thus academic achievement wasn’t his sole measure of success and he supported the introduction of vocational achievement and comprehensive education. The students he developed valued how he valued them as people.

The quote above was written at the front of Dad’s work on recording the family history. It says to me something about respecting our forebears and future generations and leaving a meaningful legacy. It also says something to me about valuing people and seeing ourselves in the context of our culture, heritage, environment and everything that makes us who we are – recognising diversity.

Dad sacrificed career success for maintaining his principles and values which made him my hero time and again. His motivation in life was not to amass great wealth – just enough income to afford a house and home and to fuel his addiction to the smell of new cars – albeit affordable ones, and to have made a difference to people who would otherwise have been more disadvantaged.

I cannot think of anyone who has influenced me more.

The Policeman and the Poet

Leadership should be exciting. Leaders and followers should unite in a creative pursuit, each inspiring the other to perform miracles. When we witness such leadership we hear language which reflects that inspirational quality, language which touches our sense of humanity and which paints a picture of what might be if we just step out of the ordinary and the safe.

But that sense of excitement is all too rare, and the language of leadership is in a sorry state of affairs. Too often it is the sterile language of the sharp suited consultant, exhorting us to re-engineer our business processes to drive out efficiencies through leaner delivery mechanisms. What we really drive out is the passion and creativity of those we lead by constantly regurgitating the jargon of the management text book.

It’s something to do with emotion. Great leadership is an intensely emotional affair, and to be truly inspirational it has to come from the heart. We may be able to change minds through an appeal to the intellect, but we only inspire by revealing something of our deeper selves, by daring to be different in a world which demands conformity.

When I became a chief constable I knew that I wanted to demonstrate that style of leadership, but to be honest, it felt more than a little uncomfortable. We don’t do emotion, and we tend not to step outside of the orthodoxy. So stumbling across a short essay by George Goens entitled “Leadership and Poetry” was a defining moment. Even the title spoke to me, and George’s message that “leaders should write organisational poetry” inspired me to be braver. Not only had I found someone who wrote about leadership as I intuitively felt it should be, but he also wrote about it beautifully.

George uses the metaphor of leader as poet to illustrate the true nature of the leadership role. Not a role to be defined by measurement, systems and process, but rather one to be defined by an exploration of the human condition, where we find purpose and meaning through creative relationships. It is a powerful and inspirational message.

But it’s a bit daunting to tell a roomful of police officers that you want them to be organisational poets. The Service is not by nature introspective. Nor are police officers generally comfortable with the expression of emotion or the exploration of values. What worries me most is that as the financial climate gets tougher, the space for that discussion gets squeezed even harder, just when we need it most.

So I have tried. I have tried to speak from and to the heart and I have encouraged others to do the same. I have tried to use words and to tell stories which resonate with the values and beliefs which brought people into the Service but which sometimes get smothered by the cynicism that policing can breed. Most of all I have tried to celebrate public service as a noble calling and I have tried to make the people I lead proud to have answered that call.

Thank you George for helping me to write my own bit of organisational poetry.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Doing homework with my Dad

What book, poem, film, speech, painting, quote, story, or person (or whatever) continues to inspire your leadership?

My father and him helping me with my school homework.

What is it about this piece that inspires you and helps sustain you as a leader? 

Whenever I had a difficult homework question I remember asking my father for help. My father would help me, but the problem was that he wouldn’t give me the answer or even the short route to finding the answer. Instead, he would start at the very beginning and explain the whole problem (sometimes even the whole principles behind the subject area) and all the layers that I had to understand in order to solve the problem and do my homework. Now to a 13 year old, this was sometimes excruciatingly long-winded and I would beg him to just give me the answer so that I could get on with the rest of my homework. And he always suggested that it was better that I learned and saw the whole problem instead and that the time would be worth it.

Whenever I am working with others or leading a team and people come to me with a problem or a puzzle, I remember my father and his patience at explaining the whole picture and allowing me to come up with the solution. Sure it take much longer and some days I wish I could just give someone the answer…but I want an empowered team of people who know that they can come to me for information and knowledge but that I expect and hope that they come up with the solutions.

One time my mum even took a photo of us sitting at our dinning room table with my books spread across the whole table and discussing the latest homework question. This is the image I see in my mind every time I start to discuss the latest issue with a colleague and hope that I can be as patient and understanding as my father was with me.

I suppose he was doing what the famous saying talks about “give a man a fish and he eats for a day, teach him to fish and he eats for a life-time”, but to me it is still “doing homework with my dad”.

Friday, July 27, 2012

What do you need to improve?

Of all the scenes in films that can be used to portray leadership at its best there is one scene from “Shirley Valentine” that shows exactly what we should not be doing. The pupils in Shirley Valentine’s school are being put through an assembly where they have to answer questions put by the headmistress. Shirley has already been labeled a difficult pupil and has no chance against the class pet, Marjorie.

When the headmistress asks a question, “What was man’s greatest invention?”, that no one—not even Marjorie—answers correctly, Shirley gets a chance. She answers, “Miss, it was the wheel, Miss.” Furious, the headmistress spits out, “Someone must have told you!” No glory and no house points for Shirley. In fact, quite the opposite. The next scene shows Shirley in the schoolyard obviously having given up, smoking a forbidden cigarette, and saying, “It’s crap. It’s all crap.”

I saw this shortly after a coach told me about interpersonal expectancy effects (also known as self-fulfilling prophecies) and this made a particularly big impression on me. My way of incorporating this insight into my leadership style is to use inquiry wherever possible. Instead of assuming that the person who hasn’t delivered is unmotivated and / or incompetent I assume from the beginning that their non-performance has to do with factors I can’t see and I ask them, “What would you need in order to get your part of the project done well and on time?”. And then I listen to the answer. Not only has it, in many situations, kept me from demotivating and alienating someone the way Shirley was alienated. It has the added benefit that I have found out useful information. 

Just two examples: I learned that the laws in new EU member states are still in the process of being harmonised with EU legislation making it more or less impossible for anyone to give a definitive answer to questions about the legal position. I’ve also discovered that the exchange rate from Ukrainian hryvnia fluctuated heavily the day before financial results needed to be reported - in euro - devastating the country manager’s figures. With the real information we were able to work out more appropriate measures for dealing with the uncertainty. Above all, our relationship, and thereby our cooperation, was strengthened rather than damaged.

What does this have to do with Shirley Valentine? 

Think of it this way: what might Shirley have been able to achieve if her teachers, instead of labeling her “difficult” and behaving accordingly, had continually ascribed ability and motivation to her from the beginning and asked what she needed to do a good job? She might have achieved almost anything. That is the kind of power we have over the people we lead.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Tomorrow has not yet arrived

Give us today our daily bread (The Gospel of Matthew Chapter 6 verse 11 The New International Version of the Bible. Pub. Hodder and Stoughton)

Choosing a verse from the middle of the Lord’s Prayer might seem odd. After all it makes no direct reference to the task of leadership nor does it at first glance appear to offer much inspiration. Perhaps quite the reverse with its focus on the here and now combined with what sounds almost like a cry for help.

Surprisingly, as I lead organisations through major change, and work with fellow leaders doing the same, I find significant encouragement and wisdom from these few words. Specifically they remind me of the importance of what I do today. I know, of course, that leadership is about the future. I am to help lead people into unknown territory. Nonetheless, as an activity, leadership happens today in the present moment. My words, my thoughts and my actions today help shape the future. As I said to a colleague recently “ We only have today to do the task of leadership - tommorrow has not yet arrived ”.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not arguing that we should’nt plan for the future. As a leader I am reasonably expected to do that. However, I live within the constraints of the 24 hours I have been given. What is significant is what I do with these hours not the time I may, or may not , be given in the future. Living with this truth keeps me on my toes and much more aware of what I do and say than otherwise might be the case.

The plea for bread in this Bible verse always reminds me that as a person and a leader I have a wide variety of needs that can only be met from outside of myself. I can’t get away from the reality of my own need for the basics of life. If I try to be self-sufficent as a leader I find myself quickly coming a cropper, losing motivation, making errors and lacking clarity. I continue to learn to pay attention to my needs, not in a selfish way, but in a manner that respects my own human-ness and fraility. As a Christian believer this also means paying attention to my relationship with God as a source of leadership strength and wisdom.

You may have noticed that this plea for bread is a community plea “Give us today our daily bread”. It goes to the heart of the reality that ,whilst my role as an individual leader can be significant, leadership happens in the context of community. Many leaders playing their part together, acting, speaking and asking powerful questions that focus our efforts on the vision of a better tommorrow. I am not usually on my own as a leader. I am prompted to reflect on the role I am called to play in the leadership communities of which I am a part.

The unspoken implication of this verse and the whole of the Lord’s Prayer is that I am also a follower. So when I do my work as a leader I am daily called by this prayer to remember that I must also work at followership and do so to the best of my ability. I think all of us involved in leadership regularly need to consider to whom, or what, we give our allegiance.

Stefan Cantore

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Pygmalion & Oz

A great leader who inspired my own convictions about leadership said to me that it all begins with understanding not the leader, but the led. Immediately, I began to understand what had happened during the last 18 months of working with him.

I had raised my game, I had begun to accomplish more than I had believed was possible for me – it seemed as though I was flowing with a forward current, not battling against it.


It was because my boss believed in me; he trusted in me. I recalled how he spoke to me: “John, I see you...” and there would follow a description of a problem solved, a task accomplished, a challenge overcome.

His expectation of me was that I would succeed and, with real energy, this propelled me in the direction of his expectation.

I asked him about it and he related to me Ovid’s ancient story of Pygmalion. Pygmalion was a Cypriot sculptor who carved a woman out of ivory. His statue was so realistic that Pygmalion fell in love with it. He offered the statue presents and eventually prayed to Venus, the goddess of love. She took pity on him and brought the statue to life. Pygmalion and his statue, now alive and a real woman, married.

There is something about the fervency of Pygmalion’s wish for the statue that awoke the life within. I now understood the last 18 months a lot better. My boss had seen potential in me and he used that power of expectation to sculpt the reality accordingly.

“But wasn’t that risky?”, I asked, “I mean, I could have let you down – you could have got it wrong...”

“You were always going to come through, John, you just hadn’t realised it yet. But I knew – and you did! Look, if you are going to be a great ‘Pygmalion’, you just have to take the risk. That is what getting the best out of people – being a leader – is all about. It is a huge responsibility and, more, a privilege. If you don’t take the risk, you cannot be a great sculptor”.

And ever since then, that is how I have tried to be when I have had the privilege of leading people. I learned from that wonderful boss (no, human being!) that I have to see people not as they are, but as they could become – their potential. And this expectation itself powers them in that direction.

This fundamental truth of leadership, based on understanding the led, has been reinforced for me by the story of the Wizard of Oz. In this multi-level story, there is no magic force at work, but there is real power. It is, I was reminded again, the power of expectation.

The Lion found courage not by having courage magic’d onto him, but by being given a medal – after all, all courageous creatures have medals. (It was the same for the Tin-Man who found his heart after being given a ticking clock; and the Scarecrow felt he had a brain once he had been given his diploma.) The medal signifies courage and the lion grew into the new expectations that were had of him: ‘as a man thinketh, so he “is-eth”’!

And this is how I try to lead my leadership life. By believing in the unlimited potential of people and working with them to coax, shape and, yes, sculpt that reality. Every day I look for the equivalent of medals, or ticking clocks or diplomas for my people.


Because the real lesson I learned was that the power of expectation spreads exponentially. Leaders do not create followers, but more leaders.

“If I accept you as you are, I will make you worse. However, if I treat you as though you are what you are capable of becoming, I help you become that.” Goethe

John Kirwan