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June 2010

Escaping funk

A recent question on Linkedin was: What methods do you use to get out of a funk? What a great word and also great question! Of course there are many ways to get out of a funk – advanced techniques about this or that which enable us to change our ‘state’.

 I’d like to focus on the everyday. As the Psalmist David said, This one thing I have desired: to see the beauty of the Lord. On reflection, of all the things he could have 'desired' the 'beauty' seems an odd choice. But the reality is that contemplating beauty is a tonic for us all - the beauty of people, of nature, of art - and of the spiritual dimensions we cannot see, including the nature and structure of the universe itself.

 If I think about the beauty of people, my wife automatically pops into my mind – someone we love – partner, child, friend, family member, role model – always seems beautiful to us and the thought of them inspires us.

 As for nature, what can I say? Who has not experienced the impact of the sea or the mountain, or even the wilderness? What about the teeming creatures in it - their intricate webs, designs, movements and purposes? How fascinating it all is.

 Shakepeare put it best, perhaps, regarding the power of art when he specifically indicted negative responses to music: 

 The man that hath no music in himself, 

Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds, 
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils. 

And the beauty of the universe? Plato had two proofs for the existence of God. First, the interior proof, which he thought the existence of the human soul. But second, the exterior proof: the order – the beauty – of creation. He went so far as to say that the man who couldn’t perceive that was ‘dull and stupid’.

 Find beauty, then - relentlessly seek it out in all aspects of your life - and when you do you will feel all funk weaken!

The challenge to coaching

A coach recently asked the question: what was the biggest challenge to your coaching business? Given the abundance of coaches now in the market that is a good question.

I think there are two distinct sides to this. First, the operational side - which is  about developing our skills as coaches and communicators to enable us to provide more value for the clients. This enables them to ‘buy’ us, or - gets the client 'through the door'.

 This is, perhaps, a bigger issue than many coaches want to concede; it is not enough to just get ‘qualified’, do a couple of practice runs, and think that’s it – I can do this. Clients are a picky and discerning lot: they soon realize that the coach (or consultant for that matter) is running on empty with a series of prescribed questions. It’s almost analogous to the much despised telesales person who cannot answer a question unless it’s on the ‘script’. Few serious problems are solved by prescription and so it behooves all coaches to undertake lifelong learning – a practice much celebrated in the principle, but less embraced in reality.

And this leads to our second big question, which is: how do we market ourselves? The route to market is vital, and furthermore so is the allied question of our business growth. There is a strange paradox - not resolved by the 'life style' answer - about coaches advising people/businesses on personal/business growth, but not growing themselves.

The operational and marketing sides meet, in my opinion in the white heat of innovation - it is when coaches innovate - service innovation/product innovation - that things start getting exciting, and the chances of going through the door are much better. Of course, to innovate requires many factors, not least a thorough expertise in the field – hence the earlier point about lifelong learning.

So my answer to the question of what the biggest challenge is in these turbulent times is for coaches to innovate, and not to have a 'me-too' identity, or ‘same-as’ toolkit, or ‘standard set’ of techniques and procedures derived from someone else. This does not require outrageous originality, but rather the persistent and intelligent application of one question to the mind’s inner eye: what do my core client base, or potential client base, really want?

The beautiful game

Ah! The football season! Don’t you just love it? Frankly, I scarcely ever watch it, but I have to be careful: I nearly said ‘never watch it’, but I did manage to tune in to watching a couple of England’s magic moments in this World Cup. Naturally, I was duly bored and exasperated in equal measure.

 What is it about the beautiful game that makes grown men, and some women, seem to think that the normal rules of management and leadership don’t apply? How is it that the FA – pre-eminently – never seem to learn from any mistake? Equally, apart from being caught with pants down, that nothing seems to qualify them for root and branch dismissal?

They all care – certainly – care enough never to learn anything … except … splash! Let’s throw money at that. Let’s get a big name. Let’s throw the dice and back all on one winner. If lives were actually at stake it would be truly scary.

 We have many aspects of this we could comment on, but let’s just take one: the choice of the England manager (or is it coach – it never seems clear to me?). First question; does paying somebody 5 or it 6 million pounds a year increase the likelihood that we will get the best – by which we mean most effective – manager? No. Evidence? The banks – the highest paid members of our society were CEOs of banks, and they hardly knew what they were doing, and certainly never understood risk. What you get when you pay too much money are managers whose primary pre-occupation is earning too much money.

 Further, academic research also demonstrates that paying people shed loads of money does not improve performance: see Dan Pink’s book, Drive: the surprising truth about what motivates us.

 And yet further still, let’s be clear: whose bright and ongoing idea is it to appoint foreigners to the England manager’s job, and especially an Italian? I mean, I love Italians – the food, the culture, the passion – yes, the passion – for all things Italian! Hmm, what happens when England faces Italy? Does Coke appoint staff from Pepsi? In this case, appointing someone who doesn’t even speak English and even now is hardly coherent, is … I thought communication was the number one skill of managers and leaders?

 At root the crisis is deeper: take off the millions from Fabio’s salary and leave him just £1M a year – that gives us either £4 or 5M a year to play with. What if that were invested in seriously developing leadership capability in British managers? There are Brian Cloughs all over the UK, but less opportunities for them to surface these days because the big finance has shut down opportunities for smaller clubs. Investing in our own talent for the long term would be the smart move.

 But will ‘they’? I guess the two shameful draws of recent times won’t be enough to stir leadership qualities at the FA.


Authoritarian leaders

We referred to NF Dixon’s classic book, On the Psychology of Military Incompetence, and its distinction between the autocrat and the authoritarian. How further did he distinguish between these two types? Firstly, the autocrat is somebody who may well be strict and a disciplinarian, but this is not a result of emotional disturbance. Dixon expresses the difference as: the autocrat exercises tight control when the situation demands it; the authoritarian is himself tightly controlled, no matter what the external situation.

 In the short term how do we spot the difference, then, between someone who is obsessively disturbed, and one who is not? Dixon supplies the behavioural characteristics of the authoritarian personality:

 conventional - usually rigid adherence to middle-class values

 submissive - to the idealised moral authority of the group with which s/he identifies self, and to higher authority

 aggressive - towards those who violate conventional values

 anti-intraceptive - opposes the subjective, the imaginative, the tender-minded

 stereotypy - disposition to stereotype and think in rigid categories

 power - preoccupation with 'strong' leadership, exaggerated assertions of toughness

 cynical - frequent vilification of others

 projectivity - the projection outwards of unconscious emotional impulses, so that the world is constantly interpreted as being a dangerous place

 'puritanical' prurience - exaggerated concern with sexual 'goings-on'

 Obviously, authoritarianism is a complex phenomenon that doesn't simply exist, or not - there will be a sliding scale of its potency.

 One critical observation Dixon makes is the association of moral conformity with a lack of compassion. Unsurprisingly, he also links this lack of compassion to being uncreative and having a closed mind. This last point reminds us that although there are nine characteristics, yet one is struck by how interrelated they all seem.



Leadership and authority

One of the most interesting studies that recognizes that leadership ‘incompetence’ is far more likely to derive from emotional rather than intellectual deficiencies is NF Dixon's classic book On the Psychology of Military Incompetence. Basically, what Dixon found was that incompetence in military leadership went way beyond notions of stupidity or incompetence, though both these qualities were real and obvious enough; what he found was consistent patterns underlying the behaviours of some of history's most spectacular leadership failures.


The relevance of his findings to business and management are evident in his own account of why he chose the military as the sphere for his investigation: military mistakes through poor leadership are far more serious in their consequences than poor leadership in other areas of life. But the kind of underlying obsessions that produce weak leadership can occur in any field of endeavour, including business, management, education and health – to name but four!


Dixon argued, that what he called 'authoritarianism' was effectively a form of psychopathology, which hereditary factors may well be part responsible for, but which he himself explored within the framework of personal and social development, especially relating to childhood. A number of important and clarifying points need to be made about what he found.


He made a distinction between 'autocratic' and 'authoritarian' behaviour; the former was acceptable and could be effective; the latter was a disease - a psychopathology, an obsession - that inevitably led to incompetence. Moreover, the notion of such psychopathology repudiates the idea that people can be relied upon to act rationally. The concept of hereditary factors is not developed much within the book, but does have interesting consequences for both personality and learning: authoritarians, he found, are produced by parents with anxiety about their status in society.


One major implication of all this is, surely: the idea of mere training producing great leadership qualities is dubious at best. If we are to develop people we have to go to a deeper level – and enable them to explore what is within, rather than acquire a checklist of pertinent skills.


Leading a meeting 3

Remember, the Chair's greatest strength is not in asserting his/her own will and position; it is in faithfully representing the collective will of the meeting, and acting in the capacity of a servant seeking to realize the objectives for which the meeting was called. If staff can perceive that about the Chair, they will listen, contribute and do accordingly.


The above touches on the surface of the issue - many of the skills of chairing a meeting effectively relate to precisely those skills identified through appraisal and teamwork: e.g. listening, decision-making. There is an unfortunate assumption with leading meetings that anyone can do it, and anyone can be invited so to do. It would almost seem disgraceful to have to say - 'I'd like some training on how', but this is strongly recommended for any leader who experiences doubts about their effectiveness in this capacity. It is money well spent.


Recently, there has been a glut of amusing advice on what to do to be ineffective in a variety of contexts. Here are Brian Stockley's 10 suggestions for wasting people's time in meetings. Study them - and do the opposite:


1. Be late for meetings - keeping people waiting is a clear sign of superiority

2. Never discuss one topic fully when you can play around with several

3. Don't hurry decisions - they mature with age

4. Don't have relevant papers to hand - you can all sit and wait for the photocopier

5. Run long meetings and invite lots of people

6. Meet regularly when there is nothing to do

7. Don't get things too clear, e.g. what has been decided - then you can have another meeting

8. Don't set a finish time - people have nothing else to do

9. Allow interruptions - it show how important you are

10. Never create an agenda - it gives too much away


Thus it is – review the ten points above and do the opposite! Finally, if you would like a simple but highly effective self-review tool in which you can pinpoint how to improve your meetings, then contact me at: and request REVIEW MEETINGS CHART. We only request that you acknowledge its source when you use it. All the best with your meetings!


Leading a meeting 2

To be more specific about leading a meeting, the Chair should consider:


*composition of meeting - who should attend - avoid deferring to other people's view of their importance and to the custom of inviting 'stale' people because they've always been invited; how many should attend - this will depend upon what the purpose of the meeting is: if it is purely informative or legislative, then large numbers can be effectively accommodated; for effective team work, however, twelve is usually considered the maximum size.


*preparation - ensure agendas and briefing papers are distributed well in advance (a week rather than a month) of the meeting, and that important items come first. This latter point is frequently overlooked in preference for the notion of dealing with routine matters as a sort of warm-up for the last, big item. This is a mistake - unless the chair is especially sharp, routine matters can easily gobble up vital time. It also signals that one intends to overrun - after all, the last matter is important. And it means that those with dental appointments leave just as the important bit starts. Put first things first, and in any case try not to have too many items on any agenda - like target setting, three to five is enough for most staff to consider. So far as the chair's role is concerned: make sure the relevant homework has been done - each agenda item has been scrutinized, a 'line on it' has been worked out in case nothing is forthcoming from the meeting, and that one is flexible in offering and receiving suggestions. Finally, try to hold the meeting somewhere pleasant and with pleasant - e.g. coffee - facilities.


*timing - start exactly on time, and consistently finish about five minutes before the deadline time. This will win admirers and elicit gratitude of a surprising depth - it will stand any leader in good stead. Remember that unless matters are absolutely vital, 90 minutes is long enough. Consider on which day to hold the meeting - if it is regular, then it is even more important to choose a good day. Mondays and Fridays are usually disliked by staff, and so less effective, although there may be compelling reasons to have them then.


*minutes - these are recommended to be concise - one A4 sheet maximum. Following the headings of the agenda, the key things to include are decisions reached, significant points raised, person responsible for next action. It is, of course, essential to list those present, absent and late.

Leading a meeting

Leading a meeting is arguably the most demanding aspect of leadership: one feels, rightly, in the spotlight; everyone is waiting for a 'lead' and one is so conscious of the implications of a false step, a wrong note; and one is fully aware that the general expectation of meetings is that they are unproductive - worse, one is all too aware of all the unproductive meetings one has been to during one's career. Why should this one - the one YOU are leading - be any different?


The first question that must be asked is: do we need this meeting? The Year Planner can easily become a routine set in amber - plenty of scheduled meetings, but meetings whose usefulness is only to ensure certain hours are clocked up and the appearance of ‘doing’ is projected.


Successful meetings are those where there is a common purpose, where the focus is on the agenda items, and where individuals are activated - they go out and do something as a result. That said, it is important to realize the different functions a meeting can fulfill:


1. inform - to impart knowledge, information

2. originate - to generate ideas and even enthusiasm

3. allocate - to distribute responsibilities so that action can occur

4. legislate or change constitution - to fulfill legal requirements - e.g. AGMs


This leads to the observation that it is very important to be clear about the purpose(s) of a meeting, and the balance within it. Is it a good idea for a 90 minute meeting to be solely concerned with imparting information? It would need to be particularly exciting information to hold attention for that long.


At the same time it is a good idea to remember not to mix two highly incompatible types of origination: the strategic and the operational. By this we mean, meetings are frequently bogged down when strategic discussion (and generation of ideas), say, of  policy, principles and values stray into the operational area of 'how Operator X in Department Y does Z'. Dealing with fine levels of operational detail defeats strategic planning, and invites endless parades of anecdote. Thus, keep strategic discussions for one meeting, and operational considerations for another: in other words, deal with the WHAT, and then turn to the HOW.

Motivation with Mark Knopfler 2

We have established that we can learn a lot from studying a successful band/man like Mark Knopfler. We also know before sketching the three core lessons that even doing all the right things does not necessarily lead to success – things go wrong whether you like it or not. As it says in the good book, Time and chance happens to all men. In the case of Mark last Friday, he revealed to us why he wasn’t standing up and playing the guitar: he had pulled a nerve in his back and that had plagued him for five weeks. Now that’s what you call irritating – and life!

The lesson from watching Mark is the lesson of creativity: all the songs were his songs, and so everyone followed his tune. Being creative is an essential component of being human: essential – of the essence. Peter Drucker observed that only two things made money for a business, everything else was a cost: marketing and innovation. We need to run businesses where we give full scope to human creativity, especially our own. In the long run it helps make us more stress resistant.

Second: be an expert at whatever you do! Watch Mark play that guitar – in fact several guitars – and you see an expert at work. Without overdoing it they had cameras which for short periods of time enabled us to see Mark on the stage and behind him a close up of his fingering and fretwork. And it wasn’t only Mark who was a superb musician – they all were. So, if you are going to be a plumber, nurse, director, manager, shop assistant – be the best. I was amused and impressed recently when the plumber fixing a problem round our house said, My brother is the best plumber in Dorset. I said, Well, get him here then – I don’t want the second best!

Finally, get a tight team round you. Towards the end Mark introduced his team and we learnt nearly all of them went back 15 years of playing with him, and one even to the ‘80s. He trusted them and they trusted him; the synergy and teamwork were apparent – the great Knopfler could achieve far more leveraging their talent alongside his own. Where are your key team players? Who’s with you on a journey to change the world with your product or service?

Yes, you can learn a lot from watching a rock and roll band. The music’s great as well!