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March 2011

The importance of belief

Belief is the essence of religions throughout the world, and having belief. And religions throughout the world have at least one commonality: there is not a religion that I am aware of that does not exhort its followers to believe AND as a result of believing to become more perfect – to follow the path. So belief is transformative in its very nature. Without belief it is impossible to follow, impossible to succeed, and impossible to become what you truly are. Which last statement, obviously, is a paradox, for how can you become what you already are? In the same way that the acorn is and is not an oak tree, but all that is the oak tree is in the acorn, but latent.

Before going further with his discussion we need to review another word that is closely allied to belief, which is the word ‘faith’. Not everyone would agree with me, but I think that we must not try to put on words like faith and belief the murky history of fanaticism, intolerance and mass murder. People kill other people, but can they really be for religious reasons? True, the murderers of all religious hues always claim the reasons are religious, but how is that tenable when all the true major religions eschew violence? Because someone says they killed for their faith – for Jesus, for Buddha, for Islam – does that make them religious?

We need, I think, to bear in mind that not all witnesses speak the truth; that man can be a self-serving animal; and that even serial killers rationalise their actions – in fact, are most likely to produce ‘God’ as their witness and defence: God told them to do it. A classic case would be Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, who claimed he murdered prostitutes because he was told by God to do it. Is that faith or belief? Delusion or deception springs to mind, and the idea of taking at face value the comments of deranged people who claim they are acting for God - that is, have faith – is at very best dubious.

To return then to the real 'concept' of belief, we need to get (through religious experience and writings primarily, and also through what has been observed in the secular world through research and experimentation) that belief is not a concept. It is not a simple idea that we mentally assent to: certainly there may be a conceptual component, but more than that for it to be a belief there is an emotional affirmation with it that goes to the root of our being and how we feel. And that is why it is transformative, because our emotions, far more strongly than our thoughts, transport us. Emotion: e-motion, that which is moving us, causing motion, providing the fuel, the energy to take us further forward in the quest of our lives.

Belief, in fact, lies in the heart – the traditional residence of the human soul – and not the brain. Belief being in the heart also means that true belief inspires courage – ‘cour’ (Latin) – which again is always associated with the heart (e.g. Richard the Lionheart). Thus to renew ourselves we need to pay more attention to how we feel and draw on this strength in our thinking and imagination. What we believe will become our reality; that is what all the scriptures tell us.


Consultants - and changes afoot!

A recent article in a London paper stated that the NHS in London “splashes out £114M on advisers”. Here, they helpfully explained, 'advisers' meant ‘management consultants’. As a management consultant myself I should be saying, Good! But I am not. Andrew Lansley, the Health Secretary, is staggered by the bill and wants to reduce it by at least 45% over the next four years.

I am reminded of the worst client I ever acquired some ten years or so ago. This was a huge family-owned food production company that had just been purchased by Venture capital; they asked me to go in to do some training work on developing middle managers’ capabilities. Sounds great! I wasn’t expecting the hero’s welcome awaiting me on my first visit in.

We are so pleased to see you,” they said.

I said, “Fantastic, but I don’t usually get such an enthusiastic initial welcome."

You don’t understand,” they said. “We’ve never had training before.”

Jeez!” I said.

And then one almost surreptitiously whispered, “Except of course when we do it in threes”.

I’m sorry,” I said, “I don’t follow you.”

Well, we’re not allowed to do training – or we weren’t until the buy-out. It was an offence punishable by instant dismissal. So we had to do it in threes.”

I must have looked more bewildered still. “I don’t get it – if you weren’t allowed to do it, then why were you doing it and doing it in threes? What’s does doing it in threes mean?”

We had to have training; we couldn’t function without it, but it was sack-able. So we had one person train another, and the third person had to keep a lookout down the corridor in case the MD was patrolling. That way we could stop in time and pretend we were doing something else.”

B---y heck,” I said. The full horror of the regime dawning on me, and then the critical question: “But why? Why would any MD not want training for staff?” I guess I was innocent in those days!

Because he reckons he pays us to do the job.”


Well, if he recruits and pays us to do the job, why do we need training to do it? If we can’t do the job, then he wouldn’t employ us. If we can’t do the job we’re expected to leave or be sacked.”

I see,” I said, incredulously.

And ain’t that it, bizarrely? Of course, this was an extreme situation. But let’s return to our London NHS. If the senior executives were being paid £50-60-70-80K pa to do their jobs, then buying in specialist expertise might seem warranted, but when you are on 3 or 4 or even 5 times these salaries, why do you need ‘experts’? Aren’t you being paid enough to be an ‘expert’ yourself? What are we paying these hospital chiefs for, exactly?

Further, the management consultants that I largely know – in small practices throughout the UK – add massive and measurable value. The kind of consultants used in these NHS contracts tend to be one of the big 20 conglomerates, and they all have a common practice: charging senior partner rates whilst installing junior-somethings-in-their-twenties-learning-on-the-job, whose particular aptitude is largely feeding back what the client - and the senior partner responsible - wants to hear.

So, as a management consultant myself I think I can agree with Andrew Lansley – cut by 45%? Go on, Andrew, make it 85%! Nobody will notice the difference – except the big 20. Expect an upturn in the freelance market!


Leadership as theatre

To work in metaphors is the essence not of childishness, but of maturity, and it is fundamental to our appreciation of the world because it enables us to see the invisible relationship between things, ideas and processes. Metaphor is essentially dynamic - precisely what leadership is. If we wish to capture the essence of the dynamism of leadership we will use a metaphor in order to 'grasp' it; if we wish to compartmentalize leadership and exhibit essentially static models we will use competency boxes. Both models have their uses, but the former is far more exciting, and far more likely to inspire than the latter. Once we can do that, then we may be able to break the metaphor down into helpful components.

First, then, let us see leadership as a performing art. A stage is the model for its process. Consider three main ways in which leadership is theatre:

1. leadership is a performance. Every leader addressing staff will vouch for that; and so will their managers chairing departmental meetings. There is an 'up-front-ness' about leadership, which is undeniable even in the most retiring leaders. The performance we must remember is essentially task-orientated: the purpose is to do the performance, and that before an audience. Thus, a good leader must be outcome orientated, since audiences are always evaluating what we do.

2. leadership is intrinsically connected to teamwork. Yes, the star on stage may well be the leader, but the play - the performance - can only be as good as the weakest member of the cast. Unless rehearsals involve everybody, performance - no matter how 'strong' the leader - will be weak. A strong personality who does not pay attention to his staff proves a weak leader, and clearly is exercising 'personality' at everyone else expense.

3. leadership is about 'play' - theatre is a play in both senses of the word. There is a recreation/re-creation in the activity. It is what we all complain we have lost. As children our 'work' was our 'play', and thoroughly enjoyable it was too! We didn't want anyone to send us to bed. Now, we find we collapse only too readily in bed, exhausted by work - a work that is devoid of 'play'. This is a vital thing about our leadership activity we need to re-discover: that work should and must be a form of play, and if it is not then we are heading for trouble. Overtime - overwork - has no psychological meaning when we 'play' (are being creative), since the only limits are those that the task itself defines for us, and which we readily accept.

If one can accept the sense of the above metaphor, see its aptness, then one is already a long way from the scientific approach - the tick box approach - which demands certain outcomes if only highly specified procedures are followed. One sees that every performance of the play is different, that the unexpected is more than likely, but that preparation, planning, practice, too, have a fundamental role in this. There are principles of acting, as there are of leadership, but the mechanical application of them leads to the most wooden performances. We politely applaud the by-the-book performance that imprints its faultless execution upon our consciousness, whilst creating a boring, empty and 'right' world; and we love the heart-warming theatre of conviction where all the idiosyncrasies of person, time and place dazzle us with their razzmatazz.

It is important to realise here that we are not substituting warm, fuzzy, touchy-feely (and so ineffective) pictures for hard-edged, hard-nosed, realistic (and so effective) competencies: the working out of the implications of a performance is every bit as 'hard' - as any theatre director knows - as defining a competence in ever greater unit or elemental detail.

For example, if we take point 1, performance, we might consider what this means in terms of presentational knowledge/skills/attitudes at one end of the spectrum, and what it means in terms of problem-solving and decision-making at the other. But the essential difference between the two approaches is that competency presents a reductive approach to human endeavour, a mechanistic, dissection-al, feel-bad effect; whereas metaphorical interpretation presents an achievement approach - a live-up-to, how-good-can-we-make-this-performance, holistic feel-good effect.

The 'feel-bad' derives from the inevitable failure of everyone to meet all the competencies, a shortfall which assessment always establishes; the 'feel-good' derives from the awareness that the show is on the road, it's going to be fun, we're aiming for brilliance, but whatever the result, there will be a show - there is no failure in this. Nevertheless, it must be recognised that for some, the 'safety' of ticking the right boxes will far outweigh any desire they have to 'perform'. The ease with which bureaucracy is established even within some small organisations is testimony to that. Be that as it may, leadership remains a performance. Some will prefer the competency approach precisely because it offers 'all-inclusive', 'quality-assured' solutions; metaphors will not do this.

Getting to grips with performance


The subject of performance is one of the most important of our lives and of our business. The reasons are not difficult to understand. At one level we are constantly judging how people perform, consciously or subconsciously. This may be easy to get when we consider a leader or manager at work: we think, of course, the annual appraisal and performance review – that’s the way things are. But it’s much more pervasive than that.

 We go into a restaurant and long before we begin to think how the chef has performed with the meal, we are making assessments about the décor and especially how we are treated. In some instances how we are served is more important: if the staff makes us feel important and welcome we may well go back even if the cuisine is not as good as elsewhere.

 Further, if the post arrives at 3.00 PM and usually we get it at 11.00 AM we think the performance is poor. More seriously, if when we get home our wife /husband/partner doesn’t treat us in the way that we consider worthy of us we become very discontented. Usually, when this happens over a prolonged period of time we don’t say, Darling, your performance as my partner has been poor’, instead we scream over some issue or other or simply leave and find somebody else.

 Even with our children we expect them to perform as children should perform. In fact it could be said that the parent who has no expectation of performance from their child is rearing a monster.

 Thus, at every level, whether we think about it or not, we are deciding when we interact with somebody else: are they performing for us?

What then is performance? In our model Performance has three dimensions.

The first of these is Direction. In order to perform we need to be going in the right direction. From an organisational point of view we like to use posher words: we say that we need the right vision and strategy. And we set goals and targets accordingly. From the individual point of view, going in the right direction from the work perspective means choosing the right sort of career in the right sort of environment, given your own strengths and weaknesses.

The second key aspect of performance is Skill. By which I mean skills and knowledge that enable one to do and complete task and activities successfully. Again, there may be other words - like competencies – with subtle shades and differences of meaning, but the gist is clear. Can we master the techniques and knowledge that enable us to get things done? In most organisations huge resources are devoted to coping with the Skill needs: we undertake TNAs (Training Need Analyses), we run Induction programmes for newcomers, we ensure that our appraisal processes discuss and discover what further skills our staff require to function effectively, and so on.

Finally, the third key aspect of performance is Motivation. This is the least understood aspect of all, whilst at the same time is the one that the most lip-service is paid to. (Please, let us never hear again the expression: staff are our most important resource!) Motivation is the energy, and the direction of that energy, that we bring to any task. Like energy it is difficult to ‘see’, and like energy its absence is always immediately felt. It is curiously the glue that holds the strategy and the skill together: without it the best strategy in the world will fail, and all the skills will avail you nothing. But motivation on its own is directionless and awkward.

Thus, if we consider our organisation and our self, we might ask, how are we performing and how would we know?

One way of knowing – the most common and superficial way – is by outputs or outcomes. In other words, most people will assume that if there business is highly profitable or as an individual they are currently making lots of money with loads of perks in their current post, then they are performing well. This may be true, but there is, too, a large a probability that it is illusory and that they are deluding themselves!

What do I mean by that? Outcomes, whilst desirable and necessary, don’t always tell the whole story and we sometimes need to dig deeper. A good contemporary example of this – that I hope makes it really obvious and incontrovertible – would be the banks. Up till 2007 every one would say they are performing at a high level; and yet this proved to be totally unfounded, and despite the fact that Sir Fred Goodwin walked away a rich man, few would argue he performed successfully; on the contrary, he took RBS in the wrong direction (had the wrong strategy), he (and most other senior bankers apparently) did not have the skills and knowledge of banking (or qualifications which often can reflect this), and their motivations, such as they were, do not seem to have been directed towards the company’s benefit, rather their own.

Hindsight is easy, but the point that is important is this: yes, by all means, let’s monitor outputs carefully, but also if we want to be a high performer, let us use other methods to establish how we are doing. There is a saying in America that ‘feedback is the breakfast of champions’. We all need feedback and that begins with our own efforts to understand where we are.

I invite you therefore to do a simple exercise, really a review of your current performance inputs. Consider your current organisation or your self personally and ask how are we, or I, doing, out of ten, on the three key aspects of performance? Ten out of ten means our direction/skill/motivation is superb, and one out of ten means we can barely spell the word, let alone understand it.











This is simply rough and ready, but having done it what do you discover? Look at which of the three areas is lowest. And any score below 6 needs serious attention. Also, ask a friend or colleague for their assessment (and compare notes after) – how accurate are you?

The beginning of all change is in self-awareness – and that includes our ability to perform at a higher level.

Thinking and our destiny


One of the most famous texts of the self help, personal development movement is James Allen's As a Man Thinketh. This fascinating book was first published in 1905 and has been cited ever since by almost every personal development guru, especially American guru. And for good reason: from its central contention - “As a man thinketh in his heart so is he” - comes the corollary so dear to American experience that you can be whatever you want to be. That life and potential are unlimited. In other words, the American dream.

I don't myself fully subscribe to unlimited human potential, but I do subscribe to James Allen's view that our thoughts create our reality, our happiness or otherwise, and ultimately our destiny. As he says, “Strong, pure and happy thoughts build up the body in vigour and grace”; and further, “a particular train of thought persisted in, be it good or bad, cannot fail to produce its results on the character and circumstances”.

James Allen doesn't fall into the sloppy thinking of asserting that the virtuous are always rewarded, and the vicious are always punished because he sees that even 'vicious' people may have some good qualities that enable success (and virtuous people faults which block their progress). And 'time and chance' happens to all people. But, critically, good seed produces good fruit, and bad seed does not.

With that in mind it is worth commenting on the recent death of Jane Russell, the glamorous Hollywood movie star. Her greatest film success was probably in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes when she co-starred alongside Marilyn Monroe. They became friends; but oh how different their careers and outcomes.

For me the most interesting thing is Monroe's 'smart' comment on Russell: “Jane tried to convert me to religion and I tried to introduce her to Freud”. In this one sentence, may be, one can see those whole destinies forming.

Jane Russell was a committed Christian; she had problems, including alcoholism after the death of her third husband (two of her husbands died, one of a heart attack after only 3 months of marriage). But what you see as she lived on till she was 89 was a resilience, a toughness, a belief in God and herself, that could not be completely displaced by devastating external circumstances. She achieved things and had a real life.

Monroe, on the other hand, five years younger than Russell, dying at only 36, in thinking that Freud was some sort of liberating 'god' abandoned herself to the priests – psychoanalysts - of this particular and obnoxious and hopeless religion. Hence the dark and chthonic forces that seem to have been with her from the beginning. Happy? It doesn’t appear so – and her death, suicide or murder, is as murky as the values she espoused.

Of course, Hollywood loves Monroe more than Russell, as do the public: she is ranked sixth in the all time greatest female legends list. But this 'love' is exactly the same kind of love that Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and currently Amy Winehouse and Charlie Sheen experience: we want the spectacle of talented or artistic people self-destructing in the name of freedom, in the delusion of liberty, in the craze of excess. Somehow this provides justification for our more modest indulgences, and also vicarious pleasures.

Perhaps. But there is no getting away from What a man thinketh – ultimately we pay the piper. So it is better right at the start to find role models who really do inspire us to do good and to be good, rather than the celebrate the helpless wrecks pretending they have achieved freedom and personal expression when – it is quite clear – they are so unhappy and hate themselves. Thus, three cheers for Jane Russell!

Vision, details and the centipede

I’m a great believer in vision and goals. But, as with everything, there are limits. This was never truer than when I heard the story of the centipede.

One day, not so long ago, two teams of animals decided to compete to see who was best at football (soccer). It was a case of the large animals versus the small ones. Elephants, rhinos, hippos, lions and tigers versus rats, skunks, hedgehogs, frogs and, well, the centipede. Naturally, there was a lot of animosity and name-calling

We’ll crush you small fry”.

You big lumpuses,” said the Tiny Team.

The day arrived. The coach for the Tiny Team was very excited. Go out – give it everything you got,” he said. “Remember – you can do it – believe in yourself.”

So out they went. And they returned at half-time, bruised, crestfallen, and down 3-0. The rhino (the elephant’s run always tended to peter out) – once he’d gotten up steam – was unstoppable. But the Tiny Team’s coach was a real motivator.

Go on,” he said. “Don’t quit now – winners never quit and quitters never win. Visualise that ball going in the back of their net – next thing, you’ll see it happen!”

So out they went. The game had barely kicked off when the rhino got possession and charged straight at goal. He was in the penalty area and on-side. The goalkeeper – the frog – had simply jumped aside. All the rhino had to do was shoot …. when suddenly there was a green flash. The rhino, hypnotised, crashed over his own feet. The rest of the players were riveted watching him collide with the mud and into the goal post. Thud! Except … and the ball went in the other end. The score was now 3-1. A huge cheer went up.

Who did that?” cried the Tiny Team’ coach in ecstasy.

Got ‘em that time, coach,” yelled the centipede.

Well done, centipede, keep it up,” beamed the coach.

Right”, thought the tiger. A neat bit of paw and claw work later and there he was, open goal in front, when … whoosh … a green blur, and suddenly a goal at the other end. 3-2.

Who did that?” cried the Tiny Team’s coach.

Got ‘em again, coach,” yelled the centipede.

Well done, centipede, keep it up.” That’s more like it, thought the coach.

Now the lion – who always saw himself as a cut above the rest – was really hacked off. He made it his personal business to score (usually he couldn’t be bothered). One roar and the small animals vacated the pitch on mass. He was just about to put it in the back of the net when … whoosh, green lightning … and the score was 3-3!! Unbelievable!!!

Who did that?” roared the coach.

Showed ‘em again,” chuckled the centipede.

Well done, centipede, keep it up – we can win this one,” said the coach. Then a quizzical look came over his face. “By the way, centipede, where were you in the first half?”

Putting on my shoes, coach,” replied the centipede!

You see, the best vision, the most sublime goals, the most wonderful exhortations and inspirations in the world won’t work unless … we really ensure we’ve taken care of the smallest details! Ask the centipede.

What small details might trip you up – at work, in your relationships, in your self development?Here are some typical examples:

At work – lack of punctuality, failure to keep promises, disorderly work habits and record keeping?

In relationships – lack of time spent with a loved person or friend, inattention to others’ needs, critical and blaming spirit, failure to generously praise and encourage.

For self development – lack of exercise, lack of sleep, lack of special hobby/interest, no ‘learning’ stretch built into future programme for your life.

Be honest with yourself – where do you need to tighten your focus? If you’re not sure, then ask someone you trust. Run the three areas in bold type above through them – do they think any of these points apply to you?


Leverage and people

In organisations dealing with the people is always about dealing with all that is not secure! With all that is ambivalent and difficult to quantify– leadership, culture, values, management, motivation and morale, attitude, training and development, performance and so on. And the thing about these elements is that they are highly ambiguous. What is it about people that makes them so intractable?

If we think about it, it is because life is really like that. To live is always to be aware of inherent difficulties (including death) whereas human civilisation and mankind's intellect tends to want to mask over that with its certainties and constructions. Thus, profoundly, in dealing with the people aspect management is never enough: leadership is required with all that that entails Leaders – real leaders – are the only ones who can create 'leverage'.

What do I mean by 'leverage'. First, let me say that we need to be clear about the tricky nature of language itself - when we say people are an 'asset' we are of course speaking metaphorically - we are saying they are 'like' an asset in some important sense; but with all metaphors nothing can be pressed too far. To say people ARE an asset isto practice a fundamental literalism that will lead us astray - and has led bad leaders astray: assets can be wasted, so 'waste 'em'!

Second, and perhaps more importantly, the real point about leverage is, I think, to understand the essential benefit point between leaders and the staff. And this point can be summed up in one word: performance. It is vitally important to the organisation that people perform, but it is equally vital to individuals that they perform because their own self-esteem is correlated to performance; and whether they are aware of it or not, the strange fact is - every single human being is consciously or subconsciously making an assessment on every other one every moment of the day as we interact. If the post doesn't arrive - we're not happy - if the waiter doesn't attend our table, swiftly and respectfully, we don't rate that restaurant - if our partner doesn't demonstrate love sufficiently we start thinking about someone who will - AND, so it goes on. Thus it is - every one of us needs to feel we perform: at work, in relationships, and in our own internal being. This performing creates value that leads to even higher levels of achievement, and degrees of life satisfaction.

So, to leverage staff, to return to the business, is about enabling them to perform at a high level whereby they achieve objectives whilst simultaneously building up their own self-worth and self-satisfaction. This kind of leverage enables the Pareto Principle to work: when this level of performance kicks in, the organisation experiences a productivity from an individual which is four times higher than the average, and sixteen times more than the lowest performers. Quite frankly, it is absolutely worth the investment in time, money and effort to leverage staff – and to do this by investing in leadership, real leadership.