Tag Archives: Leadership

Are we being good ancestors?

“In the realm of human consciousness the highest and most sophisticated form of self-regulation is based on our ability to see ahead”, wrote Jonas Salk, the pioneer of the polio vaccine in his book, “Anatomy of Reality”. Using the ability to see ahead as a springboard to transforming the present, is what great leaders do. Salk was right in terming it “self-regulating”; seeing ahead and making changes often goes counter to established beliefs, strategies, and most importantly our sense of self-importance. Self-regulation is a leader’s biggest challenge, especially as one grows more successful because the biggest obstacle now becomes, the need to be right. I remember talking to a CEO who was presiding over a multi-million dollar loss made through some poor decisions. He mentioned how his biggest mistake was his reluctance to step back from what he and his team were doing on order to make changes to their strategy. “The momentum was too powerful and we were convinced we were right”, he said. “We just couldn’t see ahead”.

To see ahead, the leader’s mind has to operate differently. One focus must remain on the task at hand and what we are doing right now in order to fulfill the plan; this is task awareness. However this is not the only one. The second focus is on the environment and all the moving parts that are impacting upon the business at hand. This is situational awareness. A third focus is on what is emerging around the periphery: the weak signals that trickle in from adjacent spaces and that are difficult to pick up because we are not looking for them. This is emergent awareness. And lastly, the focus on oneself: a continuous vigilance of one’s thoughts, feelings, and beliefs and how one is reacting to the changes in the environment, or to others who may have different points of view. Without the fourth self awareness, we too easily slip into hubris, the Achilles heel of so many leaders.

When all four ways of focusing operate together, the leader’s mind has the capacity to simultaneously perform a seemingly paradoxical procedure of having a point of view and sticking to it, while constantly remaining open to other, multiple points of view. It is precisely this dissonance that allows us to look ahead, pick up subtle cues from the environment, look around corners, and continuously learn, while doing what we must do now to fulfill our obligations to the task at hand. And it is a quality so desperately lacking in those who are charged with leading our organizations, and those that we have elected to political positions of power. We prize cleverness and authority, while what is critical to developing the four-focus state of mind is active humility. While some of us are fortunate to have that quality, most of us have to learn it. The desire to be right, to feel important, and to assume that our version of reality is the sole truth, is an ever-present vortex just waiting to draw us in and consume us. Active humility is the overturning of this evolutionary trap.

Salk asked another profound question once: “are we being good ancestors”? Sixty years since his discovery of the polio vaccine, his question is a reminder for seeing one’s actions and the time we spend on this earth as measured by what we leave behind for the future, rather than what we accumulate for ourselves. That is an all too important distinction.


Attention Deficit Leadership

Attention, or rather the lack of it, is fast becoming a leadership challenge for the 21st century. Exponentially growing information, the constant threat of disruption, and an inter-connected world in the palm of our hands brings huge benefits but there is a price to be paid. That price is our ability to attend to what is important: a meeting, a conversation, a problem that needs solving or simply the customer. It could be a question that needs to be asked, but the clutter and noise inside our heads does not allow that question to surface. Like Sisyphus, we keep pushing the same boulder uphill only to see it roll down.

I was traveling in a car the other day with a young, successful executive who had picked me up at the airport to take me to the venue where I was to speak to his top management team. Sitting beside me in the car, he asked me what I thought was the single most important leadership attribute for a senior executive. I turned to him to answer and I noticed that in the meanwhile, he had started texting on his smartphone. I replied that the most important leadership attribute was the ability to listen intently. The irony was lost on him.

The ability to pay attention is a gift that is available to the human mind, and for leaders it is arguably one of their most critical abilities. Attention allows us to perceive and read a situation accurately, process the information faster and with less bias, and take better decisions. It also allows us to reach into higher-level cognitive functions such as empathy, and help us lead with presence. It provides leaders with the ability to read weak signals that emerge from peripheral space: early warning signs that soon grow into big ones. Attention-deficit leaders are more likely to take decisions on incomplete data or not tune into what is what is really emerging around them. In fact, the decision to bring down the curtains on Lehmann Brothers at the start of the economic crisis in 2008 was fuelled more by attention-deficit, lack of sleep and over-caffeinated brains than a strategic imperative to solve the problem.

There is a bigger problem at hand, one that is relevant to workplaces in fast growing economies like India where the sheer speed of getting multiple things done at once, combined with a cultural tendency to hurry, overloads the brain. Recent research in neurology demonstrates clearly that this creates a deficit in the ability of leaders to think clearly. Combined with stress, it becomes a lethal recipe for trying to multi-task, one of the biggest myths from the previous century. Multi-tasking simply does not work. It diminishes productivity and draws upon well-worn and often dysfunctional reactions and behaviors that may be useful for doing repetitive tasks, but are quite useless where we need to think. Combine that with a propensity to believe that staying late in the office equates to productivity, we have a growing crisis at hand.

The antidote: attend to one thing at a time; and when it is done put it away and move to the next task. Ask three questions: “what is the conversation I need to have?”; “what is the action I need to take?”; “what is the behavior I need to demonstrate?”. Remember: the leader’s work is to create significance and meaning for others.

Great Leaders Move From Intention to Impact

A powerful intention coalesces our thinking, belief and emotions around the transformation we want to create. It focuses the direction of our efforts and helps chart the way forward.

Intention is a deeply subjective mindset arising out of a personal story, which becomes a platform for change and transformation. Impact, however, happens in the external theatre where our personal story must engage effectively with the reality of the situation.

For that, leaders must learn to watch their intention through the eyes of the world, and in so doing, regulate and shape its expression. Intention and impact must go hand-in-hand; while the former provides a subjective map that helps us go forward, impact provides the objective compass that shapes what we must do in order to fulfil the intention. If it is self-awareness that allows intention to flower, it is situational awareness, or the ability to read reality that regulates intention. The two must never stray away too far from each other.

During a visit to Robben Island, where Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years of imprisonment, I began to understand the significance of this balance. Despite it being summer, it felt chilly as I stood in his old prison cell, pondering over something that he had written as an inmate there: “In my lifetime, I shall walk out into the sunshine, walk with firm feet”. This was when apartheid was at its peak – when the chances of getting out of Robben Island, let alone having a free South Africa, must have been as bleak as the landscape surrounding the prison. The intention was powerful: the “sunshine” evoking freedom, and “firm feet” giving it vehemence. It is, however, the way Mandela created impact that makes for compelling leadership, because so much of it is counter-intuitive.

He had to learn to overcome feelings of resentment and animosity despite decades of brutal apartheid against his people. His own personal loss was monumental. He was allowed one visitor a year for a 30-minute meeting and one letter every six months. His lost his son but was not allowed to attend his funeral. And each day at Robben Island was spent in toiling in the limestone quarry.

But Mandela’s impact compass did not waver, redirecting the anger and pain into the larger purpose of a free nation. He knew that freedom for his people would come only in partnership with the white government. So he began his study of the Afrikaans language to understand the Boers.

In the years that followed, he got to know the wardens well enough to procure books on Boer literature and poetry, and he made it his singular purpose to understand what drove them. Most importantly, he acknowledged that perhaps he too, in similar circumstances would have done what the oppressors had done.

Empathy is always the most difficult pinnacle in the transformation process. Such was his commitment to building a ‘Rainbow Nation’ that several years later, at the ceremony where he was sworn in as the first president of a free republic, the person he chose to stand next to him was his jail warden.

The intention to walk out into the sunshine with firm feet is only one half of the story; the other is about walking backwards from the sunshine into the prison cell. They follow two different trajectories: intention works forwards while impact is visible only when one looks backwards. The journey to impact only happens when leaders master the feat of holding this paradox together. Transformative leaders do two things simultaneously: they see the world through their eyes, and they see their actions through the eyes of the world.

Failure to Empathize

The National Health Service in the UK launched a new service this week called NHS 111, asking citizens to call the number 111, “if it is less urgent than 999”. It further goes on to say on the website: “Call 111 if: you need urgently need medical help or advice but its not a life-threatening situation”. The phone service has crashed several times and many have had to wait as long as two hours for the NHS to call back. Tragically, there are reports of three “unexpected deaths” in the last three days. One report blamed it on utter confusion.

Thinking clearly and communicating effectively remain the two biggest challenges for individuals and groups, be that in a Fortune 500 organization or in a public health service. How does a parent whose child is ill with a high temperature and delirium decide in the middle of the night if it is urgent, or “less than urgent? Or, how does a terrified 80 year old with sudden chest pains figure out whether it is an emergency or “less than urgent”? What is alarming is that this is not a local mom-and-pop shop sending out flyers to the neighbourhood; this is a national institution that must have spent tens of thousands of pounds in getting this initiative on the road. And the intention to do it must have been positive. Then why oh why did they get it so wrong?

The failure to empathize is one of the biggest reasons why organizations fail. Empathy is the ability to understand the world inhabited by those we serve. It literally means that we have to “stand-under” them if we are to understand them. Empathy is a complex psychological function that allows us to walk in someone else’s shoes and understand their world. But empathy is fragile and comes under pressure during stress or when self-importance takes over. Or when we lose sight of our original purpose. It is for this reason that empathy needs nurturing and care; it must be tended to with great attention. The banking industry is at its lowest ebb at the moment for the same reason. I have a very prominent global bank as a client, and this bank has been in the news for a couple years for all the wrong reasons. I find it incredulous that I have to remind its top management that the reason why this bank exists is because long ago, its founders wanted to create an institution that would hold people’s money “in trust”. They now talk of wanting to get close to the customer, and develop trust, but they have forgotten why they exist. Management meetings have become jargon-filled, consultant-led jamborees that take them farther away from the real problem they are trying to solve. Coming back to the National Health Service in the UK, I can bet my last dollar that NHS 111 was the result of the very same process. And so what we get is the jargon of “urgent but not life-threatening” that sounds clever but rings hollow. It would be more plausible if it were an advertising jingle for a potato chips company.

Those that we serve are the easiest to ignore. This is one paradox that leaders must keep close to their hearts.

On a lighter note, when I moved to the UK more than a decade ago, I was struck by some peculiar and confusing messages. One of them was on the gates to a large park in Cambridge, that said, “Gates shall close at dusk”. I was unnerved by the inherent ambiguity in the message and it became a conversation piece in my family on many occasions. How do we define dusk? Is it the same for all visitors? Is there a universal dusk time? While one could laughingly call it quaint and typically British, it wouldn’t feel that way if one drove into the park, and found that the gates had been locked on the way out, because the gatekeeper had a slightly different definition of dusk! The sign still exists and I am now trying to figure out whether there is a pattern here that connects the NHS message to this one.

Why Leaders Must Learn to Think

Every now and then I get a quizzical look and am asked to explain how I wandered from Quantum Physics into Leadership. It was actually a half-open backdoor that got me in there. Looking back over thirty years, what Quantum Physics did was get me interested in the way we think, the way we perceive and make sense of what is around us, and the way we form representations of reality based on our assumptions. It also surfaced for me the very limitations of our thinking process in how we commit the grave error of assuming that what we observe is the objective truth. Quantum Physics gave me a grammar for understanding and describing what is essentially our relationship with the world. My work on leadership continues to resonate with exactly that: every time I work with executive teams and CEO’s, I begin by asking them to explore three questions: “What is your relationship with the organization and people that you lead”? ; “What futures do you want to create?”; and “What past patterns of your thinking and behavior get in your way?”.

We learn to make mental maps of the world that we assume to be the territory, in Gregory Bateson’s unforgettable turn of phrase. “The theory decides what we observe”, said Einstein, exposing our tendency to observe through the lenses of our assumptions and biases, and then assuming that what we perceive is the real. Leaders must be able to step back and observe in real time how their “theories” and “maps” manifest the world and shape their decisions and choices, and their conversations, actions, and behaviors. Only through a deeper awareness of how we think, can leaders learn to shift their mindsets from what I will describe in a later blog as reactive to mastery.

One of the fascinating things I am discovering about the brain is that biologically we are programmed to operate from the reactive mindset. After all, it is this mindset that has helped life survive over millions of years. So, for example it becomes more beneficial for us to focus on the negative than on the positive, as it is the negative that biologically holds more of a threat to survival. So, perception of potential danger trumps feelings of well-being in the survival stakes! The thinking we do from such a mindset is low-grade thinking largely dependent on stored memory and the “past”. Unless we become aware of the hold of the past on us, and how it influences the way we think and behave, take decisions, and make choices, we continue to operate from this reactive mindset as the brain “chooses” to engage with the world in a reactive mode. Recent failures at Kodak and Nokia, and the reaction to the financial crisis in 2008 bear testimony to our propensity for preferring the past over the present. To lead is to essentially disrupt and overcome the biological tendency to react from the past. It is all about knowing when and how to rise above the biological forces of survival and the reactive mindset.