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All hail the leader

Is it just me, or is it generally assumed that leadership is something that other people do?

For example, we generally deem leaders to be special people. They get extra attention. They need to be studied. Leaders have “strengths”.

Those strengths are nearly always positive: leaders are thought to be articulate, wise, empathic and so on. And with just a little more effort, a little more diligence, they could go from being “good” to being “excellent”.

Ordinary people seem more likely to have weaknesses. We just are. We get on with the boring day-to-day activities while the leaders lead – somewhere up there in the stratosphere. We’re simply not in the same league.

This is starting to sound dangerously like a self-esteem problem – in me. If only I was a bit more self-confident, self-aware, talented and above all hard working and diligent then I too could become a “leader”. And oh how happy I would be, if I could only share in some of what those special people have.

But what if leadership isn’t an attribute to be conferred on only the annointed? What if leadership is a set of behaviours that is available to every one of us?

What if it’s a personal thing? Something we can all do, even the lowly and the least talented? What then?

And what if leadership isn’t really as complicated as some experts would have us believe? What if it’s simply being clear, at least to ourselves, who we are and what is important to us; and then living in that way, consistently, to reach our highest ideals?

Of course, if that was the case, and we all led in a personal sense, would we need the other sort of leader? Those at the top of the pile?

There are reasons why we wouldn’t want to even consider this, of course.

Not being one of the leaders makes it’s  easier for me to blame them for my condition. Whether it’s politicians, corporate and financial leaders, or even religious leaders – they’re the ones who are really responsible for my troubles.

And I’m not saying it’s easy to lead. Maybe it’s easier to let others take the lead? Maybe that’s why we need to leave it to the “special” people?

But there’s a problem with letting others lead.

For one, it doesn’t seem to have got us to such a good place. The economy’s in collapse. Politicians are besmirched. The planet’s being destroyed. The poverty gap is growing. Our livelihoods are at risk.

Letting others lead us towards their goals seems dangerous.

Surely we do need leaders don’t we? Where would we be without any leaders to rescue us, to save us?

That seems to me a little like saying “where would we be without economic growth?” That’s a paradigm that we have adopted blindly for years. And look where it has got us.

Maybe now’s the time to reconsider our system of leadership.  Not just how we select leaders, and who they are, but who we call a leader.


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Did Ghandi blog?

A rather random thought: how would Ghandi have used blogging (and Twitter, and all the other social media tools) had they been available in his day?

I’m a bit limited here because I don’t really know much about the man. Other than a few random sayings that I much admire, what I have read on Wikipedia and from the Richard Attenborough film.

Maybe others know more and can correct me. But it seems to me that Ghandi’s tools of non-cooperation, non-violence and peaceful resistance could work well in a world enabled by social media.

I suppose first off, Ghandi would have blogged. He was a teacher amongst other things, and I guess would have used blogging to share his teachings. Each post might have been written around a saying such as  “live simply, so that others can simply live”: expounding the value of vegetarianism and a simple life.

He would have encouraged dialogue, rather than preaching, of course. It would have been as important to him to learn from the discussion as to teach. Comments on his posts would have been remarkable and many.

Twitter might have been a daily source of wisdom. Something to inspire us and move us to mindfulness: “Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.”

One a day perhaps: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”; “A man is but the product of his thoughts. What he thinks, he becomes”; and “Honest differences are often a healthy sign of progress.”

These would have been personal meditations. Not written to appear smart. But as least as much to help him learn.

And most importantly he’d have been on Facebook and LinkedIn. With Meetup.com working overtime. There would have been hundreds if not thousands of groups and communities – organising boycotts, strikes, marches and so on. Groups for people who committed publicly to non-violence and peaceful resistance.

The public demonstration, and thus solidarity, often being as important as the action itself.

Finally, in terms of style I feel sure he’d have used wry humour much of the time, to soften the blow of accurate words.

When asked what he thought of Western civilisation he reportedly said “I think it would be a good idea.”

Isn’t it great how the good ones last?


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Elvis was right

This post is to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Cluetrain Manifesto.

I listened recently to philosopher Peter Singer talking at the RSA. The talk was all about boundaries. At the end I must admit I thought “wasn’t that all just common sense?”.

It took a little time for the power of his words to settle in.

He spoke about the boundaries we create in our lives – between other people and ourselves, even between animals and ourselves. He linked three much discussed issues: global poverty, animal rights, and climate change together, pointing out that each was really about boundaries. Boundaries between us and others far away, us and animals, and us and future inhabitants of the earth.

His suggestion, as I understood it, is that sometimes these boundaries are false or over-estimated. And sometimes they turn into barriers. And that these barriers can cause us to act irrationally – for example, to fail to transfer even a small amount of our income to solve problems of poverty; to treat animals in sometimes appalling ways; and to continue to destroy the planet with obvious disregard for those who follow us.

Another potentially dangerous boundary, I’d suggest, and one that often becomes a barrier,  is the one between customers and companies.

When we allow it to become a barrier we create products and services that harm the planet. And we cut ourselves off from the value and joy we could be giving to each other through exchange,  innovation and commerce.

Thesis 29 of the Cluetrain Manifesto runs as follows: Elvis said it best: “We can’t go on together with suspicious minds.”

Surely, suspicious minds are at the root of the thinking that turns a boundary into a barrier?

We fear what we don’t know. We fear what might happen. We lack trust. And the truth is we often don’t take the steps needed to build that trust.

I am not sure that we can ever completely remove suspicion. It serves a biological purpose, I am fairly sure. But we can become more conscious of it. We can take actions to reduce it. To develop and grow its antidote: trust in others.

  • We can become more conscious of it by looking for examples of media, both old and new, that stereotype. We can challenge or avoid them.
  • We can watch the stereotyping, and labelling and judging behaviour, in ourselves. How often, when confronted by someone who says something we disagree with, do we label that person: “he’s a jerk”; “he’s stupid”; or, simply, “he’s weak”?
  • We can feel our fear – simply by focussing on an emotion, sometimes we can reduce it’s power.
  • We can challenge our beliefs. We can get out there and meet and talk to people. Even people we wouldn’t ordinarily talk to. To prove to ourselves how our stereotypes and suspicions are so often wrong.

It’s one of the great things about new media and the Internet – it has the potential to break down barriers between people, between creator and audience, and between customers and companies.

But to make that potential real we need to see more clearly, and to act, to take steps, to overcome our suspicion.

PS Next in the list is Kevin MacKenzie, at mack-musings.blogspot.com. You can see the full list of posts in celebration of the 10th anniversary of the Cluetrain Manifesto here.


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Asking the right questions

A friend of mine asked me the other day “What is strategy?”.

It’s a great question. It’s a question I remember asking one of my mentors over 20 years ago. We were working for a consultancy and together we had just completed a fairly significant strategy exercise for our client, one of the big six accounting firms. We were in the pub having a quiet drink to celebrate. Perhaps I was asking the question a little late?

And I admit now I didn’t understand his answer. Maybe I just wasn’t ready.

Now, twenty years later, I think I understand what he said. I think he was saying that strategy is in three parts:

  1. finding direction – developing vision, and mission, that sort of thing;
  2. choosing the route you are going to use to get there, and steering;
  3. doing it – implementing the strategy.

The first and last are relatively easy to understand, even if they are not easy to do. But the middle one is, in my opinion, the really tricky one.

Tricky because it requires different skills. Skills of analysis, connecting things, and seeing the big picture, to name but a few.

And even if you have access to these skills it requires something else, something that is sometimes in short supply in organisations: courage and confidence.

Courage and confidence to trust one’s instincts and ask what strategy is. Know that what other people call strategy probably isn’t. It may be tactics. It may mean simply blindly following a vision, without making any difficult choices.

Courage and confidence to stop whatever habitual busyness you have, and take a long cool look at yourself, your world and what is happening in it.

Courage and confidence to see clearly, despite the pressure that social systems put on us to conform and ignore reality.

Courage and confidence  to work with others and trust others, in such a way that a shared choice can emerge. The world is so complicated I really doubt whether strategy can be done alone.

Courage and confidence to go it alone. Effective strategy is usually a lonely path. You (and your colleagues) won’t be following the crowd.

Courage and confidence.

Setting direction takes courage and confidence too. It’s not easy to be what we most want to be.

Implementing your strategy takes courage and confidence too. To take the first steps. And the next steps, and the next. This requires tremendous effort – to overcome the inertia and resistance that exists in organisations of any size.

So maybe that is what strategy really is: courage and confidence?