header
"If you cry 'forward', you must make it clear the direction in which to go. Don't you see that if you fail to do that and simply call out the word to a monk and a revolutionary, they will go precisely the opposite directions."
Anton Checkhov

Good afternoon from a sunny Toronto. I hope this finds you well.

I am in the midst of a road trip over the next couple of weeks that takes me here, Saskatoon and Charlottetown. I’m writing from my hotel room in downtown Toronto, where I lived for a time 35 years ago. In fact I’m looking at the hotel where I worked part time during my time in acting school here. Talking to a front desk clerk about it as I checked in, she asked, “oh were you a manager?” I said, “no, I was a houseman.” And she looked at me as if I had said, “I’m from Mars.”

Obviously, I don’t know what was going on for her, but I suspect that the fact that I was wearing a suit, am a white male, and have grey hair, she assumed that I must be a manager and always have been! Little can be further from the truth! But assumptions are insidious.

And last night, my brother was talking about an interview with former President Jimmy Carter on the CBC Radio show, The Current  http://www.cbc.ca/thecurrent/episode/2014/03/28/jimmy-carter-on-what-he-calls-the-greatest-human-rights-crisis-of-our-time/ talking about his new book “A Call to Action” http://www.amazon.ca/Call-Action-Women-Religion-Violence/dp/1476773955 I listened to the interview during my workout today, and I was fascinated. President Carter argues that the single biggest Human Rights issue globally is the status of women and girls. And this is not simply about how women and girls are treated in the developing nations in the world;, it’s about how women and girls are treated here in North America and the rest of the western world. And the more I think about it, the more I think he’s right. I think about the amazing women I know; my partner, my sister and sister-in-law, and so many colleagues and friends, none of whom are quiet and demure, sitting at the gymnasium wall, waiting for some man to come and make their lives complete! But I wonder what the desk clerk might have assumed about them if it had been one of them in the conversation about working in this neighbourhood 30 years ago?  Would they have been assumed to have been leaders?

And how many of my female colleagues and friends have been sexually harassed and or assaulted?! The number would likely shock me as I think about the statistics, and remember the stories I’ve heard.

I fear that we have spent too much time assuming that issues like the glass ceiling, workplace harassment and worse are ‘womens’ issues. We worry about how women can break through the ceiling, we worry about how women can protect themselves from predatory men. This is a human issue; that in our workplaces many of the people we work with are often undervalued, misrepresented, and shunted aside only because they happen to be women. I know that we like to think we’re better than all that, but the bottom line is we’re not.

So, man or woman, next time you’re working alongside a rising star, male or female, give her a second thought. Push against the assumptions we all too often make. And if you are a woman reading this, give yourself a break, give yourself a second thought, you can do it. Don’t let the assumptions and traditions that we all can fall into determine your career. You owe it to yourself and to women and men around the world.
 

Good morning from the midst of spring showers in Vancouver!

I've been reading a great book called "The Social Animal", by David Brooks http://www.ted.com/talks/david_brooks_the_social_animal  . In a nutshell it's a parable about how we  humans make decisions.

What's fascinating is the science; biology, neurology, and chemistry, that the author uses to explain what's going on in the human mind as we make decisions. For the past 400 years we've assumed that people are rational and that we make our decisions based on reason and fact. The science says, not so much!

We are rather making decisions largely unconsciously, and then making up stories to rationalize why we made the decision. A way of thinking about this, riffing on Brooks’ language is that there is a huge difference between our mind and our brain.

Our brain is the organ with its various connections and synapses. Our mind is a much, much bigger system that incorporates what the poets might call our heart and souls. It is the place for example, of imagination. To borrow from Brooks, our logical brain might be able to determine the square root of 8, but our imagination can have us imagining ourselves to be a tiger, or a Prime Minister in milliseconds. And it is the imagination part that is the far more complex and amazing part of us. A computer can determine the square root of 8, but it cannot imagine itself as a tiger or a Prime Minister, that is a human trait.

From a leadership perspective, this puts a whole new spin in the vital work of changing one’s mind. I can, for example, ‘educate’ you so that your rational brain understands the physics of flight. If however you mind is made up that airplanes are ‘too big’ to fly, you’re going to have a very uncomfortable flight, if you even get on the plane in the first place. The same is true in introducing a new idea or change into an organization. Charts and graphs showing the ‘logic’ of the idea are at best interesting, but what we need to focus on is changing people’s minds, not their brains. One of the most important ways of doing that is to speak to the persons’ mind, to their heart and soul, to their imagination. And we do that most powerfully by a compelling story, and especially the story of ‘why’. Why might be that we’re going to be a better place to work, or a better community, or we’re going to change the world for the good, or we’re going to challenge the status quo, or cure a disease, or rebalance injustice. It is those stories that will change our minds.

But first, we need to change our own minds, long before we can change someone else’s!

May this week we all might change our own minds.
 
If you appreciated this edition of Leadership Notes, feel free to forward it, or invite your friends to email me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. to register.
 

Good morning from a spring like Moncton!

The good people of Moncton are thrilled, “it’s like it’s spring, we’re being spoiled” said one woman on the elevator this morning! A large winter storm battered these parts 10 days or so ago, so the recent days of sun and melting snow have been most welcome. I’ve been attending the Atlantic Central Credit Union AGM this week, largely to facilitate a day’s adventure with the Atlantic Young Leaders Forum. It was wonderful, and the young leaders who presented to the assembled elder leaders from across the Atlantic provinces did a great job. It got me thinking about last week’s post on risk.

Here I thought was a group of people who get it! The new direction for the credit unions here is exciting. I’ve been calling it Credit Union 4.0. Is everyone on board? Certainly not, but virtually everyone is at least saying ‘ok idea’ if not ‘good idea’! Are they aware of the risks? Most certainly, and they are building ways of mitigating those risks. But, as I mentioned last week, “what's the risk of spending too much time focused on risk? One of the implications is that we stagnate. We freeze up in our fear. And human societies that freeze up in fear do not survive. We are a creative species, we need to create, to imagine possibilities of health, growth and a new future.”   Stagnation here in Atlantic Canada will be the death of the credit unions, and thus the death of many small communities. And so, new ideas, new possibilities of health, growth and new futures are being imagined and created as I write.

Among the oldest credit unions in the world, the credit unions here are transforming themselves. And the lessons for leaders in every sector are about patience, relationships and passion. Patience as the ideas take hold in different hearts and minds at different speeds, and some hearts and minds choose not to come along for the ride. Relationships as the work of leaders in these transformative times is to listen to what people are saying, to hear their concerns and to be true to themselves so that others can be true to themselves. And passion, as my friend Paul Alofs http://www1.uwindsor.ca/odette/paul-alofs-leader-in-residence  would say, is the greatest asset. The CEO of Atlantic Central,  Mike Leonard, http://www.novascotia.coop/michael-leonard-appointed-president-ceo-of-atlantic-central/  is a Passion Capitalist, although I might say he’s more accurately a Passion Cooperator. Mike is moving forward, learning from people, being true to himself and breathing life into new ideas and old wisdom. It has been an honour to watch him work.

For those of you feeling tired and frustrated in your work, there is new life, there is new possibility, and I have seen it working this week in Moncton, New Brunswick!

May this week be filled with new possibilities!
 

 

Good evening from a rainy Vancouver….

I've been thinking about risk this week. I've been teaching some governance courses and have been reminded of a key learning moment in my career. Almost 20 years ago, working with a subject matter expert building a basic wealth management course that was supposed to introduce credit union staff to mutual funds and other investment instruments so that they could better refer their member/customers to the experts on staff. The subject matter expert was trying to teach me a concept and my mind was not catching on. She turned to me, more than a little frustrated, and said, "Alisdair, all you have to remember is that the market is based on two emotions: fear and greed!"

I wonder if we, the western world, have been living in a period of 'fear' since September 11, 2001, and so 'risk' has become our major focus for many of us. Think about airline travel, politics, financial services and industry. Risk and fear surround us, and they have been hyped up in the dialogue society has with media over the last 13 years incessantly.

As I said this week in the meeting rooms, what's the risk of spending too much time focused on risk? One of the implications is that we stagnate. We freeze up in our fear. And human societies that freeze up in fear do not survive. We are a creative species, we need to create, to imagine possibilities of health, growth and a new future.  There are many dangers out there, but to sit at home in front of reality TV instead of taking some risks and going on adventures ourselves will kill us.

And as leaders we need to take the first steps; to go for it, to show the way. So next time you’re in a meeting and someone makes a suggestion or has a new idea, just say, “good idea.”  I’m serious, just say “good idea,” and then invite other ideas. Don’t over analyze, welcome the ideas. As the old Kenny Rogers song goes, “there’ll be time enough for countin’ when the dealin’s done.”

We live in a time and place where we need new ideas, new possibilities, and it starts with our daily work lives. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by what happens when you say, “good idea.” 

 May this week be filled with new ideas!
 

 

Good morning from Vancouver in Spring! There is a bad nor’easter pounding Atlantic Canada as I write and the folks there are in my thoughts and prayers.

I’ve been thinking recently about disasters; the loss of Malaysian Air flight 370 and the mudslide in Washington State are just two that are showing up in my news screens. The way most of us receive news of these disasters is through some kind of medium; twitter, radio, TV, and newspapers. An impact of that mediated information is that we can find ourselves an audience, as opposed to engaged and participating. In the theatre, for example, cast and crew are very aware of what’s called the 4th wall. Surrounding the three sides of most stages are three walls, the 4th wall is the invisible wall between the audience and the actors on stage. In very rare occurrences some plays will ‘play’ with the 4th wall and have a character that speaks to the audience, but for the most part the play happens and the audience watches. We might be moved, we might laugh or cry , we might be inspired etc. but we don’t actively participate in the play itself. The same is true in our mediated news experience; there is a kind of 4th wall between us and the people actually participating. It’s one of the reasons we are glued to our screens when, for example, the county sheriff gives a press conference about the missing people in the mudslide; s/he is a participant in the search and takes time to turn to us the audience and give us a report through the 4th wall.  As an audience feel more closely linked to the action, as it were.

One of the challenges as we face as leaders and managers I submit, is breaking down the 4th wall, especially around conflict. One of the default places we go is to talk about an employee’s performance or a conflict we might have with an employee, rather than talking with the employee. What we’re doing in such cases is acting like an audience member; we may be moved, we might laugh or cry, or wonder what will happen next, but we’re not actively participating in the play itself. And the result is, the play goes on with or without us! If you really want to make a difference in your department, or your organization you can’t be an audience member, you have to be an actor in the play itself. That means you have to talk with and communicate with the other actors, not just talk about them.

Here are three deceptively simple guidelines for actually acting in the ‘play’;

1. Listen to what the other ‘actor’ is saying, both with their words, their tone of voice and their bodies. Respond to what they are saying, not what you think they are saying, or what you hear yourself say while they are speaking.
2. Truth is not only good, it’s what drives the action of the play forward. I may have a different perception of what the truth is, but I don’t have the whole truth. The way to uncover the whole truth is to balance advocacy with inquiry. In dialogue we are more likely to uncover more of the truth than we have individually. Candour therefore is absolutely vital.
3. Watch out for drama. In plays drama is vital, it is what entertains us. In real life, and especially in organizations, in the words of my friend and mentor Jamie Powers, “one should have only as much drama in one’s life to be entertaining at dinner parties.” Drama in organizations often increases with two factors, the length of time the issue, performance problem or conflict festers and the number of other people getting involved; drama triangles becoming drama octagons for example! Two people, listening to each other, and advocating and inquiring about truth will be able to do far more, far more effectively than 3 or 5 or 8 people trying to act as heroes or ‘help’ resolve the conflict.

May this week be filled with each one of us getting on the stage!

 

 

Good morning from a rainy Vancouver. TED is here, the rain eases off this afternoon and the flowers are blooming! It’s all good!

Watching TED updates on Twitter this week, it is very interesting that the winner of this year’s TED prize is Chairman Gooch and their work in identifying anonymous corporations. http://www.ted.com/participate/ted-prize This is really important work, and means that slowly but surely corporations the world over may find themselves not only enjoying the perks of ‘personhood’ but the responsibilities as well. And I was thinking when the announcement was made last night; what about us as anonymous persons?

Now I don’t mean that we are trying to get away with crimes like the anonymous corporations, but simply that so many of us go through our days and work lives anonymously, ‘you keep on paying me, and I’ll keep lifting” as the old “Doug and the Slugs” song goes. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JZTwXl6yuVE And this is especially true in our relationships in our communities. There is an ancient idea that the health of a city or nation is to be found in how it treats its most vulnerable. How you and how the organization you work for and with treats the folks in your community says a lot about who you and the organization are. I was reminded of this this week where over the past two days I’ve watched three people on three different occasions give bags of food from local restaurants to folks begging on the streets of Vancouver. The exchanges a brief, but warming to witness and to participate in.  And the week before last a friend and I were having lunch in a local restaurant and a group of nurses came in for lunch. They were attending a conference at a hotel across the street and were wearing jackets and shirts with the BC Nurses union logo. As we finished lunch my friend and I went over to thank the nurses for all they do in our communities. We shared a laugh or two had a nice chat and went back to our seats. As the bill came, one of the nurses came over and picked up our bill. She said, “please pay this forward” and went off to the till to buy our lunch. It was an amazing moment of connection between people who did not know each other, but were far from anonymous with each other.

May you find an opportunity to know and be known in your community this week
 
If you appreciated this edition of Leadership Notes, feel free to forward it, or invite your friends to email me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. to register.
 
 
Alisdair