"I am human, only because you are human."
African Proverb/Allan Boesak

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Leadership Notes -- Thoughts on Leading People and Making a Difference in Organizations

Word count this issue: 504

Estimated reading time:   2.45 minutes 


Hope is in Our DNA


I have a good friend, a very gifted consultant, who famously said once, ‘hope is not a strategy.’  http://www.pjosler.com/people.html  She is right. This is not a time for us to simply ‘hope’ that things will turn out well.  That said, hope is in our DNA; it motivates, invigorates, pulls, pushes and cajoles. It inspires, comforts, and tickles us.  Hope is entirely intrinsic; there is no pill, there is no button to press. 


The most effective leaders know this. The most effective leaders create environments where others find meaning, where other’s presence is valued and where others can make a difference.  Think about the teachers, the coaches, the managers you’ve had in your life; the best ones had confidence in you and your skills and abilities. They gave you hope and you then chose to build on it. One example from early in my career was my boss at the time asking me to go to a client site to teach a course on a subject I was only just learning myself. I remember standing between the two beds in the hotel room, the overhead transparencies (yes that long ago) spread out on one of the beds, as I rehearsed and prepared for the gig. She had confidence in me, she gave me hope and I haven’t looked back since. 


I am neither a techno-optimist, nor a techno-pessimist, I am both. The digital (r)evolution demands that we hold the two in tension; in the place that Parker Palmer calls the ‘tragic gap”. The ‘tragic gap’ is the place between hard reality and what we know is possible. This book is about how we might thrive through this (r)evolution, sitting uncomfortably in the ‘tragic gap.” The possible we know is that we can build a better world for our children and their children, and their children and beyond. 


In the English translations of ancient religious texts from the Greek, the same root pisteou is translated as both ‘trust’ and ‘believe’. This book then is about my trust and my belief in human kind to do the right thing most of the time. My trust and belief that we strive to be the best that we can be and that we thrive through adversity and pain. I am also keenly aware of the hard realities around us; this will not be an easy next 20 years. 


I trust and believe that there is an ethic of friendship and love that exists at our deepest cores and I believe after years of working with young women and men that people growing up now are smarter, better connected and more capable than previous generations. I believe then that as difficult as the future will be, there is hope. 


Excerpt from my forthcoming book, 5 Thrives for the Digital (R)evolution to be published by Fairwinds Press



Leadership Notes -- Thoughts on Leading People and Making a Difference in Organizations

Word count this issue: 438

Estimated reading time:   2.5 minutes 



Enroute between meetings this morning I was listening to a pod cast of Bill Moyers interviewing a teacher of a teacher of mine, Parker Palmer. Palmer was commenting on his challenge for us to live in the 'tragic gap" between reality and what we know to be possible through our own experience.  Too much reality leads to what he calls a "corrosive reality" and too much possibility leads to irrelevant idealism. This gap is tragic because if we made different decisions the end result poignantly might well have been better. We are always living in a tension then between reality and what might be.
For example, those of us who sit in meetings and speak incessantly about risk and dismiss ideas because something similar 'didn't work last time' fall into the trap of corrosive reality. Meanwhile those of us who sit in the same meeting and suggest that the problem we face will be solved if we just work 'better' or the solution is to hope that a behaviour will change if we let him or her 'know' we are concerned by making a joke, or using the silent treatment, are trapped in irrelevant idealism. That said, we need to have both reality and possibility to move forward, to learn, to grow. A small child learning to walk in reality keeps falling but sees the possibility of walking upright all around and knows it is possible. To not keep trying is a terrible choice, regardless of the risks inherent in the current reality.
Leadership is about supporting people (and ourselves) in the 'tragic gap". Ask yourself and your team 'reality' questions like, what is really going on here? What part of this is clear, what part is unclear? What evidence do we have for our definition of reality? Is what we are saying/believing true? What are examples that support our thinking? What is your assessment? What are the risks and what risk mitigations are in place? And very importantly ask yourself and your team 'possibility' questions like, what does your intuition tell you? what could we do? what are the possibilities we see if we use different lenses to explore the issue? what is just one more possibility? what will happen if we do, what will happen if we don't? what would if be like to live in the future now? what thinking is imprisoning us?  what  could we change that would make a difference? For what do we hope and of what are we afraid? (Thanks to Meg Wheatley for these last few). 
May this week be focused on living and working in the "tragic gap."



Leadership Notes -- Thoughts on Leading People and Making a Difference in Organizations

Word count this issue: 375

Estimated reading time:   2.0 minutes 


I had the pleasure of hearing Bishop Melissa Skelton http://vancouver.anglican.ca/bishop speak this afternoon. Her point, broadly speaking, was that while we have important markers in our lives, like graduation, wedding, or in her example, ordination, the marker is recognizing something that has already happened. A wedding marks a public recognition of an existing love between two people. Ordination is the public recognition of role and responsibilities that the person has been growing into through discernment, exploration, education and challenge. Then there’s graduation.


I had a conversation with a friend the other day, who had discovered a picture of her graduation from college some 20 years ago. She is positively beaming in the photograph. Knowing a little of her history, she has every right to be. She did the two year program in three years as a single Mum, and while working full time. It was an important moment in her life, but what was really important was, in Melissa Skelton’s words, ‘the process.’ My friend was a different person in that picture than she had been 3 years before. Now, 20 years on; executive positions, entrepreneurial success and 3 books under her belt, the processes of life have created a brilliant, articulate leader, teacher and writer. Although the academic world would not necessarily recognize her books, teaching and adventures as the equivalent of a Masters, if not a PhD, I would put her up against any PhDs I know in her subject area. 


In the midst of our fear driven society we need to see the ‘check marks on the form.’ Those check marks however are simply recognizing that which has already happened. Clearly, if you have not done the work, if you have not done the process, you shouldn’t have the check marks. At the same time, the important thing is the process, not the check marks.



There is no other honest way of getting the check marks than going through process; learning, making mistakes, making amends and learning some more. Perhaps we need to spend a little more time considering process and not getting hung up on the markers.

Leadership Notes -- Thoughts on Leading People and Making a Difference in Organizations

Word count this issue: 310

Estimated reading time:   2.0 minutes 


I had lunch a couple of weeks ago with my friend and mentor, The Rt. Rev. Jim Cruickshank. Jim is a retired Anglican/Episcopal Bishop, and I’ve mentioned him before in these notes. http://www.alisdairsmith.com/index.php/leadership-notes/257-fences Jim and I were talking about the importance of bringing one’s whole self to our endeavours; to our work, to our relationships, to our journey to self awareness. In the midst of the conversation he said,  “what truth do you want to be in your one life on earth?”


This question freaked me out at first; I went straight to my default intellectual and philosophical me immediately asking, ‘what do we mean by truth?’ Now, after a few days of the question ruminating, I’m a little more comfortable with the question, and see it as a deeply profound one for us as humans and as leaders. 


The wisdom traditions all tell us that we have a choice; we can choose life or death, good or bad. Think about the choice offered in the Star Wars philosophy; there is always the dark side. As tempting as the short term gains of the dark side truth may be, in the end, it is the health, vitality, relationship and strength found in the light side truth that sustains us. 


Like the generations before us we have a choice. What is likely different is that human made ecological disaster is much more likely than ever before, and the technology (r)evolution is changing how we work, heal, contract and socialize with each other in ways not seen since the Industrial Revolution. 



Jim’s question then stands out for us all, ‘what truth do you want to be in your one life on earth?’ 

Leadership Notes -- Thoughts on Leading People and Making a Difference in Organizations

Word count this issue: 550

Estimated reading time:   3.0 minutes 


I’ve been struck by the amount of fear around me. Not necessarily so much  in my close friends and colleagues, but in the ‘zeitgeist’, the ‘spirit of the times’ around us all. It’s like we’re all waiting for the other shoe to fall; is the economy really recovering? is the falling price of oil a good thing, a bad thing, a conspiracy? what of terrorists, are they not around every corner, waiting to kill us all? It’s like we’re running these days on a heightened sense of fear.


This is not a good thing. There’s a reason so many religious and spiritual texts tell us to “Fear not.”


A friend who is a neuro-psychiatrist was telling me over lunch recently that our natural state as humans is to be ‘slightly apprehensive’. We’re always scanning the environment looking for something out of place in case there is a ‘sabre-tooth tiger in the grass’. Think of it this way; apparently the back of our brains, the brain stem, the cerebellum, temporal lobe and occipital lobe, combine into what we might call the ‘lizard brain’. We share these parts of our brains to a great extent with lizards. Unconsciously, 5 times a second, we scan the environment for threats and rewards. Threats and rewards; when we get too many observations of either of them they actually take over from our thinking, our imagination and our ability to make rational decisions.



When our threat readers are stimulated too much, we become more risk adverse, our perspective narrows and our creativity slows down as our brain finds a haven in the safest option. We experience these moments when we go to fight, flight or freeze mode. (I should note too that when our reward readers are stimulated too much the same thing happens. Marie Antionette’s famous comment about the starving people of Paris from the luxurious world of Versailles was “let them eat cake.” Her reward readers were on overload and so she probably couldn’t imagine that there might be a problem.)


There appears to be a ‘happy medium’ for us as a species, somewhere between constant fear and constant luxury. This happy medium place is where we are working within a slightly apprehensive frame, scanning for both rewards and threats. That is when our neo-cortex, the front part, the rational part of our brains can be at it’s best. We see and understand risk, we gain new perspective more quickly and our creativity increases. 


Our current zeitgeist of fear is then a bad thing for us as a species, and most especially for us as leaders in the midst of the most dramatic change in work and society in the West since the Industrial Revolution. Our threat readers are being stimulated far too often.



So, Fear not! Take deep breaths, increase your self-awareness, and increase your other awareness. Work on your perseverance and keep learning something everyday. Find new ways to challenge yourself and others to think outside your comfort zone. We’ll be looking at each of these in greater detail over the coming weeks. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you about practical ways to find courage in the midst of the fear zeitgeist. 

Word count this issue: 552

Estimated reading time:  3.30 minutes


Good morning, I trust this edition of Leadership Notes finds you well and that Spring is beginning to make itself evident in your part of the world.


I’ve been re-reading Presence, the 2004 book by Peter Senge, Otto Scharmer Joseph Jaworkski and Betty Sue Flowers http://www.randomhouse.com/book/163980/presence-by-peter-m-senge-c-otto-scharmer-joseph-jaworski-and-betty-sue-flowers and thoroughly enjoying it, again. I wonder frankly if it might have been 10 years too soon? That may be my own limitations, that 10 years ago, I was not as ready to read it? 


It has struck a deep and resonant chord with me. The basic premise is that leadership is about Presence. Not presence, that is simply showing up, but Presence, “a deep listening, of being open beyond one’s preconceptions and historical ways of making sense.... a sense of ‘letting come’, of consciously participating in a larger field for change.” (p. 10) In a spiritual sense, it is ‘opening your heart’. or in a coaching sense, ‘getting out of your own way’. It is an ancient wisdom. And it is central to our ability to thrive in the next 10 years.


Consider the words from last week’s Economist about the future; “by 2020, ...80% of adults will own a smartphone.... Like the book, the clock and the internal combustion engine before it, the smartphone  is changing the way people relate to each other and the world around them. Beyond convenience ... a computer that is always with you removes many previous constraints on what can be done when and where, and undermines old certainties about what was what and who was who.... the differences between a product and a service, between a car owner and a taxi driver, between city square and a political movement blur into each other. The world is becoming more fluid.” (The Economist, Feb 28 - March 6, 2015 p 19-20)


Frankly believing that you alone have any semblance of control in your life is a fools errand. The job you have today could well be done better by an algorithm tomorrow. Or even if your particular talents are still in demand and cannot yet be done by an algorithm (I see for example the Rolling Stones have announced a 14 city North American tour), your job will likely morph into an entrepreneurial one regardless of how you feel. Blue collar, white collar and pink collar, your job will change, somehow. Guaranteed. 


So how does Presence help? As I see it, first if gives me a stance, a viewpoint that is open to possibility. It challenges that part of me that is hanging on to the past, hoping that all this will blow over. A Presence viewpoint gives me perspective that there are always other possibilities for me. They may not be possibilities my fearful ego relishes, but they may well be brilliant, powerful and nurturing possibilities nonetheless. Secondly, Presence is all about relationships. And, “...the bottom line is relationships are more fundamental than things” (p. 199) The work of the future will be based on our relationships with each other. If we are all self-employed entrepreneurs we will do business with those we can trust, those with whom we have relationships. 


May this week be one of building new relationships, or repairing old ones.