"It is easier to get forgiveness than it is to secure permission."
Jesuit Principle

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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. 

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?’ 

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.






Word count this issue: 454

Estimated reading time:  3.0 minutes

Good morning, I hope this finds you well and that the cold days are drawing to a close for those of you (like me) north of the equator.

I'm working on a book about how, as leaders and others, we might thrive in the midst of the “digital revolution”. This work has been inspired by our work here in Leadership Notes over the last year, and beyond.

When we use the phrase ‘digital revolution’, we’re generally referring to 4 groupings of technology:

  • Digital technologies (mobile and computer systems)
  • Biotechnologies (genetics and bioengineering)
  • Nanotechnologies (technologies that operate at the atomic level, linked presently most often to biotechnologies but becoming a a separate technology itself)
  • Neuroscience technologies (leveraging the rapidly emerging understandings of how our brains and nervous systems work) 

You may be thinking, well that is interesting, but what do these have to do with me managing or leading a team? Well consider what neuroscience research tells us about performance management.  http://www.strategy-business.com/article/00275?pg=all  We know now that if you are using numbers in your performance planning discussions with employees, the lizard part of the human brain will hijack the mind, even with your best of intentions to have a “learning discussion.” If you tell me I am a ‘3’, out of ‘4’, my brain will be triggered to think of social status for example, and not about how I will work harder to be better next year. In fact, it appears that the rest of the conversation after the numbers is wasted. Instead, we will respond much more effectively when we are engaged in a structured dialogue that involves my participation in the process. Setting up a semi-annual or annual performance planning conversation to cover some of the following questions to be explored by both parties will involve my mind far more effectively. And remember, no numbers.

  • what did you see as your greatest contribution to our work?
  • what is the one area that you would have done differently last year?
  • what is it that you count on me for?
  • what is it that I can do differently?
  • where do you think we could do better in our service to members/customers?
  • where do you think we could do better in our service to each other?

The research is clear, numerical ranking may make it easier for us to work out the bonus structure, but it does nothing to help us learn collectively or individually. 

Our ideas about how management and especially people management is done will be challenged in the coming 10 - 15 years. I’d love your comments or stories about how the digital revolution is impacting you.





Word count this issue: 450

Estimated reading time:  3.0 minutes


Good morning, I trust this edition of Leadership Notes finds you hale and hearty. 


I was saddened to hear of the death of Leonard Nimoy last week. My thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends as they go on the long journey of grief together. I was also intrigued by the response on social media. As a young friend said, it was a cross generational outpouring. Meme’s started almost immediately, including one of my favorites with a comic book Batman slapping Robin who has just mentioned the blue or gold dress with the words “Spock is Dead!” Or the image of the remnants of a ‘transporter’ signal after a transport with the dates 1931 - 2015 underneath.


I was thinking that Nimoy’s death struck us on one level because of his role as Spock. The TV series Star Trek and it’s descendants presented a world of future possibility. A world that was to some degree utopian; disease was largely eradicated, economic disparity and even ethnic divisions had been put to rest in the world of Spock and his fellow crew members. Spock, even more than Captain Kirk held our love because he was an outsider, he was different, and he was included. Like Ohura , or Checkov or Sulu, he was visibly different, but he was also different at a deeper level, and he was still included. 


The technology on Star Trek was at worst benign and largely helpful. (Here’s a fun 4.5 minute video on the 10 techs we use now that showed up first on Star Trek and its descendants). Contrast Star Trek with say “The Terminator” series of films to see how we imagine a contrasting possible future world. Through Nimoy’s Spock, we imagined a world of time and space travel, of great leaps that solve the seemingly intractable problems of today, and an ethic that included “The Prime Directive”. And through him we saw our own wrestling with the balance between the logical and the emotional worlds we each inhabit. The world was indeed “fascinating” when explored through his eyes.


As leaders and others, we do have a choice. We can choose to build a future world of peace, justice and collaboration, using technology to further humans and the planet. Or we can choose to fight it out with the machines. The choice comes down to very human ethical choices; are we simply autonomous beings out for our own ends, or are we at our most authentic selves, collaborators, colleagues and friends of each other. As Spock said, “I am and always have been your friend.”: Perhaps in the end that is the ethic of leadership.





Word count this issue: 368

Estimated reading time:   2.10 minutes 


Good morning from an absolutely stunning Vancouver. As friends and colleagues across Canada dig out after Sunday’s storm on the Atlantic Coast and frigid temperatures, we are basking in Spring temperatures and cherry blossoms. The signs of new life always inspire me.

I am however, sometimes a victim of things that inspire me. I can become fascinated about something that actually takes me off my charted course for the day. There are pros and cons for this part of me that can make me lose focus. Then, I heard late last week about a book called “Essentialism; The Disciplined Pursuit of Doing Less” http://www.forbes.com/sites/lawtonursrey/2014/04/17/the-art-of-essentialism/ by Greg McKeown. 

In part the book is talking to people whose time is not their own; the vast majority of those who work for other people. It is a kind of Time Management, the Next Generation book. And as I got deeper into Greg’s thinking, I saw links to our work as Leaders. The world is a very fast paced place, as we’ve been exploring in, different ways, the last three Leadership Notes, and others before them. This speed has some benefits, but at great costs. We have little opportunity for reflection, for learning from past decisions, or for re-creation and innovation. Greg’s thinking provides some very helpful changes to our mindset:

  • be clear about what’s important
  • learn to say “I’ll think about it”, and then think about it as opposed to an automatic yes
  • be consumed by the essentials; not the nice to do’s. 

I was reminded of the old Stephen Covey quadrant exploring those aspects of our work that are urgent/not urgent, and important/not important. http://www.usgs.gov/humancapital/documents/TimeManagementGrid.pdf 

As leaders we need to remember that people count on us to do the important and not urgent work of planning, health and vocation so that all of us are able to work smarter and more effectively. There are many opportunities to be interrupted, even by inspiring and good stimuli. We are however at our best when we can remember that people count on us to be focused on the essentials. I wonder, what are the essentials for you this week?