"Life is like playing a violin solo in public and learning the instrument as one goes on."
Samuel Butler

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

Word count this issue: 410

Estimated reading time:  3:00


You may recall that last week I wrote that two things have struck me about strategic thinking as a leadership practice. I wrote last week about a useful image about what we might mean by strategic thinking. 


This week I’d like to suggest that we are not the first humans to live in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) time and perhaps we all could lift ourselves out of the entertaining drama and ask ourselves, what do we want to have happen? Whom do we want to be?


I was first aware of this some years ago when the media were following the phrase, “weapons of mass destruction.” It struck me that 2000 years ago if a Roman Legion showed up at the gates of your city, they were a weapon of mass destruction. You would really be living in a VUCA time. And then more recently, watching an episode of Home Fires, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Home_Fires_(UK_TV_series)  on Netflix. The series opens in  England in August of 1939. History majors will know that the Nazi’s invade Poland in early September 1939. The characters of the show in August of 1939 are living in a VUCA time. They fear that war is coming, and the older characters who have lived through the First World War all know that volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity are going to be the norm. 


A challenge is that we not only recognize that we live in a VUCA time, but that we get overly dramatic about it. We are not that special. Our ancestors lived through sometimes terrible and dangerous times. For all that we face, we are very fortunate to live in this time and this place. 


A key lesson from the ancient wisdom is to “Fear Not.” 


While we are thinking about vision and planning as we discussed last week, there is a wonderful old prayer, adapted by my former Bishop as a blessing. I’ve adapted it for Leadership Notes. I think it appropriate as we move away from the drama of VUCA living.


As you go into your sometimes challenging work,

remember the love and gratitude that inspires us.

Have courage.

Hold on to what is good.

Return no one evil for evil.

Support the weak, and honou life.


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

Word count this issue: 568

Estimated reading time:  3:45


Greetings from Vancouver, where Fall is in the air. As I mentioned last week I was speaking at a conference of credit union leaders last week in Toronto. A colleague of mine, Kevin Yousie, http://www.crosswaterpartners.com  spoke earlier in the day and he did a great job introducing the audience to a powerful tool to explore the external environment in their strategic deliberations. He also reminded us of a useful acronym, VUCA. We live in a VUCA time; volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. I especially appreciated that when the deliberations around the tables started to “go down the rabbit hole” into VUCA problems and drama he brought the groups back “up” to the strategic level of thinking.


Two things have struck me since his presentation. First, a useful image about what we might mean by strategic thinking, and second that we are not the first humans to live in a VUCA time and perhaps we all could lift ourselves out of the entertaining drama and ask ourselves, what do we want to have happen? Whom do we want to be? I want to share this useful image with you this week and explore the second idea in more detail next week.


I recall, many years ago, at a strategy session Kevin was actually facilitating, another participant in the session, with whom I didn’t really get along, kept urging our group to “think strategically.” The challenge in my opinion, was that he was most vociferous in his urging when I or someone else disagreed with him in the midst of the conversation. “C’mon Alisdair, you need to think strategically,” he would say time and again. Finally, I turned to him and replied, “Just because I disagree with you doesn't mean I’m not thinking strategically.” 


Not my finest interpersonal interaction, to be sure.


I have since learned of helpful concept to help us all think strategically. (I actually used it in a sermon in January of this year, http://thecathedral.ca/sermons/sermon-by-the-rev-alisdair-smith-5/ ) The concept is from the work of the Neuroleadership Institute, Imagine if you will five words, listed in a column from top to bottom:








Consider a group of us were walking along the savannah 40,000 years ago and there was a rustle in the grass. Our ancestors all said, that could be a problem and ran away. Some other people thought, that could be a butterfly and got closer, only to be eaten by a sabre tooth tiger!Those of us who were thinking “problem” or “drama”  ran away and our genes passed on. The people who thought, “that might be interesting” got eaten and their genes would not be passed on to the next generation. So you see, we are wired to problem and drama. 


However, focusing on the problem provides us with technical solutions at best. The way to engage our brains around strategy is to ask vision questions like; what do we want to have happen? Whom do we want to be? And then identify the steps towards that vision. 

The way out of the problems and drama then of a VUCA time is to shift our focus to vision and planning. And let’s continue this conversation next week.




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

Word count this issue: 363

Estimated reading time:  2:30


Greetings from a rainy Toronto! I’m here speaking and leading workshops at a national credit union governance conference. The future is a common part of the conversations in the sessions and in the hallways of the conference.


Humans have never been able to predict the future, although we have paid many different people to do so since we first became conscious of time as a species. Sooth sayers, astrologers, dream interpreters, psychics and economists have all earned money from the mistaken belief that the future can be predicted. The future cannot be predicted but working together we can begin to identify some likely scenarios. The challenge is around “working together.”


All too often we fall into the trap of thinking that one of us has the answers and has the visionary capabilities. The fact is that we are social beings and no single one of us has the answers. Successfully navigating an uncertain future is always a collective affair. Even Sir Issac Newton described his success as due to his standing on the “shoulders of giants.”


In the midst of our uncertain future together, be sure to map out possible futures, talk and explore the implications therein, and always challenge people who think they have all the answers. Our future is much too complex to be left to the ideas of individuals.


Here are three ways to work together more effectively to talk about the future:


  1. Generate possible scenarios from various people including supporting rationale
  2. Pay attention to other sources of news, than the ones you usually attend to, and talk about what they say without judgement or put down humour.
  3. Stop laughing at people. Yes we are a funny species but we are threatening each others status and relatedness with every joke we make about people who are different.


There is a great benediction that contains these wonderful lines:


“For the word is not too small for anything but truth, and too dangerous for anything but love.”



May this week be one of working together, not laughing at each other.


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

Word count this issue: 376

Estimated reading time:  2:30


I had the great honour this week of working once again with a group of young leaders, this time in healthcare. Early in our work I offered this quote from Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman’s 1999 book, First Break All the Rules.http://www.gallup.com/press/176069/first-break-rules-world-greatest-managers-differently.aspx 


 “We had discovered that the manager – not pay, benefits, perks, or a charismatic corporate leader – was the critical player in building a strong workplace. The manager was the key….An employee may join Disney or GE or Time Warner because she is lured by their generous benefits package and their reputation for valuing employees. But it is her relationship with her immediate manager that will determine how long she stays and how productive she is while she is there.”


The book, and this conclusion, was based on over 1 million interviews over 25 years and it has been a go to idea for me for 15 years. I asked the group for their reflections on the idea that the key factor driving commitment and productivity was the relationship with the manager, here and now. The comments back included great questions like ‘what about current economy and people staying in jobs just to have a job?’ and “if the data goes back now to 40 years ago, what of the generational changes?’ ‘what about the tech changes?’ As one young leader asked, if I have an app that provides me with great data and ideas about how I can be a better manager, maybe the relationships change?’ Or, ‘how many of the jobs done by people interviewed over the study are now being done by bots?’


The question that stopped me in my tracks though was ‘do we define good management in a new way now?’ My own reflection since the question was asked, was no. I wonder though, might my own biases preclude me from seeing something new emerging? 



I’d love to hear from you, is how we define “good management” (healthy, engaged relationships, and focusing on other people’s growth) changing in the midst of the changing world? 


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

Word count this issue: 302

Estimated reading time:  2:15



Good morning from a crisp Vancouver. The Fall chill is in the air in this part of the world. It feels like new years for me. And sad/good news this week as it was announced that a colleague of mine had accepted a job that takes her not only out of our workplace but out of the country.


While I am thrilled for her; this is an extraordinary opportunity for her, I am also very sad. She and I have shared work and laughs and tears over the last dozen or so years, and I will miss her.


In the days following the announcement, the reactions of people have been fascinating to watch. Some people have been quite mean to my friend, saying things like “I hate you for leaving.” In reflecting on these comments I wonder about a particular challenge for leaders; the ability to hold two contradictory thoughts in our minds at much the same time.


I believe it is entirely possible. I am both very excited for my friend and grieving her moving away. I can also, for example, know that you are an amazing, creative and unique person and be disappointed in your work this week. One does not have to override the other.



The key here is choice. Where do I want to choose to focus my attention? I honour that I am sad, and that is not the defining feature of my day. As leaders we can find ourselves in these sometimes challenging situations where we may feel or think two things almost at once. Honour both and choose your focus; which of them will bring about the greatest good for all concerned?


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

Word count this issue: 443

Estimated reading time:  3:00


I’ve been working with a couple of colleagues this week in hot and humid Toronto. We’ve been exploring story as part of our work. I was reminded today about the philosopher Mircea Eliade’s (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mircea_Eliade) sacred story. 


‘During the Second World War, in a Nazi labour camp, the prisoners were organized into tents of a few hundred people each. Every morning, the prisoners would emerge to be marched for another day of hard labour. Upon return in the evening, only those who had worked were issued their day’s ration of thin soup and stale bread. Now of course with such sparse nutrition, prisoners would soon get sick. If a prisoner did not emerge from their tent for the days work, they did not get fed that evening, and soon he or she would die of starvation. The food was so sparse that an unwritten rule became the norm: The evening’s food was not be shared – it was everyone for him or herself. Each tent then experienced the steady rhythm of work, starvation and death. 


Now, the inhabitants of one tent were in the habit of listening to stories told by one old woman in their midst. Each night, the inhabitants huddled together protecting their meager rations listening to her stories. Then one horrible morning the tent awoke to find their storyteller sick. The inhabitants left her in the tent that morning, filled with apprehension, if not stark fear of what might happen while they were away. That night the people in this tent broke with the norm, and one by one broke a little piece of their own stale bread and a drop or two of their soup to share with the old story teller. And she told them stories. The next night, the same thing, they shared what little they had with the old story teller and she kept telling the life giving stories. Soon the inhabitants decided that she should not go out and work anymore. They would collectively guard her health by sharing their meagre food resources with her. From that day on, until the war’s end and that camp’s eventual liberation, there were no more deaths from starvation within that tent. Sure, people died, the horrors of a labour camp were not simply limited to starvation, but no more people in that tent died of starvation, and most of its inhabitants lived and survived the war.’



I wonder then what thoughts or ideas does this story prompt for you as a leader?