Monday 1 March 2010

Sequential thoughts..... serendipity..... how thinking develops

Isn't it strange how ideas develop and link? This latest entry is a letter to my daughter....

Dear Hannah,

(If I’d had more time I’d have written you a shorter letter – believe it or not this is the short version!)

Your heartfelt comments about your new job, about having great trepidation and then feeling a surging confidence that you can do it… then being fearful that a colleague, who mentored you, is leaving… then feeling proud that you are now able to make decisions yourself. All reminded me of my own thoughts as I progressed through my career and what I see now in so many others as they develop... Let me share some of these in an attempt to make sense of it for us.

I have a rare privilege now – I am invited to help senior and successful people and I also work with many bright leaders, mostly but not exclusively in education, who have enormous potential. Even some who were once good but now struggle (see my poem “Decision”) They open up their public and professional lives – often surprisingly openly and usually powerfully. I am privy to innermost fears and hopes and I can honestly say I have never met anyone who claimed to be fully on top of everything, with no doubts about what had to be done. All of them have, what they variously describe as: fears, weaknesses, failings, areas for development, doubts or demons. Many talk of being fakes who might well be found out and admit to feeling fools. Psychologists call this "imposter syndrome".

I have learnt that the successful ones have delved deep into these demons, faced them and either dealt with them or worked around them. They have learned through helplessness… Who was it that said that an expert is the person who has failed most in their discipline? The successful people I meet have recognised their vulnerabilities and worked them through…. Sometimes independently and sometimes by asking for help from others i.e. interdependently. I want to argue that the latter are stronger and more able to succeed. It is the mental agility to see themselves develop from independence to interdependence that marks out the truly successful.

So Hannah, your honest thoughts are a sign of wrestling with a move from dependence to independence and now on into interdependence – you have your colleagues but a phone call away - you need not do it alone! What is more, you tread a well worn path.

This is where these ideas dock seamlessly onto materials that started in the classroom, came through leadership and now I am realising (so slow that I am) that it complements all the other thoughts in my life (parenting, poetry, politics) and is really about how “we” behave in the world. So, no demons on this one for me! It is about moral purpose in what and how we in the “people business” behave…parents, teachers, leaders, lovers, friends… and yes Human Relations experts, politicians, industrialists – even bankers!

Who is not in the people business I wonder? Anyway, it started like this when I used to draw Model 1 as a progression from left to right :

-> dependents to independents to interdependence

I argued this was the classic, simplest model describing what we educators do. We move children from dependents to interdependents in the world. I would rail against those, “I’m all right Jacks” who rested at the independents stage and gloated inwardly, or outwardly, at their success. I’d extol those who helped others and were able to call for help as interdependents. I’d say I want interdependent learners, leaders and citizens - not independents!

This argument about moving people from dependency to interdependency was once described as stating the bleeding obvious (Judge Sommerville). That helpfully challenged me to try and describe something subtle but simple in all this. I then realised it was about moral purpose, values and motivation…. And that it goes to the behaviours of those who hold to the value of interdependence. It is about how we respond when we witness vulnerability and isolation.

We know it when we see it – for the boy in the “Emperor’s clothes” grew up to be the “Good Samaritan” didn't he? I think we can judge societies on the basis of how they treat the most vulnerable. Many have said this, most recently for me it was Jack Walsh in “The Philosopher and the Wolf”. I would argue the same applies in the home, the office, the classroom, the media and the workplace. If the key question is how we deal with the vulnerable – how we respond and how we take them from isolation to dependence and beyond – I think it also about two further things:

First a realisation: that in the final analysis - we are all isolated and vulnerable unless we learn to accept that we are interdependent. So easy to write, or say - so difficult to understand and follow into action (See my “Raven” poem)

Second - if this belief is accepted – there is an implicit commitment to action. To reduce vulnerability we all have a moral choice - a behaviour see-saw, on the one hand (give me a one handed philosopher please) on the one hand we have to give. From this first hand we give to others – we literally hold it out - demonstrating our responsibility to help the vulnerable move them from isolation to dependence and through independence to interdependency. This applies to family… classroom…. society…. and globally… in such things as care, succour, aid and climate control measures.

So, first we ought to give of our strength, our talents, our taxes and our time. To strengthen both our local and global world by building social capacity in the strength and later potential in the giving (back) of others. A cynic might view this as enlightened selfishness. Ironically, this is human capitalism – building the stocks of humanity for the shareholders… humanity itself. It is a barter of benefits, rather than the trading of bonds and currency. And, because the giving will be balanced, if others follow the logic, we can receive when we too have needs, by holding out our second hand. So, when we too become vulnerable or isolated, as in the end we all will be, we can take with a clearer conscience. I know this is idealistic but…. stick with it for a while…I want this to make sense!

Here, then is that more complicated set of levels in Model 2

Vulnerable interdependence to Safe interdependence

Safe independence to Vulnerable independence

Vulnerable dependence to Safe dependence

Vulnerable isolation to Vulnerable dependence

Taking the simple reading of this first (starting from the bottom) the move from vulnerable isolation to safe dependence, on the second level, is straightforward i.e. supply of food or aid…. opening up possibilities and in sharing thinking or education. An individual trusting the provider makes it safe for them – the starving parent learning that the food and water supply is sound - the new student learning to open up in class. The move from safe dependence to safe independence, on level three, is also well documented through education, training, sponsorship, wealth creation and an individual’s moves to mastery and in the business world.

It is in that move from what individuals feel as safe independence to what they feel when the demons strike, I am interested in. When that feeling of vulnerable independence stops us, transfixes us and risks causing us to fail, unless we feel able to call for help. This is close behind where you are I think. It might be the nightmare of calling out with no sound, or the dream of someone coming to our aid. Some of us are fortunate enough to be around interdependent thinkers – the lottery of our birth. Others will have interdependency thrust upon them – other will achieve it! You have experienced it at work in two different working environments.

Anyway, it comes this - true interdependents can draw on the human capital around them. They can be helped by others…in other words we move to vulnerable interdependency, from seemingly safe independence because it feels alien or odd, if we have not experienced it before. Or, we may feel we have failed, or are failing, because we are in need of succour. This is especially true if we have been educated by fools who believe that independency is the highest state. For, yes, it is possible to educate, extol, coach, sell and promote the state of independence as good, better and the best. It is seen by some as a personal strength and a demonstration of a desired state of affairs… we talk of independent learning, independent living and individuality as high states. But, the very essence of independency seems to be translated from the ability to do it alone – without help or support – into this being the best, or only possible way to do things. Indeed, we can list people, leaders, sports folk, friends who celebrate their individual power and invincibility. “Coming second is failure….” – “Lunch is for wimps” – “I can do it all myself” (see my poem “Supercolleague”) There is no such thing as society. Fools believe this… only fools…

The greater subtlety and slow burning power of human capitalism shows itself in the actions of the interdependent leader who thought he knew all, realises he doesn’t and has the sense to consult, negotiate, share or delegate decisions. It is there in the charity worker who jangles her tin in the high street and in the sister who is unafraid to asks for ideas, a helping hand and support. It is there in the frustrated worker who becomes whistleblower for the greater good of his workmates and in the boardroom when the manager with a moral purpose challenges a selfish act.

So, where do you stand on this? I’d say you are beyond dependence and are probably vulnerably independent. You said, “I’m not sure I can do this job myself – yet” I also think you are taking courageous and scary steps up to vulnerable interdependence, “I want to offer you what I’ve got and will ask for help when I struggle”. The quality of a family, workplace, or society will be marked by the response to such an offer as yours (indeed it was marked by the company's sense in offering you a job that stretches you).

Finally, Model 2 has some pitfalls and traps. Safe independence, can feel wonderfully empowering and, of course, it is OK to wallow in the joy of a job well done, fully in the knowledge that you did it yourself. I would never knock the winner. I am just pointing out that it may be that someone else can do it better, or will do soon and that a humility will allow us to learn when they do. Unless this is so, it may be that safe independence slips back to safe isolation and vulnerable isolation.

The Model 2 is not a simple ladder up and down – there are snakes here too.

This also applies to safe interdependence, which may seem the highest level and yet it can only continue whilst significant others allow it … as soon as complacency gets a hold, it can become arrogance, unless humility and some wide-eyed exploration finds others to share ideas with, to learn from… Yep, we need the power of others all around us….

I'd love to know what you make of all this... then... My next epistle will be about what we can do to ensure there are powerful others around. How do we create the permitting circumstances whereby it is fine – OK - good – exhilarating even, to offer and receive help?

Dad/John Pearce November 2009

Leadership under pressure

My first ever Blog 1 March 2010

"This more effective breed of leader takes time to reflect and consider, they create thinking space around them." 

Most of the people I work with are pressured. At a senior level there is an ever present fear of cuts, whichever party wins the 2010 election. Many are already making efficiency savings, or dealing with actual reductions. This causes a rigorous self-evaluation and justification as the calls for "Impact Evidence" and "Value for Money" become shrill. A stressful and distressing context. How do leaders react to this? 

There are poor leaders, mere managers, who transfer their pressure downwards by hectoring colleagues below them. When I meet their unfortunate colleagues I hear them feeling undervalued and demotivated. Unless they are strong themselves this dumping downwards becomes a hopeless spiral as, in turn, their subordinate front line workers soak up the pressure to perform. They then go home to, "kick the cat " the weakest link at the end of the line. 

Financial and political "churn" is an overwhelmingly negative experience for people like this and those they, literally, manage to demotivate. Such colleagues are the bewildered recipients of seemingly disconnected initiatives, victims unable to do anything but attack their mounting list of urgent doings for the day. They try to work longer, speak louder, drive faster and do more and more themselves in a belief that somehow, "it can all be done". They are attempting to become "Supercolleague" (see my poem in "Desire Lines").  Behind this lurks the self destructive belief that, "Somehow, it is all my fault ". If we start to believe that we risk seeing ourselves as failures - clogged up cogs. Many of us have "been there" at some time in our career. I learnt most about good leadership when I was "there". 

But there is hope because I meet a different breed of colleague who inhabits the other end of this continuum. They are a calmer and more measured professional who is either a good leader or led by one. Their mental model of leadership is fed by a clearer moral purpose. These effective leaders take the longer view. They are able to incorporate the same pressures, the same initiatives, the same drives for efficiency and effectiveness into a coherent pattern of work. They have learned to develop a strategic view. They understand we cannot have long lists of priorities. They say, "No", more often, in order to say, " Yes" when it is important. They make time to reflect and consider. They create thinking space around them and want to be sure that we get things right. 

In reality, most of us flit up and down this continuum and whilst we know where we should be and what we should be doing, we find it hardest to be strategic when we are pressured and tired. We tend to "do rather than delegate" and cut down, or omit our reflection time. At worst we fail to build the capacity of others to take the load. Most of us know we ought to think strategically and remain calm - remain calm and think strategically. We know that having colleagues, friends and "wise others" is critical. We sense that these very best of people, in the worst of times, generate a measured sense of, "How we might do it better - How we can work through this". They help us become the, "Yes, we can" leaders. Sometimes, they do this by becoming the extra pair of eyes and ears, or the extra thinking head we need. Or, they just roll up their sleeves and become an extra pair of hands to share the burden. 

I now understand that these leaders have passed through the middling stage of independence - the, "I can do it!" the "I'm OK - not my problem - over to you" stage and climbed to the highest stage of interdependence. They have summited to a better place. They say, "We are in this together - sometimes I'll need you - thank you - sometimes you'll need me - I'm here". They understand there is such a thing as society because they spend their time creating it. This is where we should all aspire to be. I want to work in culture, and yes, live in a society, made up of people who see the interconnectedness and are willing to lead and, on occasions be led, as interdependent colleagues and citizens. 

"At times of greatest pressure, when the temptation to go it alone is strongest - it will be the interdependent who are most useful to us" as I write that I hear the mantras, "All that is required for evil to prevail is for good people to say nothing"..... "You can judge a society best by how it treats the vulnerable".... "No man is an island"... And so, I am appalled at the professionals who ignored baby Peter's injuries, or ignored the calls from Fiona Pilkington who, in despair, took her life and that of her daughter. I have less and less tolerance for those who see their independence as a mark of success. I admit to despising those who go it alone, walk on the other side, or pity the vulnerable whilst feeling good and taking the bonus. Why? Because, they are behaving like the poorest leaders I described above - fixated on their own survival. And, I agree, my distaste, is fuelled by knowing that I when I am pressured.. I veer there too. 

So what marks out the interdependent leaders? Listen to what they say, watch them work and they will model "I can help you - let me" and later, with equal meaning and importance and without a shade of failure, "I need help - help me". If enough of us understand this interdependence and take the help offered, or offer the help needed, it will all balance. If we can achieve a critical mass it will work. If independents prevail - there is less hope. At times of greatest pressure, when the temptation to go it alone is strongest - it will be the interdependent who are most useful to us. 

Perhaps I should rebrand myself as an Interdependent Consultant...

#interdependence #leadership #pressure #supercolleage #management