Leadership – leading from down under

It is Leadership Week in New Zealand. http://sirpeterblaketrust.org/leadershipweek

How apt. A week when we have welcomed back Emirates Team New Zealand with the oldest sporting trophy – the Auld Mug (a.k.a. The America’s Cup). It is time to consider what leadership is and to draw inspiration from that great New Zealander: Sir Peter Blake.

When asked (back in 1995 when we first won that elusive trophy) what on earth made him think New Zealand could compete for (and actually win) The America’s Cup, Blakie said: “When people say something is impossible, that is when I want to do it.”

There is more to it, of course. Not only have our teams got further on fewer resources than any other winning syndicate, but they have insisted on playing nicely, “sharing our toys” (actual quote from the ‘95 team’s playbook) and building a challenge that “New Zealand can be proud of – to  succeed in all aspects.”

What, then, is leadership? I like to think of it as two aspects – neither to do with a title, function or result:

  • Being the best (as in ‘top of the leader board’ in your field) in all aspects
  • Doing what a situation needs (i.e. what is appropriate in terms of team purpose, team identity, sponsor/fan expectations and future value/sustainability.)

It is simply not our way, nor is it leadership, to win at all costs. That is ‘management’: fixating on results at the expense of all else (even your soul.) That is not inspiring and it simply doesn’t get the best from people or situations.

From thousands of years ago, these words are as relevant today:
”Go to the people. Learn from them. Live with them. Start with what they know. Build with what they have. The best of leaders when the job is done, when the task is accomplished, the people will say we have done it ourselves.” Lao Tzu

The currency of this is reinforced by a CIO article from 1 June: “Innovation and change: When leaders are the problem” by Owen McCall.

“Lack of a ‘21st century leadership’ is hampering innovation across industries today,” he says. Explaining resistance by staff to innovation, he names two erroneous assumptions:

  • Change needs to be imposed on teams from management
  • The best way to create change is through fear

Domination, subjugation, violation – not leadership. Leadership is a state of mind – a way you choose to live. It is bigger than an individual and requires ‘the collective’ to realise it. Back in the 90s, Zinzan Brook said of the Auckland Rugby Team: “I want 15 captains on the field” – everyone ready and able to lead as situationally required.

Leadership is all these things:

  1. Lead thinking to come up with a breakthrough design – having a fraction of the budget of the large syndicates; out-thinking instead of out-spending the rest
  2. Knowing when to go public and when to keep cards close to chest – no one, not even the Team New Zealand cyclists’ families, knew the team had replaced traditional arm grinding with leg grinding
  3. Keeping calm when everything including the kitchen sink is thrown at you – the sense of cool-headedness in the face of ‘Pitbull’ Spithill’s barbs
  4. Aspiring to the very best of what is possible – and even what is not
  5. Seeing setbacks as just part of the extra mile landscape – coming back from a capsize a mere few weeks before the final win
  6. Never giving up – even after the capsize, one of the cyclists was still cycling while suspended sideways in the air!
  7. Paying attention to what seems insignificant – Sir Peter Blake said no matter what your role in the team (even if you are sweeping the floor) it is all part of winning the Cup
  8. Doggedly committed to improvement – chasing 1 second of speed each time they sailed (for years)
  9. Team first – a team-driven campaign; Sir Peter Blake insisted the team make decisions that directly affected them

This is useful as a leadership audit in your organisation:

  1. Does the team lead thinking in its field?
  2. Do you know/does the team know what to communicate, when and how (all things considered) with the wider organisation/host system?
  3. Does the team keep a cool head when others lose theirs?
  4. Are people better when they are together – able to achieve beyond their individual potential – due to their collective commitment, creativity, trust and drive?
  5. Is the team superbly resourceful (able to get things done more effectively and efficiently than others) no matter what obstacles they face?
  6. Is the team motivated by pressure and resistance, to excel?
  7. Does the team know what to pay attention to and what to block out?
  8. Is everyone constantly seeking improvements that will move the team forward?
  9. Does the team have autonomy – is performance really team-driven?

Some organisations (and departments) are manager-driven (he/she pushes things along); others are campaign-driven (a particular deliverable pushes things – and people – along); others are process-driven (precedent pushes things along). Only a few are truly team-driven.

For those of us who followed our America’s Cup team in 2013 – and witnessed them fall from an 8-1 lead to an 8-9 loss – and still kept the faith in the leadership of this team, it has been a particularly awe-inspiring couple of weeks.

When people strive against huge odds for so long, and nothing goes their way; when they struggle for funding and are an inch away from switching off the lights for the last time; when they are pulled day after day back out on the water by a sense of getting the job done ……..how can you not feel a huge sense of admiration and loyalty?

That is leadership. When you witness it, you want to empty the tank, go to the ends of the earth, leave nothing out on the field. You feel taller, capable of more and obstacles seem to shrink in your path.

Once you develop leadership as a state of being in your organisation, anything is possible.

Posted in Leadership | 1 Comment

Lucy in the sky….

I was struck by an interview with Lucy* a few days ago as she described her work (paying her dues to society) as part of the ground crew setting up for WOMAD (World of Music, Arts and Dance – 17-19 March 2017) https://www.womad.co.nz/

The interviewer said Lucy (who is working off a 100-hour community service sentence) described the WOMAD job as one of the best things she had ever done – full stop.

“You feel like a volunteer just like the other workers. It’s really good……..heaps better than being a criminal. It’s all good, especially because they appreciate it. It makes you feel like you’re doing something, definitely.”

Another offender, Bruce*, said it beats the usual community work. “WOMAD’s fantastic. Yup, it’s a good place to work and you’re doing something so people can enjoy themselves at the weekend. It’s certainly a lot more rewarding than, say, cutting gorse that’s going to grow back anyway.”

There is a lot in common between us and them. Human beings have a bone-deep need to do something of value. Helping others emits ‘good feeling’ neurotransmitters. Having this sense of purpose and value – this ‘feel good’ – takes Lucy to a different place, where the sky really is the limit. Bruce and Lucy are optimistic that this experience will lead to permanent work when the time comes.

For people like Lucy and Bruce things have not exactly been easy, presumably for a variety of reasons. When they do work that has meaning, or simply when there are people who appreciate what they do, they respond with feelings that trigger intrinsic motivators. They feel valued, appreciated and worthwhile. People who feel valued by society tend to do things that are valued by society.

We know from research that workplaces that are positive and optimistic make up to 25% more brain power available. Most organisations would concede that they need all the available brainpower on the payroll to successfully resolve daily work challenges (never mind the increasingly complex challenges of tomorrow).

Managers often complain that people lack initiative and ‘common sense’ but maybe it is simply that they aren’t experiencing a meaningful calling.

For people on the wrong side of the law, work can help them feel ordinary and regular. For people in regular employment, leadership is the intervention that makes the ordinary compelling.

Leaders ensure that people understand the impact of their work, make the links between disconnected parts of the operation, tell stories that keep the ‘romance’ alive and create an environment where people can express their creativity and ingenuity in addressing everyday challenges. This environment is truly the dojo (training hall) for the human mind.

How are you doing as a leader? Use this checklist (inspired by Lucy’s work experience) as a self check. To what extent do you………?

  • Communicate work’s purpose – whom do they impact in what way for what effect?
  • Create an aspirational pull to be the best possible – so people are proud to sign their name to every task
  • Remain accessible and approachable – people want to be important enough to earn quality time with the leader
  • Listen – people want to be heard before they fully invest
  • Challenge people to find ways to get better so they are constantly stimulated and evolving
  • Involve people in co-creating success
  • Engage people in issues to be resolved – complex and dynamic challenges that test their ingenuity, giving them that essential boost of validation when they develop and implement their solutions

This list of what is important to people at work is remarkably consistent across a variety of cultures and sectors – after all, business and work have one thing in common: people. And people are not that different.

With the right leadership and work environment, the sky truly is the limit.

*Lucy and Bruce are names used in the article to protect their real identity.

Posted in People at work | Leave a comment

All you need is love………

Charles M. Schulz  wrote “All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.”

What’s this to do with business (even if one of the most commercial holidays – Valentine’s Day – is just around the corner)? A lot – all to do with the human brain.

Martin Lindstrom (in Brandwashed, 2011) writes about the typical human response to smart phones using the same associative neural pathways that make “other compulsive behaviours” like gambling so addictive.  Just as with drugs or any other addiction, a person’s conditioned focus on his or her smart phone is driven by the neurotransmitter Dopamine – a natural narcotic. You’re left craving the sight of another message. Experiments show subjects get visual, not just auditory, neural associations when the phone ‘pings’, releasing a flurry of activity in the brain’s insula which is connected to feelings of love and compassion. “It may not be addiction in a medical sense but it is true love.”

These are the same brains that ‘clock in’ to work. While each person is unique, the human brain is remarkably consistent across age and culture in reactions to workplace demands and ‘management’. (The brain structures for pleasure and those for fear and dread are too close for comfort.)  Human drive and achievement really is a matter of chemistry. Is it true love between worker and work…..organisation and employee?  Soul mates? Or just ‘living together’?

Addicted to love

As most drivers of human behaviour are subconscious, logical (rational) management approaches simply don’t work to harness human attachment and activate a complete and whole-hearted brain response – Engagement.

Experts agree that the emotional brain matters most when it comes to human behaviour; many point to neurotransmitters – the ‘chemistry’ of attachment and achievement. Significant too though is the midbrain’s role in super-performance. This core of the human brain is associated with long term memory, mobilising physical response to a threat, love reactions, rituals associated with addiction and a person’s sense of what is MOST important in life; what they pay MOST attention to above all else…..and what will literally activate the formation of SMART neural pathways in pursuit of priority ideals.

Most people would not put themselves at imminent risk of death for mere money but do so in a heartbeat, showing extraordinary strength and inventiveness, for a fundamental belief (or ‘attachment’). Beliefs are held in the heart of the brain and this midbrain system and the right side of the cortex (outer bark) work in remarkably similar ways. (Dr Luiz Machado in The Brain of the Brain. 1992)

The relevance for business owners and boards

Unless employees believe what they do matters (counts in some meaningful way i.e. not to make more money, achieve budget or reduce costs), a fraction of their intelligence and drive (smarts and ticker) is applied.

The corollary is also true: when a human being believes something is fundamentally significant – in a bone-deep way – then, brain reserves (normally unused) are activated. While this latent capacity is being bought with each pay run, it is largely unused….neural inventory getting dusty in the storeroom of the organisational collective brain.

Pick up lines

An organisation’s sense of its purpose ‘speaks’ to that core of the brain that has no words. This part of the brain, without language (words and numbers) responds to an awareness of ‘something’ that can’t quite be described: a concept, idea, sensation, hunch, inkling. It is an urge experienced as an inarticulate ‘knowing’. (Love at first sight?)

To tap into latent human reserves for super-intelligence and drive, communication must involve symbolism, metaphor, visual expression of ideas and other forms of multi-sensory expression with a particular use of semantics. This has the power to activate the organisational ‘mid brain’, and with this, currently unused reserves of intelligence and drive. (Dr Georgi Lozanov in Suggestology and Outlines of Suggetopedy. 1978).

Engaging people fully requires communication that involves:

  • Mid-brain and right brain for purpose (WHY this? WHY now? WHY you? WHY me? and WHAT strategy to achieve this purpose?)
  • Left brain for execution – WHAT now, specifically for me/us, and HOW?

When purpose is appropriately expressed and understood (as a collective effort – ‘decrees’ are viewed with suspicion), a powerful drive is evoked, mobilising latent capability to realise organisational purpose that goes beyond employment contracts, work hours and normal supplier-customer transactions.

When the chemistry’s not right

Costly and frustrating organisation deficiencies hurt for customers, staff, management and suppliers alike:

  • The right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing
  • Decisions make no sense and are poorly executed
  • Errors and miscommunication eat into profit
  • Legacy, outdated procedures are protected for apparently no reason
  • Staff feel they are forced to produce work outcomes perceived as impossible

When Love is in the air

Working in sync with the human brain – tapping into all the brains on the payroll – you score:

  • One cohesive team driven by purpose (not controlled by job descriptions)
  • People compelled to create the organisational response that’s needed to fulfil its purpose
  • A high-performance, aspirational, self-correcting culture
  • Smart, simple ways to coordinate effort across an organisation and beyond

That’s worth celebrating with or without chocolate. The gift that keeps on giving.

Posted in B2B (Brain to Brain) communication | 1 Comment

Objection, your Honour!

It’s not altogether surprising people get the words objection and objective confused. Sometimes you hear salespeople refer to overcoming objectives instead of overcoming objections (buyer resistance.) Freudian slip?

Most people find it dehumanising to be handed ‘down’ objectives by people ‘above’. The inherent social and emotional threat of someone in power turns the workplace into a game of gotcha and defensive evasion. Many experience a ‘boss’ as a judge, peering down from on high, examining the evidence to adjudicate a sentence. Neuroscience shows how this depletes resolve, inspiration and innovation.

People tell me how exhausting (even futile) the annual budgeting exercise seems. It makes me think there must be a better way for a collective group of smart people to work out their annual plan for collective success.

Many ‘people above’ try to overcome the inevitable battle of wills by throwing the hot potato to ‘people below’, asking them to set objectives. Almost as bad again, it can feel like a trap – somewhat like an organizational game of thrones.

I vividly recall an ‘aha’ moment when I saw two organizational culture flowcharts contrasting a Vicious Cycle from a Victorious Culture. Words to this effect:

External conditions demand higher performance….

  • people below (suppressed by a legacy of command & control) are stressed, suspicious and mistrustful
  • people above view people below as lacking initiative, drive and commitment
  • people below feel unable to reveal barriers
  • people above attempt to solve problems from above
  • people below feel trapped and overwhelmed
  • people above become impatient with people below
  • people above tighten controls
  • people below become more stressed and performance suffers
  • people above tighten controls………a vicious cycle.

Contrast that with:
External conditions demand higher performance……….

  • people are used to problem solving in collaboration with each other – there is no above and below
  • people open up and brainstorm, finding extra capacity to achieve more
  • people make necessary changes and see results
  • people feel excited at the progress, trust grows and information flows more freely
  • people contribute more and achieve more
  • confidence and capability grow and real gains are made in all areas of the business
  • people make more changes and see results
  • confidence and capability grow and real gains are made in all areas of the business…..a victorious culture.

Getting everyone on the same page begins with an appreciation of how smart people are. Just because you don’t see the genius in ‘people below’ doesn’t mean its not there. In any situation where some have more power than others, people are generally selective about where and how they contribute intelligence. The question is: under what circumstances do people empty the tank for collective success? Ask yourself: What does it take for me to get fully behind any venture, and you will most likely quickly identify what is true for most.

Remember: People own their brain. The ‘boss’ doesn’t own it. They alone are the autonomous director of super performance.
(Adapted from quote in Funky Business by Jonas Ridderstråle and Kjell A. Nordström)

Posted in Organisation success | Leave a comment

View from the top (Altitude sickness)

For as long as organisations have been exceeding industry benchmarks without traditional hierarchy structures, others have lamented ‘siloed’ organisations, a blame culture and performance failures, while structuring, restructuring and re-restructuring clumsy reporting lines and vertical  hierarchies.

As I have observed the ill-effects of power hierarchies in organisations for decades now, I have regularly pondered this anomaly. As Albert Koopman’s Cashbuild and Ralph Stayer’s Johnsonville Sausage (partnership approaches) were formative in my view of enterprise early in my career, I have been intrigued by the formation of giant industries to research and explain disengagement and ‘presenteeism’.

Oxygen deprivation, I decided, was the explanation for why those ‘up there’ create a structure where typically:

  • Enthusiasm is snuffed out by ‘accidental diminishers’
  • Productivity is suppressed by micro management and incessant (even hourly) checks and reporting
  • Health is seriously (even fatally) compromised by stand over tactics and/or cynical manipulation by those in power
  • Sanity is tested daily
  • Those without ‘formal power’ know it’s most likely the same everywhere so why search for something that makes sense?

Then I came across this research, and it may explain the anomaly. Apparently, even a little bit of power allocated to one in a group leads to obnoxious, entitled and territorial behaviour, and grabbing what they can…….(adults not 3-year olds).

Ring any bells? Researcher Dr Dacher Keltner https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HS9VHBlYklc
has found that people get power by being nice, but when they have power, something happens.

Common power perils (across a range of situations at work or elsewhere) include:

  • Obnoxious grandstanding
  • Flouting common courtesies (e.g. eating with mouth open, spilling everywhere)
  • Taking liberties with others
  • Acting ‘above the law’/in an entitled manner (e.g. charging through a pedestrian crossing when someone is trying to cross)
  • Selective listening, seeing, sensing

Power does corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely, it would seem. Whether it be a small dose of power given to a bureaucrat, a leading-hand on a bottling plant, a middle manager or a CEO……………all appear to be susceptible to this altitude sickness.

Dr Keltner points out that political despots move quickly to destroy systems of commentary and scrutiny. (But beware: simply sentencing managers to 360-degree feedback is not the answer.)

The question then becomes: what is the antidote to this condition?

History and industry are strewn with well-known leaders who use their power for good e.g. Abraham Lincoln of whom Thurlow Weed wrote: “He sees all who go there, hears all they have to say, talks freely with everybody, reads whatever is written to him.”

The research shows that 40% of the human brain is wired for helpfulness and that those who act collaboratively quickly establish this as a group norm. Kindness and working together are human nature, not territorialism nor in-fighting. This is born out more recently by an increasing number of organisations that function on collaboration, teamwork and partnership such as Spotify. Also check out Margaret Heffernan’s Ted Talk https://www.ted.com/talks/margaret_heffernan_why_it_s_time_to_forget_the_pecking_order_at_work?language=en.

It appears the power hierarchy is not necessary, functional nor inexorably linked with success. (Quite the opposite it seems.)

Also significant is that those with power have higher cognitive intelligence while those without have superior social and emotional intelligence. Interesting that the majority of people in an organisation are essentially bonded with others in a similar position – a vast pool of discretionary effort and under-utilised cognitive capacity, apparently related to hyper-vigilance.

Powerlessness has been shown to trigger hyper-vigilance which in turn is linked with everything from a suppressed immune system to shortening of telomeres directly related to aging.

I once advised a CEO to get his people in regularly to give him negative feedback. I think he thought I was kidding. Trusting people that much is a start and you have to start somewhere to get people alongside you in defiance of this outmoded approach that places a manager ‘up there’. Without people ‘plugged in’ alongside you, any power given by title is an illusion.

(For a written summary of ‘The Power Paradox’ YouTube, email me at cherri@cherriholland.co.nz.)

Posted in Organisation success | 2 Comments

People power reminders

“A cause without committed people gets nowhere and committed people without a unifying cause go nowhere.” Robert Waterman

Some focus on the uniqueness of individuals but I prefer to remind myself about the truth of what all people have in common. Every (normal) human being is driven to make their mark – a significant, positive impact. Put in other ways, people have a need to create, to work autonomously, to problem solve and to make things work better. (Some even link this to evolution to demonstrate how fundamental and powerful this force is.)

Working in alignment with this, ‘people power’ peaks – both intellect and passion. Experts tell us that under these conditions, people even access latent brain reserves. The opposite is also true for people: If they do something only for someone else and/or because the have to, they often:

  • Lose momentum
  • Do the opposite when annoyed
  • Over time, resent unappreciated effort

At the very least, they do not put their heart and soul into it.

Those ‘in charge’ and their ‘charges’ all too frequently end up in a battle of wills. Too often, the resulting waste of people power and collective goodwill depletes what could otherwise be a driving force towards organisational goals. This inevitably occurs when those in power are perceived as:

In response to this people hold back. You may see workarounds, deliberately contrary behaviour, sniping, story telling, gossiping and other work distractions. Presenteeism: there, but not contributing 100% to the common cause.

Most know this about people but few manage in alignment with this and even fewer capitalise on it.

It is good news. It means that people are essentially driven to make something work extraordinarily well and don’t need ‘motivating’. If we don’t tie them up in meaningless procedures that make no sense anymore, breath down their necks, micro manage, find fault with small details and impose a single route to success, we allow the investment of their full brilliance and passion.

Leadership creates the environment in which people can express their unique individualism within the context of collective purpose. This has been expressed in the Lean principle as Freedom within Framework. When we all agree how the critical success factors inter-relate, how we measure success and who we need to impress to stay in business, people make the minute-by-minute calls that get the best possible outcome given each situation’s challenges, constraints and even people quirks. That is the agile intelligence and human connectedness that computers can never bring to any mission.

When people are invested, driven and resolute, it’s pretty hard to fail but you may be surprised at how many managers do things to people and at them instead of with them. Of course great leaders make it look easy while others have no idea of the negative wake they leave and the waste they unwittingly cause. I spend a lot of my time coaxing staff to be understanding when in fact I wonder if they should simply leave. What a waste.

You can influence but never control this power. “Your brain is your own.  Your boss doesn’t own it; nor can any government own it.  You alone are the director of this critical means of production.”  Jonas Ridderstrale and Kjell Nordstrom

Leadership ensures people answer to the collective (not the boss) for how their unique contribution fuels the collective (pre-agreed) purpose. Once everyone is agreed, it is then up to each individual to continuously assess their ‘PNPS’ (personal net promoter score). This is how they ensure they add value to ‘the cause’ while staying true to themselves – a win-win.

This says it all: http://www.radiolive.co.nz/Dr-Tomas-Chamorro-Premuzic/tabid/506/articleID/44117/Default.aspx (From 19.50 minutes – approx 22.30 minutes)

Posted in People at work | Leave a comment


An article entitled: “The two magic words that motivate staff the most” (link below) implores organisations to solve the staff disengagement  issue by saying ‘Thank You’ (and using recognition schemes). This is, in my experience, addressing the wrong issue and could make things worse. Instead, those managers who stop parenting, molly-coddling and pandering to people, approach them as a partner (instead of a master) and say this immediately boosts engagement. This should come as no surprise; as far back as 1937, Napolean Hill wrote that “In the future, the relationship of employer and employee will be more like a partnership……” That has turned out to be wishful thinking. (Perhaps he meant it SHOULD be rather than will be.)

Yes, people when asked (even when not asked) complain that there’s never a thank you and there’s not enough recognition. In the absence of a manager who treats them as equal, values their input and regards them as critical to success, many people doubt their worth, question their value and regress into preoccupation and discontent with their manager’s behaviour and how they are being treated.

Say ‘thank you’, but it doesn’t address the real issue and worse: further embeds an outdated and inappropriate superior/inferior norm resulting in paternalistic benevolence at best and dictatorial arrogance at worst.

People’s need to feel valued is one of the most culturally-consistent phenomena, yet Gallup’s revelation that ‘a bad boss’ is the number 1 reason people leave a job suggests many managers don’t get this. Giving ‘superiors’ a title that reinforces their importance in the pecking order could be the single biggest mistake when it comes to full productivity and a sound return on payroll investment.

Many managers are specialists first and foremost; they have the title manager but do not ‘have staff’ (an unfortunate and demeaning phrase) – they are not in question here. Many more are primarily there to ensure ‘their staff’ (another unfortunate phrase) are productive. Most managers are somewhere in between. Consider the impact when these managers don’t get the people side of their role right and are instrumental in spreading discontent.

Until there is a complete overhaul of structures (Agile methodology in many tech teams has perhaps started this overhaul), managers will be essential to people’s productivity, esteem and connectedness with their ‘employer’. Until we replace ‘managing others’ with a more accurate term reflecting what a business actually needs a manager to do, let’s get real about what ACTUALLY engages people.

Simple: for people to invest their full capability in any role, holding nothing back, the ‘manager’s’ role is to (on a daily, weekly, monthly basis, whichever is appropriate):

  • check in with people – face to face – so each can see the whites of the others’ eyes
  • equip them for tomorrow’s ‘unknown’
  • inform them (only about what they can’t/shouldn’t find out for themselves)
  • challenge them to keep their capability expanding and so they remain value to the collective
  • prompt resourcefulness and teamwork across all functions
  • re-focus people when ‘cross currents’ distract
  • expect extraordinary accomplishments believing in their goodwill and human ingenuity (yet never so that they feel overwhelmed, abandoned and taken advantage of).

More simply put: treat people as adults and admire their inherent ability to make things work better with their commitment and keen thinking. Those managers who don’t ‘have the time’ nor inclination to do this are a significant liability in the workplace.


Posted in Managing for business success | 1 Comment