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Persist and Prevail

How to tell if you’ll rise to a challenge – and three simple ways to do so

I’m a big fan of that old saying: “Get knocked down seven times, stand-up eight.” For me, that’s what resilience is mostly about; just the sheer bloody-mindedness to choose not to lie there, but to get up again.


But there’s another kind of persistence isn’t there? The kind where you’re rolling along smoothly, and you’ve not been knocked down, but yet another challenge appears in front of you. Something else that you could choose to rise to.


It’s a bit like when you’re out hiking somewhere with a lot of false peaks. You think you’re nearing the top and that the upwards part of the walk will be over when you crest the next brow you can see in front of you. But when you get there, that new perspective shows you that there’s still more peaks to come. And again, there’s likely to be some new climbs that you can’t even see yet.

I’ve had the good fortune to spend some time around some very pragmatic people just recently and I love how these folks respond to those unexpected challenges. Mostly it seems with a little sigh, some rubbing of the hands and rolling-up of the sleeves and a re-application of the shoulder to the wheel.


You can explore how anybody is likely to respond in those kind of situations, by asking them how they dealt with specific previous stressful experiences.

Describe a situation (at work, or elsewhere) that gave you trouble?
(Pick a specific example, don’t generalise). When that situation first materialised:

  1. What did you notice about your emotional response?
  2. How ‘deep’ into your emotions did you go?
  3. And how long did that last?
  4. Then what happened?

What you might want to be looking for is how someone deals with the emotional ‘whack’ that comes from facing yet another challenge. Can they process those emotions fairly quickly, put them into the bigger perspective of what’s really important to them and then move on, again fairly quickly?

Coaches sometimes use the term:
Going into and coming out of their emotions
to describe this trait.

What’s less useful (in terms of dealing with challenges) is having someone who stays in the emotional stage, so that their ability to act is impaired. That’s a useful trait at other times (lots of creative people do this well, so that they can draw on the power of the emotions in their work), but it isn’t necessarily what you want for getting into action when the next challenge appears.

A small proportion of people don’t go into their emotions at all during times of (to them) normal stress levels. Those people stay calm and cool throughout, but may struggle to express their empathy for others. If they are also someone who experiences but doesn’t process those emotions and instead boxes them up in some way, that could come back and bite you later when you’re least expecting it.

If you want to train yourself to be able to choose whether to go into and come out of emotions, so that you can better respond to challenges, three practical things seem really helpful:

1. Controlling your breathing. Long, deep in-breaths, held for a while and then exhaled slowly will activate your parasympathetic nervous system which is the opposite to the fight/flight system.

2. Preparation, in particular being consciously familiar with your bigger-picture goals and priorities. The more you know about where you want to go long-term, the less likely one more false-peak is to discourage you from continuing your journey.

3. Modelling. Who do you know who’s a bit like those pragmatic, sleeve-rolling-up, shoulder-to-the-wheel people I’ve been hanging around with lately? How would that person react when yet another challenge appears? What’s important to them, when that happens?

Challenges are what make life interesting and overcoming them is what makes life meaningful. –Joshua J. Marine

 


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Self-Awareness – A Primer

Self-Awareness is the best start for leadership development. But how do you get that? What should you look for; and how?

The ancient Greeks had the phrase “Know thyself” chiselled on the doorway to the temple of Apollo at Delphi. Real knowledge, insight and understanding about important events and people in the world around them wasn’t possible they reckoned, without first having the foundation of self-knowledge.

If that’s still true today, how do you actually go about getting self-awareness? What should you look for; and how do you do it?

I think there’s perhaps three or more important areas to consider and I’ve set out some of those below. These are often used as early as the second or third phase in my coaching approach, as they’re so fundamental to the development work we need to do after that.

This is a fairly long post for me, over 1,200 words, because I wanted to give you a rounded sense of where to be looking, what to be listening for and how it feels to be embarking, in a structured way, on this kind of self-knowledge work. What I’ve written here isn’t the only way to go about it, and even at over 1,200 words this is still only a very quick jog around the park. Anyway, I hope you find it helpful in some way.

1. Your Values

These are the things that, at the moment at least, are intrinsically important to you. They can or might change over time or in a different context. Some may be more important than others, and that also can be fluid but, most of the time, they’re fairly consistent. Here’s my own top 5 Values:

  1. Making a difference / Usefulness / Legacy
  2. Excellence / Strive to be the best / Learn-Apply
  3. Congruence / Authenticity / Be true to yourself
  4. Independence / Self-reliance / Go do it
  5. Balance / Harmony / Wholeness

Note that these are in ‘strings’ of words, separated by “/” because often one word by itself isn’t enough to capture everything about a particular value.

A simple way to start to uncover your own values would be to remember a time, at work or at home, when things felt like they were going great, or just right, or were especially poignant in some way. What were the circumstances of that time? What was going on around you, who was present, how did you feel?

The chances are that during that time several of your values were being quite strongly upheld. People can often begin to identify those values by reflecting on that time and getting curious about what made it so great for them.

2. Your Thought Patterns

This is about how your (mostly unconscious) mind filters out what is useful information and what isn’t and how it then represents that information, so that you can make sense of the world around you.

Since this process happens very fast and mostly unconsciously, one of the best ways to uncover your own patterns is by way of a kind of compare and contrast with other people. Look at the way they do things, and see how it compares with your own way.

Here are two examples of the kinds of things to consider:

  1. Are you motivated into action more by (a) the chance to achieve a goal; or (b) the need to solve or avoid a problem?
  2. Do you prefer (a) to have lots of choice and variety, creating different possibilities in the way you go about things, or (b) do you prefer to stick to a tried and tested process?

Another important pattern became obvious to me when I got a new Satnav. My old one used to show me a map of my whole route when it had finished plotting. Only after you’d seen that ‘big picture’ screen, did it let you start navigating. But my new satnav didn’t give you that overview. Once it’d plotted a route, it just went straight to “Turn left”. I really found it difficult to trust the new satnav and would often ask my wife to just check the ‘big picture’ of the route in our tatty old road atlas, which she hated doing. Turns out, I’ve got a strong preference for thinking in big picture terms and, until I’ve done that, it’s really hard for me to get into the detail, even though I’ve trained myself (I’m an ex-accountant!) to work with detail. And my wife is the opposite, she’s fascinated by the detail, so she hated being asked to check the big picture of the route.

Again, these factors are not immutable, they can change and be changed. It’s important to not ‘adopt’ them as fixed determinants and to not use them to pigeonhole yourself or others, or to excuse bad behaviour.

It’s possible, although I don’t think it’s often that necessary, to go through about 20 or so of those key patterns as part of the coaching process in in easy conversational way with me. I don’t often do that, because I’d rather people take responsibility for their own self-knowledge than have me or some anonymous psychometric test do it for them.

As well as the kind of thought patterns I’ve described here, you could also look at key aspects of personality, such as introversion or extraversion. The important thing is to just look, listen, feel and think your way a little more consciously than normal really. The psychologist Carl Jung said “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”

3. Your Fears, Doubts and Limiting Beliefs

What holds you back? What doubts do you have about yourself, your abilities, the kind of person you are, the way others might see you?

What things are you so unconsciously afraid of, that you’ll automatically come out fighting, even when that isn’t the best way to do things?

In what way do you sell yourself short? Or sabotage your own efforts?

What unwritten rules have you made up about how you have to “be” (e.g. a favourite of mine: “I have to be strong”)?

What shame or hurt are you carrying around about past experiences that made you feel inadequate?

I love working with fears, doubts and limiting beliefs because I see them not as ‘bad’ things, but as really useful data about what’s important to people and about how they might really shine, if they want to.

If you’re ready now to start uncovering some of your own possible fears, doubts and limiting beliefs, try completing some of the sentences below. Do it fast and without too much conscious thought:

I’m often too …………………

I need to be more …………………

I can’t seem to …………………

I should stop (or start) …………………

I mustn’t keep …………………

I shouldn’t always …………………

I must be less …………………

Every time I try to do ………….…….,   ……………. happens

I want to …………………, but that’s just the way things are

I don’t deserve to …………………

I ought to …………………

If you find anything at all, start celebrating, because that just might be the bit of self-knowledge that opens all the other doors. And if completing the sentences didn’t uncover anything for you, just try going back to those questions I’ve posed at the start of section 3 above and become curious about how any of those might apply to you.


After working through those three key areas, the next level of self-knowledge is to get really clear about what’s even more important to you than your patterns of thinking and your doubts and fears and about how you might apply your values to your life and your work.


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Thanks

How to lead like a boss in five minutes

I’m just back from a weekend’s volunteering, leading one of my favourite activities. It’s a really energising and rewarding thing to be involved with and there’s a lot to get organised. What makes it work are the other people who volunteer their time, effort and experience, at the weekends and elsewhere.

Therefore, what’s the most important thing to do when you’re back? (apart from sleep for nearly 10 hours!)

Easy – thank the other volunteers!

If you’ve only got five minutes and you want to make a real impact in your leadership why not try this. Think of somebody whose spirits would be lifted by a simple thank you, write a card, by hand, and post it.

Don’t do it just because it works as a leadership technique (it does); do it because people deserve it.

Do keep a stock of cards in your top drawer for when you’ve got those five minutes. Just about every brilliant leader I know does this.

Don’t be put off by the fact that for everything people do right, there’s often something you wish they’d done differently. There are other techniques for dealing with those things.

Do be authentic. If your style is naturally reticent, then a simple “thanks for doing that job” is fine.

Don’t worry that people you haven’t thanked this week will in some way be aggrieved (they won’t); but do be mindful that teams and groups are usually sensitive to ‘fairness’. They want to hear “thank you” and they also want poor performance dealt with – regardless of who that’s directed at.

Do take a moment to notice what impact it has on yourself as you search for things to say thank you about and for people to say thank you to. There’s research to suggest that gratitude improves physical and mental health, facilitates relationships, strengthens self-esteem and increases resilience!

 


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Ring my Bell

If you want to inspire others, you’d better wake-up and hear what you need to hear

At this time of year I once took a trip to the Kurama-dera Mountain Temple, a day out from Kyoto, up on the shoulder of Mt Kurama. It was one of the best parts of that visit to Japan. You can either take the funicular railway up from the Kurama side, and hike down to the amazing village of Kibune, or do it the other way around. The whole place is quite a beautiful, inspiring experience.

I must have been ready for some deep discovery, because it felt like lots of things shifted for me that day. Here’s one of my highlights.

As I’m hiking up the mountainside, through alternate bright spring sunshine and then dark cool forest, I can hear this deep, booming noise. It sounds like someone is using explosives to mine away somewhere in the mountain.

I start to get very angry that they would do this in such a beautiful, natural environment. I’m on my way to the Buddhist temple at the top, and getting more and more annoyed at how complacent and supine the Buddhists must be to allow this. If you’ve been to Japan you’ll know how the cities can sometimes look, with cables strung everywhere and rough, raw concrete a popular building material. I was very ready to believe that the mountainside and temple would soon be the same.

Then I turn a corner out of the forest and approach the temple properly for the first time. There’s a huge bell hanging in a shrine. I mean, a really big thing. There aren’t too many people around, and they’re mostly Japanese people, and all of them are either waiting in line to ring the bell, or waiting for their companions to do the same. Then I realise for the first time that I’m looking at the source of the booming explosions I’d been hearing and had been getting so angry about.

I join the short line to ring the bell and then stay around for a while to watch and listen to other people do it. The sound of the ‘explosions’ now having quite a different meaning.

It was a great lesson. How I could hear one thing and imagine something quite different. Of how important the nature was to me, that I’d been so ready to accuse others of letting it be destroyed.

That bell was also a wake-up call. My anger can be very energising. I’d used it to put right all kinds of things at work, fixing broken processes, championing how things could be better for customers. And I was ready for something more. Part of me knowing that anger wasn’t quite enough for the next step I wanted to take at work. That I’d need to learn how to call people up towards something inspiring and beautiful as well.

 


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How far can you ask people to go?

How far can you ask people to go at work – balancing Ambition and Reality

I’m having an interesting experience of this at the moment, planning some expeditions for kids, the first of which goes out a week or so after I write this post.

I’d set “Watersinks Car Park” (see picture) as the finish point. In my memory, this was a lovely spot and I had enjoyed walking there. So I was quite surprised to discover, when I drove there last weekend for a final reconnoitre of our routes, that it is really quite some distance out of the way for cars!

The significant of this is that although it’d be fine, even a fun exploration, for the kids to hike there, for their parents coming to pick them-up by road, it might be tricky. There’s no mobile signal, it’s not on most satnavs and it’s a lot smaller than I remembered!

It made me think about the assumptions I was having to make about those parents’ capabilities. How good might they be at navigating by map and driving? How they might feel about driving for quite some distance, with a significant height gain (and down again) along narrow, single-track lanes, especially if the weather is bad or the car park gets full? How long might the other volunteers and I spend waiting there for people to collect their kids, with no mobile signal, no refreshments and no toilets!?

In the end, I decided to move the finishing point to somewhere (slightly) more practical. But that doesn’t come without a price. It’ll mean the kids (and potentially us adult volunteer leaders) having to trek for a couple of extra kilometres and add another 80/90 metres of ascending for them. I chatted it through with a couple of people who know their stuff, and they agreed this was better, but it’s still my decision, my responsibility. And I know that I’ll still get some people (parents and kids) moaning about or struggling with the revised finish point.

How do you decide how far you can ask people to go, in a work context?

Is your way anything like mine – which tends to be like this:

  • Start very ambitious and expect a lot of everybody involved
  • Reflect on it
  • Compromise a bit
  • Be prepared to deal with some complaints and give a hand to those who need it.

How do you know how much to compromise – and what kind of price is worth paying to get most people to the finish line, even if you don’t quite meet all of your initial ambitions?

I have some previous experience with some (although by no means all) of the parents involved. So I think my assessment of their capabilities and attitudes, on average, is probably about right. At work, do you have enough understanding of people’s capabilities and of their current state of mind, to be able to judge how much you can ask of them?

One of my first thoughts, when I realised where this car park was, was to take the parents out of the equation altogether and use a couple of mini-buses instead to transport the kids ourselves. And I might do that if we want to get further off of the beaten track next year. But, for now, the mini-bus solution didn’t quite sit right with me. It’d mean me and one or more of the other volunteers doing even more work. And it’d mean less responsibility for parents, who (mostly) really enjoy getting involved.

When you’re asking people to go some way for you at work, how do you balance those kind of involvement and workload issues?

I say, let’s be as ambitious as possible AND balance out as many other factors as we can.
Perhaps the only way to get this dreadfully wrong is to not think about it intentionally in the first place!

How about you?

 


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No-one rises to low expectations

Six little-known leadership tips to raise your people’s performance

I love this saying, because it’s so true. “No-one rises to low expectations.
The standard you set becomes the standard you can expect. Whatever you regard as normal around here becomes the ‘norm’ – the benchmark for people’s behaviours and the outcomes they strive to achieve.

In my experience, people want their leaders to ask for more than this. Otherwise, what’s the point in having a leader at all!

Don’t you feel like this too? Like you want your leaders to see the best in you, even when you yourself don’t? That you want them to inspire you to go beyond the point you’ve always settled for previously, and help you to find out what you’re really capable of?

But some of the best leaders I know can come unstuck when it comes to asking people to rise and be better. Two of the biggest problems I see again and again are these:

  • A pace-setting leader, who sets very high standards for themselves, can come unstuck when faced with someone who doesn’t hold themselves to a high standard, or who doesn’t feel confident about being able to keep up with that leader. Those leaders don’t always know how to help someone bridge that gap.
  • A strong, person-centred leader, someone who is highly-resilient themselves and who knows how to take care of the people around them, can be afraid of ‘breaking’ people. Instead, they try to protect them, to shield them from all the tough stuff that they themselves have to deal with.

Here’s my top tips for setting high expectations in a really effective way:

1. Be exemplary yourself
Not just in the outputs you achieve, or the pace of your work, but in your leadership style, your emotional intelligence and your own behaviours too.

As Socrates said: “Know thyself, Control thyself, Give thyself.”

2. Build your understanding of others
Different folks need different strokes.
Learn what makes the individuals in your care tick. Learn their fears, learn their ambitions. Modify your approach to suit their needs.

3. Relationships, Relationships, Relationships
Relationships are the oil in the engine, the glue that binds a team together (and any number of other mixed metaphors). Build relationships. That means a two-way flow of attention, care and trust. You can set high expectations for people without having a great relationship. And it’ll work for a while (especially if they’re afraid enough and if the task is simple enough). But in the long-run, great relationships are a must-have for getting people to raise their game.

4. Show people it’s OK to fail
So long as you manage the risks and learn from the outcomes.
I often quote Batman to leaders who are worried about people failing. Of falling down and hurting themselves.

“Why do we fall down Bruce?
So we can learn to get up.”
Thomas Wayne, Batman’s father

If you never ask someone to risk falling, they’ll never learn to rise up.

5. Ask for what you need
Sometimes we forget the simple stage of asking. And then we get annoyed that people can’t mind-read. Ask people to raise their game. Tell them what you need from them.

6. Coach the Learning
I don’t know about you, but I’m not a big fan of ‘feedback’. “Oh, I’ve got some feedback for you.” Go away, I know what went wrong. What I need, is someone who cares enough to coach the learning out of me. “What did you notice while that was happening?” “What else did you need?” “What would you do differently next time?”

 


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FOMO, FOLS and FEAR

FOMO, FOLS and others; 20 common fears that will control your life and work if you let them

Fear is a very powerful motivator, a useful survival trait and a handy source of energy. But if you let your fear run the show entirely by itself and make your decisions for you, it has a nasty habit of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So that you don’t do that, here’s some of the most common fears I see in my coaching with people at work:

  1. FOMO: Fear of Missing Out
  2. FOLB: Fear of Lagging Behind
  3. FOLS: Fear of Looking Stupid
  4. FOMM: Fear of Making Mistakes
  5. FOSO: Fear of Standing Out
  6. FOTO: Fear of Telling Offs
  7. FOBO: Fear of Being Ordinary
  8. FOLD: Fear of Letting Down
  9. FOBI: Fear of Being Inadequate
  10. FOGO: Fear of Getting Overwhelmed
  11. FOBU: Fear of Being Unworthy
  12. FOSH: Fear of Suffering Hurt
  13. FOLC: Fear of Losing Control
  14. FOFI: Fear of Facing Isolation
  15. FOES: Fear of Extreme Success
  16. FOBR: Fear of Being Responsible
  17. FOGP: Fear of Gratuitous Praise
  18. FOSH: Fear of Seeking Help
  19. FOLR: Fear of Lacking Resources
  20. FORD: Fear of Regretting Decisions

Once you can see your fears for what they are – a useful mechanism for keeping you safe – then you can decide for yourself what to do with that information and, crucially, what is the bigger picture of what you actually want to have happen.

Fear is information without the cure
John le Carré

 


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Leadership by Enablement

The four R’s of leading by enabling others: resources, reputation, resilience and range

I’m a big fan of leaders who make it their primary purpose to help other people get stuff done.

Download your copy of the image above (click and then right-click to save it) to see the big four R’s of leading by enabling others, together with some of my suggestions for how you might actually set about doing that.


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We’ll Deal With it

What should leaders do in times of trouble?

Click the image above and then right-click and select “Save as…” to download a free copy.


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Leadership, Power and Empowerment

What leaders should really be doing if they want to empower people, and five coaching questions that help

Actually, I don’t really believe you can empower anybody else, I think they have to do it for themselves. If you’re lucky as a leader, there are times when you might just be able to create the conditions that make it possible for someone to empower themselves.

I love the quote in the picture above. For me, it says almost everything about how leaders should go about creating those conditions – give away your own power.

I reckon there are two crucial ways that leaders ought to be giving away their power, if they do want others to empower themselves:

  1. Give people “Agency” – that is, the ability to take action or exert power
  2. Give people “Choice of Attention” – that is, the freedom to decide where and how they direct their focus and efforts.

I’ve done plenty of leadership roles myself and I can tell you, when things really matter, when the outcome is an important one or when there are big things at risk, giving away power in those two ways can be absolutely terrifying!

It’s also the only way to absolutely get the best out of others, to stop feeling that you’re the only one who works at 100% and to grow beyond the limits of your own abilities.

If you’re a leader who would like to begin giving away more of your own power, so that you can get the absolute best from the people who work with you, have a ponder on these coaching questions:

  • Where could you give people more Agency and Choice of Attention straight away, without having to really worry too much about it?
  • What would be the benefits to you and your organisation, if the people around you started to be more self-empowered?
  • If you did give away some more of your power and it works, it gets the results you want, how would you feel about that?
  • What’s your greatest fear about giving away your power, about giving people more Agency and more Choice of Attention – what frightens you about that?
  • Thinking about the fears you identified in that previous question, what kind of new, additional or different kind of power do YOU need, so that those fears evaporate or turn out to be groundless?

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