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Brief Lessons from Books – Ant Middleton’s ‘First Man In’

Five great lessons from ‘First Man In’ – a summary of my personal learning from the Sunday Times’ best-selling book

First in a series based on my current reading. These aren’t meant as book reviews or critiques, just as a summary of my own personal learnings that others might also find useful.


I’m lucky in that my coaching clients often send or recommend me books that they’ve found interesting. Please feel free to mention anything you’ve been reading that covers, in the broadest sense: leadership, management, coaching or other personal development and growth. Use the comments box below or tweet me @NickRobCoach with any suggestions.


Ant Middleton might not be everybody’s favourite cup of tea, but I don’t think you have to like everything about a person in order to learn from them. Buddhists have a saying: “Take what works for you, and leave the rest”, which is how I invite you to read this book for yourself.

First Man In’ is the Sunday Times’ best-selling autobiographical highlights from Ant Middleton, a British Special Forces veteran and presenter of Channel 4 tv series ‘Who Dares Wins’. Click here for non-affiliate link to Amazon UK

Check it out for yourself and explore your own views on this undoubtedly charismatic and driven man. The Guardian chose to write a ‘humorous’ digested take on this book, rather than review it, which you can read here. It’s not particularly complimentary – although that’s probably because this book is not aimed at your average Guardian reader.

The book is written in the form of a series of leadership lessons. I’ve paraphrased a lot here and changed emphasis and approach to suit myself. Anyway, enough blathering, here’s my own highly selective and subjective summary of my lessons from the book:

1. Always have a plan.

This is a great one and totally aligned with the coaching principle of being outcome-focussed. One of the first things I check with any of my clients who are stuck or struggling is just this: have you got a plan?

I believe that often the solution to any difficult situation is: make a plan, stick to the course without giving up, deliver the plan.

2. Failure isn’t making a mistake; it’s letting the mistake take over and redefine who you are.

Us coaches are fond of pointing out that the only way to never make a mistake is to never do anything – which is itself a mistake! Ant Middleton says that mistakes should be accepted, self-recrimination pushed to one side rather than being allowed to run the show, and a new plan formulated. I’ve seen this before in highly-trained professionals. They never recriminate about mistakes (although they almost always take time later to review and learn from them). Instead, their immediate focus is always on making good what has gone wrong. Good stuff!

3. Know when to trust your body – and when not to

AM says that your body often tells you that it’s got nothing left, when it’s still a hundred miles from breaking. And, even when it does break, it’s also designed to heal! He says most of the battle is in your mind. I’d say that it’s worth testing your body well enough to be able to tell when you’ve reached a real physical limit, and when you haven’t.

4. The importance of waiting

We often want to act, to dive in and be doing something. Often because that’s less scary than sitting with the fear of the unknown that comes from not knowing how things will work out. AM says that waiting, waiting for things to come to fruition, or waiting for the right time to act, is a vastly under-appreciated strategy, especially when part of a plan.

5. Three steps to a positive mindset

AM says that having a positive mindset is the ultimate leadership lesson. I’m a bit wary about terms like ‘positive mindset’, not least because organisations staffed entirely by hopeless optimists don’t tend to turn out too well! But that isn’t what AM means. I think he’s talking about the state of being able to always make a difference or of always being able to move forwards. And that’s something I can get behind entirely. Here’s what is very much my own paraphrasing of his three steps:

  1. Be totally honest with yourself about who you are and what your current situation is;
  2. Accept that, in some way, you are responsible for who you are and where you find yourself;
  3. Be actively engaged in the process of addressing those aspects of yourself and your situation that you want to change.

I hope you get the chance to check out this interesting book for yourself. I got mine as Christmas present and found it a quick, easy and enjoyable read. My teenage son and I love watching the TV series ‘Who Dares Wins, also led by this author, which does a brilliant job of creating an environment in which people can really test and learn about their physical and mental resilience.


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Planning, Productivity and the Cumulative S-Curve

Time to focus on that small, regular progress which builds into really significant long-term achievement

I’m writing this in early September, just back from family holidays. It’s time to commit to and to get down on paper the priorities and achievements I want to focus on for the remainder of this calendar year. If you run your year quarterly:

  • Apr-Jun, Jul-Sep, Oct-Dec, Jan-Mar

then the start of the month before the next quarter starts is a great time to get this kind of planning done. (Which is why I’m doing planning for the Oct-Dec quarter at the beginning of September).

And, of course, any other periodic structure that works for you is just as good.


You might already know that people generally tend to under-estimate what they can achieve in the long-term, and over-estimate what they can achieve in the short-term.


One of the consequences of this tendency is that it’s really important to plan what you want to achieve in a cyclical way. To look at both long-term and short-term, and to link those together. Longer-term planning needs some ambition and vision. Shorter-term needs more realism. I’ve written before about how you might use the Rule of Threes to help with this.

Another way to think of it, is as a series of linked S-Curves.

Any project managers reading this will be familiar with the concept of the ‘S-Curve’: a graph showing how costs, labour hours, profitability or outputs in a project typically flow over time. Slower at the beginning, accelerating in the middle and slowing down again towards the end. There may even be downward slopes at the beginning and again at the end, as the rate of the input/output measure tends to drop at those points.

When it comes to how much you might achieve over time, your own S-Curve graph might look something like this:

If you can take the time each quarter to refresh this work and to intentionally plan the priorities and achievements that you want to focus on then, over time, you’ve got more chance of your overall achievements building into a kind of much bigger cumulative S-Curve. This is how small, regular progress builds into quite significant longer-term progress. I think it’s the accumulation of achievement in this way that’s behind our tendency to under-estimate just how much we can achieve in the longer-term.

If you were to make a graph of it, most project-managers (and technologists, who love this kind of stuff) will be familiar with the cumulative S-Curve graph, which looks something like this:

I often feel in this kind of planning process that the joy, spirit and motivation can all too easily get sucked out of the whole thing. Even if you’re somebody who does get excited about the planning part, it’s just as easy to lose heart when the weight of everything that needs doing becomes clear. Again, this is why it’s so important to approach this in a cyclical way. In the longer-term, a great deal can be achieved. In the shorter-term, we have to be realistic about what’s possible and find ways of motivating ourselves about it. I’ll leave you with some thoughts about stuff that does seem to help with that motivation part.

Whenever you do it, as you’re refreshing and planning the priorities and achievements you want to focus on, does it help you to also include things like these:

  • How do you want things to ‘feel’?
  • What’s exciting, attractive or rewarding about your priorities?
  • What needs to happen in order to stop the sky from falling in?
  • What does it look like? I mean, if we could jump in a time machine and travel forwards to when you’d achieved it, to the end of that S-Curve, what would we see, hear or feel in relation to each of your priority achievements?
  • How will you know when the end-point of an S-Curve has been reached?

Let me know how you get on please. What are your priorities? What timescales work for your regular planning and focussing?


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Productivity and Moral Self-Licensing

One (more) reason why people don’t straight-away do what they’ve said they would – and what to do about it

If you’ve ever been in a long meeting where lots of actions where agreed, and then found yourself wondering why people haven’t followed-through on those actions – or if you’ve ever spent a fair bit of time and effort making a to-do list yourself, only to then bunk-off instead of actually getting on with it – then you might find this useful.

In simple terms, Moral Self-Licensing is when people unconsciously allow themselves to indulge after they’ve done something positive.

Research suggests that it affects individual behaviour in a variety of contexts, including: consumer purchases, political opinions, charitable giving, energy policy, job hiring, racial attitudes, health-related decision-making, risky sexual behavior, alcohol consumption and diet.

In terms of productivity, the influence of Moral Self-Licensing is likely to mean a slump in achieving things between the planning and the doing stages. My experience with individual and team clients is that the effect is particularly pronounced when:

  • The issues that people were agreeing upon or planning actions for were especially difficult or threatening to address. This means that they feel unusually positive about having finally got down to addressing them and are (unconsciously) more likely to give themselves moral self-license to be ‘indulgent’ afterwards;
  • Physical energy levels are low and/or have been lowered by the planning or to-do-listing activities (especially likely when long journeys or stodgy meals are involved I suspect). I don’t know if there’s research to support this, but I’ve often thought that low energy levels are likely to reduce the threshold for moral self-license, since our mind/body systems are designed to look after our short-term survival and to prioritise food and rest now.

So what can you do if you notice that there’s a productivity slump between the planning and the action stages?

  1. Plan for it
    Since the tendency to be indulgent after we’ve done something positive is such a widespread and unconscious phenomena, it makes sense to me to expect it to happen. When you’ve had people in meetings and you all agree on a list of actions, why not explicitly agree an ‘indulgency period’ during which nobody is required to actually do anything productive until they’ve given themselves a treat of some kind;
  2. Actively be Rested and Healthy
    If it’s true that the productivity slump caused by moral self-license is more pronounced when people are already tired, then we can prepare for that by taking active steps to be properly rested and healthy. Less coffee and more naps, perhaps?
  3. Delegate
    Have somebody who wasn’t at the meeting, and who therefore won’t be experiencing their own moral self-license indulgence (at least, not yet), be responsible for reminding about, chasing and/or kick-starting the actions;
  4. Organise
    Make sure that your meetings, your decision-making-processes and the techniques you use to organise actions are as effective and as frictionless as possible. Consider using trained facilitators to help design agendas and processes. The less this feels like an effort, the less likely people are to indulge afterwards;
  5. Don’t Procrastinate
    The longer you put-off or fail to address difficult issues and tasks, the more you’re unconsciously likely to feel that you deserve an indulgence after you finally get around to deciding to do something about them.

 

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Planning for uncertainties

Is There a Gap In Your Plan?

How scenarios can help your business deal with uncertainty

I’m working with a few business owners at the moment to help them grow their businesses.

In the planning stage, there’s often a “gap” in the middle.

They tell me that the medium-term is hard to plan for, because that’s where the unknowns are. A good long-term vision is flowing, attractive and compelling. And all business owners can tell you about their most immediate priorities. But the medium-term is full of “What happens if…?”

I usually recommend a straight-forward form of “scenario planning” for the medium-term. Invented by Shell as a way of dealing with the volatility of the oil-price in the 70′s, scenario planning gives you some alternative baselines, so you can plan for those “what happens if…” questions. For example:

  • What happens if the oil price goes through the roof  – do you bring on new fields or prioritise existing ones?
  • What happens if the oil price takes a dive – do you look for new markets or restrict supply?
  • What happens if the oil price stays the same?

Find your own business’ equivalent of the oil price and sketch out a few likely scenarios. Then ask the “what happens if…” questions and add the choices you might need to take to your plan.

Then you know what needs to be done right away, you’ve got a compelling vision of where you want to get to and, whichever way things go in the medium-term, you’ve got some plans in place to deal with it.

Fail to plan; plan to fail


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