Personal support for aspiring leaders

Dealing with Overwhelm

The best tip you will ever hear for dealing with feelings of being overwhelmed comes from a swimming survival technique known as “the Dead Man’s Float”…

Sometimes even the most capable people bite-off more than they can chew, or just find themselves somehow off-track and heading towards overwhelm.

In those cases, we can learn a lot from a survival swimming technique known as “the ‘Dead Man’s Float”.

This is a metaphor I use a lot with clients when they say things like:

“Exceptionally for me, I’m not really sure I can cope”

“I don’t know how I’m going to deal with all the business as usual and make the changes I need”

“You know what, I realise for the first time, I’m actually feeling totally overwhelmed!”

If you’ve ever seen a panicked swimmer trying to stay afloat, you’ll know what this is about. In the fear of going under, they will thrash their arms and legs around with tremendous energy. But the problem is, thrashing about is the least-effective way of staying up – and actually creates turbulence that reduces buoyancy.

The Dead Man’s Float is a survival technique used for recovery, basically to stay afloat and rest enough to survive. The swimmer lies face down in water, arms and legs spread for balance, with minimal movement. Using the body’s natural buoyancy to float and lift the head only to breathe then back to floating.

The same technique can be used to deal with feelings of overwhelm at work:

  • stop thrashing around – it creates turbulence and makes things worse
  • stop expending massive amounts of energy from fear of going under – it’s a self-fulfilling, vicious circle
  • start using your natural buoyancy:
    • put your face down and relax your neck
    • be still and calm and rest your body
    • just see if it is possible to stay afloat without really trying

You might be surprised how buoyant you really are.


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Leading with Motivational Source

How do you know when you or your staff do or don’t need recognition? And what tactics should you use?

Think about something that’s important to you in your work.

How do you know when you’ve done a good job at that?

Did you answer something like: “I just know” or “I can feel it in here“; or did you do something like touch your chest, head or stomach to show where in your body you know how you’ve done? If so, chances are that you’re Internally Referenced.

On the other hand, if you answered something like: “The results show that…” or “People tell me…” or you pointed towards some facts or figures, then you are likely Externally Referenced.

When you’re leading other people and want to be able to motivate them, or just need to understand more about your own needs for recognition (or not), then Motivation Source can be a really helpful tool.

For example, if you have a colleague who is strongly Internally Referenced, telling them “You did a great job with X” may mean very little to them and may even seem false or trite. Much better to just ask them to apply their own standards – “How do you reckon you did with X?” and then be prepared to explore that if their internal perception doesn’t match yours.

In these days of very wide and flat organisational structures, where people rarely get to see their boss, I often find myself with clients who are Externally Referenced and are really struggling with a lack of feedback. If you’re leading others who are Externally Referenced they either need to know from you how they’re doing, or they’ll need some regular data to show them.

People who are strongly Internally Referenced and able to keep it in balance can seem very self-confident. Unless they are extremely inflexible and never take into account other people’s points of view – at the far end of that spectrum is sociopathy.

People who are strongly Externally Referenced and able to keep it in balance will seem highly compassionate. Unless they are unable to be flexible and can’t ever make decisions based solely on their own views  – in which case they may become co-dependent.

If you can operate the right amount of choice and flexibility around being Internally Referenced or Externally Referenced in a particular situation, then you’re likely to have both self confidence and the ability to take into account the feelings and points of view of others. Which is not bad if you’re aiming at being a great leader!


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The Motivation Equation

Motivation is like a chain – only as strong as its weakest link. Here’s my top five tips for motivating yourself and others

Motivation is a chain of unconscious questions or judgements that people make about things and is only as strong as its weakest link. Here’s my shorthand for the motivation equation, followed by a look at the questions or judgements that people make, along with my top tips for boosting personal motivation and leading others.

Motivation = Self-Belief x Task-Relevance x Outcome-Value

Self-Belief = “Can I do this task well?”
In my experience, personal self-belief is the single biggest factor in motivation and often overlooked by businesses. I’ve seen people move mountains with very little stake in the outcome, just for the sheer joy of exercising their personal empowerment.

Tip 1: Always start here.

Tip 2: When you need to motivate someone who is lacking in self-belief, remember Roosevelt’s saying: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” There is always something that somebody can do. Great leaders take the time and insight to find out what that is.

Task-Relevance = “If I do this task well, will it lead to the required outcome?”
People come undone at this link for two reasons. One: they only have one strategy, one way of doing things, and they always apply that regardless of relevance. Or two: they get rabbit-in-the-headlights syndrome trying to find the ‘right’ or ‘best’ thing to do.

Tip 3: Leaders need to encourage experimentation and the principle of failing forwards. Help your people to be more like scientists, engineers or artists: think of something to do that might lead to the required outcome, try it, evaluate its success, learn from it.

Outcome-Value = “How much do I personally want that outcome?”
This is the link where leaders most often seem to come undone, because they make assumptions about what’s important to others, based on what they themselves would want. By knowing what is important to individuals it becomes easier to frame the outcome, emphasising the elements which do match what is important to other people.

Tip 4:  For people who like achievement, emphasise the positive aspects of the outcome. For people who like to avoid problems, emphasise how this outcome will avoid something bad. If you’re talking to a group of people, mention both!

People are generally not that good at imagining forward to what things will be like when an outcome is actually achieved. Often, it seems to me, because they are focussed on the first two links in the motivation chain. I don’t think people actually do very much evaluating of what they really want or how things will be after something is achieved.

Tip 5: Good leaders paint a picture of how things will be once an outcome is achieved. They give people a feel for both the positive aspects and the problems-avoided by it (see Tip 4). They talk about what people will see and hear on the outside (the evidence) and how people might feel inside (the intrinsic reward).


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Are You a Leader?

Test yourself against these contemporary definitions of leadership and see if you fit the bill

Ask 10 professors and business gurus for a definition of leadership and you’ll get at least 20 different answers. These will range from the gnomic:

The pessimist complains about the wind. The optimist expects it to change. The leader adjusts the sails.
John Maxwell
(that’s great John, will be useful next time I’m out sailing)

… to the prosaic:

 The ability to influence a group toward the achievement of a vision or a set of goals.
Robbins & Judge
(see ‘Organizational Behavior’, pub Pearson – really useful book though)

I’m such a simpleton and always so keen to get on and actually do things, that I need something a little easier to remember, straightforward to apply and easy to share. So here’s my definition. A leader is:

Anybody who wants to do something important
and needs other people to help.

How do you frame your own brand of leadership, and what does it mean to you?


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Three Leadership Lessons Inspired by Long Walk to Freedom

How do we apply the kind of strength and courage that we know is inside us, and lead other people to victory, when it’s not clear at all who or what the enemy is?

I watched “Mandela – Long Walk to Freedom” recently (great film and book) and thought about Mr Mandela’s early decision to stop being a lawyer, join the ANC and take the fight to the enemy.

For some men, including me, fighting against something is a very energising and satisfying thing to throw yourself into. But for most of us, not living under oppressive regimes and in a time of peace – who is the enemy?

What do you fight against? Who do you resist with the kind of positive intention that Mr Mandela found? How do you gather and lead other people in that kind of selfless resistance when things aren’t so ‘black and white’? How do we apply our full strengths in the workplace?

I think it begins with three relatively small steps, which together are a real leadership tipping-point:

1. What do we stand for?
It’s not enough to resist for the sake of resisting. Find what it is that you believe is worth defending or fighting for. It might be a belief in the way that things should be done or a situation that needs correcting. These are perfectly valid things to tackle in the workplace or outside it.

2. Define the battleground
We may not live under something as malign as the apartheid regime, but injustice, wasted opportunities and distress are around us, if we choose to look. Your battleground need not be a whole nation, but we do need strong people to raise their gaze and see where the fight is.

3. Be like a magnet: Resistance + Attraction
I loved how Mr Mandela used his charm and personality to draw people to him, and it was this charisma that the ANC knew they needed. He made the decision to join an armed resistance and to fight against the regime. But it was his force of attraction that gave the movement its strength and which ultimately enabled him to win over guards at Robin Island and the ruling National Party.


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Motivation: Towards Pleasure and Away From Pain

Keep an eye out over the next few days to observe and discover something new about your own motivations and those of the people around you. Here’s how.

Did you know that people tend to operate either a Towards or an Away-From motivation pattern? And that this can change from one context to another?

Motivation Towards tends to show up as positive, goal-seeking reward-based behaviour; focusing on what could go right.
Motivation Away-From tends to focus on avoiding problems and pain; on what might go wrong.

Both are useful in different contexts. When I’m chairing the audit committee in a hospital, it really helps to have people around who can focus on what can go wrong, or on what’s not working. When I’m looking to win a new contract, it really helps that my associates are positive, can-do people.

It used to be thought that these “Meta-programmes” (thought processes that guide and direct the sorting of our perceptions) were fixed and unchangeable. We now know that this isn’t true and that it is possible to choose.

As with almost everything, being aware is what counts. Being aware of what habits we are operating ourselves and of whether other people are in Towards or Away-From mode. Only then can we choose which is actually most helpful for ourselves and for our influence with others.


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Give some recognition today

International Recognition Day

Some people are just waiting to hear, straight from you, what a difference they make. Don’t let them wait

As I write this, it was recently Blue Monday – officially the most depressing day of the year. Despite that, you and I are still here and still going strong – well done us!

In response and opposition to the whole Blue Monday thing that the news jumps on every year, I’m declaring every day my official International Recognition Day, and I invite you to try it too:

  • Who do you know who would benefit from being reminded how great they are?
  • Who’s been kind, caring or just a good listener?
  • Who has had the kind of attitude towards life, work and other people that made a difference?

When I was a young manager in a big organisation somebody I really valued gave me a great piece of advice. He told me: “Some people are just waiting to hear, straight from you, what a difference they make. And they’ll wait forever if you let them. Telling them now, while you can, is the act of a great leader”.

I haven’t always lived up to that, because of my doubts and fears. Often because I don’t want people to think I’m joking, or because I don’t always believe that I’ve got the ‘right’ to say anything. And sometimes I haven’t done it because that person isn’t always great like that or because the behaviour they showed might not seem like that big a deal. And I wish I’d done it more.

None of those doubts or fears matters on International Recognition Day though, just tell people what an impact they’ve had – I dare you.


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