Wounded leaders are our choice!

In my last post I pondered the state of leadership behaviour in the world, and how interesting it has been to see people tussling with what it all means. In most cases very little understanding emerges.

We could pull at a hundred years of psychological theory and evidence, but in the end, there is a simpler formula and language that can help. I wish I could claim it as my own, but it is the visionary and determined work of Stephen and Mara Klemich (the founders of Heartstyles – www.heartstyles.com) who have developed a framework that is so compelling it has changed the way I understand my own and others behaviours. As with most genius, it seems simple, but the deeper you dive into the heart of it, the more it awakens awareness and meaningful, transformative insight.

To understand our behaviour we need to first acknowledge that it often starts with persistent, nagging questions that we may ask all our lives – Am I ok? Do I belong? and Am I worthy?

The world responds inconsistently to this question. The answers are often laden with conditions and paradox. Sometimes we are ok, then at other times we are not. To ensure our acceptance we decide to try harder, be better and do all we can to be noticed and praised. We don’t say no when we should, we work late and try to please everyone (and become stressed, and tired and sick), but despite our immense effort to stand out, it’s never quiet enough. We still don’t get the answer we crave and can eventually become exasperated at the lack of approval. Our defensiveness against any signs of rejection, negative feedback or disapproval rises and people are no longer honest with us. We are too plain touchy. And all we wanted was to be accepted and liked.

So we try harder, with a new strategy, to ensure we control as much as we can in our lives. If we can manipulate it all, then we can determine what others think of us. But the more we control, the more we invariably disempower others and they begin to resent and judge us. But we keep at it and tell ourselves that maybe if we can be the very best, by winning, and others losing, then we will be accepted, and we will have to be noticed. So we battle away, trying to get ahead and we might genuinely succeed or cut corners, damage relationships, maybe cheat and steal. Still it seems enough is never enough and the world doesn’t flood us with acceptance and approval. And so finally, after having expended so much energy, we tend to give up, become disengaged, cynical and dependent on just doing what it takes to fit in. We lose heart and confidence in ourselves and spiral into meaninglessness and emptiness. We become bitter and start to blame others for our discontent and eventually we become victims (and create victims).

When last did you spiral into disengagement and cynicism, and might that have been because those around you didn’t answer your request to feel like you belong? Does this help you understand your incessent need for more material things? For more accolades and triumphs?

So what happened to some of our most erratic world leaders? It’s hard to know exactly, but it’s pretty clear that at the core of all their bluster and self-promotion is a simple question they, and many millions, if not billions like them, are asking the world – are we worthy? All these wounded people vote for the wounded leader and the more the media and public rejects and criticizes them, the more defensive they become. The more they seek to win, to control and prove they are worthy … and the sad cycle continues over and over again.

I believe there are millions in the world who feel the same pain of low self-esteem and then hitch their self-worth to people in power who are like them.  When those people are arguably the most powerful people in the world, that becomes an impossible influence and threat to ignore. So is it the leaders who are at fault and must change? or do we as human beings need to elevate our sense of worth beyond those we have chosen as our leaders?

Is there a way to change that cycle of destructive, and ineffective behaviours? and how do we do it, one person at a time, you and me right now? The answer lies in the question.


Donald Trump may be your neighbour

There was a time when at social functions, I dodged having to tell people what I did for a living. I had early experiences in my career when the hush, pause and gulp at the dinner table was too awkward to bare. However these days, I feel quite cavalier with it all – I am a Clinical and Consulting Psychologist I state with a rising smile and glint in my eye. The response to my newfound confidence has also changed. In the past the question was usually ‘so have you analysed me yet?’ (accompanied with a rising blush and wince), but more recently the questions have been ‘So do you think Trump is a Psychopath?’ (Or something similarly pop psychology-ish – and it was usually spiced with a reference to Jacob Zuma too).  It’s a fascinating question, and usually people ask it with disdain, and a metaphorical spit and mumble of disapproval. My response now causes a familiar hush, pause and gulp.

You see, there are Trump’s all around us, in our offices, homes, among our sports and pop culture idols, and communities. They have made it to the top, they have raised our kids and been generally rewarded and praised by society. They often think like the real Trump, they have a worldview of the real Trump, and suffer from similar inadequacies and challenges as the man himself. Their only saving grace is that they haven’t ascended to the highest echelons of power, been subjected to 24 hour a day scrutiny and pressure and been offered a global platform to liberally share their conservative positions. In my view, a large number of people have thick strains of Trump DNA within them and although they would struggle to admit it, they feel secretly emboldened by him (even those that ask me that question).

In my analysis, Trump’s sense of judgement is a window into his character. We get to see his moral and ethical orientation, and constantly assess his integrity and trustworthiness (to which he lashes out and attempts to discredit the honesty of all and sundry – oh how Psychologists are falling over themselves to name that trait). Depending on the level to which an observer can manage their own emotional reactions to him, we have the opportunity to explore why he may do the things he does. With more time and observations, we could predict exactly how he may behave under a wide range of circumstances (I have got quite close). We would also don a lens with which to look at many other people around us. We may discover a Trump living next door, a Trump as a boss or colleague, or even a half annoying friend. It’s as if the US president’s technicolor reality has exposed a millions-deep community of people who have bullied, trounced and at times discriminated their way to the top with regular bouts of petulance, ignorance, shouting and populist rhetoric (and that goes beyond just politics – think of the last ra ra business event you attended).

Beneath their behaviour – and their displayed and dubious character- is a psychology reality that is utterly intriguing. In my next blog, I will paint a picture of the psychology story that triggers the very public behaviour we see. Stay tuned, and in the meantime, let me know what you think is going on in that mind of the man, and who else in your life might be the Trump next door?

How a Crisis Reveals your True Character

When I was a teenager, I moved from a small, community oriented school to a large, bullring of boys. It was a leap into the big, real and rough world. I was joined by a mixed crew of newcomers. There was the worldly expatriate, the Korean, the first black pupils and the religious seminary graduate. There was also Richard, a quirky, gangly kid who tried a little too hard to shock and ingratiate himself to us through his wacky humour.  He was a joker, and no one took him too seriously.

Six weeks into the school year, while he was attending church, an unspeakably cruel gang of political activists attacked his small, suburban congregation at dusk. In a split moment, Richard became a hero.  He must have registered the source of danger quicker than most, and instead of collapsing to the floor between the pews, he lay his torso over the person next to him, and took the full hail of grenade shrapnel. In that final moment of his life his truest self stepped forward and changed a person’s life forever.   His character shone through and I think of him often for that.

It seems that a crisis presents the most likely test of our characters and could be the taps threatening to run dry in Cape Town, or a marital breakdown, or the fear of failure and financial ruin.  In such crises, I have observed the best and worst of people’s character.

 In essence, our character is the combination of our ethical/moral compass, our integrity and judgement. A person with an inherently good and gracious character thinks of the greater good, and how their judgement and decisions influences that common good. Mostly, character is about what we do when no one is watching, that is the true measure of our integrity, and combined with a sense of a greater moral good, we can demonstrate our moral and ethical guidance through the way we act and behave.

So when I hear of people defending their right to splash and waste their expensively drilled bore hole water, I wonder whether they have considered the greater good. I hope they realise that with with each litre removed from our groundwater, we need more rain to fill that below ground reservoir so that river run off at surface level can actually carry water to our dams. Throughout the water crisis there have been skirmishes at water points, blame games at political level, and selfishness, but there have also been people who have stockpiled water for their indigent neighbours, shared their bore hole access and filtration, and are doing all they can to save every drop they use in their homes. It’s a telling time to reveal the character of ourselves, our families, our communities and cities. And we have yet to reach a true crisis point.

Based on your responses to a crisis, or pressure and overwhelming fear, what have you learnt about your true self? And whose life have you been able to positively shift in these trying times, other than your own?

I believe our future towards health  and prosperity will rely on our collective ability to access the best of our character every day.

The Leadership Blind Spot

The phrase of my week is ‘Impression Management’. Oh and I love it, for how aptly it describes much of the superficiality in our society. It immediately reminded me of a story shared by an accounting executive who was rebuked for nestling his second hand, seven year old car in the Partners dedicated parking. The message to him ‘either upgrade your car, or downgrade your parking booth’. Impression management!

I was digging through some academic articles from the late 1990’s and discovered that in North America over 50% of all externally hired executives either failed or were fired within their first 12 months.  To my surprise tasks, skills and capabilities were not the primary cause of their demise – those were all expertly vetted in rounds of psychometric assessments and panel interviews (we seem to have overloaded our approach to finding the best people with even more of that). What had in fact stalled their integration and rise within the c-suite, was their inability to sustain their ‘Impression Management.’ In other words, they revealed their true selves and exposed the inherent nature of who they were. What the organisation saw was unpleasant and incongruent, and consequently they had to go. It seems that when the chips were down, and the stress was rising, those who had glossy, manicured images designed to seduce and be essentially likable and impressive (impression – impressive, see the link?), couldn’t sustain their charade.

More interesting to me, is what was it that they were trying to hide? And what was revealed? What were their intentions? and what was the impact of the dramatically changing impression they left with others?

In all cases, what emerged under pressure was the extent to which they could (or couldn’t) manage their impulses, emotional reactions, feelings and drives. Those that managed these poorly, were perceived to be low in judgement, and over time, their integrity (built on their reliability, consistency and honesty) was eroded too. They might have tried to bully with positional power for a while but then completely lose their ability to take others along with them. They become desperate.

It then dawned on me; Judgement and Integrity are two fundamental components of character. Character is shaped, developed or stunted by all the experiences of a person’s life. In short, those with weaker character have less self-awareness and poorly regulate their impulses and emotions under pressure. They exposed their aggression, flight or fight tendencies, immaturity, self destructive behaviours and selfishness, and damaged the relationships around them (a current US president offers a daily showcase of what that actually looks like, and scarily there is a lot of Trump in many of the people around us). Those with strong character tend to think as much about others and themselves when under pressure, and expertly manage the rising distraction and power of their inner selves.

I have spent the past 10 years designing and delivering leadership development programs, really good ones, which have filled many heads and hearts with skills and awareness, but never, not once, have we considered (or even named) the critical importance of understanding, defining, measuring and developing character.  Maybe that is why so many managers and leaders with reams of certificates and course attendance notes, still fail to inspire confidence through their judgement and integrity. It is my next crusade, to put character at the forefront of the way we think and appreciate the leaders and colleagues around us. To peer into the Leadership Blind Spot!

The two most important questions you must answer!

I love change. I am tickled by technology and the audacious dreams humanity keeps bringing to life. Everything we want to do, seems possible – and likely. I get all gawky geek-like when I imagine a world where mundane and repetitive tasks are performed by a wide brethren of digital proxies.  In other ways, I am also proudly old school. I adhere firmly to common courtesy and still use a paper diary. I appreciate the slow, weathered pace of wisdom in old age, and relationships with real people, in a brick and mortar bank, or shop can truly delight me.

As 2018 begins, and the swish of pages in my diary accelerates with new work and booked dates, I reflect on a common theme that emerged in the people and organisations around me in 2017. My life was brimming with opportunity and pace. I was full and at times drowning. It felt as if technology and the pace of progress was throttling me. I wasn’t alone, others were feeling the same. Stress was soaring, health was faltering and meaning in life seemed to be battered and confused. It was unsurprising that as the year came to an end, many of us were pensively asking ‘What is all of this busyness really for? Is this the life I really want to live? Is there another way? What price will I pay if I don’t change soon?’

In early January 2018 a mail arrived from the Center of Applied Jungian Studies.  It eased my mind and heart, and at the same time jolted me to perspective. I share excerpts of that post below:

We all know that every human being has basic physical needs: for food, for water, for shelter, for clean air, and in the same way, all humans have certain basic psychological needs too;

  • We need to feel we belong.
  • We need to feel valued.
  • We need to feel we’re good at something.
  • We need to feel we have a secure future.
  • And there is growing evidence that our culture isn’t meeting those psychological needs for many – perhaps most – people.

We have become disconnected from things we really need, and this deep disconnection is driving an epidemic of depression and anxiety all around us. Finding an “anti-depressant” that actually deals with the root issue rather than the suppression of the symptoms means finding a way to solve the problem that is causing the depression in the first place. If you sincerely want to make a meaningful change in your life, you first need to answer two fundamental questions;

  1. Who am I?
  2. What do I really want?

That’s it – old school poignant! In my professional observation, most adults in the workplace feel disconnected, undervalued and generally don’t believe they are worthy. Many then convert that overall insecurity into self-serving behaviours that further denigrates relationships and fuels anxiety in the people around them. Blaming  others usually follows, and trust dives. It becomes a toxic contagion that we become disturbingly accustomed to.

These two questions remind us that the route to fulfillment, meaning and purpose is always through the self, and the honest conversations with your inner truth, and towards the heart of who you are and what you want to offer the life you have been given.

I wish for all of you, and myself, a deeply introspective year towards answering those two questions and becoming more whole people, leaders, parents, spouses, siblings and citizens.

The future is More Human than Ever!

This will be my final post of the year – my 21st of 2017.

To start, I have completed my dissertation proposal and will be diving full steam into research mode from 2018 onwards. My topic focuses on the impact of Leadership Character and Stage of Adult Development on perceived levels of integrity and team culture. It’s the best intersection of all my professional passions and I am so excited at the prospect of what I will learn (and share with you all).

This year has been a remarkable journey. Possibly the best year yet!

I had the opportunity to deliver my first professional speaking gig and captured the essence of all I believe about the future and our relevance as human beings into a short, 20-min, TED-style delivery.

I therefore end this year’s journey with more than my written voice. Please follow the link below and let me know what you think.


Wishing you a well-deserved rest and reboot for another year of demonstrated care and kindness.

Rituals and what they tell us about your culture

I often hear this question – ‘How do I make my culture better to keep up with theirs, like that company over there (usually a tech giant that they read about in a glitzy magazine)?’

The more nutritious question (and one I rarely hear) however is; ‘How can I define, see and capitalize on the uniqueness of my organization’s culture?’

Question one is a common trap, and that pit is filled with many consultants, leaders and HR professionals. Answering question two is more likely to ensure cultural relevance and alignment. It will make it easier for leaders to keep their best people, attract the right talent and supports the organisation’s cultural capital (a more interesting phrase than Employee Value Proposition). To answer that question, we first need to find and define the unique ingredients of an organisation’s culture which are most visible through its rituals.

Rituals are best defined as the ‘patterns of behaviour that transmit values, a brand image and inspire norms’. Once these rituals settle into repeated patterns across many people and contexts they become organisational habits.  These rituals then support the unwritten rules of engagement within an organisation and have very specific common characteristics including:

  1. Elements of repetition (in content, form, or occasion). Most rites are repeated at predetermined times to ensure persistence of the message, reminders of the values and an activation of the brand image.
  2. Verbal and non-verbal input. The complete mix of behavioural and nonverbal visible elements are broadcast in rituals to enhance identification, belongingness and association for example logos banners, clothing etc.
  3. Planned rather than spontaneous actions. They are a highly organized sequence of actions with apparently chaotic elements carefully arranged.
  4. Highly codified language – each organization has its own “language”.
  5. Ordinary behaviours enacted in special ways;
  6. Highly symbolic in nature that seeks to be in alignment with the greater societal identity.
  7. Evocative presentation to draw and hold attention;
  8. Always meant for collective consumption

Whilst rituals transfer a behavioural code, they also encourage social cohesion and can capture collective values and beliefs. The ceremonies associated with these rituals help bolster trust in the organisational values and binds colleagues together towards a common sense of identity, togetherness and commonness.

  • So what rituals does your team and organisation deploy?
  • To what extent do you believe that the rituals strengthen and reignite your unique culture and relevance?
  • Which parts of your organisation are seemingly on mute? And which leaders are OK with that?
  • Are there conflicting rituals, and what needs to change to align them?

Rituals capture the observation that where communication flows culture grows, and to review how that happens in your organisation is a smart place to start.

You should know this about Organisational Culture!

There are two primary perspectives on culture, on the one hand there is a view that a culture can be broken down into its different components, and as a result can be built quite deliberately with a plan and focused execution. The other view is that it is a complex idea, and has no specific constituent parts, but is more of an evolving and dynamic phenomenon (much like the human beings that create it).

I subscribe to the latter perspective, but many in business don’t. Hence the question that many CEO’s and HR professionals ask me – how can we create the culture that we need for the future? My response is invariably a polite ‘well, you can’t!’

At this point they mutter and protest, and begin to wonder whether I am the right partner on such a pursuit. What they don’t realise is that to misunderstand their role in culture evolution could potentially cost them their job. Yes, they may be planting the seed of a culture implosion and resistance.

There may be just two questions to ask:

  1. What can I do as a leader to amplify aspects of our current culture that serve us?
  2. And how can I diminish aspects of our current culture that undermine us?

You see, organisational culture may ‘just be’ – it is what it is – and it responds to small flexes and shifts, but generally is embedded and persistent (and quite unshakable).

Culture is also not as universal as you might think. In every organisation there is a primary culture, much like the trunk of a tree, and then numerous sub cultures, much like the branches of that tree. Wherever there are influential leaders across the organisation and geographical spread, we expect to experience variations of the primary culture. It seems that team leaders decide how to interpret and role model the primary culture and naturally amplify and diminish aspects of the primary culture to suit their ends. Again, I have known the odd CEO to gasp in disagreement; ‘More than one culture? We only have one single culture, I would know, I am the leader here!’ they again protest.

Oh boy!

Yet again, leaders are unaware of just to what extent that attitude could shatter their dreams of executive glory. The existence of sub cultures is in itself not problematic, provided they aren’t brazenly oppositional and counter culture.  If they are however simply variants of the primary culture (they still share more in common than not) research suggests that the more the dominant culture distances itself and indeed bullies the sub culture, the more likely people will disengage and leave. However, organisations that embrace the sub cultures and utilise them as innovation hubs for the evolution of their primary culture seem to have capitalised on the value of the differences. It’s a case of primary AND sub cultures existing together.

It takes a mature leader to embrace this quintessentially complex human phenomenon of culture and work within the grey areas. To what extent do your leaders (or you the leader) thrive in those grey areas?

I didn’t know much about culture!

They say ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast!’ They say it with such conviction, often as a precursor to their own philosophy on leadership and the future. They say it often, almost as much as I have said it.  I have sat through countless meetings with senior executives who claim high expertise and command of the topic, and we all seem to nod and smile in anticipation of the great work we will do together.

And then I began reading, not HBR or a clutch of online articles and trendy business magazines but hard, empirical research; and I have been self-muzzled. I don’t cough out that slogan anymore. I swallow back the one liners and pop MBA catch phrases and admit ignorance. But the more I read and learn, the more it makes organisational culture and the work within that space unexpectedly rich, diverse and certainly more complicated. As an advertising executive shared with me recently; ‘without strategy, culture is just a party and a fussball table’.  Spot on, and also just laughing at the surface of the topic.

No matter the levels of ignorance, it seems many leaders seem to be asking the same questions; how do we create the best culture? What type of culture do we need? How do we implement successful culture change? Who will best fit our culture? And on and on they ask.

All these questions are pertinent but also based on a handful of flawed and torpedo-like assumptions. 1. That a culture can in fact be changed, or deliberately created; and 2. That culture is a singular, organisation-wide phenomena.

Research offers the more useful assumptions, 1. Culture is always present and can vary across an organisation; 2. It is almost impossible to change, and 3. We don’t yet understand who or what influences its genesis over the life cycle of an organisation.

Nonetheless, it seems that the rising interest in organisational culture has much to do with its association to a unique competitive advantage, and thus some form of enduring relevance. That is an important insight, and is based on the following, research backed findings:

  1. A culture’s dimensions are difficult for competitors to imitate;
  2. A culture possesses rare and unique qualities;
  3. A culture is cumulative and generates upward momentum;
  4. A cultures sources are interconnected to form part of a whole;
  5. A culture can be renewed faster than eroded

What exactly does that all mean? In the course of my next batch of blogs, I will be sharing a perspective on culture that may be more useful than what you currently think you know. Stay tuned!

If the President were a Psychologist

‘Constructive Disruption!? Read the banner advert.

What an odd idea, I heard a lot of people saying.

It was the title of a recent Consulting Psychology Conference (and I may have had something to do with it). It was designed to challenge psychologists to assert their relevance and voice in the post-apartheid reality. It urged experts in emotion, cognition, behaviour, the conscious and unconscious to lift their spectating selves (and behinds) off their seats and get involved. The whole profession was challenged to justify why it has allowed its silence to be screaming so loudly.

As the speakers filled the room with research, perspectives, questions and ideas, the debate gravitated towards activism and the urgent need for psychologists to provide insight into what we see in the South African discourse, and begin to counsel the nation to health.

More than just a smattering of delegates proposed a radical new role – psychologists should become non-partisan lobbyists and Politicians – yes Politicians! That sentiment was broadly supported and when a summary of research into a typical South African reality was shared, it galvanised the idea. The study focused on unemployed people of a sprawling informal settlement. The findings showed that the vast majority of over 30 year olds had little belief they would ever find work and most had given up trying. The bulk of them felt increasingly alienated and under-supported by the very community they lived in. They were outcasts and excluded, seemingly condemned by their employment status and were increasingly angry about that.

A juxtaposition of responses to this rising discontent emerged. First there was the politician’s response – throw quick fixes, promise them jobs, provide them with small contracts, extend the social wage, condemn the living conditions, seek their vote, blame someone else and promise change.

Then the Psychologists response – speak to the unemployed, listen to them, empathise with them and share their lived experiences with other community members. Then seek to understand the hindrances to job access both physical and emotional. By doing that, discover how dozens of NGO’s and government supported projects can offer these people some form of work, and realise that few of the unemployed people that were being interviewed knew they even existed and those that didn’t, couldn’t find them or contact them. Psychologists Solution – build community led support groups that make the links to employment opportunities and do so with empathy and care. Nett result – Change lives. A true story.

It all sounded quite intuitive to the audience seated in that conference hall, but it further highlighted how often we have overestimated the levels of psychological awareness among the general population, and especially many of our leaders. Do they understand the consequences and manifestations of anger, anxiety, self-worth and dignity? Do they understand projections and social psychological dynamics of belonging? Have they prepared themselves to avoid capitalising on in-group/out-group dynamics? Do they know what to do to heal centuries of psychological abuse? Do they understand how scapegoating and blame erodes national trust, and thus our collective relatedness and future? It is highly likely that there are spin-doctor’s, PR professionals, advisors and political heavy weights who know exactly what to exploit in our psychology to gain favour and power; and it’s usually a pivot around fear. So what could the alternative be?

If I were a psychologist as president, I would like to think that I would focus on creating a national sense of belonging and engendering a sense of common identity that is shaped by a compelling and exciting shared view of the future. I would seek the synergies in our diversity and always ask the question – what more can we learn from each other to make us a champion nation? I would focus more on all the behaviours we want repeated over and over again, and pontificate less on what is always right or wrong, and a little more on what is appropriate for the context and the time. I would profess that there are multiple versions of the truth and celebrate the discovery and sharing of what makes each and every person unique, rather than different. I would role model tolerance and demonstrate care. I would communicate by listening, and listening and listening, and in the end I hope I would celebrate the contributions of even my most ardent critics. I would make sure we get things done and put every citizen at the heart of what we do.

What more would you do?