Dear President Ramaphosa, please Speak to us!

Dear President Ramaphosa

Those first three words of this heading were almost my last. It feels somewhat presumptuous that you will receive and read this, but I have decided to write it nonetheless. It’s just a compulsion I have, straight from the heart and thus free from rational limitation and caution.

My head keeps telling me to just stop. After all, my position as a white, graduate, business owner in his 40’s often relegates me to silence and a muffle in the ears of our political leadership (and mostly I also understand why). However, I will persist because I believe that there is a common humanity that we have buried in rhetoric, blame and defensiveness. I believe we need very little encouragement to bring our common humanity back to our daily interactions and relationships. We just need a nudge, and a deliberate counter narrative to some of the toxic negativity that we have been drowning in. I also firmly believe you can lead us back to our common humanity.

I work in organisations across the globe, some are high performing environments where people are valued for their diverse inputs; where trust is robust and regularly tested and strengthened; where conflict and disagreement are managed constructively towards a common understanding and deeper relationships. I also work in many dysfunctional environments where blame gnashes at trust and renders relationships guarded and fractured; where conflict is about winners and losers, rather than solutions and innovation; where the fight gets personal and destructive; where not all people are valued; and where fear and self-protecting behaviours tear holes in the potential of individuals and groups.

Our world seems trapped in a downward spiral of dysfunction.

A colleague concluded that the reason for this is that our generation straddles two centuries in limbo and we have yet to define what this century will be about. In the past, catastrophic events have shaped us, maybe we could be the generation that breaks that pattern.

The trouble I have is that I am simply not sure who or what to believe anymore. The media? Our parliament? My neighbours? Colleagues? What is the truth? What is the full story? Am I convinced I have heard all side and perspectives? Are there hidden agendas? Who has them? I feel quite lost.

Sometimes I feel utterly unwelcome, and perpetually at the receiving end of blame. This has made me mute and cautious about offering frank and direct critique of what I believe is not aligned to our national values.  Chances are, the merits of an argument will be ignored and the messenger will be roundly battered – I see that happening far too often (again, I understand where that sensitivity comes from).  I just don’t have the energy for that. Maybe I should speak out more – I promise to work at that.

I watch our leaders playing petty, personal, playground games with our problems. They spend more time ridiculing each other, tarnishing individual reputations and generalising swathes of the population. They are divisive and blame-oriented. They are sarcastic and cynical. That is no way to engender a bright, compassionate and encouraging future. I believe you, as our president need not stoop that low.

In the fog of truth and lies, I have recognised that I want to play a positive and constructive part. I just don’t know how, or what to do, and when and with whom to start. I really think you can help.

And so I have one request to you as our leader – of those that both voted and didn’t vote for you and your party.

Please can you talk to us more regularly. Not through the media, or the political spin doctors, but directly from you.

I suggest a 15-min message for our country – every Monday morning – as a kick start to the week. It could be TV, radio, possibly even a podcast, maybe all three.

What would I want to hear from you?

I want to hear what your vision is for our country over the next 5 years – in simple, measurable terms. And I would like to hear that repeated every week, so we can all be clear what we are working towards.

I would love you to repeatedly share the top 5 (and please no more) priorities that will guide your leadership and that we can all lend a hand towards.

I want to hear what you are doing for the next 90 days to help us achieve that, and I want to know what your focus would be for the week ahead.

I want to listen to you celebrate the prior week’s achievements, and what you would do better in the week ahead.

It would be greatly inspiring, if you could follow up these weekly messages with actions and tangible, observable changes.

I would love to also hear a concise story that reflects of our collective values. Possibly based on your admiration and appreciation for a citizen or group of citizens.

Please try to steer clear of the adjective-laden waffle that we hear so often from politicians, use clear words that help us all to understand you. That is how true leaders communicate.

Ok, so maybe 15 minutes is too short – how about 30, maybe even 45 minutes (not longer – we will have work to get to).

I want you to end off by setting the nation a value to demonstrate – drawn from the depth and history of ubuntu.  Something that we can get behind and guide us.

So there is it, just 45-minutes of frank sharing with no political interference, no mudslinging, no fanfare. Just a leader humbly reporting back to his people what his focus has been on and what he would like from us as support.

There will be petty politicians who are more self-centered on their power than purpose, and they will try and dismantle your efforts. I encourage you to remain steadfast, humble and honest. Soon we will begin to deepen our trust in you and our future, and those that have built their identities by being ‘other’ to ‘others’ will feel empty and irrelevant.

I know, a nation is multi-faceted, complex and tanker-like in its ability to shift and turn. Don’t be disheartened, there are many a tug boat out there, just waiting for the right tanker to support. We are each energy offering citizens, and you can lead us from an energy sapping to an energy raising nation.

This is not about politics, its about leadership, role modelling, and harnessing the collective.

So please, speak to us, as often as possible. Make it about us, honour us and feel the nation turn.

It may be the evolution of leadership as we know it. It may be the start of defining our generations century.


The Woes of Selling Time

As each year backfires into December and the summer break, I have become used to two feelings grating up against each other. On the one hand, excitement at the prospect of a low-demand rest, and on the other hand, the rising anxiety at the cost of a break and no income.

Bear with me, I am tired, its been a long year, and I am overly pensive (and a little grouchy).  That is a warning, so you may want to quit reading now.

In professional services, most of us sell our time. We should probably focus more on a value exchange, but to be frank, most clients always equate a fee to time and keep the value exchange out of the conversation. Its tricky, there have been times where I have been paid for my time in thousands of rand, but have been clearly told a while later that I assisted a business in turning hundreds of thousands to millions of rand in value through my efforts.  It was never about me, but its an interesting proposition to link value to overall impact. And of course, that could swing both ways, no impact, no value, no fee?

Most employed professionals work for 12 months of the year and receive the equivalent of 13 months’ salary (not always, but most bonus and incentive schemes reward professionals in full time employment). In my game, we can earn for about 10 months of the year to cover 12 months of expenses (generally we need decent breaks and some months are littered with school and public holidays and clients just stop booking work). It’s a hard slog.

The end of the year is as much about celebrating as it is about trying to catch up on rest to remain sharp and focused, and to measure and manage a nest egg to cover the quiet months of the year. In truth, I generally suffer from low grade anxiety all year; I hate to admit it, but I actually do.

Don’t get me wrong, the perks of self employment are attractive – flexibility, choice, a sense of meaning and variety, however I do think these characteristics of self employment are far harder to enjoy in reality. And I sometimes feel only people who have sold their time for a living can truly understand this.

So here are a few thoughts if you wish to take the leap into my world, or indeed if you are engaging with a consultant who sells their value (through time) to your organisation.

Let me share a few experiences.

The first was with a large organisation where the HR function was trying to evolve its culture. It was a vast brief and they wanted guidance and assistance.  They call me in on a referral from a colleague (just setting up the time in my diary takes about 20 minutes of back and forth communications).  It takes me 45-minutes to get to the meeting, I pay for parking, and arrive 15 minutes early (I prefer breathing room before important meetings, but it could also be my pedantic, German blood).  That is 1 hour 20-minutes of my time. We meet for an hour, and I am asked to pull together a proposal. In total the entire engagement to the delivery of the proposal takes me 5 hours (which is unpaid for). The kick in the teeth, was that the organisation did not even bother to respond to my mails or thank me for the proposal. Half a day wasted, and it went nowhere. I would love to say this is once-off, but it happens more often than I can afford. That time is lost, unsold, and unrecoverable. Did the client get value? Yes, I believe they received immense value, but at my expense.

Then there are the late meeting changes, and cancellations. Each of which throw a time-focused diary into disarray, and often lead to more lost hours.  Admin, calls, follow ups, collating notes, continuous professional development, financial tracking and reporting, marketing and networking, all critical and also hours lost in a day, week and month that do not accrue an income.

Often times the biggest drain of time is travel. A session might be an hour-long coaching engagement, but it requires preparation and post session reflection, and travel to and from the client offices. It is quite often the case that a one-hour coaching session, requires up to 2,5 hours of time (sessions booked in town for the early mornings can take up to 4 hours of my time, for a 60-min session).  A 7 hour day of facilitation usually comes with an additional half day of briefings, prep and travel. The maths eventually just doesn’t stack up.

So shouldn’t we be talking about a value transaction, rather than a time equation? I believe we should, but how? I have attempted to offer packages that include the behind the scenes preparation, planning and general logistics and investment of time. They have all been categorically rejected with a clear message of ‘we will just focus on the time you spend with us, don’t worry about those add ons’. For the sake of the relationship, I usually just swallow the add ons for my own pocket.

My metric of comparison is that of a clinical psychologist who has been in practice for at least 15 years. I am first a Clinical Psychologist, but now consult into organisations.  At face value some of my fees look like they are double to three times that of a psychologists hourly fee in private practice, but on a month to month basis, I am always short by at least 25% in comparison. It leaves me wondering and often questioning whether this self-employment thing is truly flexible, free and as ‘lucky’ as we often think. I could be in private practice, waiting for people to come and see me for 6-7 hours per day. I would be unhappy, but its also a sobering comparison.

I wouldn’t change my choice to be an independent professional.  I am not in the job market, and would be challenged in such contexts, but in the spirit of true partnership I believe we should be exploring how to equate professional services to value, and not  only time.

Any ideas? and examples any of you could share to assist?

The Ninja-Monk of Team Leadership

Last week I received a mail from a friend and colleague. It was lovely to hear from her. She was responding to a message I had put to my network requesting senior management teams to participate in my doctoral dissertation. She has been very busy, but diligent as ever (and its what impresses me to no end about her) she had conducted a thorough review of all her executive clients. Her conclusion bothered me. She had realised that in all the teams she is working with, there is too much change, flux, angst and mistrust and she thus doubted any of them would participate. She is a seasoned consulting psychologist, and her call is most likely spot on.

Whomever I work with or chat to, I hear that organisations are buckling under pressure and toxic stress, and many executive teams are falling apart. But what does ‘falling apart’ look like? How do we know that our teams are in distress? It’s easy to answer these questions if you are in a dysfunctional team – you can feel the draining, energy sapping context. Most people have been in such a team. Leaders are generally however trying to build high performance teams, but I often observe a wide gap between intention and reality. This becomes most visible in a crisis, with economic headwinds and change. We seem to have that trifecta clobbering us all now.

My late father in law, lead a large corporation and weathered five recessions, each of which taught him something the business benefited from in the economic upswings. Difficult times can teach us more than the glossy brochures of success. The same principle applies to teams. If you want to see the metal of leadership and the enduring impact of great executives, have a look to see how teams are functioning in the present moment.

In much of my work I peak beneath the proverbial executive skirt. I see remarkable teams and struggling teams. I watch teams muscling closer to high performance, and others sliding into dysfunction, what else do I see?

Let’s start by defining high performance teams. Research suggests, fewer than 1 in 10 teams ever get there. It’s extremely rare because those teams need to meet the following criteria:

  1. Consistently exceed their targets and expectations across all metrics;
  2. Have innovated and disrupted the sector they inhabit,
  3. Grow market share and employ more new people than their competitors.
  4. Pick a metric of high performance and the truly high performing teams meet and exceed them all and are recognised by their peers and competitors as such.

Let me repeat. It’s rare – but achievable with deliberate and focused attention and effort.

Here what you should be looking for as indicators and warning lights that your team is heading in the wrong direction. The following conditions are evident in all failing teams:

1. Trust is low – its everyone for themselves, survival of the fittest (or cleverest). Strategies designed to win at the expense of others pervade.

2. Relationships are broken and strained – or straining and breaking.

3. There is a spike in rumour-mongering and background conversations – people are        taking about each other and not with each other.

4. The blame game is thriving – finger pointing abounds.

5. Cliques and silos emerge – in-groups vs out-groups, them vs us, and diversity suffers.

6. Micromanagement and controlling behaviours from senior leaders start to escalate as they tighten their grip on activities across the organisation. People become disempowered, feel demotivated and eventually disengage.

7. Desperation and punitive rhetoric and policies are considered and even implemented to force people to tow the line, put in more and fear stepping out of line.

8. There is conflict, but more of an under current than an open, tough engagement – lots of people passive-aggressively undermining each other. People feel like they are struggling more than before. Ease has been dismantled. Energy is waning.

9. Focus is more internal than external – people are distracted by petty politics, cc’ ing and bcc’ing all their mails and generally taking their eye off what really matters in their business. It all become quite childish, petulant, parental and patronising. Oh, it’s a mess.

10. People leave – the top talent first.

These conditions escalate when there is a crisis or an increase in pressure. You not only see the true character of a leader, but the darkest character of a team too. It’s the litmus test of what has been invested into the foundation and DNA of that team.

In contrast, the high-performance teams I have had the pleasure to work with possess qualities best described as a mix between a ninja and a monk.

1. There is a consistent and pervasive calm. It seems as if they are doing very little but have more time than ever and get more done – they are less busy, but more productive. The holy grail of leadership?

2. They have mastered the art of prediction and delegation. Others are delivering on their behalf towards a compelling future that they confidently believe in. They are trusted and followed. They believe in the capability of their people to overcome and win. This is consistent and unwavering.

3. Relationship are strong and close and robust – debate and diverse opinions and views are encouraged. Everyone leans towards friction points and celebrates resolution and new emergent ideas and creativity. Constructive conflict is used to both test and reinforce the depth of the trust in each relationship.

4. Trust is not too high – yes that seems weird, but it’s true. Trust is high but not too lofty. When it is too high, complacency and a fear of losing that high trust sets in, and conflict and debate subsides. That is a poor outcome.

5. The most senior leaders are hardly around. They are seeding opportunities for the future and assessing the trend lines of the market and thought leaders to ensure they can begin predicting what the business will require in terms of skills, capabilities and resources to capitalise on the future opportunities.

6. People stay, top talent is attracted in.

Right now, in many parts of the world, we have become fractured in society and organisations. Look around you. Chances are that those who are thriving sustainably started invested in high performance several years ago. There are others that have had a good run, and suddenly seem to be slipping closer to a precipice. Chances are they have been taking and reaping without reinvesting.

Now that you know this, what do you see? And of course, what do you do?
My advice – start right at the top. Invest in the most senior team and do it now!

The Dangers of Ignoring Low Trust Environments

My path into Psychology was somewhat circuitous and, at times, an embarrassing stumble and fumble into the field. I landed in the Clinical/Psychiatric field and was shocked at the mistreatment of some of the most vulnerable of people in our society – the mentally ill. The truth behind the psychiatric cage doors was that an entire system and department of health (often filled with care givers and ex nurses) oversaw a callous and brutal custodianship of these lives. I wondered long and hard how they had lost heart and succumbed to such poor judgement.

Fast forward 15 years, and I now invest much of my time trying to solve the rot at the top. I am often asked to help dysfunctional senior management teams where intelligent, smart and experienced people, often with glinting pedigree, trip over themselves and others. Sometimes the stagnation has been all they know, at other times it seems to creep up on previously healthy teams. It’s a fascinating lift under the hood of many a seemingly burly, purring commercial engine.  Sometimes, the more I look, the sadder the picture becomes. Everyone seems to be trying their best but getting the worst out of each other. Add to that some pressure, stress, demanding customers and shareholders, general societal anxiety and insecurity and – boom, good people just let themselves down (and yes, I don’t believe they intentionally turn bad).

What most people want to know is, how did it all get that bad?

In their attempt to understand, they often inadvertently make it worse. There is a knee jerk reaction to blame someone, or something. This further incinerates the last fragments of trust. As the hurling begins, the factions emerge, and leaders create columns of fragmented silos. Survival of the fittest is engaged and the results are always the death of collaboration, cohesion, high performance and sustainable growth and engagement.

Its not always clear how teams get to this point, but one dimension is ubiquitous; low trust in their colleague’s competence or character, or both. Relationships, the very bedrock of humanity, become shaky, and with it all the bonds in the network feel uneasy, self-protecting and self-promoting.

Most people fear they will need to face the music, that they will have to explain how their trust in each other was broken, when the rot began, and who did what to whom. They have mostly lost track of where it all began, but they are acutely aware that the trust has diminished, and the more they look for reasons to mistrust, the more their confirmation bias will find it. All along, they lose sight of the people and the business they lead. Above all though, it feels too messy and murky to deal with, and much like unravelling knotted wool, it seems insurmountable. And so, the undermining continues, and trust keeps dropping.

So how do we fix this?

In almost all cases, even in teams with deep fissures between them, if there is willingness to at least trust me as their partner, then we have a chance of clawing our way back to health. It’s as if there is a self-healing, relational remedy that is waiting to be tugged back to life. Just like most wounds, prodding at the sensitive flesh is painful, but we generally don’t need to re-wound and injure each other, we simply need to name it, and begin healing it. And the ability to mend is within us all. There is a deep evolutionary desire to belong, to connect and be accepted, which makes it possible under safe and firm guidance to reconnect to the goodness in us all.

Sure, I have met many an arrogant leader and team, who see relationships as conditional and one way. They become stuck in blaming everyone else and lack the insight to own their part in their failings and falling trust. Without that insight, its as if they create a self-imposed restraint away from the most natural of human tendencies.

No matter who they are, what they own or think, no matter how impressive or bombastic, I believe in the possibility of reigniting kindness into relationships. When that is nurtured and guided by demonstrated trustworthiness, I have seen teams move quickly towards healthy social communities that deliver on all metrics.

The cost of allowing low trust to pervade, to become the norm, and be used as a weapon of control and fear mongering, is to forget all the other people who exist in our networks. The power of low trust environments is such a threat to our human instinct that it consumes our attention (whether we would like to admit it or not), and at its worst, it blinds us to the worst inhumanity around us.

I eventually realised that the blind eye turned towards the treatment of the mentally ill, was allowed and possible because good people were trying to survive in low trust contexts. They were consumed with survival and the price was literally other people’s lives. Sadly, I see this all around us today too.

The big question must thus always be – Is that a cost worth paying? And are we content to remain fearful of clearing past hurt, and building a new frontier of relating?

I suggest starting with the people close to you. Have the conversations, reboot the relationships and let’s be a pebble in the waters.

Inspired by the land debate. We can do this!

I am sure you will agree, we are living in emotionally charged times. That in itself isn’t surprising, we are an emotional species, it defines us; but the measure of emotion today is more a public display of irrationality than a coveted intimate moment. We are displaying our fears with shot-gun accuracy across most social spaces. The net effect is a retreat back into the tribe where we are looking for safe arenas with people who look and speak like us. It’s as primal as we can get. We stop talking with each other, and babble and blast at each other. We avoid all the difficult tensions between us and choose walls rather than doors.

Tough conversations about our differences are always difficult to have, but they are more important than ever. We avoid them because we are worried that they will degenerate into an irrational fight where we will lose, or need to raise our voices or burst into floods of tears. It’s just messy, and so we don’t go there. These conversations are tough enough between individuals, sitting face to face and sorting out there stuff. It becomes even more difficult in groups, and then add social media and a wide range of anonymous channels and those engagements are no longer conversations, they become a war of irrational, word bombs.

Even harder is conducting conversations at community and country level. In effect, the issues that impact us all the most across society can be the hardest to talk about. We end up letting proxies speak on our behalf, and often submit our will and expectations to a group of power sourcing politicians. That is not very appealing, but sometimes it feels like all we can do.

I do however observe a solution to this. I believe we need to make the societal conversations a person to person engagement. Chunk it down to one on one. Not via the media, or social networks, but face to face, warm body to warm body, heart to heart and head to head. The best current example is demonstrated through a particularly tough public debate in South Africa right now which centres around land reform (let me state up front I am a supporter of a redistribution of land in both a legal and humane framework that builds our nation – and I believe that is possible).

Initially the storyline was aggressive and threatening. All sides seemed to pick a position of win-lose, and the redress narrative became more about revenge and defend, and less about stabilising an ownership footprint that could accelerate the potential for wealth creation and dignity for all. Fear rose unabated; the forces in the fray drove each other to a consistent battle of words, and even threatened war itself. It was mostly irrational with little accurate, fact based argument (or facts were distorted to suit the agenda of either side). What else did we expect? It’s an emotional issue, the majority were dispossessed of their land and have suffered for centuries. Land hearings became ping-pong exchanges of fears and desires, demands and threats. I became despondent and history looked likely to repeat itself.

Thankfully, from behind closed doors, people at the heart of the matter began talking to each other. They leaned into the tough conversation and made one, poignant choice – to de-escalate the emotion and find common ground. They began sharing solutions and commitment to ideas that could elevate all South Africans. Those early exchanges must have been challenging, and each stakeholder would have reflected deeply on the responsibility they had on their shoulders. And in a sign of true leadership, they not only walked towards their anxiety, but they chose to note the incitement of fear as an event, and the pursuit of rational solutions as the journey.

Farmers and political decision makers have paused to consider the greater good and displayed signs of a mature character. To me, that is true leadership, and we can choose it each and every day. What choice have you made?

How Technology can Elevate our Humanity

Michael Avery chats to Marc Rogatschnig, (Clinical psychologist and leadership development expert, behaviour change specialists at Tidal) chat about how The future of work is more human than it has ever been on the Innovation feature.

Listen to this short radio interview b elow

I choose courage, not fear!

To be honest, I am pretty tired of focusing on what keeps toppling over in society. Intolerance has crept into our beds like cold night air, and fear is throttling our hopes for the future.

I have floundered as I wait for someone else to take a bold stand and ‘shut the noise the f%&k up’. I have waited and waited and all the while my anxiety keeps rising.

Thankfully wisdom cuts through in many shapes, not always in the elderly, silver haired guise we expect. A few weeks ago I was watching football, with a friend and his friends. I was the obvious outsider, supported the wrong team and didn’t really know the others. We couldn’t only enjoy the game, the TV spectatorship invited a menu of topics to the fore. Many were light and flippant, but invariable the state of the world and our country sneaked in. Fear galloped through the room, and everyone was trying to beat the other with their story of gloom. It felt good to not be all alone. One of the crew wasn’t competing for a gap, he waited for the rant and doom fest to be done.

‘Stay with fear, and you will be trapped, if you focus on options you might be free’ he stated with confidence; ‘everything you see looks dangerous when we are in fear, why not look at all we have with appreciation and find the contentment we enjoy every day. Then make sure you have options.’

‘Um, exactly what we are talking about dude, facing the bleak reality here and talking about options’ barked another off the couch.

‘No, not those options. You only need to know what the options are when you have to face real danger, not when you are worrying about possible danger’

In a moment, he woke me up.

What he meant was best captured by the analogy of going to a movie house and spending the entire movie worried that the power might go off, or that someone might disrupt the viewing or that the person next to you might eat their popcorn too loudly. What he suggested was, when you arrive, do you know where the exit sign is, and once located, rather live in the moment and enjoy the movie to its fullest. If true danger emerges, which it rarely does, at least you know how to get away.

It had a profound impact on my emotional state. Everything in life feels a lot lighter since.

The fact is, we can be most courageous in the face of fear, but we can also choose to be better equipped when feelings of fear emerge. So when the world is filled with powerful men in children’s minds who are trying desperately to feel worthy, and along the way sowing seeds of fear and doubt, here are a few thoughts:

1. Be authentic. Say out loud what needs to be said and constantly find your truth. Have the tough conversations and be the voice that counters the rabid flow of fear.

2. Always seek to transform yourself. When it feels like the world will not conform to the reality you would like it to be, then develop and grow yourself to an even better version you desire.

3. Be reliable, and a source of security and stability to you and those around you. Be an oasis of calm and presence that others can trust in because trust is in low supply, and essential to all healthy relationships.

4. Have a dream and be aware of just what you desire. Aim high and be better today than you were yesterday. Don’t worry about others, just keep noting and celebrating all the ways in which you are growing.

In short, cultivate and nurture your own sense of self-worth. Build your personal acceptance and be a role model to others as an alternative to competing, controlling, approval seeking and dependence.  As Stephen and Mara Klemich of Heartstyles have often shared, find courage through humility.

I meet people every day who are hyper vigilant to signals in their environment that danger is on the way. They become consumed and hopeless. I encourage you all to speak up, with humility and courage, and to focus more on the parts of the world that you can change today, right now.

Don’t be driven by fear, but by the desire to maximise our enjoyment of these precious lives we have. They whizz by faster than we realise.

That evening, after a jolting shift in my perspective, I savoured a game of football like never before and felt more curious about these strangers and their stories too. That is a life I want to live.

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 – 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.