“It is not necessary for a man to be actively bad in order to make a failure in life; simple inaction will accomplish it. Nature has everywhere written her protest against idleness; everything which ceases to struggle, which remains inactive, rapidly deteriorates. It is the struggle toward an ideal, the constant effort to get higher and further, which develops manhood and character.” –James Terry White

Idleness is very difficult for a human to handle.

William James saw that war mobilised a society and gave man clearly meaningful activity. He recognised the importance of keeping people busy and saw that there were benefits to war of allowing states to give structure to peoples lives, to get them busy. In the absence of war he viewed that it was important to have large-scale building schemes to keep people busy.

Today, governments have lost the right to impose work on its citizens.

Society’s function is to give meaning to courageous risks by individual members. Risks to the individual that benefit the group need to feel deeply meaningful.

If society fails to give meaning to difficult actions taken by individuals acting with freedom, we will avoid freedom and fall toward lethargy and apathy.

Freedom is a burden.

Totalitarianism arrives when many prefer structure & certainty over freedom.

What acts are meaningful in our society?

Even the strongest of us need to feel that our lives are given meaning by our society.  A sense of meaning comes when we take on commitments to causes bigger than ourselves and allow others to hold us to those commitments.  Antoni Gaudi didn’t build the Sagrada Familia because he was paid to do so, but because he committed his life to it.  He is famous today, but he did not seek fame in his lifetime.

Today, we value those who accumulate wealth, fame, facebook likes, youtube views, instagram likes, cool clothes. The accumulation of money is not a bad thing, but the hoarding of money is.  We place value on the hoarders over the accumulators.  In the words from the Bhagavad Gita: “you have a right to your labour, not to the fruits of your labour”.

We have a right to be proud of the quality of our work.  It is a positive pride.

We do not have a right to be proud of the wealth that our work allows us to accumulate.  This is a dangerous pride.

What acts require individual courage and sacrifice, but make society better for us all?  

Do I personally value people for their achievements, and not for the work that went in to the achievement?  Sadly, I find the answer is often a “yes”.  I don’t like this.

An effective statement of mission should be short, sharp and direct. It should fit on a t-shirt. Not a font 8 squeeze, but a legible font.

Every person who is involved should be able to articulate how their contribution adds to that mission. If not, then you don’t have a mission. You have a hopeful statement written by a board and not lived by an organisation.

pablo (13)

A Mission Is Not About What is Possible Today

“Never start with tomorrow to reach eternity. Eternity is not reached by small steps.” John Donne

A mission is not guided by what we can do today, what we do today is guided by the mission. If you start with the believably possible, you won’t create a mission you will draft a plan. Martin Luther did not say “I have a plan”. If he did, he would have had the auditors and accountants with him, but no actual people.

JFK said “a man on the moon by the end of the decade”. That’s not a plan. That’s a mission.

Norman Foster has designed some impossible buildings…. and then the engineers have found new ways to build.

Creating Mission: Start from “what problem do you want to solve”?  Don’t start from “what you know how to do”.  

Status Anxiety is a much bigger issue today than at any time in history.

The self-help gurus have sold us on the idea that each of us individually has the power to succeed or fail within us.  If I read “Awaken the Power within” I will find my power and inevitable achieve riches.  If I read it, and I am not rich by Friday…  I am a loser.

17th Century: Nobody Expected to Become An Aristocrat

Nobody in the time of Louis XIV thought that if they just worked a little smarter that they could be as rich as Louis.  Today we see Bill Gates in jeans and a tshirt and it feels like if I had a garage and worked hard I too could become a billionaire.

It is probably as likely to become a billionaire as it was to accidentally switch places with Louis XIV…  but we don’t feel it… and so we have enormous anxiety over the fact that we ourselves haven’t got a billion in the bank.

Driven By Status, Not Money

Economists give a vision of us that we are rational actors almost entirely driven by money.

Alain de Botton
Alain de Botton

According to Alain de Botton, the truth of it is that we are far more hungry for status than we are for money.  It tends to be that well paid jobs come with lots of status, and poorly paid jobs are very low status.  If you were paid €100K for cleaning plates in McDonalds – the lack of status would still make the job tiring.  Research says that only about 10% of the population who are not bothered in any way by their perceived status in society.

Career snobbery is a major feature of modern life:  “What do you do?”, a positive answer… conversation; a non-status job…  hmm, is that the time…  I need to refill my drink.

A Ferrari is not just a fast car, it is an object that confers some degree of honour on the owner.  People are a little nicer to you when you show up at a party in a Ferrari than when you arrive on a bicycle.

“Every time a friend of mine does well, a little piece of me dies” George Bernard Shaw

Download The Podcast

Listen to the podcast with Alain de Botton, (go to episode 76).

Or the full documentary on Status Anxiety

I have sat through many presentations over the last 3 years listening to experts telling company leaders how they can make their company an engaging workplace; how they can increase employee engagement.

Is it really the employer’s responsibility?

Engagement is a Choice

Surely a basic requirement when you accept a job is that you engage and commit to doing it well?

Apathy is a practiced habit.   You don’t start life as a child expert in curiosity-less disengagement.  You practiced.

Your Apathy is Nobody Else’s Fault

Why should the fault be directed to your manager or to company HR?

It is not their fault.

It is not anyone’s fault that you are not engaged.

It is you.

It is you who is apathetic.

It is you who has to commit.

It is you who has to engage.

It is you who has to become responsible for your life as an adult.

Practice Apathy at Work, Become Apathetic in Everything

Show me someone who is apathetic and disengaged at work, and I will show you that he is apathetic and disengaged at home, with friends and a superb cynic of anyone who makes an effort.  When we practice apathy, we get better at it in all areas of our life: work, family, hobbies, friends, studies, spirituality, community.

Here’s a short guide to putting the practice of engagement and responsibility into your life:

Engaged Life 101: How to be actively engaged in life.

  1. Intention: Start every day by stating your intention for the day.  As soon as you wake, write down the sentence “Today, my day is about _________”  (today, I wrote self-compassion…  yesterday I wrote listening better)
  2. Read: Next, read something inspiring.  (ie, not the newspaper, not your email)  Here’s my list of great books: Personal Leadership Library
  3. Think & Write: Decide on your Most Important Action for today.  Write it down.  Do 10 minutes action to move this Most Important Action forward.  At the end of exactly 10 minutes of focussed attention, stop and go have your breakfast.
  4. Now, you can let the day happen…  but you have already taken personal ownership and responsibility for your day…  good practice for the rest of the day.

The Dean of EO Leadership Academy, and highly successful businessman and person, Warren Rustand first taught me this process.  He calls it the 1-10-10-10 start to the day.  1 minute intention, 10 minute read, 10 minute write then 10 minute think.  Ideally followed by 29 minutes of physical exercise and then you’ve given yourself the best possible first 60 minutes of the day.

“Only 3 things happen naturally in organisations: friction, confusion and underperformance. Everything else requires leadership” Peter Drucker

Mediocrity is effortless.

Excellence requires effort.  Excellence requires a culture of excellence.  In the absence of cultures of excellence I will find an excuse to let myself slip from my best.

mediocrity is effortless

Do you surround yourself with cultures of excellence?

“Great leaders create culture by design, while average leaders allow culture to evolve by default.” Mike Myatt

Personal Culture

Are you clear on your values and purpose?  If not, you are bouncing from one opportunity to the next.  You take today’s good opportunity to lay bricks rather than building the great cathedral of your life.  The clue to the existence of a clear personal culture is that you say “No” to most things.  You are not bouncing from one interesting distraction to another interesting interruption.

The ability to start things is a good step towards a positive personal culture.  The ability to finish things is the goal.  Are you better at starting things than you are at finishing things?  (I am.  It takes real effort for me to declare a project finished.)

I have my own explicit written personal culture.  I first wrote it down 7 years ago as I emerged from a very difficult time in my life:

  • 17 Daily Personal Habits for a Fulfilling Life
  • I have a much updated version that I keep with me today.  I don’t share it publicly, but have often shown it to those who have shared their own personal mission, vision and values with me.  You can find my email if it is important to you.

Family Culture

“A family culture happens whether you’re consciously creating it or not. It’s up to you and your wife to determine whether that culture is of your choosing. If you want a positive family culture, you must commit yourself to years of constant planning and teaching. A culture isn’t something that’s created overnight; it requires daily investment.” Brett McKay

The family culture is the first culture we experience.  Your earliest experience of co-existing with others was in your childhood family.  If your parents were clear about their values; the behaviours that express those values, the non-acceptable behaviours; and the rituals that keep these values visible: then you had a great start.  If your parents did not work to jointly define and live this family culture, you still had a culture…  but with unclear and unsatisfying results.

There are 3 pillars of group culture:  Values, Norms and Rituals.

Values – Each family’s set of values will be different and shaped by different education, religion and country values.  Some families see competition as positive, some see it as negative.  Some see position as giving rights (“You’ll do it because I am your father!”), some see dignity and agreements giving rights (“You’ll do it because we value kindness.”)

Norms – explicit and implicit rules of engagement.  For example, how do we resolve conflicts?  Shouting and passive-agressive stand-offs?  Calm discussion and seeking to understand the other?  How do we share chores?  Does one person work while others sit watching?  or does everybody find a way to help when clearing the table after a meal?

Rituals – routines, sanctions and celebrations.  Family meals – are they in front of TV when each individual is hungry, or does everyone gather and share?  Weekends, mornings, nights…  what are the regular routines?  Rites of Passage – what way do you celebrate the passing of the seasons, the reaching of an individual goal, the birthdays, the local and religious festivals?  There are 3 levels of ritual: Daily, Weekly and Life Changing.

These elements exist whether you chose them consciously or not.  There are no accidental cultures of excellence and meaningful community.

Resource: The Art of Manliness blog on Creating Family Culture:

Business Culture

“If I were running a company today, I would have one priority above all others: to acquire as many of the best people as I could.” Jim Collins

Business differ from families in 2 ways:

  1. they can remove individuals and
  2. they can hire pre-prepared individuals.

Jim Collins in Good to Great (my favourite business book of all time) tells us that it is all about people.

Last week in Washington I heard Dr. Evian Gordon ask “How many people does it take to ruin a team?”  Answer?  You already know…

One.

Verne Harnish told me that the important people question is “would I enthusiastically re-hire this person tomorrow?”  If there is doubt, then you must act.  Ken Blanchard told us how in 3 steps:

  1. Establish explicit goals together
  2. Publicly praise immediately when you see good behaviour
  3. Individually reprimand immediately when you see poor behaviour (“you are great, this report is not worthy of you.”)

A summary of Jim Collin’s book Good to Great is available on his website.

Community Culture

The country in which you live will have a major impact upon your implicit sense of what is right and what is wrong, the right way to behave and the right way to treat others.  Geert Hofstede told us that there are 6 major areas of difference between national cultures: it is worth knowing these 6 and where your own country is on each of these 6 in order to appreciate yourself and those who come from other national cultures.

Resource:  Geert Hofstede’s 6 Dimensions of National Culture

Rome (and Cultures): Not Built in a Day

Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Your personal, family and business cultures were not built in a day, and cannot be changed in a day.

Changing for the better is not a project.  It is what life is about.

The first step is to describe your personal culture.  The next step is to create, jointly with your family members, a description of what family means to them.

Mediocrity is the easy path.

The smarter you are, the better your reasons for being mediocre.

An inspiring life requires hard thinking, hard discipline and hard patience.  Do you have the patience?  Do you have the discipline?  Do you have the desire?

Better the poor man with dreams and desire, than the great man with no dreams and no desire.

“The significance of man is not in what he attains, but rather in what he longs to attain” Khalil Gibran, Sand and Foam

De duodecim abusivis saeculi “On the Twelve Abuses of the World” is a self-help book written by an Irish author between 630 and 700AD.  You could say that it was the earliest precursor to Steven Covey, Brian Tracy or Jim Rohn.

The work was widely propagated throughout Europe by Irish missionaries in the 8th century. Its authorship was often attributed to Saint Patrick (the general view today is that it was not his work).

Duodecim abusivis saeculi

De duodecim condemns the following twelve abuses:

Collectio_Canonum_Hibernensis_Domkapitel_zu_Köln_Codex_210_15v
*Collectio Canonum Hibernensis
  1. the wise man without works; sapiens sine operibus
  2. the old man without religion; senex sine religione
  3. the young man without obedience; adolescens sine oboedientia
  4. the rich man without charity; dives sine elemosyna
  5. the woman without modesty; femina sine pudicitia
  6. the nobleman without virtue; dominus sine virtute
  7. the argumentative Christian; Christianius contentiosus
  8. the proud pauper; pauper superbus
  9. the unjust king; rex iniquus
  10. the neglectful bishop; episcopus neglegens
  11. the community without order; plebs sine disciplina
  12. the people without a law; populus sine lege

Background

This form of document is part of a broad category of medieval literature called “Mirrors for Princes”.  They were developed to educate future kings in the leadership qualities that would be needed in their role as king.  The best known of these works is The Prince by Machiavelli.

One of the hardest parts of leadership is getting people around you to take action.  It is easy to get people to agree generally that things could be better, it is a vastly different conversation to look them each in the eyes and ask that they tell you directly how they will be taking action in their areas.  I have opinions on refugees, politics, border controls, the need for hard work, the ways to educate children…  but I don’t often follow these opinions up with clear action.

We (that is: we socially adapted human beings) are pretty poor when it comes to asking for commitment from others.  In polite society it is considered rude to hold the attention on a person after they have given a vague answer and then ask them to clarify exactly what their commitment is.  If you are the friend who does this, you might find that you are invited to less barbecues.

In leadership, it is the most important thing.

Leadership requires that you both share your vision in a way that people around you see why effort is required, and then that you look them in the eyes and make it clear that you now expect clear action from them…  or there will be consequences.

The commitment process is not a natural human process – we instinctively shy away from forcing the other to say that they are making a formal commitment.  Unfortunately, this means many conversations end with no commitments at all.

  • It happens with friends – I often realise that I have assumptions about how the washing and cleaning will be shared with others when we share a holiday house…  but it is I who have failed to be absolutely clear with the others about my expectations.
  • It happens at work – a colleague and myself discuss a new article that we can co-write over a coffee and are both excited by the project.  A month later and no words have been written…  I had assumed he would be structuring the first draft, and he was waiting for me to share a first attempt.

As I return from 2 months away from formal work and away from my home city, one of the reflections I have is that I have a wonderful ability to get frustrated when others don’t do things that I expected them to do…  but the closer I look at my own responsibility I realise that I don’t do a great job of articulating what it is that I expect.

So, 2 aims for myself:

  • When I notice that a feeling of frustration is growing in me because of the behaviour of another, ask myself if I have done my best to explain why and what my expectation is.  (Usual answer: No).
  • Stop getting frustrated at other people.

A final story that came to my mind as I finish this post…

The Inevitable Outcome of the Dog and the Rugby Ball

2 days ago I was at a barbecue hosted by my good friends Florian and Rose.

They were “babysitting” a one year old dog, a rottweiler called Nike.  She was a good dog who loved being at the center of the action.  Another of the guests mentioned that they loved rugby… and I happened to have a rugby ball in the back of my car.

We took out the ball and passed it back and forth…  suffice to say, within 5 minutes the ball had been burst by a big bite from Nike the dog.

My first reaction was annoyance… but in less than a second the thought came to my head “what type of idiot takes a rugby ball out of his car when an excited dog with a big mouth is at the barbecue!”.  If I didn’t want the ball burst, I should have left it in the car.  If I wanted to be frustrated about a burst ball – then throw it around with a rottweiler chasing it.

There was no possible good end to this particular game of rugby…

How often do I get into situations where there is no good end to the “game”?  

The title of this post came from a summary of a talk by Pat Murray.

As a leader, people watch every single act.  If you are in a bad mood and act out of that bad mood, people think that is who you are.  Words are generally ignored, we watch what you allow to happen.

As parents this is even more difficult.  If you say “do this and you will not get dessert” and then give them dessert anyway (because you are tired and do not want the fight) you have taught the children a lesson:  Your rules are flexible and negotiable.  It is hard to trust someone whose rules are flexible and negotiable.

You Stand For What You Tolerate

“The worst use of power is no use of power”

What do you know that is “wrong” but tolerate?  What behaviours annoy you, but you don’t address them?  If somebody arrives 4 minutes late to a meeting, are they allowed to attend?  If somebody sends the report an hour later than agreed, are they sanctioned?

If you allow bad behaviour this is who you are.  Words are cheap.  What you allow is real.

What are your intolerables?  What are the behaviours that you absolutely will not sanction?  If you are not clear on this list, then you will allow bad behaviours to creep in to your culture.  I learnt one clear lesson during the Organisation Behaviour module of my own MBA: “The worst use of power is no use of power”.

It is really painful to confront another person on their behaviour.  It is a lot more painful to be the passive creator of a slowly sickening culture of performance.

Communities are Conservative, Business is Progressive

"J S Mill and H Taylor" by http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:J_S_Mill_and_H_Taylor.jpghttp://www.nzz.ch/aktuell/feuilleton/uebersicht/freiheit-und-gleichberechtigung--der-erste-band-ausgewaehlter-werke-john-stuart-mills-1.18025974#. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:J_S_Mill_and_H_Taylor.jpg#mediaviewer/File:J_S_Mill_and_H_Taylor.jpg
John Stewart Mill and H Taylor, they thought deeply about these questions of society, freedom, markets, power in the 1800s.  Photo licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons 

There is an inherent conflict between communities and companies.  Communities (family, neighbourhood, tradition) try to maintain stability.  Companies are driven by the nature of the capitalism market system to innovate and change. (See Schumpeter’s “creative destruction” on wikipedia) .

Stability vs Destruction

Companies close their factories and replace deeply experienced craft men with young computer geeks who can build the model inside a CAD/CAM system.  Companies move accounts payable from outside of town, to outside of the continent and 25 middle managers who have spent 25 years working in accounts no longer have a workplace to go to.  The community is hit by this loss of incomes and hope.

What is the right balance between Creative Destruction (Capitalism) and Stability (Community)?

This may be a moot question – Creative Destruction is an international, intercontinental force.  A community has little power to decide “we will step outside of this cycle”.

Europe is facing this on a brutal scale.  These two forces are pulling the euro project in many directions, testing political will, raising emotions.  Karl Marx predicted that capitalist society would come to this point – debasement of the money supply (otherwise known as Quantitative Easing), greater and greater proportion of profit going to the owners of capital (not labour), monopolistic tendency in industries.  His view was that capitalism would inevitably collapse under its own success.

Community has provided the softening balance that has kept capitalism from collapsing under its own successes.  However we face an intense conflict.  We don’t have free markets, we have crony capitalism.  The banks that should have failed, were not allowed to fail.  The bankers at the center of the capitalism disaster turned to community to save themselves – and community did.

Capitalism is needed to innovate, but Community is needed to soften the harsh blows and to save capitalism from its own failings.

Changing and Caring

  • Entrepreneurship is needed in society, in public service, in schooling as much as it is needed in business.  The modern world needs a continual updating mechanism – otherwise our nation will be left behind.  We have found no other comparable mechanism than the market to continually improve products, services and people (evolution is a sort of market mechanism).
  • Society needs a balancing function.  The brutal consequences of competition – loss of jobs, loss of value of skills, unemployment, increasing cost of debt servicing…  need people who can support us in tough moments.

This conflict is always going to be there.  Society wants stability.  Global markets force change.

How can society cope with the ever increasing speed of global change?  What happens when companies innovate fast?  How can we help communities accommodate the increased pace of change?

It is Messy, isn’t it

I don’t have any simple answers.  I am currently taking the course “Moral Foundations of Political Systems” on Coursera with Yale Professor Ian Shapiro.  Over the past 5 weeks we have moved through Enlightenment, to Utilitarianism, to Marxism and this week onto Social Contract theory.  I love several moments in the course where Shapiro asks a simple question to the partipants…  they give a go at what seems a simple enough question…  and then he smiles and says “it is messy, isn’t it.  You can’t take the politics out of human decisions.”  

Was school good for me?  I do believe so.

There are some very positive values that were inculcated in me through the way the teachers dealt with us, the stories we were told, the structure of the school:  compassion, gratitude, sharing, discipline, respect, charity, hope, love.

The 3 Worst Things We Learned As Children

However, there are some aspects that get deeply driven in to us as children that I don’t think are helpful to our productive adult life:

  • Conformity – Society crushes the outsiders, school is brutal on those who are outside the “norm”, grades push you to meet the pre-existing answer – not explore other options.  Most of life’s important decisions can not be calculated in an excel spreadsheet and solved with calculus.
  • Perfectionism – “Don’t make mistakes!” is reinforced day after day after day by the exam and school work feedback that we receive over years and years.
  • Validation – “how did you do on the exam?”  “I don’t know, I haven’t received the results yet.”   We learn to stop looking at how much of our potential we delivered into a course, a project, a homework – and start to only evaluate our performance based on someone else’s judgement of our finished work.  I know whether I gave 10% or 50% or 90% of myself to a piece of work – this should matter more than A, B or C.

Leadership requires breaking free from these 3 things.  Great leaders don’t seek external validation (No: “how did I do?”), understand that mistakes allow improvement (No: “who screwed this up?”) and that diverse people and diverse ideas (No: “that will never work!”) need to be brought together to see more fully the paths that are available.

Your School?

What are the important values that you took from your schooling?  What are the attitudes that do not serve you that were conditioned by school?

Further Reading: Posts on Schooling and Learning