The winner of the 100m in the Olympics might also win the 200m, but will never be competitive in the 10K… or marathon …or rowing, or judo…
Gold medal athletes focus on their strengths and work to amplify their strengths. Usain Bolt doesn’t spend training time trying to improve his long distance capacity. He works on his start, on acceleration, on sprinting and finishing. He works on his strengths.
Recently I’ve felt a lot of pressure to spend time on areas that for me are weaknesses. I am writing this blog post mainly as a reminder to myself to stay strong, and accept these weaknesses. As a leader, I am responsable for making sure there are people and systems around me so that our business doesn’t have weaknesses… but it is not me that should spend time in areas where I am weak.
Dan Sullivan on working on your strengths
If you work throughout your life on improving your weaknesses, what you get are a lot of really strong weaknesses.
In order to do well in school, you need to get good grades in all the subjects. If you are good at sports when you are 12 or 15, you are probably the best at most of the sports you try.
I did well in school. It became painful for me to not get good grades… in any subject… even the ones that I really didn’t care about.
In business (and professional sports), you do well by being really good in one subject. In order to be excellent, you need to deliberately choose to be bad in almost everything else.
I am good at some things, I am not good at lots of things. A lot of the people around me are great at letting me know what I’m not doing so well… I have to stay mindful in order to not get drawn into trying to spend effort improving my weaknesses.
Stephen King says “I was lucky. I was born only good at one thing. Imagine how hard it is for people who are good at 2 things… or what is truly difficult… being good at most things.”(I paraphrase as I can’t currently find the original quote)
This blog post is based on a couple of passages that I have copied and pasted from the book “The Cicero Trilogy” by Robert Harris.
2 weeks ago I found myself watching the Impeachment trial of US President Donald Trump from my hotel room in California, while reading about an Impeachment trial over 2,000 years ago in Rome. It was fascinating to see the parallels and feel that the US impeachment process was not a signal of a broken, polarised political system… but part of the system of democracy that we have inherited from the Greeks and then the Roman Republic.
6 Quotes from The Cicero Trilogy
‘It is perseverance,’ he used to say, ‘and not genius that takes a man to the top. Rome is full of unrecognised geniuses. Only perseverance enables you to move forward in the world.’
I learnt this the hard way as an entrepreneur. In my first business, we sold insurance. I had 4 partners. We agreed that we would each aim to sell 4 policies per week to keep ourselves involved in the business. The first week is not too hard. The second week I could still do it selling to friends… but the fourth, fifth… and consecutive weeks… only systematic persistence in making the phone calls day after day allowed me to sustain the sales over the long term. My business today is about meaningful conversations… If I have meaningful conversations with inspiring leaders day after day… our business grows. If I stop having conversations…. sooner or later, the business wilts and starts to die.
‘To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?’
Those who are unaware of history are doomed to repeat it. We are not the first humans to have faced the challenges in front of us. There is a wealth of past experience. I need to let go of my ego and open myself up to this wealth of human experience. It is not the answer for me, but it will give me the perspectives I need to take a better decision. I cannot just copy the past, or other people’s answers… but I am much better placed for life if I have these perspectives.
it was his belief that a great performer, however experienced, must always be frightened before going on stage – ‘the nerves should be as taut as bowstrings if the arrows are to fly’
I say to myself, the day I am not nervous before class or a speech is the day I have stopped caring… and I should stop. I so often wish the nerves would go away. I suffer worries and anxiety before every class and every speech… As much as I would like to not feel these emotions, they are demonstration that I care about the audience and the material and it is important to me to do the work well.
‘The art of life is to deal with problems as they arise, rather than destroy one’s spirit by worrying about them too far in advance.
Easier said than done… I have a vivid imagination and it is very good at creating multimedia future visions of failure and disaster and betrayal and deception… I work to channel my imagination towards productive questions: “How can I…?” is a better form of question to my mind than “Why?” – it pushes my imagination to be resourceful and responsible.
Cicero’s first law of rhetoric, that a speech must always contain at least one surprise.
If you just share generic obvious statements… it is a waste of your and your audience’s time. If we all know something, and we are not yet taking action… then sharing this thing we all know again will not lead to action. There must be a surprise. There are many forms of surprise… but a great speech should lead to the audience seeing something with new eyes, taking new meaning from an old experience, or changing their perception of an aspect of life.
‘We have so much – our arts and learning, laws, treasure, slaves, the beauty of Italy, dominion over the entire earth – and yet why is it that some ineradicable impulse of the human mind always impels us to foul our own nest?’
The german language has the word “schadenfreude“. The experience of joy or pleasure in witnessing another person’s misfortune. It is often harder for us to enjoy another’s successes than it is for us to experience a small inner joy at the setbacks another must face. I wish I could switch it off… in me and in all around me… in humanity as a whole. The ego, or sense of independent self, in each of us needs so much “to be right”, to win, to be “better” and we are willing often to cause pain to ourselves to cause pain to another.
If we are to achieve peace outside ourselves, we must achieve peace within. This is to know myself. To laugh at and accept my flaws, to be grateful for my strengths and to take life as an infinite rather than a finite game.
“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.
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.
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
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.
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)
Read: Next, read something inspiring. (ie, not the newspaper, not your email) Here’s my list of great books: Personal Leadership Library
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.
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.
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
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:
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.
“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:
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.
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:
the wise man without works; sapiens sine operibus
the old man without religion; senex sine religione
the young man without obedience; adolescens sine oboedientia
the rich man without charity; dives sine elemosyna
the woman without modesty; femina sine pudicitia
the nobleman without virtue; dominus sine virtute
the argumentative Christian; Christianius contentiosus
the proud pauper; pauper superbus
the unjust king; rex iniquus
the neglectful bishop; episcopus neglegens
the community without order; plebs sine disciplina
the people without a law; populus sine lege
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.
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