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Managing your boss

Portrait of Albert Einstein
Portrait of Albert Einstein



Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results

Albert Einstein





In the last couple of years, I’ve enjoyed selling things on eBay.

In recent days, however, I’ve been grappling with a fair degree of frustration.  On Tuesday, I booked a courier to collect a parcel on Wednesday.

The courier didn’t come.

On Thursday I was out and left it with my neighbours.  I checked in with them on Thursday evening.

The courier hadn’t come.

Friday?  I was at home in the morning.

The courier didn’t come.

I had a meeting in the afternoon and left the parcel with my neighbours.  (Again.)  I collected the parcel from my neighbours on my way home.  The courier made his first attempt to collect soon after.  “Everybody’s complaining today,” he told me.  I knew I was not alone.

I was all the more frustrated because this has happened a number of times in recent weeks and my attempts to engage the company concerned have generally been met with an apology and a request that I deliver the parcel to them.

Are you working for your worst boss ever?

Working for a difficult boss is a subject that comes up repeatedly.  If you’re working for your worst boss ever, you may already recognise some parallels with my courier experience.

Your boss is the boss, right?  You expect him or her to do the things bosses do.

You expect your boss to clearly define what he or she wants of you.  He doesn’t.

You expect your boss to support you in shaping an agenda for your part of the business and to help you to gain support for important initiatives.  But you can’t get time in your boss’s diary or you face a wall when you put your ideas forward.

You expect your boss to organise herself to be effective.  You expect leadership from your boss.  But the last thing you get from your boss is good, sound leadership.

You expect the boss to provide support and coaching to help you become more effective in your current role or prepare for your next role.  But all you get is criticism when you don’t do things his way.  (And how the hell are you supposed to know what his way is?  He certainly doesn’t tell you.)

Perhaps you try making requests of your boss or giving feedback.  He may agree with your assessment of the situation but nothing changes.  She may take offence at your feedback.

Over time, you feel more and more frustrated.  Perhaps you feel anxious.  Maybe, if your boss is super critical of you, you lose confidence.  Your performance starts to slide.  Or maybe you find yourself increasingly filling the gap.  Others approach you rather than seeking help from your manager.  Or you start to shape the agenda, to do the influencing, to make things happen.

What Ben knew

Recently, I met someone who had made quite an art out of working for difficult bosses.  I was intrigued to learn more.

The first thing he told me intrigued me most of all.

It hadn’t always been that way.

Early in his career, he had set out to change a difficult boss.  He was confident that his perceptions of his manager were correct and felt sure that if he only raised his concerns at more senior levels, something would be done to address the boss’s behaviour.

In a way, he told me, he got lucky.  His boss’s boss was sympathetic to his concerns.  At the same time, she also highlighted the risks of taking on someone who was so powerful within the organisation.  “You can’t change the others,” she told him.  “You can only change yourself.”

Ben (let’s call him Ben) became curious about the possibilities of what he could achieve by focusing on what he could do rather than focussing on how his boss should be different.

In his first experience, for example, he recognised that his manager had a lot of power in the organisation and a strong desire to look good.  Ben learned to make the most of his boss’s powerful position by working with him to develop initiatives that moved the organisation forward.  “Whatever his limitations” he told me, “I always treated him with the utmost respect.  I shared ideas with him and explored the implications with him.  Quite quickly, I realised I had to start small if I wanted to get him on board.  The effect was to create a pathway towards the next small initiative and the next one and the next one.  I gave credit to my boss whenever I could and, quite quickly, he started to take the credit for the way he had encouraged me.  Once this happened, he started to sing my praises around the organisation so that we both looked good.”

I asked him if this kind of strategy had always worked for him.

“No,” he told me.  “There are times when I look at a situation and ask myself what I can achieve by adjusting my own behaviour and what changes I can make.  In one job, I gave feedback to my boss and he acknowledged all the issues I raised with him – and then did nothing at all to address them.  After I’d had this conversation with him several times I thought hard about my next steps and decided that I needed to accept the situation or, if I couldn’t accept the situation, I needed to accept that I couldn’t accept the situation.   At that stage, I knew it was time for me to move on.”

Tolle2Ben had learnt something I still find difficult.  Eckhart Tolle summed it up like this:  “When you complain you make yourself a victim.  Leave the situation, change the situation or accept it.  All else is madness.”

You could also put it this way:  “When you expect your boss to manage you, you make yourself a victim.  You need to start managing your boss.  Accept that your boss is the way s/he is, do what you can to transform your relationship with your boss, or leave your boss.  All else is madness.”

What struck me about Ben was not that he turned a blind eye to the weaknesses and failings of his line managers.  No.  He was curious about his bosses’ strengths and weaknesses.

He did, though, give up the word “should”:  he stopped telling himself that his line manager should be doing all the things that good bosses do.

My experience with my courier was a reminder that, whatever views I might have about my courier and what they should be doing, they were not.

Making your peace with working for the worst boss ever

The courier should have turned up on Wednesday but it didn’t.

I have already tried to attract attention and get the help I needed.

I’ve used the on-line chat facility and talked to people in Mumbai.

I’ve tried tweeting the UK team.

I tried writing to the courier’s Head of Customer Service.


I got no reply.

Because the issues with this courier’s service have been repeated, I spoke to the Citizens Advice Bureau.

And then I looked hard at my courier’s standard Terms and Conditions.

I was surprised to discover that, as far as the courier is concerned, the service starts once their courier has collected the parcel.  (How weird is that?!)  What’s more, they take no responsibility for events beyond their control, including mechanical failure.  (In short, if the courier’s vehicle breaks down, they won’t collect.)

The thing is, I realised that my courier isn’t going to change.

I thought about the reasons I use this particular courier and I knew they still stand.  At their best, this courier provides a good standard of service at a price that suits my customers on eBay.

I decided to add a few words to my listings on eBay – my own Terms and Conditions – to alert my clients to the possibility of delay.

And, having done this, I felt at peace.

If you’re still waiting for your boss to change you’re doing what I do when I get cross when the courier doesn’t come.  Of course it’s logical to expect my courier to come on the day scheduled.  It’s what couriers do.

But all couriers are not equal and neither are all bosses.

Instead, you will be at your most effective – and peaceful – when you take a long hard look at the boss you have and ask yourself, “Where do I go from here?”

Please let me know how you get on.

On the path to greater ease – knowing what you want

Alice:  Would you please tell me which way I ought to go from here?

The Cheshire Cat:  That depends a good deal on where you want to get to

 Lewis Carroll

Alice in Wonderland

I’ve been thrilled to get back to work this month – coaching at the Sunday coaching clinic in Harley Street as well as a raft of feedback sessions for participants on a High Potential development programme and their managers.  This is work I love – getting beyond symptoms to help people to identify and address core issues.

It happens that, in coaching, the most fundamental question often addresses clients’ core issues.  The question?  What do you want?  The issue?  Do people know what they really want?  Of course, this question gets dressed up in many ways.  It also applies in many areas.  And still, it applies.

As a leader, the question of what you want can be extra tough.  Not only do you need to find your own direction but also you need to find everyone else’s.  Because, make no mistake, everyone is looking to you for direction.

The challenge of knowing what you want

In saying this, there’s something I want to make clear to you.  If you find it difficult to know what you want, if you feel confused or anxious, frustrated, lost or even at a loss, you’re not alone.

Recently, for example, one client told me how angry he has been feeling for months on end.  Angry.  Out of sorts.  And he didn’t know why.  His situation is not uncommon and may even have some resonance for you.  You find yourself feeling strong emotions which sometimes take you by surprise and yet you can’t connect them to anything you recognise.  You know you’re experiencing strong emotions but you don’t know what you really want.

Why is it so difficult to know what you want?

Over the years, I’ve discovered that there are all sorts of reasons why people struggle to know what they really want.  It’s not that they never know what they want (though it might be). Still, there are challenges we all face when we try to answer the question “What do you want?”  I wonder if any of these apply to you?

You’re supposed to be the leader, and yet, somehow, you’re not in charge.  Remember that “go for growth” agenda you were working towards?  Just as your team members were really starting to make progress you hit a major barrier.  In the old days, it was a new emphasis on quality or a failure by your colleagues in manufacturing to respond to demand.  More recently it was a major world recession.  Perhaps now, it’s a new CEO with a new agenda or, worse still, with no agenda, so that you find yourself in a holding pattern whilst you wait to hear about his or her conclusions from yet another major review.  Any which way, just as you felt you were really making progress you found you were moving in the wrong direction.

Perhaps, though, the issue is not a change in direction from the top.  No.  In a world which emphasises selflessness, commitment to your employing organisation or some other form of looking after somebody else’s needs, you’re struggling to muster a kind of inner permission to attend to your own needs – openly, honestly and fully.  You’re feeling out of sorts and you know things aren’t working for you but you don’t know what you really want.  Your career direction is unclear.  You’re struggling in your relationship with your boss, your spouse or even your children.  And because you don’t know what you want, you can’t begin to make progress in the right direction.

Maybe, though, the thing you wanted turns out not to be the panacea you thought it was.  You got the promotion you have been working towards for years and still, you’re not happy.  Your partner agreed to the move you discussed for weeks and weeks on end but you find that what should have been an exciting adventure is at the cost of a frosty silence between you which leaves you feeling angry, anxious or dismayed.  Your boss has responded to requests you made and has followed through to make things happen and still, somehow, you feel uncomfortable and you know your needs are not being met.  The bottom line is this:  you thought you knew what you wanted but you weren’t happy when you got it.

Sometimes, it’s hard to reach agreement with your colleagues about a way forward for your organisation.  Equally, at times, it’s your own inner team which is not pulling in the same direction.  Some part of you is pushing for action, progress, results… and yet, in practice, you are not taking some of the actions you know are key to success.  You shout louder at the part of you that is saying no to those actions… and meet more and more resistance.  You know what you want and feel frustrated and angry – with yourself.

As much as you want to know what you want, you also need compassion for the not knowing.

The world in your hands

At the turn of the millennium, I was heavily involved for a while in developing leadership in schools.  As a member of a team of people accrediting trainers on a national leadership programme for serving headteachers, I sometimes felt I was meeting a whole generation of headteachers.

Many of them were weighed down by the number of directives from the government of the day.  They felt that their autonomy was slowly being removed – they were increasingly responsible for results and yet they had less and less choice about how to achieve them.

Not every headteacher felt that way.  I remember one who told me that, faced with a new government white paper he would take a look at what was coming his way.  “We’re told we’re being consulted,” he said, “but you know that what’s in the paper will ultimately be implemented”.  His response?  To think about how he could use new developments in government policy and legislation to serve his own agenda.

It seems to me that whilst many of his colleagues carried the weight of the world on their shoulders, he carried the world in the palm of his hands.

What the headteacher knew

I’m not sure he even reflected on it, but this headteacher knew, by his experience, how much easier life can be when you know what you want.  He knew his purpose as a headteacher was to serve a community of children.  He wanted to help them to reach a level of educational attainment that would support them in finding employment and in leading meaningful lives.  He wanted to build the sense of self-belief and the emotional intelligence they needed as a foundation for success.

Having this level of clarity about what he wanted in his role as a headteacher meant that Arthur (let’s call him Arthur) had a basis for making decisions.  If he felt that serving on xyz committee would support him in supporting the children in his care he would say yes – but he could, equally, say no.  If he spotted an opportunity to serve the children more effectively he would pursue it with vigour.  Faced with a new government paper he would – rather than feeling crushed by the weight of yet more legislation – ask “how can I position this to serve the children?”

Arthur’s vision was simple, and at the same time, it made life easier for others in the school, too.  Arthur constantly spoke about activities in the school in the light of this vision.  How would a new project support the school in serving the children?  What more could staff do to support the children?  Over the years, the school’s ongoing policies and practices – which were often seen as highly innovative – were designed to support the children.

This kind of clarity attracted like-minded people to serve on the school’s staff whilst repelling others.  It was hard to feel comfortable in the school if you didn’t share such a clear agenda.  It was a source of energy and engagement.  It was a source of ease.  It’s not that people didn’t work hard – they did.  But they had clarity, focus and direction.

On the path to knowing what you want

Arthur knew what he wanted and he’s not alone.  In business, as in the world of education and elsewhere, some people seem to have a clear and unfailing idea of what they want.

Many do not.

To be more precise, for most people, knowing what you want is a path of learning and exploration.  It requires skills.  It requires attention.  And because what we want in one moment may be different from what we want the next it requires presence.

This quality of presence helps us to understand both the big “what do I want?” and how our most fundamental vision can be manifest at particular moments in time.

As I draw to a close, I wonder, what do you want?  More precisely, I wonder, to what extent do you know what you want?  I invite you to take a moment to check in with yourself:

  • What mark out of ten would you give yourself for the clarity of your vision in your role as a leader?
  • What mark out of ten would you give yourself for your clarity of vision for your life as a whole?
  • What mark out of ten would you give yourself for how clearly you know what you want right now?

Perhaps, like Arthur, you know what you want.

But if you don’t, I invite you to bring compassion to your unknowing and to everything that comes with it.

And in case you don’t, I want to say that to learn to connect with what you really want is also to release struggle and to move towards greater ease.


Dealing with challenging feelings: who is responsible for the way you feel?

“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom,
I knew that if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind,
I would still be in prison”
Nelson Mandela
1918 – 2013

I have been super busy in the last four weeks with a trip to Munich for one client followed by a three-week intensive project to assess the graduates of a High Potential programme for another.  I completed the first draft of the last report and sent it off for peer review just hours before my sister-in-law, Judy, arrived from South Korea for the start of her Christmas tour of family and friends.  Today, I am pausing for breath.

During this period, we heard of the death of Nelson Mandela, on Thursday, December 5th, 2013.  Mandela’s death was not unexpected and still, it touched me deeply – he was truly an elder statesman of our age.

It is not surprising that, as well as giving news of Mandela’s death, of his funeral service and of his final burial at his home town of Qunu, journalists have been reflecting on Mandela’s life.  I have repeatedly seen extracts from the speech he made in 1964 at the dock, in what became known as the Rivonia Trial.  These words have been widely quoted:

“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination.  I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.  It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve.  But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

It happened that, at much the same time, I received a question from a client who was struggling to come to terms with his feelings about an experience he had had.  He wrote:

“I’ve been telling myself that other people are not responsible for the way I feel.  Yes, the things my manager did triggered a lot of anger, but only because of the thoughts I had at the time… I felt really concerned about staying in my job under such a manager and also afraid to leave my job in this difficult economy.  One of my colleagues has told me forcefully that my manager is responsible for my feelings – what he did was completely unacceptable.  I don’t know which way to turn…”

His next question made me think of Mandela:

“I’ve been wondering, is the whole business trying to ensure we don’t take a definite stance on where change comes from?  In other words, it’s not me or my boss who has to change… instead, let’s work out a way.  And when I attribute responsibility for my feelings to someone else, I’m at risk of taking the oomph out of my own effort?”

In the midst of grappling with this question, I have particularly been struck by the number of times journalists have reported that Mandela was “without bitterness” at the end of his 26 years of imprisonment.

Are you struggling to know who’s responsible for your feelings?
This posting is for you if you, too, are grappling with difficult feelings and don’t quite know who is responsible – or how to respond.

Perhaps someone has done something that has had significant – and negative – implications for you.  At work, for example, the failure of a colleague to deliver on his commitments means that you’ve let down a key client.  You can tell your manager that it was not your fault but even that puts you in difficulty – you don’t want to be someone who points the finger and besides, you know that your manager will hear no ill of this particular colleague.  This is, of course, just one example of experiences that might be stimulating pain, anger, frustration or anxiety at work.

It happens that I’m writing this posting in the final sprint towards Christmas when many people are grappling with issues within their family.  Maybe you find it difficult to spend time with your mother, father or sibling because they still do the thing you found so difficult as a child – be it the explosive temper, the lack of empathy, the competition with you or the coldness between them… whatever it is, as you come closer to spending time with them you feel the mounting anxiety, the anger, the frustration… who says they’re not responsible for the way you feel, given everything that’s happened over the years?

Without bitterness:  the ones who forgave
Mandela chose deliberately to let go of his feelings of bitterness and hatred.  He is not the only one.

Recently, I met a man whose daughter had been murdered and yet was entirely at peace with his loss.  When he spoke of his daughter it was with gratitude for the years they had had together rather than with any sense of anger towards his daughter’s murderer.

This was all the more striking because so many parents of murdered children are quoted in the media as saying how the loss of their child has ruined their lives for ever.  Their message is clear, “This person did something which has ruined my life.”  Again and again, the implication is that this enduring sense of loss, anger and bitterness is the only option available to the bereaved.  The message is also, clearly, “you did that to me.”

And who can blame them?

At the same time, Mandela knew, when he finally left prison in 1990 that any feelings of bitterness and hatred he took with him would, in themselves, constitute a prison.  For this reason, he decided to leave them behind.
When we take responsibility for our feelings, then what?
Often, when people consider the option of taking responsibility for their own feelings, they have two main concerns.  Firstly, they have concerns about the other person – will they get away with it?  Will they do the same thing again and with a similar impact on other people?  At root, they’re concerned that taking responsibility for their own feelings lets the other person or people off the hook.  Secondly, clients can be concerned that when they let go of the idea that someone else is responsible for the way they feel, they let go of their power.
These two concerns are closely related …and entirely without foundation.
Let’s take the second concern first.  If you’re feeling anxious or frustrated at the prospect of spending time with your family at Christmas, it’s a sure sign that you don’t feel confident that your needs – whatever those needs might be – will be met.  Perhaps you know that you don’t find it easy to be around your mother-in-law when she seems to resent all the work that goes in to hosting a family gathering.  You may even have strong feelings about the fact that she chooses to host a family gathering at Christmas given that she finds it so stressful and given that you’ve repeatedly offered to host lunch yourself.
As long as you hold your mother-in-law responsible for your feelings, you’re thinking that it’s your mother-in-law who needs to make changes.
You may also be struggling to give due weight to your own needs… are you willing to say, “my needs matter” and to make choices that reflect this belief?  This is often an area of great struggle, because it comes with all sorts of fears.  In particular, there’s a fear that can come when we realise that taking responsibility for own feelings means making choices that other people may not support…
…the choice to say no to an invitation from a relative to join them for Christmas, knowing family members will struggle to accept your choice…
…the choice to share your concerns about your manager with, well, your manager – even though you have no way of knowing how he or she will respond…
…the choice to move away from grief and towards joy after the loss of a child, even though society at large finds it hard to accept that grief and joy can exist side by side…
…the choice to hurt someone’s feelings (because if they’re responsible for your feelings you must be responsible for theirs, right?) or – more challenging still – to act, knowing that someone will struggle with your actions, and knowing that whatever they believe, it is what they think about your choices and not your choices themselves, which causes such pain…
When we make these and other choices with a sincere desire to meet our own needs and a willingness to support others in meeting theirs we do, increasingly, feel the power that comes with owning our feelings.  Instead of “yes, I feel angry that you…” we start to own that “yes, I feel angry that I…”  “I feel angry that I said yes to the job he offered me, even though I knew he was unreliable”.  From this place we can learn to do something different next time.
But what about that other concern?  The concern that someone may do the same thing again and with a similar impact on other people?
The truth is they might.
…the Christmas hostess may still want to be hostess and still feel resentment about all the work involved…
…the manager, whatever his or her weaknesses, may do the same thing again and again, without learning…
. .the criminal may repeat an act of crime…
Over the years I have found that, when we have concerns about the acts of others, it’s because we care deeply for people’s well-being.
…We care deeply about our own well-being…
…We care about the well-being of people who do things that hurt themselves, or others…
…We care deeply about other people who may be treated in the way we were…
In each case, we can take action.  To do so is to stand in our own power.
We are not, though, some omnipotent god and we cannot guarantee any particular response.
Our power lies in recognising that yes, this did not (or does not) work for me.  My needs are not met.  I accept that this person did the best they know how.  I accept that, given the way I see things, I am bound to feel what I feel.  I accept it is for me to decide what I will do now.  I accept that I cannot guarantee any particular response.
And you?  What’s next for you?
From Mandela, through work, to Christmas and our loved ones, I have given examples of some of the things that challenge us most.  I wonder what’s next for you.
If you’re struggling with difficult emotions, here’s my invitation to you… notice them, welcome them, own them.  What’s the emotion?  What’s stimulating that emotion in you?  What need are you yearning to meet?
And insofar as you know that it’s for you (and for nobody else) to honour your need and to do what you can to meet it, what one thing would you like to do next?
Perhaps there’s something you can easily do that will give you much greater ease as the year draws to a close.  Perhaps this line of questions opens up something much bigger for you.
Either way, lovingly, gently, I leave the responsibility for your feelings with you.

Are you loving your work? An invitation to heed your life’s calling

Don’t ask what the world needs; ask what makes you come alive then go and do it,
because what the world needs is people who have come alive.
Howard Thurman

Last week I wrote a posting For Love AND Money in response to conversations I have had recently with people who feel torn between doing what they really love and doing what they think will pay the bills.  I wrote it because I recognise that this dilemma is experienced by many people.

More recently, I came across the quote above by Howard Thurman and I thought, this is too good to miss.  I thought I’d share it with you today along with just a few reading recommendations for anyone who wants to explore what it might be like to do the work you love and to get paid – handsomely, even – to do it.

And before I share these books I want to say a few words to those people I mainly coach:   leaders in organisations.  You can spend all your life as a leader doing work you’re good at and which you enjoy – sort of.  You’ll be adding value and you’ll be paying the bills.  Equally, you can seek out the opportunity to lead in an area about which you feel passionate.  You’ll still be adding value and you’ll still be paying the bills.  At the same time, the ease and joy with which you lead will be far greater and the positive impact you’ll have on those you lead long after you have ceased to lead them will make the hours you work worthwhile.  You get to choose.

Here are just a few recommendations from my own bookshelf:

Richard N. Bolles:  What Color Is your Parachute?  A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career-Changers.  Bolles’ book, which he has updated and maintained over many years, is probably the book for anyone who wants to return to the question of calling and seek out the work they are yearning to do.

Gay Hendricks:  The Big Leap.  I’ve mentioned this book on my blog before.  It’s worth reading just to understand the difference between working in your zone of excellence and working in your zone of genius.

Richard J. Leider and David A. Shapiro:  Whistle While You Work:  Heeding Your Life’s Calling.  What do I want to be when I grow up?  What was I born to do?  These are the questions the authors set out to help you answer in this slim volume. 

M. Scott Peck:  The Road Less Travelled:  A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth.  I include this book in recognition that the journey towards finding the work we love to do is essentially a journey inwards – a journey of the spirit.

David Whyte:  The Heart Aroused:  Poetry and The Preservation of the Soul.  It may be hard to find a new copy of this book, which offers a poet’s view of what it means to work in the corporate world.  If you feel you need to reconnect with yourself or yearn to maintain connection whilst working in the corporate world this book is for you.

Nick Williams:  The Work We Were Born To Do:  Find the Work You Love, Love the Work You Do.  Williams’ book sets out to help people discover purpose, meaning and passion in their work whilst still paying the bills.  Williams offers twelve principles of the work we were born to do as well as exercises to support you in your explorations.  You can also hear Williams speak by signing up at Alternatives where you’ll be able to access recordings of past speakers.

Is this list exhaustive?  By no means.  It does, though, provide a starting point.  I wonder what this posting evokes in you:  what thoughts and feelings come up when you think of doing the work that you were born to do? 

On the fear of being “found out” at work

How many of us fear being “found out” in the workplace?  I am not thinking of our fear that any fraudulent activities might be uncovered.  No.  I’m referring to the fear that many of us have that we are not good enough to be doing the job we are doing.  I have heard some people call this the “imposter syndrome”.

If Dr Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull are right, it’s likely that the further we travel up the organisational hierarchy the more likely we are to be poorly equipped to do our jobs.  Peter and Hull are the authors of the book The Peter Principle.  Why Things Always Go Wrong.  Their hypothesis – that people rise to their level of incompetence in organisations – has passed into the vernacular and their book, first published more than thirty years ago, is still widely available.

With or without their hypothesis, the fear exists.  As long as we feel this fear it’s hard for us to be authentic in our dealings with others.  Our energies go into wearing a mask which protects us from being “found out”.  Paradoxically, the mask we wear to secure our personal sense of safety inspires fear in others.  The more senior we are, the more this fear spreads throughout the organisations we lead.

I am reminded of Carl Rogers, whose work has been so influential in the world of learning – especially in the field of therapy and coaching.  Perhaps this extract from an article by Rachel Naomi Remen gives insight into the alternatives available to us:

Years ago, I was invited to a seminar given by Carl Rogers.  I had never read his work, but I knew that the seminar, attended by a group of therapists, was about ‘unconditional positive regard’.  At the time I was highly sceptical about this idea, but I attended the seminar anyway.  I left it transformed.

Roger’s theories arose out of his practice, and his practice was intuitive and natural to him.  In the seminar, he tried to analyse what he was doing for us as he did it.  He wanted to give a demonstration of unconditional positive regard in a therapeutic session.  One of the therapists volunteered to serve as the subject.  As Rogers turned to the volunteer and was about to start the session, he suddenly pulled himself up, turned back to us, and said, ‘I realise there’s something I do before I start a session.  I let myself know that I am enough.  Not perfect.  Perfect wouldn’t be enough.  But I am human, and that is enough.  There is nothing this man can say or do that I can’t feel in myself.  I can be with him.  I am enough’.

I was stunned by this.  It felt as if some old wound in me, some fear of not being good enough, had come to an end.  I knew, inside myself, that what he had said was absolutely true:  I am not perfect, but I am enough.

Rachel Naomi Remen, The Search for Healing
in R. Carlson & B. Shield ed. (1989)
Healers on Healing, Los Angeles:  Tarcher, p. 93

I offer you this thought:  that whether you are a man or woman in therapy or CEO of some international corporation you are, like Rogers, human and enough.
I wonder, how does this thought land with you?

Starting the year as you mean to go on

Have you ever noticed that most people’s new year’s resolutions are about what they plan to do?  (And let’s not get too picky about the fact that many of us then – somehow – fail to go on to do those things).  This year, I invite you to start the year by reflecting on the how of your life: who or how are you going to be?

The poem below, written by Dawna Markova following her father’s death and from which she takes the title of her book says something of her intentions in the how department:

I will not die an unlived life.
I will not live in fear
of falling or catching fire.
I choose to inhabit my days,
to allow my living to open me,
to make me less afraid,
more accessible,
to loosen my heart
until it becomes a wing,
a torch, a promise.
I choose to risk my significance,
to live so that which came to me as seed
goes to the next as blossom,
and that which came to me as blossom,
goes on as fruit.

Dawna Markova

Also, by Henry David Thoreau, this quote, in which I love the idea of sucking the marrow from the bones of life:

I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately, to suck the marrow from the bones of life; to put to rout all that was not life, and not to come to the end of life, and discover that I had not lived.
Happy new year!

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it by living someone else’s life

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it by living someone else’s life
Steve Jobs
CEO, Apple

In London, students have been protesting at the proposal to raise the fees for attending university.  As I write, MPs are facing a controversial vote in Parliament which will have been decided by the time this post is published.  In the day’s news and commentary journalists have been highlighting just how many MPs on both sides of the house, in the run-up to the Parliamentary debate, have been undecided which way to vote.
As a country, our need to balance our books is a current driver for this proposal and yet, it seems to me, there are much larger issues at stake.  They are not all negative, so that – even whilst remembering that my own university education was entirely paid for by the state – I am undecided which way to lean.  I am aware, for example, that many of our country’s greatest entrepreneurs did not complete a university education and I wonder if, by inviting students to consider what they want from university and to calculate whether or not they want to make the investment needed to achieve this (financial or other) return-on-investment, we encourage the very entrepreneurialism which our politicians so often say is lacking (even whilst encouraging its surpression by the messages they give about and through education – a whole topic of its own).
It’s not that I am decided on this issue – I am open to look at it from all sides and I am sure that it would take more looking at than I am likely to do to reach an informed and considered conclusion.  I’d like to think that this is what the politicians are doing on my behalf, even whilst recognising the likelihood that more immediate concerns will stand in the way of a much larger picture.
I am, though, sure that – with or without education – we are born with resources which are apt to manifest themselves.  Insofar as education adds value, it does so by supporting us in becoming the person we are meant to become – like the acorn becoming the oak – rather than by seeking to mould us into something we are not.  Everything that I feel most passionate about – education, training, coaching, leadership – has this truth at its heart.
So it was striking to me as I found myself watching, once again, one of the wonderful short talks on http://www.ted.com/, to hear Steve Jobs talk to students graduating from Stanford University about how to live before you die.  Jobs spoke about his own experience of dropping out of university only to spend a further eighteen months dropping in on those lectures that most appealed to him whilst kipping on the floors of his friends and returning Coke bottles in order to get the 5 cent return which would pay for his food.  He talked about how his learning served him in setting up what became Apple.  He talked about being sacked from Apple and, by a quirk of fate, setting up a company that later became part of Apple so that he, one-time CEO of Apple became CEO again.  Jobs could not foresee the outcomes that would come from following his instincts in this somewhat unconventional way and still, they came, and they came from doing what he most enjoyed.
And in the midst of his fascinating talk came the most arresting of his comments which I offer once more for the sheer joy of his insight when he says:  Your time is limited, so don’t waste it by living someone else’s life.
If you were living the life that you – and only you – were born to live, what life would that be?

Working with a sense of flow

Establish a place of work where engineers can feel the joy of technological innovation, be aware of their mission to society and work to their heart’s content.
Masaru Ibuka
First “purposes of incorporation” of Sony
There’s a name I have yet to master, so it’s a cut and paste rendition for me:  Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has made it his mission to understand what makes people happy, recognising that research – again and again – shows that, beyond a certain level, money isn’t where it’s at.
Csikszentmihalyi’s classic text, Flow:  The Psychology of Happiness, has made it from my Amazon wishlist to my study and still has yet to be read.  So I was curious to receive a link to a speech by Csikszentmihalyi on the wonderful www.TED.com which is also available on YouTube – just follow this link to hear him talk for just short of twenty minutes about his life’s work.

What questions does it raise?  I wonder, how many of us achieve this state of flow and how often?  What would our life be like if this were a regular part of our experience?  And what would our experience of work be like if we made it our mission to pursue flow as a primary goal in our careers?  (Or if, as leaders, we made it a primary goal of our leadership to create a work environment in which those we lead experience the state of flow in their work?)

Masaru Ibuka seems to have recognised the possibilities for our lives in the workplace in his first “purposes of incorporation” for Sony.  As I write I recognise that it’s easy to look to the organisations we work for to facilitate our own sense of flow.  I wonder, are you ready to be responsible for this aspect of your life?

PS  Just to let you know, as a member of Amazon Associates UK, I shall receive a referral fee for any books you buy using the links in this posting.

The power of observation

The greatest form of human intelligence is to observe without evaluation.
R. Krishnamurti
Again and again I come across this quote from R. Krishnamurti even whilst noticing how often our use of language confuses observation with evaluation or judgement.  So common is our practice of combining the two that our language is woven through with nouns, verbs and phrases in which an evaluation is presented as a fact.  This is true in journalism and politics, for example, when we describe a man or a woman as a “terrorist” or when we use any number of verbs (“struggle” and “cope” are just two examples) which suggest our response to what we see at least as much as they accurately represent what we observe.
And of course, as much as we can look to our journalists and politicians for examples of this conflation of observation and judgement, we have plenty to investigate in our own use of language.  How often do we describe someone as “difficult” or “aggressive”, for example?  How often do we use such words as “bullying” or “abuse”?  What other words do we conjure when our loved ones stimulate in us feelings of anger or irritation, when our staff or colleagues don’t give us the behaviour or results we want or when we do not receive the level of service we yearn for out in the world?  Our language would be much more precise (as well as more wordy) if we were to replace such phrases as “John was so agressive in our meeting” with such phrases as “when I heard John speak more loudly than anyone else in the room and watched him stand up and lean forward mid-way through his response to the Chairman I thought ‘my!  you’re really behaving aggressively today!'”
One of the reasons I value Marshall Rosenberg’s work in the field of nonviolent communication is because it teaches people to differentiate between their observations and their evaluations as a matter of habit.  This is not to say that such habits are gained with ease.  It can be easy to tell yourself that your language is clunky and awkward (hey!  more evaluations!) or that others will not – or do not – accept your turn of phrase when you commit to clearly distinguish between what you observe and how you respond to it.
And in case you’re reading this and thinking, “what on earth is the difference that’s being highlighted here?” or “how can I distinguish between the two?” I invite you to get curious about your own use of language or the language of others.  When, for example, would it work to insert an “I’ve concluded” or an “I believe” in a sentence?  And what do you notice about another person or situation (or even about yourself) that leads you to the descriptive words you use – from “lazy” or “difficult” to “beautiful” and “industrious”?  For whether you are responding positively or negatively to a person or situation the words you use are likely to reflect your response – your evaluation – as much as your observation.
Krishnamurti’s conclusion is that the greatest form of human intelligence is to observe without evaluation.  It may take us all a long time to let go of our evaluations.  Meantime, owning them is just one step along the way.
PS  And if you feel like sharing examples of what you notice, please post them here in the comments section of this blog.