Project, business and strategic planning.
Lurking fears named; problems creatively solved; visions nurtured.
Judging by my twitter feed, and the number of ‘How to be a thought leader’ type articles that proliferate there, any number of folk in the business world are panting to be acclaimed as thought leaders.
Why? Why ever would you want to do that?
Why be a thought leader? Why not be a thought facilitator, a thought inspirer, a thought nurturer, a thought conceiver, a thought imaginer, a thought creator, a thought explorer, a thought catalyst, a thought sharer?
There will be people out there who would argue that these things are actually what a thought leader is, and that is a valid point.
But I have always considered the term ‘thought leader’ to be a loathsome one, a choice of words that is distorting and unhelpful. Maybe I am just quibbling about semantics, but words are powerful and labels can be limiting.
Being a thought leader implies that you must have thought followers, that you are the alpha of thought havers with a whole lot of beta thinkers gazing up at you on your pedestal in awe. It implies that you have scrambled to the top of some thought having community’s hierarchy.
But thoughts don’t have truck with any such thing.
Great and interesting thoughts arise in ways that are messy, raw, joyful or painful. They may be the result of deep considered thinking, careful and disciplined research, creative experimentation, drunkenness or sudden flashes of insight; often a mixture of all of these*. To align the having of thoughts with language that suggests the careful arranging of a hierarchy, akin to the tidy process of earning a promotion or the brutal machinations of kingmaking, feels wrong to me; distasteful but a little silly.
I am not having a go at you if you have been proclaimed a Thought Leader.
I have encountered a few Thought Leaders through dialogue on twitter and or face to face. Let me be clear: I am not condemning these people. From my interactions with them I get the impression that they are lovely, lovely, lovely people, very open to, and marked by curiosity with, others and their thoughts. And I am quite sure they didn’t hanker after the title of thought leader for themselves. It was assigned to them in various articles and ‘Top 10’ lists by others. I am even happy for them, genuinely pleased that they have been so acclaimed and elevated by their peers for the originality of their thinking.
But if you are hungrily eyeing that place on the pedestal, and avidly reading the ‘How to position yourself as a thought leader’ articles (notepad, pen and fluro marker at the ready), when are you going to find the time to have those original thoughts? This thought hierarchy you want to be leader of is an illusory construct, arbitrarily held in place by the psyche of an industry that thinks in terms of authority, prestige and power. Why, if you want to be active in the realm of ‘thought’ (and yes, I do know how wanky that sounds, apologies), are you giving yourself over to this particular piece of groupthink (a state of being that is notorious for blocking mature and / or interesting thought)?
Deciding that you’re gunna be a thought leader, that you’re going to ‘position’ yourself above your peers, smacks of a lack of originality and a compensatory need for status in a prestige hungry world. This in turn suggests a panting regard for whatever current groupthink designates as a desirable position of authority. Which means that the Thought Leader aspirants are somewhat lacking the ability to think independently of groupthink, that they are squeamish about turning their backs on it. Lack of independent thinking + lack of originality = Thought Leader? Nuh. Doesn’t work. A self-defeating proposition if ever I saw one.
Why not just be a thought lover instead?
Revel in the thoughts of yourself and others, online and off. If you are already doing this, then don’t sell yourself short by talking about your desire to be a Thought Leader. Choose a descriptor that lets people know that yours is a more generous position, that you don’t wish to establish a situation where others (and their thoughts) are relegated to a level of regard below your own.
Promiscuously fall in love with your thoughts and the thoughts of others. You will never want for great company. Thought lovers elicit the companionship, respect, and interest of other thinkers. They find themselves embedded in alliances of fascinating people, and in the path of ideas and insights that are stimulating, challenging, unexpected and even profound. People beat a path to their door for the support they know that thought lovers will give.
Be a thought lover. You’ll have more fun. You might even have so much fun that you forget all about your hunger for prestige. This will clear the brain wonderfully and you’ll have terrific thoughts; hungry ego creates such static.
*Give or take a bit of drunkenness, depending on your habits.
“Forced into a corner…” What quality of choices do you give your employees?
Regardless as to where you stand on the issue of Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers, and therefore regardless as to whether or not you agree with the way Senator Muir voted, what is evident in this speech is how anguished he was at having to make this decision.
During the speech he describes himself as having to make a choice between a bad and a worse decision and so opting for the bad decision; this description stands out in a speech in which words and, visibly from the 4 minute mark, a delivery marked by emotion tell us that this man has been in the grip of a moral dilemma. Senator Muir makes it quite plain that even though he has voted to support the government, his vote should not be taken as an endorsement of their policies in this area. This is an interesting example of someone who is forced by circumstances to act, but who is trying to reveal his reluctance at having to be compelled to act in the way that he was.
“You always have a choice…”
Have you ever been forced into a position where you have felt that you had to choose between a bad and a worse decision? We have all heard the hoary old chestnut that we always have a choice, even if that choice is simply how we respond to external circumstances or the attitude we choose to take to things out of our control. This is undoubtedly true. But what happens if the range of choices we are given, or the conditions we are compelled to respond to, are truly crap?
What of the workplace bullying victim who has a choice between quitting their job or staying under the authority of a boss who actively intends damage? They might get lucky and get another job (and job hunting is not something that is easy to undertake when you’re recovering from psychoscocial injury) but they also risk ending up on the dole.
What of that bullying victim’s colleagues who bear witness to the bullying day after day, and are faced with the choice of sticking up for the victim by taking on the bully, reporting it to management, or even offering social support to the victim. These are all good things to do, but many people are scared to do them for fear of attracting the bully’s wrath and being marked down as potential victims themselves. This is especially the case in organisations where the bully is a key member of management and / or has been allowed to carry on with impunity by the organisation at large.
What of a manager who has to face down a board who is guilty of poor governance and perhaps even sub-legal or illegal behaviour? Legally, that manager’s duty is pretty clear but in carrying out that duty they are forced to live dangerously, inviting perhaps the sack or harassment. A case I was involved with saw the manager in question verbally abused during board meetings and then undermined by rumours and falsehood so that they were discredited in the eyes of their colleagues and staff. Day to day work was also disrupted and obstructed placing this person in an untenable position.
What of the employee who has to choose between quitting a job and therefore abandoning a project in which they believed and letting down members of their team, or staying in place to see progress in that same project (along with their reputation and / or emotional health) stifled or undermined by poor governance, poor leadership, turf wars or policy directives that they consider to be morally dubious? Again, I have actually witnessed this happen.
“But there are laws against that sort of thing…”
Yes, officially and ostensibly there are always avenues of complaint. Organisations have internal regulations, policies and procedures; societies have regulations and laws in place. But these don’t always work. Bullies can be very clever at covering their tracks and / or leveraging support from management. Even if they are not themselves the problem, board members and managers don’t always have the will, guts, nous or moral backbone to enforce their policies or work on their workplace culture or constraining groupthink. Australia currently has a huge problem with workplace bullying; suggesting that there are many workplaces where this is the case.
I agree that managing an organisation can be hard. From personal experience I can say that I found some aspects of managing people onerous or even tedious. But one of the joyful aspects of managing others is the positive effect you can have on the workplace experience of your employees. As a manager you have enormous power. Applying yourself to initiatives that will provide security, foster clear communication or team spirit can provide support, inspiration and even contentment to employees. Seeing people under your care become happier and more engaged is hugely rewarding. Nurturing talent and initiative can be exciting for both manager and team.
How are you using your power?
Under your management, how are strategy, policy, process and conditions aligning themselves? How much autonomy and personal power does your staff have? Do they have access to avenues of communication, support or resources if they have ideas to share or try? Do they have the chance to contribute to building their team, shaping policy or improving conditions? Do they have the means of redress if something goes wrong?
Or have they been abandoned to a situation where organisational vision and mission statements do not align with the day to day reality in their workplace? Are they caught between a rock and a hard place, having to choose between a bad and worse decision, when dealing with problems? Have they been made to feel like one individual against an uncaring workplace culture? Like Senator Muir, do they feel that they have been backed into a space by circumstance where their personal sense of morality counts for nothing, that their range of personal choices is limited to actions from which they feel a sense of disconnect, be that moral, creative or logical.
“Don’t live your life like you’re trying to survive to the end” is a lovely inspiring thought from Katie Hamilton.
And, I would argue, don’t make others live that way. Use what power you have to empower others.
Wishing you joy and happiness and healthfulness and prosperity during the year of the goat. I will post a ‘proper’ blog next week. In the meantime, if you want to check out what I am up to at the moment you can check that out here: Dangerous Meredith Annual Newsletter 2015 Two things I am super excited about working on this year:
- An eBook (title to be confirmed) that I am co-writing with evaluation expert Dr. Louise Greenstock. We are putting together an introductory text aimed at introducing social entrepreneurs to planning and evaluation.
- My new facilitated conversation service – ‘You know the place went bad'; viewing the indicators of organisational dysfunction through the filter of a spy novel.
In the meantime I anticipate having a glorious time providing mentoring and training in innovation and business and project planning. Thanks for your readership over the last year. I’m looking forward to another year of blogging and reading about what you’re doing, so stay connected.
On Friday 6 February 2015 I gave a presentation at Parallel Fascinations on how I have been using a classic spy novel as a filter or tool to examine issues to do with workplace culture and organisational dysfunction.
Parallel Fascinations… … is a new event series that I am co-organising and co-hosting with digital sociologist Alexia Maddox and artist and event curator Romaine Logere. To quote from our promotional text: “Parallel Fascinations draws upon ideas of private obsessions and the space where seemingly disparate ideas collide. Reminiscent of the Salon, we are seeding an interdisciplinary group that crosses academic and industry sectors to engage with topics raised through this theme.”
“You know the place went bad.” My presentation was about the classic spy novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John Le Carre, a beautifully written and engrossing page turner, peopled by fascinating characters. Set against a background of an organization beset with problems of scandal, poor governance and toxic culture, its plot revolves around the hunt for a double agent who is wreaking havoc within this same organization.
Can a literary work be a filter through which we contemplate the health and functionality of organisational culture? The way Le Carre has designed his narrative makes these issues intrinsic in the telling of his story and the deep engagement of his readers. A skim reading of any newspaper will provide instances of real life organisations, across all sectors, dealing with these same aforementioned issues. Many of us have war stories to tell of our own experiences with bullying bosses, ineffective managers, stifled innovation, poor communication and perhaps even sub-legal or illegal behaviour. A discussion of a literary work such as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and its narrative techniques can give us the space and perspective from which to examine our own experiences of poor workplace culture, while the primal mythological pull of responding to storytelling allows us to connect with this discussion on an emotional, instinctual and imaginative level.
“… question reality… destabilize uncertainty…”
As author Matt Haig says in his tweet quoted above, fiction can allow us to delve into the uncertainties in life. A great novel will engage the intellect, the emotions and the imagination. Using a novel as a tool or filter the reader can consider themes or issues in a way that bypasses black and white thinking, allowing us to consider alternative viewpoints or different realities. The group who attended Parallel Fascinations last Friday shared very thoughtful and rich perspectives in response to the themes upon which I was focusing and the conversation veered in some surprising directions. As a presenter I am enormously grateful for their input, and very pleased that my presentation was able to tap into themes that were of interest to them.
What next? Inspired by the response to my presentation I will keep on working with this novel and the themes I have identified.
A friend I was speaking to this morning, who attended last Friday, said she thought the format was unique; it offered participants an experience that allowed for and elicited reflection, speculation, and intellectual curiosity. Our event had apparently avoided the formal qualities of a lecture, the (sometimes) combative tone of an academic panel review, and the wishy-washiness of an unstructured informal conversation. She felt that participants felt equally relaxed about either joining in the discussion or just nursing a glass of wine and listening.
I am wondering if I can adapt my presentation into some kind of workshop – some sort of facilitated discussion – that I can take into organisations to help them reflect on their own workplace culture and identify areas they wish to work on. The final format of this has still not ‘found’ me, but I am drooling in anticipation of the actions I can take to go and find it.
Romaine, Alexia and I are, thus far, very happy with the way Parallel Fascinations is shaping up. It is a young thing still, mine was just the second presentation (Alexia gave the first presentation on the theme of Serendipity – it was fascinating). We have been incredibly fortunate to be supported by the Digital Learning Hub in their new venue – The Channel at Hamer Hall at the Arts Centre – and Parallel Fascinations will have a home in the future. We look forward to offering more presentations during the coming year. For more information please check out our blog at parallelfascinations.wordpress.com
This is the second part of my blog ‘To seem a stranger lies my lot’. You can find the first half of the blog here. There are quotes from one of Gerard Manly Hopkins’ sonnets in this blog, the whole text of which can be found below.
Not being heard, finding one’s self on the outer of a dialogue or group, can lead to feelings of isolation or abandonment. Sometimes we make a deliberate choice to be a quiet or less-verbally active participant of a discussion. But when someone has some ideas or observations to share, and they are denied the chance to share them or these things are ignored or derided when they do, then that can make that someone feel estranged and cast off. Doing this often in a relationship can be toxic, both for the relationship itself and for the confidence of the person being blocked.
And this can be the case in any kind of relationship – between lovers, family members, friends, or at work. It can happen, too, between institutions and constituents or between businesses and their customers. When people feel they have a stake in what’s going on in some arena of their lives, and when they then invest the time and energy and goodwill to speak up, they can be enraged or disheartened if they are ignored. If these feelings become further compounded, people are inspired towards acts that speak of bitterness, diminishing loyalty, or even subversiveness.
“… dark heaven’s baffling ban…”*
To quote Gerard Manly Hopkins “Only what word / Wisest my heart breeds dark heaven’s baffling ban / Bars or hell’s spell thwarts.” To feel that the words that express our experiences or potential are banned, barred or thwarted is incredibly disempowering. The victim of bullying in the workplace who feels that they have no one to support or even believe them, Muslims who see themselves described as terrorists by bigots, minorities who struggle to get job interviews, women who hit the glass ceiling despite the excellence of their work, anyone who feels that no matter what they do or what they say they will not be noticed or will be wilfully misunderstood – all these people will feel that estrangement.
“Only what word Wisest my heart breeds”.
By not being good listeners, either as individuals or as institutions, we also deny ourselves the opportunity of connecting with someone else’s thoughts. We deny ourselves the chance to hear and be moved by insights, perhaps even words of wisdom that have been bred in the heart of someone else’s imagination, intellect, emotions or spirit.
It behoves us as individuals to learn to be good listeners, to understand that this is not the same as just not making noise while someone else is speaking. We need to develop the concentration to tune into others’ words, to read body language and all the other ‘tells’ that provide context or nuance to words that are being spoken, and also to actively listen and respond in such a way that the speaker knows they have been heard. This is as important for friendships as it is for Manager–Employee or Business-Customer relationships.
So too do organisations and governments need to learn to be good listeners. ‘Community’ ‘consultation’ should not just be a pair of weasel words; the establishment needs to be prepared to be surprised and challenged by what they hear, and not just to fashion consultation processes that will elicit the responses they want to hear.
On both a micro and macro level it is only by undertaking to really listen that we can build trust and enjoy a true exchange of ideas and communion of will and values.
*The sonnets that Hopkins wrote that are designated by scholars as his ‘Terrible Sonnets’ are not called this because the writing is bad. The writing is devastatingly great. Rather, the sonnets describe a dark night of the soul and are heartbreaking to read.
Sonnet No. 44 by Gerard Manly Hopkins
|TO seem the stranger lies my lot, my life|
|Among strangers. Father and mother dear,|
|Brothers and sisters are in Christ not near|
|And he my peace my parting, sword and strife.|
|England, whose honour O all my heart woos, wife||5|
|To my creating thought, would neither hear|
|Me, were I pleading, plead nor do I: I wear-|
|y of idle a being but by where wars are rife.|
|I am in Ireland now; now I am at a thírd|
|Remove. Not but in all removes I can||10|
|Kind love both give and get. Only what word|
|Wisest my heart breeds dark heaven’s baffling ban|
|Bars or hell’s spell thwarts. This to hoard unheard,|
|Heard unheeded, leaves me a lonely began.|
There is a great quote from Maya Angelou that does the rounds on Twitter every now and again:
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you”.
This quote always makes me think of the beautiful words that end Gerard Manly Hopkins’ Terrible* Sonnet No. 44: “This to hoard unheard, / Heard unheeded, leaves me a lonely began.”
I am not sure what the context of Angelou’s words was. But I have always assumed that what she was talking about was the lonely agony that came from not having an opportunity to tell your story or expound your ideas at all. The words that start Hopkin’s Sonnet 44 are “To seem the stranger lies my lot…” and this, for me, calls to mind the consequences of “bearing an untold story inside you”.
Listening, really listening, …
… is a small act of mundane compassion we can enact for each other. And real sincere listening is quite rare. All too often we fall into the trap of letting someone’s words flow past us while we superficially skim and scan them looking for something upon which we can hang our next sound bite, all the while using half our brain to compose this while our lips are closed. People often just look for the next chance to jump into a pause in the conversation to grab a bit of airspace for themselves, or for the opportunity to score points or further an agenda. People can act, too, off assumptions they have about their dialogue partner before the conversation even begins; they carry with them into a discussion the determination to defend a point of view or undermine a position. The airwaves are anything but clear.
When I was a shy teenager I heard or read somewhere that the secret to charm was being able to listen. I forget the source of this advice but whoever composed it did me a real favour, as I was very dubious about my skills as a conversationalist. When I went to University I put this into practice and it worked. I quickly realised how hungry people were for someone who actually gave a damn about how they thought or felt.
I have recently been dipping into a book called Imagination and a Pile of Junk (“A droll history of inventors and inventions”) by Trevor Norton. The chapter ‘Full Steam Ahead’ deals with the development of the steam locomotive. The following excerpt describes popular (mis)conceptions about steam travel in the 1820s or thereabouts:
“For a generation that knew of nothing faster than a galloping horse, speed was a concern. Stephenson assured a House pf Commons committee that his trains would run at a stately 12 mph (19 kph). He lied, of course: he had no choice because ‘experts’ prophesied that travelling at more than 20 mph (32 kph) would suck all the air from your lungs or you would go mad. Even watching the landscape rush by would damage your eyes. The hiss and clank of the engine would cause women to miscarry and leave the male traveller ‘in a state of confusion that it is well if he recovers in a week.’ Daily commuting would be out of the question.
Even innocent bystanders were in danger. A passing train could wilt vegetables in the fields, kill birds in flight and dry up a cow’s udders. An objector collared Stephenson on the danger of a cow on the line with a train approaching. ‘Surely,’ he said, ‘that would be a very awkward circumstance.’ ‘Aye,’ Stephenson replied, ‘very awkward… for the cow.’
… A cartoon captioned ‘The Pleasures of the Railroad’ depicted an exploding locomotive with detached limbs flying in all directions from the torsos of surprised passengers… It took the public some time to get used to the speed of trains. Some believed that the locomotive really did get bigger as the train approached. Others leapt from the carriage when they were close to their destination and were rewarded with a broken leg or worse. When the train reached 23 mph (37 kph) a passenger found it ‘frightful… it is impossible to divert yourself of the notion of instant death for all.’ Nevertheless, the public soon learned to sit back and enjoy the thrill of speeding ‘swifter than a bird… when I closed my eyes, this sensation of flying was quite delightful.’” pp. 30-31, Imagination and a Pile of Junk by Trevor Norton.
What busy, urgent inner lives we humans have. We are blessed with the imagination to come up with innovative ideas alongside the capacity to play out lively scenarios of risk and doom within the confines of that same imagination. As a species we veer between pushing back the boundaries and being terrified of the monsters that live under our beds.
I guess most new things have to run the gamut of suspicion and wild surmise before they get the chance to be accepted. Being sensible about risk is an important survival trait our species has had to develop over the millennia but in the worst case scenario, risk aversion kills off new things before they even get off the ground.
What do you think? Have you had experience with seeing some new invention or innovation challenged or even undermined by undue amounts of caution or scepticism? How do we avoid throwing out the baby with the bath water?