Becoming a wiser leader

There's a framework I've been working with the past couple of years which looks at how we develop our capacity to take wiser and more timely action.

I recorded a couple of videos to introduce you to the concepts.

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Brief intro to Action Logics

Here's a six minute down-and-dirty intro to the concepts...

Captions are available on the video. Click here for a full transcript.

If you're more of an audio person, here's the mp3. Click the download link on the right if you'd like to have a copy on your device.

How to evolve into a wiser leader

If the short video made you hungry for more, here's a more in-depth peek into the leadership action logics.

Captions available. (Also, sorry for the coughing fit at the end - lesson learned about having a glass of water near me...) Transcript is here.

Voila the mp3, with download link.

Are you opening or closing?

I seemed to come to a new understanding of an old question today.

Listening to Pema Chödrön, the Buddhist nun, on an audiobook this morning and she was suggesting (I paraphrase) you pay attention to the question: ‘Are you opening or closing?’

Those of you who’ve hung out near me will know over the years I’ve talked a lot about clenching and unclenching.

Today, I notice that I close a lot. Especially in response to overwhelm at others’ sadness.

I close to my best friend having a terrible time.

I close to people in a FB group I’m in who are putting out requests for money and support.

I closed the other day when reading about the Great Barrier Reef bleaching white and basically dying. I often close to the facts of global warming and imminent/growing climate crisis.

I close to reports of the reality in Syria, Yemen, Burma…

I close to Trump, to Brexit, to possible nuclear war.

I close to Z when he is having a less than positive moment.

I close when wandering through the Christmas shopping mayhem thinking about people in the future asking why we didn’t stop buying stuff.

I close when I think that children have mined the ingredients of my Mac, my phone.

I close when I read about my friends having a hard time, struggling in the world the way it’s currently set up.

What I’ve realised today is that when I notice the closing and don’t turn away (either from the trigger or from the act of closing) I can take more action.

I can contact my best friend rather than letting another day go by without properly saying anything to her.

I can donate *some* money to *some* people in the group, rather than turning away in guilt and not supporting anyone.

I can continue to read books that offer clear-eyed ways forward to the climate crisis (like Doughnut Economics that looks at both social justice and the earth).

When I stay open to the closing (and maybe sometimes open more), I can take more action.

So, that’s my focus right now. Asking ‘Am I closing or am I opening?’ and noticing what happens when I, well, notice.

Leadership chat 16

Chat 16 of #100leadershipchats was with someone who's seen the nitty-gritty of leading projects and teams in Corporate Tech Land.

He realised that the only time people talked about leadership at his firm was on leadership "training", so he's set up a relaxed online space specifically for people to be chat about challenges and learning around leading. Without any formal "permission", which is kind of cool.

He talked about how he saw leadership as sharing experience, nudging people towards learning, showing what has worked in the past and what's possible. And sometimes providing political cover higher up the food chain.

It's always interesting to talk to people who've thrived in the corporate world, as massive companies are complex environments...

Leadership chat 15

Chat 15 of #100leadershipchats was a whole 'nother world. 

This is someone who has gone from science, through Theatre of the Oppressed, to somatic embodied work, and is synthesising all three. 

We talked about how great leadership can be about warmth, openness, a sense of self, implicit and explicit transparency, congruence and spaciousness. 

They said they felt it difficult to claim the title of leader, having been programmed to think "leader = old white men who control". That they were finding a way to lead outside the leader/follower binary. 

All of their barriers to leadership can be traced to misogyny and the white patriarchy - all of their self-doubt comes from there. 

Support to being a better leader comes for them from therapy, community and working in a space that has integrity in its very core. 

I tell you what, this conversation went deep, fast, and stayed there! This person even helped me find a possible link between the leadership evolution work and how it's linked to (deconstructing) the patriarchy. YESSSS. 💙


Leadership chat 14

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Chat 14 of #100leadershipchats was with a person with decades of leading companies and start-ups, who is also, I found out, a Zen Buddhist of forty years. 

He saw great leadership as having to do with:

- always being on the side of your team

- rather than blame, always being curious as to causes

- delegating enough for people to have autonomy. 

We talked about the importance of getting the right people, and that you shouldn't hire for culture fit but CULTURE ADD. (Loved that.)

In the end, he said, you have to decide if you want the life of a leader as that can take you away from the work you love... 

Fascinating to talk to someone who's had YEARS of hands-on experience.

Leadership chat 13

Leadership chat no.13 of #100leadershipchats was with a young piano major who now works in finance compliance. 

We talked about:

- how being Asian in California brings a persistent sense of not fitting in, of not belonging

- the pressure of always having to "represent" your race

- how complicated it is to navigate cultural and personal attitudes to conflict and confidence

- how queerness makes that even more complex

- how ALL of that affects if and how you might lead. 

We also talked about how he'd experienced more trauma through racism from white gay men than homophobia from the Asian community. 

This is why an intersectional approach is so vital, especially in places it isn't normally cultivated like the corporate space...

Leadership chat 12

Leadership chat no.12 of #100leadershipchats was with a storyteller, coach, writer, improv person and a Taekwondo black belt.

We talked about:

- leadership as a sense of the big picture, of power that attracts

- how leaders build you up, connect people and energise

- how you might be a good leader without being a good manager of detail (especially for people with ADD)

- how giving too much credence to every voice, even naysayers, can mean stuff doesn't get done

- how anyone who calls themself a thought leader or a guru needs to be avoided. 

There was so much in our ensuing conversation about the work I'm exploring about leadership evolution that connects with martial arts - being able to let go, to hold a space, to apply lessons from one sphere widely...

I've also opened the gates to an onslaught of tangentially connected articles and suggested authors which I love as I want to be casting my conceptual net wide!

Leadership chat 11

Chat 11 of #100leadershipchats was with a woman who wants to lead on local zero waste initiatives. 

We talked about how she felt that good leaders make everyone feel valued, that they engage people in way that means they actively want to be a part of that vision. 

Also the place of self-confidence and the block that comes from comparing yourself with others, or rather comparing your inside experience with your perception of others' external appearance.


Leadership chat 10

Chat no.10 of #100leadershipchats was a mystical journey with someone who spent 25 years in leadership positions in the civil service, 18 years doing subtle healing work, and now weaves connections in her local community by literally walking around and catalysing conversations. 

I almost can't put this chat into words but it involved being a lighthouse of consciousness, allowing dots to connect, preserving a sense of self, seeing the intuitive vortices...

I have to say, as a long-term meditator and a closet mystic, it all made a lot of sense... *whispers* We don't TALK about it, though. 

Leadership. It's a multi-faceted arena.

Leadership chat 9

Chat no.9 of #100leadershipchats was with a corporate leader turned successful coach.

We talked about:

- flipping the traditional triangle so the leader is at the bottom

- how much we deal with shadow stuff through our work relationships, and how that's even more important for leaders to work with through

- that self-leadership emanates out - the importance of psychological safety

- why it's important not to treat adaptive challenges as if they were technical problems

- that it's important to create an environment where answers can be found

- how it's can be hard to identify as a leader when you think of it as having power over someone and you think of yourself as more of an advocate

- that they always had "leadership" job titles but never felt empowered

- the connection between leadership and visibility and avoiding distasteful practices

This person had already studied the field I'm looking at so we were able to use the full hour to cover a lot of ground... So much so we had to force ourselves to cut the conversation short. 

So much to think about especially the impact of internal work... 😍

Leadership chat 8

Leadership chat no.8 of #100leadershipchats was with someone working at the intersection of fitness and mental health.

They really saw the importance of a leader having a passion, an obsession and a clear vision. That a leader needs to be able to swap from a 20 year perspective, to looking at a month, a week, today.

We talked about the importance of mentorship, and the mix of empowering others whilst empowering yourself.

A short and sweet conversation with an enthusiastic leader! 

 Get involved! 

Leadership chat 7

Leadership chat 7 of #100leadershipchats was with someone looking into the role technology can take in mediating personal and collaborative communication. Riiiight?

We talked about:

- how good leadership can be about making sure people feel psychologically safe to make progress

- how much leadership is about leading people in a direction they already want to go

- the drain for a leader of being non-gender conforming and queer in a world that demonises those things.

We spoke about a bunch of other stuff that's difficult to summarise!

Plus they gave me invaluable multi-meta-level feedback on the leadership evolution model.


Leadership chat 6

Leadership call 6 of #100leadershipchats was with a business adviser who is also a polar expedition leader!

We talked about:

- how intrinsic to her concept of leadership that a leader walk their talk

- the role of vulnerability and being honest about struggles

- how the best expedition leaders genuinely use the brains of the people in their team, and are totally not defensive about analysing mistakes

- the importance of peers

- stepping up into leadership when people need you to



Leadership chat 5

Chat 5 of #100leadershipchats happened on Friday with a digital marketing person who's turned their business to be more focused on social justice and more specifically anti-racism work with white people.

We talked about:

- how good leaders listen deeply, are aware of power dynamics (ie race, gender, sexuality, ability)

- the importance of things that have become embarrassing buzzwords like authenticity, honesty, integrity

- how it can be easier not to "formally declare" yourself a leader, as that requires real stepping up

- the place of imposter syndrome

- the importance of community

- leaderful movements like Black Lives Matter

- what it's like leading in your No-F***s Fifties.

This was one of these conversations that could have gone on for hours - full of "Have you read this? Have you thought about this? That's so interesting... It makes me think of..."


If you'd like to be one of the hundred chats, check out:

Particularly if you're not a "typical" leader... 

Leadership chat 4

Conversation number 4 in #100leadershipchats was with a software developer turned people person, who also is the pastor of a church and the captain of a band!


We talked about:


- how good leadership can be like gardening but great leadership involves extreme accountability


- how good leaders do ongoing intense personal work - often learning an in-depth skill


- how vulnerability is easy to pay lip service to but is hard to square with the pressure of a leader to "lead"


- how the pressure to come up with the ideas and get it right is a significant block to helping teams work


- the importance of community so you're not doing this lonely work alone.


Loving these chats and the way they're allowing me to connect with an incredible bunch of people!



100 leadership chats

Following the lead of Desiree Lynn Adaway and Shenee Howard, I’m having 100 chats about leadership. Please share far and wide! 

I’d like to know:

- What do you think makes a good leader?

- Do you consider yourself as a leader?

- What gets in the way of you being a better leader?

I’d particularly like to talk to you if you don’t think you fit a conventional ‘leader’ mould.

So much leadership stuff is exclusively straight white cis men. Not my stuff. Queer/Trans/Non-Binary/Person of Colour? Let’s talk.

 And, yes, if you're straight/cis/white/a man I still want to talk to you too! 

There are two options:

(a) 30 mins where we chat about the three questions above.

(b) An extra 20/30 minutes where you let me practice talking about the post-heroic/leadership evolution work I’m researching right now. Like a private mini-webinar, I suppose… NOT in ANY WAY a secret sale pitch - just me harping on about my current nerdy obsession.

(Means you don’t have to read the 10 books that lay out all the science - you get it pre-processed as I work on putting it into understandable words…)

If you’d just like the 30 min chat, book here:

If you’d like the chat AND find out about some interesting leadership stuff, book in here:

We’ll do some combination of Skype/Hangout/Zoom/phone or if you’re in Birmingham UK, maybe even, dun dun DUN, face-to-face! 

Book in please! Share please!

If it's broke, did you break it? (a Twitter parable)

On Friday, a simple coaching question filled a hole in my life.

I've loved Twitter for years - like YEARS and years. I love that you can connect with someone and there's no pressure on you to spend a lot of energy maintaining that connection (loose ties, innit?) and there's no pressure on their side to reciprocate.

I've kind of fallen out of love with Twitter in the past year, but, boy, we had it good for a long while.

I had a ragtag community of weirdos who would support each other when things were tough. I made some real friends, a couple of which I would think of as some of my closest friends, even though we might have only met or Skyped once or twice.

Twitter friendship is hard to explain.

We laughed, we cried, we hashtagged. Some people hired me. People (including, like, real editors) proofread things. Experts gave me informed advice. Conferences offered me speaking gigs. Personally, professionally, it was great. 

But more than anything, Twitter was like the best coffeeshop/breakroom you could imagine, filled with cool people WHO GOT YOUR JOKES. It was like living in the writers' room of the first four seasons of the Gilmore Girls.

Like any relationship, things changed.

And then I saw my friend Sas post on Facebook that she had deleted her Twitter account, because it wasn't like it used to be.

So, I went to Twitter and asked the question:

"Is it me or is Twitter broken? Is it time to leave?"

And for the next two days I had the best, warmest interaction I'd had online for maybe two or three years. We tweeted like it was 2012.

Some people shared my concern.

Some people said they still liked Twitter for certain things, but it was a harder place.

Some only used it for links and super-breaking news.

But others said they still loved Twitter, that it was a source of support and love and interest even now.

One of the common threads amongst these crazy idealists was that they did a fair bit of curation - lists, blocking, liberal (small 'l') unfollowing.

And it made me remember that I had a private list (called 'Checky') that I hadn't been to in maybe four years.

A list is a place you can visit where you say "When I'm here, I only want to see tweets from these specific people."

I clicked on that list and of course, all the old people were still there - I'd just been missing their tweets in amongst all the rest of the people I'd followed.

And I remembered: that's how I used to manage Twitter - I used to visit Checky more than my main timeline.

Then I thought some more.

I'd just regained some amazing interaction - like, stunning, heartwarming, the-old-band-is-getting-back-together interaction - and why?

Well, I'd asked an honest question. I'd then responded to the responses. LIKE I USED TO ALL THE TIME.

I'd been treating Twitter like a chore. Or worse: like (don't say it) INSTAGRAM. I'd been posting a photo once a day with a tiny message.

Pecking Twitter on the cheek.

Instead, I showed up. And my people showed up.

I realised: if Twitter was broken, it was because I broke it.

So, if you've got a situation that isn't like the old days... are you doing the things you used to do in the old days?

I mean, sure, things change. In the past two years I've had many more local friends here in Birmingham than I ever had in the Caravan Office years when we lived with my Mum-in-law or even when I was in Singapore. Twitter used to serve a really important emotional role back then.

So, yes, your environment might have changed.

And, yes, sometimes things are broken.

But before you totally throw in the towel ask yourself:

Did I break this? Can I fix it? What did I used to do? Can I just start doing that again?

You never know. Maybe it's not as broke as you thought.

Two questions that might grow your leadership agility

I was in Boston a couple of weeks ago on a training course, learning how to use a tool that helps assess leadership agility. (I'm going to be using it with coaching clients as an initial assessment plus maybe a progress check once or twice a year. I normally shy away from tools and profiles, but this one is based on the heroic/post-heroic leadership model I mentioned earlier, so it has a lot of depth.)

As we were examining the transition from less agile to more agile levels of leadership, one of the several capacities that jumps out is the ability to step back from a situation and see it in its bigger context.

In short, the wider and broader and more inclusive a perspective a leader is able to take, the more agile the leader.

Working with this stage development model, I've realised that a lot of what I ask leaders and teams to do may well be beyond what they are currently capable of.

For example, one of the things that I recommend in How to improve other people's terrible meetings is to notice what's happening and label it. If three people are talking at once, or certain people are doing all the talking or you have five items in a 45-minute meeting and you're 30 minutes in and still on the first item... say exactly that. Not in an accusing way - just in a way that allows everyone to get conscious of what's happening.

Thing is: noticing what's happening in the moment, let alone how it fits into a pattern, is not necessarily a capacity everyone has developed.

Equals: sometimes I might be setting people up for failure.

Same when you're doing anti-oppression work - you have to gain the capacity to be able to see who's talking and who's not talking. Who's interrupting and who is allowed to finish a thought. Who's in the room in the first place.

For example, white people are trained not to notice when we're in an all-white room. We're all conditioned to shut up when a white man speaks. White men are conditioned to interrupt pretty much anyone who isn't a white man.

Consciousness of that takes practice.

Most meetings rattle along in a particular groove - even if there's a plan. People don't always know if they're in a consultation meeting or if they're actually making a decision or is it just updates?

Teams seem like they're having the same meeting again and again because it's hard to spot patterns.

Our brain spots physical patterns very easily. Too easily in fact. We think cars have faces.

But spotting patterns in situations that are separated in time - that's hard.

Historians are yelling at us that what is happening politically is a repeat of a pattern that has happened before.

I noticed that when I was re-establishing habits this week I almost sabotaged myself.

I'm trying to do some things daily (language learning, fitness and so on) and the pattern I fall into is going, "That's not enough! If you do the maths, by the end of the year you won't have done much at ALL. LET'S DO MORE!"

Then I, well, do more for about two-and-a-half weeks, then something changes in my routine and I fall out of the habit, feel bad, start forgetting and two months later, it's all over. At the end of the year, I have done much less than I would have done if I'd done a tiny amount.

Having been through this pattern enough in the past FORTY-ONE YEARS, I was able to spot it.

So I asked myself, "What's the SMALLEST amount I could do every day?" So instead of doing FIVE lessons on Duolingo on BOTH Spanish and German, how about I do one of each?

If you've ever taught something more than a couple of times, or worked on a helpdesk, you know that the person's questions that seem so specific and original to them, are one of the same five that everyone has. You have a broader context that just their phone call, so you can easily help them.

Leaders who are able to place their organisation's work in global, historical, societal contexts are more likely to support truly innovative, timely interventions.

So: spotting patterns? Important.

Repetition may well help you see patterns, but only when the thing happens again and again and AGAIN.

I wonder if we could speed this process along by asking two questions:

1. What is happening right now?
2. What is this an example of?

In meetings, in your organisation, in politics, in your relationships, in the privacy of your own head.

Spotting what is happening is a skill, then seeing the pattern is another one.

And if it leads to us being more agile, making better decisions, stopping history repeating itself, that may well be a very good thing.


Our fear of public speaking is not simple.

Our fear of public speaking is not simple.

I mean, part of it comes from mechanical things - not knowing how to plan, how to make slides, how to tell stories, how to deal with Q&A, even how to "deal" with top-layer "nerves" - but for a while I've been sensing something deeper.

I think there's two things - one sharper, one more insidious.

First, there's past experiences. Did you have a bad experience at school which made you scared to stand up in front of a group? How did your parents do? Did they encourage you to speak up? Was your voice nurtured?

Those things cut deep. You don't get over them without some significant effort.

Secondly, even if you left school unscathed and your parents did a good job... there's society.

Being a person who has any kind of empathy or feeling or vulnerability in a society that values logic and rationality above all else does not set you up to easily speak out.

Dysfunctional corporate culture does not support you sticking your neck out.

Being a Person of Colour in a white supremacist society systematically undermines any deep safety you have about speaking out, that your words and thoughts are valued.

Being a woman or femme in a patriarchal society undermines your sense of safety in speaking out.

Being trans in a deeply transphobic society does not lead to safety in speaking out.

Being any flavour of queer in a heterocentric society undermines your sense of safety in speaking out.

Having a disability in an ableist society undermines your sense of safety in speaking out.

Being non-gender-conforming in a society that polices gender roles as tightly as ours does undermines your sense of safety in speaking out.

Being working class in a society run by and for the rich undermines your feeling that your words are valued.

Living in the intersection of any of those identities insidiously compounds and compounds that lack of safety.

And yet, presentations and speaking out in meetings, speaking "publicly", is a part of most of our lives.

So what am I saying?

Yes, learn the "mechanical" aspects, the skills of doing a presentation. Hell, I wrote a whole, very detailed book on how to do just that.

Yes, even learn the (somewhat) mechanical skills of lowering adrenaline and dealing with nerves.

And and and...have compassion for yourself. If you are, at times, scared of speaking up, speaking out, just know that the very fabric of our society supports only a tiny, tiny, tiny fraction of people to feel safe and valued in being visible.

So, speak out, but be gentle on yourself when you do.

More post-heroic leadership, please

This year: I'm looking into how I can support more people to evolve into post-heroic leaders.

At the Gandalfesque instigation of the wise Indy Johar, I've spent the past few months reading, thinking about and being trained in a framework of human development which makes a lot of intuitive as well as science-y sense. It's weirdly little-known, despite having more than four decades of research behind it.

As we make sense of increasing uncertainty and complexity, we evolve through clear stages. This framework tracks these stages and, in the part I've been looking at, applies them to leadership.

Most management/leadership education is based on moving people from an expert orientation to what we would think of as a fully-fledged manager.

People whose current centre of gravity sits in the expert stage have strong problem-solving skills within their clearly-defined domain but manage each member of their team individually (more like a supervisor).

Fully-fledged managers are focused on outcomes and results, think strategically, are good at getting buy-in, manage teams as teams with regular meetings, give regular good-quality developmental feedback... the whole shebang.

Where I'm particularly interested is in the crossover to later, and much rarer, stages of development.

If you were to think of the above two stages as conventional development, the next phase is a move into post-conventional stages.

In the first of several post-conventional stages, a leader begins to turn outwards, seeing all the members of their team as leaders, and holds a space for new solutions and initiatives to develop from a deep sense of the intrinsic value of collaboration. They draw a much more porous boundary around the concept of stakeholders, and they are able to see the lenses they look through as just that - lenses.

Rather more evocatively, two writers in this field label this transition as moving from heroic leadership to post-heroic leadership.

Heroic leaders, no matter how inclusive and strategic they are, still have themselves at the centre of the process. Even though not necessarily single-handedly, they are still the one making the change happen, judging the correct course, the "hero" who is saving the day.

Post-heroic leaders, however, whilst still potentially driving the momentum of an initiative, see that they hold just one part of the truth. They see that involving people doesn't just build buy-in, but actually means a significantly better end result. They lead leaders.

Particularly in our increasingly volatile, wickedly complex world of slow-building danger, we need more leaders who can hold a space for inclusive change to grow.

Charismatic leaders are dangerous. Being able to allow timely movements to crystalise may just be a key to, I don't know, stopping this clusterhell we're in.

So, in 2017, I'm going to see how I can support more post-heroic leadership.