Monday, December 21, 2009

Stop Writing Notes at Meetings to Develop Your Compassionate Brain: An Evolutionary and Managerial Advantage

Why does Abbas Jahangiri, who owns a bar and restaurant in Toronto, hand out cookies, sandwiches, blankets, clothing and tea almost every night starting at 2:00 am, as described in the December 20, 2009 Toronto Star, 24 hours of kindness? Evolutionary biologists might speculate that his ancestors have wired him to be compassionate or that he has transformed himself willingly.

Our feelings are millions of years older than reasoning. They travel several times faster in brain time engaging in “an emotional tango”, as Daniel Goleman explains in Social Intelligence. We are wired to connect, to care, to be kind and compassionate.

Apparently, such wiring has helped us survive in the face of peril and upheaval. Those who cooperate and collaborate and do good works have a better chance of living long enough to pass on their genes and/or to inspire others to get involved. Pragmatically, it is in our best interests, both for our families and our work environments, to cultivate our compassionate brains.

The nature: nurture debate is no longer one about a static balance. The gifts of our ancestors and what we do with them influence how we present ourselves to the world. The consensus is that our genes are significantly influenced by our environment, including our mental environment.

The exciting part is that we can consciously become more compassionate, more socially intelligent. Neuroscientists, such as Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin, Michigan, have demonstrated that contemplative compassionate “training” can make our brains and our bodies healthier. In effect, we can train the executive functioning part of our brains, which is newer in evolutionary terms, to work in a more sophisticated way with our older limbic/emotional system.

In the context of leadership and management, becoming a more compassionate person is a “no-brainer”. In The Political Brain, author Drew Westen meticulously documents that we are moved by leaders with whom we resonate emotionally. “Irrational emotional commitment to rationality” generally fails to inspire people to engage, to act, to go the extra mile.

The evidence so far is compelling. Emotional intelligence does contribute in important ways to personal success in life and as a leader. So, how can we work on building our compassionate side on the job?

Here are some tips from Travis Bradberry and Jean Graves in Emotional Intelligence 2.0:
1. Breath right: focus on taking slow, deep breaths;
2. Create an emotion vs. reason list: the list will clear your mind to assess the role of both in affecting your judgment;
3. Don’t take notes at meetings. Spend your time instead observing people and making eye contact to help you engage, listen attentively and pick up on subtle meanings;
4. Remember the little things that pack a punch: “Please”, “thank you” and “I’m sorry”.
5. Always have a back-pocket question: “What do you think about….?”

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A Prodigy's Mid-Life Crisis: The Tiger Effect Re-Visited

Imagine growing up as a child prodigy where everyone “Oohs and awes” around you? Then, unlike many child prodigies, you grow up and become one as an adult. Through your eyes you look out into the world and what do you see? Lesser mortals? Fawning adults? Beautiful women falling all over you? Fearful competitors? The next mountain to climb? I can do it better?

Whatever you see, that’s what you believe whether it’s true or not. Then, you shape and conduct your life accordingly. While “can-do” optimism in principle is good, it can be downright dangerous if you have not walked over hot coals like most mere mortals along the way. With the ability to recognize red flags underdeveloped and a big well of confidence over-riding danger zones, you risk falling into traps.

And into a trap Tiger Woods fell. Somewhere along the line, Tiger made certain decisions that have come back to haunt him. He has no roadmap for dealing with significant personal failure. Failure has never been an option as he has until his fateful middle of the night car accident controlled the avoidance of it superbly. But, this time, with his father who was his guidepost gone, Tiger lost his bearings. Opportunity to repair the damage lurks but it’s going to be Tiger’s most difficult “tournament”.

We have seen this often in business: Martha Stewart, Conrad Black, the Enron, Eatons and Nortel folks, the 2008 financial melt-down and so on. Adult-onset prodigy development can be more dangerous than in childhood. Especially if wealth and power are added to the mix.

We mere mortals are subject to this too. Our judgment can become skewed if we are not on the alert to challenge our assumptions, debate and discuss them with others and send out some trial balloons. That’s the value of real team work in this all too complex society in which we live.

Much has been written about the challenge of good judgment and strategic decision-making of late. For example, Michael Roberto in Why Great Leaders Don’t Take Yes for an Answer asserts that “differences in mental horsepower seldom distinguish success from failure” in smart decision-making amidst complexity. Adding to the “why” of this conundrum, Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton in Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths and Total Nonsense conclude that managers routinely ignore or reject solid evidence” that “damage careers and companies over and over again”. Our brains, that is, our minds, are both friends and foes.

Where was Tiger’s team? Who challenged his judgment? Some likely did. It appears from the current fall-out that Tiger paid little heed. Child prodigies are according to the literature “extreme specialists” who are finely attuned to a particular field of knowledge and who demonstrate “effortless mastery”. The caveat is that such mastery is not demonstrated “across the board”. Aye, here’s the rub for Tiger. What a shock for him and his entire ecosystem.

This is a character challenge for Tiger and for those who support him. Character, according to Manfred Kets de Vries in The Leader on the Couch, is the “sum of deeply ingrained patterns of behaviour that define an individual” from the Greek word meaning “engraving”. How will Tiger re-engrave all that goes into shaping his behaviour? What behaviours (driven by values) will his supporters from the “Tiger they knew before the downfall” use to either help Tiger or set him loose to fend for himself?

The way ahead like so much of life these days is not clear. In the months ahead, we will either be inspired or dismayed by Tiger’s and others’ actions.

As the Accenture ad featuring Tiger intoned, “It’s what you do next that counts”.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Michael Ignatieff is Appealing to the Wrong Part of Our Brains

If the media reports are any indication, the “get rid of Michael Ignatieff” sounds are becoming louder within the Liberal party. Bring in Bob Rae is the refrain. Will this fix the Liberals dismal showing in the polls?

In that Bob Rae is more “warm and cuddly” than Michael Ignatieff, this might work. Our brains prefer such warmth. But the cost to the Liberal party could be worse. Changing leadership three times in as many years does not sit well with the electorate (“Do these guys know what they are doing?”).

A better strategy would be to work on Ignatieff’s emotional messaging before giving up the ship. He’s not tugging at our hearts enough. That stern look and holding the government accountable for a report card don’t appeal to issues that are at the heart of our evolution like survival, the care of our children and extended families and the well-being of our local communities.

Too much reason from Michael Ignatieff, not enough emotion. He’s little different from Stephen Harper who, in fact, is warming up his image and delivery and distancing himself further from the opposition. We now have a strong image of Harper “letting his hair down” playing a Beatles song on the piano with some decent singing. The Liberals have been outmaneuvered by the Conservatives on reaching the right part of our brains first---that which appeals to our emotions.

From an evolutionary perspective, we reason with our emotions first then make choices based on facts, and figures. “Emotions provide a compass that leads us toward or away from things” as psychologist Drew Westen explains in The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation.

“Feelings” according to Westen are millions of years older than “reason” or conscious thought processes. They are hard-wired into human brains across all cultures. The evolution of our species has predisposed us to being moved by leaders with whom we feel “an emotional resonance”.

There is a caveat. We can easily become turned off by “bad” governance---again an emotional action supported by evidence (or quasi-evidence). The morality of not having the electorate’s best interests in mind eventually costs a political leader. So too in any organization.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Get Novel with More Thinking Partnerships Like the Coen Brothers

Channel hopping led me to an interview with the Coen brothers about their new film “A Serious Man”. While I tuned in somewhat to excerpts from and discussion about the film, I was more fascinated by their mannerisms and what makes them click.

For the longest time, Ethan just hung his head as if he were someplace else while Joel answered most of the interviewer’s questions. With slumped shoulders Ethan sure wasn’t putting his best foot forward as the pros recommend for interviews. But, suddenly he lit up, sat up and went on at length in a deep academic way expanding upon the nuances of their films. Hmmm. No slouch after all.

The Coen brothers have been a tour de force for over 20 years directing and producing numerous quirky, clever, very creative and often “dark” yet popular films. What makes them tick? How do they come up with such unusual plot lines which parody life and still capture our imaginations?

They must take lots of “walks in the park”, work on being positive and are good observers of their own thinking. We have the hard science now from neuroscientists that these approaches do increase insights and the ability to see novel solutions to new problems.

The approaches combined quiet the brain allowing more holistic connections to be made. Moments of insight emerge not from working harder but from backing off to allow subtle signals to be noticed. Too much noise (anxiety, busyness, time pressure, etc.) stop novel answers from emerging.

Thinking partnerships help too. Like the Coen brothers where one brings a lot of detail to the situation and the other sees the big picture. At least that’s my impression. Looking at their background, Ethan studied philosophy. That’s a big picture abstract level of thinking. On the other hand, Joel studied film making and music video production---still very creative challenges yet more at the 1,000 foot level than the 50,000.

Google, IDEO, 3M, Southwest Airlines and many other well known and highly successful organizations leverage “insight-making” on purpose. It’s good for business as their bottom lines demonstrate. One common thread is that they make a point of having fun, a sure fire way to let out the weird and wonderful ideas.

The blueprint is clear for increasing the odds of novel thinking to make an appearance. This is no time to be shy! In this still tough environment, quieter brains must prevail to help us through.

Friday, November 06, 2009

H1N1 Up Close: Death of New Colleague's Wife Raises "Hazard Watch"

I met Steve three times at a local business networking meeting. On Tuesday, October 27 at about 9:00 am I bade him farewell along with others after we did our usual round of business. One week later (November 3) Steve sent out an email that his wife had “a raging case of pneumonia and possibly H1N1” and was in hospital. On November 5 Steve’s wife of 14 years passed away from H1N1 flu at Credit Valley Hospital in Mississauga.

This is not supposed to happen, although public health officials are saying: “There will be deaths”. We are between a rock and a hard place. So is public health---the available supply and the inoculation system is out-of-synch with the real demand and the timing of the flu pathway through the population.

I know nothing of Steve’s wife’s background. Perhaps she was among the “at risk”. She was likely in her forties judging from my guesstimate of Steve’s age. Could she have been saved by more readily available vaccine?

The lock-step nature of the roll-out of the vaccine puts to the test our self-control (to be patient and wait our turn) and our sense of fairness (stories abound on people jumping the queue). Besides, how does one divide up a family according to a rather rough risk measure (some get it, some don’t in the first parts of the roll-out) and still maintain a sense of calm? So, aside from the evolving science of the disease which researchers and practitioners are working hard at keeping up with, how does an everyday person manage risk when the safety net has holes in it?

One of my dear friends who is a biochemist claims the flu is already everywhere, as it usually is during this time of year. She counsels: “Stop worrying about the rigmarole over the vaccine and just get on with life” as it’s somewhat late to get a shot. The best risk management actions remain the same—adhere to healthy living practices including the frequent washing of hands, etc.” The statistics are on our side as this is a mild flu.

Underlying our conversation, however, is not concern for ourselves. If truth be told, it’s for our families. My friend has six grandchildren ranging in age from four months to 12 years old. My children are young adults. As whole families cannot be inoculated at the same time, our “hazard watch” escalates.

Brain science reveals that we use up a tremendous amount of brain energy (glucose) to manage the uncertainties in our environment. The stress can be exhausting and leaves less energy for tackling other important parts of our professional and personal lives. The functioning of our pre-frontal cortex ramps up as it communicates with and tries to sort out and guide the emotional turmoil buried in deeper brain regions. With the H1N1 situation running at high uncertainty, calming our minds daily with good thoughts, exercise, fellowship, fun and other means of relaxing is an antidote for survival.

We shape our brains daily. This can be used to our advantage. Since 9/11 it feels as if we have lived in a chronically uncertain world. Each segment of any one year has its “signature” threats. We are learning through no choice of our own to adapt as if we are running a marathon most of the time. Anyone who has trained for a marathon knows it can be done. In a sense, we are all getting stronger and more resilient.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

H1N1 Vaccine Chaos: Business Process Screw-Up

Our family doc led us to believe a couple of months ago that he’d vaccinate us against the H1N1 flu virus. He’s still waiting for his supply. In the meantime, we are being encouraged to join three to six hour line-ups coming to our “town” shortly. Someone has skipped a beat here in common sense planning.

Few if any of us pictured that we’d have to line up en masse on the basis of first come first serve for this vaccination. Make an extra visit to our local walk-in clinic or family physician—yes. According to one of our local clinics, the medical staff does not expect to be receiving any vaccine. How assumptions can be so wrong! Maybe things will change.

We are envious that Sault St. Marie has managed the process by having people book an appointment largely on line and I presume also by telephone. The real story might not be quite as streamlined as not everyone has access to the internet and many shut-ins cannot venture out to a clinic. Plus, the vastness of the north has accelerated the transition to e-records and e-communications ahead of more southerly cities and communities giving Sault Ste. Marie an advantage to start with. However, at this point in the roll-out in Southern Ontario, it is mystifying why the gap in “user-friendliness” is so huge between the north and south.

Understandably a mass vaccination of this type has never happened in anyone’s lifetime. The closest comparator is the polio epidemic in the 1950s where schools were the chief locations for inoculation. The target groups were school-age children not the general population. That then was relatively easy. However, there’s a lesson: implementation was highly de-centralized.

We are being funneled into too few spots as in a traffic jam on highway 401 when the on-ramps feed into narrower parts. I can understand that to take the pressure off the normal conduits for health care like emergency rooms, walk in clinics and primary physicians public health is providing temporary alternatives. Unfortunately, the timing is off as public health is the only source right now.

Where were the computer-modelers when we needed them?

This will get sorted out. The first time is always full of lessons learned. On the side of public health, it is likely hampered by uncertainty about vaccine supplies---how much and when available. Resources too are thin at the best of times.

Nevertheless, why some synergy has not been created at this stage with personnel at easy to access locations where there would be minimal line-ups still makes me scratch my head.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

A Surge of the "Yes, and" Mantra of Comedians Would Help World Peace

I never was very good at multiple choice questions because I could always see the complexity in the situation about which I was being asked. I eventually “trained” myself to be more deductive and logical, more black and white in order to pass the tests. However, it never seemed natural.

I have since learned that my complexity style can be a blessing and a curse: a blessing to see the world from a 360 view, which can enlarge my view and make me less reactive. A curse if I am trying to be succinct and really targeted in messaging.

So, when Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize out of the blue, I didn’t immediately do the “Yes, but” routine. After all, my complexity lens needed to do some thinking before passing judgment. OK. The world works in mysterious ways. Even Barack Obama was a bit taken aback!

That’s why comedians train themselves to go with the flow of an emerging situation by always saying “Yes, and” rather than “Yes, but”. They literally have to stay present in order to optimize generating the story lines. Their openness creates a richness of conversation and opportunity. The surprise becomes something constructive. Thus, I gather seeing complexity can be an asset in practicing “Yes, and”!

Both the “Yes, and” and the “Yes, but” reactions were in abundance after the Swedes awarded the Nobel to President Obama. This is the nature of our minds and our ways. In this instance, however, the former made us dig a bit deeper to better understand why the Swedes chose Obama.

As the comedian’s “improv” process catalyzes a creative and open path, so too does a world paradigm shift toward peace rather than war. The Swedes have set in action an opportunity for “improv” everywhere in the spirit of finding ways and means to world peace. The discipline of the “Yes, and” is a simple and powerful tool for discovering how to get there.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Candle Problems for Dummies: Not Apply Much Today

In his presentation in July 2009 on motivation, Daniel Pink makes a significant point: there’s a gap between science (the evidence) and what business does. Nowhere is it more obvious than with the subject of rewards. His point: people don’t always perform better with bigger rewards. Because it depends on the problem. The more complex, the less effect an external reward. Yet, organizations, as a general rule, don’t differentiate their approaches.

The first decade of the 21st century has been bountiful in its non-routine problems, constantly surprising us and keeping us off balance. These “out of nowhere” occurrences don’t have easy solutions.

When we apply our known routines to them, the puzzles often remain. For example, the early warning system for tsunamis did little to help the people on the American Samoa Island because it was too close to the epicenter of the earthquake. Many economists saw the financial crisis coming but could not apply their collective pressure (their early warning signals) enough to influence key decision-makers. Life has definitely become more complicated. There is much more work to do to prevent and manage risk, to anticipate and to imagine.

Opening up our minds literally is the way forward. That means motivating people from within than without. Pink stresses three factors: “autonomy” (letting people direct their own work), “mastery” (having the opportunity to get better and better at what matters) and “purpose” (being involved in something beyond ourselves).

David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work, wraps up the challenge of motivation or engagement similarly in the acronym “SCARF”:

Status: praise and mastering a skill and being paid for it all boost an employee’s sense of status and by association—motivation. Threats to status like performance reviews do the opposite;

Certainty: uncertainty registers tension in the brain shutting down problem-solving ability. If leaders can create a perception of certainty, for example, by breaking down problems into small steps or by exuding the confidence that “We can do it!” the chains of uncertainty become less of a burden;

Autonomy: Many studies indicate that if people feel they are not being micro-managed, that they are able to direct their work decisions relatively freely, the more stress remains under control, the more inspired they are to do good work;

Relatedness: If individuals feel they belong (at work), they trust more and they are able to build the necessary relationships to innovate and to produce.

Fairness: Perceptions of unfairness activate hostility and undermine trust. Leaders that “do the right thing” help collaboration flourish.

As different from 20th century leadership and management, brain science in the 21st century is helping us better understand really what works. We know that threats to our well-being generate the fight or flight hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. Chronic doses of these hormones do not open up our minds to novel solutions. On the other hand, serotonin and oxytocin flood our brains when we are happy and engaged. In turn, they help us focus and undertake higher problem-solving skills.

Like evidenced-based medicine, the science of the brain is illuminating the way for “people-management”, providing the hard evidence as to why soft power works. The candle-light of soft power multiplies not only in our minds but it also generates the energy for innovation.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Margie's Health Care Reform Advice for President Obama

Language matters in leadership. Look at what has happened with President Obama’s use of the term “public option” for health care reform. Who would’ve have thought that hope and goodwill, the populace feelings that elevated Barack Obama to the American Presidency, would turn into fear and paranoia?

In Canada, people like Margie, who has lived many of her years without universal health coverage, knows what fear is. As a 5 year old, she watched her 8 year old sister die from diphtheria. Margie survived barely. Neither was denied access, as the incident happened in England. Back in Canada, it would be another 43 years before true universal health coverage was available to Margie and her family. In the interim, she and her husband paid full price, as you go, and later paid premiums to private health insurers to keep the costs reasonable. Her husband always managed to work out “deals” with hospitals to pay them back on a monthly basis after Margie’s hospital stays for childbirth. The financial costs for raising a family remain vivid in Margie’s mind. It was tough!

Fast forward to 2009, it is incomprehensible to Margie that the United States, one of the most innovative and entrepreneurial nations in the world, has a health “care” system like she experienced in Canada 40 odd years ago.

But, Margie is a political “junkie”, having studied political science at University (she graduated with her degree when she was 55!). After having watched closely the debates and the rhetoric, Margie has an idea.

Stop talking about “public option”. Start communicating the message that a system will be created to allow 47 million or so American citizens without coverage to buy into an “affordable option”. Assure the majority that has health coverage that nothing will change. That is, there will be nothing lost. Improvements will be made as is typical for any system. Life will go on as usual. No worries.

Well, Margie knows it’s not quite that simple, because the costs in the existing health insurance system are spiraling out of control. Critics worry about a “parallel” system competing with a “public option”. Margie thinks that sounds strange for a society that prides itself on competition. Whatever! Borrowing a phrase from the grandkids! Furthermore, how can coverage for 47 million more be financed?

Margie says: “One step at a time”. That’s how it was done in Canada. Tommy Douglas, who spearheaded the reform, started small---Saskatchewan. That “pilot” evolved over a few decades. It’s hard to implement full-scale change. Much easier to begin “where the love is”, learn as you go and, build “buy-in.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

A Long Steady Glow from Early Beginnings: A Parent's Influence, Edward Kennedy's Leadership Legacy

Parents matter in the lifelong moral worldview of a person and the leadership philosophy thereof. In Edward Kennedy’s example, his mother was the teacher, his father the spark. Rose Kennedy, ever the torch bearer for the oppressed and the disadvantaged, inspired her youngest child and entire family with the source of great leadership: having a worthy cause.

“Teddy” Kennedy’s policy legacy is proof positive: despite tragedy and personal turmoil, over 46 years as a senator, he influenced the passing of 2,500 pieces of legislation. They included expanding health care (the “cause” of Kennedy’s life), increasing the minimum wage, revamping immigration laws and championing equal opportunity regardless of race, gender or disability.

The significance of our upbringing is a “no-brainer”. We know this. But, in the context of leadership for better or worse, it’s troublesome. Are constituents doomed or blessed depending on the early influences of their leaders? Given our storied human history to date, it appears we are. Yet, if we broaden our view from the short term, for example, in Teddy Kennedy’s case, there is a “long steady glow” which persists and is emblematic of progress. Leaders emboldened by worthy causes which benefit many not just a few do eventually have sustainable impacts.

The journey, however, is not easy, as illustrated by Teddy Kennedy. Mental resilience and toughness are necessary because causes have a cost: the journey is messy, taking unpredictable twists and turns often involving personal sacrifice and distress. One’s imperfections smack us in the face calling for “lessons learned”.

Are we up for this? Wangari Maathai, winner of the Nobel Peace prize, makes that point loud and clear in her recent book The Challenge of Africa. She sees hope amidst the poverty and desperation and the trails and tribulations. Her “Green Belt Movement” combined with the efforts of multiple other fearsome and extraordinary, ordinary leaders past and present are flicking the flywheel of positive change. Patience is required because change often spans more than any one person’s lifespan!! But, the legacy endures.

The “political mind” is a source of considerable study in the social and biological sciences. Breakthroughs in our understanding of neuropsychology show promise that we don’t have to be the prisoners of our early upbringing when faced with challenges outside our assumptions and beliefs. That is the learning opportunity for leaders.

There is one key ingredient which never goes away in the ongoing inquiry about great leadership and management: empathy. It’s a natural part of our human history. Without that in our family legacy, without empathy as a leader, it is difficult to nurture the “long steady glow” of progress.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Canadian Consular Officials in Kenya Low on Aristotle's Practical Wisdom

Now my retired mother is becoming extremely wary of travelling. She travelled all over the world with my father on business. But airplane crashes, VIA rail strikes and breakdowns, an ever-thickening U.S. border and no guarantee of protection from adversity by Canadian consular officials have dimmed her enthusiasm.

The apparent lack of good judgment by the Canadian consular officials in Kenya with respect to Suaad Hagi Mohamud’s plight sends shivers up our collective ordinary citizen spines (that’s most of us). The confidence that we will be protected from unfounded accusations as to our identity when travelling abroad has been dealt yet another huge blow, as many cases have preceded Hagi Mohamud’s.

Given what we know of the case, the most mysterious is the way in which decisions were made. They seem almost laughable in that the starting point was the Kenyan customs officials determining that Hagi Mohamud’s lips did not match those on her passport. After that the process went from bad to worse.

What was going on? Were Canadian consular officials spooked by some current terrorist threat and inadvertently transposed that to Hagi even when she produced every imaginable form of seemingly valid identification? Or, were they so rule bound that they lacked the ability to make a good decision? Is it possible that in the absence of this learned skill, they were tricked by their brains into making “bad” decisions and as a consequence created a truly farcical situation right up the line to the Prime Minister?

Aristotle would argue that in the face of what we know, all involved who had the authority to shape a good decision lacked “practical wisdom”—a master virtue that guides the application of the right amount and mix of their leadership virtues to a context specific situation. He called this a person’s “executive decision maker” necessary for stopping our range of virtues from “running amuck” and enabling us “to do the right thing in the right way at the right time”.

Practical wisdom evolves from experience and works best in an environment in which people are expected to use their good sense not just the rules. To be wise in the face of non-routine situations requires practice. A rigid bureaucracy does not allow wisdom to improve. Quite the contrary, it gets worse. This may be the real root cause of the problem.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The "Jen Ratio": A More Nuanced View of Emotional Intelligence

Think of the jen ratio as a lens through which you might take stock of your attempt at leading a meaningful life.

---D. Keltner, Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life

Did you know that if you engage in five acts of kindness a week, you can elevate your personal well-being in lasting ways? You might think this is obvious. Try doing it while coping with the real world of chaos, much uncertainty for many, and news that is more bad than good. It’s a job to be kind and compassionate.

Think of how any organization would benefit from acts of kindness coursing through it hourly and daily. The rise of its positive emotion quotient would directly affect the quality and quantity of innovation!

“Jen” science, the study of positive emotion, has been hinted at for centuries by various philosophers and scientists such as Confucius, Socrates, Plato and Darwin. But “jen” has only come into its own recently in the shadow and dying embers of the industrial revolution.

As elite athletes have known for some time, we do not rise to our best through fear. The latter helps us survive under dire circumstances but it is not sustainable as a way of being.

The latest financial global crisis has demonstrated that Adam Smith’s “Homo economicus” has its limits. The pursuit of self-interest which does not focus on bringing out the good in others can lead to serious destruction. As Dacher Keltner, author of Born to be Good reiterates, self-interest, competition and vigilance have been built into our evolutionary makeup in order to survive, but these tendencies are only “half the story”. “Homo reciprocans” is a more apt description of our reciprocating nature and the importance of emotions when making economic or any other kind of decisions.

The good emotional side of humanity, called “jen” by Confucius, has always been with us. It is gaining ground in our consciousness globally as we become more connected and better informed. We were reminded of our good side by Henry Patch, the last surviving soldier to have fought in the trenches of the First World War, who died at age 111 on July 25, 2009. In his memoirs, written after he turned 100, he described the pact he and his fellow soldiers made: avoid killing the enemy if possible. Aim for the legs instead. Academics have picked up on this theme of our good emotional side for a number of decades.

In the 1990’s, Daniel Goleman and other researchers revived the rightful place of emotional intelligence as a driver of great leadership—the higher you go in an organization, the more important it is.

Not long after, Marcus Buckingham through his Gallup research of over 80,000 managers found that building on strengths of employees is a faster route to a positive climate and employee success than trying to change what isn’t there (transforming weaknesses).

Of late, even strategic planning has had a facelift with the introduction of the process called “Appreciative Inquiry” or “AI” for short. Like elite athlete practices, AI takes the high road by working on creating more of the exceptional performance of an organization through aspirational discovery, dreaming and design.

Since the late 90s, Martin Seligman, who became famous for his “learned helplessness” theory in the 1970s and 80s, started a growing worldwide movement called “positive psychology”. It builds on the works of famous humanistic psychologists such as Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers and Erich Fromm.

Recently, neuroscience is lending credibility to the value of “jen” (meaning “humane”), long ago advocated by Confucius. We are hard-wired to give to others and to act cooperatively. When we do so, the reward centers of our brains dense with dopamine receptors light up and hum with activity. Confucius recognized that cultivating “jen” developed character in self and others, led to the meaningful life and offset violence, materialism and needless hierarchy.

What is the “jen ratio”? The numerator refers to acts of kindness, compassion, awe, love, gratitude and even embarrassment. The denominator embodies the “bad” action when instead of establishing one’s own character by bringing the good of others to completion, a person is disdainful, critical, condescending and contemptuous (all the elements that make for “bad” relationships). It is well-documented that these actions do not lend a helping hand to anyone anywhere.

Researchers are now taking stock of the “jen ratio” of individuals, married couples, nations, cultures and different age groups. As Keltner remarks, “nations whose citizens bring out the good in others to completion thrive” as “trust (a key result of “jen”) facilitates economic exchange with fewer transaction costs, adversarial settlements, discrimination and economic inequality”.

Winners of a number of Nobel prizes in Economics concur. Cooperation beats cut-throat, winner-take-all competition in a complex societal system where trust ultimately must be a guiding principle. New research from the Center for Neuroeconomics further substantiates the value of trust to yield economic and well-being benefit.

Scandinavian and East Asian countries fare better in this regard than those in South America and Eastern Europe. Even poorer nations like India generate a higher trust level than wealthier nations like the United States. “Jen” trumps money!

The “jen ratio” is a simple measure and another tool for leader-managers. Acts of “jen” and “not jen” can be counted (see Buddhist “Pebbles in a Bowl” story below, as a simple method). With some deliberate practice, managers can generate higher “jen” ratios leading to higher performance all round---hard and soft--- underpinned by the increasing momentum of the “flywheel of progress” through good acts.


Sunday, July 05, 2009

When You Answer to No One: The Michael Jackson Effect

When Michael asked for something, he got it. This was the great tragedy.

----Uri Geller

Michael Jackson’s great talent is undeniable. So is his tortured persona. Tragically, Jackson’s story is an extreme example of disaster catalyzed by the absence of accountability with some healthy built-in checks and balances.

Organizational life can be frustrating and not always fulfilling. But one characteristic both great and not-so-great organizations have in common is a modicum of accountability. That is, individuals are forced to report to someone and be held accountable for their behaviours and the results they produce. Shared values guide every day actions in the absence of thick and detailed procedure manuals. Formal and spontaneous feedback among peers and between “bosses” and their direct reports constantly adjusts decisions and behaviours toward “what works”.

The atmosphere of having to negotiate our agendas and views with others keeps us on our toes. We cannot simply run off easily on a self-destructive path (The Enrons, Nortels and other like companies excepted). Through teamwork, we actually arrive more often than not at better decisions than if left to our own devices.

There’s an evolutionary reason for this: our survival.

Sadly, there was no effective system of support for Michael Jackson. In this case, money did corrupt. A cautionary tale for all of us.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Citizen Journalism: A Force for Leaders to Welcome and Fear

Iran and Michael Jackson have one thing in common: the power of the Internet to report in warp speed the good with the bad. Citizen journalism is here to stay thanks to the Internet. With such transparency, leaders are faced with a demand for openness and transparency not necessarily within their comfort zones. This is a steep learning curve!

All action is local, so the saying goes. Taken further, all living is local whether in an organization or community. And, that is the hardest nut to crack for many top leadership teams and middle managers. Neat and tidy bureaucracy has reached its end. Messiness and chaos are upon us as we invent new ways to make a better world.

TMZ reported the death of Michael Jackson before any TV station or newspaper had wind of the story. Like CNN’s “i-reporters” TMZ locals had their ears to the ground. As in Iran, cell phone photos, Twitter, texting, blogs and the like combined to turn on a furious reporting force that took down websites and slowed down the entire Internet even the almighty Google as it was trying to discern the nature of the “attack”. What’s interesting is that it took the confirmation of the “long of tooth” L.A. Times to validate the claim. So, there is a partnership role for the new with the old!

The upside of citizen journalism is the opportunity to create new and better ways to communicate, collaborate, learn and improve. The disconnect between consumers and organizations narrows as those who wish a product, service or policy change can input and shape at the front end and every step in-between. In many ways, this new partnership enables organizations of any stripe to serve more accurately and readily the needs and wants of customers and citizens.

The downside is formidable. If you are the leader of an entrenched bureaucracy or dictatorship as is the case for a government, citizen journalism upends how you like and want to do business. It’s hard to untangle the red tape, although most enlightened leaders want to do this. But, if you are into power and control, citizen journalism can be down right scary.

We have no choice though to go down this road. Our more complex, highly interconnected world with big brain issues to tackle requires amplification of dialogue, debate and testing out of new ideas in a distributed not a centralized way. This is the advantage of the Internet and all of its linked peripherals.

Serious scholars of decision science know that the emergence of heightened dialogue enabled by the Internet increases the probability of better decisions and better prevention and management of disasters. Although this era in which we live continually morphs like a galloping wild horse, the ride is and will be exhilarating for any and all open-minded leaders and managers.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Comedian-in-Chief, Fly-Swatter Extraordinaire: Obama Raises the Stakes

I have a cartoon from one of the newspapers showing President Barack Obama responding to a request from Prime Minister Stephen Harper: “Well, I’ll cough on you if you insist, but I don’t think charisma is contagious. Now with additional Obama feats such as swatting a fly successfully within the tenth of a second required and charming the press corps with skillfully delivered good jokes, the bar just keeps rising higher. Harper will need to go to improv school to crack the Obama leadership ceiling.

There’s a spontaneity within President Obama not well-developed in Harper. Comedians know how important that quality is to connect with an audience. That’s why they take improv, or responding and creating in the moment, very seriously. Deep down, it’s a control and trust of oneself issue. Loose or tight. Acting into thinking rather than planning into acting. Tough to do if a leader wants to have everything figured out and never look silly.

Yet, we warm to anyone, let alone a leader, who shows he’s just like us. He has to battle some of the ordinary things in life like swatting annoying flies and not taking life too seriously all the time. When we engage in these day-to-day activities, we don’t always win. The fly gets away because we were not fast enough or the joke goes over “like a lead balloon”.

It could have gone either way for Barack Obama. But, would it have really mattered? Negative results would most certainly have given his critics more reason to doubt his abilities. But, those with a gentler, kinder view would have applauded his efforts because he tried. “No guts, no glory”, as the saying goes.

Plato argued that we are “sitting in a chariot drawn by two horses: reason and passion”. Researchers who study how good decisions are made have found, not surprisingly, that we use both horses to do so. Interestingly, emotions usually lead the way as they make a direct unconscious connection with our actions just as our breathing does. Reason takes a little more work. From an evolutionary perspective, as Joseph LeDoux from New York University describes in The Emotional Brain, connections in our brains from the emotional to the cognitive systems are stronger than connections from the cognitive to the emotional systems.

Given the automatic precedence of emotion over reason in our brains, President Obama has a significant advantage over those leaders who muffle their fun and passionate sides. Like many aspects of leadership, much can be learned. If Prime Minister Harper spent some time with our Second City folks, I’ll bet we’d see a slightly more spontaneous and funny side of him. It would be good for his ratings. His rational, highly competitive nature might just buy into that!

Saturday, May 30, 2009

How CEOs and Presidents mess up: a case of the U.S. border security saga

Each president is in a certain way a prisoner of the structure of power.

---Hugo Chavez

Until former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush squared off in a debate in Toronto, I believed that the relentless thickening of the border between the United States and Canada was due mainly to ignorance, paranoia and myopia. I also believed that if we could “hit” those roadblocks head on with evidence seasoned by diplomacy and some creative thinking, then we could stave off the “an error of a hundred miles from a slight deviation of a hair’s breath”.

Whoops, it’s far more complicated! Ignorance of a different and more serious order: those at the top have no idea what it’s like to cross the border. The power gap (or bubble) is the real driver of ignorance. How does one counter that?

The stunning realization hit me when both Clinton and Bush professed ignorance about the June 1, 2009 date when everyone must have a passport when entering the United States either by land, sea or air. As reporters in the major newspapers reported, both men were “befuddled”:

Clinton: “I literally don’t know anything about this. And most Americans don’t. I promise you’ve got my attention.”

Bush: “I’ll be frank with you Frank (directing his comment to the chair of the debate, Frank McKenna, former Premier of New Brunswick). I don’t know about the passport issue. I’m sorry to claim ignorance but….I guess I am. What happened to the E-Z pass?”

The legacy of the 9/11 disaster lives on: same mistakes. The guys at the top don’t know what’s going on. Why? Their privileged positions enable them to escape the ordinariness of life. Sure, Bush is now scooping up his dog’s poop after a sabbatical of eight years but I’ll bet he’s never gone through the hassle of the U.S.-Canada border crossing, ever. Ditto for Bill.

This is a CEO/President problem in any organization. Take Nortel which is a shadow of its former self, teetering on oblivion. Back in John Roth’s time at the helm, I was asked to help its major research lab in Brampton to “get with the program”, code for having to make a 90 degree turn in its strategic direction and start aligning itself with Roth’s vision. This was an order.

The lab, which had grown into a creative and vibrant ecosystem of hundreds of engineers, software designers, programmers and the like, dutifully generated, through many brainstorming sessions, an exciting roadmap forward. It took about 6 months—a quick turnaround. People were pumped and engaged. Then, without warning, Roth disbanded the lab. A team that was an in-house strength for Nortel never had a chance to help the organization adapt. All those relationships and talent wasted!

The insider “intelligence” was that Roth was never informed well enough, if at all, about the lab’s value—current and potential. People speculated that the “power bubble” prevented Roth from being better informed. With no strong advocate, the lab disappeared into oblivion. Perhaps this was the “deviation of a hair’s breath” that, if prevented, might have helped Nortel be more resilient when the technological meltdown followed shortly thereafter.

Are we seeing the same phenomenon now with the U.S. border security issue? It seems eerily similar. The people at the very top (the Presidents) not aware that the genie is really out of the bottle and impending disaster of a bigger kind lurks around the corner.

Psychologists call this “cognitive dissonance”: once we have made a judgment, we embrace confirming information and discount disconfirming information. We hold the view in place by tagging the confirming information with a positive emotion and the disconfirming with a negative emotion. In the common vernacular, these are called “pigheaded” decisions. History is replete with copious examples of leaders falling prey to such emotional tagging, unable to “see” reality and the best solution, as a result.

Will Barack Obama be able to transcend the power bubble and the cognitive dissonance that goes with it? The jury is out.

Check out S. Finkelstein, et al in the January/February 2009 Ivey Business Journal or their book, Think Again: Why Good Leaders Make Bad Decisions and How to Keep It From Happening to You.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Attack Ads are a Coward's Way to "Lead"

Attack ads work, so say marketing researchers. Like the movie “Doubt”, they inject a little unease about the person being attacked into the minds of some or many. We are assumed to be like Pavlov’s dog open to having our minds programmed. Is this OK with us? Do we accept this as par for the course to advance our society?

Evolutionary psychologists might know why. Could it be that attack ads, of which many poke cruel fun at the person not the issues, appeal automatically to our more primal instincts associated with rage, terror and self-preservation?

This is one way to lead. Create fear and doubt. But, to what end? Where’s the beef, as the saying goes?

Since the top universal valued leadership skill is to be inspiring, leaders who use negativity as a key strategy to govern are severely limiting their effectiveness. When we have huge issues requiring smart political attention, attack ads seem frivolous and a waste of money.

It takes courage for any leader to table an ambitious agenda and then steer it through the muddy waters. A wise and comfortable within self leader understands and encourages rigorous debate because it is part of finding good solutions. Understandably, tossing around ideas is messy and oftentimes lengthy. But, it sure beats perpetuating street fighting for no other reason than to create havoc in our minds without a higher purpose.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Leading in an Interconnected World: Black and White is Out, Wild Cards and Probabilities are In

The “revolutionary physics” of our world can’t be managed by thinking in black and white. Are we convinced yet?

The relentless onslaught of “surprises”, such as the Mexican swine flu, underscores that big brains are needed. Not just among leaders and managers. All of us. Whether we like it or not, we are being forced to anticipate, adapt and act speedily in the face of surprises and work harder and smarter on the anticipation part.

Educators have long recognized that the world is in dire need of and has a severe deficit of adaptive learners. The May-June 2009 Futurist has devoted almost the entire issue to anticipating and preparing for “wild cards”. As a backdrop, it reports that the Association of American Colleges and Universities is highlighting more than ever that critical reasoning and integrative thinking must be at the top of the skills list for all graduating students. While always an important goal, the drumbeat is getting louder.

Putting this into the context of leading and managing, we need a rapid escalation in the numbers of leaders and managers who are “adaptive”. These are men and women who can function well when conditions are not optimal or when situations are unpredictable. They can get on with the task demands when the problems are messy and require “thinking out of the box”, improvising and negotiating with others to seek out shared interests.

These capabilities are inherent requirements in high risk jobs in societies around the world. Military personnel, firefighters, police, airline pilots and paramedics, for example, know they must “think on their feet”, value the team and loosen up on hierarchy. Now, the rest of us must get on with adding “adaptive leadership” to our tool kit.

Where does one start? Based on what we know from leaders who succeed in the long run, the first step is to be open to this way of being. Not all of us have “open personalities”. Barack Obama does. George Bush did not to the degree necessary given the situations he faced. Openness is correlated with curiosity, creativity and love of learning. These can be cultivated. Messy situations provide perfect places in which to practice.

The dynamic forces of our world societies today better suit a leader like Barack Obama. He’s an outsider. He embraces “geeks”. He doesn’t separate the world into winners and losers. He’s on the lookout for what works. He’s ready to listen and learn. He knows he will be held accountable for mistakes that occur on his watch. He doesn’t fight unpredictability, he embraces it. He understands and works with probabilities.

Joshua Cooper Ramo expresses this way as a “quantum view” coined by the famous physicist Niels Bohr. In his book, The Age of the Unthinkable, Ramo describes the signal for activating the quantum view when you face something strange and “mad” in your environment such that your mind says, “Are you kidding?”

Ramo likes the gardening analogy for leadership used by Friedrich von Hayek in his acceptance speech for the 1974 Nobel Prize in economics. Hayek was quite disconcerted with our simple treatment of complex phenomena. He urged us not to try to bend history as “the craftsman shapes his handiwork, but rather to cultivate growth by providing the right environment, in the manner a gardener does for his plants.” To do so requires a revolution, letting go of our view as architects or builders controlling a system to gardeners cultivating a living ecosystem.

From a leader-manager vantage point as well as a citizen of the world, “wild cards”, surprises, messy situations and probabilities become the welcome drivers of change.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Gold That Lies Beneath: A Reminder From Susan Boyle

The warming of hearts and the shouts of joy from Susan Boyle’s extraordinary appearance on Britain's Got Talent reality TV show over the Easter weekend happened at just the right time. In a world searching for its moral compass, she symbolizes all that we must do to open up opportunities for each and every person on this planet.

The gold that lies beneath is everywhere. It has been buried too long by neglect, judgment and relationship illiteracy. The industrial revolution and information age which made the gold difficult to see have reached their limits of growth. Susan Boyle reminds us of the legitimacy of our hearts and the compelling need to return civil and organizational life to ordinary folks.

We know little of Susan Boyle right now. Her story will unfold for better or worse. No doubt we will learn even more from it as we struggle to re-calibrate the world for the greater good.

In our places of work, one group holds the key to the next age of the heart and opportunity: middle managers. Study after study points to a compelling fact that as middle managers go, so do people around them. The organization follows accordingly.

For leaders of organizations, this means—invest in middle managers. It might seem counterintuitive in these trying times. But, history has demonstrated that hollowing out the middle management group when times are tough and neglecting their leadership growth leads to declines in both the top and bottom lines.

It’s time to get conventional wisdom right. The soft stuff works. But, only when driven by universal tenets which truly run deep---attitudes and values that cause us to reach toward people not away from them.

If you haven’t seen Susan already, here’s the link:

Monday, April 06, 2009

Optimism and Pessimism are Good Buddies in Times of Crisis

The economic crisis we’re facing is not at root the result of too much fear but too little.

---Thomas Homer-Dixon, (April 4, 2009), The Globe and Mail

Hope versus fear, optimism versus pessimism. Two styles of oratory. What should a leader do?

Some like Homer-Dixon say we need to strike up the fear band to new noisy levels so that we can see more clearly (reduce our delusional side). Others talk of leaders having to walk a tightrope between cautious optimism and realism. Certainly Franklin Roosevelt preferred optimism to accompany his “New Deal”. Barack Obama is known more for “hope” and “Yes, we can”, than fear and pessimism.

Instead of arguing one versus another, if we layer on a strategic planning framework, we need both—the creative tension between the desired future and the hard truths of the present. It is the tension between the two that propels today toward tomorrow. The resolution of the big issues cannot occur without the two “ends” and line of sight trajectories between the two (strategies and priorities).

If we simply remain in the muck of fear, we literally cannot move. Only inspiration can ignite our hearts and minds in the direction of collective action. The dose of reality is meaningless and onerous without some good reason to get out of bed. That’s why optimism and hope must always be within our midst.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Another Take on the Pundits: Try 21 Days of No Complaints!

Just after writing that the pundits were getting me down, I happened upon a program the next day on complaining less. OK. I’m guilty. I should have been kinder to the pundits. But, I do wish they’d be more constructive!

CBC Sunday Morning profiled a Kansas City pastor, Will Bowen, who in 2006 started his congregation on complaining less. He gave out a purple bracelet to anyone who wanted to try: 21 straight days of no complaints! The rule is that if you find yourself complaining, you have to switch the bracelet to the other wrist and start counting all over again.

He has found it takes the average person 4 to 6 months to do 21 days straight. Reverend Will has written a book (of course!) called A Complaint-Free World. His main message: people who get things done are not great complainers. And a quote from Jane Austen: “Those who do not complain are never pitied.”

It’s become a movement where his church has now shipped 6 M bracelets around the world, including Canada.

My interpretation is that this doesn’t mean we must stop noticing issues and problems. Rather, we should aim to re-frame: “How can we move forward on this?” Going around in circles, gossiping and playing around in the mud, is replaced with more constructive and thoughtful actions. Not easy!

It reminds me of “oppositional thinking” where we are encouraged to see the “silver lining” or problem-solve or let go. Sports psychologists use the technique with elite athletes. They know that upside thinking is powerful for unleashing one’s potential.

Certainly, this fits with building more vibrant, healthier and productive organizations. A “no complaint” operating principle is an inspiring leader’s best friend.


Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Pundits are Driving Me Crazy!

I’m a news junkie as all things related to leadership fascinate me. But the latest cacophony among the pundits about the effectiveness and management of various bail-out plans is becoming unbearable. It’s like going into a noisy room where everyone is talking over each other and at times screeching. Look around and all you see are white teeth, coiffed heads and perfect make up (for the women). No one looks real but they all give the air they know what they are talking about.

Pundits to me are those we see on TV stations like CNN over and over again who have an opinion about everything. Every move by Barack Obama’s administration is dissected to an inch of its life.

I get the impression that results must occur instantly otherwise the strategy must be wrong or it is not being handled properly. The pundits spend their time on the minutia and seldom raise their heads to put the situation into perspective. It’s like a running travelogue with no sensible reference to history, context and what we know about how change happens.

While experienced leaders recognize that resistance after about 30 days of the initiation of a major change is to be expected, I’m not getting that the pundits know this. In fact, in the absence of a balanced view on current events, they are the resistance!

In these difficult times, I expect media to play more than an obstructionist role. Help us sort out the complexities and see some light. Role model healthy dialogue so that we can replicate this locally in our homes and social meeting places. Respect those who are elected and the challenges they face. See how you can help them move things forward by balanced and knowledgeable reporting. Give those who have a deeper knowledge more air time.

For these reasons, I’ve turned to the BBC, CBC and digital media for calmer and deeper conversations. The interviewers and contributors tend to question and explore as a rule rather than tear down. I pick and choose my CNN encounters for such interviewers. Fareed Zakaria and others like him come to mind.

Who knows, I may become a digital junkie to widen my choices as that seems to be the way of the world! The spring issue of Strategy + Business Online makes it clear that online media is gaining rapidly in popularity particularly among the younger generations. Many are online while watching TV. They skip through ads with the aid of their digital video recorders looking for content that suits their interests.

From an advertising perspective, their habits are transforming the business. It took 127 years for newspapers to reach US$120 billion in ad revenues in the U.S. Cable television took 25 years. Online media has accomplished that amount in 13 years.

This more diversified media picture fits well with emerging research on “how to have influence”. In the fall 2008 MIT Sloan Management Review, Joseph Grenny, David Maxfield and Andrew Shimberg conclude that leaders who “combine multiple sources of influence are up to 10 times more successful at producing substantial and sustainable change”. Extrapolating to current events, although it looks like he’s biting off more than he can chew, Barack Obama’s “strategy” appears to align with these findings. Time will tell.

These are “wild west” times. “Settlers”, like some of the pundits, demand data before they accord the courtesy of support and encouragement. As in the past, it is the “pioneers” who forge new, sustainable paths. No proof. Just hard work and persistence in the face of the unknown. It’s a formula applicable to every leader in every organization.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Taking the Stress Out of Stress: Invoking the Relaxation Response (RR)

There is no cure for birth and death except to enjoy the interval.

---George Santyana

Lessons in life come from surprising places. Husband Richard, who survived a scary heart event in August 2008, returned from one of his cardio-rehab classes with a relaxation CD featuring Eli Bay. That instantly took me back to the early days of my career as a dietitian and public health nutritionist when I was introduced to Eli and had the benefit of taking his “relaxation response” (RR) classes. It was like I discovered a long lost friend just at the right time. Although his area of passion and interest is never out of vogue, right now it is a priority for survival.

With gross domestic products (GDP) in freefall around the world and the American consumer in a funk, rising anxiety is a given. While we’re grappling with adaptive business strategies to ride the chaotic wave, why not invoke the relaxation response more intentionally as one of the soft strategies?

Since all things financial dominate our thoughts, the relaxation response is both a hard and soft “tool” for leaders. Here’s why:

--Job stress anywhere costs billions of dollars a year in worker absenteeism, turnover, lost productivity, accidents and visits to health care providers.

--Stress in the workplace has been rising steadily for decades.

The specific numbers are well-documented by Statistics Canada, the American Institute of Stress, health researchers and various survey organizations. Unchecked and unmanaged stress costs. In today’s environment, this is an area where the actions of leaders can turn the tide.

Leaders who are positive and upbeat yet truthful about the challenges create a better context for counteracting the negative effects of stress. In effect, they set the stage for employees to open the door to the relaxation response. The perception of hope and “we can do this” more likely activates “good” hormone responses (serotonin and dopamine) than “bad” (cortisol and norepinephrine). The messaging must be repeated with substance behind it frequently as practicing the relaxation response makes us more hardy or resilient in the face of constant stressors.

Better still, this is a time for leaders to incorporate opportunities for employees to engage in stress-reducing practices. These include yoga, Tai Chi, meditation, exercise in general and simple relaxation exercises (for example, abdominal breathing and imaging).

Herbert Benson first described and pioneered the relaxation response (RR) as the physiological counterpart of the fight or flight response. Benson’s observations have since been verified. The innate RR functions as a protective mechanism against excessive stress.

The RR is a powerful tool for combating the costs of a world in turmoil and elevating the quality of our lives while we ride the wave of change.

It’s a must for all leaders.

See for more information.

Tags: relaxation response, stress

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Halve the $1.3 trillion United States Deficit in Four Years? Now That's a BHAG!

We refused to leave the problems of our common welfare to the winds of chance and the hurricanes of disaster.

---Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR)

I have frequently encouraged leaders to adopt “Big Hairy Audacious Goals” (BHAGS). Otherwise called stretch goals, they set a challenging line of sight for everyone in an organization, harnessing and focusing energy. I picked up the strategic thinking concept almost 15 years ago from James Collins and Jerry’s Porras’s Built to Last research. After listening to Barack Obama’s special joint meeting of Congress last evening, I came away astounded by his boldness and ambition for the United States. When I heard his goal around the deficit-reduction, it was as if James and Jerry had been talking to him.

Barack Obama’s pledge to cut the United States $1.3 trillion deficit in half by the end of his first White House term made me gasp. Now I really know what a BHAG is! I cannot even fathom how he will do it. Neither can the pundits who are generally laudatory about his big dreams, confidence, decisiveness, inspiration and his “walking the talk”---openness, transparency and accountability. But when people shake their heads and conclude it can’t be done, that’s likely the time to sit up and take notice.

Collins and Porras said that BHAGs should “reach out and grab you in the gut”. They should be “tangible, energizing and focused”. And, above all else people should “get it right away with little or no explanation”. Well, I can attest to “grabbing me in the gut”! We “get it” and the goal definitely fits the other criteria. At the same time, this is a “shock and awe” strategy. Not your typical war gambit. Given the massiveness of the debt and the structural weaknesses underlying the problem, this has caught our attention, as I gather a BHAG is meant to.

For those who like data, these BHAGs no doubt make you nervous. “How does Obama ‘know’ that he will do this”, you might ask? Well, he doesn’t. Although, we can assume he has undertaken some serious number-crunching with his very bright advisors and staff.

Big goals and visions are characterized by one key quality: there is no proof they will happen. As Joel Barker pointed out in one of his videos in the 90s, pioneers made the data. They created the results by rolling up their sleeves and venturing out into the wilderness, the frontiers where they had never been before.

So, it is with the Obama administration’s deficit reducing BHAG. George’s Bush’s Iraq war might seem the same. The irony however is that President Bush failed to pay close enough attention to the data before initiating the war in Iraq and while he oversaw the unfolding story. It was only in 2007 that Bush changed course with a surge of troops and a paradigm shift in strategy: setting up platoons in every neighbourhood of Baghdad to work jointly with the people. That strategy appears to have had positive results albeit after much carnage and heartache.

In this instance, because Obama attests to “learning as he goes” as did Lincoln, FDR and many other great leaders, he will likely adapt his strategy (the "how" of getting there) frequently because of an openness to the unfolding story. As a consequence, the probability of success---finding the path forward that “works”---is much more likely.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Colour Your World to Boost Management and LeadershipPerformance

Red helps us focus on detail. Blue on creative thoughts. So researchers at the University of British Columbia’s School of Business claim in a study with 600 graduate students published in the Journal of Science.

Here’s another “soft” tool for a leader-manager’s tool kit. Decide what you want to achieve and change the setting accordingly as in live theatre.

When you want your staff to think strategically, cloak the work environment or meeting room in blue. Turn up the spectrum to red for all the detailed planning. Apparently, just changing the colour of computer screens helps boost the right kind of thinking.

These are learned associations. They might not apply universally to all cultures. So, before embarking on such an adventure, it’s best to check out with staff the colours in their mind’s eyes which trigger creative or detailed thinking.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Antidotes to Uncertainty: Adapt and Innovate

Financial history is a roller-coaster ride of ups and downs, bubbles and bursts, manias and panics, shocks and crashes.

---Niall Ferguson, The Ascent of Money

We are learning from our current worldwide financial crisis that the assessment of risk and uncertainty are two different concepts, two different thinking modes. Risk relates more to what we already know projected onto a number of future scenarios. As Niall Ferguson explains, risk is measureable uncertainty. That leaves real uncertainty as unmeasureable and thus as unknowable. Ferguson quotes John Maynard Keynes from his 1937 book General Theory: “There is no scientific basis upon which to form any calculable probability whatever. We simply do not know.” If only more of us were Ph.D. trained mathematicians!

Because surprises do happen despite our best efforts, leaders are in a bind. If the “long view” generated through strategic and scenario planning is limited (yet still relevant for mitigating risk), what can a leader do to off set disaster (uncertainty)? Darwin long ago gave us hints—adapt to our environment or perish. “The wild rewards the capable, adaptable and instinctive” explains Gino Ferri, professor at Laurentian University author of The Psychology of Wilderness Survival.

Anyone who has taken survival training knows that adapting is no easy matter. It’s down right scary. Leaders need some help!

Given the difficulty of figuring our how to adapt, one predominant message for leaders is to surround ourselves with great people who are diverse in expertise and who do not necessarily share our point-of-view. If “a team of rivals” worked well for Abraham Lincoln, as historian Doris Kearns Goodwin contends, then it should work now. This means reaching out to one’s broader network and replicating the “team of rivals” at other key nodes.

A second important message is to set up an environment for innovation. But, people can’t innovate well in an environment of fear. With daily job losses everywhere in the world, it’s hard not to feel anxious. The “team of rivals” approach fits well with setting the stage for novelty in thinking according to creativity researchers. The depth and breadth of knowledge elements available with minds from different disciplines and experiences increase the opportunity for unusual possibilities from which to choose---for real innovations. They suggest, in addition, that leaders consciously develop a positive emotional environment of surviving and thriving despite uncertainty to foster the creative spirit.

According to Teresa Amabile and others, there are spin-off bonuses to an emotionally positive work environment. The effect lasts for days. If the leader works at stoking the fires of hope and possibility, the positive feelings can last indefinitely, as well-documented in current brain research. These are greatly assisted by the joy individuals feel when generating ideas. It seems our brains and our beings thrive in such environments.

There is ample evidence from the history of long-lived organizations that adapting and innovating are central to survival. This is encouraging for all leaders grappling with the chaos we are facing.

Arie de Geus’s template for survival in a turbulent business environment provides further guidance. In his study of long-lived organizations (The Living Company), some more than 400 years old, he found four “habits”:

1. Sensitivity to the environment (learning and adapting)
2. Cohesion and identity (building a community with a cause)
3. Tolerance (ability to build constructive relationships with other entities within and outside itself)
4. Conservative financing (ability to govern its own growth and evolution effectively)

If, as Ferguson observes from his study of the history of money, that booms and busts are products, at root, of our emotional volatility, then, the lessons from surviving the “wild” can temper such ups and downs in our favour. This takes leadership of the right kind. Not greed. Not self interest. Not every “man” for himself. Instead, it heralds leadership which trumpets teamwork, respect for each other, including divergent views, and the certainty that together we can adapt, innovate, survive and prosper.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Barack Obama's Spirit Has Taken Hold of Me

The world’s in a big dance. Everyone is a belle at the ball of an unprecedented historical event. For those that get suspicious when walking into a room of smiling people, this must be unnerving. Yet, the warmth and goodwill swirling around our feet and heads seems infectious. Is it possible that the more generous feelings towards each other catalyzed by the arrival of Obama at our doorstep are manifesting themselves in all manner of acts of kindness?

As a sample of one, I have found myself taking unusual steps towards helping others. The acts of kindness have come out of the blue as if they landed on me from afar and I just had to pass them on. These actions are in addition to my normal pattern of “being there” for others. I suspect that millions upon millions of others are also finding themselves leaning more towards others than is typical.

We appear to be witnessing the favorable impact of an inspiring leader. This is encouraging. Although we face extremely difficult times, just maybe our collective willpower will enable us to get ahead of the curve.

Historian Niall Ferguson who has been on a round of interviews about his new book The Ascent of Money paints different scenarios for the future, some quite grim. But he does believe that innovation and collaboration globally can get us through.

These we know are powered by our imaginations and feelings of goodwill. Barack Obama has given us a nudge. Provided he keeps up his end of the bargain, and we have no reason not to believe he means what he says, we may find that the flywheel of change and transformation gains traction and speed quickly.

Monday, January 05, 2009

"I'm here to listen and learn" is an Obama refrain: Is he for real?

When I happened upon a CBC documentary on Barack Obama’s visit to Africa in August 2006, I couldn’t help think---is he for real? Over and over again he said to the ordinary folks, “I am here to listen and learn.” Frankly, I couldn’t believe my ears. The words almost sounded strange because they have not been commonly used by George W. Bush. “I’m the decider” has been more his style and phraseology.

After too many years of that kind of rigid leadership, I view Barack Obama through slightly jaded eyes. It is not that I don’t want to believe in what he is saying and how well he has put together a transition team. It’s just going to take some getting used to. The natural tendency is to not let one’s expectations rise too high in case they are dashed!

But, to use the well-worn phrase, I am “cautiously optimistic”. Scientists likely identify with my feelings. When President-elect Obama announced Steven Chu, a Nobel-prize winning physicist as his Energy Secretary, according to various media reports, most let out a collective sigh of relief.

Obama’s words on the role of science in his administration no doubt came as a happy shock. “My administration will value science.” “We will make decisions based on facts and we understand that the facts demand bold action.” Yikes! Can he really mean this? After years of ideology trumping science and non-scientists over-ruling scientists, is Obama really going to stay the course of not omitting inconvenient facts if they don’t suit his position?

A look back into Obama’s history yields some hope, literally. His book Dreams from My Father is chock full of clues. Barack Obama’s mother set the stage for his values. Obama describes his mother as “a lonely witness for secular humanism, a soldier for the New Deal, Peace Corps, (and) position-paper liberalism.” His father’s birthplace in Kenya provided concrete evidence of the struggles of ordinary folks. He also witnessed the poverty, the corruption and the constant battle for security in Indonesia where he lived for a while with his mother and her second husband. Empathy for the little people appears to have been “bred in his bones”.

Obama tells story after story of observing the challenges of people in his travels and most significantly through his efforts at becoming an effective community organizer. This is a guy who went around interviewing people in a down and out area of Chicago to find out what they wanted to change to make their lives better. Various mentors took Barack Obama under their wings and slowly but surely helped him through the extremely frustrating challenge of community development. My head tells me that no one would hang in for as long as Obama did without being truly sincere in his quest to help, to listen and learn.

In his words, he describes the apathy he encountered in a neighborhood and the insights that arose from such an experience: “As it was, many had already given up the hope that politics could actually improve their lives…” “Yet what concerned me wasn’t just the damage loose talked caused efforts at coalition building, or the emotional pain it caused others. It was the distance between our talk and our action, the effect it was having on us as individuals and as a people.” “The continuing struggle to align word and action” and the role of self-esteem in rising out of despair, “led me into organizing.”

Now, he has been given a chance to align word with action on the world stage. This deeply curious and reflective leader has a huge agenda and also a strong foundation where he has learned what matters at the feet of ordinary/extraordinary people.

I will watch with great anticipation. His lessons of triumph and failure will be a backdrop for learning more about how to succeed as a leader in our current world of chaos and opportunity.