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Some surprising truths about admitting to our mistakes

Is playing the blame game really necessary?

It takes courage and humility to admit when we are wrong or that we have been the cause of some upset.  So is it a lack of courage or personal pride that keeps leaders from admitting they were wrong or made a mistake?  Argyris, in his book overcoming organisational defenses (1990), suggests that what is really going on with leaders is that they are engaged in a game of saving face or to put it another way avoiding embarrassment.  This behaviour is extremely dysfunctional on so many levels.

Firstly, if the reasons for the failure are not attributable to ourselves and we engage in a witch-hunt to find the “culprit”; this activity distracts us away from discovering and subsequently solving the root cause of the problem.  As a result we may become more concerned with dishing out justice rather than engaging in an activity of learning.

Secondly, if we go about looking for the “culprit” we are subconsciously saying that the problem was out of our control.  A recent example of this can be found in the banking crisis where the fault was identified as “too many people defaulting on their mortgage payments” rather than accept the responsibility that maybe is was risky lending practices that was the true root cause.  This is damaging because what we are saying to our stakeholders (shareholders, employees or otherwise) is that we are not in control.  This has a knock on effect of damaging the trust that is placed in an organisation’s leadership.  It may also indicate to our stakeholders that we lack capability, which is quite ironic because the reason for looking for a scapegoat is to demonstrate that we are capable and “… if it wasn’t for so-and-so this wouldn’t have happened.”

If we don’t play the blame game – then what?

The blame game is really quite a pointless activity on so many levels because if we truly understand the root causes of our organisational failures we would quickly discover that rarely is one individual or department solely to blame for a mistake.  The failures tend to be systemic ones rather than truly simplistic cause and effect relationships.

So what is the solution instead of seeking out the culprit?  In my opinion it’s about looking within; either within ourselves or within our own department to understand how we might have contributed to the mistake.  If we were to make this the first part of the learning process it has all sorts of implicit and explicit benefits:

The benefits of admitting our mistakes

It demonstrates courage: Who doesn’t want to follow a brave and courageous leader? Admitting our mistakes and taking responsibility as a leader takes extraordinary courage.  It also demonstrates humility and sets us apart from mediocre leadership where ego, looking good and believing in our infallibility are more important that the benefits we will accrue from learning from our mistakes.

It demonstrates our humanity: People are people so the cliché goes and as people we anticipate or expect people will make mistakes from time to time.  Admitting our own mistakes qualifies us as a member of the human race and it turn allows other people to step forward when they have made a mistake.

It sets an example for our followers: leading on from the previous point as leaders we need to be aware of the example that we are setting because our followers will in turn follow our example.  There is little stock placed in a leader who says one thing “we need to learn from our mistakes” and proceeds to cover up their mistakes maybe giving the message that they are either perfect (mistakes, what mistakes?) or that “the rules don’t count for me”.  If integrity, truth and honour are values of your organisation, then leading by example should be a behaviour that demonstrates that we are living our values not just espousing values that sound good.

It garners greater respect:  I am often amazed at the apparent lack of humility that leaders demonstrate.  Some organisational cultures value a more macho or machismo approach, but in the long run this does little to engender the respect and loyalty of the followers in that organisation.  Leaders who demonstrate humility and a willingness to accept responsibility as opposed to giving a bollocking to “wrong-doers” only serves to make people hide or cover-up their mistakes.  This also has an impact in that leaders are then unable to make a decision call to limit the damage or fall-out from unintentional mistakes often resulting in even greater damage being caused.  Admitting mistakes and learning from them separates extraordinary leaders from mediocre ones and earns the respect of our colleagues, families, friends and stakeholders.

It engenders more trusting relationships:  The traditional style of leadership may have perceived that it was a sign of weakness to admit our mistakes or shortcomings; instead it is now often seen as a sign of emotional maturity in our leaders when they hold themselves accountable rather than “passing the buck”.  This trust will in turn strengthen our relationships as our stakeholders will translate these actions into somebody who is honest and is worthy of our trust and loyalty.

It creates greater organisational value:  If shareholder value is of greater importance than say personal or organisational learning then the research carried out by Lee et al (2004) may be of interest to you.  The research carried out over a 20 year period indicates that investors and shareholders place a greater value on organisations that look to rectify their mistakes from within as opposed to blaming external factors.  Investors, unsurprisingly, place a greater value on leadership that assumes responsibility and control.


An Agile leader is a continually growing leader and one that continues to inspire their followers so if we are interested in creating an Agile organisation, one that holds continuous improvement and learning as a value, then admitting our mistakes is a key behaviour to promote growth.  It may not be easy at first as it will take courage and determination to overcome our defensive behaviours, but in the long run I believe the benefits are worth it.  Don’t you agree?


Argyris, C. (1990), Overcoming Organisational Defences. Prentice Hall.

Lee, F. et al (2004), Mea Culpa: Predicting Stock Prices From Organizational Attributions. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin December 2004 vol. 30 no. 12 1636-1649.

Building and Strengthening Relationships — An Exercise

The first Agile value stated in the Agile Manifesto is “Individuals and Interactions over Processes and Tools”.  Our everyday interactions with our colleagues, whether on Agile projects or not, are the ingredients that comprise our relationships.  And as everybody knows, maybe with the exception of the people on Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, poor ingredients lead to less than appetising dishes. Often our time as leaders is overly concerned with the workaday pressures of building business, fighting fires and just plain getting the job done. As a result our relationships may often be neglected or worse still may even be ruptured as a result of careless or “negatively” emotional interactions.  I encourage any leader reading this to explore and reflect on their business relationships, especially those that have hit a “rocky patch”.  To that end I have provided the following exercise, one that finds it origins in Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), as it will help to guide your reflections on the most meaningful relationships to you. Allow yourself some quality time to carry out the exercise properly and it can reveal all manner of insights for you as a leader.  Please feel free to share any insights in the reply box below.

Perceptual Positions Exercise

This exercise will take approximately 15-20 minutes.

Find a location where you won’t be disturbed and turn your phone off.

Take a moment to think of a relationship that you consider to be a bit “rocky”.  Think now of a specific incident where you and the other had difficulty in communicating your points to each other.

Take a moment to get into what NLP practitioners call the first position. Sit yourself comfortably in a chair, close your and take a few deep breaths so that you can begin to relax. In this position you will see everything for your perspective exactly as it happened.  What was it you were seeing at that time?  Do you remember what the other was wearing, how they were sitting, the expressions on their face.  Remember as much as you can to really bring the scene back to life. What were you hearing at the time?  How was your tone of voice? What about their tome and pitch of voice?  Was there emphasis on any particular words?  Now what about the feelings at the time, what were you feeling?  Can you remember the feelings in particular parts of your body?  Do you also remember what you were thinking at that time?  What was the other saying that evoked different thoughts or feelings? Take your time to remember the scene as accurately as you can.

Once you have done this take a moment to break that state.  You can break your state by standing up and clapping your hands together, walk around the room, shake your hands and feet or whatever.

In the other’s shoes …

Now return to your seat and relax again by taking a few breaths and when you are ready close your eyes.  You are now going to go into what we call the second position, this is where you step into the scene from the position of the other.  Take on their physiology, their body language, see things how they would see them.  See how they would be seeing you, how they would see your gestures and expressions.  Hear how they would hear your words, your tone of voice and so on.  This may feel odd as you step into that other person and as you take on their perspectives.  You can take this one stage further now by talking as if you were them.  Use the word “I” as if you were them speaking.  You may be very surprised as to how easy the words will flow and how you are able to construct a meaningful perspective from their viewpoint.

Spend a few more moment in second position and until you have gained some extra perspectives. Take a moment to absorb the essence of the other and take on board any meaningful learnings and insights from this position.  When you are ready break your state again as you did previously.

Being the “fly on the wall”

Return to your seat now and again relax, take a few deep breaths and when you’re ready close your eyes.  Now you are going to go into third position, what you might call the fly on the wall.  The difference between you and the fly however is that you are more engaged and concerned about the outcome in this relationship.  Take a moment to observe the person that looks like you in the first position.  As you see the person who looks like you what is it that you need more of to help you achieve your goal or intention with the other?  What do you need less of?  What advice would you give this person as a result of any insights that you have gained from being in the second position.  You may also from this position observe the nature and dynamic of the relationship and the interactions.  As an engaged observer allow yourself to see what else might be needed to nurture and cultivate that particular relationship.  What other advice would you then offer to the person who looks like you?

When you are ready and you have taken some meaningful insight form the positions take a moment to break you state again and return to yourself in the here and now.

For reflection:

Did this exercise provide you with any meaningful data that you can act on?

How would you be able to act on that information?

Is this an exercise that you can utilise again in the future?

Further Notes:

Some people are very good at either first, second or third position.  You may find yourself more comfortable with one in particular.  Be careful that if you are very comfortable with second position that you ensure that you are not overly biased towards this persons viewpoint.  People who don’t have a strong sense of self are more likely to bias their thoughts and feelings towards the other and as a result maybe lose sight of their own needs in the relationship.

Would you like help with your interactions and relationships?

Building and nurturing effective relationships are the core of any successful business.  You might like to chat to me about how you can improve your ability to grow you relationships.  If so give me a call today or contact me using our contact form and book a 30 minute no obligation coaching session to help you become a more relational leader.

Improving Your Communication as a Leader

In just about every project that I have consulted on, communication has been cited as an issue. I have many theories and hypothesis about what the causes of poor communication are, but at the core it is my belief that people tend to have one, or maybe two modes of communication that are their preference and they tend to stick with these patterns of communicating.  For leaders this can be a huge problem, especially in large organisations where they are expected to effectively communicate with everyone.

It’s the how not the what of communication that is important

Now when people think of communication and changing their style or mode of communication, they invariably tend to think of changing what they are saying rather than how they are saying it.  In my view is because this is the easy part to change, we might change the order of the words or become creative and use different ones.  Think about this for a moment:  have you ever given directions to someone who doesn’t speak your language?  I know that in the UK we joke about this because when someone doesn’t understand us we tend to SHOUT THE DIRECTIONS AT THEM, in the grim hope that using the same words but speaking louder will help them to understand us better.

So what do I mean by the how we communicate if I don’t mean shouting, pointing, adding sarcasm or other tonality to our speech?  This is where the Taibi Kahler’s five modes of communication come in.

For those of you reading this article who have taken the Leadership Personality Assessment I have added an extra section at the end that will help you to correlate your preferred mode of communication with your particular leadership profile.  If you haven’t taken the two minute assessment, then go here to take the test and find out more about your leadership personality.

Kahler’s five modes of communication

In short the five modes that Kahler describes are:

  • Emotive
  • Nurturative
  • Requestive
  • Directive
  • Interruptive

Emotive Mode

This is where we express ourselves straight from the heart.  This is where we express what we are feeling openly to the other person.  The tone used by the communicator may often be upbeat and energetic, often employing expressive gestures.

Now this is probably the most difficult mode for many people to engage with, especially those who are not fully aware of their true feelings.  True feelings here refer to one of the four authentic feelings as described in TA literature: mad, sad, sacred or glad.  (The theory in TA states that any other feelings other than these four are false or racket feelings:  feelings that are designed to cover up our true feelings, but this is a huge subject and not enough space here to explain more.)

Nurturative Mode

This mode of communication is where the person communicating is supportive and nurturing in their way of speaking and being.  They model acceptance and understanding of the other person while speaking in softer and more gentle tones than they might otherwise use.  Caution is urged here as to where and when to employ this mode of communication, especially in male-dominated organisations or workplaces.  It is easy to misinterpret this mode as “pink and fluffy” but in my opinion is the one that everyone can benefit from at one time or another as if used properly can help build the self-esteem and confidence of weaker team members.

Requestive Mode

As the name suggests, this is where the communicator makes a request of someone to act, think or feel in a certain way.  Very often the requestive mode is delivered in the form of a question and is delivered in an even tone with balanced and upright body posture.  Because the communciation is in the form of a question, this engages the others thinking ability and allows scope for discussion.

Directive Mode

In this mode of communication the communicator issues an instruction or command for the other to act, think or feel in a certain way.  Unlike the requestive mode, you are telling not asking.  To this end when one directs one does it with authority, but in a considered and supportive way.  The tone of voice is even as the command is delivered and leaves no room for discussion.  Good manners are optional here so adding please and thank you may help the flow of communication.

Interruptive Mode

Similar to the directive mode of communication, the communicator issues an instruction or command to get the other person to act, think or feel in a certain way.  This mode of communication is used to break or interrupt a pattern of thinking, behaving or feeling that is non-resourceful and could lead to a dangerous outcome.  To that end this mode of communication may appear abrupt or curt, but the goal of the communication here is to create enough impact to break the state of the other.

So what’s your preference?

As I said earlier if you have taken the leadership personality assessment you may be curious about the communication preferences for the other types.  Here is a summary which I have taken from Joines and Stewart’s book Personality Adaptations (2002, Lifespace, p150)

  • Enthusiastic-Overreactor prefers the nurturative mode;
  • Responsible-Workaholic prefers the requestive mode;
  • Brilliant-Skeptic prefers the requestive or directive mode;
  • Creative-Daydreamer prefers the directive mode;
  • Playful-Resistor prefers the emotive mode;
  • Charming-Manipulator prefers either emotive, nurturative or directive.

Do try this at work …

I recommend that you experience using each of the modes that I have described above in a variety of safe settings.  Become observant as to the impact that the mode of communication is having on:

  • You as a leader (which mode is more comfortable for you, why is that?);
  • Your followers;
  • The relationship with your followers.

As a leader you may want to raise the awareness of your team to these different modes of communication.





The Real Job of Leaders

Word count 1277, Time to read: 15 mins, Published 16 November 2011

In the previous newsletter I started to talk about motivation as that was a subject that a number of you requested as a place to start in our work together.  Since writing that installment I have been reflecting on a number of themes around motivation in order to provide you with something more meaningful than a rehash of “bog standard” motivational theories and practices.  As part of this reflection I became curious about whether or not as leaders, motivation, in its truest sense, is really our concern.  Allow me to explain further …

Dealing with Symptoms or Causes

Leaders these days are stressed out with the many calls on their time to fix the day to day crises that occur in their departments or organisations.  In fact they could probably be better referred to as fire-fighters rather than leaders.  As a coach and consultant my job is to challenge their thinking and behaviours and very often I discover that what their time is most consumed with is fixing the symptoms of organisational issues rather than the true causes.  So let’s take the subject of motivation in its most general terms: poor motivation, low morale, malaise, discontent, absenteeism and so on; are these symptoms or causes?  To my mind these are symptoms of underlying issues and not real causes.  Allow me to present you with a case study of someone who I worked with a few years back …

Dealing with Anger …

I was asked to coach Sally (not her real name), who was a senior manager responsible for quality in a large manufacturing organisation.  The issue that I was asked to coach her on was her anger and attitude.  For the first couple of sessions I was getting to know her and what was expected of her in her role and most importantly why she was “doing anger”.  (I can’t assume that she was feeling angry or yet more deeply being angry; to jump to conclusions about her experience would be fateful to the coaching relationship and the subsequent coaching outcomes, a mistake that rookie coaches or well intentioned leaders acting as coaches make.)    It became very apparent to me that Sally had every reason to be angry about what she was observing in the organisation.  Sally was good at her job.  She was a perfectionist, the ideal sort of person you would want to be heading your QA efforts.  However this tendency carried over into her professional relationships which had an inclination to put a strain on them.  Now bear in mind that HR had asked me to come in to work with Sally and to help “fix” her anger issue.  As I have said further exploration to the underlying issues, the potential causes of Sally’s issues revealed chaos, bullying, lethargy and incompetence in the organisation.  Now of course I have to be careful and not swallow everything whole that Sally presented, but even if only a fraction of what she was saying was true then to my mind, she had every reason to be angry.

A Happy Ending?

I wont go into the how I proceeded with the coaching suffice to say that the contract was renegotiated so that I could help Sally deal with her righteous anger in a healthy way.  The organisation wasn’t yet ready to change and subsequently Sally made her peace with the organisation and parted ways; she now works in an organisation that demonstrates appreciation for her, not by paying her more money (although she gets that too) but by listening to her and acting, where appropriate, on the advice she gives.  So all round yes this was a happy ending both for the organisation and Sally.  The organisation didn’t want to particularly lose Sally’s expertise but it didn’t also want the disruption that it perceived that Sally caused.  Sally is most definitely happy because she has come to understand that her feelings are telling her something and rather than act them out (doing anger) her feelings are usually a sign for her to go inwards and discover her own true source (or cause) of her discontent.  In Sally’s case this was a clash of values, a conflict that could only be resolved in the short term by sally find another organisation where people shared and lived her values.

Are You Working in an Angry Organisation?

So we started about talking about motivation and how leaders can motivate their people. Anger in organisations is commonplace, but organisations aren’t angry – people are, but very often the feeling of anger is justifiable but how we demonstrate our anger becomes an issue. Anger is a most uncomfortable emotion to deal with for many people.  In fact many people have been told that their anger is not “right”.  There is also a common belief that anger is a negative emotion.  These are very curious beliefs that find their origins in our care-givers who will punish or chastise a child that demonstrates their anger.  So what tends to happen in those cases where we are conditioned to believe that anger is bad, the anger goes underground and becomes invisible.*    This happens a lot in organisations, especially hierarchical ones that reinforce a parent-child dynamic between its leaders and it’s workforce.   Seething anger ferments and festers under the false smiles and “let’s pretend to be nice to each other” is far more damaging because it remains underground and becomes the un-discussable.

*As an aside its a fact that covering our true feelings happens with just about any emotions; a care-giver might just as easily reinforce the belief that it’s bad to demonstrate too much happiness, confidence, joy, love and so on.  These feelings are then supressed and replaced with feelings that are more acceptable to the care-giver.  In Transactional Analysis (TA) terms this is referred to racketeering.

So dealing or “fixing” anger is a classic example of dealing with an organisational symptom and not a true cause.  Peoples negative attitudes in organisations are often born out of frustration at not being able to make a change or difference to their working lives.  Worse still, they see their destinies being held in the hand of their leaders who in their minds are a “bunch of idiots who don’t know what they are doing.”  Of course this is the politer version of what I tend to hear, but I’m sure you know what I am driving at.

The Real Job of Leadership

The real job of leaders to my mind is to work on fixing what Herzberg referred to as hygiene factors.  If anger is a commonly observed symptom in the organisation the job of the leader is to uncover the root cause of the issue.  However there might be little appetite for that work as it may uncover deep rooted issues that are far more difficult to fix than sending the angry people to coaching.  It may mean that the leader will have to change something about themselves or their team.  Is your organisation one that deals effectively with the destructive and un-resourceful behaviours of senior management; or does it turn a blind eye because there maybe difficult, adult conversations that lie ahead?  I’m interested to hear more so please do share your experiences here with us all – but do give yourself a pseudonym in case your truth, like mine, is a little unpalatable to others in your organisation – just in case they read this too.

In the next article I will talk a little more about the hygiene factors and how as leaders we can make our organisations more habitable for our people.

Until then I wishing you all the best in your quest to become the leader you dream of being,




Leadership Development Newsletter no 1

Motivation: the differentiating factor between leaders and managers

Total Word count: 1089
Max Time to read: 10 minutes
Sent 26 October 2011

John Kotter the esteemed professor of leadership at Harvard Business School once remarked in one of his articles: “No one has yet figured out how to manage people effectively into battle; they must be led” (Kotter, 1990, p 39).

Now that is not to say that we don’t need managers, we do. But often the missing ingredient in organisations, both large and small, is leadership.  Now I won’t go into a lengthy explanation of the differences between management and leadership but the one key differentiator is leaders motivate and inspire their people, whereas managers tend to be very good at writing plans, forecasts, budgets and tell people what to do.

So How Do Leaders Go About Motivating And Inspiring People?

Let me make now a distinction for you, because as an organisational consultant I have been exposed to a wide variety of leadership styles; some are very effective at moving people to take action (my definition of motivation there: moving to action) whereas others are not so. I would like to describe some of the things that these excellent leaders are better at doing than the not so good ones, but before I start a word of caution…

Motivating The Un-Motivatable.

I am often asked how do I motivate an individual who appears to be un-motivatable, in short: don’t bother. As I joke with some of my leadership clients, it’s like teaching a pig to sing: it wastes your time and energy and it annoys the pig.

So nobody wins. But you have to know that the person is truly un-motivatable and that may take some time and attention to figure out. It is unfortunate that some people have “sold out” and have decided to trade a number of working hours in the week for a paycheck and don’t bother to show up for work and by that I mean they leave their heart and passion at home. I feel sorry for them because they are missing out on one of life’s true blessings and gifts: fulfilling work. It is my firm belief that these people can be helped, but that is another 10 articles worth that requires much coaching to get them more engaged because they have lost hope and have become cynical. Sometimes the only thing you can do as a leader is to compassionately and ethically let them go in favour of bringing someone to work for you that will find the work fulfilling. But don’t do as some people do which is ignore the problem. This will have negative repercussions on the rest of your team and their energy levels.

But Maybe The Work Just Isn’t That Interesting

Now I often have wonderful discussions around this subject because some people will argue that not all work can be fulfilling. I disagree. Fulfilment is a state of mind where passion comes to work to do the best job possible. So for me it is about finding the right person for the right job and not just somebody who is willing to show up for work every day. The biggest business advantage will go to the organisation with the best people. Those who are passionate and love their work. In the UK we have a TV show called “Undercover Boss” and watching one or two episodes of this will reveal to you that people can get really passionate about what the rest of might consider menial labour.

So What Do Excellent Leaders Do?

Well I started creating a list of things that excellent leaders do and to be honest I haven’t yet come to the end of writing it yet. So in the interest of meeting my writing goal and get this information to you today I have decided to focus on what I would argue is the most important activity a leader must engage in.

Excellent Leaders Understand Their People:

Excellent leaders understand what it will take to move their followers and they do this by accessing the inner resources of their people. What do I mean by inner resources? Well these things like a person’s values, beliefs, assumptions, their sense of purpose or their need to belong to something great. Let me give you a personal example from my earlier career when I worked as a business analyst.

Peter – Rubbish Manager But Excellent Leader

Peter was a civil servant manager on one of the middle pay grades. As a manager he was hopeless (sorry Peter but true, incidentally I have changed his name in case he ever reads this). But as a leader he earned my loyalty and respect. I hope you noticed the very careful wording there – earned. I had a dispute with my agency over some matter that some seem insignificant and I decided that was it so I handed my notice in. Now Peter was not my direct boss but was a few levels higher in the organisation so I dint report to him.  However Peter learned that I had handed my notice in (I had only been there 3 weeks) and inquired as to why. Peter then got involved in the process and ended up resolving the conflict, which turned out greatly in my favour. Now Peter didn’t need to get involved, I was a contractor and some managers and leaders think they are two-a-penny. But Peter didn’t he demonstrated that he cared enough to get involved and stuck his neck out for me. From that day onwards I applied myself to the role like I had done in no other job before that. All because I was inspired by another man’s kind actions. Peter spoke to my inner values of “matter of principle”, “loyalty”, “fairness” and “kindness”. Because I saw someone who cared about the same things that I did, I was motivated, no – inspired to do more for him.

Now as I write these words I am aware that time is ticking on and there is so much more to say, so I will come back to this subject in the next newsletter.

So if there is anything that you would like to ask, I would be more than happy to answer either in the newsletter or directly via email to you.

So until next time I wish you all the very best on your journey to becoming the leader you dream of being.

Warm regards

Reference: Kotter, J. 1990. “What Leaders Really Do.” Original article reproduced in HBR’s 10 Must reads on Leadership, 2011, Harvard Business Review Press