Monday, 29 June 2009

If you try to borrow someone else’s flow you’re asking for trouble!

I’m noticing coincidences at the moment.

I’ve been talking about Nick Smith and Flow quite a bit. In his Little Book of Flow which is downloadable for free at Nick tells a story about a trip to Silverstone race track and an experience of ‘flow’ whilst racing a single seater racing car.

My story won’t be nearly as good if you haven’t read Nick’s account first, but to summarise, Nick describes an experience where he became ill and was on the edge of passing out as he raced a very powerful single seater race car round the circuit. Perhaps because his judgement was impaired by his illness, rather than stop the car and spoil the experience for his family, he continues to race and, in this strange state of body and mind, allows his inner self, unrestricted by his conscious mind to take control of the car. Nick not only wins the race, but beats the lap record!

Whilst I was reading this account, my wife, who had not read it, was booking me a single seater racing experience at Silverstone! The same cars, the same track, the same experience as Nick.

She booked it for last weekend, 3 days after I had met Nick for the first time and heard him tell the same story at the Welsh Public Service Summer School.

Anyway, the Journey to Silverstone was lovely. Beautiful weather and scenery, - and I was very excited; about to do something I’d never done before – and something that was completely different from a normal me-type activity, - yet it had a real fit with my current reading and learning!

Well, I felt fine. I went through my basic training and got myself strapped into the car. The engine started with a roar and, getting to grips with an unforgiving clutch, I made a jerky and hesitant start. However, a few laps behind the safety car was enough to overcome this and to get to grips with 0 to 60 in less than 4 seconds. Then, as the safety car peeled off into the pits I was racing – and in the lead! (That's me in the photo above). Within a couple of laps two cars had shot passed me and I realised I was doing OK, but not really ‘pushing the envelope’. I started to relax, I eased my grip on the wheel and the gear shift, - I went faster. I allowed my conscious mind to take a back seat and to observe rather than control. I lapped the back-markers. I noticed myself breaking later into the corners and accelerating earlier out of them. I felt totally in control and totally out of control at the same time. I felt no fear, but a real sense of calm and happiness. I was going fast. I was working my way past the other cars to the front. Ahead of me, as the race drew towards a close, I saw the car I had first lapped. Of course I would get passed it again, and that would give me a clear run to the chequered flag. With no worry, no strain – and no particular thought, I felt my car accelerate underneath me and I shot passed – even though he was accelerating hard too. I prepared for the next corner without worrying my conscious mind with the details. Breaking hard, I locked the wheels and squealing and screeching (the car not me) I spun through the safety cones, off the track and out of the race!

So, the moral of this story is to make sure to go with your own flow – don’t try to borrow someone else’s!

Thursday, 25 June 2009

The most astounding leader of all

Yesterday I was fortunate enough to join the Wales Public Service Summer School for the day. This is a week long festival of leadership learning organised by Public Service Management Wales, the public service organisation with which I’ve had the privilege to work over the past three years.

Summer School really is a feast, a glutton’s paradise of learning opportunities for senior and developing leaders. The 200+ learners are exposed to often controversial thinking from across the world, are challenged to convert learning into action and are fed to bursting point with stimulating conversation and calls to action. It’s exhausting and exhilarating at the same time!

Whilst there, I caught up with old friends, was re-inspired by an old acquaintance, Baroness Rennie Frichie, and met, Nick Smith, - the ‘flow’ man and author of the Life 2.0 blog which I have referred to previously and admire enormously. I was also able to support the delivery of a workshop which introduced the powerful action learning methodology to a group of leaders. During this workshop I was disturbed by two members of the group who described how all this contact with great thinkers and leadership theory was leading them to believe that they were really not cut out for leadership. They seemed to have a sense that it was all alien to them, that they didn’t have the way of thinking nor the knowledge that was exhibited by others so weren’t worthy to be in the leadership club.

Lets be clear about what’s important here.

Leadership theories can be great. They can challenge us and stretch us. A decent leadership tool box is a real asset. It gives me more choice and helps me think creatively and communicate effectively. But it’s all just icing on the cake.

Leadership, like any other art form comes from within. It comes from the values we hold, our belief system, our vision, our drive and excitement to make things better, the absolute conviction that there’s something important to be done and the sense of personal responsibility that leads us not to pass the buck!

Only then are the theories and tools useful.

I worry that sometimes we stifle real talent by not recognising and celebrating the fantastic leader within all of us. It's instinctive and intuitive, 100% honest and therefore hugely powerful. Yes it needs nurturing and refining, but it’s the cornerstone of our success and the most genuine and powerful tool at our disposal!

Friday, 12 June 2009

You can be too fantastic you know!

It’s a funny thing about leadership:

The stereotypical ‘great’ leader, the leader we all (allegedly) want to serve under is strong, decisive, determined, clever, insightful, sensitive, charismatic, full of energy etc. etc. (He or she probably also has perfect teeth, a great tan, fantastic dress sense and is drop-dead gorgeous too, but these are the optional extras not the key attributes!)

But if this leader is so perfect, as a follower I’m presented with a couple of problems:

Firstly, how can I possibly aspire to be such a paragon of virtue? I tell rubbish jokes, am more than a little shy, have to battle against laziness and (here’s a confession) sometimes get things very wrong! (I’m not going to make any comparison in relation to personal appearance, - read into that what you will!)

This image of great leadership is so removed from me that he or she may as well be from a different planet. I’m never going to be like that, so I may as well stop trying and crawl back to where I belong!

Secondly, even if I choose to stay working hard for my fantastic leader, what is it that I can contribute? S/he’s better than me at everything, doesn’t need my advice or support, doesn’t need me to take up the running when s/he’s plain tired or fed-up. What is there to motivate me in just doing what I’m told? Where’s my autonomy? Where’s my creativity? Where’s my sense that I’m contributing something special?

Any decent leader must give time to thinking about the followers. Whether you’re thinking about Anita Roddick, Alex Ferguson, Diasaku Ikeda or Superman, the same applies:

  • How do I retain the enthusiasm and active commitment of my people?
  • How do I ensure I don’t inadvertently create an over-dependence?
  • How do I nurture leaders at all levels in my organisation?
  • How do I ensure the organisation will survive and thrive after I’m gone?

Oh and another thing, - please lets not pretend to be the perfect leader. If we succeed we alienate everyone and if we fail we look foolish - and still alienate everyone!