Why attitude reflects leadership

“Lack of passion leads to poor performance, which will damage any future chance of success. As a consequence it becomes progressively more and more difficult to be passionate”; Inertia is a self fulfilling prophecy.

It’s been so long since I’ve actually written a blog post I thought I’d try something different. Start with something that sounds like a conclusion … and try to piece it all together.

…but first a personal note

I haven’t written anything particularly meaningful on this blog in a long time, somewhere along the way I lost my voice. I’ve been trying to understand why; some of it I cant remember or am probably still unwilling to remember at least not in enough detail to examine those feelings honestly. It’s amusing, at least to me, that all of this was brought into sharp relief when I read this simple sentence yesterday on an old friends blog1:

Not being able to speak manifests in not being able to write too.

That is so fucking true.

Which in turn linked through to a different post that also had a profound effect on me; by profound I mean made me feel angry and ashamed all at once2:

What does it feel like to remain silent when you should have said something? I bet you can think of occasions looking back when you wished you had found the words, any words, to say something. Say Something.

When I first started blogging it was, in no small part, due to a request from another friend, Ian Davis who back in 2006 asked me to start blogging and sharing my thoughts. Whilst I was nervous and unsure of myself, Ian convinced me to try and more importantly – to believe in myself. I was still fairly new to Talis at the time and I remember asking him “what if I say something you don’t like? or the company doesn’t like?” and Ian’s response was something along the lines of “its your blog and your voice … you can say whatever you want”. Of course I realised that he wasn’t giving me free reign to give away our trade secrets (not that we had many), or use it as a platform from which to hurl abuse at managers. What he was doing was saying its ok to question, it ok to share thoughts, even concerns because if we are an organisation that values our people then we have to encourage them to have a voice. For me it was this that made us far more ‘human’ or ‘people’ focussed than the company I left in order to join Talis. Ian left Talis a few months ago, I know he has a lot to deal with, and he is! But I do miss him. He has always inspired me and he still does; for that I will always be grateful to him. I wish I had said that to him more often, I hope its something he already knew.

So, back to Attitude reflecting leadership.

This is a rather old post on The Apathy Cycle vs The Passion Cycle. The quote at the beginning of this post was taken from this. Whilst the post itself is quite short there’s some interesting discussion in the comments that is also worth reflecting on. What do Passion and Apathy have to do with Attitude and Leadership … perhaps nothing … perhaps everything.

There’s been a lot of change recently, not only at Talis but also in other aspects of my life – family, friends, other projects I’m involved in outside of work. About the only thing that seems to remain constant is the fact that things keep changing. Dealing with change is not always easy – But you deal with it, right? I used to believe that everything changes and all that matters is how we, as individuals, choose to deal with it. But I’ve been re-thinking my position on that recently. Particularly when I think about it in the light of those things I’ve been really passionate about recently and those things I’ve been pretty apathetic towards.

The catalyst for this was several closely related questions that I was asked by two different people in two completely unrelated contexts (one was at work and the other on a different local project I volunteer with). But for the purposes of this I’m going to reduce those to just one and use that to frame the rest of this discussion:

What is it that makes the kind of leader you would choose to follow?

I’ve read books on leadership, team building and organisational culture; I’ve discussed these at length with others often more experienced in this subject area than I am. There are so many different ways of answering ‘what is a good leader’, and often when people answer they do so by pointing out the differences between Leaders and Managers. There is an important distinction, but difficult at times to articulate – I think what they all agree on is that the difference lies in the way that Leaders or Managers motivate the people who work or follow them. I know for some that’s a gross over simplification, so I’ll try to qualify this a little more. Leaders have followers, whereas Managers tend to have subordinates. Again, this is also over simplified since in many situations the same individual will have a Leadership position that requires him/her to Manage others. They are not mutually exclusive.

For me the leadership qualities that are required to make a good leader will vary in different companies, teams and situations. They are entirely context-dependent. What does that mean? every situation we face is different – I am a leader to some but a follower of others. No one is always just one or the other. One of the best examples of this, certainly one that helped me understand the importance of context was the play The Admirable Crichton, in which a Lord and his Butler swap their roles as leader and servant, as the situation changes. For example: when on a desert island the butler’s practical skills are essential for survival.

I might argue that in general a good leader is someone who thinks strategically, has a vision that is the source of their passion and communicates it effectively to others, inspiring them to follow; in other words enthusing others to work towards that vision because they too believe in it. Good leaders are also the ones that understand thats it’s important to boost the self esteem of others, it’s amazing what people can achieve when they believe in themselves. If you want to be technical then yes I am listing some of the qualities that are attributed to transformational leadership as opposed to transactional leadership where people are often motivated by reward or punishment and there’s a clear chain of command. I found the table at the end of this page helped as a talking point during one of the discussions I had. I don’t entirely agree with it but it was useful nonetheless. The other thing that helped was the film Twelve O’Clock High which was a more visual way of examining the effectiveness of different leadership styles and in different contexts! (had the damnedest time convincing them to watch a black and white film).

I personally believe that certainly with relation to the work that I do, or the projects I’m involved in, particularly those in and around social innovation, tapping into people’s passions and empowering them works better than diktat or command and control – I’ve witnessed for example at P2PU how far passion can take a community, that is led in an open and transparent way towards shared vision. I’ve also seen how corrosive it is when people’s motivations aren’t aligned behind a shared vision. It creates uncertainty, disillusionment and possibly most damning of all … a fundamental lack of trust. Often actually more through a lack of communication and transparency than anything else.

So when the question above was put me most recently, I answered:

‘the leader provides a vision, but he cant get there on his/her own – First I ask is the vision something that I believe in, does it inspire me, is it something I feel passionate about;. BUT then I ask myself how is that shared vision reflected in everyone else; In their words and actions … because you aren’t just following a person your also joining a team/community/movement.’.

The prevailing attitudes embodied within any team/community/movement are a reflection of its leadership. Apathy isn’t always a result of bad members, more often its a result of uninspired leadership.

That’s probably enough to think about for now. Hope this has been useful for those who asked.

  1. Link,What does absence tell you?[back]
  2. Link, Why your insignificance matters, speak up, act[back]

A Jewish American high school student wins MLK Jr. writing award for this essay

It’s been a while since I read something that moved me as much as this short essay by an 11th Grader.

2012 Martin Luther King, Jr. Writing Awards
Prose: High School

First Place

Fighting a Forbidden Battle: How I Stopped Covering Up for a Hidden Wrong

Jesse Lieberfeld
11th grade, Winchester Thurston

I once belonged to a wonderful religion. I belonged to a religion that allows those of us who believe in it to feel that we are the greatest people in the world—and feel sorry for ourselves at the same time. Once, I thought that I truly belonged in this world of security, self-pity, self-proclaimed intelligence, and perfect moral aesthetic. I thought myself to be somewhat privileged early on. It was soon revealed to me, however, that my fellow believers and I were not part of anything so flattering.

Although I was fortunate enough to have parents who did not try to force me into any one set of beliefs, being Jewish was in no way possible to escape growing up. It was constantly reinforced at every holiday, every service, and every encounter with the rest of my relatives. I was forever reminded how intelligent my family was, how important it was to remember where we had come from, and to be proud of all the suffering our people had overcome in order to finally achieve their dream in the perfect society of Israel.

This last mandatory belief was one which I never fully understood, but I always kept the doubts I had about Israel’s spotless reputation to the back of my mind. “Our people” were fighting a war, one I did not fully comprehend, but I naturally assumed that it must be justified. We would never be so amoral as to fight an unjust war. Yet as I came to learn more about our so-called “conflict” with the Palestinians, I grew more concerned. I routinely heard about unexplained mass killings, attacks on medical bases, and other alarmingly violent actions for which I could see no possible reason. “Genocide” almost seemed the more appropriate term, yet no one I knew would have ever dreamed of portraying the war in that manner; they always described the situation in shockingly neutral terms. Whenever I brought up the subject, I was always given the answer that there were faults on both sides, that no one was really to blame, or simply that it was a “difficult situation.” It was not until eighth grade that I fully understood what I was on the side of. One afternoon, after a fresh round of killings was announced on our bus ride home, I asked two of my friends who actively supported Israel what they thought. “We need to defend our race,” they told me. “It’s our right.”

“We need to defend our race.”

Where had I heard that before? Wasn’t it the same excuse our own country had used to justify its abuses of African-Americans sixty years ago? In that moment, I realized how similar the two struggles were—like the white radicals of that era, we controlled the lives of another people whom we abused daily, and no one could speak out against us. It was too politically incorrect to do so. We had suffered too much, endured too many hardships, and overcome too many losses to be criticized. I realized then that I was in no way part of a “conflict”—the term “Israeli/Palestinian Conflict” was no more accurate than calling the Civil Rights Movement the “Caucasian/ African-American Conflict.” In both cases, the expression was a blatant euphemism: it gave the impression that this was a dispute among equals and that both held an equal share of the blame. However, in both, there was clearly an oppressor and an oppressed, and I felt horrified at the realization that I was by nature on the side of the oppressors. I was grouped with the racial supremacists. I was part of a group that killed while praising its own intelligence and reason. I was part of a delusion.

I thought of the leader of the other oppressed side of years ago, Martin Luther King. He too had been part of a struggle that had been hidden and glossed over for the convenience of those against whom he fought. What would his reaction have been? As it turned out, it was precisely the same as mine. As he wrote in his letter from Birmingham Jail, he believed the greatest enemy of his cause to be “Not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who…lives by a mythical concept of time…. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” When I first read those words, I felt as if I were staring at myself in a mirror. All my life I had been conditioned to simply treat the so-called conflict with the same apathy which King had so forcefully condemned. I, too, held the role of an accepting moderate. I, too, “lived by a mythical concept of time,” shrouded in my own surreal world and the set of beliefs that had been assigned to me. I had never before felt so trapped.

I decided to make one last appeal to my religion. If it could not answer my misgivings, no one could. The next time I attended a service, there was an open question-and-answer session about any point of our religion. I wanted to place my dilemma in as clear and simple terms as I knew how. I thought out my exact question over the course of the seventeen-minute cello solo that was routinely played during service. Previously, I had always accepted this solo as just another part of the program, yet now it seemed to capture the whole essence of our religion: intelligent and well-crafted on paper, yet completely oblivious to the outside world (the soloist did not have the faintest idea of how masterfully he was putting us all to sleep). When I was finally given the chance to ask a question, I asked, “I want to support Israel. But how can I when it lets its army commit so many killings?” I was met with a few angry glares from some of the older men, but the rabbi answered me. “It is a terrible thing, isn’t it?” he said. “But there’s nothing we can do. It’s just a fact of life.” I knew, of course, that the war was no simple matter and that we did not by any means commit murder for its own sake, but to portray our thousands of killings as a “fact of life” was simply too much for me to accept. I thanked him and walked out shortly afterward. I never went back. I thought about what I could do. If nothing else, I could at least try to free myself from the burden of being saddled with a belief I could not hold with a clear conscience. I could not live the rest of my life as one of the pathetic moderates whom King had rightfully portrayed as the worst part of the problem. I did not intend to go on being one of the Self-Chosen People, identifying myself as part of a group to which I did not belong.

It was different not being the ideal nice Jewish boy. The difference was subtle, yet by no means unaffecting. Whenever it came to the attention of any of our more religious family friends that I did not share their beliefs, I was met with either a disapproving stare and a quick change of the subject or an alarmed cry of, “What? Doesn’t Israel matter to you?” Relatives talked down to me more afterward, but eventually I stopped noticing the way adults around me perceived me. It was worth it to no longer feel as though I were just another apathetic part of the machine.

I can obviously never know what it must have been like to be an African-American in the 1950s. I do feel, however, as though I know exactly what it must have been like to be white during that time, to live under an aura of moral invincibility, to hold unchallengeable beliefs, and to contrive illusions of superiority to avoid having to face simple everyday truths. That illusion was nice while it lasted, but I decided to pass it up. I have never been happier.

a thought …

Anyone can achieve their fullest potential, 
who we are might be predetermined, but the path 
we follow is always of our own choosing. We should 
never allow our fears or the expectations of others 
to set the frontiers of our destiny. Your destiny can't 
be changed but, it can be challenged. 

Every man is born as many men and dies as a single one.

Diana Laufenberg: How to learn? From mistakes

I really love Diana Laufenberg’s passion. The central point in this talk is about finding ways to create rich learning projects that allow kids to fail as part of the learning process, try different solutions, explore, play, inquire, draw upon each others work, and LEARN. She articulates it beautifully here:

the thing that you need to get comfortable with when you’ve given the tool to acquire information to students is that you have to be comfortable with this idea of allowing kids to fail as part of the learning process. We deal right now, in the educational landscape, with an infatuation with the culture of one right answer that can properly bubbled on the average multiple choice test and I am here to share with you … it is NOT learning. That is the absolute wrong thing to ask. To tell kids to never be wrong, to ask them to always have the right answer, doesn’t allow them to learn.

… the main point is that if we continue to look at education as if its about coming to school to get the information and not about experiential learning, empowering student voice, and embracing failure – we are missing the mark. And everything that everbody is talking about today isn’t possible if we keep having an educational system that does not value these qualities because we wont get there with the standarised test and we wont get there with the culture of one right answer.

…For Hecuba

O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!
Is it not monstrous that this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit
That from her working all his visage wann'd,
Tears in his eyes, distraction in's aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit? and all for nothing!
For Hecuba!

...  Hamlet: Act 2 : Scene 2 

Education is a global religion

Charles Leadbeater went looking for radical new forms of education — and found them in the slums of Rio and Kibera, where some of the world’s poorest kids are finding transformative new ways to learn. And this informal, disruptive new kind of school, he says, is what all schools need to become.

This is a very useful short talk by Charles Leadbeater, there’s a wonderfully poignant moment in the talk when he makes the assertion that “Well, education is a global religion. And education, plus technology, is a great source of hope.” which struck me as a rather profound statement. With so much of the worlds population unable to access education through “traditional” means we are now seeing the rise of grass roots led, transformative, and potentially highly disruptive new forms of education.

How do you get learning to people when there are no teachers? As Charles suggests you have to find ways of getting learning to people through technology, people and places that are different. That’s part of the rationale behind what some of us are trying to achieve through projects like The Peer 2 Peer University.

Charles also makes a very important point about the difference between push and pull models of education:

When you go to places like this what you see is that education in these settings works by pull, not push. Most of our education system is push. I was literally pushed to school. When you get to school, things are pushed at you, knowledge, exams, systems, timetables
If you want to attract people like Juanderson who could, for instance, buy guns, wear jewelry, ride motorbikes and get girls through the drugs trade, and you want to attract him into education, having a compulsory curriculum doesn’t really make sense.

He’s also right in identifying that the reason education fails to reinvent itself is that it focuses on formal solutions that will sustain the existing institutions and establishment:find a way to do what we today better. The problem with this, of course, is that is simply doesn’t scale:

Almost all our effort goes in this box, sustaining innovation in formal settings, getting a better version of the essentially Bismarckian school system that developed in the 19th century. And as I said, the trouble with this is that, in the developing world there just aren’t teachers to make this model work. You’d need millions and millions of teachers in China, India, Nigeria and the rest of developing world to meet need. And in our system, we know that simply doing more of this won’t eat into deep educational inequalities, especially in inner-cities and former industrial areas.

So that’s why we need three more kinds of innovation. We need more reinvention. And all around the world now you see more and more schools reinventing themselves


Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gait,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

     -- William Ernest Henley

From time to time we all need a little inspiration.

Death Note a modern take on Plato’s Gyges Ring

In a discourse in Plato’s The Republic, the integrity of man is questioned and, perhaps, ultimately deemed to be fundamentally flawed: The Ring of Gyges is a mythical talisman that grants its owner the power to become invisible at will. Using the story of the ring, Plato’s Republic, explores whether a typical man would remain moral if he did not have to fear the consequences of his own actions, and that no man is so virtuous that he could resist the rings temptation or avoid becoming morally bankrupt by using its power. If morality is a social construct where we act out of necessity, then what happens if those social sanctions are removed, or you come to believe that they no longer apply to you? In the Republic, Glaucon made the argument:

Suppose now that there were two such magic rings, and the just put on one of them and the unjust the other; no man can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand fast in justice. No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market, or go into houses and lie with any one at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a god among men. Then the actions of the just would be as the actions of the unjust; they would both come at last to the same point. And this we may truly affirm to be a great proof that a man is just, not willingly or because he thinks that justice is any good to him individually, but of necessity, for wherever any one thinks that he can safely be unjust, there he is unjust. For all men believe in their hearts that injustice is far more profitable to the individual than justice, and he who argues as I have been supposing, will say that they are right. If you could imagine any one obtaining this power of becoming invisible, and never doing any wrong or touching what was another’s, he would be thought by the lookers-on to be a most wretched idiot, although they would praise him to one another’s faces, and keep up appearances with one another from a fear that they too might suffer injustice.

This is, and always has been, an interesting thought experiment. It’s one that I’ve wrestled with in the past, what would I do if I could do anything I wanted to, if there were no consequences? If power corrupts, then does absolute power corrupt absolutely? Would I be able to stop myself? Would any of us? H.G. Wells also explored this in The Invisible Man, as his character Griffin is transformed from a gifted young scientist, to a megalomaniac planning world domination. Perhaps the only memorable line from the movie Hollow Man, an adaption inspired by Wells work, was Sebastian’s (Kevin Bacon) observation:

“You know what, Matt? It’s amazing what you can do … when you don’t have to look yourself in the mirror any more”

As I said, its a fascinating idea, and one that I’ve been forced to dwell on again whilst watching the brilliant anime series: Death Note, one of the most unique and mind-blowing anime in recent history.

It’s the tale of a young man, Light Yagami, a brilliant young student, with perfect grades, perfect record, perfect looks etc. he’s a decent upstanding young man. All of that changes when a shinigami ( god of death ) drops his Death Note into Light’s schoolyard, where the young man stumbles across the enigmatic looking book and reads the instructions in it, the primary rule being: The human whose name is written in this note shall die. Light is initially skeptical thinking it to be a joke, but after experimenting with it he realises that the Death Note is real. Light, in a very real sense, becomes a living incarnation of the Gyges discourse, a seemingly flawless character, who is given the power to kill anyone in the world, and seizes upon this to create a new utopia with his god like power. He begins by entering the names of criminals into the Death Note:  murderers, rapists, serial killers, child molesters etc. his belief is that the world would be better without them.

As thousands of criminals begin to die suddenly around the world, the number of inexplicable deaths captures the attention of interpol and the mysterious detective known only as ‘L‘. It’s hard to describe L without falling back on cliches but he is a mysterious, enigmatic, eccentric genius. He has a strong sense of justice, yet his methods are sometimes as morally questionable as Lights. It’s the battle of wits that ensues between these two protagonists that makes this series such compelling viewing.

Light can only kill someone if he has seen their face and can visualise it as he writes their real name in the notebook, the more he kills the more he believes himself to be a God- eventually Light becomes more than just a self-styled God, he amasses a huge following under the moniker of ‘Kira’ ( which in typical Japanese is pronounced similarly to the english word “killer” ), and soon he begins to kill anyone that threatens his plans, including FBI agents and others that are attempting to discover his identity. L, however, deduces that Kira can kill people without laying a finger on them provided he has seen their face and knows their real name. Light recognises L as his greatest nemesis and so a cat and mouse battle between the two begins. Each racing desperately to discover the others true identity first – coming second means death. The suspense is exhilarating.

I highly recommend Death Note, it’s utterly brilliant: its dark, morally ambiguous and yet full of humour. It’s great, thought provoking entertainment.