Whether we are actually leaders in the conventional sense of this word, we all give leadership in one form or another and from time to time.
People become leaders by doing leadership work, e.g. by proposing new ideas, making contributions outside their area of expertise, or connecting people and resources to a worthwhile goal.
The way to begin is to step outside the comfort zone and the confines of the daily routines to start to contribute to the direction in which you wish to go, but also to the development of others with whom you are involved.
The point which I am making is that we assume different roles according to the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Even leaders are subordinate to others. In fact, all leaders need the support of others who play sub-leadership roles and even lead in the absence of the leader. Therefore, it is helpful if we have a view on leadership, so that even if we are not leading we are able to receive leadership or can help to support it if it is, in any way, less effective than it could be.
So much has been written about leaders and leadership that a few examples (views on leadership) should suffice to provide you with insight.
1. Leaders are not the hub of activities but operate as a bridge. They:
2. Sir Steve Redgrave who received 5 gold medals for rowing in successive Olympic games gave his views:
3. The leader sets the standard by:
Your own views
Having experienced how others look at leadership it is now your turn.
Which qualities do you think a leader should have and/or develop?
How do you lead (given that everybody leads or has influence in some way)?
Can you describe the style of leadership which you would ideally advocate?
14. VALUES, PERSONALITY AND CHARACTER
In this article I have grouped together three subjects which go a long way to defining a person. To some extent it is difficult to distinguish between them. Nonetheless, there are still several differences which I will attempt to highlight.
You could say that values, personality and character form together the core of a person. We can select and adapt values. This is more or less an act of will. But personality and character are more permanent, influenced by our genes.
A few examples of values are: security, comfort, good health, wealth, growth etc. If a value is to be an effective guideline then it has to be chosen voluntarily. However, values are often heavily influenced by parental upbringing. Values are the driving force behind behaviour.
Some values emerge as compensation for what you may have disliked in your early years of development within your family. Some values are actually ‘inherited’. Values are the source of your core motivation and behavioural patterns. A mismatch between your values and what you experience can cause a lot of problems.
You should try to draw up a list of your values and what they mean for you. I have never found this easy but certainly enlightening. However, clarity in individual values is thought to be the gateway to commitment and initiative. The difficulty, which sometimes arises, is that it is easier to picture values in a particular context, when we need to look a little more broadly.
Ultimately, I came to a personal list which is intended only as an indication as to what might be chosen: integrity, loyalty, understanding, dependability, reliability, consistency of behaviour (avoiding extremes where possible), self-control and enthusiasm which is well placed and not overdone. But by every value you will find yourself asking, what do I exactly mean ? Values define the range of behaviour which is acceptable to you. They are self-imposed restrictions but at the same time welcome guidelines.
The other thing about values is that they help to define a group. If you belong to a group you share its important values. Just think about this for a moment! Culture is defined by shared norms and values by a group of people.
Personality comprises those aspects of someone’s behaviour which are relatively stable and enduring. Personality is a relatively modern word meaning how you are perceived, rather than how you actually are (see character).
According to Peter Gray, personality refers to a person’s general style of interacting with the world, especially with other people. Personality is about the ways people differ from one another but remain true to themselves. Personality gradually becomes more stable as people get older and more immune to outside influence. It is described as ingrained behaviour and as responses which are predictable in a person.
There is a conscious and a sub-conscious part to personality. The conscious part includes knowledge and skills. The sub-conscious part concerns own image, values, convictions, characteristics and motivations.
The big five personality types
There are five main aspects/degrees of personality:
- Openness – the willingness to try new and imaginative experiences.
- Conscientiousness – the extent of self-disciplined organisation.
- Extraversion – the extent of social gregariousness.
- Agreeableness – the willingness to help others.
- Neuroticism – the degree of emotional stability.
Two of these dimensions, extraversion and neuroticism appear to be innate. The other three are more sensitive to environmental influence. I have picked out extraversion/introversion for further comment, because it concerns everybody and needs to be taken account of.
Extraversion and introversion
The behaviour of extraverts is easy to observe, that of introverts much less so and depends on the degree of sensitivity. Introverts are empathic and have a strong conscience. Reward sensitivity is what makes an extravert what he is.
Jung believed that extraverts and introverts are attracted to one another and I think this is true. This was further explained by Eysenck.
Introverts have certain traits: alertness, sensitivity to nuance, complex emotionality. They turn out to be highly underrated powers. High sensitivity in the nervous system is the biological basis of introversion. Extraverts lack this sensitivity and must therefore seek compensation from outside.
Extraverts and introverts are different socially, but they both need intimacy and are equally likely to be agreeable. Introverts like to minimise aggression and have the tendency to recede emotionally while extraverts are often confrontation seekers. Introverts like to meet people in friendly circumstances, extraverts prefer people they can compete with.
The word ‘character’ comes from the Greek word meaning ‘stamp’. Character is stamped on you by experience rather than being an innate quality. It becomes a reliable pattern of responses to a variety of situations.
E.O. Wilson said that character is the internalisation of the moral principles of society augmented by those chosen by the individual to facilitate endurance through the trials of solitude and diversity. This leads to the concept of an integrated self. Character is an individual’s unique combination of internal beliefs and moral habits which motivate and shape how that individual relates to others.
The central aspects of character are:
- integrity – acting consistently with professional principles and values, telling the truth and standing up for what is right.
- forgiveness – letting go of one’s mistakes and those of others.
- responsibility – owning up to personal choices and leaving the world a better place.
- compassion – empathising with others and being committed to their development.
As noted in the introduction to this article there are a lot of similarities between values, personality and character. That is also the reason for grouping them together. It is important to have attempted to draw up some values which guide the way you live and work, but also to know something about personality and character. Take the big five personality traits and try to place yourself between the implied extremes of each of the five. This will help you to act in a way which fits with your personality and character, which will always be in the interests of yourself and your environment.
13. EMOTIONS AND EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE
Emotions and emotional intelligence are two subjects which are naturally linked and are vitally important for our well-being and our psychological progress. The various forms of intelligence, some of which we will briefly discuss, enable us to understand by using cognitive competence. But we also need our emotions, for instance, to help us decide. seldom are our decisions taken on purely rational grounds.
Emotional states and Styles
The smallest, most fleeting moment of emotion is an emotional state. Whether they are triggered by real world experiences or mental thoughts, emotional states tend to dissipate, each giving way to the next. An Emotional Style is, on the other hand, a more permanent feature, a consistent way of responding to the experiences of our lives.
There are six dimensions of Emotional Style. These are:
resilience – the ability to recover from adversity;
outlook – whether it is normally positive or negative, similar to mindset;
social intuition – the ability to grasp what is socially appropriate; self-awareness;
sensitivity to the context of the situation;
and the ability to pay the right amount of attention (focus).
All of these six dimensions can be rated between two extremes (see Richard Davidson – in ‘The emotional life of your brain’). This defines your Emotional Style. This can be changed if you are prepared to take a serious look at yourself. But it still needs to remain in keeping with you as a person.
Perhaps the best way of looking at this is to know if, in respect of any the six dimensions, you are close to an extreme, and then to ask yourself if you are happy with this situation. You may need help when doing this.
Knowing your Emotional Style allows you to react in the most suitable way in a particular situation. To have a balanced Emotional Style is probably an optimal composition. You can appreciate that this can often be difficult to find by realising how easy one extreme can be seen in a totally different light. Take resilience, for example. If your ability to recover from stressful situations is almost always immediate then you might be regarded as very insensitive. Or if you have a high degree of self-awareness you may be over-conscious of your behaviour and end up being ineffective.
It is the human disposition to respond emotionally to other people. We find ourselves experiencing certain emotions more than others. This tends to form a pattern. With training we are better able to choose our response to preserve more continuity in our personal exchanges. Sometimes this requires refocusing, leaving our original feelings for what they were, just a hindrance.
People have many different forms of intelligence. The most well-known and easily measured is IQ, a cognitive (intrinsically academic) intelligence. This is an assessment of information, skills and structures employed. It is used to predict, among other things, future job performance. Closely linked to this is WM (working memory), the ability to actively process and retrieve information.
There are also the concepts of spiritual intelligence (SQ – the use of intuition and the management of values e.g. the need for success, freedom, power etc. and personal intelligence (PI – the ability to accept feedback and to recognise the broad spectrum of one’s inner motives and feelings).
However, perhaps the most important form of intelligence is EQ, or emotional intelligence, which was coined and explored by Daniel Goleman. It can best be described as the management of emotions, such as frustration, disappointment, excitement and confidence.
Whilst IQ is the most reliable indicator of aptitude, EQ will often determine how successful a person will ultimately be in a job (or in many other things). This is particularly true of the higher echelons of employment where the ability to manage relationships is vital. Whilst EQ can be learned, that is you are not born with it as such, if you have a lot to learn then it is going to be difficult. Essential in this process is the ability to judge the emotional states of the other person or people and being able to respond as the situation requires, for just as long as is necessary, all this within the context of maintaining an overall desired direction. This must be coupled with heightened awareness of any kinks in the cable which may be apparent as an exchange progresses. The more experience you have and the more feedback you have been fortunate to receive, the easier and the more enjoyable the demonstration of EQ will become. Those highly skilled in EQ can afford to take more risk in search of higher personal returns (think of important negotiations) because their ability to keep an interaction on course is so well developed.
Understanding that people cannot be separated from their emotions (unless there is a mental deficiency) is a starting point. Realising that using emotions in an appropriate fashion is a skill is next. We have seen that everybody has an Emotional Style which can be measured but not easily changed. But we will not get much further unless we practice.
In order to give yourself more insight into your Emotional Style you could look at how you think you are positioned against the six criteria of Richard Davidson, mentioned above. It would also be useful if you analysed a number of your personal transactions on a regular basis to see why they went well or perhaps why they didn’t. What did you say that seemed to produce a breakthrough or led to an awkward silence? Try to pick different types and different people. Then draw some conclusions to help form of your focus for the coming period.
Introduction – what is communication actually?
Communication entails passing a message from one party to another, or others. That would seem, as such, fairly simple. However, if we analyse it further, we will see that it is actually very complicated.
There are four ingredients to a message:
- factual content – what information is being exchanged and how do we determine what qualifies as information? Does this include opinion, persuasion etc.?
- relational context – what is the link between the parties who are communicating and what is the situation in which they are communicating?
- expression – what else is being communicated through mood, attitude, emotional wrapping, speed of transfer, completeness?
- feedback from the receiver – there is always communication in more than one direction and this also has many different elements.
If this wasn’t complicated enough there is also something else going on. The message, to start with, is encoded. before it can generate feedback it has to be decoded by the receiver. And then encoded again.
We, therefore, need to choose just the right form of communication, and the right timing to give ourselves even a fairly remote chance to get our message across as we intend. Many forms of modern communication deny us the facilities to succeed in this. This is confirmed by the well-known claim from Mehrabian – 38% of meaning comes from voice tonality (all mothers with small children know this), 55% from body language, and only 7% from words.
Some of my own experiences
When I arrived in the Netherlands I was told by my boss that, as much as possible, we would be communicating in Dutch. My first reaction was that this would not give me much opportunity to contribute as much as I would like to. After all, I had come here for a reason. He said he was prepared to sacrifice this initially so that I could learn Dutch more quickly. In his view this was important because I would never understand the Dutch if I didn’t know their language. Further, if they were not allowed to use their own language then your chances of knowing exactly what they wanted to convey were not very great.
I learned from this fairly uncomfortable period of my life that it was impossible to communicate properly without understanding. And this is not easy even when you know somebody very well (see the ingredients listed above). You are then aware that you are often assuming what people are going to say, based on your own theory of what they are likely to say. Sometimes you don’t even need to finish what you are saying before somebody has already concluded that he knows what that is, and either doesn’t concentrate any more or interrupts.
In a bilingual environment in which I live and work (but the same applies to communication dominated by more than one form of jargon) you become very lazy with word choice. In a closed family circuit you are convinced you will be understood even if you have used your own unique composition. On the other hand it heightens your awareness of feedback because something can always go wrong.
Some tips when communicating
- Practise explaining something to somebody who is unfamiliar with the background. You will notice how often you can’t complete your story because you don’t know it well enough to do it proper justice, and you begin to use very general terms.
- Structure communication in layers of depth so that complete understanding is reached in stages, sometimes with intervals in between, creating chances to obtain feedback, saving the detail until last. You have then got something to hang it up on. In a report, you should work similarly, pushing the justification of the facts to the appendix.
- If you happen to work in a hierarchical structured organisation, it is necessary to communicate upwards and downwards continually. This is to facilitate a move in either direction. But you should realise that this may entail different types of communication.
- Create empathy in communication by being genuinely cautious and concerned about the other parties involved, listening with unhindered concentration, removing your mask (being open) and being bold when necessary.
- Think of the questions which need answering, not only the questions which are asked. Then consider asking the unasked questions, being sure to have (at least in due course) answers for all of them).
- You can never overcommunicate about your plans and what you are thinking. It is often desirable to return repeatedly to the message you want to get across, but in different ways.
- Assume that your readers or listeners are as intelligent as you are, but just happen not to know something which you do. That something needs to be communicated in clear language.
- Communication, to be effective and consistent, needs a vision. You communicate to help you get to where you want to go.
- When you communicate there is often a distinct element of persuasion. But when do you know that you have successfully persuaded? That is normally when you have created the opportunity for the message seemingly to come from the receiver. He has got to have believed that he thought of it first or at least took the decision (to be persuaded) himself.
Conclusion and exercise
Communication is complex because no parties involved have a complete set of information or answers. So there is considerable judgement and sensitivity involved. But the most encouraging aspect is that you can always get better, in fact much better.
To do that you have to be very critical about your performance, and even when you think you did well, don’t take this for granted, invite feedback, but in a manner you can do something with. Every day you will have communicated many different times, in many different ways, even if you did not say anything. Remember, according to Mehrabian, 53% of communication is body language. Select a number of these instances and evaluate your performance. what did you learn from it? What are you going to do differently next time? Do you need any help to get better?
Learning is a very broad subject and vital for progress in anything. There are many aspects of learning, such as the willingness to practise, the preference for learning and the quality of the teaching. But if it doesn’t lead to learning then they are of little value.
Learning is acquiring knowledge which is then readily available from memory, so we can make sense of future problems and opportunities.
Firstly, learning requires effective memory. Secondly, if our knowledge is not to become dated, we need to keep learning and remembering throughout our lives. Thirdly, learning is an acquired skill where the most effective strategies are often counter intuitive. We will deal with a few of these in this article.
An example – my own attempt at learning may be illustrative
My first real attempt to form a deliberate learning strategy concerned my degree examinations in mathematics in Oxford and the examinations to become an actuary during the few years after these. Of course, prior to these I had also had to learn vast amounts. My methods though were obviously not transparent enough because they have not remained in my memory. Now I was convinced that there was a strategy which ensures success.
I worked on the basis that I should condense all relevant material so concisely that it could be written into very small notebooks which would fit easily into a pocket. The strategy behind this was threefold. Firstly the act of condensing study material in my own words acted to stimulate memory. Secondly having to make selections of what had to be learned as against what was not necessary to learn or what was already firmly in the memory. Thirdly, by having my whole learning material in my pocket enabled frequent access, often, for example, in the bus on the way home, or while waiting for something to happen (for instance, somebody is late for an appointment). But there was also something else. I aimed to finish my course in a fraction of the time available (see Pareto’s law) so that my energy could be applied to condensing, reading, re-reading etc. with increasingly shorter intervals between each complete circuit. The results surpassed my expectations and I have continued with similar methods.
Ways of learning
There are many different ways of learning. There are also preferred ways of learning, although it has not been demonstrated that a preferred way is any more effective than many other ways.
As was clear from my use of notebooks, and I have continued to use similar approaches (thus seldom highlighting sections of original text), I prefer to learn from the written word. This places an emphasis on detail, clarity and interpretation. Experience suggests that proper understanding only results after many trials. Probably this applies to which ever learning method is employed. The use of different methods will undoubtedly provide a more complete picture.
Learning is deeper and more durable when it is effortful. Retrieval – recalling facts, concepts or events from memory is more effective than re-reading the original material.
Spacing out practice and interleaving it with other activities produces longer-lasting learning. Interleaving leads you to notice similarities and differences. This is made possible by leaving large amounts of time (always relatively speaking) for processing what you have learned.
Trying to solve a problem before being told the solution also leads to a more permanent record if you consult the solution afterwards. I must confess, however, that at times I have aimed to try to remember the solution rather than exerting myself to find it.
In all areas of learning you build a better mastery by testing what you have learned, by paraphrasing new material in your own words. All new knowledge needs to be placed in the context of existing knowledge.
Delaying feedback briefly produces better long-term learning than immediate feedback.
Learning is never enough. Without practice it will never remain in tact (easily accessible). This has to do with the fact that practice creates myelin, an insulation of the nerve fibres in the brain, which leads to stronger, faster and more accurate signals to and from the brain. Myelin continues to increase (net) until around age 50.
The most effective way to consolidate learning is by deliberate practice. This is practice designed specifically to achieve your aims in the situation in which it will be tested.
An extraordinary ability can be achieved through years of dedicated and specially designed practice, improving step by step. There are no short cuts, not even for those with exceptional talent. It is said that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert but much more to achieve mastery (being able to deal with any situation). Starting later in life is hardly an option any more.
When learning it is normally helpful to have a qualified coach, if only to stop you learning the wrong things, because these are very difficult to unlearn. A coach, however, is not there to do the learning, he has mostly already done that, he is there to ensure that there is an environment in which the learning can take place and to assess which training system would seem to be the most effective.
A coach holds a mirror so that the person being coached can discover his own thinking process, and that the coach understands how this thinking process actually works, and can make an accurate assessment of feeling and the will to succeed.
A coach is there also to reinforce what he wants repeated, and be silent (not critical) about lesser performances. Ultimately everything which is regularly required, or at crucial moments, has to be operational (automatic – self 2).
I am convinced that the role of the coach in the success of the team or of the individual is central. He needs to get the correct balance between insisting on a particular way of performing and giving the freedom to perform in actual situations.
Learning is personal and very motivating. But it requires discipline and it requires help (at least from time to time). Learning becomes particularly difficult when time is less available (middle life), but more important, as you get older, to ensure that your knowledge remains up to date and your brain active.
The clue is to realise when it is enjoyable and realistic to invest in knowledge (learning). And how to bring it into practice. This will require choices. For instance, I have stopped practising as an actuary because I can’t guarantee that my knowledge is up to date, although I do a lot to ensure that it is.
Lastly, your approach to learning changes throughout your life. This has to do with time, energy and previous experience. But one thing is essential to recognise, learning is not about the pieces of paper (diplomas). Every time I have joined the rat race in pursuit of diplomas I noted that my enjoyment receded. I was no longer learning something that I really wanted to learn. This happened to me again not so long ago, when I attempted to follow a B.Sc. in psychology with an M. Sc. in business studies. Given that my background was in business, I discovered I was not learning to acquire new knowledge but instead pieces of paper! That was the time to stop! And I did!
There are a few exercises which you might like carry out to bring your learning more clearly into view. Start with thinking about how you learn. Do you have any examples? What have been the successes and failures and why? What do you need to facilitate a suitable learning environment (it is not as difficult as it may seem – I studied mostly at the kitchen table, so that I was not only learning but being part of the family)? What should you now be learning in the context of your work, but also your self-development, and how you are going to set about this.
In the end you are responsible for your own learning.
10. NEURO – LINGUISTIC PROGRAMMING (NLP)
John Grinder and Richard Bandler created in the mid-1970 s what has become known as NLP. Neuro-linguistic programming covers virtually every area of human behaviour so there is quite a lot of duplication with what I have written on behavioural subjects. In this article I will attempt to avoid this by referring to only a few aspects of NLP which I find are the most important.
NLP arose from the wish to model behaviour which in itself is the result of neurological processes. We wish to model behaviour so that we can learn from it and may be even be able to imitate it. What is the right way to react in given circumstances? Unfortunately the model of successful behaviour also include elements which haven’t contributed towards the success. And of course, the role model is never us, so care is necessary before following it.
NLP is the application of systems thinking to subjective experience. It is the ability to choose how to respond to stimulation reaching us through our sensory systems (seeing, hearing, tasting, feeling and smelling) at any moment in time. NLP explores how thoughts (neuro) are translated first into (silent) words (linguistic – in effect we are drawing conclusions from what we have been thinking) leading to action (programming – the unique way of putting this together to create behaviour). As Charles Handy pointed out, this can also work in reverse; changed behaviour can result in different words which lead to other thoughts. So it can be quite a powerful instrument. NLP also allows you to choose your emotional state (following an initial automatic state which never lasts longer than 90 seconds, unless you want it to!). Your emotional state can influence the states of others in a positive way.
Beliefs are treated as suppositions
Our behaviour is strongly influenced by our beliefs. This a most important area in NLP. Beliefs are seen not as facts or truths and we should be wary of this. Instead NLP operates with a lengthy list of pre-suppositions (conclusions which are drawn from a world of interacting people). Here are a few examples to indicate what we are referring to:
- context makes meaning
- every behaviour has a positive intention in some context
- people will normally make the best choices available to them
- people respond to their internal maps of reality, not to reality itself
- to get something different you must do something different
- genuine understanding only comes with experience
- you cannot not communicate. The meaning of your communication is the response which you get.
You should indeed be aware that we operate on the basis of assumptions, mostly of our own making. It is important that you try to realise what these are. This could be a rather long exercise. Get into the habit of questioning your starting points. What are the facts? What might be the real reasons for a particular outcome?
Further, the words we use (the second step in the chain: thoughts – words – action/behaviour) destroy some of the essential ingredients (colour and feeling) which we wish to get across in our communication. Language generalises, deletes and distorts experience. I am very aware of this when I use Dutch. Not only is the colour and feeling greatly diluted but bad pronunciation can lead to my conveying something completely different from my intention. So feedback, emphasised by NLP, is so vital. And you must make sure you get it. Unfortunately this also happens in your own language!
This is a reminder of how hard we need to work on the effectiveness of our communication, otherwise we could be struggling. Practise listening for evidence of missing information, determining if the missing information is relevant. If so then you will need some suitable questions (diplomatic ones) to retrieve it.
An example on the basis of ‘I’m OK if you’re OK’ from Eric Berne
When I first arrived in the Netherlands in the late 70’s, KLM was involved in a big campaign to make cabin personnel in aircraft aware of how their behaviour influenced the well-being of the passengers during a flight. They used a very simple model based on what is known as transactional analysis which was also adapted for the insurance industry to help them deal with customers who were not always impressed by the service which they received. I was part of a working party responsible for this adaptation. You could see this as very much a predecessor to NLP.
According to transactional analysis, every form of communication between persons can be analysed. The theory is that we choose to communicate in this context either in the role of a parent, or an adult or a child. This is unimportant if the other party adopts the same role (parallel transaction) or the diametrically opposite role (e.g. parent to child, or child to parent – crossed transaction). But the transaction is doomed, if for instance the ‘parent’ in us is used to address an ‘adult’, who was expecting a more rational approach and not one of being talked down to. The course helped with recognising these situations aiming to return a conversation to the central parallel form, adult to adult, or ‘I’m OK if you’re OK’!
As used here, and as also in NLP, a model is useful in understanding what is happening but never replicates the actual situation. But because it is suitably simplified, it is also powerful and we can learn from it.
An example from NLP – reframing
Reframing is a technique which can be applied to any situation to improve understanding. It involves looking at the situation as if were in the distance and you could view it from different angles. You choose a different frame through which to see it. Some of the various frames are:
- what would be the longer-term effect if this situation were to continue?
- does the development of the situation bring you closer to where you want to be?
- if you don’t fully understand the situation, then backtrack by stating your understanding in steps from an earlier, but recognisable phase?
- suppose that another situation had developed, would you mind?
Reframing reshapes the context and makes re-evaluation possible. We can then alter our perception and may even find an advantage we had previously overlooked. Reframing can also help you to see a situation in a more positive light. This is often necessary to convince people to accept ideas. Formulating positively is nearly always more helpful than the opposite.
NLP represents a handy way of looking at behaviour. The creation of models is intended to facilitate understanding so that action can be taken to effect change if desired. It is impossible to do NLP justice in this short article but that is also not really necessary. The essence is trying to comprehend how our behaviour comes about. If you are unhappy with your behaviour, or elements of it, then this knowledge is important because no permanent change in behaviour can take place without attending to its origin. This is called re-anchoring. This is not easy and requires care. After all, your behaviour is closely linked to you (and your personality).
9. EXPLOITING OPPORTUNITIES
In the process of self-development, being able to seize (often unplanned) opportunities as they arise is probably one of the most important aspects of personal effectiveness. One of the main reasons for this is psychological, choosing the timing so that it is optimal for somebody else. The timing in achieving anything is of the essence.
In the Netherlands, the culture is dominated by the search for clarity, ‘black and white’ thinking, aiming to reach agreements on virtually everything, and especially to lay down when particular issues are to be discussed. This is sometimes efficient, but often time consuming and not as clear and straightforward as you might suppose. For example, if you plan to talk about something to somebody on a specific date and at a given time, then this is nearly always because it is convenient for the diary. Nobody has control over the then current social environment or what will have happened in the meantime. In many cases the planned appointment will be postponed because it no longer fits in the diary. Obviously, sometimes this does not matter but, on other occasions, it can be very costly, and then in the terms of lost opportunities and the delays which are associated.
Suppose we try another approach. We establish what we wish to achieve and with whom (this is essential). Then we wait for just the right circumstances, which we may even have to create. These are often related to the mood of the other party which has to be observed and judged until the timing is optimal. It may even be that a chance meeting by the coffee machine seems to offer a perfect opportunity (a question of judgement of course). Decision taking, or agreeing to something is never entirely rational but is tied up with the prevailing emotions. The diary can’t deal with this!
I always have a list of things which I want to achieve. These are reviewed at least once a day to reassess their importance (this never remains the same) and to look at the opportunities which there may be for dealing with them. I try never to force the issue. It is still my experience that the required openings just seem to appear. Only rituals are left to be covered in meetings.
Leaders are always looking for the right opportunities, but then not only for themselves but also for their people. This promotes motivation, perhaps more than anything else might do.
Being ready to exploit opportunities
You should try to anticipate what might happen. Just like a chess player you have to be a few steps ahead of the game. What is the likely impact and the probability? You then need to prepare for such an event. However, you must also remind yourself to remain open for the things which cannot be anticipated or are outside your control (black swans).
Observe and learn to recognise (sometimes by looking back) fruitful situations. This also involves assessing likely future developments and calculating the effect on others. Sometimes you only have a fleeting second to profit from the totally unexpected.
Eliminate areas which are unlikely to add value or are too risky.
Be very patient and have the courage to wait for the best circumstances. Once you have made your judgement, strike while the iron is hot. Then move instantly to the next phase, is everything turning out as planned?
If you are committed to achieving something, and your environment has been primed, opportunities seem almost always to just appear.
Become a keen student of the possible analogies with other situations which provided promising chances.
Try to determine the areas where opportunities might arise: for example, process vulnerability, management succession, market disparity, demographic changes, alterations to the fiscal climate, innovation, new knowledge etc. The list is actually endless.
De Bono emphasises the need for the right attitude in relation to being able to carry to success whatever may suddenly turn up by luck. This attitude means you are just happy to be in the right place at the right time and are not consumed with trying to demonstrate your role in your good fortune. Luck is an ingredient in success but you have to be able to realise that you are being lucky or may well soon be lucky.
Your achievements can be immeasurably improved if your strategy is set out in such a way (mostly foreseen from ample alternative courses) that you can take advantage of opportunities. If they arise and your strategy needs to be amended then that’s what needs to happen.
Something which is very simple to do is to reserve sufficient room in your diary so that you can be flexible enough to take the chances which may arise. This is particularly true with customers. If you are able to change course to satisfy their particular wishes then you may have a customer for life.
To help you to become familiar with recognising opportunities, describe a situation when you realised that you had a ‘perfect’ opportunity. Explain why you thought it was perfect and how you made this assessment? How did you ultimately profit from this opportunity or did your chance slip away? What did you do then?
What are you doing every day to make yourself ‘opportunity ripe’. Note, in particular, where you think your chances may come from and check, at least mentally, if the necessary resources are flexible enough for their new employment.
8. MINDFULNESS – SOMETHING COMPLETLY DIFFERENT
Introduction and definitions
Much of the time, about 80%, we do not think about thinking, we just act automatically (no thinking is necessary). For example, if we wish to leave a room in the house in which we happen to be in, we do not give it a moment's thought. We just proceed to the door, open it and walk through it. However, things we do for the first time are different. They usually need thinking about.
Mindfulness aims to awaken us from our automatic thinking and put ourselves more often in the position of seeing things as if this were the first time. Ellen Langer, who is an expert on mindfulness, believes that we should try to start each new day afresh, seeing everything in a new light. This implies conscious observation which requires that we place ourselves firmly in the present. This is not what it was (the recent past), or might be (the near future), but what it actually is. You can train yourself to do this by, for example, picking up an object which you are used to seeing all the time and actually examining it. Which colours does it have? Can it still be used as it was intended to be used? Is it in a place where it can be easily found if it is needed? etc. After thinking about things you can move on to people. This helps you to realise that although you may have only seen the person in question yesterday, a lot will have happened to them since then. How curious are you about how they are? What are they intending to do today etc.
Mindfulness is about shaking ourselves out of our dream world to attend to reality.
What are the advantages of mindfulness?
First and foremost, mindfulness enables us to get more out of our lives in the most simple of ways. Pay attention to the things which otherwise would just pass us by. You can experience this by being aware how many times you notice something once your attention has been triggered. That something was always there but, up to now, you hadn’t been aware of its presence.
Secondly, mindfulness reduces stress because we are not running ahead of ourselves and we are content with where we are at this moment. This boosts self-awareness and confidence.
Thirdly, mindfulness helps to ensure that we are critical of our own opinions. Are they based on substance, and if so what are the facts? Or are they just convenient? How damaging could they be if they were incorrectly held?
Fourthly, mindfulness helps us to adjust our behaviour so that our thoughts are more transparent. In any event, we should be conscious of the relationship between our thinking and our behaviour.
How do we know if we are being mindful?
A simple test is conscious breathing. Are we aware of taking in air and releasing it again? Which parts of our body are being used in this process? How long can we remain aware of our breathing? Mostly not very long! So one of the ways to improve mindfulness is to gradually try to expand this period of consciousness. Whilst we are doing this we are not thinking of anything else and we are able to recover from previous exertions.
There are lots of checks you can make to see if you are paying attention. Given that for a large part of the time we are ‘switched off’, distracted, back in the recent past or ahead of ourselves in the near future. Try to recognise these moments and to judge whether you benefited from them (opportunity for relaxation) or actually suffered from them (missing something which may prove to be important).
Running is virtually an automatic process until we realise we are not moving smoothly any more or the person we passed some time ago is now ahead of us. How did this happen? Train yourself to focus on things in the near distance and not on the horizon.
Make a point of moving around, even if only a few metres away. The distance which you have created from your previous position helps to produce greater clarity of thinking and to remove any current restrictions on your thinking.
We are missing a lot in life because we are not mindful enough. In fact, our minds are made to wander. They wander quite a long way quite quickly in what is an ingenious process. Wandering is the default status. To stop this requires an act of conscious will such as recording your thoughts on paper. This tells us how difficult focusing can be. Ask the champions in any sport who are the ones who have largely mastered the art. It can be the difference between winning and losing, given the speed at which everything happens. It requires conscious training.
We tend to see this moment (the present, being mindful) only in the context of continuity, which is not always helpful. Look at animals (your pets if you like), they enjoy moments to the full and are only too happy to revisit them. In fact, they may experience stress when their habits are restricted.
It is only being in the moment that any future moment may be one of greater understanding, clarity and kindness, one less dominated by emotions.
Hopefully you are now aware that just a small departure from our usual automatic state could be enormously profitable. Plan certain times during the day when you reflect on how mindful you have been and, may be, on how you could improve on this.
Life is a battle between the search for efficiency and having the chance for reflection, between effort and recovery. It pays to think regularly about this balance.