Remembering a Dismembering World


Politicians and commentators, particularly those in the center, persist in making the mistake that what is happening in the US, Britain and now spreading across Europe and parts of Asia is a matter of political debate, of differences of opinion.

It is not.

The dominance of Trumpism and Brexiters in the US and Britain respectively, the two thirds majority of the ultra-nationalist Fidesz party in Hungary and the election of right wing populist governments in Austria, Italy and Poland do not represent a difference of opinion but of values, of morals, of a world view. They cannot be reconciled by debate in the parliamentary chambers or media.

Views will not be changed by facts, precisely because they are not opinions but values.

It is not a matter of opinion whether the lives of so-called white Americans and, let’s face it, Britons and Europeans, are worth more than those of their compatriots. It is not a matter of fact that creates the divide between those who see Britain as part of a European community and those who see it as a power on its own. It is not a matter of debate whether some see refugees as human beings in desperate need and others as a destruction of “our culture”. Reasoned argument will not change the minds of those people who believe women are not only second class citizens but actually are to blame for the assaults on mind, body and spirit that are inflicted on them.

Neither argument, nor appeals to compassion will bridge those chasms. And it seems the right wing has understood that very clearly. Facts do not matter because facts do not change relationships – and particularly one very special relationship: that which we hold with the world.

What we are seeing are fundamental differences in how we view the world and our place in it.

Essentially, these are differences in how we relate to the world. Is the world a partner we help nurture or is it a rival to be tamed? Can I reasonably manage what it throws at me or do I need to be constantly on the lookout for its trickery? Do I do business with it – or against it? If my experience has taught me that my world is pretty manageable then why would I waste time and effort trying to beat it into submission, when I can parley with it? On the other hand, if I have learned that the world will, mostly, smack me in the chops, then I may try and smack it first.

The trouble is that we started building these assumptions about our relationship with our world from a very early age. We are, literally, experts at them. And no law, no fact, no reasoned argument or yah boo sucks in parliament and twitter will change them. That assumption lurking behind my eyes is the refracting lens with which I see the world.

When it comes to a fight between assumption and reality, assumption will always win hands down.

And people, as both history and today’s world keeps showing us, will defend those assumptions even when it is clear they are working against their own interests. Hitler held significant popularity – and probably majority support – in Germany in mid 1944 when the war was clearly going horribly wrong. Donald Trump’s popularity and trust amongst his supporters has held firm in 2018, despite the fact that not only does he merrily lie on a daily, if not an hourly, basis, but his policies – on trade, environment, health, banking and even the quality of water– are hurting the very people who assume he’s their man. Facts on crime rates amongst migrants in Sweden or Germany will not make a blind bit of difference to your assumptions about whether refugees have a right of safe haven or not.

We can continue to yell at each other from the barricades. We can even take over governments, change laws or appoint judges to our liking. Or, if we find that all too distasteful, we can switch off the news and seek out only those who agree with us.  We can, in other words, continue to go to war against each other. And the first victim of war is loss of humanity: loss of the ability to see the other as human; to see the other as a complex, vulnerable fellow being.

“So what?” you may ask. “That being can be as complex, vulnerable and ‘fellow’ as he likes. If he is threatening my security, way of life or principles, he’s still the enemy and needs to be stopped”.

True. But how do you propose to do that? Facts and persuasion, as history shows us, will not work. Civil war? Now, there’s an irony. We employ the ultimate of threats to remove a threat. And has it ever worked? The American civil war may have removed slavery in name but it did nothing to prevent nearly 5,000 lynchings between 1882 and 1968. What did the civil wars in Spain, Nigeria or Sudan solve? Tom Lowman (“African Argument”, July 2014) cites a direct line between the Biafra/Nigerian Civil war and Boko Haram through the continued underdevelopment of the Muslim north. Open conflict may scare the losers into silence for a while but the grievances and the assumptions remain.

So, what is to be done?

Facts and logical arguments don’t work. Appeals to compassion don’t do much better. Political debate ends up in finger-pointing, unashamed chicanery and spitting rage.

Let’s review what we’ve discovered so far:

  1. Our view of the world is founded on the way we have learned to relate to the world.
  2. Those foundational assumptions are so long-held and so deeply embedded that we may not be fully aware of them
  3. They are so important to us that we will distort facts, forgive lies, ignore logic, numb human compassion and even wage wars as long as our core assumptions are supported.

Therefore, any project to change our current dismemberment of our worlds, would need to include the following propositions:

  1. If the foundational assumption we have learned about our relationship with our world –as enemy or partner, equal or inferior – directly influences the way we behave towards our fellow beings, then changing that foundational assumption should change way we act. If we have learnedthat relationship, we can unlearn or relearn it.
  2. If those powerful assumptions are so deeply embedded that we are not fully aware of them, then the first step could be to uncover them; to know what is controlling us.
  3. If the defence of our assumptions, leads to the numbing of our humanity, then re-awakening it may hopefully help release those defences.

It is a hugely demanding task, in which neither persuasion nor hectoring can be used. In which the urge to punish, to shut down must be entirely resisted. In which the task is not to change minds but to awaken a shared humanity.

And dear God, that is difficult. It is difficult enough for victims to face their assailants in a court of law – the very purpose of which is justice and punishment.

How do we voluntarily enter into a dialogue with those who do not even share our view of the world?

I implied earlier, the answer may be by trying to understand how our views of the world came to be formed. How those foundational assumptions came to refract our lenses onto the world. But how do we even start? How do we honestly tell “our enemies” about both our deepest held views and the assumptions that helped build them? And how do we not react with disgust or rage when the enemy insists that separating infants from their parents at the Mexican border is absolutely right?

By turning the world upside down.

Instead of viewing the world as a fragmented, dismembered, chaos of differences, view it as the great physicists, biologists and philosophers have done: as an integrated, interrelated whole, in which we, as beings, participate and of which we partake(to paraphrase physicist David Bohm). In that way, we start from the perspective that we share; we are part of a whole.

So, our priority is not to try and change minds, persuade or ‘educate’. It is to uncover and understand what we share. It is not the language, definitions or even opinions that we share that are important, but the meanings we attach to them. If my assumption is that “government is bad” then, however you try and discuss with me how to define or rebuild government, I am inevitably going to think the debate is ultimately useless. What’s worse, you’ll be trying to change my mind, when it’s my foundation that’s at stake.

As Bohm put it

“If we don’t share coherent meaning, we do not make much of a society. And at present, the society at large has a very incoherent set of meanings. In fact, this set of ‘shared’ meanings is so incoherent that it is hard to say they have any real meaning at all”.(“On Dialogue” P.32)

So how do we start?

Fortunately, a number of practitioners have drawn on Bohm’s ideas to develop a model for ‘supportive dialogue’, to try and stop our ongoing dismemberment. Otto Scharmer, Peter Senge et al put together a very detailed model called   Theory U, which they have used in corporate and socio-political contexts. William Isaacs too, echoing Bohm, has worked to steer group dialogue participants away from debate and argument, to building a new conversation based on fresh, commonly created thinking.

Elements of Bohm’s Group Dialogue are recognizable in a number of political, social and corporate situations. Both the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa and, as far as I can assess, the early informal talks between the ANC and Afrikaner leaders were (deliberately or not) held very much in the spirit of sharing meaning. It was not – I suspect – negotiations that cut the Gordian knot of the Macedonian name dispute. Negotiations, compromises, deals had been tried, signed and failed for decades before Greek and Northern Macedonian prime ministers Tsipras and Zaev sealed an agreement in June 2018 that was put into effect within days. A quick look at the terms of that agreement reflects a deep understanding by both sides of the meaning of historical figures and symbols, as well as current mutual needs and values.

I  have used the uncovering of meaning, assumptions and values in fractured corporate teams and boards. It’s astonishing the impact that an admission of a deeply held value or assumption can have on the others in the room – particularly when they recognise something of themselves in that statement.

If it is so effective why has it, apparently, not worked?

Why are we faced with the divisions we have? The answer is, that it has worked where groups have decided they will no longer sub-contract their relationships with their fellow beings to “those who know better”. It has worked where both the status quo and the current solutions are intolerable. Apart from dramatic examples, such as South Africa, Macedonia and, I suspect in many ways, Northern Ireland, it has worked with groups that have bridged huge divides but are either disapproved of or ignored by the authorities. And, of course, it has worked in corporate boardrooms and teams that do not publicly herald their change work. This form of ‘shared-meaning’ (or remembering dialogue, as I call it)  may not be heralded precisely because it does not need combative leaders. In fact, it does not need any leaders at all. What it requires are people, in small groups or large, who are prepared to explore; to explore, not to change but to remember one another.

It is time to remember ourselves

Whether we like it or not, we share with our fellow beings a vast pool of consciousness that we have built together since the beginning of our existence. It is time to remember that. By remembering I do not mean merely reminding ourselves of it. I mean putting ourselves back together again. The opposite of remembering is not forgetting. It is dismembering. We do not obliterate our experiences; we simply cut off those pieces that are too painful, too conflicted to occupy our consciousness. When we do that to our fellow beings, we cut off our own limbs. A very stupid, and ultimately fatal, practice.

I am not advocating group hugs with your enemies.

This is neither forgiveness nor negotiation. This is an unfiltered dialogue between you and your fellow beings, some of whom may have said and done things that make you tremble with anger. Others may simply be fellow board or team members whom you’ve learned to mistrust. And yet others may be people of ethnic, religious or national differences in your neighbourhood who have never spoken to one another – let alone shared their world views.


In the spirit of this article,  I would like to suggest a practical way forward – with some thoughts of how to set up these dialogue groups. In doing so, please note I have shamelessly stolen ideas from all those I have quoted here as well as from leaders, military and civilian, with whom I have been fortunate enough to engage in my work.

The Groups

In setting up a group, try to make it is as diverse as possible although I don’t recommend you immediately go and search for your natural ‘enemies’. Start, if you can, with those who have an interest in getting together and are diverse. Even “friendly” clusters can be extremely challenging. You may, for example, assume you know your fellow members so well that you don’t have to probe for meaning. On the other hand, if you are alert, you could discover how little you know of “kindred spirits” at a very deep level.

Try and meet regularly. Particularly at the beginning, once a week for a couple of hours, is ideal. This applies if you’re trying to develop organizational, team, social or political dialogue. Groups can change in membership, break into several clusters or break up entirely. It doesn’t matter as long as they keep trying.

The Rules

These are very few and should be made explicit.

Here are some that may be useful:

  • This is a dialogue of equals. Nobody has moral, hierarchical or even ‘spatial’ superiority. By ‘spatial’ I mean the less articulate, expressive or confident need to be given the time, space and support to contribute.
  • Do not try to persuade or win over by argument. When we persuade we are not necessarily uncovering the others’ meaning system, foundational assumptions or view of the world. They may simply be deciding to agree. Similarly, be careful that the group does not exert unspoken, moral, or other pressure to conform. That too tells us nothing about individual meanings.
  • Do not smother. Anger will happen. As will frustration and sadness. It is an opportunity to listen and – most important – to share. While you may not sympathise with someone expressing rage about how those ”damned Barden’s taking away my job and swimming in my pool”, it is crucial that you hear that emotion; pay attention to it.
  • There is only one goal (at this stage). We are all here to share with one another. To share what makes us what we are. That is all.

The Dialogue

I suggest the following flow  in your dialogue.

Context.  Establish the context by telling your story and encouraging the others to do the same. It’s the story of how you each relate to the world – and how you believe the world relates to you. But don’t focus on trying to extract anything. As people unwrap the story of their lives, their view of the world –and their relationship to it – will inevitably be revealed.

Meaning. Now the group can ask questions of each other. What, how and why? What did this episode that you’ve just told us about, mean to you? What does it mean to you now? How did you react at the time? How did you deal with it? How do you deal with it now? Why do you think you dealt with it in that particular way rather than this? Do we as individuals share your interpretation of meanings let alone the meanings themselves? When I say ‘police’ I may think of a largely benign organization whereas you may think it as a corrupt, racist institution. Remember, this is not an interrogation in order to gather evidence. You’re asking because you want the group (including the individual being engaged)  to understand the meaning systems you each have. How you have learned “to do business” in and with the world.

Impact.The key question here is ”And then?” Follow through the logic of your/ their beliefs and values. What happens when they’re put in place. And then?

Reflect and let go.Reflect, quietly and with no pressure on what has happened over the last few sessions . What do we – first as individuals and then, if ready, as a group – want to let go . It’s uncovering what no longer has a place in our meaning.

Reflect and let come.This too needs quiet, gentle reflection. What are some of the values we as individuals now hold? What meanings do we still need to uncover and make explicit? What do the worlds we inhabit (the planet, the country, the town, the neighbourhood, the family) mean to us? Which of them mean anything to us?

Create anew.What is the new dialogue and meaning system we now wish to create? What new individual, group, institution, society, do we want to build? What do we actually want to shape, to re-member, with our fellow beings with the values and meanings that we have actively shared, as against the fossilised meanings we previously swallowed without chewing?


The dialogue itself can continue for as long as it is useful. It may be that that the group with which you “create anew” is entirely different from the one you started out with. It may be that you think your group has failed, because it drifted apart or even splintered in a shouting match. It won’t have failed as long as it unwraps and shares a single meaning.

Start where you can. If you’re a neighbour, start with your neighbourhood. If you’re a policeman, start with your fellow officers. If you’re a CEO, start with your Exco. But start. It’s not the big initiative that changes the world. It’s the one that slips under the net and keeps going.


If you’d like some help in setting up or facilitating a group, please feel free to contact me. 


Sources and recommended reading:

Barden, S. (2017) Tell me

Barden, S. (2015) Leaders: just do the damn job

(available on

Bohm, D. (1996) On Dialogue.Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge

Bohm, D. (1980) Wholeness and the Implicate Order. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge

Brookfield, S. (2012) teaching for Critical Thinking.San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Isaacs, W. (1999) Dialogue. New York: Doubleday

Lowman, T.(July 18, 2014) Biafra and Boko Haram – different conflict, common themes. African Arguments. accessed July 9, 2018

Senge, P. et al (2007) Presence. London: Nicholas Brealey

Scharmer, C.O. (2007) Theory U.Cambridge, MA: Society for Organizational Learning


Read more

Tell me

“When you hear someone – or you – talking about who is right, their primary concern is about power. When they  talk about what is right, then you’re talking about values.”

That’s the phrase that popped into my head when I was thinking about why discourse, the dialogue of ideas, has given way to the slanging match that so often ends in threats, and I include name calling in my definition of a threat.  Have the social media  caused  this ya boo sucks way of talking with our world or is it simply the ideal medium for the way we have been taught to think? After all, even in the heyday of newspapers did we ever have millions of readers clamouring to comment on the pages of the New York Times, the Guardian or Die Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, where some semblance of thoughtfulness was demanded by editors?  The social media are perfect for “who is right”. Not only because of the (perceived) anonymity of those commenting but because there is no need to think. There is only a need to take sides. Read most, if not all, of the threads on Twitter and you will discover someone who will insert him or herself with a variation of “I’m right and you’re wrong, arsehole.” And that sentence all by itself means nothing more than “I have no need to think about what you said because you are an arsehole and I am not. You may be Pope, prime minister, president or a chief Brexiteer but you have no power over me. I can take you down again and again simply by not thinking about what you’re saying.” And, of course when people with authority and power join in and refuse to accept any evidence apart from their own infallibility then the Rights and Rights line up against each other, identifying the enemy not just as Obama, Trump, Putin, Netanyahu or Khaled Mashal but as Liberals, Democrats, Republicans, Russians, Israelis, Jews, Palestinians, Arabs and Moslems.

We mass allies around us and range them against our massed enemies. And we know as little about either our allies and our enemies. Why? Because we know nothing about their values. Because those values are not what we have been squabbling over. If they were, we would notice very quickly that the Liberals, Republicans, Israelis and Palestinians hold many differing values within their communities; some of them perhaps close to our own.  What we have been doing is jostling for power, positioning ourselves with those blocs that we think – we imagine – can provide us with the greater influence. Why else would Alabama Evangelists back a man accused of  sexually assaulting teenage girls in the 70’s? Why else was the Brexit campaign conducted with so little information and impact evaluation on either side? Because ethics,ideas, justness, what is right – were not important. Power – winning – was. And history shows it can only get worse if we do not discuss what is right. If we do not cross the battle lines to understand both the values that bind us and the foundations of the values that divide us. The “enemy” morphs from, Clinton or Trump to Democrats and Republicans, and then to gender, race, religion and nationality.

So, is there a way out of this? Back to that phrase at the top of the page.

Talking about who is right is about power. Talking about what is right is about values. By “who” I mean individuals insisting that they, their countries, political parties, religions or races -or in fact any branded entity – are right. By “what” I mean ideas, values, morality, sense of justness. The former cuts short discussion. It’s the ideal arena for ya boo sucks. After all, if I tell you that you are wrong and I am right, then you have a limited number of choices. You could walk away;  or you could tell me, and the world, that as I am a buffoon, whatever I believe is invalid; or (inversely) since you have the backing of the British people, Christianity, Islam or the Koch Brothers you have the authority of credibility on your side. All of those are about power – even walking away.

You have one more choice. You could  say, “Tell me…”

You could say, “Tell me something about what is right for us all about your stance. Tell me something about how you formed the ideas behind your belief that you (or your allies) are right. Tell me about your values, what is important to you. And why you think they could be important for me.”

There’s nothing like “Tell me..” to make people think about what they are doing and who they are. There’s nothing like “Tell me…” to make two people realise they are human. And incidentally, “Tell me about why you think your belief is good for us all” is well short of 140 characters.

Read more

Leaders just do the job or Leaders: just do the damn job.


When I first became a CEO I worried out loud to my chairman about how I should behave with people who had previously been my peers. His reply?

“Barden, just do the damn job.”

What is the damn job?

In whose interests should CEO’s run corporations? By the late 90’s the battle at HBS and other business schools  seemed to have been won by the shareholders.  That took a bit of a blow with the 2008 Crash when companies’ values – and therefore their ability to invest and grow – tumbled on their stock prices. Since then, although the primary duty of the CEO  still seems to be to the shareholder, other claimants are making their bid. I notice, for example, a recent post championing the approach that companies should put employees first. Another insists it is the customer who is royalty. Then, of course, there’s the perception that become popular after  2008, that organizations  should be run in the interests of all the stakeholders.

Chief Executive or Chief Agent?

The debate misses the entire point. Institutional  leaders are there to manage the interests of the institution – as a whole. That’s the job. Manage an organization in the interests of any group – shareholder, customer or employee – and you become their agent. Run it on behalf of all stakeholders  and you become everybody’s agent – just before you become a gibbering wreck.

The job of the leader is to develop, grow, realise, nourish, pursue (and whatever other synonyms you can think of)  the success of the organization. In  order to do so, that leader needs to see that organization as an eco-system: a context with interlinking and interdependent dynamics. Those dynamics are always present and it is the job of the leader to manage them and their impact – all the time.

Just one question

There’s really only one question that should concern an organisational leader. “What makes  this organization successful?” And no, the answer is not “making money.” If it were, why is X  company an MVNO? Why doesn’t it just hire a couple of hundred buskers and send them off around the Subway system every day?  Because organisations are set up to do what they assume or hope they do best . So, in order to answer what makes an organization successful, the CEO needs to clearly understand its context and texts: what is success to this organisation, with what assets and alliances and for whom and so on? How do these facets impact one another – today and in the future?

How to be drowned by a drought

This question, of what makes this particular organization successful, needs to be reviewed all the time.

To do so, you need, for example, to understand the capacity of your employees. Not because it is kind and liberal and will earn you the rosy cheeks of the righteous. But because if you do not know the mood, the appetite for change, the confusion, frustration, ideas and skills of your staff you will not get the results you want when you try to expand or innovate or even maintain quality.

To answer your core question you may also need to understand the  capacities and values of your suppliers. If you don’t, if you fail to understand the impact of your pricing on their profit margins, you may find that the quality of the materials starts to deteriorate, or worse, the conditions of their workers becomes a scandal – your scandal.

It goes on: you decide to expand, quickly by acquisition. You take on new investors to help fund it. With the new volumes you can cut prices and your customer base will surely soar. It does – for a bit. Until it stops and you become the most unpopular airline/mobile phone operator/ New York busker distributor around. Why? Because you forgot that even seemingly consistent expansion often needs to be matched by extraordinary, innovative changes in  customer service, manufacturing or delivery systems. So as your very irritated customers leave you, your new investors insist you cut costs – which of course means you can’t invest in new systems – and your customer base drops even further.

Failure to not only understand – but actively manage – the linkages  in your eco-system means that you risk getting hit by a flood when you were trying to fix a drought. You cannot be alert to the entire system if you are fixated on your shareholders or your clients or your employees.

Leader or Chief Plate Spinner?

So what does that mean for the poor  CEO? Is she to be reduced to Chief Plate Spinner?  The 4 year research study  I conducted with 10 top (and very successful) military, corporate and educational leaders  came up with some extraordinary answers. Here are a few of them:

  • They surrounded themselves with talented people who asked themselves that same question and who understood and managed towards the success of the eco-system as a whole.
  • They used those senior officers to help make decisions and – more importantly – to challenge them. Steve Jobs may have asked his people “Have you thought of this?” These leaders insisted their people asked them that.
  • They constantly tested and gauged the mood and capacity of their staff, suppliers, Boards, customers and shareholders. They called it ‘dip sticking’, ‘hearing the buzzing in the woodwork’, or ‘listening to the ground’. And they did not rely solely on the hierarchy for their information.
  • They disliked wishful thinking.   That meant, for example, they did not persuade themselves that the company could make 25% growth because that’s what the analysts said it should. Or because that would trigger their bonus plan.
  • None of them thought the top-down model was sustainable. It reduces the organization to the size of the leader’s head. They saw themselves as navigators who could always find a way through – with the right crew and ship.

Three (fairly) surprising conclusions

What did I discover about them? Here are just three fairly surprising conclusions:

  • They were all superb managers.
    • You can’t keep an eco-system intact and thriving unless you’re really organised.
    • So-called charismatic but chaotic leaders may be good for drama but they’re no good for organizations
  • They were not fiercely competitive.
    • Their aim was not to beat the competitor but to succeed. Trying to be better than someone – be that a colleague or a rival organisation – is at best a distraction and at worst a pair of handcuffs.
    • By trying to be ‘better than’, you define yourself by the limits of your adversary rather than your ability to innovate and execute.
    • By all means, know what your adversary is up to but then go on and do what is the best possible for your success.
  • They all saw leadership as a job – not a role
    • The job is to lead -not to act as leader.
    • You don’t act with authority – you manage authority
    • You don’t wield power – you balance it.

When people tell you that “Great leaders, eat last/ are filled with empathy/ are bursting with creativity” or that you should adopt the body language of a great leader ask them only one question: “Will it help me make this entire organization successful?”Or as my former chairman would put it,

“Will it help me do the damn job?”




Read more

“Top Leaders’ Experiences of learning”

Top Leaders’ Experiences of Learning

(This paper was delivered to the  EMCC Research conference in Warsaw on June 23 -24, 2015. It is based on the author’s research thesis submitted to the University of Middlesex, and for which he was awarded a Doctorate in Professional Studies: Leadership learning)

Dr Stephen Barden[1]

Stephen Barden Coaching Limited, UK


Abstract: Research into Leaders has mainly focused on their impact or performance rather than their personal learning experiences –and therefore development. The present paper summarises the social constructivist grounded theory doctoral research conducted by the author into the personal learning experiences of ten top organisational leaders drawn from the military, academic and corporate sectors. It constructs a developing theory containing two novel concepts (the Navigation Stance and Navigational Template) that underpin their assumptions and behaviours. These may be useful to leaders, researchers and coaching practitioners in understanding the development of successful leaders –what the author calls the ‘becoming’ of leaders.


Keywords: top-leaders, leadership, learning, coaching,




Despite a plethora of literature on ‘leadership’ and ‘leaders’ very little has been published on the personal experiences of learning of individual organisational leaders.[2] A review of the literature shows that the majority focus has been on the impact of leaders, their behaviour or their effect, rather than on their experiences, assumptions and perceptions of learning.

Writers such as Heidegger (1953), Jarvis (2006), and even Kolb (1984) clearly identify learning as the phenomenological process of being and becoming in the world rather than something that happens to someone. Within that paradigm learning happens at the interface between learner (in-the-world), experience (in-the-world) and the context (in-the-world).

In order to understand what learning is occurring (what the person is becoming) one has to have some understanding of what assumptions the learner is making –not only about that particular experience but also about her capacity to be able to act (specifically) on that experience and (generally) in the world. Illeris (2007a) does include the “dimension of emotion, feelings, motivation and volition” (p.87)– which he calls ‘incentive’ – as a key ingredient of learning. However he neither discusses the learner’s assumptive capacity to act in the world nor how this ‘incentive’ may have been developed.

Why is this ‘capacity to act’ so important? Because, at the heart of learning is doing, experiencing. Kolb (1984) roots learning in “the transformation of experience” (p.38). Jarvis (2006) sees learning as what the learner is becoming “as a result of doing and thinking – feeling.” If we learn by doing and in order to do then our capacity to do (to act, to experience) must affect our learning. If I am convinced that I can neither act on, nor even experience, a particular stimulus then I will be less prepared to be alert to its value. I will be less prepared to learn from it. This capacity to act is, the author argues, closely related to Foucault’s concept that a definition of self is always mitigated by its relationship to power. (Foucault, 1991) We define ourselves by our assumed capacity to act within the world.

The difficulty for coaching practitioners is if they do not know what forms the basis for their client’s learning – the assumptive language as it were- how will they enable consistent and holistic change? If they do not know what informs their client’s capacity to act, how will they know what their client can do with the learning –and how much of it will be retained?

Coaching practitioners and writers have tried to deal with the issue in a number of ways. Some insist that one does not need to discover the underlying assumptions – one simply needs to deal with the present and work towards a goal. Starr (2003) argues that coaching focuses on “improving our performance and creating desirable results” (p.11) The implication seems to be that coaching starts from where we find ourselves and then enables a process to create “desirable results”. That may be useful in performance coaching but much less so when working with leaders on behaviours. Even on specific technical issues such as prioritisation or delegation, the underlying blockage may be, and often is, caused by more generalised assumptions developed in other contexts rather than as a result of a lack of skills or even process.


It is a specific concern of the author that the emphasis by coaches on output without a balanced understanding of the underlying assumptions held by the client can result in processes or tools that encourage clients to model themselves on a set of ‘approved behaviours’ rather than becoming with their learning. Book titles such as “Act Like a leader, Think Like a leader”(Ibarra, 2015) “Developing the Leader within You”(Maxwell, 2005) “Leaders Eat Last” (Sinek, 2014) and “Leaders Don’t Command”(Cuervo, 2015) to say nothing of “Body Language Habits of Effective leaders” (Larson, 2015) all contain the strong implication that there is an objective model of ‘being a leader’. If we emulate that model, we too can be leaders. Similarly, widely used assessment tools that link ‘personality types’ or personality traits to successful or unsuccessful leadership offer little in the way of how the leaders themselves experienced their learning, how they became those so called personalities or even developed those behaviours that enabled them to act in the world. Despite detailed statistical research studies in support of personality profiles (Hogan, Curphy & Hogan, 1994; Harms, Spain & Hannah, 2011) we are no closer to understanding the ‘leader becoming’. Leading becomes less of a job than a role in which the actor simulates leadership. How are these models of ideal leadership behaviours developed? Largely, in line with trait based leadership theory, through observation of leaders’ behaviours and impact across contexts. Following this logic, Zaccaro (2007) concludes “Persons who emerge as leaders in one situation also emerge as leaders in qualitatively different situations” (p.10). Or, as Hogan (1994) puts it “A Somali warlord who its trying to bring together a group of clansmen to control food supplies needs the same skills as an inner-city Chicago minister who is trying to bring together a group of parishioners to help the homeless.” (Hogan, Curphy & Hogan, 1994. p. 493)


If the Somali warlord and the inner city minister share the same skills, then of course, one can start profiling ‘leaders’ against a set of ‘ideal’ attributes, through leadership evaluation and personality assessment tools. As a coach, one can even satisfy the requirement for contextuality by utilising 360-degree feedback. However, within this approach, the coach’s work is focused not on the client’s ‘becoming’ but on her arrival. Despite our protestations that the journey is equal to, if not more, important than, the destination, by focusing on output and leadership models, we are denying both the uniqueness of our clients’ journeys and the learning they have experienced –and therefore their perception about their relationship with the world.


If we are to mentor and coach leaders-in-the-world, then we need to understand something of their relationship with the world: not only their perceptions of their capacity to act but also how they arrived at those perceptions.


The author’s doctoral research inquiry was stimulated by the core concern described above: how are we to coherently develop current and future leaders unless we know how they experience their learning? How do we know the impact of leaders’ assumptions about themselves-in-the world unless we know something about the nature and formation (the ‘becoming’) of those assumptions?

The literature review for the research covered experiential learning, leadership, power, the phenomenologists such as Heidegger and Husserl, as well as the developmental psychologists such as Piaget and Cyrulnik.

It may suffice for this paper to focus on the existing literature on top leaders’ learning. This tended to be constrained by the external assumptions of the researchers. One study entitled “Understanding leader development: learning from leaders”, (McDermott, Kidney and Flood, 2011) set out to marry managers’ personal learning experiences of leadership development with existing theory through semi structured interviews based around 20 questions. By asking such questions as “What are the critical things that have shaped you as a leader?” (p.361), the researchers uncover very little about the meaning making of the human being. What, for example, are the participants’ assumptions about ‘being a leader’? How are they expected to evaluate whether one experience is critical to leadership and another not? What were the experiences that resonated with them as human beings? Or should we believe that the ‘being’ and the ‘leader’ are separate entities?

Another potential literature source of the personal learning of top leaders was the autobiographical account. Like Conway and Pleydell-Pierce, (2000) a number of researchers have discovered that autobiographies tend to be an attempt to align the self’s narrative with current goals and beliefs. Pasupathi (2001) argues that accounts by public figures may be affected not only by their goals but also by the perceived expectations of the reader/listener. So, for example, an ex Cabinet Minister may present a different profile to his reading public than when answering questions under strict anonymity to an academic researcher. In an autobiographical account, the emphasis would tend to be on ‘arrangement’ of the narrative. In an open research dialogue, the focus would, hopefully, be on discovery.



Research method and process


The question at the center of this research inquiry (Barden, 2015) was

What are the personal experiences of learning of individual leaders, and what implications do these personal experiences hold for coach–mentoring at this level?”

For the purpose of this study, leaders were defined as “people who have achieved significant and overall authority in their chosen institution or organisation.”

The focus of the research was to enable a select group of top leaders to articulate personal learning experiences that they considered significant or resonant in the lives. Whether these experiences occurred in childhood or in their professional realm was less important than their experience of them – and the impact they may have made on their decision-making. There was thus little or no presumption made about the ‘objective’ significance or the timing of the learning. However, on reflection, it could be argued that in attempting to understand whether these leaders had undergone “significant learning episodes” (Barden.(2015) p.10) this author did make two assumptions: that certain learning events were more significant than others and that learning emerged from episodes or events.

Given the priorities of exploring the personal learning experiences of top leaders it was clear that a qualitative methodology was the more appropriate. Because a further priority was to ensure the articulation of these experiences while maintaining reflexivity of both the researcher’s assumptions and participants’ protectiveness, it was decided that an appropriate methodology would be one that analysed data phenomenologically.

After considering narrative research, intuitive inquiry and discourse analysis, grounded theory was selected as the research method. The further selection of constructivist (as against discovered or IPA) grounded theory stemmed from the author’s own epistemological requirement (or at least hope) that the research could have value to the coaching profession. As Willig (2008) puts it, to “capture the lived experience of participants and to explain its quality in terms of wider social processes and their consequences.” (p.45)

The process, to support this final choice of constructivist grounded theory as a method, followed –and hopefully built on –the rigour advocated by Charmaz (2010). This included:

  • Data: rich enough to ensure a clear understanding of social contexts, participants and dynamics. It was decided that at least 9 research participants, from three sectors, would be selected for this research study.


  • Data Gathering: The data was gathered through ‘episodic interviews’ (Flick, 2009) in which, as King and Horrocks (2010) put it, “the story being told in the narrative interview is in the form, shape and style most comfortable for the person doing the telling.” (p.218)


  • Data Analysis. The process included the following stages:
  • Reading and immersion in the transcripts:
    • Initial coding
    • Focused coding and clustering
    • Coding for themes
    • ?Research participants’ comments and validation
    • ?Construction of interpretive themes
  • Across sample
    • Emergence of/construction of themes common across sample
    • Reflections by research participants and researcher and short survey.
  • ?Construction of proposed theory grounded in the data

A series of memoranda on each of the participants accompanied the process capturing the analysis and the reflexivity of the researcher.


The required level of leadership for the research participants was equivalent to that of active or retired Chief Executive. Initially invitations were sent to Corporate Chief Executive officers (both profit and non-profit); Cabinet rank politicians and secondary or tertiary education principals, presidents or vice chancellors. The requests to politicians met without any response at all, despite the fact that they were made by referral. That category was therefore replaced by military leaders of the minimum rank of 2-star general, or OF-7 as per STANAG 2116 (2013, NATO standardisation agreement, Edition 5).

Ultimately 10 leaders were selected to participate in the programme: 4 Generals, 3 corporate CEO’s and 3 academic ‘presidents’. They were all briefed on, and agreed to, the purpose and expected process of the study as well as the conditions of confidentiality. All research participants signed an appropriate consent form and all administration assistants signed non-disclosure agreements.

Of the 10 leaders, 2 academics were female, as were 2 corporate chief executives. The military leaders were all men. In this regard, it should be noted that the first woman to reach the equivalent rank of two star general in the United Kingdom did so in August 2013 (BBC, 2013). Although it could be a shortcoming, no gender comparisons were offered in this work. Indeed, while the reflexive approach attempted to ensure sensitivity to issues of gender and ethnicity (whether expressed or latent) it treated them as part of the eco-system of learning expressed by that individual.

Interviews were conducted face to face, by telephone or video conference with all participants declaring themselves to be comfortable with their chosen medium. They were all recorded and transcribed.


The interviews


After reflection, and bearing in mind the purpose of enabling the participants to tell their own story, only one standardised question was structured into the interviews. This was “Without thinking too much about it, what event or period of time (in your job or career) remains most strongly resonant with you?” This enabled the research participant to explore an experience without having to define it as “important” or “significant” for leadership but which, by being “strongly resonant”, had personal, emotional significance. This served as an entry point for a dialogue on the research participants’ experiences, how they learned through them and what were their assumptions about themselves-in-the-world.


The analysis began with a period of ‘immersion’. This was achieved both by reading and correcting the transcriptions while listening to the original recordings and by ‘staying with the data’ – what Corbin and Strauss (2008) see as a sensitising process that ends with the researcher being able to say “Aha, that is what they are telling me. (At least from my understanding)” ( p. 33). This period lasted several weeks and, in some cases, months.

Thereafter each transcript was scrutinised line by line and coded to capture the building blocks of the narrative –using the research participants’ own words. These codes were then, in a 2 stage process, focused and then clustered. Charmaz (2010) sees focused coding as refining the initial coding into „directive, selective and conceptual“ (p.57) codes. The author then clustered the codes to prepare them for thematic identification. Initial, focused and clustered coding largely used the research participants’’ own words and avoided using terminology across the sample. Thereafter the clusters were identified as themes. All these stages retained the sequence of the interview, as it was a key part of the research that the interviewees recognised and agreed with the logic of the analysis. To this end, each was sent a copy of the researcher’s memorandum outlining the progression of the analysis, a copy of the themes for their comments and the entire transcribed interview. All responded by email or phone confirming they were clear and were broadly aligned with both the process and the themes that were emerging.

The final stage of the analysis borrowed from the concept of ‘theoretical coding’ (Charmaz 2010; Glaser 1978) where, as Charmaz elegantly puts it, “the analytical story moves in a theoretical direction” (Charmaz, 2010, p.63). Scrutiny of and immersion into the themes identified that all of the narratives could be re constructed along the following lines:

  1. The challenge(s) faced
  2. Dealing with/negotiating the challenge(s)
  3. The impact of the way they dealt with the challenge on the learning they applied to their leadership.

These 3 areas were then filled by the themes identified for each of the participants (See Table 1 for an extract).

It is argued that the constructed narrative remained grounded within the data in that it was solely derived from the data provided. Additionally, this interpretive construct would be referred back to the participants for their reflection, challenge and comments. (As further detailed below)

At this stage, the interpretation did not preclude the possibility of so called ‘innate’ characteristics or traits. Some of the leaders, for example G4 above, called some of their early behaviour ‘innate’.

The themes – expressed in extensive detail (Barden, 2015, Appendices 8a and b)- were then scrutinised for commonality.

The common characteristics that were initially interpreted were:

  1. Innate characteristics:
  • Some spoke of innate self-confidence, another of ‘innate curiosity. They all identified behaviour or characteristics that had been with them from a very early age and which they clearly saw as being ‘an integrated part of their persona’
  1. Strongly pragmatic:
  • They did whatever they could in the circumstances. When Academic A1 was blocked from being academically successful by being mistakenly placed in a ‘remedial class’ as a child, he made sure he became socially and athletically successful – until that was no longer enough.
  1. Three way challenges
  • They all constantly challenged themselves and others; and made sure that they were challenged by others. General G2 set up a system by which he and his command team were tested every six weeks by problems (at brigade level) set by his chief of staff as well as by the second in commands in each of the battle groups.
  1. Absence of isolation and unilateralism
    • There was a strong theme throughout all the interviews of decisions being taken with the support of others. What in fact was totally absent from all leaders (even those who felt themselves quite isolated) was unilateralism, whether as generator of ideas, or as executor of actions.
  2. Nointernalisation of failure
    • They did not identify themselves with the defeat or disappointment of failure. They learned and moved on.
  3. No blame
    • Even when they were patently ‘let down’, they tended to avoid blaming others – seeing it as a waste of time.
  4. Reality
    • An intense sense of what is rather than what ought to be, or might be. This was not a lack of vision, but the ability to clearly see the status quo without wishful thinking.
  5. Holistic
    • This was not simply the ‘big picture’ but a realistic understanding of the linkages within the greater ‘ecosystem’: be that the theatre of war, the local and national contexts of education, the corporation as economic, social and political ‘ecosystem’.
  6. Alert to constituents
    • Alert to the mood and capacity of the stakeholders around them. They variously talked of ‘listening to the ground’, ‘walking the corridors’, having ‘trustworthy spies’, ‘listening to the buzzing in the woodwork’, ‘conversation by headset’.
  7. The Negotiator-navigator
    • This characteristic was interpreted as the participant outsider or the non- captive insider. While being able to use the language and behaviour of the discourse, they were not captive to any specific interests in the environment.
  8. Direction
  • It appeared at this stage that while the leaders had a clear sense of direction and even an overall end game, they avoided specific targets for the organisation.
  1. Mentors
    • At key stages mentors (older, more experienced individuals) advised, guided and challenged them. This continued well into their ultimate leadership positions.


Together with a very tentative theory, (see Table 2) these themes, with supporting detail and anonymised quotes from all the leaders were sent to each participant. Specific questions were addressed to each of them, in line with theoretical sampling and saturation (Charmaz 2010). Each was asked to reflect and comment on the theory and themes as well as the specific questions. In addition, in an attempt to extend the data on the early or ‚innate’ characteristics, all those who had not spoken of a challenge in early life were asked whether they could recall a specific challenge or “disorienting dilemma” (Mezirow, 2000). Finally, in order to obtain a relatively standardised measure, the research participants were asked to rate how strongly they identified with each theme on a scale of 1 -5, with 5 being the strongest. All but one elected to conduct this final dialogue by phone. The exception was General (G4) who elaborated, challenged and clarified by means of a number of email exchanges.



As Table 3 shows, there was consistently strong identification with the themes. The mean rating for a characteristic was 4.05 (no blame) and the mode was 5. Highest mean rating was 4.9 (for pragmatic, holistic and navigator). What was particularly valuable to the research, however, was that through this final dialogue each participant was not only able to answer the questions put by the researcher but refined their understanding of the terminology and concepts (used by both the researcher and their fellow participants); reflected on and challenged both the thematic constructs and the tentative theory and, unexpectedly, enabled a novel theory on the learning foundations of leaders. As a result of the final reflection, the themes were amended and consolidated into 11. (See Table 4)



The most important change, and one which became a cornerstone of the constructed theory, was to the first characteristic. It became clear that rather than their learning experiences being shaped by ‘disorienting dilemmas’ or ‘eureka moments’, these leaders had developed a stance for navigating their way long before these challenges: the Navigational Stance. The way they dealt with these situations was laid down by the relationship they perceived they had with the world. What also emerged was that this relationship was not identified as innate but was experientially learned. It was from this stance that the behaviours and characteristics of these leaders emerged.

The Navigational Stance


The Leaders all related experiences in their early lives that taught them that the world, even under very difficult circumstances was ‘a manageable place.’

Academic A1 described his early background in the Caribbean – within a supportive and respectful community and a father who was considered such a success that the island could not contain his ambition to do better. In his experience it was this support and ability to manage the world that enabled him to deal with the British school authorities placing him in a remedial class when he could not read – not realising that he had not yet been to school.

A2 learned at a very early age that if she wanted to be of value in a community which did not value girls, she needed to provide the family and community something they lacked and would set great store by: reliability, seriousness and rationality.

General G4, sent to boarding school at a very age while his parents were living and working in foreign posts, learned that it was vital for him to develop diverse relationships in diverse contexts. These contexts ranged from school to the various relatives with whom he spent school holidays.

CEO C2 learned to manage the burden of relative poverty –a girl on ‘free school meals’ in a middle class community. Her way out was by developing valued technical skills that provided both wealth and respect.

All the leaders, in exploring their early lives, found that they had the capacity to make space for themselves in the world; to balance themselves with the world. Although not verifiable by this research it appears logical to assume that they were able to do so because their early family context was at best supportive and at worst neutral. As a result they developed a perception that the power relationship between them and their world(s) was sufficiently balanced to be manageable. This assumption is what we call the “Navigational Stance”. General G2 called it (from the sailing term) his “orientating position” from which he sees his direction and goals and the ways to navigate through.

The Navigation Template


Because this Navigational Stance worked for them, these leaders went on to develop and hone supporting behaviours into characteristics and skills that enabled them to continue managing the world. They learned experientially that these characteristics were interlinked and were, as Academic A1 put it, “Always present – with different weighting according to the circumstances.This composite set of skills we have called the “Navigation Template”. (see Table 4)

Resultant propositions and Theory-in-progress


The developing theory that emerged from the analysis was articulated as follows:


Successful top leaders experience their learning through a ‘navigational stance’ which they develop early in life and which assumes a manageable co-productive partnership with their world. They go on to experientially develop a composite ‘navigation template’, which, if consistently applied, enables them to maximise the effectiveness and sustainability of that partnership.




The situating of the literature review in a grounded theory research is a subject of ongoing debate. Some theorists, including Glaser (1978) feel that the review should be presented after the analysis to avoid tainting the data. This researcher agrees with Charmaz (2010), that one cannot ever be theoretically agnostic. Therefore the literature review was undertaken before the analysis. However, as interpretation of the data ventured into areas beyond experiential learning, this discussion will also briefly include further literary and historical references


A relevant historical figure is that of Nelson Mandela. Like Academic A1, Mandela was born into a strong supportive community the respect he was accorded as a member of the royal Thembu household was balanced the respect he experienced for the community leaders while listening “to their wealth of wisdom and experience.” (Mandela 2010, p.52). It was this “sense of both trust and power” (Daloz, 2000, p.107) that was the basis of his navigational stance and characterised his learning as lawyer, head of Umkonto We Sizwe, political prisoner and his country’s first democratic president. He, like the leaders in this research, were able to ‘do business’ with the world (including the apartheid head of state) from a position of power and trust – even when held in one of their prisons. His Navigation Template –the characteristics and behaviours he honed to support his stance – are arguably aligned with those of these leaders. (See Table 4)


It could be argued that the navigational stance has characteristics of “the life scripts” of transactional analysis (Berne, 1972) as well as attachment theory (Bowlby, 1988). The influence of parents may well be significant to the development of the Navigational Stance. However, this theory stresses the child’s assumption of its capacity to act with the world. Specifically, it proposes that successful leaders assume a balanced relationship; the capacity to act with rather than over or against the world. Piaget’s core concept of “equilibration majorante (progressing equilibration)” (1977) also resonates with this theory. For Piaget, children progress developmentally by continuously balancing their assumptions with the information received from the world; a stabilising process. For these leaders it would appear to be a continuous search for learning more effective ways to navigate the world.

These leaders experienced at an early age that in order to successfully navigate their world they need to work with it. They did not cut themselves off from the world –even in times of severe crisis. General G2 went into a period of reflection, which he called ‘hiding’ (Barden, 2015, p.124), after the sudden death of his father but he re-emerged to re-engage with the world relatively quickly and very decisively. Academic A2 (Barden, 2015) used her stance and template to engage with the world when she was diagnosed with cancer while pregnant. She neither caved in nor flatly resisted the pressure of the medical profession to abort. She explored the options, researched the status quo, and holistically explored the contexts and linkages. She made her decision in accordance with her learned stance.

The data in this research shows that these leaders learned very early that their capacity to act was maximised within a balanced relationship with the world rather than a dominant one over the world. If Academic A2 had tried to impose herself on the community and family that did not ‘value girls”, she would have lost. Instead she alerted herself to its needs and created her space within it. General G1, as a “small, thin, sick but intelligent” child (Barden, 2015, p.122) learned that in order to avoid being bullied at school, he gave the physically stronger boys what they valued: “I would assist them with their lessons in exchange for their being my guard” (p.122). it was only when that did not work anymore – when the context had changed – that he decided to take matters into his own hands and punch a bully.

When CEO C3 strayed into the role of dominant ‘alpha girl’ in the 6th grade, she inevitably opened the door to being bullied by a more powerful alpha girl, which of course restricted her capacity to act. (Barden, 2015, pp.121-122) She learned the lesson to work with the world.

In the examples described so far, these leaders displayed a number of the navigation template characteristics: Navigation (working with the world); strong pragmatism (doing the best possible); no attachment to failure (G1 did not see being ‘small and thin’ as being a failure but as a reality to be dealt with); socialised decision making (A2); reality and holism (A2; C3; G1) and direction not dogma (A2, C3, G1). All the leaders had an enhanced awareness of what is called here ‘the ecosystem’ of their leadership; both the whole and the contexts that link that whole. General G4 was probably the most alert to this holism. His extraordinary analysis of war as the changing and enforcing text within the evolving political and economic context is a testament to this alertness. As he points out, where government or the military fail to understand the fluidity of the partnership between context and text, then both face defeat. On a personal level, he illustrated that holistic awareness (as well as a number of other Navigation Template characteristics) when he was blown up in Northern Ireland. When asked by this researcher whether he had learned a lesson, he told this researcher that the enemy needed to be engaged as a sentient being rather as “the enemy’. When pressed further as to why he had not reacted by thinking, “the enemy was a total bastard that needs to be wiped out” he replied, “These are not alternatives – he was a sentient murderous bastard – the important thing to learn or realise was he was sentient and would react to your actions to his perceived advantage”. This was a clear expression not only of his alertness to the context of the war he was fighting but of his acute understanding of the contextual nature of relationships. (Barden, 2015, pp.125-126).

It is hopefully clear that the template itself is interlinked –with the characteristics ever present but dialled up as required. For example, in order to navigate effectively one needs to be both supremely alert to the changing channels as well as to the impact of those changes within the eco-system. In order to be alert to changes, one needs to be alert to the capacity of one’s constituents and to listen to the views of mentors who have been there before. In order to be fully alert to one’s own assumptions and the veracity of others, one needs to expose oneself and others to challenge and socialise decision making (as all did). And finally, because these leaders held as their primary value, managing with the world rather than imposing themselves on it, they were always immensely pragmatic – to the point of changing targets if they were no longer “the best possible”.

A significant by-product of their Navigation Template was that these leaders appeared to neither change nor stability driven. Because of their holistic approach, they focused on the requirements of their organisations and the ‘job’ rather than their own emotional or competitive needs.   General G4, despite experiencing both extraordinary intellectual challenges and exotic postings did not find it problematic to return to the routine of the ‘normal’ job. Both Academics A1 and A2 made changes that were more appropriate to their organizations than to their own careers. Both C3 and Academic A3 were singularly alert to the capacity of their stakeholders for change even when those changes encouraged and even demanded by their respective boards. The comment ‘I needed to make my mark on this company/institution’ that this researcher has heard many times as coach (and indeed may well have made himself as a corporate leader) was largely absent from the dialogue with these leaders

Limitations and future research


The main limitations to this research may relate to generalisability, gender and culture/ethnicity.

Clearly this research cannot, at this stage, be generalised beyond the experiences of these 10 leaders. Although this qualitative study generated significant data that was consistent across the sample, the theory itself remains untested beyond this sample. Useful future research could involve the correlation of more diverse navigational stances with the navigation template. How would accompanying templates complement less power- balanced stances? Would they act to enforce or mask characteristics? Can this stance and template – applicable to these successful leaders – be used to identify future successful leaders?

This research did not specifically attempt to balance for gender. It was not the aim of this programme to compare and contrast the differences between the learning and experiences of men and women leaders. This may be a limitation although it is argued that articulating the specific issues and problems encountered by these women was fully enabled by the research question. Hence A2 was able to talk about her navigation stance being linked to her managing the fact that girls were not valued in her community. CEO C2 spoke about the difficulty of networking as a woman. “Professional networking as a woman is not… Is not desirable except that you stay sober, and you can’t be seen… I’m always conscious of the fact that if I do talk to a man for too much sometimes it gets misconstrued, either by them or by others.” (Barden, 2015, p. 174). However, the issue of gender did not appear to materially affect the commonality of the themes in the Navigation Template.


Similarly, the question of ethnic origin was enabled by the research question while not specifically explored as a differentiator. A1 certainly knew he was in a country (1960’s Britain) where racial prejudice was significant but his navigational stance had been formed where he was respected, and supported in his community. If he was to be discriminated against (as he certainly was) it was not because he was ‘inferior or downtrodden’; the alien system made a mistake. If it took him 49 applications to be appointed deputy head teacher, he did not assume he was a failure but that the ‘system had made a mistake’.

What may be useful for future research in both gender and ethnicity is to enquire whether there is commonality in the stances formed by women and/or people of different ethnic origins before they are identified as leaders. This could involve researching individuals as children followed by further work at the start of their careers.

Finally, in this brief discussion, it may well be a limitation of this research that it focused entirely on leaders within ‘western’ organizations. The principal reason for this was that the author’s own coaching practice is mainly concerned with leaders in this sector. However, it is also argued that, in a global economy, it is extremely difficulty to characterise organisations as belonging to a particular geographical model. How many so-called western organisations were influenced by the Japanese model of management? (Pascale & Athos, 1982; 1986). Is Jaguar an Indian or British company? The cross pollination of military training, whether by including foreign cadets at Sandhurst or by despatching multinational instructors to Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan must influence both teacher and student. Future researchers may, however, find it useful to look at whether the cultural values of particular countries and/or religions may further influence the development of different navigational stances and templates.

Implications for leaders and coaching practice


If one accepts the findings of this research– that these successful leaders all learned a navigational stance that assumed that they were in a manageably balanced relationship of power with the world –and if one accepts further that these successful leaders developed and honed characteristics that confirmed that power balance, then the question for any coach has to be “ how do I coach leaders to be successful?” One cannot do so by modelling the Navigational Template because we have no idea whether it has been developed to reinforce or mask the original stance. A coach would therefore be prudent to first try and understand the client’s Stance and then attempt to construct the relationship between it and current behaviours/characteristics. The implication of that is that coaching leaders to be successful is a holistic process. One can, by all means, coach to emulate processes (of delegation or prioritisation) but that has more to do with functional training in process than with enabling the experiential learning and self-awareness of leadership.

Another implication of accepting these findings is that if these successful leaders assume a stance that they are balanced in power with the world – and not dominant or subject to it – then a crucial factor for their success must be their skill at dealing with, rather than imposing on, the world.

These leaders, it is argued, developed these characteristics to reinforce a stance they found useful and successful: that they were in reasonable equilibrium with the world and could do business with it. The impact for coaches is that they will be working within a paradigm that is currently not accepted. Top leaders are assumed to be dominant and imposing; that they take decisions on their own, drive others before them and are, above all, fiercely competitive. These findings show that leaders’ strength and vision comes not from imposing and domineering but from, at least, “presencing” as Scharmer (2007, p.39) put it. Trying to persuade not only leaders but their corporate development advisors that success, change, innovation comes from “working with the world’ rather than dragging it along is not to be underestimated. Trying to persuade clients and buyers that effective leaders do not compete but focus on the success of their organisation is almost counter-intuitive. These successful leaders do not compete against a rival because beating that rival may not equate to (and may in fact distract from) the success of their institution.

It is not a coincidence that dominance of monothematic corporate leaders –driving fiscal growth, maximum shareholder or investment returns – has co-existed with significant economic volatility, “by far the deepest recession in five decades” and arguably the weakest recovery from a recession in the developed world. (Kose, Loungani & Terrones, 2012)








Barden, S. (2015) Top Leaders’ Experiences of Learning. A Thesis submitted in Partial Fulfilment of the Requirements of Middlesex University for the Degree of Doctor of Professional Studies. London: Middlesex University

BBC. (2013) Woman RAF officer joins top military brass [online] August, 22. Available from: [Accessed: 22/01/2014].

Berne, E. (1972) What Do You Say After You Say Hello. London: Corgi Books (Random House). iPad e-book.

Bowlby, J (1988) A Secure Base: Clinical Applications of Attachment Theory. London: Routledge.

Charmaz, K. (2010). Constructing Grounded Theory: A Practical Guide Through Qualitative Analysis. London: Sage Publications. Original work published 2006

Conway, M. & Pleydell-Pearce, C. (2000) The Construction of Autobiographical Memories in the Self-Memory System. Psychological Review. 107(2) pp.261-288.

Corbin, J. & Strauss, A. (2008) Basics of Qualitative Research. (3rd ed.) London: Sage Publications.

Cuervo, J. (2015) Leaders Don’t Command. Alexandria, USA: ATD Press. Kindle Version.

Daloz, L. (2000) Transformative learning for the common good. In: Mezirow, J et al. Learning As Transformation: Critical Perspectives on a Theory in Progress. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


Flick, U. (2009) An Introduction to Qualitative Research (4th ed.) [online] London: Sage. Available from: [Accessed:9/4/2013]

Foucault, M. (1991) Discipline and Punish: The Birth of a Prison. London: Penguin.

Glaser, B. (1978) Theoretical Sensitivity. Mill Valley: The Sociology Press.

Harms, P., Spain, S., & Hannah, S. (2011) Leader Development and the Dark Side of Personality. The Leadership Quarterly, (22) pp.495 -509

Heidegger, M. (1953) Being and Time. 7th Ed. Trans. J. Stambaugh. 1996. [online] Albany: State University of New York Press. Available from:,%20 Martin/Heidegger,%20Martin%20-%20Being%20and%20Time%20- %20trans.%20Stambaugh.pdf. [Accessed 27/05/2013].

Hogan, R., Curphy, G., & Hogan, J. (1994) What We Know About leadership. American Psychologist, 49(6). pp.494–504.

Husserl, E. (2006) The Basic Problems of Phenomenology: From the Lectures, Winter Semester, 1910 -1911. Ed. Iso Kern. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer

Ibarra, H. (2015) Act Like a leader, Think Like a leader.

Illeris, K. (2007a) What do We Actually Mean by Experiential Learning. Human Resource Development Review, [Online] Vol 6(1), pp. 84–95. Available from [Accessed 01/ 04/2013].

Jarvis, P. (2006) Towards a Comprehensive Theory of Human Learning: Lifelong Learning and the Learning Society, Volume 1. Abingdon: Routledge. Kindle version

Kegan, R. & Lahey, L. (2009) Immunity to Change: How to Overcome it and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press.

Larson, A. (2015) Body Language Habits of Effective Leaders. Publisher: unnamed. Kindle Edition.

King, N. & Horrocks, C. (2010) Interviews in Qualitative Research. London: Sage.

Kolb, D. A. (1984) Experiential Learning: Experiences as the Source of learning and Development. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

Kolb, A.Y. & Kolb, D.A. (2005) Learning styles and learning spaces: Enhanced experiential learning in higher education. Academy of Management Learning & Education. [online] 4(20): pp. 193–212. Available from: Accessed: 30/03/2013

Kose, M, Loungani, P., & Terrones, M. Tracking the Global Recovery. Finance & Development. [online] June 2012. pp.10-13. Available from Accessed: 13/06/2015

McDermott, A, Kidney, R & Flood, P. (2011) Understanding leader development: Learning from leaders. Leadership & Organization Development Journal. [online] Vol. 32(4), pp. 358–378. Available from: Accessed: 21/03/2013

Mandela, N. (2010) Conversations With Myself. London: Macmillan. iPad e-book.

Maxwell, J. (2005) Developing the Leader with you. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

Mezirow, J. (2000) Learning to Think Like an Adult: Core Concepts of Transformation Theory. In: Mezirow, J. et al. Learning as Transformation: Critical Perspectives on a Theory in Progress. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

NATO (2013) STANAG 2116: NATO Standardization Agreement. NATO Codes for Grades of Military Personnel (5 Ed.) [online] Available from: [Accessed 19/11/2013].

Pascale, R. & Athos, G. (1986) The Art of Japanese Management. London: Penguin.

Piaget, J. (1977) The Development of Thought: Equilibration of Cognitive Structures. Trans. A. Rosin. New York: Viking Press.

Scharmer, C. (2007) Theory U: Leading from the Future as it Emerges. Cambridge, MA: The Society for Organizational Learning.

Sine, S. ( 2014) Leaders Eat Last. New York: Portfolio/Penguin

Starr, J. ( 2003)  The Coaching Manual. Harlow: Prentiss Hall Business

Willig, C. (2008) Introducing Qualitative Research in Psychology. 2nd Ed. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Zaccaro (2007) Trait-based Perspectives of Leadership. American Psychologist. Vol.62 (1). pp.6 -16

About the author

Stephen Barden is a coach-mentor specialising in board level organisational leaders and their successors. He works mostly in the UK, the US and Germany. Dr Barden was a corporate CEO in the media and technology sectors prior to joining the coaching profession.


[1] Contactable at Stephen Barden Coaching Limited,

[2] At the end of May 2015, “” listed just short of 140,000 books on “leadership”. In the same time period, entering the same search term on Google produced 471 million results – an increase of 12 million in 2 years. A search on Amazon for books on (specifically) ‘leaders’ produced nearly 84,000 results.


Read more

Trust the Process of the Heart

All our fear is lodged in trying to control the future. We anticipate a recurrence or absence of an event  in the future. Even when in physical pain, we don’t fear the agony we are going through now. We suffer through it  and try and manage it. But what makes us anxious is that it may go on for ever – or a week. And then our thought is “I won’t be able to cope with that. Not another week of this. Not another moment.” What we forget is that we are coping. We are managing. Even if we are doing so with massive doses of painkillers or therapy, we are managing the present pain. The last thing we need is the additional burden of anxiety or fear that comes with trying to anticipate the future.

Yet we do it all the time. We try and manage the future of our bank accounts, our children, our businesses and even our souls. And by doing so we fail to clearly see the present. And what you don’t clearly see, you cannot manage.

“Trust the Process”

Eric Parsloe – the man who was my first Coaching Mentor – used to say, “Trust the process”. I thought he meant ‘trust the coaching process’. But I now think he meant, ‘trust the process of life.’ We know that life will bring us what life brings: encounters. Those encounters may harm or help us. They may add or subtract. Depending on how they interact with our view of the world, they may bring us joy, grief, pain or comfort. The word process comes from the Latin Procedere, ‘to go on, continue.’ It’s the fact of continuing life interacting with you.  It’s no good trying to jump ahead and anticipate how you will interact with it in the future. That depends on how you interact with it now. It’s like trying to build a house by constantly skipping the block in front of you.

Does that mean we shouldn’t take care at all? We should spend all our money now? Don’t lock the front door? Of course not. I will not spend all my money now because if I do so I am making myself broke now. If I don’t lock my front door, I am putting myself in a position now whereby I am vulnerable now. Never mind tomorrow or later in the evening, my vulnerability starts now. If that’s what I want to do, that’s fine. But my action now has consequences now.

The problem with anticipating and trying to control the future is that you simply fail to fully address the present. By trying to control the future, you create a personal model of that future that will, by definition, differ from reality.

“At least give yourselves a chance”

A company I know would, each year, build its annual forecast by deciding what income it thought it needed to achieve and then set its sales targets accordingly. When I asked the leaders whether they thought they had the products, market demand, distribution capacity and delivery to achieve that income, the reply was “We have no option. That’s what we need to achieve.” And year after year, their distribution system failed them, their production was late and they failed to change their customer research. And year after year I (and others) would plead, “At least give yourselves a chance. If you’re going to set a target, at least make sure that your assets are prepared today (and every day) to hit it.”  The company went into liquidation recently.

Filtering your view of life is dangerous. It’s what made that company go bust; it’s what fuelled the global financial crisis -and every one before that.

The toughest organ we have

But there is one filter I am learning we must have. It’s the Filter of the Heart. Very recently a Reiki therapist, a young woman called Susan Haberlandt, said to me, “Whatever you’re about to do, try putting your heart filter on it first”. So I did. I tried looking at the world through my heart. Sometimes it worked; sometimes I grew impatient and used my head; sometimes I grew impatient and just did it. But sometimes, something happened: I took a tough decision that I had been dreading; I saw just how vulnerable an aggressive man really was; I stopped feeling guilty; I started feeling concerned.

The heart is not a fluffy, pink cushion. It’s the toughest organ we have. It pumps blood to and from every tissue in your body. Symbolically or actually it ‘knows’ every particle in your brain, your gut and your left toe. It has helped fuel your thinking, your instinct, your immunity and your recovery from illness. So when you filter your actions with your heart, you equip that action with everything you have: everything you have been taught consciously, everything you have experienced and absorbed; and everything with which you came into this life. That’s not just powerful; that’s herculean.

We know how to filter our actions and reactions with the head: the logic of connections. “If the client wants me to extend the coaching programme, then I must think about what my code of ethics and my supervisor say about ‘dependency’.” Then there is the filter of instinct: the drive to survival. “Another year of coaching will bring me $x. I really need the money. I’ll do it. And anyway, if he wants more coaching, that means he needs it”.

What would the heart say? What would it tell you about what all that is you  thinks is right, and not just your association’s code of ethics. What would it tell you about what would be best for the client, without your fear for your own future?

The Lens of the Heart

The filter of the heart is not a filter at all. It’s a lens that pulls together all that we are, to deal – in the sharpest focus that we can muster – with the world we inhabit. It may be worth while learning how to use it. If you do try, you may find (as I did) 5 things:

  1. There’s nothing ‘magical’ about it. What you’re doing is mustering all your appropriate resources to focus on a decision
  2. The more you consciously think about it the less it works (you’re using your filter of logical connections)
  3. The more you worry about whether it will work, the less it works (you’re trying to control the future and not managing the present)
  4. The more you try it the more effective it becomes (you access more resources)
  5. The more you try it, the less time and effort you have left to worry about ‘the future’. You’re dealing with it now.
Read more

leaders blinded by their own light

Did Icarus die because of his joy of flying or because of his triumphalism? Did the sun melt his wings because of his immersion in the exuberance of flight or because of his high fiving, fist bumping, “nothing can stop me now” exhilaration? If it had been purely the joy of flying, his senses would have been wide open and alert to everything around him, including any signs of danger. Whereas, if nothing ‘could stop him now’, then why be alert to anything?

Hubris, it appears, has one severe disadvantage: it makes you blind.

The word hubris  was first used, we think, by Aristotle who talked of it as being the abuse of power over others: where one who has been favoured by fortune then proceeds to abuse the less favoured. It went on to be seen as testing oneself against the gods – which they, in their jealousy, then stamped on very promptly indeed.

But what’s wrong with continuously testing the limits? We do it all the time. We’re just about to discover the ‘God particle’; the first trace of matter (first, that is, until we predict another elementary particle) and we now can capture images with shutter speeds equal to that of light. What’s wrong with that? Nothing. Nothing at all. Long may we continue to learn and re-discover our universe.

The danger comes when we think that we can do it all ourselves; that our achievements are solely our own; that nothing can stop us now. Because that’s when we stop looking around us. That’s when we’re blinded – by our own light.

Everything we do, everything we know, started before us and will continue after we have gone. The knowledge that Stephen Hawking,  Albert Einstein, Francis Crick and Plato had was built on the shoulders of those who came before them and served as the base for the knowledge that came afterwards. Yes, Archimedes put together all his learning and skill to come up with the measurement of mass – but he was helped by where he was: by the fact that he was getting into the bath. There’s nothing mystical or magical about it: he was getting into a bath, saw how his body displaced its equivalent in water, put two and two together and came up with 64,000. And what did he say? “Eureka”! Not “I found it”, as we tend to translate it nowadays but “I am in a state of having found it”.

So what produced the discovery? His being in a state to discover; his alertness to discovery. Yes, his unique skill played a great role but only in combination with the learning that had disciplined and enriched him; the experience that had shaped and given him confidence; and the context and circumstances within which he was now acting. An absence of any one of those factors (and a few hundred more) could have stopped him from jumping up stark naked and yelling his discovery to his neighbours.

Great ‘innovators’ all seem to have one thing in common: they all acknowledge their debt to those who came before them and their links with the world around them. Those who claim they are uniquely responsible for a discovery or even success are at best deceiving themselves and at worst lying.

Either way, they have made themselves blind and risk burning off their wings.

I used to think that the antidote to the hubris virus was balance: not too much joy at success; not too much misery at failure.  What my teachers would have called “good taste”. And then I noticed that I could still be  very smug  indeed while acting with extraordinary decorum.If hubris is a state of unsustainable triumphalism, then how do I keep myself open to the possibility of sustainable discovery and achievement?  I suspect, it does entail a sort of balance but it has less to do with control and more with awareness: awareness of the balance of all the contributors to ‘my’ success.

It is a balance between being totally aware of where I am and what I want to change. It is being in a state of awareness and discovery.

If Icarus had been in that state of awareness and discovery, he would have been able to find the ideal temperature  and altitude for the easiest, safest flight.

How does this apply to leadership?  Some years ago I started advocating a principle called “Leadership from the Centre”: the idea that leaders  are most effective when they are at the centre of a network  from which they are able to have clear access to a wide range of  stakeholders. Equally, they are accessible and visible to the challenges of  those stakeholders. It is, in essence a model for trying to maintain this balance of awareness and discovery. This is not a leader on a white charger who makes all the decisions himself or even with a small cabal of advisors. With this leadership model, decisions are made through intense awareness of the context: through scenario planning, testing or just listening. Each movement  is felt throughout the network as is each success or failure.

I first thought about it when  many of my clients fretted that they were missing some pretty important, if not vital, things going on in their organisations. These were mostly thought of as “strong” individuals who were seen to be leading from the front; a characteristic much treasured by television programmes and some corporations. My question was: if you are leading from the front, pulling the organisation along, how do you know what’s going on behind you?  Or  -as I said earlier in this reflection – you may be putting yourself in a state of discovery (of the future) but what about your state of awareness ( of the present)? How do you know- for example – whether your followers agree with what you’re doing – and that they are not sabotaging you? How do you know that what you’re doing for the organisation actually is good for it?  Are you flying too close to the sun because you’re dazzled by your own light?

It all boils down to one core question: “How, as a leader, do I make sure that I am continuously reminded to be in a state of awareness and discovery? What structures and processes do I need to set up? What relationships do I need to develop? What behaviour do I need to display so that my stakeholders  can not only  challenge me but see it as their duty to do so? And how do I make sure that I  and the organisation keep learning?  Finally, to return to the ancient Greeks, how do I, like the craftiest of all leaders Odysseus, make sure that when the sirens of hubris start singing their irresistible song, I am stopped from following them onto the rocks?

Read more

The Behaviour of Ailing Corporations

I once managed a portfolio company for a private equity firm. Its chairman didn’t teach me many things but he made up for it by by teaching me one big lesson. One day he told me that one of my Exec. Directors had been rude to ‘an outsider’. I apologized and said I would deal with it. “You’re not getting it”, he said. ” What I’m interested in is: what is it about your behaviour that makes him think  he has permission to act in this way”?

I’ve used that story in my coaching for over a decade – ending it with either of these two questions:

” What is it about your behaviour that allows your people to behave in this way?”


“What is it about your organization that gives permission to behave  in this way”?

My experience over the years is that creating space for certain kinds of behaviour can  quickly pervade entire institutions. It  may well be started, tolerated or even ignored by the leadership. More  interestingly, it may be the unforeseen result of a particular focus of business. Focus – human or institutional –  affects the way we see the world which, of course, affects the way we behave in the world.

As leaders, it’s important to reflect not just on how our organizations perform but on how they behave. Not just because  of the ethical contradictions but because neglecting to do so may threaten the entire business or service. How an institution behaves with all its stakeholders is a strong indicator of its state of health.  It is our responsibility to check those symptoms, regularly and honestly, ensuring we always widen our circles of enquiry; what a friend of mine recently called ‘increasing the circles of discomfort’. Don’t mistake the behaviour check as something ‘soft’ or driven by political correctness. The behaviour your colleagues display, both the consistencies and inconsistencies, will have a direct impact on your  purpose and business.

What I focus on, in the world impacts how I see the world; impacts how I deal with the world; impacts how the world sees me; impacts how the world deals with me.

An  institution’s strategic focus dictates what it views as important and what as not . This tends to create behaviour which favours the important as against the unimportant. If my strategic focus is  that my prices must be the lowest in the market, then I will favour those who help me achieve that focus: internal cost cutters,  tough bargaining, internal, buyers and (only) those suppliers who can deliver at the prices I require.  The ones I will not favour are my suppliers’ suppliers; my own staff development and welfare; in fact, anything that may affect my margins.

Now, that’s fine as long as I am aware of  the impact of that cycle of  strategic focus  and behaviour. If the institutional focus is on delivering lowest prices to its customers then that means, in  its behaviour, it may not focus on quality or even reliability of delivery. It will certainly mean it will not focus on the quality of life and welfare of its suppliers’ sub contractors. It may even try and minimise the costs of its waste disposal and environmental provision. And, if price is king, then customer service – which may be directly related to (costly) staff training and (costly) staff welfare – will be pauper. 

“Listen, you’re getting it cheap. What do you want? A smile or a damn bargain? Take your pick”.

Result?  You become linked with sweat shop labour; you get attacked for polluting the local environment (where  your customers live); your staff get grumpy and leave – or, worse still – get very grumpy and stay. Your customers dislike coming into your outlets and decide “You know what? I know the store down the road is 10c more expensive but at least it’s clean and I get treated like a human being”.

You may well end with no customers to offer your lowest prices to – or at least not in the volumes where they are viable.

How your company behaves to any one section of its stakeholders offers the world a window into its soul: its values, priorities, limitations, aspirations and ability to reach its outcomes.

As CEO of a technology company I once visited a media corporation to discuss a potential supply contract. I had a genuine interest in securing a contract but I also knew that our group wanted to buy it. So I was very interested to see what their behaviours could tell me. They kept me waiting for over an hour, they didn’t bother to even address my two associates  (clearly considering  them way too beneath them) and they  told me that they would only consider our technology if we agreed to an unsustainable price and terms. They did not – they declared – like my company or the group we belonged to but they would work with us at the ‘right price’.

We were a supplier of key technology that we would be obliged to  maintain to very precise standards  to ensure minimal disruption over at least five years. That required satisfactory terms and a trusting relationship. And yet they treated us as if we were a one off. Either they didn’t understand their own business or the business itself was less important than an exit from it. If exit was their target then my suspicion was that their customer offering would be just enough to get them by. After I left the building I found out that both content and customer service were  spartan. Churn  (customers leaving the service) was worryingly high. Because the focus was on exit,  I guessed attention to staff relationships, let alone staff development and quality of life, would be scant. Hence, their rudeness to my associates. All was confirmed later:   staff  skills, morale and loyalty were abysmal as were organisational and structural development. This was a company that existed for no other reason than to enrich a small group of people through its sale. It was hollow inside. Without doing anything more than observing behaviour in a meeting and making a few discreet enquiries later on, I discovered that this company a) was not worth very much as a going concern and b)  could not afford to hold out ‘for the right price’ for  long before  its losses and hollowness became very public.

Neither the behaviours of the media executives and the grumpy store cashiers, nor the impact they provoked were intentional – or even understood – by the company. But they were a logical (arguably, an inevitable) consequence of  the strategic focus: the organization’s view of the world.

All organizations betray their true focus by their behaviours.

The problem is compounded by the fact  is that these behaviours normally happen over a period of time within a very specific environment: a perfect setting for the boiling frog syndrome. The water is heated up  so gradually and gently that the frog fails to realise he is boiling.

Some institutions do try and check for the problem obliquely; most often by a ‘values’ exercise. A set of corporate values and standards of behaviour are identified or retrieved and staff are reminded (in workshops, pamphlets, posters and so on) of  the aspirations, priorities and acceptable behaviours. They are usually fruitless because the behaviour and values to support the institutional strategy are not those the company espouses.

If the investment bank’s values  speak of behaving with respect and integrity towards each and every client but its strategy focuses on maximising short term return from those clients, then ‘respect’ and ‘integrity’ will make a swift exit.

In legal terms, a corporation is a persona; it behaves, has authority and takes responsibility much like an individual. If  an individual’s behaviour contradicts his espoused values, profession, role or even image, we  may consider that person to be untrustworthy or even ill.

So it is with organizations.

Institutions – in my view – need to embark regularly on a  process that reviews the alignment of their strategic focus with their behaviours.

The TOTAL STRATEGY: the starting point is to develop, understand and clearly model the  strategy in very pragmatic terms; not just financially but the Total Strategy,  in terms of their organisation,offering, resources and stakeholders (what are we offering, with what, to and with whom, to what end?).

MODEL THE IMPACT:  develop and model a range of scenarios of  the possible impact of the Total Strategy on all internal and external stakeholders. ( If my strategic focus is to offer cheapest airfares on the market, what impact could that have on my staff training and therefore my quality of service?)

STRATEGY BALANCE:  Review what is a ‘must have’ in addition to your original strategic focus: I want to be the lowest cost provider with excellent customer service and reliable suppliers. So how ‘low cost’ am I prepared to be?

BENCHMARK AND MANAGE:  the competences,  skills, behaviours, values, structures, processes,  resources and risks that align with that balanced strategy.

CHECK THE SYMPTOMS: check your organizational behaviours regularly with your stakeholders; risking more and more discomfort as you go along. If  you don’t risk discomfort, the chances are you’re playing  it safe with your questions and your target group -and you then risk being very miserable indeed when you start boiling.

If you would like some help in identifying whether your organization’s behaviours threaten your strategy – or if you’d like to discuss the Total Strategy Programme, please contact me at

Read more

colluding with the client

The more I coach the more I realise how fragile the process can be; the more I realise how narrow the border is between, say,  intuitive enabling and dangerous intervention; between holding conflicting confidences and being ‘economical with the truth’; between creating a safe space and colluding.

Coaching may be require us to deal with the flux of change but woe betide us if we ever mistake that fluidity for laxness or sloppy thinking. Every time I have been tempted to think that I ‘don’t have to be entirely transparent on this occasion’ or  if I give myself the credit for a client’s success (even privately) Mistress Coaching delivers a smart kick in the teeth. So in the interests of minimising my dentist’s bills, I’m learning to listen out for  the warning signals.

There is only one reason we coach -and that is for the learning of the client.But “being there entirely for the development of the client” can so easily elide into thinking that we are there entirely to protect our  client.  And that’s where the collusion starts. If you client has agreed to take a particular action as part of her coaching objective – and she persists in not doing it, what do you do? At first, you may use that to examine what may be the underlying causes; the blockages and fears. When her inaction persists you then have a choice: you may tell her you can’t do any more and withdraw or you may tell him that this is a significant block that needs to be cleared before he can take another step towards his outcomes. Either way, he needs to make a decision: either he will commmit himself to working with you to take the next step or he won’t.

But do you report the matter to his sponsor? After all, if you don’t, you are signally failing to deliver on your contract: to enable the client to reach her outcomes. Or is your instinct not to say anything because you know that your client may well be viewed not too favourably by his employers? If you say something, you may be breaching confidence. If you say nothing you may be colluding; colluding with your client towards his not learning.

It is here, in my experience, that those dentist’s bills are in grave danger of rocketing unless I recognise exactly how rigorous coaching is in its transparent and ethical  pursuit of the learning of the client. If you were put that rigour inthe form of a dialogue, this is what it would sound like:

“What am I here for?”

“For the learning of my client”

“In what context?”

“Learning to achieve the outcomes he and his employer have agreed”

” Do you believe you can help him past his current block [in the time frame]?”


“Yes” (in which case he’s still learning, so back to the coaching)



(in which case…)

“Have you rigorously examined whether this block is the ideal opportunity to enable him to learn something far more profound (and important to him) about himself?”

“No” (so back to the coaching)


“Yes” (in which case….)

“What are your choices?”

“Tell him I can do no more -and withdraw”.

“What happens if you just keep going? After all you may enable his learning in other areas…”

“If I keep going, I am consciously not working towards his agreed outcomes and I am in fact breaching both my psychological and actual contract with both client and sponsor”.


“Unless I renegotiate the terms with both client and sponsor”.

“How would you do that?”

“By being transparent with both parties”.

“But how would you do that without breaking confidentiality?”

“By  either getting my client’s permssion or, even better, making sure that I have clearly prepared for this eventuality ( and it will come) in my initial contracting”.

“But you could be damaging your client’s career! If his employer discovers that he is not able/prepared to work towards his original outcomes then  he might fire him!”

“And I could be damaging my client’s career and certainly his learning if I insulated  him from the consequences of his actions or inactions. After all, what am I here for?”

“For the learning of your client.”

Read more

The Vulnerability of leadership

Welcome to the new website.

It’s been 9 years since I exchanged being a corporate leader for mentoring and coaching leaders. In that time I have been blessed with an extraordinary range of clients in North America, mainland Europe, Britain and Africa, from whom I have learned – and continue to learn – much.

My new website has been designed to reflect what has – probably inevitably – become the focus of my work: current and future top leaders.

My passion is to build a strong body of knowledge to enable us to understand the experience of leaders’ learning. Not what we think leaders ought to be learning – but how they actually do. And this is also the theme of my current doctoral research programme.

Don’t we know enough about leaders’ learning through the hundreds of thousands of political, business and other autobiographies?  Well they might give us a clue – but are these books an investigation into the authors’ learning experiences or are they a review of their successes and, hopefully, failures? Those are two very different views.

We also have hundreds of books telling us how leaders ought to learn or what makes a good leader; but these are rarely if ever based on the first hand experience of what leaders are going through now. Before you tell me what a good leader is, it might be wise to listen closely to what leaders are actually experiencing in the field.

Both my practice and my research programme have been designed to:

  • understand the first hand experiences of top leaders –and their successors; both through my own practice and through the group of top leaders working with me in my research
  • ensure that we build up a solid body of validated and scientifically documented evidence of these experiences
  • apply this knowledge for the benefit of leaders and their constituencies, be those constituencies organizations, institutions or countries.

The Vulnerability of Leaders

What have I learned about leadership in my 40 years in corporate life – as producer, then leader and now as mentor and coach?

That leaders and leadership are immensely vulnerable. Vulnerable to the pressures and delusions that both they and we impose on them:

  • to thinking that they are responsible for everything
  • to thinking that they have authority for everything
  • to being over protected and cut off
  • to being over criticized and isolated
  • to believing they should have all the answers
  • to believing they do have all the answers
  • to feeling they have no space to learn
  • to feeling they have no need to learn
  • to seeing themselves as invulnerable and all powerful
  • to being seen as invulnerable and therefore ‘fair game’.

Each one of these paradigms can help turn an open democratic University President into a besieged, defensive, secretive tyrant. Or a rational, confident CEO into an indecisive ditherer.

The LeaderNet

Leadership is not a person or even a small vanguard; it is a network of relationships that is constantly in play within and around an institution or environment. Without a product, market, work force, suppliers or structure there is no organization. And without an organization there is no leader. That leader is – and must be – in constant relationship with the network that links him to his stakeholders.

And that’s – essentially- what I do: I work with top leaders and their successors to make sure that they build, balance and sustain that network – their LeaderNet: to keep them and their organizations, strong, open and successful.

If these thoughts resonate a little with you, please get in touch.  Whether you think we can work together or you simply want to discuss or challenge what I say, please contact me at

Read more

Managing fear

Why do we treat this credit crunch as a disaster? Disaster? More like a massacre. A bloodbath with no survivors.

And anyone who even mentions a green shoot is taken away and summarily shot.

The trouble is that disasters are a threat to life. And we’re programmed to react to life threats  with fear: fight, flight or freeze. No thought, of course- because the neo-cortex is too slow to beat a rampaging dinosaur or tsunami.

Is that what we need to get through this Crisis?  A good dose of fear? Mind you, we’ve tried that already haven’t we? The banks and governments first fought off any criticism of those very clever CDO’s. Then, when that didn’t work, they grabbed their money -and refused to do business with anyone. That’s the ticket; that’ll keep our money safe – don’t lend it out at all. And finally, in sheer abject terror, we’ve come up with the brilliant idea of…. running away: cutting  people,jobs and the business: do nothing new.

What’s actually happened here? Why are we in this state? Because things (tools, processes, strategies) that did work, no longer do so.

What do we need to do to get out of this state? Find strategies and tools that do work.

What skill do we need to start looking for those strategies? Thought. Reasonable, innovative, strategic thought.

And what’s the greatest enemy of thought? Fear.

So, we are pumping ourselves full of the one thing that stops us from getting through this crisis.

If this is sounding too simplistic; if you feel that human emotion can not possibly be helping to strangle the world economy, let’s take a look at a few examples:

  • why are the banks not lending any money to businesses that need it?
  • why are the banks not looking at new ways to do business?
  • how many businesses that you know are exploring new products or services?

In fact, who’s being the most innovative in seeking solutions?  Government or the private sector? Now, there’s a really frightening thought.

Human emotion got us into this; human emotion will have to get us out. If wishful thinking – in the form of greed – got us into taking excessive risk, then realistic, clear , values based thinking will be needed to get us out. So the best thing that we can all do is start to understand what is our optimum personal environment  where we can each produce that kind of thinking.

How do you do that? In my experience there are 5 pillars you need to build:

  • Understand and manage what is important in your life: Your Values
    • if you don’t know what’s important in your life, no wonder greed -that great ally of purposelessness – will fill the vacuum
  • Understand and manage what Fear does to you.
    • what fear you manufacture; what stories you tell yourself; how to quieten the brain
  • Understand the strength and resilience that has kept you going so far -and can push you further, if you let it.
    • you’ve persevered under pressure before. How did you do it? How can you do it on a much larger scale?
  • Work with allies: colleagues, friends, family, mentors and guides.
    • share, help, understand, be understood. It ‘s how you grow
  • Do.
    • try it out; experiment; make mistakes; learn; move on

Read more