David Lane Interviews Stephen Barden

David Lane of the Professional Development Foundation interviews Stephen Barden about the leadership research he undertook for his new book How Successful Leaders Do Business with Their World: The Navigational Stance.

During research for my book, my work as a coach-mentor and whilst recording my podcast, I’ve grown quite used to interviewing people. This time, though, it was my turn to be interviewed by David Lane, Professor and Director at the Professional Development Foundation. I was honoured to be the inaugural guest in his series, which is focused on speaking with practitioner-researchers. 

You can watch the full episode on the Professional Development Foundation’s YouTube channel above. It’s also available in audio format as part of my own podcast series ‘The Balance of Power’

What I found most interesting about this podcast was coming back to something I often think about. How it was actually failure that began my interest in corporate leadership. When asked how I came across the idea for my book… I always trace the spark back to my own failure. In my last job as a CEO, I was fired. 

Over the course of about a year, decided to spend time reflecting on the assumptions I had taken into my role as a CEO. I wanted to know, why did I behave in certain ways? In my case, I had felt my responsibility was in looking after the interests of the shareholders, rather than, perhaps, looking after the entire organisation, as it were. I wanted to know more about the assumptions I had taken into the role.

I spent a year doing nothing but writing and thinking. What assumptions did I have? What assumptions about leadership did I inherit? Where did these assumptions come from? To me, it was an incredibly cathartic experience that really hit the spot… I then did nothing about it for some time. Instead, I focused my energies on coaching and developing leaders. It was about ten years later that I came back to thinking about it. 

Really, I wanted to know how leaders experienced their learning. During my decade coaching, I’d found there were copious amounts of content and reading material around the impact of leaders. Guides on how leaders should act. What is a good leader? What is a bad leader? It gave advice on how to act, but there was no information on what compelled leaders to act in the way they did. The assumptions they had about their responsibilities as a leader. 

I wanted to know about this compulsion and that’s why I decided to begin my research. Initially, it was focused on how leaders experience their learning. I’d gone in with an assumption once more, which was that leaders would learn how to lead whilst they were in power. Learning under fire, you could say. 

Once more, my assumptions were challenged. As soon as I  began my research I found people’s assumptions around leadership were formed way, way back. Long before they went into their terms of office… A long time before they even began their professional life, let alone held a position of power. This wasn’t the information I had even been asking for, it was just, whether consciously or not, people kept on coming back to their childhoods. 

Instead, it came down to their childhoods. The way they had felt about the world had given them an idea they took into their adult lives. As children, they had begun to explore their world. Initially, their world is as small as their parents and their home, but then it grows to the outside world, school, friendships. It builds a foundational assumption about their relationship with the world. They began to have an idea of what they can do with the world, and what they can’t. 

The most interesting part is… You don’t need to have power to feel like you have equal power with the world. It’s not about having the best start in life, it’s very much about the mentality you create early on. Let me share an example, about a person that I call “Lenux” in my book. 

Lenux came to Britain when he was seven years old, and there was a mistake made when it came to enrolling in school. When they arrived from Jamaica, his mother went out to work and didn’t know much about the educational system in Britain. She sent Lenux and his brother to register at the local school. Lenux was seven, and his older brother was nine years old. In Jamaica, at the time at least, schooling began at seven years old, so Lenux had never been to school. He hadn’t yet learned to read and write. Meanwhile, his brother, had been in school for two years and had learned to read and write.

For whatever reason, the school mixed up the children. They decided Lenux was actually nine, and his brother was seven. Lenux was, in his own words, “classified as a thickie” and placed in a special needs class because he was unable to read and write.

His brother, actually nine but supposedly seven, was seen as a genius. Lenux had every right to feel frustrated, annoyed, or that the situation he was in was grotesquely unfair. But did he? No. He saw it as a simple mistake. A mistake had been made, it would be sorted at some point, and all he could do until then was get on with it. 

How did he come to such a confident conclusion, especially at such a young age? What I discovered, upon further conversation, was that on the island, he’d been known as the son of a big man. His father had left Jamaica to work abroad, he worked in the US, Cuba and other places and this gave him a reputation as someone too big to contain. By proxy, Lenux and his brother had the same reputation. When Lenux, his brother and their mother then came to Britain, he saw himself how people had seen his father. A big man who couldn’t be contained. There was nothing in this new world to fear because Lenux was a big man. 

This meant, whatever happened, he wasn’t a victim of the world. He was big, like the world. He and the world could do business because they were the same size. If he couldn’t succeed in one way, he would find another way to succeed. In this case, he wasn’t able to succeed academically, so instead, he focused on sporting success. Lenux became the boxing champion of his school. This is more impressive when you consider Lenux was two years younger than people actually thought he was. Lenux focused on building a community around him, in whatever way he could. His basic assumption was that he could do business with the world, and so he did.

I came across many examples like this in my book, where, despite what could be considered early difficulties and challenges in life, mentality meant people could easily take on whatever was thrown at them. I also came across the opposite, people who had many advantages but had formed an assumption they were lacking something, or that the world was bigger than them, and therefore something that couldn’t be dealt with. The good thing is, these assumptions are learned which means they can be unlearned, and relearned and we can always find a way to do business with our world. 


Are you interested in learning more about power or are perhaps interested in leadership training? You can contact me, or learn more about my consulting services & speaking engagements.


FULL PODCAST TRANSCRIPT:

David Lane:  0:16  

Okay, welcome to this series. I’m David Lane, Professor and Director at The Professional Development Foundation. And the purpose of this series is to interview practitioner-researchers who have undertaken interesting research with applied ideas that actually are intriguing, and that we thought would be of interest to you. 

I’m delighted to welcome Dr Stephen Barden as our first interviewee in this series. Stephen is a Strategic Coach and Consultant who works mainly with the corporate leadership sector. And is, himself, a former corporate CEO, has undertaken some really interesting research on successful leaders and how they do business with their world. 

So welcome, Stephen!

Okay, can we just start with looking at what prompted you to undertake this research?

Stephen Barden:  1:14  

I always trace the spark back to my own failure, actually, which is the last CEO job I did, and I was fired from it. And when I was going through the process, after that… I spent a year, I thought I need to go and find out what assumptions I had going into the job. Why did I behave in certain ways, which I felt in my case was basically looking after the interests of the shareholder, rather than perhaps looking after the entire organisation, as it were. And I think I called it in the book why would I, you know, slobber all over the hand over the hand that fed me rather than the entire organisation, if you like. What assumptions did I have? 

So off I went and I wrote for a year, I just sat down and wrote and thought for a year, what assumptions did I have? What did I inherit? Where did it come from? And that, to me, was a great cathartic exercise and it hit the spot. I did nothing about it, I then went into coaching. Then about 10 years later I thought I really would like to know, how leaders experienced their learning. And because… What I’d discovered when I was coaching was, there was a lot of stuff about, you know… what was the impact of leaders? How leaders should learn? How should lead? How leaders should act? What is a good leader, what is a bad leader? But, nothing was telling me about what was it that made leaders act in particular ways. What assumptions that they hold going in. 

So when I started the research, it was literally as bland as, you know, how leaders experienced their learning. And my assumption, assumption again, was, you know, how leaders experienced learning while they were in power, while they were in the authority. Learning under fire, if you’d like. And it was then that I discovered that as I was starting to do the research, that those assumptions were formed way back. A long time before they went into their terms of office, a long time before they even went into professional life. And they kept on, whether consciously or not, they kept on throwing open the door and telling me about what they did, and what they thought, and how they felt when they were children. So that basically was the trigger and what I finally went into,

David Lane:  4:13  

So what made you commit to the idea of adopting a research approach to look at this rather than just carrying on having a series of conversations? You see many leadership books which are basically just a conversation with a leader, and they have nothing behind them.

Stephen Barden:  4:31  

Because I was really irritated by people saying things like, you know, I think leaders should eat last and, and good leaders are humble and how did they know? I didn’t know where they got their research from, and I don’t think necessarily needed. I wanted to get a really thorough, rigorous examination of whether, number one, how they did their experience, I’d say. So that’s why I used a constructivist grounded theory because it gave me the ability just to look at the data. And yes, construct the theory out of that. 

But I wanted to have a way in which I was actually examining rigorously, methodically, how these people. who I’d selected and they, by the way, I selected a group of really successful people. And they range from being successful because they were at the top of their tree to being spectacularly successful because they had actually changed the way people thought. The way their entire, you know, either in the military, or in education, or in corporate life, how people thought. 

So I went in there looking to see how these people, and in a really methodical way, how they experienced their learning. And, what was it that made them think this way, rather than that way, I did not want to go in and get more suppositions, I suppose I was saying, If I had these, if I realise the danger of assumptions without research, then I needed to go and do the research. I needed to actually go and track methodically that research. That’s what I was doing. 

And it was, it was really important to me that when we merged from that research, there was a huge amount of data, which I examined and reexamined… And then, of course, I made life more difficult by going back to them and saying, is that what you said? Do you recognise this theme? So it was particularly rigorous? And it was, yes, it was very rich, and it’s an examination.

David Lane  7:02  

Okay, so that’s what you were looking to find out? What did you actually find out?

Stephen Barden 7:08  

Well, what I actually found out was that these leaders, and we can therefore extrapolate all human beings, but these leaders had formed as they grew up, as they were exploring as children, their world, initially, their family, and later on their environment, etc, they had formed a foundational assumption. They had built up, if you like, a foundational assumption, that basically… About the power relationship that they had with their world. What do I mean by the power relationship there that they formed? They formed an assumption about what they could or could not do within the world through this power filter. And, therefore, how to manage that world. How to make space for themselves in that world. 

Because we were looking at this particular group of successful leaders, what I discovered, and this really was very surprising to me, was that they all had built an assumption, constructed an assumption, that they in the world were in a reasonable power balance. They could, that’s where it comes, they could do business with the world. In a sense, the title is quite misleading, because you can see it and go oh look, another book about how people do business. By doing businesses, I mean, how they manage, how they deal with how they interact with the world. 

David Lane  9:11  

That idea of balance between the world is quite interesting because if you look at a number of these stories, these people haven’t necessarily come from easy backgrounds in which you think, okay, yup, sure, their life’s in balance. They’ve come from some very difficult backgrounds, so how they come to that kind of idea of balance? That they can actually do business with their world.

Stephen Barden 9:35  

Yes, I found that particularly fascinating. I mean, one person who I call Lenux in the book, it’s a mixture of luck and happenstance and also all sorts of things. But Lenux, for example, had come to Britain as a seven-year-old and, there’d been a grotesque mistake made. He had come from Jamaica, and he had arrived in the country, his mother immediately tried to go and make a living so and knew nothing about the education system. 

He and his brother were sent off, went off to go and register the local school, his brother was nine and he was seven. In schools where he came from, they started school at seven, he had, therefore, never been to school, and hadn’t learned to read and write. His brother, who was nine had learned to read and write. They mixed up the ages and they decided that Lenux was the older one, and the other was the younger one. So Lenux, of course, was, therefore, behind. He was there for as he said, as he puts it, in his own words, “I was classified as a thickie.” So, he was put into a special needs class. 

Whereas his brother, of course, who was supposedly seven, but actually was nine was now the genius. So I said, what, you know, what happened? He said, “I just saw it as a mistake, I saw it as a mistake, and I got on with it.” But I dived and dug and dug and what we what I discovered was, where he had been in the island, he had been seen as, if you like, the son of a big man. His father had gone off to the US, to Cuba to work so, therefore, was seen as somebody too big to be contained. And when his when he and his brother and his mother came to Britain, he saw himself in the same way. 

So therefore he was not a victim. He was big. He was big, he could do business. So he did what his father had done, he learned to do business, he learned to deal with stuff. So he was doing things like, for example, since he couldn’t be an academic success, he became boxing champion of the school. He built up a community around him. So whatever he did, his assumption, his basic assumption, was I can do this because I am not smaller than the world, I am in partnership with it.

David Lane  12:39  

Okay, what would be the alternative to that kind of doing business with the world.

Stephen Barden  12:44  

The alternative, interesting, because like I call this assumption if you like, the foundational assumption, I call the navigational stances, because it is how they navigate with with with the world. Not necessarily what ends there but how they navigate through it. And so the Lenux’s of the world and most of these leaders work took a partnering stance. They saw the world as something they could work with. They could because, you know, if you are on an equal basis on a manageable balance, it’s a waste of energy to do anything other than work with it, because you can it’s there’s a realistic chance you’re going to get what you want. 

The opposite of it, rather boringly, I call the oppositional stance. Because now, if the world is perceived, and you assume the world is more powerful than you, or even less powerful, you’re going to go in opposition to it. The more powerful it is, you think your assumption is going to be, you know, I’m always going to lose at the end. Or, you know, I’m going to have to really battle to find my way. If you feel the world is inferior to you, there’s a balance that goes the other way you go the world doesn’t matter. I5 doesn’t matter, I really don’t have to deal with it. Either way, you’re going to ignore it, you’re not going to participate in it. You’re either going to try and avoid and escape it, because of fear, or you’re going to try at you’re simply going to say right the world is there to be yoked to my purpose. 

So, either way, you are not participating in it. This is, for me, it was very much that almost the workable application of being in the world. The concept of design, being in the world.

David Lane 14:52  

So what you discovered was the importance of navigational stances and how people relate to the world, and how they feel they can interact with the world, and as you say, do business with the world… As opposed to those for whom the world is a place of opposition and fight. 

And in fact, it seems to me, that taking that stance isn’t about a reality of I’m actually in a good position or a bad position. It’s how they conceptualise it because some of your people clearly were in a very poor position but nevertheless felt able to find a way to do business with the world.

Stephen Barden  15:34  

That’s exactly right. Because they realise, and in fact, I introduced the book with the real story of a young man called Michael. His mother would send him off at the age of four, four and a half, out of the place they were staying because she didn’t want him around. So off he’d go down to the, you know, to the local beachfront. And that’s where happenstance and luck comes in. He was not abused, he was not taken advantage of… But he was able to get, you know, he was able to ask people for ice cream, they gave him ice cream, he was able to talk to people, he was able to make friends, etc, etc. and then come home safely. Now, it was, his mother been in abusive relationships he had been treated badly by some of the male figures that came in. 

However, the circumstances of his life enabled him to understand and to build up this assumption, hey, I can work with this. I can do this. I can you know, as long as I keep these parameters, as long as I’m able to navigate shrewdly and wisely, I can work with the world.

David Lane  16:59  

Okay, so let’s look at how you actually went about doing this research? Because it’s fascinating. So you want to look at successful leaders? So first, how’d you find them? And second, how did you get them to agree to participate? And then what do you actually do with them?

Stephen Barden  17:18  

Okay, so the original thing, and I always found it fascinating, so I thought, who do I want to talk to? I want to talk, and you can see my brain wasn’t massively original, I wanted to talk to corporate leaders, I wanted to talk to academic leaders, and I wanted to talk to politicians. And so the corporate leaders, I’ve worked with, yeah, the corporate leaders were basically I said, okay, I will go and take a look at people who are global CEOs, or international CEOs. People who have authority, that’s what they all have in common, they had to have some authority, that they, together with their leadership group, or whatever, would have enough authority to change, to affect change in their organisation. 

So I went off, and I had a fairly good network of people that I could go to, and I went and found corporate leaders in the Far East, in Europe and in the US. And that was quite, that was quite easy. There was only one person who turned me down very politely and he said, “Stephen, it’s not for me, but here’s somebody who’s who will fit the bill” so they were pretty good. 

The academics were also pretty good, you know, and I chose university and college presidents, as well as people who had made a great impact in high school education… And they were very good. And then I said I thought, well, what I’ll do next is the politicians so I wrote to…. And each, by the way, each one of them I wrote to them and provided a referee or a reference if you’d like of someone that we both knew so they didn’t feel they were going to jump in and I did the

David Lane 19:28  

So you didn’t just approach them coldly?

Stephen Barden:

No!

David Lane:

Okay fine

Stephen Barden  19:35  

The politicians some of them I had known, some I had met, but most of them I have not met. but I said, this is me, this is what I’m doing, you know, you will be anonymous, everything is confidential. Nothing that goes in will go into being published without, at least, you knowing about it. That is the process and here’s, here’s somebody who knows us both, and will vet I’m not a complete commoner, ha. The politicians, I didn’t get anything. I mean, you know, as I said in the book, I didn’t get a cold shoulder, I didn’t get any shoulder. And I realised then, because I’d always suspected, but then I realised, and that really the politicians felt incredibly vulnerable.

You know, that this sort of stuff? This was not something that…  And then, suddenly, somebody said to me, well, why don’t you go for the military? And I will be eternally grateful for that. And a former Colonel in the army then introduced me to one general, who introduced me to another general, and I suddenly got, I got some real stars. I mean, I got some really good people. 

I also found another general in continental Europe as well. Again, not by this same source, who was also particularly good. And so what I then said to them all was, what I’m going to do is, I want to interview you, I want to talk to you, I will be asking these questions, and they will be recorded, the interviews will be recorded, I would then transcribe them, I would then send them back the transcription, the raw transcription and say, is this accurate? Well, they will then come back to me and say, no, you’re lying, you lying bugger, ha, or they would come back and say fine. They would vet it. And then what I then did was I said, and of course, the methodology was constructed was grounded theory

David Lane  22:05  

Could you explain what that means a little 

Stephen Barden 22:06  

Well, what it actually is, it works with the data entirely. I certainly did, I said, I was only going to work with the data. I was as well, yes, of course, there was an acknowledgement within constructive grounded theory rather than, you know, pure, very tight grounded theory, that, of course, the researcher is going to go in with certain filters. So, therefore, I had to acknowledge, and how should I put it, I had to acknowledge and understand those assumptions and express them. So that we were as authentic and as clear and as honest as possible. 

But the data and, of course, what it then does, you go through a period of getting the data, looking at the data, and then relooking at the data. Almost meditating on it. Then I would code it and theme it in broad themes. And that’s what I did, I themed each one to see if there was any concurrency. And then themed that even more narrowly, until we got a coherent narrative out of it. And then I came up with what that narrative was. If there was going to be a model, if there was going to be a theory on each occasion. 

So then I’d send them the raw stuff. Then I sent them again, the themes. And I said, let’s set up a conversation with them. So that conversation was, you know, it was in most cases, verbal and me taking notes, but there was also an exchange of emails and correspondence in which they commented. And as you can imagine, you know, if they didn’t, if they didn’t agree with it, or they thought my themes, or my postulations were, were off, they would tell me. And they did tell me quite vigorously. 

And we then so I themed it and then narrowed it and then came up with these, what to my surprise, was this was a common set of assumptions that they had. Which first were quite clumsy, but then as we converse, they became more and more refined until we got this set of assumptions. Which I eventually called, in the original research I called it the navigational template, but then in the book, I called the navigational compass, because it was much more of a directional thing. And not those assumptions are not in any way that they all behave in the same way. Because for example, you know, one of the assumptions may be socialising in socialising the theme, those who I think, they like to socialise, problems and issues.

David Lane  25:38  

Can you tell us a bit about what  socialising is

Stephen Barden  25:39  

Well, socialising the file, it comes from, in fact, one of the generals where, what he, what he would do, before he made, he learned by mistake, if you like, that, if you want decisions to be effectively carried out… Don’t make those decisions on your own, don’t make them on your own, you need to go and talk to people, you need to go and explain why you’re doing. You need to get their buy-in. Because if you don’t, their assumptions kick in, and you might find a perfectly good decision…Iit’s failing, because it’s just not carried out. So socialising the file was basically ensuring that when you made a decision, or when you’re making a decision, you go and get the buy-in of people, all the time. 

The other one was, and of course, how each of these people socialise the file? In completely different ways. Yes. The other one was pragmatism. Pragmatism, which we defined as doing the best possible until the possible isn’t best, and then changing the possible if necessary.

Stephen Barden  27:02  

So working with content. That was another thing that they all did they all were able, if necessary to stand the context on its head. 

David Lane  27:17  

You said that it was to some surprise that you kind of found this coalescing? What was the surprise about, you know, why a surprise for you?

Stephen Barden 27:29  

Surprise, I suppose was… A number of surprises. One that that navigational starts, the entry point into how they manage the world, had been with them for such a long time. And that it had, I could imagine being powerful, but it’s been with them and remained with them. Fortunately, for them, it was a partnering one, but you can imagine that people with an oppositional stance would actually continue looking at the world through the eyes of the child. So that was one of them.

The other one was, my fear was that these characteristics, or these assumptions, would be a confirmation of the charismatic leader, the born leader… which I thought that’s just, I can’t have that. Because, you know, it meant that that the whole process of coaching if you like, the whole process of leadership development, would actually almost fall by the way. Because you know, all I need to do is, I actually say in the book, then is, if I want to be a charismatic leader just imitate charismatic leaders. 

But it wasn’t. These assumptions were contextualised within each of the leader’s own experience. So that was a surprise, but it finally was rescued. And I think the biggest surprise for me was how these leaders really kept on throwing open these doors to their childhood. Without my asking and there’s, I don’t know if you’ve ever had this experience, sometimes when one does research or one does a body of work, particularly when no one is working with data, it remains quite thin. It remains almost quite two dimensional. And mine was… It was interesting hearing people talking about what they did in their work, etc, etc. But the magic, if you like, the depth only started emerging when they, of their own volition, started talking about their experiences as children and as young people. That was what made them, that’s what they almost treasured, or anything else.

David Lane  30:24  

Okay, and you do make the point in the book about, you can’t simply look at a charismatic leader and pretend to be one. So what you got from these people was a kind of genuineness, as opposed to, I have learned the techniques for being a leader. 

And therefore, as you mentioned earlier on the title of the book is “how successful leaders do business with their world” which sounds like a how-to book, but it isn’t a how-to book… Because it’s not about pretending to have the characteristics of a great leader.

Stephen Barden  30:57  

No. And that becomes particularly important, I think, for anybody who’s a coach or a teacher or a researcher… Is that if we’re going to look at leaders we can’t simply look at the outside, look at the impact because that means we’re saying we can develop leaders by changing their impact rather than changing their underlying assumptions. And I think the important point for me is that, David, if these assumptions are learned, which is what they are, they can be modulated, they can be relearned, they can be unlearnt. Yes, it can be difficult, but they can be relearned because the adult then can have a new perspective on what he/she experienced as a child. And therefore, we relearn. And that to me, is his leadership, that really is development, that really is leadership development.,

David Lane  32:13  

That’s probably a good point to start before we go on to talk about the implications of this. So thank you, that was really clear. We’ll then go on and talk about, well, so what? What are the implications of this research, for coaching, for leadership development? For bringing up children even?

Stephen Barden 32:39  

I think for the implications, certainly for coaching… There’s coaching, there’s recruitment, there’s to a certain extent bringing up children if you like. At least being aware of that, I’m not a developmental psychologist and, you know, my children will probably think I didn’t bring them up properly. But I think, in terms of coaching, what we can do with this is two things, or maybe even three things, there are always three things isn’t there? We can certainly start by… I developed an in-depth interview structure, which I use with practically all my clients now, in which I go back and discover what is their leadership, their navigational stance. Are they oppositional or are they partnering?

And then I then test it against the navigational compass, which is these eight or nine characteristics or assumptions that the research leaders all had and what I then emerge with is okay… So, this is what basic assumptions, or foundational assumption, this particular leader has and therefore, how suitable are they for that particular job? What do they need to adapt or change to become better leaders, both within that the context of that job because, and it’s important to talk about context I think because I don’t think that you can get really a generic leader. A leader in a media company, as I learned to my cost, may be good at a media company, which is very hierarchical, or it was in the days that I was there, may not be particularly good in, you know, a major technology company. 

So you need to be able to… But at least with this mode, we can say okay, if you want to work in a technology company, and you start using these tools, you will become a better leader… So that’s number one. 

David Lane  35:12  

That’s the partnering bit, isn’t it? Learning to partner?

Stephen Barden  35:16  

Absolutely. And partnering is, you know, the partnering when you are working with someone, when you’re doing business, you have to be incredibly alert. Alertness becomes the key to everything, you’re alert to what’s going on, you’re alert not only to the text but to the entire ecosystem, which is that which is the job. You know, one of the leaders talks about being always aware of the rumbling in the ground. De had been a miner, and he always was immensely alert to the rumbling, as he called it, in the job. 

You know, generals who are massively aware of the capacity and the appetite of their people. So that was, it became, that’s the partnering. And that you can certainly enable people to become more and more alert. So it is developing leaders. That’s number one. 

The other one, becomes particularly useful when you do that analysis, that assessment, whether leaders, current leaders, how they are going to… How toxic or how benevolent they’re going to be. So in recruitment, it becomes important, I think, to be able to say, not just has this leader worked in the industry before? Has this leader worked in the academic sector before? But, how is this leader going to treat their constituents? How partnering or how toxic they’re going to be when they take on a job? I can imagine it would be quite useful for them for some political parties. That’s the second one. So it’s in recruitment and assessing the suitability. 

And then I think when you’re talking about future leaders, you can then say, okay, so as a future leader, let’s assess what you are doing now, let’s assess what your assumptions are now. And perhaps, we can help break down some of the global assumptions about leaders, about being the solitary hero, or about being, you know, leading from the front or about, you know, the macho style of leadership, or even frankly, you know, assuming that all leaders have to adopt a coaching style. Really, do all leaders have to adopt a coaching style at all times? You know, as, again, as I say, in the book, you know, when your troops are about to cut and run in panic, do you sit down and teach them to fish? Wouldn’t quite work, I would think.

So those are the sort of areas you can work with. And then what I currently do is, once we’ve done that assessment when we’re developing leaders or coaching leaders, I then will coach them, with them, over a series of sessions, in which we start to get them to understand what’s been going on. What their assumptions are, how they can change, how they can really learn how they can learn and how it fits with what they’re doing now. 

As far as children are concerned, I think there are, I think, again, an awareness. One, of the key things about the navigational stance, that they all had, they all, were given the ability to experience things. Clearly, it is the role of the parents to protect them as much as possible, so that they don’t fall off a cliff and they don’t, they don’t get abused as much as possible. But it’s important that children are allowed to experience for themselves so that they get can gain confidence in participating in the world. That it’s not, it’s not a case of them becoming self-aware. In my view, and if you follow the model in the book, it’s not… One is never self-aware, one is aware of the self in the world.

We’re never a vacuum, there’s always going to be another agent and other beings in the world. So we need to be able to ensure that children are allowed to experience within reasonable safety, with reasonable security, and for parents then to be alert, when they find that their child is becoming more and more oppositional in their stance. So it becomes, I think, at least a starting point to begin to work with children as well, using, the model of the filter, the filter of the ability. 

Finally, and this came, it did not emerge from the book, although I talk about it, funnily enough, in a couple of podcasts that I’ve done is… I think, my suspicion is, and this may be the subject of the next piece of work is that companies, governments, countries, also develop a navigational stance. I use an example of, of example, the United States… If the United States, in its formation as a federal republic assumed that the people in the Native Americans and later black slaves were inferior to them, that meant that they were by definition declaring to working in opposition to what that word is. And that therefore this starts to impact, or this impacted, not only the way they dealt with the whole racial issues in the United States, but also dealt with how their foreign policy, of course. So then you see that, and I think, for example, the whole reaction to Black Lives Matter… And it’s something that stems from this basic assumption of opposition that they have within themselves as well as outside.

David Lane 42:45 

Perhaps a cheeky question, you’ve mentioned it a couple of times, kind of learning from failure… Were you a successful leader, as a CEO?

Stephen Barden 42:57

[laughs] Um, I succeeded in a number of contexts… I think I was quite good in certain stages as a media leader if you like. But no, I  think I was finally a successful leader, you know, I had successes and I had areas where I was successful but I don’t think I was finally a successful leader and I’ll tell you why. Because at the end of the day, what I define as success is the ability to move the entire organisation forward. The entire organisation forward toward its purpose, towards its ends. And I don’t think, perhaps one when I was not exactly the chief executive but I was one or two down, I don’t think that I was able to move the entire organisation forward. I certainly know that in my last job, I was working in the interest of the shareholder and that’s not particularly good. I thought, in other cases, I possibly gave up too easily when I saw the opposition was strong against me, so, no. I didn’t move the entire organisation forward no.

David Lane: 44:37

The cliche is that all political careers end in failure, and I wonder if, you know, for CEOs. You talk in the book about what it means to be successful, and success defined in terms of the sustainability of the organisation, rather than the immediate glory of the CEO.

Stephen Barden 44:55

I think that’s absolutely correct, and the way you’ve put it is right. That success does one leave the organisation so that it can continue and sustain itself in this culture that you have created. You know, you’re going to have failures. You’re going to have individual failures. You know, the stock market will go down, the share prices will go down or you’ll lose this customer or this big client or whatever. As long as it is able to sustain itself going forward, then overall, it is a success. The CEO may fall by the wayside, which becomes less relevant. What is more relevant is, have you left a culture, have you left drive, have you left a navigational stance that enables this organisation to move to success.

A conversation with the CEO Whisperer Manfred F.R. Kets De Vries: The Balance of Power Series

I recently sat down with the “CEO Whisperer” Dutch scholar Manfred F.R Kets De Vries whose fascinating work focuses on leaders, leadership and the dynamics of individual and organisational change. 

As we both spend much of our time dealing with leadership and power, he as a professor of leadership, development and organisational change at INSEAD, and me in my consulting work and own studies on leadership we had a lot to discuss. 

Below are just a few small extracts from our conversation, this particular section focusing on how anxiety can impact the kind of leaders we gravitate towards. In our full interview, we discuss Manfred’s leadership models, personality assessments, how the pandemic has impacted leadership and how you can be a great strategist without being a great leader.

Manfred originally received his master’s degree in economics from the University of Amsterdam, before going on to attain his M.B.A and D.B.A from Harvard Business School. He’s also been a member of the Canadian Psychoanalytic Society since 1982. I was curious to know how his varied scholarly background across economics and psychoanalytic informed how he saw leadership. 

“I tried to look at everything. Now, I got interested in leadership not many years ago. Probably influenced by my mentor at the time, who wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review “Managers And Leaders, Are They Different?” that won the McKinsey award, apparently.

He has this image of this glorious leader, actually, this kind of distinction people make between transactional leaders and transformational leaders. And of course, if you really go back, you can go to the work of Max Weber about charisma and, of course, you can argue that, is charisma such a good thing? 

We discussed the dangers of a charismatic leader even if they feel like the most reassuring choice at the time.

“When you look at some of those charismatic leaders, we see, think about the charismatic leader in India, the charismatic leader in Turkey, and the charismatic leader in Hungary… I can go on.

James MacGregor Burns wrote a classical book on leadership, which won, I think, a Pulitzer Prize, or something like that, about transactional and transformational, and then, later on, he also mentioned thinkers, like Heifetz. They make these kinds of distinctions. 

Now, I mean, in a way, I can, you know, when you think about a country, which is very stable, like Switzerland, I have no idea who the President is. I don’t know the name. And maybe that’s a sign and I always argue that leadership is a team sport. I think, actually, you can be the most charismatic individual but if you’re in a leadership position, people start to use their fantasies. Some of my clinical training comes in handy that people project their fantasies onto leaders.” 

But what exactly is it that makes us project our anxieties onto leaders?

“In psychoanalysis, you talk about transference which is, to quote Jung, the Alpha and Omega of psychotherapy. Meaning, I can tell you, Steve, that you have a bounce in your head where you’re five years old. As a result, you’re totally crazy. You say that’s great, nice to hear that, fantastic, but it doesn’t help you very much. Maybe a little bit because you have some explanation but it’s not enough. But if I tell you behave so strangely, because you always had fights with your father or something like that. Or you had a competitive streak vis-a-vis an older brother or whatever it might be… I have no idea about your background, I’m just synthesising. 

And that might give you some ideas why you always get irritated or whatever it might be, that might be more helpful. So we have a tendency, which is probably also from an evolutionary psychological point of view, to idealise a person in a position of power. That’s what you like people in power, and particularly when they solve an anxiety.”

Are we more anxious now than ever before and why do we look to our leaders to solve it?

“Every century has its anxiety but we are doing badly at the moment. We still have nuclear states like North Korea and a failed state like Pakistan, we’re also running around there. Then you have concerns about the environment. We realise that we can really blow up, not just in a nuclear way, by doing horrible things to the environment. And then we have now we have lots of violence, all those terror groups… 

Plus, which I think is actually an invitation to disorder, to use that word is income inequality. And income inequality has not diminished, and then and then, of course, the pandemic at the moment. So there are lots of things to be anxious about. And when people are anxious, which is an evolutionary trait we look for, we fall into a dependency mode. We look for a leader who you can only fantasise has the power to get us through these tough times.”

This idea of leaders getting us through tough times led to an interesting discussion. Just what it is that soothes people’s anxieties? In other words, when choosing a leader, do people have firm clear, fixed ethics? Or are they in fact, influenced at the time by where either their interest rate lies, or their safety lies?

It’s a very good point. But you know, it’s very hard to generalise. In the first place, there are the opportunists who feel they would like to be close to the sources of power and the goodies, you know, they like power, they’re likely to use it. Which of course, again, evolutionary psychology it had to do, who has to do with procreation. Whoever has the resources, gets the women. That’s it that’s basically, in a way and like it or not, we are still some primitive beings. 

There might be a number of people who are totally convinced, you know… The mind is a funny thing we have a great capacity for compartmentalisation, rationalisation, why we do certain things.

But in general, we get our values from our parents, they instil certain values in us and our teachers. Now, sometimes you are not lucky, you might be lucky. Sometimes they are not exactly the best role models. So you might say this is exactly what I don’t want, I want to be very different. 

So some escape, some escapes are there to give them. For example, I’ve looked at people who took my class and you wonder given the circumstances, how they managed to get out? And usually what I see is that I get the parents might be total screwups, you know… But there was an uncle, an aunt, a teacher, who really had an interest in them. That made a difference. And that gives the person some hope and made them more resilient. 

So those are some of the what it’s, you know…. The older I get the more reluctant I am to generalise. Although, in the case of Trump is not so difficult, because he was invoking narcissistic personality disorder. I mean, it’s a classic, if you take the Handbook of psychiatrists, it was all there.

This idea that the start our start in life will impact how we perceive and handle power later in life is something I discuss in-depth in my book: How Successful Leaders do Business With Their World

Listen to all of the Balance of Power Series:

The Balance of Power: Episode One

Battles, Balance and the Fasted Kid in Florida: Episode Two

Readings from ‘How Successful Leaders to Business with their world?” : Episode Three

Are you interested in learning more about power or are perhaps interested in leadership training? You can contact me, or learn more about my consulting services & speaking engagements.

How Successful Leaders Do Business With Their World: The Balance of Power Series

I have been a corporate leader for many years. Later in life, I decided to undertake a doctorate on the subject of power and leadership. This led to me putting my years of research into writing my book: How Successful Leaders do Business With Their World.

So, what exactly does this phrase mean, how successful leaders do business with their world? In the third episode of my podcast series the Balance of Power you can listen to an extract from the introduction of my book. It explains how I came to write my book and study this subject. Here, I’ll share some of the topics the book covers, and how you can use this book. Not only to become a more effective leader but do a better job developing future leaders.

Challenging the key assumptions of what makes a good leader

The key question I was chewing on was around assumptions. Was it assumptions about the world that made certain leaders behave in a certain way or make certain choices? Or was it really what so many coaches and recruiters seem to be focusing on. Leadership style, leadership behaviours, and outcomes. What we see those leaders doing, rather than what drives them to do, or even what they intend to do. 

How I chose which leaders to interview for How Successful Leaders do Business With Their World

If you want to try and find out somebody’s assumptions, you need that person to be able to reveal something of themselves. Their view of the world, honestly and safely. If you want to find out about somebody’s leadership, style and behaviour… It simply needs you to observe and assess their conduct and their impact. It tells you nothing about the experience, the motivations, the priorities of the leader herself. 

As I went on to develop my coaching practice, I suspected that this was a huge gap. Why? Because as I say in the book, by understanding what our current and future leaders at their core feel about their world, and about their ability to do or not do in the world, we begin to understand how they feel about us, and what they will do to us with their power once they have taken office. And it’s not just a one-way street. 

Finding out what makes a successful leader by not talking about success 

To give one’s life some form of coherence, I wanted to make sure that those I interviewed didn’t feel that they had to defend, justify, or even make sense of anything publicly. And less by design than by sheer good fortune, I helped that process by not asking them to tell me about what had made them successful. I simply wanted to know about their experiences, and what they went through while they were leaders. That was my intention.

In their telling, however, they steered me one by one, and much to my surprise, to their childhoods. And that, in turn, opened up the doors to what I called their navigational stance. Their entry point into dealing with their world, based on what they’d learned to assume was their level of power, vis-à-vis that of their world.

And from there, I could build a model, a theory, about what objectively successful leaders had in common as far as their navigational stance was concerned, and what other assumptions, or worldviews, they had formed as a result. The book expands on that initial research. Both with further investigation, but also with how I use that model in my own practice. 

The face of future successful leaders, and how we can develop, or hinder, them 

There are three elements that as parents and educators we can influence. The first is space, we can provide a space which is relatively safe from abuse from those with greater power. The second: dealing with problems. We can stop protecting our children from problems and make sure that they see them as normal world-things rather than crises. And the third is learning by experience. We can give our children space both to understand and experience that problems, like life itself, can only be managed by being faced and tackled. 

We need to enable our children to learn to experience managing their world. A world where obstacles and problems are normal and not specifically designed to frustrate their uniquely unencumbered path to success. All we can do as parents is ensure, like lionesses, our offspring have the space to explore without invasion by hyenas… And if at all possible, without falling off a cliff. 

Those of us born in the 1950s, particularly in the middle classes, are responsible for a space distorting shift. Baby Boomers had to fit in around the rest of the family but when it came to raising their own children, they put them right in the centre. The family revolved and still revolves around the children. 

They have little room to develop their own relationship with the world in which they can manage problems without the smothering benevolence of their parents. We may not rule quite as openly as our parents did, but that’s only because we have robbed our children of the ability to be responsible for themselves. We may say to our children, my darling, you’re special, you can be whatever you want, as long as you’re happy. But make no mistake, they feel our disappointment when their chosen career or even ballet class is not special enough. 

And if they persist and choose their own path… They will always worry that they did not measure up to our standards of specialness. When problems do arise, they are seen as abnormal, or even crises, which by their nature trigger alarm and anxiety. Alarm, in turn, suppresses rational thought in favour of the faster fight or flight response. They may become very good at fighting or avoiding their world. But, not so good at living in, and with, it. 

How fight or flight can lead to success 

Ironically, a byproduct of this fight or flight may be very good news for our society. The generation of children born after 2000 has quickly become alert and alarmed at real crises. And, they have become sceptical enough of their own elder’s filters to push back.

A glowing example of this is the global climate change movement “Friday’s for Future”. It began with solitary protests in 2018 by the then 14-year-old Greta Thunberg in Sweden. This movement now includes millions of children throughout the world. At the time of writing, they strike every Friday from their schools to force their elder’s attention onto climate change. They do this consistently and peacefully every week. In the face of open bullying and abuse from political, and corporate leaders, and many media commentators. 

If this book does its job, it should say something to all of us, whether at work or in our families. But because I believe that our leaders have such a significant impact on us, particularly in times of crisis, much of the book is focused on helping us change what I believe is a flawed, if not a broken, model, about how we choose our leaders, how we develop them, and how we manage them while they are in power.

Let’s Talk About Power: Episode One

Battles, Balance and the Fasted Kid in Florida: Episode Two

Readings from ‘How Successful Leaders to Business with their world?”: Episode Three

Are you interested in learning more about power or are perhaps interested in leadership training? You can contact me, or learn more about my consulting services & speaking engagements.

Military Leadership In The Corporate World: The Balance of Power Series

One of my findings whilst conducting research for my book, How Successful Leaders do Business With Their World, was that we all have a foundational assumption about the balance of power we have with our world.

In the second episode of my podcast series, the balance of power I met with lieutenant-general Ben Hodges. We discussed how his childhood lessons impacted his leadership methods in the military.

Going into this interview, I had many preconceived notions of military leadership. I had thought of the military as being largely hierarchical and unquestioning of its leadership. I couldn’t imagine junior officers seriously challenging their superior’s conclusions. And when you come to think of it, isn’t the military’s sole purpose conflict, opposition? Aren’t they, in fact, the epitome of the oppositional stance? 

Someone who I thought was ideal to answer that question was lieutenant-general Ben Hodges. Ben retired from the US Army in 2017. He is currently the Pershing Chair in Strategic Studies at the Centre for European policy analysis. Before that, he was commanding general of the US Army in Europe, a top adviser to NATO, and worked, and served, in both Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Here I’ll share a few of the topics Ben and I covered. You can listen to the full podcast “Battles, Balance and the Fasted Kid in Florida” for more details on how to be an effective leader. 

What makes a good leader in the military?

Ben:  “So my experience is that the expectation was for me to use initiative to take risks, to accept responsibility. The times I got in trouble were usually when I failed to do that, not when I failed to follow a specific order… So that’s always been the expectation. That does, in a way, seem at odds with the stereotypical you know, Prussian “we all follow orders, unquestioning obedience”, that sort of thing but actually, that’s the opposite of the training.

My favourite, Clausewitz quote is “happy the army where ill-timed boldness occurs frequently; it is a luxuriant weed that indicates the richness of the soil.” So even Clausewitz, the ultimate Prussian, advocated, you know, young leaders who were willing to take a risk, and you just had to help that mature”

How the military’s role within a nation can remind us of the importance of purpose and responsibility to be effective leaders 

Ben gives a more in-depth explanation in the full podcast, but here Ben shares what he saw as the role of the military within a nation. 

Ben: “The Trinity, of course, you know, the state, the people, and the military. It’s had a role for thousands of years to protect, of course, it can be misused as a weapon. And so, as a member of the United States Armed Forces, in our history, our founding, if you will, the army is actually one year older than the country. The army was officially started one year before the Declaration of Independence, and without an army, the Declaration of Independence would have been an empty political statement.”

The action of declaring an oath to the constitution is actually something we can carry into the corporate world. As leaders, we have responsibilities and duties. When we feel out-of-balance with the world, as I discussed in Episode One: The Balance of Power, we can feel at odds with the world, and those around us. We feel in direct conflict and unable to work with, or for, them. Keeping a focus on your true goal, whether to uphold the constitution or support your employees, helps you step out of the every day to focus on the larger picture.”

The importance of scenario planning in military leadership 

The military is well-known for its tactical planning and wargaming. I asked Ben to discuss it in more detail and how it helped him become a better leader.

Ben: “We were constantly Wargaming courses of action. As technology improved, for example, we were preparing for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, I was a Brigade Commander and by this time, we had a visual methodology that you could actually see the terrain. Now, this is 2003, obviously, it’s a million times better now. 

There’s a lot of potential for things to go wrong. The Wargaming, going through the planning process, was necessary to number one, figure out the timing, the logistics, what would be required? And then to figure out, you know, what do we want to do to have the best chance for success? 

At the end of the day, it was gonna be a lieutenant with a group of sergeants and soldiers that were going to be the key on the point so it had to be something, they couldn’t be long you know, obviously, they would rehearse multiple times but at the end of the day, it needs to be something that they understood when they get there and if the situation looks different from what we thought they still knew what the end state was.” 

The opportunity to train leadership from an early stage 

While I discuss the importance of a partnering start in my book; it is true that not all of us had what can be described as a partnering start. I am a firm believer though that we can learn these skills later in life. Ben explains the military’s focus on leadership development.

Ben: “The training that we did all the leader development was based on that. My goal was always that lieutenant sergeants and captains would say “if Colonel Hodges was here, and he knew what I knew, and he saw what I saw, he would probably tell me to do X, so I’m going to do that.””

How to nurture a future leader by removing yourself from the center of attention

I asked Ben the practical ways in which the military helped to develop leadership skills in younger recruits. 

Ben: “In modern warfare, you have to be able to conduct distributed operations. You’ve got young leaders all over the place. They’re out interacting whether it’s with the local populations, their own soldiers, Allied, or in partner formations… And, of course, the enemy. And so they’ve got to be confident. Able to act independently. Which means you’ve got to communicate to them in such a way that they feel confident. So that they can make decisions and take risks in order to carry out their assigned purpose. 

The Importance of Investing time

Now, of course, they don’t come in a box like that. You have to invest time in that. And so one of the things that I think the leader has to be conscious of and prevent is the gravitational pull of his or herself.

The norm in a headquarters, when you issue the order, the staff would always set up the briefing room where you, the commander, are sitting right in the middle, and you’d become the focus. 

And I remember looking at that, like, wait a minute, I’m the one issuing the order. This is my order to my subordinates. Why is the room, or if when we do it outside on a training model, why is it set up so that I’m the centre of attention?”

So by a simple technique of putting everybody, my subordinate commanders, in the front row, and I would sit off at the end, would number one, it would cause the staff to brief them because they’re the ones that have got to execute it. And then also I can kind of look down the row and watch their faces, and I can see… Mark, he doesn’t get it, or she doesn’t see what it is that’s expected, or okay, they got it. And it was a completely different dynamic and made us, I think, much more effective and, and also these guys, I mean, they were all now on it. I mean, I’ve just been told what I’ve got to do. I’m the centre, I’m the centre of attention and I own it. And those are simple techniques.”

Listen to the full podcast to learn more about Ben and military leadership. We discuss how Ben’s childhood readied him for military life. The importance of freedom at a young age. Plus, a more in-depth look at the purpose of the military within the US. 

Are you interested in learning more about power or are perhaps interested in leadership training? You can contact me, or learn more about my consulting services & speaking engagements.

Listen to all of the Balance of Power Series:

Let’s Talk About Power: Episode One

Battles, Balance and the Fasted Kid in Florida: Episode Two

Episode Three: Readings from ‘How Successful Leaders to Business with their world?”: Episode Three

What Makes A Good Leader: The Balance of Power Series

Many of us can explain what makes a bad leader. But if asked to explain what makes great leaders, it seems much harder to defne. The qualities of a good leader seem somewhat more intangible, perhaps because they are less about individual qualities and more about a relationship with the world around them. 

My late in life doctorate was in how successful leaders manage power which informed much of my book  ’How Successful Leaders Do Business With Their World’. 

My new podcast series, The Power of Balance, discusses exactly this topic. It is a series about power, and why it, and more importantly, what we have learned to believe about our relationship with it, affects every aspect of our daily lives. I’ve spent most of my working life with power and leadership. I’m a coach-mentor of leaders, and I used to be a corporate leader at one stage.

Here you’ll find extracts from Episode One: Let’s Talk About Power.

What is power in regard to becoming an efficient leader?

We deal with and talk about power every day. Most of the time, it’s about power over, whether somebody or something has less or more power than we have. Whether the government has the power to arbitrarily lock us down, whether the boss has the power to force us to do something we don’t want to do.

But also those everyday incidents, like how you feel when an overly boisterous bunch of kids gets on your carriage on the train, or when a driver changes lane in front of you, without indicating. They’re all about power too.

And until we understand that, and until we understand our own assumptions about our own power, we’ll be half-blind in our relationships. 

How does power affect how we view the world as leaders

Our ability to act, to do in the world, is regulated by what we have learned to assume is the nature of our relationship with our world. It’s a bit like ballroom dancers on a dance floor. Your ability to move is going to be affected by the number of other dancers on that floor.

If everyone is doing their bit and gliding around, then everything should go smoothly, and nobody bumps into anybody else. However, if you see one couple start to knock into other dancers, you might start getting a little alert and avoid them. But gradually, you notice that a lot of couples, the majority, in fact, are jostling and forcing the rest of you into a corner of the room.

You could assume that what’s happened is that a majority of dancers have decided to push the others into a corner of the room, deliberately, so that they have a bigger space or force the minority to dance badly for the judge’s sake. Or you could assume that the disruption happened when that original duo deliberately or accidentally bumped into another couple setting off a chain reaction that resulted in everybody being off-kilter.

In the first assumption, you’re fighting against a superior power, the majority. And the latter, you and your fellow dancers are in it together, you’re all out of balance. In the former, your choices are: you either have to get out of the room, or you push back, or you surrender.

Are leaders born or made? 

I conducted an academic research study over four years, and then expanded it in my practice, as well as in my book How Successful Leaders do Business With Their World. 

Very briefly, through their explorations and interactions with their parents, their families, peers, and communities children progressively build up a blanket assumption about how much space they can make for themselves. What they can and can’t do, in and with their world. In other words, they build up an assumption about the balance of power between themselves and their world.

Put very simplistically, they come to the conclusion along the spectrum that ranges from “whatever I do, my world always has the upper hand”, “I have less power than it has”, “I have no power all”, or right at the other end, “I can do what I want, I have more power than my world, I am all-powerful.”

Or “I can work with this world of mine, I can do business with it. And if I partner with it, we’re reasonably balanced.” There’s your spectrum.

And of course, they learn to behave differently according to that underlying assumption.

What are the qualities of a good leade

If your assumption tells you that you will always lose against the world, then you’re either going to try and beat it or surrender, or even avoid it altogether. If you believe that you can do anything you like, you will eventually discover that to be untrue. The world will inevitably in the form of someone or something get in your way.

But of course, your assumption will still insist that you really do have more power and that the blockage is an anomaly.

So, where your assumption is that you and the world have a reasonable power balance, you’ll know that the best way to behave is to partner with it, work with it, these are true leadership skills. Anything else would be a waste of time and energy. Why would I oppose it or manipulate it when I can just work with it? And, in fact, the combination may be even more powerful.

Can our perception of the world make us better leaders?

Einstein is reputed to have said later in his life, I think the most important question facing humanity is, “is the universe a friendly place?” This, he said, is the first and most basic question all people must answer for themselves.

Why did he think that?

I believe because if the universe is your opponent, you will build up defenses and weapons to control it or keep it at bay, and eventually, you will destroy it and it you. And if you think it’s friendly, your partner, you will work to preserve it, so that you can flourish together.

So in this series, I’ll be talking about how our assumptions of the balance of power between us and our world affects all our relationships. My purpose is not to uncover old bones but to hopefully help us all to find ways to better manage ourselves in our world. At work, in the family at the polling booth, in hospital, at the supermarket, or when we ourselves have power because here’s the good news, those assumptions are learned and what is learned can be unlearned.

I’ll be drawing on much of my own research, as well as the book that I’ve written on the subject but I will also be talking to others. Leaders, writers, victims, and victimizers and I will ask all of them the same opening question

“For you, is your universe friendly?”

Listen to the full podcast: The Balance of Power

Episode Two: Battles, Balance and the Fasted Kid in Florida

Episode Three: Readings from ‘How Successful Leaders to Business with their world?”

Are you interested in learning more about power or are perhaps interested in leadership training? You can contact me, or learn more about my consulting services & speaking engagements.

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 www.stephenbarden.org/reflections)

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.https://africanarguments.org/2014/07/18/biafra-and-boko-haram-different-conflicts-common-themes-by-tom-lowman/ 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

 

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.

Trust the Process of the Heart

We worry so much about the future that we fail to manage the present. We build artificial visions of the future and then expect life to match up to them. And when they inevitably don’t, we burden ourselves with disappointment and a sense of failure. We use our heads and our gut – but not our hearts, the most formidable organ of them all.