Matthew Barzun, the outgoing Ambassador of the United States to the Court of St James’s paid a thoughtful compliment to President Barak Obama in an interview earlier this week.

He described the outgoing President as ‘humble enough to be self-critical, and confident enough to be self-correcting.’

(Look, Mr Barzun is a Diplomat. However much we might yearn for it, we’ll never hear a salacious and sardonic comparison with the President – elect and his Twitter habit from this source.)

Let’s think about that summary of combined humility and confidence.

How is it grown, how is it encouraged?

Because they’re not just leadership behaviours. They’re the kind of qualities we’re all going to need in the roller coaster months ahead. If we are to keep any kind of stability, protect independence of thought, and remain true to whatever rag-bag of beliefs and values we hold dear, we’re going to have to be able to self-critique and self-correct.

I think Mr Barzun could have hazarded a comparison.

I don’t think it would have been career limiting to point out the obvious.  This combination of confidence and humility flourishes around a particular leadership style: the ability to create a working environment where everyone feels psychologically safe.

And that feeling will grow wherever the alchemy of team trust and support and respect makes us feel safe enough to think out loud, try stuff out, make suggestions, and play the fool when that’s how it needs to be.

That’s the leadership difference; creating the conditions for psychological safety.
It looks as if very different conditions are about to be created from a certain golden tower far, far, away.


It makes us laugh. A harmless mistaken word and we giggle. Mrs Malaprop (The Rivals, Sheridan) gave her name to those little errors where the word sounds the same but means something totally different (‘a pine apple of politeness’ she said, meaning ‘pinnacle’)

And Freudian slips make us laugh. Gordon Brown suggested he’d saved the world in 2008, not just the banks.

But there is really useful data in these slips, and they can help us see the situation in a totally different way.

My two favourites from this week:

A Board Member was talking about recent changes in the financial relationship with the parent company. It was not all good, he felt it had been forced to some extent, and that it had revealed the ‘true colours’ of one or two individuals.

‘I don’t want to get into the business of conversation…’

He had meant ‘condemnation’. What a wonderful unconscious instinct. It was others who had failed to talk.

Conversation was exactly the business to be in.

And on the Today programme recently, a German diplomat (completely bi-lingual) was talking about recent violent events in his country. The line of questioning was to understand whether there was a pattern. Were these individuals at work or was there a structured network operating?

The Diplomat weighed up the pros and cons of the network theory, and noted

‘There are always lonely wolves…’

And in that one substitution of ‘lonely’ for ‘lone’ the whole issue is reframed.

While a lone wolf is a symbol of fear and danger, a ‘lonely’ wolf becomes something so different, even – possibly – reachable.

Listen for the slips. Its where the answers are.