A criticism was levelled at a previous (Blair/Brown) government, particularly towards the end, that cabinet had become driven by the ‘how will this look?’ question rather than the more useful ‘what shall we do?’.

That ‘give a good account of yourself whatever the situation’ virus has spread, it seems, across the land. It’s a power-point contagion. In recent work with teams, a heated debate about the choice of the right visuals or presentation sound tracks seems to have noticeably squeezed out any real conversation about …….what is actually going on.

It might be the case that the (lovely and impressive) presentation technology available to us all has swapped the gift wrap for the gift, but that would be too easy a target.  The ‘lights, camera, action’ approach appears to take root wherever there is – anxiety: wherever the leadership ethos tends towards the narcissistic, and wherever blame is the handiest currency in circulation.

And it happens so easily.

Therapists know all about this.

Ask those who know, and they will describe a similar behaviour seen amongst anxious clients.  The individual might begin to think on the way to the session about what they are going to say this time. The sub text here is that they feel they must impress (even entertain?) the therapist with some worthwhile material, and that they must fill any possible gaps with experiences and stories.

(Remember that the client is paying for the session. Interesting.)

Some colleagues report a process of elaboration as the client nears the consulting room that would qualify for 5 star reviews anywhere on the Edinburgh Fringe.

But the point is that the therapist knows all about this.

Time, technique, care and attention will eventually win through.  The truth will be reached, the anecdotes discarded, the client able to explore that which needs to be explored.

Leadership teams don’t have these skills. The constructed drama will continue to disguise reality. Yet all they need to do is take one leaf from the therapy room’s book.

Create a safe space for discussion.

Let your teams spend their precious time thinking, critically and honestly, out loud with you: not aiming for a video award.


A few years ago when everything was in black and white, an Art Director of my acquaintance found himself in an unscheduled closeted meeting with many, many drinks.

The cocktail list was limited, but just varied enough to generate all those feelings of experiment and excitement and fun that sustain unwise activities.

Yet a very wise observation was the result.

He and his companions began to note the true constraints of that list.

A deceptively limited range of ingredients was offered within the assorted combinations.


‘Just like that bloomin image library we’re all using’ he mused.

And we were away.

He was living through, he said, the gradual reduction in the visual bravery and imagination of his teams – and himself – because everyone was working with the same cocktail ingredients.

Everyone was drinking from the same well. (An obvious analogy in retrospect)

This came back to me the other day in a Leadership development session. (No cocktails)

Everyone was very certain of their own positions, the approaches available, and of what was possible.

All were working, of course, with the same ‘inputs’.

Perhaps none of us have realised the subtle unintended consequences of gradually reducing the ingredients, the limits, the stimulus with which we work – whatever our field – over time.

It’s not that the work is impoverished. (Although it surely is.)

It’s that our identification with what we have in our hands seems to become stronger: too strong.

In the absence of fresh experience and perspective, we hold the cocktail we have chosen as a sort of self-identifier.

And find it more and more strange to imagine, whether that is a different point of view or a different self.

Sure, it takes a bit of effort to keep encouraging new ingredients and possibilities to flow into your working life. But it’s vital.

First step might be to create from experimental ingredients a brand new cocktail.

Called ….’Possibility Generator’ perhaps?


Any self-respecting (or could that be self-regarding?) leader favours a selection of action, success and value words as the core of their Leader-y vocab.

‘Transparency’ always features. Sometimes coupled with ‘complete’.

Its hard not to conclude that transparency is the key quality missing from current public life.

We are inundated with news of obfuscation.

Home Office cruelty to eject elderly citizens, anti-Semitism, knife crime, data theft and abuse – all involve layers of denial and finger pointing.

Clarity is hard to find.

Rather than lower our spirits or unwittingly slip into preachy unhelpfulness, how about a film about glass-blowing?

This beautiful old Dutch short film, made in 1958, is gorgeous.

It is packed with metaphor to remind us what hard, hard work transparency is.

Strength, focus, skill, attention, patience, vigilance and togetherness is involved in glass blowing.

And in transparency.

Glas from Aeon Video on Vimeo.



JP Morgan reported that the failing companies with whom he worked shared a characteristic: they all overpaid their top people. He came from the perspective of financial acumen. (The overpaying / star-struck
habit illustrates a poor grip on identifying value creation).

A more contemporary perspective might also point out that such a habit illustrates a laughably out of date sense of what ‘leadership’ might mean.

Enough work and research into groups, identity, and behaviour change has been undertaken over the last few decades to cast the idea that a good leader is a superior or special person with all the answers as worryingly old fashioned.

Max Weber wrote about ‘charismatic leadership’ over a century ago, and it’s that romantic notion that just doesn’t seem to want to lie down or go away.

We are relational beings. Companies and organisations are groups, and groups of groups. And groups operate in fascinating ways as they develop, define, protect, and activate their social identity.

A successful leader is less someone special and apart and more someone involved and connected, someone who can represent of codify or strengthen that group identity.

A moment’s thought will suggest the sorts of skills that might be needed here.

A sense of ‘we’ rather than ‘me’. Together rather than apart.
A keen ear to listen, to understand what concerns and defines the group.
An ability to shift and project a range of personality traits, to reinforce the group’s feeling of distinctiveness.
An ability to help members of the group see their own interests coincide with the group’s interests.

The changing political landscape is giving us all a master class in leaders who understand social identity – and those who don’t.

Yet businesses cling fondly to a hero myth, a leader with charisma set apart by a series of separating and status-building signals. Such as pay.

What comes around goes around.
When the bank JPM founded was hit by a loss scandal a few years ago, it was
blamed on the CEO having become too imperial.

Too much charisma.


It’s so easy to give the ‘take some time out to think’ advice: much harder to act on it.  Like daily exercise and early nights we all know that we would feel better.

But who can just drop the ‘priority got to do’ list? Everyone’s daily reality now is of demands and pressures that require constant vigilance to keep chaos from the door. (Or if it’s already there, from breaking through).  Inevitably, it can feel hard to justify some hours out of the office to think. To think about change, say, or leadership, or simply to share experiences.

Thus most training days, almost whatever the subject, involve detailed agenda,
minute by minute day plans, and usually plenty of reading material for extra heft. While completely understandable, this can all become a justification process of
such effectiveness that real, long lasting benefits can be squeezed out.

Because ironically, the biggest ‘ahas’ are unplanned and unexpected: occurring
when space opens up to let them happen.  Again and again I hear reported that it was the unplanned discussion or encounter that produced a new thought or perspective.

If you are able to ‘take some time out to think’, and find yourself reviewing any
power-packed training on offer, check for some space and time that isn’t
completely accounted for.

Oscar Wilde’s take on this was that ‘To expect the unexpected shows a thoroughly
modern intellect’.

Go a step further: demand the unexpected.

It’s going to be GREAT…

Enthusiastic leadership teams have always been fluent in TrumpSpeak.

Re-structuring, new ways of working, or re-locations are described in glowing terms. Promises are made, everything is positive, the changes will be truly beneficial.

It’s understandable. Instinct might suggest that making as good a story as possible about what has to happen will encourage and motivate everyone to do what they have to do.

Yet real life experience suggests that exactly the opposite happens.

Where does the organisational habit of sugar-coating come from?

Is it protective? Or autocratic?

In T.S.Eliot’s line ‘Humankind cannot bear very much reality’ we hear a compassionate and pithy summary of human frailty: we distract ourselves to avoid painful emotional truths, or having to question ourselves, or from contemplating what is …real.

Yet I hear, in the work context, a very different aspect of the human condition come to the fore.

I hear a hunger for reality, for those that lead to conscientiously think through how its going to be, to face up to thoughtfully predicted difficulties as well as describing any opportunities.

The world of work, of seeking to get things done, of decisions, of different time frames of operation, of joint endeavor…..of professionalism…….is not the same arena as our individual explorations of the human condition.

When planning big changes in your organisation, it pays to describe things truthfully, to be realistic, and to treat everyone in a grown-up way.

Because in real life no –one knows – or can know – whether it’s going to be great.

What might make the planned changes great’?

Invite, by describing the landscape as realistically as possible, all effort and imagination to make things work.

Harness everyone’s talent, in a clear-sighted way, to identify and solve the tough stuff.

When it comes to change in the workplace, humankind prefers all the reality it can get.

Drop the Trump speak. Sad.


It was time for a big discussion amongst the whole group, so a couple of us watched and listened as the conversation cricket got underway.

When the fast bowlers had got a bit tired, the skillful slow bowlers began to dominate. There were clever little placings of un-returnable comments: spirit–sapping observations about what was going on in the organization.  A classic stream of ‘we’re just not good enough’.

It’s usually better to let this all play out.  But I didn’t want to miss any shifts in mood. (Ever since Kim Jong Un re-habilitated the word ‘dotard’, it does feel important to keep some sense of youthful alert energy going, don’t you think?)

So I kept a tally, literally, of the ‘damning’ versus the ‘possibly encouraging’ deliveries, and a tally of how they were returned. It’s the first time I’ve tried to chart visually what happens in a group as the tone and nature of the ‘ball in play’ changes.

We know from Freud that what’s really going on at a group level is a honed and habitual self- criticism. It’s a sort of super-ego ‘bait and switch’ script of mis-directed yet comfortably recognisable judgements.  Oddly, when you record the points made by the critical group-voice, you begin to realise what a bully this voice can be. It becomes clear how limited is this script: and so repetitive.


Only as the scales began to turn again, with non –judgement, and the discussion of small nuggets of work that had gone ‘not too badly’, did anything of value or real interest to the group surface. We’ve talked before here about finding more subtle and helpful interpretations of ‘positive’ v ‘negative’.

The ‘keeping score’ experiment revealed a simple reason for seeking to help such discussions re-balance. The critical voice may be a necessary ritual, but it brings only the known. It can bring nothing that is new. The more supportive balanced voice begins to bring some self-understanding, to suggest real possibilities.

The other Freud tip here is that contradictory feelings exist, and must exist, at the same time. Hate and love, trust and suspicion and so on. So the trick in these real conversations about difficult areas of change is not to let the critical voice drown out the supportive voice: to watch out for that super – ego dominance with which we are all so familiar.

Your organization may be a much more balanced creation than you feared –
wildly OK, even.