‘Always vote for principle, though you may vote alone.’ (John Quincy Adams)
I never had the privilege of meeting Soji Taguchi, but I do wish I had. Soji was a manager at a Japanese-owned textiles factory in the Philippines. Seeing how meagrely the Filipino workers were paid, he gave away a significant portion of his own salary each month to top up theirs. When a young Filipina was severely distressed one day and, in her upset, damaged an expensive piece of factory equipment, he paid for the repairs himself. Instead of chastising her he listened to her plight and, subsequently, regularly slipped money (secretly) into her pockets to help her, a poor teenager, to pay her bills. This woman’s life is now a clear reflection of his. The power of a positive role-model.
Ted Winship was a shopfloor supervisor at an industrial site in the UK. Once, the workers refused to enter an enclosure because the conditions in it were so bad. The manager told Ted that, if he could persuade them to do the work, they would all be paid a substantial bonus. Taking the manager at his word, Ted led the way. He entered the compound with them and the work was completed on time. At the end of the project, however, the manager refused to pay the bonus and only gave Ted his. It was a terrible breach of trust. On hearing of this betrayal, Ted confronted the manager but to no avail. He distributed his own bonus to the workers, resigned from his job and walked out.
Ethics in action. Self-sacrifice for the sake of others. The personal costs were high – but the benefits were immeasurable.
‘If you’re not confused, you’re not paying attention.’ (Tom Peters)
Leaders who develop strategy collaboratively with diverse key stakeholders often find that inviting others in proves critical to its success. It recognises that no leader, no matter how knowledgeable or experienced, can know everything and it values the contribution that others can bring. That said, leaders can also feel overwhelmed if levels of participation are high and inputs are complex.
These tips (below) are, therefore, designed to help leaders sift through and make sense of the reams of hopes, ideas, information, impressions, data etc. that they may surface and receive through strategy research and through inviting input from various people and groups. They are not intended as a prescriptive one-size-fits-all set of rules. Have a glance and see which, if any, work best for you.
1. Don’t panic
In the midst of some great information and ideas, you are also likely to receive input that will look unclear, confusing or contradictory. There may be handwriting you can’t read, comments in shorthand that made sense to the person who wrote them but don’t make sense to you etc. You may receive so much input from diverse people and sources that it could feel bewildering. If so...don’t panic!
2. Research questions
Go back to your research questions. Use them as a guide to sift through the input you have received. How far does the overall input contribute to answering the questions you set out to address? Has any of it raised wider or deeper questions that need to be acknowledged? Is any of the input interesting but distracting? Avoid the temptation to race down fascinating rabbit holes that take you off track.
3. Test a hypothesis
Some leaders suggest formulating a hypothesis – a provisional answer to the questions you set out to answer – before sifting through responses. This provides a focus, a testing stone, and enables you to check each response: ‘Does this support or contradict the hypothesis?’ If it doesn’t relate to the hypothesis, shelve it for now so that you don’t get distracted. You can always circle back to it later.
4. Cluster responses
Some leaders prefer to start with a blank sheet, skim through responses and note intuitively what core themes or ideas emerge. You can then place responses under those themes, adding or modifying themes as the sifting process progresses. Don’t worry about identifying the themes perfectly too early. You can always hone them and see what answers they point towards later.
5. Test your biases
It can be tricky for leaders to look at responses afresh, especially if we have a strong interest in the work we do currently or strong views about how we should move forward. During the research phase, I refer to these challenges as ‘blind spots’ (assumptions) and ‘hot spots’ (sensitive areas). Invite others to test your assumptions and to point out if you appear to avoid challenges or new ideas.
6. Trust the process
We may have invited and received input from a diverse range of people and groups. Whilst no strategy research will ever be 100% exhaustive and conclusive, the insights that we draw through a collaborative strategy venture will in most cases be good enough – that is, good and enough as a signpost to the future. Pray, be confident in what you know and excited by what you discover!
‘Empathy is the starting point for creating a community and taking action.’ (Max Carver)
I had a long conversation with a Kurdish-Iranian man recently about his experience as a refugee in the UK and the ongoing wait for news that his wife will be allowed to join him here. With a warm smile of anticipated relief, he shared his hopes of building a new life in this country where he and his wife can finally feel safe and free. Yet then he touched his heart with his hand and his face shifted to a pained expression. He shared his sadness that he can never feel truly happy and at peace, knowing the oppression that his family, friends and neighbours are still living under in his home country.
I was moved by his empathy and, at the same time, impressed by his stance that under such difficult and protracted life circumstances, he had not become so focused on his own situation that he had lost sight of others. It is, after all, a human risk that, when faced with challenges such as high anxiety and stress, our survival instinct can take over and turn us in on ourselves, absorbing us with our own needs and interests – a bit like when the body reacts to an external shock or threat by diverting its resources inwards to protect its vital organs. It’s a form of defensive flight to save ourselves first.
How do you hold onto empathy...to love...when natural instinct may push or pull you to withdraw?
‘Education consists of two things: example and love.’ (Friedrich Fröbel)
I can’t remember last time a book gripped me as much as, Mahatma Gandhi Autobiography: The Story of my Experiments with Truth. (I’m trying very hard to read it slowly and thoughtfully so that I don’t get to the end too quickly). Perhaps it was Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, or Mother Teresa: An Authorized Biography. The next two books on my reading list are: The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr. and St. Francis and His Brothers.
There’s something about reading the lives of these ordinary-extraordinary people of faith that always humbles, challenges and inspires me. I want to be more like them. They help keep my own life and work focused and in perspective. I have to remind myself: these were ordinary people, just like me, who became extraordinary through the life decisions they made. They proved in practice that faith is acting on what we believe as if it were true. They lived out: ‘put your body where your mouth is.’
At times, it can feel like standing vulnerable and naked in front of a mirror and seeing my own life, decisions and actions in sharp comparison and stark contrast to theirs. Yet I don’t want to be a carbon copy. I’m not in their situations and I’m not who they were in those situations. I’m me – and I’m here and now. This is my time, my place and my opportunity. I want to follow God’s distinctive call on my own life with authenticity and integrity, to be the very best version of me that I can be in His eyes.
Who are your role models? What impact do they have in your life?
‘Language is power, life and the instrument of culture, the instrument of domination and liberation.’ (Angela Carter)
In her challenging and ground-reclaiming polemic, Drop the Disorder, psychotherapist Jo Watson comments that, “The counselling profession (and in that I include psychotherapy) is helping to endorse a medical understanding of emotional distress that is based on ‘What is wrong with you?’ and not ‘What has happened to you?’” I heard a similar-but-different reframing of the issue from Paul Kelly at a Leading & Influencing Trauma-Informed Change workshop today, advocating a shift from “What’s the matter with you?” to “What matters to you?”
The striking feature of both these examples is the profound impact of language on reflecting and reinforcing the ways in which people and situations are construed and responded to. In Jo Watson’s case, the first framing regards an issue as some form of dysfunction in an individual. The alternative looks beyond the individual to explore wider potential influencing factors. As radical social reformer Martin Luther King noticed, what appears at first glance as dysfunctional behaviour is sometimes a normal response to dysfunctional circumstances.
In Paul Kelly’s case, similarly, the first framing locates a problem within an individual. It’s a form of pathologizing, implying that a person’s behaviour is a consequence of some internal defect. The alternative invites an exploration of the person’s underlying values and motivations. Behaviour that appears dysfunctional could be a natural response to healthy, unmet hopes and needs in a dysfunctional environment. Kenneth Gergen offers a stark warning here, pointing to risks of a medical model applied uncritically: ‘a diseasing of the population.’
‘The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones.’ (John Maynard Keynes)
Once upon a time…I would often get tens if not, on occasion, hundreds of responses to blog posts on LinkedIn. It was a thrilling experience to receive insights, ideas and experiences from people all over the world. Over time, however, the huge flood of responses gradually diminished to a tiny trickle. I felt surprised, disappointed and bemused. What had changed?
I began to ask myself some searching questions: Were people bored with my content? Were fewer people using LinkedIn than before? Were fewer people engaging with posts on LinkedIn generally? I looked at which posts seemed to be getting lots of responses and noticed that they often looked more like Facebook posts: e.g. walking a dog, taking a child to school.
This set me off down a different track. Had there been a shift in societies so that people were no longer interested in thinking through issues and more interested in sharing personal experiences? Had Covid lockdown and isolation shifted our focus from insights and ideas towards the social and relational, to feel less alone? Had we all slipped into a TikTok world?
The problem was, I was asking the wrong questions. My starting assumption was that the critical issue was with my blog content. It led me, like Alice in Wonderland, down perplexing rabbit holes. It took a revelatory conversation with a marketing consultant, James Rowe, to discover the core issue was with my media, impacted by changes to LinkedIn algorithms.
What assumptions are you making? How do you avoid getting stuck?
‘Do one thing every day that scares you.’ (Eleanor Roosevelt)
Risk is uncertainty. It could, after all, fail, crash or burn. If you struggle with out-of-control or with anxiety about what might happen if you were to do X, the ‘What ifs’ are likely to drown out any radical voice that may call you forward. A close friend confessed that, having now retired, he never fulfilled any of the dreams he had in his youth. ‘I was always afraid to take the risk’, he said. I replied that I was always more afraid that I might not take the risk. The thought of playing it too safe scared me.
There are risks to not taking a risk. Think: opportunities missed, talent wasted or potential unfulfilled. To take a positive risk is not about being unethical or reckless, although our actions may sometimes appear strange to those looking in from the outside. ‘Look before you leap’ is the received wisdom, where a leap of faith can look dangerous or naïve. ‘What if it doesn’t work out as you expect?’ At times, the only certainties we can hold onto are our faith or conviction that the risk is worthwhile.
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