'Don't be still. One of the most common mistakes when change is upon us is to take enormous amounts to time to run analysis and come up with various routes to be followed. Sitting still in moving waters will only lead to a ship becoming adrift, with no indication of where it will end up or whether it will sink. If adjusting the course is needed, the leader should do it quickly and without hesitation.' (Raluca Cristescu)
The start of this new year has felt like a very rough ride for some people. I’ve been working alongside humanitarian disaster management experts in and from a wide range of countries, trying to make a difference for those who are poorest and most vulnerable in the world. In some places, wave after wave of devastating impacts have hit hard and fast, ranging from drought, crop failure and swarms of locusts to military conflict and deep civil unrest – all with the ongoing Covid-19 crisis overlaid on top.
A close friend in the Philippines spent today with her children, praying earnestly and wrapping what few possessions they have in plastic bags in preparation for the roof of their fragile boarding house being torn off by an impending typhoon. Others I’ve been supporting have been grafting long hours, trying to help people and communities recover from the effects of war. The power fluctuates on and off, as does the wifi signal, making online communication difficult – yet I, we, they, persevere.
My first direct experience of disaster response was some years ago during the Kosovo crisis. I travelled with a team across Spain, France, Italy and Albania to take emergency logistical supplies to refugee camps on the frontline border with Serbia. Our vehicles were fitted with spare tyres, satellite communications equipment and ballistic blankets in case we drove over land mines. I remember vividly the ‘No weapons on board’ symbols on our windows – signalling, I hoped, ‘Please don’t shoot us.’
We encountered challenge-after-challenge on route. At times, it felt as if everything was against us. As military helicopters flew overhead in impressive formation, we meanwhile were often stuck firmly on the ground, mired in red tape or the insidious effects of blatant corruption. It was a rapid learning experience for me, seeing how my seasoned disaster response colleagues handled this. It was my first exposure to adaptive leadership in a crisis too – out in the field, not inside an organisation.
It went something like this: 1. Hold tightly to your goals and values but loosely to your plans. If you expect everything to go smoothly, you will get disheartened and frustrated. 2. Treat every roadblock as a new reality. It’s not the end of the road, it’s another challenge to navigate. 3. Think quickly and tactically. Lateral thinking will prove more useful than strategic planning. 4. When faced with an obstacle, take a decision and act. Don't stop, keep moving. 5. Pray – God can do more than you can do.
This kind of activist-pragmatist outlook, behaviour and stance draws on and develops creativity, innovation, resourcefulness and resilience. It’s a way in which the poorest and most vulnerable people and communities learn to survive and thrive too. When a life situation is too painful, turbulent or dynamically-complex to understand, predict or control, a focus on the here-and-now can be the most meaningful choice. Even small steps can engender and evoke a real sense of agency, hope and change.
My work now includes coaching, mentoring, facilitating and training of humanitarian field workers in action learning: a here-and-now, real-time methodology to stimulate adaptive leadership and learning in the midst of action. It’s an experimental pilot initiative with a global network of humanitarian non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and a team of action learning specialists. When have you developed or used adaptive leadership in a crisis? How did you do it? What difference did it make?
‘If you don’t know what an extrovert is thinking, it’s because you haven’t listened. If you don’t know what an introvert is thinking, it’s because you haven’t asked.’ (Richard Marshall)
Extroverts speak, introverts write. I first noticed this reality whilst studying for a masters’ degree. I enjoyed writing my dissertation immensely because it felt like an exciting journey of discovery. It was like a stream of consciousness, seeing my learning and ideas take shape as I wrote them. I didn’t know what I thought until I wrote it down. By contrast, an extrovert colleague found writing her own dissertation tedious, an administrative task to simply record what she had already talked-through.
‘Extroverts tend to think externally; they need to verbalize their thoughts to think. Thoughts are actually formed as they are verbalized. They don’t know exactly what they are going to say at first, but they know their thoughts will take shape as they speak them. That is, an extrovert will speak it to think it. By contrast, an introvert will sit quietly and ponder, mulling ideas over in her head, looking for the right word and the best description of the ideas that are taking shape.’ (Heather Hollick)
Now, it’s not that extroverts can’t write well or take pleasure in it, or that introverts can’t talk or enjoy conversation. It’s more about a preference or a default. Whereas extroverts sometimes need to remember to listen, I sometimes need to remember to speak. The conversation can be so vivid, so active in my mind that I feel as if I’m engaged in the discussion out loud. I have learned over time that sometimes I need to speak earlier, before my thoughts are fully-formed, to invite others in.
So, what does this mean in practice? If you’re working with an extrovert, speak to them directly and give them chance to speak, to think. Give them time to mull things over by talking out loud until they reach their own conclusions. Conversely, if you’re working with an introvert, give them quiet space to think, to write down, to form their thoughts before speaking. What’s your preference? How do you take preference into account when working with people? Do you prefer to speak or to write?
Anita asked during a coach training workshop this week if it’s appropriate to address emotion in coaching. After all, isn’t that stepping too far into a person’s personal space or risking a drift into therapy? Curious, I asked which dimension of the issue she was feeling most concerned about. Anita replied that she felt anxious about straying into what could feel like a counselling relationship. If she did, she said, she would feel both out of her depth and as if she had breached a professional boundary. I paused, then asked if it had felt inappropriate when I posed that question to her, or if she had felt compromised in how she answered it. She looked up, smiled and said, ‘No.’
Another coaching workshop and Brian, a colleague, was introducing reflecting back as a core skill. One participant looked increasingly frustrated and eventually blurted out, ‘You call this a skill but it’s like playing a game with someone, using techniques on them rather than holding a real and respectful conversation.’ Brian listened then responded calmly, ‘So, reflecting back feels to you like toying with someone, and that clashes with your value for authenticity.’ 'Yes – that’s it exactly!’ he replied with a burst of positive energy that took everyone in the room by surprise. After a brief moment, he and everyone else broke out in fits of laughter. ‘OK, now I get it.’
The principle here is that of modelling an idea, an approach, a method or a technique, rather than simply describing or explaining it. There’s something about experiencing that can feel profoundly and qualitatively different to understanding a concept purely intellectually. This insight lays at the heart of Gestalt coaching and experiential learning. It’s primarily about doing, not thinking, and seeing what emerges into awareness when we do it. I worked with a leadership team that agreed a set of and behaviours to govern its practice. It looked neat on flipchart paper but its potential for transformation didn’t emerge until they grasped the nettle and practised it.
What have been your best examples of learning by experience? How do you model this principle in your work with others?
The boy looks about 13, maybe 14, and is guiding cars into parking spaces. The sun is beating down and its steaming hot. Exhausted, he sits down against a wall for a break. This is in the Philippines last week. A poor woman from Samar, Jasmin, notices him out of the corner of her eye as she steps down off a jeepney – a mini-bus used for public transport. The boy looks weak and unwell. She walks across to him, speaks gently then reaches out and touches his face with her hand. His skin is burning with a fever.
Jasmin urges him to stay there and wait for her as she rushes quickly to find a shop where she can buy medicine, food and drink. Then she returns and says she will take him home, to the slum area where he lives. She reassures him that things will be OK, that she will give his family the equivalent of what he could earn in 2 weeks, along with the food, so that he could take a rest to recover. The boy looks up at this stranger, can’t speak…and just cries. She helps him into a jeepney and honours her promise.
I ask Jasmin why she has taken such a risk, to touch a person with clear signs of a fever when the Philippines is in the midst of a Covid-19 lockdown. She looks emotional now and says, quite simply, ‘I imagined how I would have felt if I was that teenager.’ She couldn’t bear to leave him alone, so very sick. She gave what little she had so that his family would not become destitute. I flash back to the parable of the good Samaritan. Jasmin loves Jesus and is willing to engage. I might well have just walked by.
No, not platypus – that’s a duck-billed, beaver-tailed, otter-footed, egg-laying aquatic creature native to Australia. ‘Don’t worry – be happy.’ Now, that’s a platitude. It’s a superficial cliché that rolls too easily off the tongue, without thinking, and presents itself as truth. It’s the kind of thing you may well hear from well-meaning, secure, content-with-life people; yet lacks empathy, depth or genuine appreciation of a person, situation or struggle.
Now you may already be thinking, ‘I wouldn’t worry about that if I were you.’ Oops. Ding! Platitude. Here’s the thing: I’m not you; I might not worry about it if I were you; you might worry about it too if you were me. Furthermore, I’m a human being, not a robot. I don’t have an on-off switch for worry, or for happiness, although I sometimes wish I did. A platitude creates the sense of saying something useful…without actually saying something useful.
So, what’s the antidote? How can I avoid inadvertently slipping into platitude-speak? 1: Listen. Don’t speak. Zip it. Resist the temptation to fill the space, to apply a fix without having heard. 2: Empathise. Feel the feeling, the emotional tone, the tremor, the resonance that lays behind the words. 3: Understand. ‘How are you feeling?’ ‘What do you need?’ Great questions, powerful reach. 4: Offer. Share your wisdom – if called for. Make it real.
‘They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.’ (Maya Angelou)
It was a dire and inspiring experience, a hospital for children with severe disabilities in a desperately poor country under military occupation. Conditions were severe, the children were abandoned by their families and the staff were often afraid, suspecting the children were demon-possessed and, therefore, holding them disdainfully at arms’ length. A fellow volunteer, Ottmar Frank, took a starkly different stance. He was a humble follower of Jesus and I have rarely witnessed such compassion at work. I asked him what lay behind his quiet persistence and intense devotion. He said, ‘I want to love these children so much that, if one of them dies, they will know that at least one person will cry.’
Ottmar’s words and his astonishing way of being in the world still affect me deeply today; the profound impact of his presence, and how my own ‘professional’ support and care felt so cold by comparison. I remember the influence he had on others too – how, over time, some others started to emulate his prayer, patience, gentle touch and kindness – without Ottmar having said a word. It invites some important questions for leaders and people, culture and change professionals. If we are to be truly transformational in our work, how far do we role model authentic presence and humanity, seeing the value in every person and conveying through our every action and behaviour: ‘You matter’?
As a young child, a Filipina living in the jungle threw a bucket down a deep well to collect water, but forgot to let go of it. She fell down the well, almost drowned and was rescued at the last minute by her father. He had happened to pass by and was surprised to see that both she and the bucket had vanished. A short while later, this same girl was climbing a guava tree to collect its fruit. Hanging upside-down with her feet around a branch, she parted the leaves and, to her horror, came face to face with a deadly cobra. This time, she did let go, fell and hit the ground hard. It saved her life.
The principle here is to know when to let go. In English, we use to ‘let go’ metaphorically to mean to make a break with the past. It’s as if by letting go, we release ourselves psychologically to move on. (It’s sometimes used euphemistically to mean to make someone redundant – but that isn’t the way in which I’m using it here). It can also mean to relax our metaphorical grip in the present moment. In this sense, it’s the opposite of to grab, hold on tightly or seek to control. It’s about learning to relax, trust, flow and breathe – and, for me, to pray – then to see who or what emerges, new, into view.
Are you holding onto, e.g. a person, home, job, role, income, plan, structure or way of doing things, that's stifling what’s truly possible? How easy do you find it to let go? How do you enable others to do so too?
‘It’s always best to pose a question, except when it isn’t.’ (Claire Pedrick)
It reminds me of Ted Winship, a trade union activist I worked with as an apprentice. He often spoke like this: ‘It’s always the same, sometimes.’ It was a kind of word play that made people stop – and think. Or a teacher at school whose name, sadly, escapes me now: ‘If you have nothing to say, say it.’ It was some years before I finally worked out what she meant. I think too of Jesus. He often spoke in parables – stories, analogies, that left many of those who heard him feeling perplexed or bemused.
Yet, why do it? In an era of endless soundbites, personal broadcasts, voices calling out loudly in all directions competing for air space, it’s hard to achieve cut-through. Even harder, perhaps, to achieve break-through; to have a meaningful influence or impact. We create and consume words like candy and in high volume, yet few provide the life-giving spiritual, mental and emotional sustenance we need to learn, develop and grow. How do you use language to evoke or provoke, reveal or inspire?
‘I was so focused on what I had lost, that I lost sight of what I had found.’ (Jerry Orbos)
Orbos, a priest, recounted a story of when, as a small child living in a very poor village, he attended a fiesta. It was a special, exciting party and he was thrilled to be given a balloon. Some moments later, he was given an ice cream too. He could hardly believe it. On taking the ice cream, however, he accidentally let go of the balloon which floated away out of reach. Looking up helplessly, Jerry felt completely distraught. His mother, noticing his distress, whispered, ‘Jerry – look at your ice cream’.
A loss that impacts deeply can leave us feeling hurt, mesmerised, transfixed and paralysed. We may struggle to breathe, as if caught in a trance state and unable – or unwilling – to break free. We may notice this when a person loses, say, a relationship, job or home that really matters to them. ‘What do you need?’ offers valuable empathy and support. ‘What are you not-noticing?’ can help break the gaze; enabling someone to see people, relationships and resources that lay hidden in plain sight.
How do you help people to let go of what is lost? How do you help them to see what they can’t see?
‘Will not conform.’ (Christian Biker)
Misfit. Outsider. Square peg in a round hole. Rocks the boat. Shakes the tree. Breaks the mould. You may have worked with one. You may be one. There are different types of deviance; configured around, 'acceptance or rejection of cultural values and goals' on the one hand and, 'acceptance or rejection of conventional ways to achieve them' on the other (Robert Merton). This means that, if you consider me disruptive, it’s likely to be because I challenge what you want and/or do, and/or how you do it.
A deviant person can feel very uncomfortable to be around, unsettling as a colleague and difficult to manage. The answer to the question, ‘Is he or she a good fit?’ will be a resounding, ‘No’. A deviant person is a testing stone that reveals a contrasting norm; and he/she may galvanise a sense of shared identity and purpose among those who do fit: ‘We are X, not Y’. An oft-unquestioned assumption is that the defiant-dissident should change to fit in, and not that prevailing goals or culture should change.
Yet constructive divergence can be a critical catalyst for transformation: ‘I’m proud to be maladjusted’ (Martin Luther King); ‘Well-behaved women rarely make history’ (Eleanor Roosevelt). Performance enhancers look for positive deviants that display exceptional qualities, then seek to replicate them. Psychological coaches help people to learn from their positive deviant experiences: ‘when the problem isn’t a problem’ (Mark Tyrrell). Radical leaders invite positive deviance to innovate, to break through.
How deviant is your thinking and practice? How do you enable positive deviance in others?
I'm a psychological coach, trainer and OD consultant. Curious to discover how can I help you? Get in touch!