The value of being curious in the modern world

If you gave me a few seconds to share what I believed could add the most to a person’s life I’d say – be curious.

What about?

Everything and everyone.

When you’re curious, every day is rich.

This doesn’t mean every day is great, that’s impossible and undesirable; but you can be up or down, relaxed, anxious, angry, sad and you’re learning, adding colour and texture, cracking open walls.

But you’ve got to pay attention. You’ve got to be awake so that you take in what you are experiencing and start making it into something, rather than being asleep to it and letting it pass you by.

Curiosity is intrinsic although the instinct can fade if it’s not encouraged or used. But it can be rekindled.

Curiosity leads to unexpected synergies, it reveals new patterns and generates startling serendipity.

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Platitudes undermine credibility

The leadership space is peculiarly susceptible to platitudes.

But oversimplification makes them inadequate for dealing with the real difficulties that people face.

We relate to the grain of truth that a platitude embodies but often apply them in the wrong context in ways that do not fully reflect the complexities of a situation.

Part of a leader’s role is to help others be stretched but not overwhelmed by a problem.

Think about the leader who says bring me solutions not problems. In such cultures, employees may lose confidence if they don’t have an answer or feel it’s pointless to raise real issues that require multiple inputs to solve and that could become problematic and expensive down the track.

A more balanced approach might be to say: let’s talk this through. First tell me what you’ve done so far and some of your ideas. 

It’s less snappy to be sure.

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Turn rejection on its head – accept it

Let’s face it most of us take rejection badly.

I am no different, in that I take things personally. We know that when we first learn something, we’re usually bad at it. We also understand that we get better with practice and that it takes up to 10,000 hours if author Malcolm Gladwell is right to master a skill. (Although the psychologist on whose original work his observation was made disagrees.)

We get the theory. But it does not always translate when we most need it: at the moment of a rejection.

We get a rejection (a missed promotion, no second date, a failed business case) and it leaves us feeling awful and filled with self-doubt: we are still just not good enough.

But what if we could turn this on its head?

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Disagreement is not disloyalty

It may seem counterintuitive but formal processes are not a panacea for good governance; post-mortems of Enron and WorldCom, or closer to home Centro, reinforce that these companies failed despite entrenched controls.

What leaders can learn from these high profile failures it that risk-taking is a cultural issue and that with respect to decision-making, a culture that encourages independence and debate is an asset.

Yet in many companies, disagreement continues to be seen as disloyalty.

Worse, as in the case of Enron, active collusion can be seen as a precondition for maintaining a seat at the table.

In his book Innovation Corrupted: The Origins and Legacy of Enron’s Collapse, Harvard’s Professor Malcolm Salter highlights sophisticated internal controls failed to impact the behaviour that led to Enron’s demise.

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Confidence? It’s a concept

Faith and doubt both are needed – not as antagonists, but working side by side to take us around the unknown curve. Lillian Smith

I get so frustrated when I’m struggling with something (personal or professional) and I approach someone for input and they come back with something like: just be confident.

  • Have faith in yourself
  • Clout the doubt
  • Success is can, not can’t.

The variations are endless.

Ugh.

However well-meaning the advice (and it usually is) these platitudes don’t help.

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Why you need to ‘have a dream’

“I have a dream”, this refrain, woven through Martin Luther King’s 1963 March on Washington speech embodies the concentrated pain of his (and many) people and the deep longing for a just society.

Although a cry to free America from racial segregation, ostensibly it arouses that which in us seeks a nobler vision for humanity.

We all express that differently.

For some – it is a revolutionary cryFor others it is holding to learned and self-evident truths “that all wo/men are created equal”. It could be a sincere commitment to the Buddhist principles of good in the beginning, good in the middle, good in the end. The detail does not matter so much as the intention and that is progress.

Great leaders embody these ideals. Gifted with the ability to inspire those around them, they make them real. Sometimes romanticised, these leaders evoke the particular: a time, a place, the cause that pushed us forward.

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What masks do you wear and why?

We all wear masks, and the time comes when we cannot remove them without removing some of our own skin. Andre Berthiaume

We all wear masks, although the extent to which we layer ourselves varies greatly.

Masks are the personality layer, or persona, that we put on top of the ‘real thing’ (caveats assumed).

They are the edited and decorated versions we prefer to show the world, shielding what we don’t like or accept or that others ask (typically without words) us to hide. They’re a protective barrier.

At the extreme con wo/men construct a palatable false self to divert people from darker intentions. The compulsive liar who says they hate lies, the wo/maniser who prides themselves on fidelity.

With these types charm is a decoy. These mask-makers have no desire to lift the mask, they know very well why it is there. Seeing through them can be difficult, in particular when they are well practiced.

Masks exist on a continuum from the passive-aggressive friend to the sociopath. However for the most part, we don’t realise the masks are there.

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Frank advice: can you take what you give?

The fact that you needed to know was not known at the time that the now known need to know was known… and therefore there was no authority for the authority to be informed because the need to know was not, at that time, known or needed. (Bernard in Yes Minister, Episode 8). 

Yes Minister is a brilliant TV satire that pits the conflicting desires of numerous players in the British government against each other. The battle of wills between bureaucrats, staffers and the political incumbent generates much humour and head nodding on our parts.

Inevitably though as reform goes head to head with perks, prestige and pragmatism only one winner emerges; as reflected in the trademark closer of the go-between who predictably defers with the obsequious: yes Minister.

But it’s not a show about politics as much as life, which is why we relate so readily to the power and control dynamics.

These games are played all the time in our professional and personal lives.

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