The days of ‘cog-in-the-machine’ employment is coming to an end. As the information economy grows and develops, people who can do more than shift a lever or press a button on a production line are more important than ever.
But, what is it exactly that we need people, in this new era of work, to do? And, how can we create a culture and environment that facilitates and supports their work and produces the results today’s businesses need?
I won’t bore you with a long winded, wanky, geo-politico-eco-historical exploration of the needs of modern businesses. If you’re reading this I’m sure you already have some ideas.
I will instead state, quite simply, this:
We need leaders who can work collaboratively and creatively to solve complex problems.
I’ll say that again. Today’s organisations need leaders who can work collaboratively and creatively to solve complex problems. And, herein lies our dilemma.
The way we run organisations and the way we manage people does not support or create the right environment for this type of person, let alone a whole team of them, to operate with the autonomy or freedom required to be effective.
So what can you do? How can you become the type of person we need to work and manage in a modern organisation?
Universities and colleges offer more degrees than at any other time. Online courses are easily accessible and many are free or cheap. There’s no reason to settle for a career doing something boring or that you feel indifferent about.
There are also more opportunities than at any time in our history to start your own business and be successful. Don’t limit yourself to the rat race. A credit card with a few hundred dollors and a good idea is all you need to start an independent business with a good chance of being successful if you do it right.
If you’re a manager: hire the right people with the right skills, set the goals and the strategy, support them, give them the time and materials they need and then, get out of the way.
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Today’s organisations need leaders who can work collaboratively and creatively to solve complex problems. Be that person. Be that type of leader. Don’t settle for a generic, uninspired career. You’ll be happier and more successful for it.
In the early pages of their book The Power of Full Engagement, Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz share a turning point in the trajectory of their business working with world class athletes.
After years of helping athletes perform consistently at a high level under competitive pressure, Jim and Tony were invited by a number of organisations (including hospital emergency wards and the FBI) to help improve staff performance and engagement. It was while working with these organisations that they discovered, and I quote:
“The performance demands that most people face in their everyday work environments dwarf those of any professional athlete…”
Wow, right? The reason, they say, is that athletes spend the majority of their time in either training or active recovery and only a short amount of time actually performing.
The everyday worker on the other hand spends very little time training and even less in active recovery, yet are expected to perform at a consistently high level 8-12 hours per day, 5-6 days per week.
These expectations put a lot of stress on the mind and the body and, as numerous studies now show, have a negative impact on productivity, quality of work produced and overall work engagement. Worst of all, our addiction to overworking is rapidly degrading our physical and mental health.
It’s easy to feel like we can’t take a break from the things we’re working on or from the place where we work. The excuses are many and easy to find. We already don’t have enough hours in a day.
The work is too important or the project won’t progress without us. The office will fall apart and the world will end if we’re not around to fix every problem. We all like to believe we’re indispensable. As though the office and the people in it just can’t live without us.
Life gets easier when we realise that we’re kidding ourselves. No one is indispensable and we’re doing ourselves and the cause or project we’re working on a disservice by working through burnout. Just think about every job you’ve quit and moved on from. The project, the team, the organisation you left behind are doing just fine without you.
This isn’t to say that you’re not valuable or making an important contribution. After all, you wouldn’t still be employed if you didn’t. But, so can so many others. And, don’t take this personally, but you’re not the only one who can manage a crisis, progress your project or deal with clients and stakeholders.
You’re not the only one who has something to contribute. Who can add value.
The longer you put off having a break, the closer to burnout you get, the less value you add to the cause or project you’re working on and the sicker you become. You, your mind and your body are not designed to withstand the long hours and six day weeks you’re working. You need active recovery to stay healthy and perform at your best.
Taking a break is not a sign of weakness. It’s a matter of self-awareness and it will make you stronger. It’s not just important, it’s essential. Especially if you want to build a strong, enduring career and a happy, healthy life.
So, here’s what I want you to do:
1. Take breaks throughout your workday.
10-15 minutes here and there can make a huge difference. Go for a walk, make a cup of tea, read the news (in an actual newspaper, not online). Do whatever it takes for you to let go and recover from the intense focus you’ve just given to whatever task you’ve been working on.
To help me take more breaks, I’ve been experimenting with the pomodoro technique. Learn more here.
2. Go on a holiday at least once a year.
And I’m not talking about going back to your home town to visit family. I’m talking about an actual holiday. Get out of the city. Go overseas. Go to the beach, a concert or on a cruise. Scuba-dive, bungie jump or sit for days in a shack in the country side reading great books.
Give yourself the gift of a break from your everyday life. Get away from it all, even for just a week. You’ll be better for it.
3. Always be in holiday planning mode.
Even if you only take one vacation a year, know when it will be, where you will go, who you’ll be with and what you will do. Knowing you’ve got some reprieve coming can help you push through mental blocks and minor crises of motivation.
In the lead up to your vacation, organise your work affairs so that you can forget about work as much as possible. If you can help it, don’t take work with you and don’t check emails.
4. If you’re a manager, make sure your team members are getting the breaks they need.
Encourage them to step away from their desk several times per day. Let them go home early once a month and don’t dock their pay. Actively encourage them to take holidays.
While they’re on holidays do not, under any circumstances call them. Reassure them that everything will be taken care of while they’re away. Not because you don’t need them, but because you need them to be at their best.
Working through burnout serves no one
Especially not ourselves. At the end of the day, we can only give as much as we have. Once that’s depleted our contribution loses its value. Take breaks throughout the day. Plan and go on holidays. Make sure your team are well rested.
In 2003, two of the greatest ever to play the game of basketball faced off in the NBA Allstar Game: Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. The old school and the new school battled in what would, in hindsight, become a passing of the crown from one king to the next.
At one point in the game, hidden amongst all the jawing and trash talk, Jordan dropped a knowledge bomb on Bryant, whose brash cockiness and sense of entitlement often rubbed people the wrong way.
The conversation, about a foul-call that went against Bryant and in Jordan’s favour, went something like this:
Jordan:“Hey. That’s a foul all day long.”
Bryant:“Oh, I know you ain’t talking! I know you ain’t talking.”
Jordan:“Hey you only got three man, I got six. I’m gonna get that foul. You only got three man.”
Bryant:“You’re right. I can’t say nothing to that. I can’t say nothing. I’m gonna shut up and take it.”
And in that one exchange, you can learn almost everything you need to know about getting ahead in your career and in business.
You want the title? The position? The trust and admiration of your peers? You want to be promoted? You want your business to be recognised as a leader?
Then put in the time and do the work.
Jordan got calls from the referees because he earned them. Not in that moment. But in the previous decade-plus of blood, sweat and tears in the gym and on the basketball court.
Jordan was respected so much for his work ethic and his achievements that when a referee’s call was a 50/50 and could go either way, he got those calls. Every time.
Do the time. Do the work. Strive for excellence. This is how you achieve greatness. This is how you get those calls at work, in your career and in business.
Be consistent, put in the hard work and in time, recognition and success will come.
Leadership means something different to everyone. Leadership is fluid. Leadership is a social construct. Leadership is what it needs to be at the time. Leadership is the execution of a set of values. Leadership has lots of different moving parts.
Though I’ve tried, I can’t find a way to define leadership. It’s too big. It’s too grey. But, I think it’s an important thing to do because if there’s one thing the world needs it’s more leaders and how do we develop leaders if we can’t define what leadership is.
A few years ago I learned a couple of neat little tricks for defining the seemingly undefinable from one of my mentors. First, he said, and I’m paraphrasing years of teaching and discussion here, that describing what something looks like can be more valuable than defining it.
Second, he said that when defining a thing is too difficult, try defining what that thing is not and what it is becomes clearer.
In this post, I’ll attempt to do both of those two things as a way of trying to define leadership.
Leadership is not…
Leadership is not being a boss.
Leadership is not being a manager.
Leadership is not being in charge.
Leadership is not being an authority.
Leadership is not a title or a position.
Leadership is not what most people think it is.
So much of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to work. — Peter Drucker
Using this logic, I suppose we could also try to define a leader by what they don’t do.
A leader doesn’t…
A leader doesn’t panic.
A leader doesn’t yell.
A leader doesn’t get angry.
A leader doesn’t act out of spite.
A leader doesn’t act in self interest.
A leader doesn’t hide information.
A leader doesn’t give orders.
A leader doesn’t motivate.
A leader doesn’t rely on old ways.
A leader doesn’t settle.
He who has never learned to obey cannot be a good commander. — Aristotle
Now that we know what a leader is not, and what a leader does not do, we can describe what a leader is and what a leader does do ie. what leadership looks like.
Leaders are compassionate.
Leaders are tough.
Leaders overcome fear for the greater good.
Leaders understand people and psychology.
Leaders understand human relationships and group dynamics.
Leaders have high levels of energy.
Leaders have humility.
Leaders have integrity.
Leaders are accountable.
Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm. — Publilius Syrus
Leaders are respectful.
Leaders value diversity.
Leaders obsess over mastery.
Leaders are honest.
Leaders are collaborative.
Leaders are people focussed.
No man will make a great leader who wants to do it all himself, or to get all the credit for doing it. — Andrew Carnegie
A leader supports and guides people.
A leader sees the big picture.
A leader get’s their hands dirty.
A leader communicates effectively.
A leader is creative.
A leader shares power.
A leader uses logic and gut instinct at the same time.
A leader focusses on solutions.
A leader is always learning.
A leader solves problems.
A leader makes other people better.
As we look ahead into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others. — Bill Gates
A leader thinks laterally.
A leader listens more than they talk.
A leader gives frank and fearless advice.
A leader is approachable.
A leader asks for forgiveness, not permission.
A leader eliminates the need for small decisions.
A leader makes the big decisions.
A leader takes risks.
A leader takes the bull by the horns.
A leader adapts and overcomes.
A leader finds new and better ways.
A leader strives for excellence, always.
A leader is a good follower.
A leader sets priorities.
A leader connects the dots.
A leader is consistent.
A leader values results rather than process.
A leader uses data, research and best practice.
A leader challenges data, research and best practice.
A leader takes criticism.
A leader creates a vision.
A leader admits when they are wrong.
A leader mentors.
A leader performs at a high level.
A leader performs consistently at a high level.
A leader builds teams.
A leader builds culture.
A leader creates change.
A leader inspires action.
A good leader is a person who takes a little more than his share of the blame and a little less than his share of the credit. — John Maxwell
Finally and critically, I believe a leader produces two very important outcomes.
A leader creates impact.
A leader creates more leaders.
A true leader has the confidence to stand alone, the courage to make tough decisions, and the compassion to listen to the needs of others. He does not set out to be a leader, but becomes one by the equality of his actions and the integrity of his intent. — Douglas MacArthur
Leadership is hard to pin down. Leadership means something different to everyone. Leadership is fluid. Leadership is a social construct. Leadership is what it needs to be at the time. Leadership is the execution of a set of values. Leadership has lots of different moving parts.
Leadership is hard to define, but it’s not impossible to describe what it looks like.
A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves. — Lao Tzu
When you move on from your current job, what kind of legacy do you want to leave behind? It’s a tough question to answer, likely because you’ve never really thought about it before. You should though. And, here’s why.
So many of us make the mistake of letting our careers happen to us, rather than being proactive and making it happen for us. We look around at the successful people in our office and wrongly assume that they’re successful by chance, or that success comes with just putting in the time.
Whether you’re dedicated to a life-long career in the same company, moving from organisation to organisation trying to make a difference in something you care about or creating your own path solving problems as an entrepreneur, nothing comes easy and you’ll never reach your potential without a decent amount of forethought and effort.
So what can you do to give yourself the best chance of reaching your potential and being successful? Think about this.
In his book “Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?”, Seth Godin makes the observation that bosses lie about what they want in an employee. They say they want someone who will be on time. Who will follow instruction. Someone who comes in and does their job and doesn’t make any trouble.
So, why is it that the people who follow these rules aren’t getting the promotions? Or more poignantly, why is it that the people getting promoted, the big stars of the show, aren’t the ones following these rules?
“The world no longer fairly compensates people who are cogs in a giant machine” – Seth Godin
It’s because what she really wants is someone who can think for them-self. Who sees possibilities and makes them happen. Who creates. Who connects the dots. Who sets the shit on fire (what ever that means).
She wants someone remarkable – who is worth remarking about. Someone who is exceptional – who is the exception. Someone who disrupts, creates, collaborates, leads et cetera. Being even one of these things would leave a great legacy.
So, how do you become more remarkable? Exceptional? How do you become indispensable?
First, follow these two steps:
Answer this question: If your organisation wanted to replace you with someone far better at your job than you, what would they look for?
Become the answer. Read, learn, work hard and become the person who is far better at your job than you currently are.
Then, do all of these things:
Become a connector. Make a habit out of introducing people who will get value from each other both inside and outside your organisation.
Pick one new person every week and buy them a coffee. Sit with them. Drink coffee together. Don’t talk about work. Ask lots of questions. Listen.
Write something inspiring for your company blog and submit it to be published. It will likely draw the attention of your superiors, so make sure it’s good.
Think of one new, properly thought-out idea every month, that solves a real problem faced by your organisation and tell your boss about it. Be ready to produce a brief outline and project plan and make sure your idea has the potential to make a real impact, like increase productivity or save money. It’s not that hard, it’s only twelve ideas a year.
Grab with both hands and all your strength every learning opportunity you find.
In 2011, a good friend and I coached a varsity boys basketball team at an international school in Myanmar (Burma). Leading into the pre-season, I created a rule book which outlined how the team was expected to conduct themselves during the season.
The rule book was inspired by thoughts and principles that were originally developed and used by legendary basketball player and coach, John Wooden. A former teacher and now member of the basketball hall of fame, John Wooden was an extraordinary basketball player and coach. As a player, he went All-American in college. As a coach, his high school and college teams won an extraordinary 80% of their games with him at the helm. He won 10 NCAA National Championships over 12 years as head coach at UCLA and was named National Coach of the Year 6 times. That’s a hell of a record.
Coach Wooden’s success came from his unique approach to basketball, to coaching and more pertinently to life. He believed that being a great player and a great team required more than just a well-drilled set of technical basketball skills.
He believed that to be a great player and a great team, you also need the right values. Values that, when translated into action embody, promote and facilitate altruism, fairness and humility.
I recently came across the rule book by accident, while trawling through some long forgotten folders on an old hard drive. Reading through it again, I couldn’t help but reminisce about how impressed my fellow coach and I were with the conduct and behaviour of our team that season.
How after winning the Myanmar national tournament, we travelled to Bangkok for the South East Asian Schools Athletics Conference (SEASAC). How at that conference, playing against bigger and more established schools from around South East Asia, we punched well above our weight, coming within 4 points with two minutes to go of beating the eventual division one tournament champions in a group-stage game.
How the boys personified sportsmanship, cheering for other teams during game breaks and being gracious in both victory and defeat, shaking hands and congratulating teams before and after every game. And, how after winning the division two championship, the boys were voted Best and Fairest by the other team’s coaches.
We may not have won it all, but I consider that season to have been a very successful one. When we arrived in Bangkok for SEASAC , it was clear that we were under-dogs. From what I could gather from the snarks and sneers of some of the other teams and even coaches, we were also widely considered a joke and an also-ran.
We were younger, shorter and nowhere near as resourced as the other richer and better connected international schools. While most students from the other schools came from comparatively privileged backgrounds, our boys were from a country widely recognised as third world/developing and that had been locked down by a military regime. A country that had shut out the rest of the world for the previous 20+ years (long before these boys were even born).
A country where until recently, most citizens weren’t allowed out and most foreigners weren’t allowed in. Where foreign journalist were banned and cameras and laptops were confiscated at the airport. A country where some of the world’s longest running civil wars have raged for decades. And, where military personnel with rifles stood posted at every intersection in the former capital, Yangon (Rangoon), the city where the team was from.
Despite these challenges, by the end of the tournament our boys were looked up to by everyone. Why? Because of their respectful conduct, their leadership on and off the court, their heart and courage, and their never give up attitude.
They were honoured as Best and Fairest because they practiced what Coach Wooden had taught them in that rule book. They were honoured because they behaved in a way that embodied, promoted and facilitated altruism, fairness and humility. Because despite not being crowned champions, they behaved like champions.
Today, those boys are following their dreams. Some are just finishing up high school while others are studying in their chosen field at universities around the world. Some are working in their family business back in Myanmar and others are blazing their own trail, making a difference in their community or building companies. Needless to say, I was and still am a super proud coach.
As I was reading through the rule book again, it occurred to me that the principles therein aren’t really about basketball or even sports, at all. They’re about how to conduct yourself in life. They’re a framework for success in any field you wish to apply them. They will never get old, outdated or irrelevant. And the best part — anyone can practice them.
So here it is. This is the exact rule book I gave those boys, with the exception that I’ve added links to some articles, blogs and videos to get you thinking and acting on each one. Work on establishing these behaviours and you can be successful at whatever you put your mind to.
Read right to the end to watch a TED Talk by the man himself Coach John Wooden, in which he talks about the difference between winning and being successful. It’s well worth your time!
“A player who makes a team great is more valuable than a great player. Losing yourself in the group, the good of the group, that’s team work.” – John Wooden
If you’ve got a few minutes (17 to be precise), watch this awesome TED talk by the legendary John Wooden about the difference between winning and success. With almost 4 million views, it’s one of the most watched TEDs in history. You’ll learn something, I promise.