Cheerfulness

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Hard yards at the moment. Much ado at work and plenty on at home. But the top tip of this week comes from the Royal Navy – cheerfulness counts.

From the Battle of Trafalgar to the present day, Britain’s Royal Navy has run on cheerfulness.

Nobody follows a pessimist. And grumpiness ain’t attractive. However hard, keeping your chin up cheers everyone up.

So despite the temptation not to, I’m keeping smiling. Life’s too short. Cheerfulness counts : )

Misty Mountains

Monday – Morning – Early – Start –
Car – Troubled – Children – Missed –
Four – Big – Days – At – Work –
Many – Meetings – People – Buzzing –
All – Day – Long – And – Beyond –
Thursday – Evening – Nearly – Done –
Literally – And – Figuratively –
Peaks – Scaled – Views – Good

A week of hard work, with people from many places wrestling with the challenges of achieving an ambitious future – in an uncertain world. Two thoughts helped me along.

First, self-deception. I read in the New Scientist the other week that humans are masters of self-deception. It’s an important survival adaptation. The fact we can kid ourselves, helps us kid others and cope with life.

It’s obvious that when you’re looking several years ahead, there are lots of imponderables. So, as I said to several people this week, the art of conceiving and believing a vision of the future is to render it like Disney’s ‘enchanted castle’ – glowing, magical and distant.

The huge mistake is to seek to describe it in too much detail. Do that and Disney’s Castle dissolves in detailed questions about how the sewers will work. Drawing on our natural gift for self-deception – as a force for optimism, enthusiasm and positive change – requires that the future keep some of its mystery.

My second thought comes from ‘cross cultural’ training which I did when I was first sent East in the early 1990s. Eastern cultures, in general, value cohesion and alignment more than Western, where individualism and drive are more prized. The heroic leader and tough minded strategy can feel good in our hemisphere. But as President Bartlett said in the ‘West Wing’: “Leadership when no-one follows is just taking a walk”.

Back to that training. If you think of people as ‘bar magnets’, the Eastern view is that time spent aligning is vital to getting the whole moving sustainably. If all your magnets are pointing in different directions, that’s a lot of dissipated energy.

I’ve found, in recent years, sharing more context invariably nudges ‘magnets’ into better alignment. People are rarely persuaded by specific arguments, but always become more aligned by more shared context.

Disney castles and bar magnets are two good reasons to spend time sharing stories and context. But not too much time. Spend too much time and the vision gets unpicked in its details. And subsequent attempts at persuasion leave the magnets askew again.

Magnets, magic and misty mountains are an important part of the art of seizing today and coping with tomorrow, I reckon. That, and taking time – but not too much – to come together.

Playing to win

I’ve been thinking recently about how to ‘be’ at work. Not everything – or everyone – is easy to get along with. Working life has many pressures and frustrations. I’ve often worked too long or too hard in my working life and sometimes got cross, spiky and brittle because of it. So looking after myself better has been part of learning to survive in bigger jobs. But surviving isn’t good enough. Thriving is what I’m after.

One potential solution to overstretch and indignity is Stoicism. It’s certainly better than ‘passive aggression’, or another past favourite of mine ‘victim behaviour’. Stoicism gives you a handy detachment and a heightened ability to endure and ‘not take things personally’. That’s a good ingredient to have in my mix, but it’s not in itself very attractive – enduring is not leading.

So how about ‘attracting’. On my better days I can definitely attract people with concepts and ideas. On my very best days I can stir a bit of passion too. But mostly I’ve been reticent to put myself at the centre of situations or ‘put my chair in the centre of the room’ as a friend of mine puts it. Partly this is fear of everyone looking at me. Partly this is the fear of friends ‘jeering’. Not much of my attraction to attraction is narcissism, but I do like to be liked.

I was reading bits of the Illiad and Odyssey last night and seeing what Achilles would have done. Achilles is the ultimate action hero. In modern managementspeak he’d be a strong ‘shaper’ and ‘personal performer’. He was passionate and incredibly driven, but he was also selfish, undermining and reckless. He was playing for himself not for the team. But he was a hero and he did make and change history.

As Odysseus said to the ghost of Achilles when he encountered him in Hades:

“There is not a man in the world more blessed than you – there never has been, never will be one. Time was, when you were alive, we honoured you as a god, and now down here I see you lord it over the dead in all your power. So grieve no more at dying, great Achilles.”

But in return Achilles protested:

“No winning words about death to me, shining Odysseus! By god, I’d rather slave on earth for another man – some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive – than rule down here over all the breathless dead.”

Achilles was a great talent, but he played for himself. He burned brightly, briefly. Then he was spent, and died carrying regret. Had he been a Stoic he would never have risen to the anger and fury which propelled him into history. But would he have been more contented in Hades had he stuck around and achieved more with – and for – others?

I will read more about Odysseus – or Ulysees. On first glance, he has a winning combination of courage, guile, teamwork and sustained leadership under pressure. He played to win for the team and the cause, not just for himself.

I re-read a useful piece of research today, which concluded:

“Leaders would do well to use the energy they have to attract people to the vision and purpose of the organisation, rather than themselves. The challenge is to have the organisation’s purpose ‘in your bones’.”

This crystallises the advice I’ve been following recently to consciously put the organisation’s “cause” at the heart of my choices and narrative. I’ve already found it gives me more courage and conviction to do the right things.

‘Playing to win’ means not being reckless, selfish, impatient, kamikaze, intemperate, self-indulgent, defensive or fearful. It means constantly re-focusing myself and those around me on doing better what everyone who works here – on our best days – believes in.

Why? Because what we do really does change people’s lives. And what I do has and can change the organisation greatly. So unlike Achilles, I should use that power for good not for myself.

Corporate Punishment iii) Ducking and diving

I used to work in UK Government. Quite rightly it is the lot of government in democratic societies to be scrutinised and held to account. The negative side effect is it tends to create a climate of fear of saying anything and a tendency to obfuscate and hide things.

This is not unreasonable. Most political careers end in the 36 hour media storm of three ‘news cycles’: discovery, pursuit and resignation. “S/he has my full support” is the sure sign it’s coming to the end.

What costs UK politicians their jobs? Scandal? Affairs? Corruption? Incompetence? Bad luck? More often than not none of these, more than indirectly.

What costs most of them their jobs in modern times is ‘rapid rebuttal’. 24/7 media pressure forces a hasty and strident statement which then turns out to be factually wrong or doesn’t pass the common-sense test. Confidence in honesty and competence vanishes and the end comes in being shown to have misled or misspoken in front of parliament or the public.

Public servants always want to avoid giving precise facts and figures, not least because they are so hard to get right. So when the Minister or Political Adviser gets their Q&A on a tricky subject, invariably the killer question either has been omitted or has blather and obfuscation as the answer.

So what to do when you are asked a direct question about a difficult thing – for which you are accountable – to which you know the answer but wish you didn’t, or worse don’t know the answer but feel you should? Lie, make it up, bluster, waffle or blurt?

The answer lies in ‘ring-craft’ as the BBC’s Nick Robinson calls it. Successful politicians like boxers know how to jab, cover and move. They know how to say what they know and what they don’t in a way that makes sense, sounds in control but doesn’t overreach. It is an art not a science, involving luck and chutzpah as well as craft.

But having seen it close up (both when it goes right and wrong) I have learnt that sometimes in working life, as in politics, you just have to take a deep breath, say what you know, and what you don’t, and invite people to trust you and accept that.

As a Russian proverb says: With lies you may get ahead in the world – but you can never go back. Or the other way round: a lie may take care of the present, but it has no future.

Concealing, avoiding, dissembling, not answering, obfuscating or misleading makes things worse. And they make you feel worse.

I’ve found quite a few times in the last few years that sometimes you can’t avoid the punch. So better to stand your ground and roll with it than run away and hide.