January 21, 2018

Setting and defending boundaries

Three senior managersFlexibility is a good thing.


Sometimes—and about some things—we need to be inflexible: We need to have boundaries. We need to decide what we are going to accept and what we are not going to accept. Actually, we probably already know, deep down (we can tell by what upsets us—that’s a signal), we just need to articulate the parameters properly to ourselves, and our colleagues, if they’re involved.

Then we need to make our boundaries clear and visible to those we are interacting with, whose compliance we need—and whose liberty-taking is causing us problems.

Funnily enough, it can be in the other party’s interest to be compelled to act in a certain way if they want a particular outcome. They may benefit from that kind of influence.

For example, having high expectations of the time-keeping and focus of participants in events and workshops may actually be part of the learning. They need—maybe in some ways want—to be called out on their distracted behaviour, like checking their phones for email, or just not turning up at all.

Rather than being soft and accommodating, we may be more help to people if we set fair boundaries, communicate them clearly, and are robust in their defence.

How are your boundaries looking?

Separating learning and evaluating

Mid sized audienceLearning something isn’t the same as accepting it, necessarily. We don’t have to commit to agreeing with something before, or even as, we learn it. And often we can’t evaluate some new piece of knowledge or a new skill properly until we have thoroughly understood it—tried it out even.

Sometimes we can only learn by doing. Some knowledge can only be gained through experience.

It’s a good idea, therefore, to defer judgement until the learning has taken place—until we have the whole picture.

Being sceptical every step along the way isn’t an effective learning strategy because it slows down the process.

It’s wise—and quicker—to be open-minded. And to experiment.

Are too many bosses “control freaks?”

Sir Brian SouterSir Brian Souter, highly successful co-founder of the Stagecoach bus group and always an entertaining speaker, made the front page of the Scottish broadsheet newspaper “The Herald” on Saturday with his conference comment that “too many large companies are run by ‘control freaks’ whose outlook affects long-term business growth.”

Absolutely right, in my view. Curious, almost, that it was news.

Except it is news that he said it because it’s not conventional wisdom.

These “emperors,” as he dubbed them, “lead to poor long-term growth as they are averse to risk and trying new ideas… Some people are terrified to do anything in case it affects their share price.”

Brian went on to suggest “the proliferation of emperors in senior roles will actually stunt the potential for faster economic growth.” (He was speaking in Scotland but clearly thinking more broadly.)

I agree. I experience the consequences of this virtually every day. The agility of larger organisations especially is a fraction of what it could be.

Control freaks shut down people. And that shuts down results. You can probably see that around you, if you look properly.

Yes, we need “governance” but we also need agility and energy and genuine, empowering leadership.

I think so anyway.

What about you? Is Sir Brian right?

Courteous co-operation and single track roads

Road with passing placesSometimes revisiting a simpler way of life reminds us of important things: Take single track roads with passing places, for example…

(We have these in Scotland, especially on the islands, but maybe not in your part of the world, I know.)

In case you’ve never experienced this…

To cope with the road not being wide enough for two cars to pass, “passing places” are built every so often. A degree of consideration and collaboration between converging drivers is required so that one pulls into the space at the side to let the other pass, possibly waiting briefly for the oncoming vehicle, all in a manner that optimises journey times for everyone.

And of course, it’s considered courteous to wave thanks, and perhaps also to acknowledge thanks from the other.

The system requires this degree of co-operation (and a little more) to work and for everyone to benefit. And you know… we probably feel good about playing our part—giving as well as taking.

Back in the city…

Our lives are perhaps more competitive—faster paced.

So there’s less need for that kind of courteous co-operation.

Or is there?

Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse…

High street with people…it did.

(And a note on the kindness of strangers.)

Last weekend turned into a nightmare for reasons of ill health in the family and other unexpected developments. Part of dealing with that involved driving some family members home late on Monday night in awkward circumstances.

…and then the car broke down, electrically and completely, on a remote country road, in the dark.

Of course…

We phoned for help and help was on its way, but for a while we were vulnerable—a stationary car in the middle of a road without lights. We had no response of our own.

And then…

The first car that happened along stopped and came to our aid, the driver using his lights to highlight the hazard we formed, only leaving the scene when the official help arrived.

I was very aware of this man’s kindness and how much we depended on it—a humbling experience.

It’s perhaps only when we’ve used up our own capacity to cope that we truly appreciate the human kindness in the world; only when we’ve no option but to ask for help that we realise it’s there.

Perhaps there’s more of it about than we think.


My new book “The Mastery of Leadership” is now available on Amazon if you’d like a copy.

Welcoming feedback?

Four business people in a discussionWe know we need feedback: We need other people to let us know how we are doing; to challenge our ideas; and to shake our assumptions (especially if they are out of date). That doesn’t mean we necessarily enjoy the process, of course. Often it’s distinctly uncomfortable, or has the potential to be so.

How do you receive feedback?

Calmly and attentively?

It helps to realise that we react badly to feedback when we let it land in our ego; when we let it question our sense of identity.

It probably isn’t intended to do that—not usually.

With strength and presence, we can take a more objective view and be a kind of observer on the exchange. We can separate the learning from our sense of self—not always easy in the moment, of course, especially when feedback arrives unannounced, unexpected, and uninvited.

How do you handle feedback—welcome it, even—making sure you get the input you need without hurting too much in the process?

How fast can we go?

TeamTraditionally, we said “at the pace of the slowest man.” Nowadays, we’d say “person,” of course.

In times of change, is that really right? Do we need to go at the speed of the team as a whole?

Change does take time. We can accelerate it by providing suitable experiences, and instilling suitable tools and techniques.

But people need time to grow; time to process; time to come to terms with new information.

It’s not the same as figuring out something intellectual.

There’s a cooking time.

Allowing for it—within reason—will take us forward faster, not slower.

How do you decide the best speed?

The double benefit of focus, and how to achieve it

Man thinkingSome lessons keep coming round, for me they do anyway…

Getting focused has a double benefit—probably more than double actually.

Dropping some tasks—disengaging from some projects or organisations—has the obvious benefit of freeing up some time.

But it’s much more than that…

Having fewer things to cover, and the opportunity to focus, makes us so much more efficient on the things we do decide to do.

It’s not so easy letting go though.


I’ve learned, time and again, that if I’m ambivalent about something, it means I should drop it. When I finally do, I often wish I had done so sooner.

Maybe that’s how having a real break and time off works: Once we’ve walked away from everything for a time, our choice is then what to pick up, rather than what to drop. That’s quite different emotionally.

What about you?

How do you convince yourself to let go of something that seemed important, or maybe still seems important?

One thing at a time—how hard can that be?

Woman leader…em, quite hard.

That’s my experience anyway.

Doesn’t mean it isn’t the right principle though, just that it isn’t that easy to achieve, especially if our vision isn’t very clear.

I remember…

The amazing effect of putting some delays in the start-up sequence of a computer system so that all the processes weren’t competing with each other as they launched themselves. By serialising things properly, the start-up time went from the best part of an hour to just a few minutes.

Putting in delays speeded things up.

That seems all backward.

And it can be emotionally difficult to put some things off so that we can do other things properly now.

But that’s what we need to do because focus is a kind of letting go.


What could you do with scheduling out?

Standing for balance

Three people in a meetingDo “they” want to know what you stand for?

Do they want you to be on one side or the other?

Much easier for them to deal with you that way; clearer too, I suppose.

But wrong, if you actually stand for balance.

Hold your ground.