Category Archives: People

On stories and leadership

Last night I watched a documentary on Edmund Hillary, the New Zealand mountaineer who (with Tenzing Norgay) became the first men to climb to the summit of Mt Everest in Nepal. Hillary died last fortnight, so the documentary wasn’t just coincidental!

The documentary was particularly revealing to me about the actual mission and ascent up the Himalayas by a group of men led by John Hunt. I confess to not having known about Hunt and the whole team of men, including over a dozen Sherpas, who made up the party that sought to conquer the summit of Earth’s highest terrestrial mountain. The mission began awkwardly when the expected leader of the expedition, Eric Shipton, was overlooked and Hunt was appointed in charge. Hunt had to win the support of his men and he did so with his good nature, experience, and determination.

Leadership is not just about being given permission to lead, it’s about gaining the respect and willingness of the team to allow and support you to lead.

Two other interesting pieces of information:

John Hunt was not in the first pair to make the final assault on Everest and, being affected by altitude, he (responsibly but sadly) was forced back to camp so that he did not witness the final ascent himself. Leadership is not about the individual, it’s about the team and what’s best for the mission at hand.

Moreover, the first pair to attempt the final assault on the peak (Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans) did not make it and returned to camp. It was left to Hillary and Tenzing, the second pair, who made it to the summit successfully on 29th May 1953. Yet the documentary highlighted, and Hillary acknowledged, that success had only been possible by the work of the entire team. Hillary and Tenzing were the heroes, but they wouldn’t have succeeded without the co-operation, support and spirit from the whole expedition party. The success of the 1953 Everest mission was made possible by good planning, collaboration, and a committed and effective team of individuals.

It’s a great story and a great documentary, especially listening to the heartfelt reminiscing of key players such as Hillary, Hunt and George Lowe. Stories like this really give meaning to the nature of leadership and teams.

And this got me thinking about my own experiences, the Leadership course I did at Rabobank, and the module on leadership in the Masters degree I am midway through completing. In all those contexts I couldn’t help but think of some of the fundamental features of leadership important to me:

1) respect the people in your team and trust them to do their job

2) focus on the mission and how best the team can achieve the goal (align and mobilise the team accordingly)

3) encourage and support the individuals in the team in a way that best reflects their personal needs

4) be prepared to lead by giving leadership opportunities to others if circumstances arise (responsibility and autonomy)

5) be prepared to involve the team and listen to what is said, but the outcomes may vary (decision-making by consensus or by the leader)

6) remember, the mission is not about the leader, it’s about the team and achieving the desired goal (personal KPI’s aren’t everything if they forget the impact of others)

7) lastly, a leader is not an inspiration unless those that follow think so.

In business and government today, we need to encourage leadership in our ranks. Stories are a great way of bringing meaning to leadership (they are emotive and real). Encourage those stories in your own organisation and see how far you can climb, whether one’s Everest is a mountain top or a day at the office.


On narrative, sensemaking, and volunteering

I did promise on Saturday that my next blog post would be on narrative, sensemaking, and the volunteering project. However, Doris Lessing did come between posts with an earlier blog post this afternoon.

Looking at my notes from the debrief from the volunteering project on Friday, I took this point from Dave Snowden’s introductory remarks on complexity and sensemaking, and the wisdom of crowds: distributed cognition is all about the wider network of individuals from which the capability of finding out is greater than the individual on their own. One reason for business to seriously consider distributed cognition with people networks is the need to do more with less resources. By using networks, knowledge can be leveraged more efficiently.

Another key point related to “weak signals” – if we don’t expect something, we don’t see it. Dave showed the basketball video and I won’t steal his thunder with a link, albeit I have now seen Dave present this video three or four times now. One of the problems in looking at something is that we often overlook vital bits of information that, at the time, don’t seem relevant. The human brain actually filters out much of what we perceive in order to avoid overloading our brains with too much sensory perception.

And, it wouldn’t be a Dave Snowden talk without the mention of pattern sequencing. Humans rely on patterns developed at a young age from which the brain forms preferences related to stored experiences and information. These patterns are modified over time so that, for example, consistent patterns emerge to explain behaviours in standardised contexts. Patterns are fractal in nature from which we filter our perceptions (stereotypes are one manifestation of this). A consequence of this is entrained thinking, where our experiences and perspectives and personal learnings tend to override anything that is contrary or different. The human brain and perceptions of the environment exist as a complex landscape from which decision-making takes place. And this in turn gives us meaning.

Something that will help us is a system for the natural process of inquiry – human-pattern processes, not information processing. Information processing is too structured and more specific to time of analysis. Alternatively, narrative techniques are more useful and more relevant since they convey meaning (from the viewpoint of the person telling the story) and they relate to context. The telling of stories and the identification of meaning ascribed to them by the tellers of those stories are powerful sources of meaning, especially when aggregated. In addition, the telling of a story is a more human communication method developed over milennia whilst information processing is a 20th century phenomenon.

For more information, I recommend the Kurtz and Snowden paper on the new dynamics of strategy: sense-making in a complex and complicated world.

And the volunteering project? Well, using the sensemaking software developed by Cognitive Edge, stories are being elicited from people who volunteer or manage volunteers in the community services sector. The project hopes to capture one to two thousand stories between now and February 2008 (almost one thousand have already been collected). The aim is to discover what people believe to be the benefits and barriers of volunteering in community services so that effective policies and strategies can be put into place to help and encourage more people to take up volunteering.

The debrief on Friday was a work-in-progress and focused on the largest data set, the 17-59 year old demographic. The software powerfully showed a range of relationships but more stories are required to enhance scale and emphasise trends across all ages. One of the interesting outcomes from the survey so far has been the identification of post-graduate educated, full-time working people as the biggest group in the community services volunteering pool.

So far, contributions have come via the survey on the internet but a phone-in is scheduled for February 2008. More details later.

In conclusion, for me, the session reinforced the importance of meaning and context in understanding the complex space in which humans work and interact.

Download future_of_volunteering_overview.doc

On the personal elevator (lift) pitch

Dave Pollard has an interesting blog post about the personal elevator (lift) pitch, “a one-minute summary that conveys the most important information about you”. Quite rightly, such an ice-breaker is a useful skill for those first-time meetings, whether in the lift, at a conference, or at that networking event.

Dave provides a nine point framework based on questions in order to develop your own personal pitch. I like the idea of the questions – getting one to think in terms of responses rather than statements.

Something to think about for that chance meeting that could turn up at any time.

On Alfred Chandler Jnr.

I was saddened to hear of the death last week of American, Alfred Chandler Jr., aged 88. Chandler was widely regarded as the father of business history, particularly industrial history.  He was the author of the ground-breaking Scale and scope: the dynamics of industrial capitalism.

I came across “Scale and Scope” in my Economics degree in Sydney (many years ago!) in a unit on economic history. The book was brilliantly researched, beautifully written, and became the stimulus for my interest in industrial archaeology. That interest remains with me today as a member of the UK-based Association for Industrial Archaeology.

I remember reading Chandler and feeling how alive he made economic history, very much a skill on a somewhat dry subject. Compared to the torturous Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith, Chandler’s work was a real pleasure to read.

“A pleasure to read” – a motto that should be at the forefront of all writing today, whether it is in academia, business, e-mail or on the web.