Category Archives: Leadership

poppies at Tower2In May this year I will be accompanying a group of friends visiting the scenes of some of World War 1’s battles in Belgium and Northern France. I have to admit to ambivalence about this trip because the history has never especially interested me and I do not feel as compelled as I was when having the chance to visit Auschwitz. In fact, that lack of imperative is why I agreed to go – to explore my own responses, or lack of, to one of the world’s most traumatic eras.

As part of the preparations, one of my friends has just revealed some personal history that is leading him to be ‘holding the German side’ when we visit France in April. I’m not going to share his words, but am happy to post my response.

Thanks for that my friend, some details of which I was not aware and which bring your situation to life. For me you raise an interesting point about what might be ‘nationality’.

If I have a ‘position’ on this, and I guess we all have even if it is implicit, then it is probably that of being human.

I don’t particularly feel as if I belong to any nation (or community of nations – EU), although when asked where I am from when I am abroad I usually say something like “Leeds, from the North of England”; that’s accurate as a description of where I currently live (I was actually born in Hull, so some would say that is where I ‘come from’ and I actually feel more like an ‘Ullite than a Bradfordian) and helpful if the questioner really wants to know the answer. Ultimately the labels we use to describe our places are transient and I’m happy to be a Yorkshireman, English, British, European, a citizen of the World…all of which are accurate.

As for the visit, I’m really pleased that we are recognising both sides of this conflict. It’s too easy to accept the victor’s account, believe it to be true and forget that there are other narratives. After all, the Milgram stuff demonstrated that in certain circumstances we might all do wicked things and I honestly do not know how I would have reacted as a 20 year old German given a ‘do or die’ imperative when faced with an instruction to do something horrendous. It’s easy to be ‘correct’ and propound humanitarian positions from the comfort of our relatively well-heeled safe armchairs but I suspect that in the het of battle things are different. Remember one of my beliefs – “we are all doing our best all the time” – and how it applies in the moment, in my particular circumstances. I get really upset when I hear about those young men who “gave their lives”; NOT THEY DIDN’T, THEY HAD THEIR LIVES RUDELY TORN FROM THEM, sent to often hopeless causes by politicians who sat comfortable in their bunkers calculating whether a particular loss of life/attrition rate/collateral damage was worth it. And it still happens. What’s worrying is that we now have a cohort of politicians, of all flavours, who (like me) have no direct experience of the horror of war and must surely have less of the inner abhorrence that their fathers and mothers had.

Recall that I have also raised the topic of ‘women in war’, without having been able to find anything much to commemorate their experiences – it’s a strangely male occupation!

Finally Calais. Another sad example of the consequences of abused power, ethnic cleansing, religious zealotry, whatever. I have written elsewhere recently that ‘we’ might feel and act very differently if it were our own homes and lives under attack, if there were millions of Brits living in the squalid conditions that so many migrants have to suffer, being so desperate that they choose to cross the North Sea in creaky boats, our children washing up dead on foreign shores… We all make our own choices about how to respond and although nobody has yet suggested it, I would love to find a way to make a contribution as we pass by those poor souls near Calais.

 

Behind the screen

Behind the curtainSo, what is going on behind this screen? Well, let me share something with you.

For a while this morning I thought I was watching a man die. Not a good feeling.

I was sitting quietly enjoying my coffee when an old man standing outside the shop with his wife (or maybe daughter) just keeled over and fell, head crashing to the floor. My instant reaction was “What should/could I do?” before realising that I was impotent. You see, I have no first aid training and beyond putting the man into the recovery position (which was not necessary as he happened to have fallen in exactly the right position) I could have done little except check if he had a pulse and, I guess, make some amateur attempts at CPR in the event that he didn’t have a pulse. Impotent.

Fortunately within seconds  a couple of passers by who it seemed to me knew what they were doing stopped and then 10-15 seconds later one of the security guards for the building turned up and started checking pulse etc. whilst one of the ladies who first stopped was ringing someone (presumably 999?).

Frustration turned to concern for the man. He was very grey and there was blood coming from his mouth. The first security man, eventually there were 4 or 5 moving on the gawpers, calmly checked his pulse and I saw a twitch of the old man’s mouth as he appeared to answer a question. The longer it went on, by now perhaps 2 or 3 minutes but who knows as we don’t put a stopwatch on these things do we, the more I could see the old man slowly yet clearly moving his mouth.

His wife, or was it daughter, was there and I finally found something to do. She was clearly shocked and I decided that a chair would be in order so I picked one up from the cafe, took it outside, a gentle touch on the shoulder, a gentle “I see you are trembling, perhaps you might like to sit down” and 5 seconds later she was sitting down. I had done what I could.

The medics arrived after about 5 minutes and maybe another 5 minutes passed before the screens that you see in the picture were wheeled around the scene and the man had some privacy while he was treated.

Some time later he was wheeled away on a stretcher, clearly alive and I hope not too seriously injured.

All in all it was as smooth a response as you might hope for (with the exception of the screens, which might have arrived earlier and maybe those who tended to his needs in those early minutes did actually save his life. Because I didn’t.

I am left reflecting on my own impotence in this situation.  What is the minimum that ‘one’ might hope the average man or woman in the street to be able to offer someone in these circumstances and do I have those skills. Should I train as a first aider on the offchance? Fortunately this was a crowded place and equally fortunately others appeared and did the necessary, but what if I was in the middle of nowhere and something similar happened?

 

Do protests matter?

worlds-most-pointless-protest-signsDo protests ever change anything?

I was listening to R4 yesterday about the forthcoming protest outside the Conservative Party conference and it left me wondering why they bother. I suspect that many people will feel better that they have got together with like-minded individuals and made their views known and that’s probably good.

However I wonder if anything substantive ever actually changes as a consequence? The Poll Tax, sorry “Community Charge”, might be cited as an example but there is loads of evidence that it was so unpopular that it would be abandoned anyway by whoever succeeded Thatcher. Years of CND protests and marches have left us with enough nuclear bombs to reduce the population of the earth to minus zero; the ‘Million Man March’ against Britain’s involvement in Iraq certainly did not achieve anything…

So, are marches nothing more than shows of solidarity that sooth the participants’ psyche (‘at least I did something’) or do they really influence future events/decisions?

Reflections on friendship

LoveAs I have mentioned elsewhere, I am almost overwhelmed by the outpourings of support and expressions of love that have come my way since disclosing my current pituitary challenge. I am immensely grateful for all of these and I find myself reflecting, as I would, on the processes happening here.

All of the things that have been said to me have been supportive, and some not only been wonderful but also somewhat unexpected. Unexpected not only in content but the fact that they have been said at all.

I am left wondering how often we fail to express our deepest feelings for others. Whether we keep that love, respect, appreciation, recognition, whatever ‘under our hat’ or whether we choose to express it. Are we perhaps more able/willing to write down our innermost thoughts? Do we take those thoughts and feelings for granted, always assuming that the other person somehow knows through some mysterious process how much they are valued?

Let’s not hold back. Let’s express our love for each other, our respect for someone’s ability, our recognition of someone’s contribution – whilst the emotion is hot rather than leaving it to cool down and lose its power.

So, whoever you are reading this, THANK YOU. It’s important to me that this blog is not just a piece of self-aggrandisment but also something that others find interesting for whatever their own reasons.

Migrants, refugees, hordes, people…

Refugees

Refugees

This is a thinkpiece, and perhaps inevitably something of an opinion piece as well, about the current challenges faced by people fleeing for whatever reason from the Middle East.

These people, for whatever other label we choose to apply to them they are all people – mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, neighbours, friends – have all chosen to travel thousands of miles, often in appalling circumstances and at risk to both lives and future financial capacity, to escape a regime that dehumanises them in so many ways. Ethnic cleansing, oppression of women, forced combat status, simply being in the wrong place when an oppressive (and yes I reaise that is MY values surfacing) regime decides to start shelling or gassing or raping and pillaging or abducting women/children/men – add your own reasons for wanting to escape ISIS/ISIL/DAISH. As an aside, why do so many politicians insist on using a label – DAISH or DA’ESH – that is known to be offensive? It would certainly piss me off if every time someone referred to me I was called “tosspot” and I would not be likely to engage with them on neutral terms – here is one explanation from The Deconstructed Globe:

In all of the Arabic countries, ISIS is referred to as DAISH, which is short for ‘Dawlat al-Islamiyah f’al-Iraq wa al-Sham’, Arabic for the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (Syria).  What makes the Arabic acronym interesting is that the Arabic word  ‘دعس‘ , or daish, which means to ‘tread under foot‘ or ‘crush‘.   I’ve been meaning to look this up for a while, and I’m glad I finally did.  The Arabic acronym is pejorative and clearly hostile, unlike the English word Isis, which is the name of a powerful Egyptian goddess.

But back to the people massing on the shores of Europe. One might argue how great it is that we have created a culture/economy that is so successful and, by and large, accommodating that people want to live here. Does it have to be a culture/economy that is restricted to those of us living here now? Let’s be honest, much of Europe’s success has been built on the Imperial past of the UK, France, Germany, Austria. An Imperial past that, to be very polite, ‘drew on’ the resources to be found in those far-flung lands where we managed to impose our will. We cannot deny our implicit connection to the oilfields of the Middle East, any more than we can dismiss our earlier pillaging of India, Western Africa, the Caribbean etc.

It was us that drew the lines on a map delineating most of the Middle East. Lines that crossed traditional tribal or other groupings, just as the lines dividing India from Pakistan led to discontent that remains today.

It was us that armed and supported regimes that turned tyrannical and now we find ourselves on the horns of a dilemma about how to support whom in the mess that we helped create.

It is us who, if we believe the conflicts to be religious in catalysis, refuse to remember the death and destruction wielded in the name of Christianity. Crikey, if we think the Sunni/Shia division is baffling then how do we account for the Cathars driven to extinction by ethnic cleansing by a Pope who did not like their particular form of Catholicism.

But back to today’s people and ‘our’ response to the reality that so many hundreds of thousands see themselves living a better life in Europe. Can you imagine yourself so dissatisfied with what is happening where you live that you set off to walk thousands of miles across countries you have never visited, across desert with little water or food, carrying your life possessions on your back with your wife, children, mother, grandmother in your company. The when you get somewhere near your destination – Europe – you find it necessary to pay mmore than your life savings to an unscrupulous human trafficker who packs you so tight in an unseaworthy vessel that your mother slips overboard never to be seen again, your child dies of the crush in a locked below-decks compartment and your wife is raped in front of your eyes by those traffickers who you so hoped would lead you to a better life? Go on, imagine it. I have tears in my eyes as I just write these sentences. These people are HUMANS like you or I, with desires and dreams like you or I, but without the ability to make them happen.

You finally make it to your destination, only to find that instead of the dream you are living in the open air or under a plastic sheet with thousands of others who made it. You are treated as criminals by regimes who you believed were more compassionate than the one you escape. You are held in detention centres while some bureaucrat driven by Political will, decides whether HE thinks it was worth all your sacrifice to get here.

We were happy to accept, even encourage the inhabitants of many of our former colonies to come to our textile factories, our buses, our shipyards, our hospitals. We were even magnificent, albeit probably not magnificent enough, in helping thousands escape the Nazis. Yet here we are making it difficult, and more difficult by the day, for those who look up to us, who value our freedoms to share in them. How selfish. How uncaring that we pay for fences and razor wire to stop a few thousand desperate migrants/refugees/whatever coming over from France. How petty-minded that when Germany has accepted over 800,000 such people we are resisting a few tens of thousands. How ridiculous that we spend millions on arming and training and even bombing one or other regime in the Middle East while we refuse to help those fleeing from the carnage.

Let’s find a way out of this situation that treats these poor people as human beings, that shares our wealth with them (maybe the oil companies could ‘repatriate’ some of the profits they make out of ‘their’ oil to the people in such dire straits) and that positions us as a beacon of human responses to human challenges. We need to address both the cause and the effect, we focus on the effect because it is here in our backyard whereas the cause is thousands of miles away in foreign lands so many of us do not understand.

Refugees welcome in german footballWhat a delight to see German football fans with signs saying “Refugees welcome here”. What a delight to hear of Icelandic families offering their homes to refugees.

And what a shame on us that 67% of the population think that sending the Army to France to restore order is an answer!

And one final question. How much is it costing us to resist the few thousand in Calais, compared to how much it would cost to treat them as deserving humans and find room for them in our so-called compassionate society?

A barbecue on a boat?

Dinner arrives!“How will we barbecue fish on a boat?” was the obvious question. But we can deal with that later.

The prospect of a week sailing a yacht through the waters off the Turkish coast had brought six men, of varying sailing ability, together. The experienced skipper had assured us of all the usual – day long yellow sun, cooling breezes, warm deepest blue waters – and then tempted us with the further prospect of catching our own fish as we sailed. Well, could I resist? There is little better than eating fish so fresh that it was swimming around only minutes before being cooked. I recalled the fishing expeditions with my dad. Evening sessions on the beach in Hornsea or some other East Yorkshire resort. My job to find the wood and light the fire on which the first fish we caught would be cooked. One eye on the rod waiting for another unwilling victim, one on the frying pan where our supper lay cooking to perfection. Could we regenerate that passion, that atmosphere, that unforgettable smell on board our 40foot yacht?

Let’s take a look at those six willing victims volunteers.

The most experienced, our skipper – let’s call him Jon – had enough certificates of competence to be able to sail our 40 footer across the Atlantic let alone around the relatively calm waters of the Mediterranean.

Next – calling him Geoff will protect the innocent – was an older version of that callow youth who accompanied his father around the coast when he was young. His childhood had been spent in and around boats of one sort or another, in on or near water. He had later learned to sail dinghies when his not inconsiderable bulk helped hold them in the water when less well-upholstered persons might have got blown over.

Wynn and Adrian, old greying friends, professed to being happier half way (or more) up a Himalayan peak and turned up with their Nepalese or Burmese T-shirts, Factor 50 (they knew all about the effects of the sun reflected off the snow, or sea), layers of technical clothing and ice-axes (OK, I lied about the ice-axes). They were up for anything and keen to learn.

Chris, the psycho (sorry, psychologist/counsellor/therapist) would undoubtedly have a key role in holding us all together when the going got tough.

And last but by no means least was Henry. Henry needed a change. He had recently retired from his long-held post at a prestigious university and was free, easy and available – although what prospect there was of romantic entanglement when we spent all day cooped up with five other red-blooded married blokes was hard to imagine.

So there we all were, enthusiastic yet largely unskilled. Willing to be led and educated by our brave skipper who proceeded to show us not only how to tie a bowline with one hand (try it yourself) but also the other delights he had brought with him. Carbon fibre rod, multiplier reel, lines, spinners and hooks galore. Yet apparently not quite the right lure for the huge great tuna, grouper, gilthead bream and other delights promised on turkishculture.org . A visit to the tackle shop beckoned.

Aladdin’s’ Cave would have looked tawdry compared to this place. Tempting the unwary fisherman in with garish offerings of soft rubbery lures, trapping him once inside with the prospect that any one of this cornucopia of delights could be just the one for that big fish and holding out the prospect of rewards unimaginable once it had been tied on to a bit of string and flung out the back of the boat. The walls covered with photographs of great fish and the even greater fishermen into whose firmament we could enter if only we bought the right tackle. “This one, Sir, will guarantee to seduce any local tuna onto your hook”, “How about this green and yellow imitation squid, or perhaps this with five different yet similar lures all on the same piece of wire?” (The wire being necessary for when the sharp teeth of the tuna bit into the lure and raised the angler’s heartbeat.) Fishermen find it hard to refuse these emblandishments and we walked out with the latter five-temptation setup, eager to get out on the water and catch our supper.

Fast forward – well, as fast as a Force 3 wind will allow – to mid-afternoon on Day1. All sails out, sailing as close to the wind as we can get, relaxing into an easy cruise to our dinner destination and out comes the fishing rod. “Time to catch dinner”. The little rubbery pseudo-squid dangle wobbly on the end of the metal trace as yards of line pay out behind the yacht. And then we wait, and wait, and wait… For today was not going to be our lucky day and dinner tonight was pasta and tinned tuna.

The next day followed the same pattern – we are going too slow, too fast, bouncing around too much. Not a nibble. Not even a change of tactic – replacing the by now infamous rubber squid with a garish spinner – tempted even a tiddler to bite. We knew that there were fish to be caught, every time we moored we found either a thriving fish market or some local restaurant’s fish tank packed with a range of treats that we could only dream about; the posters on the tackle shop window seemed to be advertising someone’s reality, just not ours.

By Day 5 we were beginning to wonder if we would ever catch our own supper. We had heard that the scent of women on the lure was more likely to attract the objects of our desire (fish, not women) but with six men on a boat that was out of the question. Perhaps Chris would come into his role, holding our psyches together amid an ocean of disbelief and hunger?

We moored that evening in a secluded bay with a rickety jetty and just one little restaurant. Drifting up to the landing we shouted out to ask if they could feed six of us and if they had any fresh fish. Encouraging nods and waves beckoned us over, by which time the one son who spoke broken English had been summoned. “We have fresh swordfish” sounded encouraging, so we settled down for a beer or two noting that the service was slow even by Turkish standards and wondering how come our Turkish guardian had time to phone his friends when he could be preparing our dinner. As we finished the starter of inevitable Hummus, Aubergines, Dolmades our friendly son – we never could understand his name – remarked “Fish here soon”. Good, that is what we were there for. A further beer arrived and then we heard the gentle and unmistakeable sound of a small outboard phut phutting in the bay; louder yet louder until it turned the headland and was clearly heading in our direction. It seemed like all of a sudden there was activity on a scale totally unanticipated; one son sent off to the shed to get something, another off to help the little fishing boat moor, yet another encouraging us to come and see.

Well, having a look at the boat mooring would pass the time, so off we went beers in hand. Big smiles all around and we were informed “Fish here”. The phone call had been to a local fisherman, who had promised to deliver fresh fish to fulfil our order. Not just Fresh fish, but fresh swordfish. Not just fresh swordfish, but three of the glistening silver and blue beauties. The smallest about 2 feet long, the biggest perhaps 5 feet from the crook of the splayed tail to the pointy tip of that fearsome sword. Eyes disproportionately large to help them see in the depths in which they hunted their own prey; bodies of pure muscle shaped to enable speed; a sword not used for spearing other less fortunate fish but to slash at supersonic speed through a shoal of prey stunning one or two who were to become the latest snack.

A large plastic sheet was hastily laid across one of the restaurant tables while help was sent to find the ancient weighing balance – you know the ones you see on the old photos, with a sliding weight on the top. But how to get these huge soon-to-be-dinners onto the vicious looking hook to weigh them? Another excursion to the shed revealed a length of rope with which the tails and heads of these slippery beasts were tied together. Two of the medium-sized sons held the pole on their shoulders and the weighing apparatus was hooked on. Slowly the fish were eased into balance and the fish eased into the air. We could not establish the total weight, but the more experienced amongst our crew reckoned on about 50kg in total. The fisherman had had a good day. An unknown amount of Turkish Lire exchanged hands and dinner was on!

And what a dinner. Can anything beat the taste of freshly caught fish barbecued on the wood from local vines and olives, basted in rough olive oil and herbs from the hillside only 50metres away? Potatoes sliced half a centimetre thick were cooked in oil with garlic, olives, onions and yet more herbs – soft and unctuous. A simple local salad of lettuce, tomatoes that had been on the plant less than half an hour ago, raw onions still warm from the earth they had rested in until very recently and yet more local olive oil.

THIS was gourmet eating and after all our disappointments we still ate barbecued fish, and never had to meet the challenge of how to do it on the boat.

Words on White

handwriting Words on White

Thoughts written across blank pages. Meaningful at first yet now empty of meaning. They start as a thought stream, slowly re-forming into something with which to buy bread, wine, tomatoes. Slowly making meaning not only to me but to those with whom I will work.

This seemed both important and useful at the time, yet I know they are both important and important, use less and useful. A necessary, or so I think, step on the journey to a new path. A path not just me, but for what I hope to help others to discover. Sometimes we are both willing and happy to just wander, yet I find so often others (and that includes parts of me) seek help or permission or a route map or even the illusion of safety. For that is what it is – it is all an illusion, a carefully crafted one designed to keep us safe, an illusion ultimately of our own making yet so richly informed, likely even guided, by others. The Bible, the Torah, the Tao – all I guides yet only guides, for ultimately we must all find our own path to righteousness, enlightenment, that new job, whatever…

The words call out to me. They no longer capture me. Sometimes they shine a light in the darkness, sometimes they block out the very light I am seeking.

They are only words.

This is only a book.

Nothing is real.

 

 

A Manifesto of Possibilities – Set your people free

For some time now I have talked to myself about writing a manifesto for the work I do. This morning’s prompt was “What do I really want or need to write about?” Perhaps the manifesto is forming already.

Empowerment A Manifesto of Possibilities – Set your people free

The answers are out there, the people need to be free. One would think that organisations are there solely for the benefit of some ethereal entity ‘the company’, but the company is there for the benefit of its many stakeholders and without the engagement of those stakeholders it can and will only survive in the short-term.

Mindless, thinking-less, managers believe that if they only set SMART stretch targets that all will be well, without really understanding the individual motivations of the people who work for them but should be working with them. Yes, money does matter in a way, but only in the societal ecosystem we have allowed to be created for ourselves; how much more inspiring is the possibility of an autonomous response to great leadership challenge. “Set your people free” applies not only in its original context but also to those within organisations. Allow them to master their science, there art, their whatever… and in the process they will develop beautiful systems capable of spectacular outputs. We only need management, especially old-style Plan/Organise/Control management, when we feel the need to control other people. Well, I ask, do you Mr Manager want to be controlled or would you rather develop your practice in pursuit of some greater good? Inspired by Bill Clinton “It’s the people stupid, not the stupid people”.

So set your people free – ask a good question, and answer is out there somewhere, let us go and find it. The search is not aided by plans and timescales but by the passionate search of somebody doing what they can, where they can, when they.

Liberté, Fraternité, Égalité

French flagNow I am no fan of bloody revolutions – their history too often leave rivers of blood, carnage  of bodies and the survivors disenfranchised only in a different way to that for which their brothers, sisters, parents, lovers and friends have been mowed down on the liberation fields.

Yet sitting in this currently drab concourse outside the Hotel De Ville, a concourse drab only because of the recent rain and unseasonal closing of the sun hardened locals both French and English, and whose magnificence will shortly blossom as the spring sun returns to warm and enlighten the creamy yellow stonework, I am reminded of the success of the French Revolution. If nothing else it forced the chefs onto the streets and kickstarted the restaurant trade so delivered of the gastronauts. But more, the power remains with both people and the politicians. The lowliest commune has its Mairie, elected in cases by only large handfuls of locals keen to ensure that their voices are heard and they get more than their fair share of the Euros coursing through the corridors of Paris. The farmers, perhaps still the peasant class and proud of it, exercise their power to close the local supermarché, the shoppers patiently waiting to be allowed into the Glass Palace this is a harbinger of mortality to the way of life lived for so long.

Liberté – not to be controlled

Fraternité – all in this together

Égalité – we are all humans

I don’t know if it is worth fighting for, is anything, but it is certainly worth having.

Leading by following

 

We were looking for a prompt, I opened the Tao and read this piece on Multitude, leading to this possible second part of my manifesto.

Leading by following Leading by following

The leader knows when to emerge from the pack. Be it wolves who, trotting along aimlessly, suddenly find a prey and must (self-) organise for attack; or perhaps the cranes croakingly winging their way like serried arrows across the southern sky needing a new leader every few minutes; or the partygoers somehow deciding when to move on and which club pub or club to go to next.

There are no rules for this, except perhaps the one “Make your suggestion and see what happens”. Often times the suggestion will be rejected or ignored, it is not you who will be set aside, just an idea and ideas are plentiful, there is a multitude in everyone’s head. We follow the will of the crowd, yes we can do also influence and guide that will. Ignore judgement as that is as someone else’s baggage and you have enough of your own without accumulating yet more from them. The time to lead is felt not thought – feeling leads (to) thinking. One minute a follower, sensing the needs of the pack, the next a leader showing the way bringing your own particular skills to the situation.