The Real Self, the Other, and the Community – Are You Connected?

What early experiential learning can be good for …:
In the year 2000, the International Youth Foundation (IYF) and Nokia launched their global Community Involvement program, at the time called ‘Make a Connection – to yourself, your peers, and your community’. On the Nokia side, I had the privilege to operationally run this program and contribute to growing it to individual programs in more than 20 countries, directly having impacted more than 200,000 young people by the time I left six years later.

What did young program participants learn? The program worked in three concentric circles, from the inside out:

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– ‘Make a connection to yourself’ was about what Daniel Goleman calls ‘emotional intelligence’ – being in touch with yourself, understanding yourself and your needs, being capable of managing your own emotions, especially as a teenager

– ‘Make a connection to your peers’ was about what Daniel Goleman calls ‘social intelligence’ – having good and meaningful relationships with your family, your friends, people around you (rather than being in potential conflict and/or isolation)

– ‘Make a connection to your community’ was essentially about being a citizen – being part of and contributing to a community, also through volunteering, youth activism, social projects, social entrepreneurship.

I left Nokia at the end of 2005, and a wonderful colleague from Italy took over my role. Now, almost 10 years after I left, 15 years after we started, I have gained true appreciation for the meaningful depth of the concept IYF suggested we launch together at the time. Through my work as a consultant, coach and leadership trainer, and most recently through a research and book project, I have come to appreciate in myself these three concentric circles – and have noticed how, while the program for teenagers went from the inside out, over the past 10 years I personally have moved deeply from the outside in:

– ‘Make a connection to your community’ – those were my early years as an activist, being a member of Amnesty International, ‘doing the door to door’ for Greenpeace, working at the Canadian Center on Racism and Prejudice. Those were also my Nokia years, growing the Make a Connection program. Those were even the years of writing and publishing with my then-client Nick Lakin our book ‘Corporate Community Involvement’.

– ‘Make a connection to your peers’ – those were my years after leaving Nokia, studying to become a change consultant. My mentor Jane Linklater, who had already guided IYF and Nokia in our cross-sector collaboration, strongly recommended a book to me at the time, ‘Intimacy and Solitude‘ by Stephanie Dowrick, which taught me good awareness of how to be an ‘appropriate other’, really learning how to see and understand other people as individuals in themselves, in good inter-subjectivity, and offer them good mutuality in our relationships. (Making that a topic in my Master’s thesis, I also connected it to companies/organizations and their stakeholder relations.) I’ll forever be grateful to Jane for this and many other things.

– ‘Make a connection to yourself’ – while I had always assumed that I had that, it only really happened on a much deeper level over the last few years, amongst others through being introduced to some of the complex work of Prof. Dr. Julius Kuhl, a small part of which is a distinction between a person’s ‘expectation I’ and ‘real self’. The ‘expectation I’ is what might correspond to Freud’s ‘Über-Ich’ – a subconscious introjection of what other people and society want(ed) from us. Facets like ‘be strong’, ‘be fast’, ‘hurry up’, ‘try hard’, etc. Internalized drivers that can actually drive us too hard. (Based on insights from neuroscience, Kuhl actually connects it to left-brain activity.) In contrast, there is the ‘real self’ (accordingly situated in right-brain activity) to be discovered – and sometimes (most times?), that takes time (out), deep inner reflection, some grappling, some sitting with discomfort, some real inner ‘going through transition’. Yet it is a journey that is deeply worth it, finally finding out about aspects like ‘who is my real self?’, ‘what does my real self actually feel?’, ‘what is it that my real self wants?’, ‘what does my real self want to say no to?’. This is a journey that is not necessarily wedded to so-called ‘external success’ – it is not about status, power, money. It is about essence, it is about meaning, it is about being.

So there you go – years later, I find that the theme of ‘Make a connection – to yourself, your peers, and your community’ was so wisely chosen. It is a concept that I want to re-introduce into my own coaching and relational leadership training work, supporting people in getting in touch with their real selves, learning good inter-subjectivity and mutuality as ‘adequate others’ and relational leaders, and making a contribution as citizens, individually through voting, activism, volunteering, mentoring, and possibly pro bono work, and in their organizations through what used to be called ‘corporate responsibility’, and is by many nowadays called ‘organization sustainability‘.

How do I lead? An evolving relational credo …

The other night, in a dream, someone put me on the spot, asking me provocatively: ’Can you take over here and lead?’ The dream sequence prompted me to think about what the person meant and what was required – and it prompted me to ask myself: How do I lead? Just to become more aware of it for myself.

Once I had started scribbling things down, I looked on the Internet whether other people did what I had just done. I found quite a few people, also e.g. head teachers, who had written up their leadership credos and had made them public, for colleagues and direct reports to see – inviting those colleagues and reports to always hold them to their own standards and give them feedback if they ’slipped’. I thought that was quite a neat idea. So, not copying their content – I still wanted that to be entirely my own, so did not read what they wrote – I do want to ’join that club’ and attempt to put something online. Here’s where I currently stand – to be revised and updated on an ongoing basis …:

THE FOUNDATION for my leadership approach are my values. I have condensed and summarized my most important ones, those that you cannot take away from me, to be:

  • Autonomy and integrity –
    the most important basis for me, and to define me as a person, both values go hand in hand. I need full autonomy over my destiny like I need air to breathe, and I know I need honesty – I offer it myself and need it from others. Lying does not work for me, neither does deceit. I simply don’t like hidden agendas. Mutual commitment (another important value, see below) is to me not possible without mutual integrity.
  • Communication and understanding –
    trying to truly understand others, really seeing them, in their unique ways of seeing and experiencing the world, and with their resulting needs and convictions. Also on a mutual basis – hopefully being seen and understood.
  • Mutuality, loyalty and support –
    good mutuality really creates the balance that is needed in any relationship, be it between people, organizations, or groups in society – and it means a lot to me. Such good mutuality, to me, has to include loyalty (which probably links in with my need for integrity mentioned above). And on that basis of mutuality and loyalty, being there for each other for appropriate support, in a motivating, encouraging, helpful way.

Then, a big BUILDING BLOCK for my approach is my understanding of power: I am not in the least interested in power over anybody – I believe in power with each other. (In my understanding, if you want power over others, good mutuality cannot work.)

In terms of the leadership notion itself: While I am personally fully with Peter Block, who promotes the more radical notion of ‘stewardship, an even more self-responsible and democratic approach, here I will go with ‘leadership’ as the notion that is still more commonly in use.

So where it comes to the activity, on the basis of my values and my understanding of power, I lead by

  • being authentic – offering up who I believe myself to be at this point in my own evolving; what you see is what you get. No hidden agenda.
  • being deeply interested in people, their drivers and motivations, and their personal and professional transformational development. I lead by listening actively and getting to know people. I lead by respecting, honoring and valuing people for who they are. I lead on a basis of familiarity and trust with each other.
  • good contracting between us, clarifying underlying mutual assumptions as much as possible.

I lead:

  • with a deep awareness that culture is co-created, and that each one of us contributes simply by ’showing up’, and by how we show up.
  • from behind, being supportive, and my door is always open.
  • in a circle, in a flat hierarchy and a participatory approach, co-creating both strategy and implementation. I want us to achieve great things together and ’change the game’ – also through good ’thinking together’, also with external ’best minds’.
  • by being fine with some of my reports being more knowledgeable than I on certain areas of expertise.
  • being all for it when people want to get ahead and thrive – I will, if needed, only caution them occasionally not to overwork themselves. But I will not react well to people who only do the very minimum they can get away with, leaving their workplace on the minute. I need people on my team who are self-motivated and self-managing – which does not mean that they cannot consult me on my opinion and/or advice at any time.
  • encouraging everybody to pay good attention to taking good and loving care of ourselves, with healthy, balanced lives that include sufficient sleep, rest, relaxation and leisure, healthy food and some exercise, and quality time with family and friends – as well as coaching or also therapy in as much as they can be helpful for personal evolution and inner transformation
  • aiming to offer constructive feedback as needed, and equally wanting to receive that myself.
  • learning from everybody, aware that we all learn from each other.

In that very spirit, I invite every reader of this post – if you have made it this far – to engage in conversation and feedback with me on what I have written above – thank you

Sustainability, leadership, empathy, mindfulness – what have they all got to do with each other?

I have tried to really condense my thinking on this into a few short sentences. So here you go:

Sustainability must include sustainable leadership – and that means ethical, participatory leadership. Lead in a circle, consider the concerns of stakeholders and allow/hear/consider/think with their voices, starting with your employees.

We must accompany managers on their way to becoming leaders, not leave them alone with that, but offer them relevant learning. Too many managers are left alone in their transition from management to leadership, where suddenly they are no longer just responsible for themselves, but for furthering and developing people in a team.

Sustainable leadership is about inter-subjectivity and empathy – also towards employees, communities, the environment, and future generations.

The challenge is ignorance – people who keep playing the wrong game, the game of endless material growth and ego-centrism only.

What is inter-subjectivity? Really *seeing* other individuals, as subjects in themselves, with rights, needs and emotions – not as objects for you to treat any way you please, or to consider mere extensions of yourself. Or even worse, as objects to exploit.

That inter-subjectivity perception takes empathy – and empathy is an ability that in most people (except those with certain personality disorders) can be increased through awareness raising, learning and practice.

So here is our challenge as leadership trainers and coaches – help leaders with their levels of empathy, help them with their ability to see others rightfully as subjects in themselves, in good inter-subjectivity, and expand from there to help them understand the concept of sustainable leadership – acting in the best interest of all stakeholders concerned, long-term.

We must also help leaders especially with weighing the pressures of having to produce and present short-term profit with realizing and protecting long-term strategic interests. Example: If you ‘take the profit and run’, that might work for a few years – but what does it take to do and invest differently if you want your business to be around for 20 years or longer?

In the end, whether as an individual or an organization, what really matters in today’s world is that you yourself act and behave like an ‘adequate other’ towards the people around you/your stakeholders. And that attitude and behavior requires good mindfulness.

Sustainability-focused theater play ‘Water’

It’s been a while since I saw it, yet it came to mind again, and I thought it deserved a short blog post: The sustainability-focused theater play ‘Water’, which was staged in London/England’s Tricycle Theatre.

“(The) piece begins with a lecture about the properties of water and how – like this uniquely gregarious molecule – the human race must pull together against its own nature in order to preserve the planet.
The interweaving plot strands that comprise the rest of the play make it clear that this will not happen: the cave diver who allows his competitive streak to isolate him; the couple forced apart by her career; the climate change conference undermined by self-interest; the irreconcilable half-brothers.“
From a review in TimeOut London, March 3-9, 2011

One text line in the play goes:
“We must be made to limit ourselves, however counterintuitive that may feel.”

The play is excellent and, although set in 1981, still feels timeless and acutely relevant – I wish it could be seen in more places!

Watch the trailer here

Action Learning is professional peer coaching

Why Action Learning?
“I’ve had more directly applicable job learning from this than from any conference I ever went to!” That’s what one Managing Director told me – and that is what professional peer consulting in a facilitated Action Learning group can do for you.

At conferences and workshops, colleagues and I have noticed again and again how participants seem most eager to have an exchange of experiences with each other and are looking for peer advice. Most of the time, however, little or no time is planned in around these events for such peer exchange to take place – at best, some Open Space Technology sessions will be offered. Here Action Learning, a facilitated and confidential peer consulting approach, can be a welcome solution.

What is Action Learning about?
Action Learning is all about bringing your current management or leadership issues into a trusting exchange of knowledge and experience, joint reflection, and hands-on feedback

 with five selected peers from other organizations. Complete confidentiality is assured!

Openness and trust, respect, joint co-creation of the coaching process and mutual learning are key elements of Action Learning.

How does it work?
An Action Learning group typically has six participants and a facilitator.


 Each session starts with a catch-up phase during which group members share their current news or just let the others know how they are currently doing.

The catch-up phase is followed by some members putting in own bids for help with issues they would like to talk through. In one Action Learning session, typically more than one person will bring her/his topic to the group.

 An issue holder then shares her or his issue, for about five minutes. After that, the other participants will ask questions for clarification only.

 Following issue clarification, group members can then:

o   Ask open questions

o   Offer feedback

o   Challenge and support

o   Offer suggestions

o   Offer theories and ideas

o   Offer advice

How long does it take?
Participants generally come together for a day, from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 pm.
One Action Learning round typically lasts about one hour (sometimes a bit shorter, sometimes a bit longer). Several issue holders can each get an Action Learning ‘round’ during one day.

After an Action Learning day, group members go back into their organizations and experiment further with the topic they talked about, the consulting they received, and own new understanding and insights.

Participants meet again after six weeksaltogether about four to six times over a period of half a year –– to share learning experiences, and to start another round of talking through own learning and development issues around effective management and leadership.

The snake that swallowed the elephant: The change/innovation adoption curve

Do you remember reading Saint Exupéry’s The Little Prince? Who thought he’d ever be relevant for business? Yet if you can remember the story and the image of the snake that swallowed the elephant, it’ll help you remember for ever the shape of Roger’s change/innovation adoption curve. If you are yet more informed, you may remember it from Geoffrey Moore’s much-quoted 1991 business bestseller ’Crossing the Chasm.

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The change/innovation curve first sees the innovators (risk takers who desire to try new things, even if they fail) and moves to early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards. You will notice there is a vast chasm between the early adopters and the early majority. While early adopters are attracted to change and want the advantage of being first, the early majority waits until they know that the change/innovation actually offers improvements worth their while. The challenge for innovators, change agents and communicators/marketers is to narrow this chasm and ultimately accelerate adoption.

Rogers explained already in 1962 that there are four main elements that influence the spread of a new idea:

the innovation – communication channels – time – and … a social system.

Achieving acceptance and adoption tends to be much harder with the late majority: They will usually only adopt in reaction to peer pressure or economic necessity. Most of the uncertainty around an idea must have been resolved for them to adopt. All the while, the laggards simply prefer to rely on past experience.

Think of different scenarios for this concept – I, for example, am an early adopter where it comes to social change; however, with certain new technologies, count me amongst the laggards … For those of us working in Corporate Responsibility, we certainly experienced the companies that only came around to it through stakeholder pressure, or being left behind in the market.
What is it like for you? In what areas of professional or personal life do you count yourself among the early adopters or early majority – and where do you tend to be a laggard?

A note on not wasting your time: For effective change, invest your energy into the early half of this model, up to including the early majority. They will be your multipliers to eventually convince the other half – while you and your energy are already on to the next change/innovation project. Convincing the late majority and the laggards would simply take too much of your creative, innovative energy and time and would be too much hard Sisyphus work.

Do you give feedback constructively? Here’s how …

Giving feedback is not always easy – or welcome. It can look like a tricky endeavor that involves many potential traps and could trigger defense, denial, rage or even tears. Yet, as learned from my mentor, the wise consultant and coach Jane Linklater, already years ago, there is a safe technique for both sides – a tried and tested seven-step formula you can follow for success.

First of all, always start with something positive. No, I mean it: Always start with something positive about the person’s actions or behavior – no matter how impatient or worked up you might be in the moment! E.g., say “I really enjoy working with you”, or “Such and such piece of work was really great”.

Second, please don’t follow with a ’but’. The moment you start with ’but’, the other person is on their inner guard – and that’s not what you want, right? You want to keep the feedback doors open, don’t you? So use the trick: Say ’and’. That way, there are no defenses going up. Instead, the doors remain wide open.

Thirdly, use constructive wording, e.g. ’This has been great – and if you could still optimize that other thing …’ Or: ’This has been great – and at the same time, there is one other aspect that I personally find difficult … could we talk about that one?’

Now the most important part starts:
Rather than saying something like: ’Everybody thinks you always are …’, stay away from the three traps that are right in those 5 little words: stay away from
4) characterizing the person (“you are“)
5) generalizing (“you always …”)
6) from giving them the impression that people are talking about them behind their back (“everybody thinks …”, “everybody else says that, too …”)

Instead, please

4) focus on their behavior only
5) quote specific situations
6) that you observed, with the effect that had on you

E.g. ’When you do such and such, like in yesterday’s meeting, I find that difficult, because this is the effect it has on me …’

7) Then, please do not end this before having given the person a clear recommendation of what behavior you would rather see, e.g.: ’I personally would much prefer if you could …’, or ‘I would find it more helpful if you did …’

These seven steps should get you through safely, and hopefully make your feedback ‘land’ more constructively with the recipient.

Now, in case you need to give extended feedback or clarify a whole working relationship, there is also a tool that provides a ‘holding structure’ that can make both attending parties feel safe during a difficult conversation.

Ideally, for that purpose, you don’t have your conversation in the office, but the two of you go somewhere offsite, e.g. to a quiet café. (And put your laptops and mobile phones away and on silent, for full attention to each other. Plan between one and two hours for your session.)

Please note: If one of you has a preference for introversion, it can be advisable to actually book a small meeting room e.g. at a hotel, as they may feel exposed if they have to assume that other people could listen in on your conversation, even if you talk quietly.

The important thing now is to have a mutual feedback conversation.

For that, you can use the four quadrants below:

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Once again, please note: If one of you has a preference for introversion, it can be helpful to share the four quadrants sheet prior to meeting up, so each of you can prepare your answers to the four questions. People with a preference for introversion don’t like having to ‘shoot from the hip’ – they prefer to think and reflect for a while before they actually speak out.

Now take turns answering each quadrant – so both of you answer quadrant 1 first, and then move on to quadrant 2. And please stick to the order and stay with it. Don’t jump into quadrant 4 when you’re supposed to talk about quadrant 2 only (please point it out to each other in case one of you does). And please don’t interrupt each other – hear each other out. Then, if you are on the receiving end, maybe ask a couple of questions to clarify, like ’You mean if I do such and such, this is how it lands with you?’ or ’So you mean if I do such and such instead, that would help?’

Sticking to that discipline, you can have really constructive and safe conversations also about difficult topics that may previously have seemed off limits. Many of my clients have made that experience, and they worked more effectively together after their feedback session.

However, if you still find it challenging to have such a conversation, you can ask a qualified facilitator to come in, sit with you two and help you through the conversation. Your HR department should be able to help you with recommending such a person.

In summary, a constructive feedback process can help the two of you towards new soft contracting between you, as a solid foundation for how you want to go on together in your work relationship.

Do you still talk CSR, or ESG impact?

ESG are ‘Environmental, Social And Governance Criteria‘ – a set of standards for a company’s operations that socially conscious investors use to screen investments. We have heard of the Triple Bottom Line before, and of the 3Ps – people, planet, and profit. Here’s ESG: Environmental criteria determine how a company performs as a steward of the natural environment. Social criteria examine how a company manages relationships with its stakeholders: e.g. its employees, suppliers, customers, local governments, NGOs, unions, and the communities where the company operates and where its employees work and live. Governance criteria deal with, for example, a company’s leadership, executive pay, audits and internal controls, and shareholder rights.

Goldman Sachs writes: ‘In our Environmental, Social and Governance Impact Report we illustrate how our work with clients helps to drive broader economic and social value. We also highlight our active engagement in the communities where we live and work and our support of an array of initiatives to promote environmental sustainability and community development.’

E.ON writes: ‘Standardized indicators from the areas of Environment, Social and Governance (ESG) are gaining in importance in the capital market for evaluating companies, which is why we structure the reporting of our sustainability performance along material ESG criteria over the past several years.’

So, from the first Environmental Reports in the late 1980s, to then CSR Reports around the year 2000, soon to be followed by CR Reports, to Sustainability Reports as of around 2005, to now ESG Reports for the past couple of years – the field keeps evolving, and as practitioners, we need to evolve with it … The important thing to remember: it remains all about impact.

How do you deal with conflict?

Are you mainly assertive, competing to win, or cooperative, accommodating other people’s needs? How does that vary situationally? Where and when do you compromise?

There are different models on how people tend to deal with conflict, be it in the workplace or privately. One that is easy to understand is the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI):

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We often hear about win-win. If you only pursue assertiveness (left axis), you win and the other person loses. If you only accommodate (right axis), the other one wins and you lose. If you avoid conflict altogether, the issue remains essentially unresolved

A helpful question to ask is: ’How important is this particular issue of conflict to you?’ If it is of very high importance, you may choose to really push it through assertively. If, however, it is of less importance to you than to the other party, you might as well decide to accommodate them instead …

The Thomas Kilmann model suggests that the most effective way to deal with conflict is a combination of assertiveness and accommodation (situated in the top right corner of the graph), collaborating well for a win-win in which both a solid degree of assertiveness and a good degree of simultaneously paying attention to the quality of the relationship and accommodating the other person’s needs come to fruition to work out a mutually satisfying solution.

It gets tricky when only one mode of conflict gets consistently overused – i.e. when someone always has to win, or someone else always avoids conflict, or yet another one always accommodates the other party, thus sacrificing own needs. (Ask yourself: In which of your work relationships might you be currently experiencing that?)

You may be strong on either the assertiveness or the accommodation side (or an avoider?) – it is worth it in the long run to practice the over-used mode less and instead practice the side that is less familiar to you more. It’s like learning to write with your other hand – the more you practice, the better you get at it eventually … and that makes you a more well-rounded individual also in conflict situations.

If you’d like to find out for yourself which conflict style you currently favor most, you can take the TKI online and receive your detailed personalized report via pdf immediately. You can also order this for your team. (It will cost you US$40 on your credit card – add to your cart at the very BOTTOM of the page). 

What makes you a mature leader?

A mature leader invites constructive feedback, also from own employees, to self-reflect on it, adapt and evolve. Only an immature, self-absorbed manager will reject such feedback.

Look at the ’30/40/50 Rule’: the same behaviors that made you successful in your thirties can make you stagnate, ’derail’, even lose your career in your fourties and fifties. In your thirties, you experienced success through yourself and got ahead through qualities like:

– ambition
– strength through specialization
– pushing own points of view through
– direct control of your own objectives

In your fourties and fifties, as a Director, Vice President or higher, your success is realized through others, i.e. the people who report to you – so now you get ahead through:

– appreciating, motivating and developing others
– creating a sense of collaboration and unity
– being secure and well-grounded enough in yourself to both give and receive feedback from anybody around you constructively
– being a role model for your team, modeling the behavior you want to see from them

That is quite a commitment – are you up to it? Are you willing to engage in and take time for the self-development that it takes? For that self-development, it all starts with feedback. Not just from your superior and perhaps a coach, but from the very people who observe you most astutely: your employees. And not just through an anonymous 360-degree feedback tool, but face to face, in real conversation.

Take this team leader who blurted out: “Anyone who criticizes me will be fired!“ – Do you think that is the solution? He may have to fire one team after another … Or take this newly promoted Director with international responsibility who, in a leadership training, came to me after a session and asked, all concerned: “You seriously mean I need to become more relational and invest in my soft skills?“ When I confirmed, he looked rather concerned …

You know, I used to not be that good at taking feedback myself, still in my late thirties; I had my sensitivities … and I’ll be eternally grateful to my U.S. colleague Vannessa, who made me notice. When she offered me a comment on my team behavior, and I went straight into a defensive answer, she said: „“Hellooooo – I just kindly offered you constructive feedback, which means I just made you a gift. Shut up with your defense and reflect on what I said.“ I never forgot that – she was so right: Feedback is a gift, generously offered to us so we can notice our own ’blind spots’ and get a chance at evolving towards being a more ’adequate other’.

Later on in my training as a consultant and coach, learning how to receive feedback, reflect on it and evolve from that was a crucial part of my education, and I cannot recommend it enough.

One first thing to consider is whether you respect your own employees enough to give them their annual or bi-annual development session, and whether you prepare for that well. It is not just for their objectives and for determining whether they get their bonus – it is also about how they want to develop, both in terms of hard and soft skills, and where they want to be in three to five years. And it is about the often uncomfortable question: ’What do you, employee, want me, team leader, to improve on in my own management or leadership behavior?’

If you dare ask that question, and if you have made your employees comfortable enough around you for them to trust you and dare answer you honestly, then the feedback you receive will be a gift indeed. If you can receive it without anger and defensiveness. If you can reflect on it, see your possible blind spot, and practice a different approach in the future. That is (amongst others) what is required of a mature leader.

In case you are interested in taking a leadership development course or getting some personal coaching, feel free to get in touch – I’ll be happy to recommend both courses and/or coaches to you.