Leadership and wielding power

Its been a couple of months since I last posted anything. Apparently though, if my blog had been a San Fransisco cable car over the course of the past year then it would have taken 48 trips to carry the number of people who viewed it. The views came from 79 countries over the past 12 months too, and most commented on was my article on Leaders, Power and Openness. My first post of the new year took a while to put together – hope you enjoy it.




“….and if horses don’t have confidence in the person and the surroundings, it’s pretty hard for them to get confidence within themselves – about how to cope with those other two things.” ~ The late Tom Dorrance


The late Tom Dorrance was born in 1910 and his life was filled with ranch work, farming and especially horses. He’s influenced the thinking of an extraordinary number of people over the years (including me), and he continues to influence long after his death in 2003. The combination of the circumstances associated with the photograph above, as well as a recent event involving a client who was extremely nervous about a recent meeting with the Chief Executive of their organisation has been tumbling around clumsily in my head for a while.


As the CE – or any other leader for that matter – do you have any idea of how you impact upon others? Do you have any sense at all of how your presence affects others? Do you even care?


During my military career, I’ve met a number of people who didn’t. They even seemed to enjoy the ‘bragging rights’ they were under the impression it gave them the right to express. Somehow, by being the ‘alpha male’ stereotype, they operated under the delusion that they were an awesome leader. I’ve also met people who didn’t possess charisma or good communication skills; they would employ micro-management and empty discourse instead. They would slavishly adhere to nonsense rules and policy, creating environments where people dreaded making mistakes for fear of what would happen after they did. I’ve met people who enjoy puffing their feathers and showing off their plumage. I’ve met those who hide behind the authority vested in their rank or position. In each case, I recall being staggered, but mostly disappointed, that the organisation rewarded such behaviour or example. The military isn’t perfect – it has people in it after all. Fortunately, I’ve been privileged to serve with some not just good, but outstanding leaders. The types you would walk over hot coals for; the types who put you in harm’s way, but not wantonly – and you go there willingly for them. I’ve met leaders where I’ve looked at them in awe of how they have done something, or interacted with others, and wondered how I could learn to incorporate even a fraction of incredible excellence into the way I lead. The very best ones I met weren’t interested in acquiring followers; they were devoted to creating and developing more leaders – who would be better than them. allow a horse to make mistakes. The horse will learn from mistakes no different than the human. But you can't get him to where he dreads making mistakes for fear of what's going to happen after he does." ~ Buck Brannaman

…you allow a horse to make mistakes. The horse will learn from mistakes no different from the human. Sometimes, you still have to be a parent, but be firm and fair. You can’t get him to where he dreads making mistakes for fear of what’s going to happen after he does.” ~ Buck Brannaman


My client and I have worked together for less than a handful of years now. The comment that has caused me to allow the thoughts to rumble around in my head came up during one of our regular discussions and it leapt out at me at the time.


Client: “I’m really nervous about meeting with the CE. Hope she is in an OK mood.”

Me: “You’ll be fine. She sits down to poop just like you do.”

Client: *smiles apprehensively and nods.


The conversation went on to wrangle with this a little more, but I was really struck by my Client’s initial comment. On reflection, I realised there were two parts to it; one was an internal issue and the other an external one. More interesting, the two parts work in the case of both parties (i.e. my Client, and their CE). I’ve often said that behaviour is the outward manifestation of what’s going on; it’s a symptom. The people working for and with a leader are on the receiving end of the behaviour – and the leader makes a choice about how to express their behaviour. The choice is either deliberate, sub-conscious, or un-conscious; but a choice is made nonetheless.  Being conscious and mindful is hard work; the brain seeks energetically efficient ways to do things and so often, we make a choice that is the one involving least effort. Unfortunately, under pressure those choices are self-indulgent ways of articulating something or expressing ourselves and outwardly, what we project is perhaps not what we would mean to if we put in a little more thought and effort.


"The horse is a great equalizer. He doesn't care how good looking you are, or how rich you are, or how powerful you are. He takes you for how you make him feel." ~ Buck Brannaman

“The horse is a great equalizer. He doesn’t care how good-looking you are, or how rich you are, or how powerful you are. He takes you for how you make him feel.” ~ Buck Brannaman


Over the years, I’ve worked with a number of high-profile figures, over lengthy time periods. Over a handful of them have earned international success in high performance areas. Who they are isn’t important – I’m not someone who seeks or wants accolade or testimonial from such figures so that other people think I’m somehow awesome. You shouldn’t be concerned about who they are either – I’ve yet to have anyone work with me because they want to boast about working with “the guy” who worked with this or that person. People work with me because I’m effective and I’m not interested in a one-shot encounter. My business model is counter-intuitive in some ways; rather like “Rule One of Fight Club – you don’t talk about Fight Club”. Ironic then that I blog, I suppose. However, I blog mostly for me; I don’t want to force what I do on anybody – that’s not the way I work with horses and so it just makes sense to me that I continue that approach with business. With all the people I’ve had the honour of working with, from all walks of life, what strikes me most is how little the horse cares about reputation. The horse just isn’t impressed.


What the horse does care about – and it’s why they are such good teachers – is how you make them feel. Humans are no different.  As a leader, do you really want people to be nervous before they come to meet you? There are times when yes, of course you do, but I’m talking about on everything but those rare occasions. As a leader, how do you ever know you are wrong if you have created an environment where people are too nervous to speak the truth to you? Do you as a leader value the nature and quality of the relationships you have with people? How as a leader do you deal with ‘difficult’, or challenging people to lead? Are you intimidated by it, and so resort to using intimidation to give yourself a sense of control?


There is a Yugoslav expression that, roughly translated, means, “if you want to know a person, place them in charge.” Other cultures have something similar. Everything I’ve spoken about here relates to how you as a leader wield power, and the effects of how you wield power. It also relates to what ‘control’ for you might look and feel like.  My experiences and my working with horses have enabled me to think differently about what ‘control’ actually is; and mostly, it’s a false sense. The first photograph above was a moment where ‘Benny’ – a handful of a young horse – made a decision that he would ‘join up’ with me. It was his decision, but it was crucial for us being able to work together; he had to want to be there with me. As with all the horses I work with, I can’t make them do anything – they have a say in it. Power can be an intoxicating thing and I know this – just like I know the sun will rise in the morning and set in the evening: you ride a spirited horse with a light touch and on a loose rein. You don’t try to control it; you develop a relationship with it. You listen to it, you go with it and you ask it – you don’t tell it.


In 2016, don’t be the leader around whom people are nervous. I wish you all a positive and rewarding year ahead.




Ride with a light touch and a loose rein!




Leadership training providers need to lift their game – and so do leaders!


“…what you see with your eyes is not necessarily real. My enemy is, among other things, the me inside me.” ~ Haruki Murakami

I originally wrote this blog as an article for Sonia McDonald, director of the Queensland-based LeadershipHQ. It was published in the July 2015 Edition of LHQ Magazine, (page five). Since then, I’ve added a few more thoughts….

Provision of leadership training: big. Demand for leadership training and development: huge. Is this similar to commercial provision of fast, junk food and our appetite for it? Are we corporately obese from consumption of mass-produced, easily available, well advertised and marketed, ‘trendy’, but ultimately unhealthy leadership food that lacks balance and real nutritional value?

When you last spent money developing leaders in your organisation, how did you measure return on investment? Did you just need rid of un-allocated training budget at financial year-end? Did the provider of the ‘training’ or ‘development’ actually pay attention and understand your organisation’s problem, or deliver a package tweaked to make it ‘fit’? Are you sure you understood the problem you were trying to fix?

Leadership research: similarly vast. The golden chalice – to be the next “Kotter”, “Drucker”, or “Schein”. I’m not being dismissive; these people have at some point, all been ground breaking and influenced two decades or so of organisational culture and leadership. Nonetheless, exercise caution, and think! Drucker’s focus on effectiveness (from 1967) holds true – paraphrased: if you can’t articulate how the shiny thing contributes, then it’s just a shiny thing…enjoy looking at it, and move on.

How do you decide the best way to invest in not only your own development, but also that of leaders upon whom you rely? How do you ensure money spent on a four-day residential workshop at a five-star resort is worth it? For a start, you have to lift your game. Invest most, when you think you need it least; train hard, fight easy!


Not everyone is a leader. The David Brent parody (played by Ricky Gervais in ‘The Office’) springs to mind as the least damaging example. At worst an individual who isn’t a leader, but who occupies the role will get people un-necessarily killed, or take a good team and destroy it. The best people will leave, and the remainder turn into commuter-zombies.

I contemplate the start point for a leader as being able to provide people with reassurance, associated with your presence. For example, I create an environment where clients feel safe making themselves vulnerable, reinforced by three things: neither seeking, nor using testimonials; the prelude to any work of a non-disclosure agreement; and my manner and demeanour.

Reassurance can be visceral; a matter of survival, like in a firefight. It might be intellectual and psychological associated with your livelihood, maybe, when the Damoclesian threat of ‘restructure’ dangles over your department. When it doesn’t feel, sound, or look right – in uncertainty, and when you think it might go wrong – a leader’s the person you turn to, or think of, listen to, or look at with belief that they’ll make the right decisions to keep you (and those around you) safe.

Leadership’s foundation is the nature and quality of relationships. My horse-training and equine-facilitated learning programmes are based on the same principle. During and beyond my military career this remains fundamental. Statement of the obvious? Then why don’t we see it more widely? Why do people struggle with it?


Seductive leadership and development training is cleverly constructed and marketed – it’s multi-million dollar business. Testimonials from well-known figures and CEOs of ‘successful’ companies, offer gravitas. If we see a high-profile figure quoted, or the coach of a successful national sports team saying, “this was the best day I’ve ever spent, and I learned so much about myself!” – it has to be good, because I want some of that gilt to rub off. I want bragging rights to declare, “yeah, we took the executive team down to the lakeside resort where the World Cup team had a retreat before the semi-final”.

Really? That’s still the best you’ve got…?

When it goes wrong, the consequences can be dire; take for example, the recent experience of the England Rugby Team.  The UKs Telegraph newspaper reports how eight members of staff, under the team’s head of athletic performance, took part in what is described as an activity that, “sounds like something from a corporate training manual“. The UKs Daily Mail is a little more brutal, with a headline, “Only Fools and Horses” . The Mirror newspaper expostulated that, “some of the coaching staff led horses round a field in a bizarre pre-tournament team-building exercise“. I don’t doubt that the company providing the training is a professional organisation and did a good job; the point here is that media spin and the appetite for blood  following the England RWC2015 performance has not only ridiculed the activity undertaken by the English Rugby team, but also means the company providing the training for them is probably coy about advertising that they provided the training. Imagine if the England rugby team fortune had gone the other way!

What does this mean for you?

It means you have to try harder. Is adoption of re-contextualised ‘lean-six’ fault finding tools from a production line process the right answer, because it’s popular and fashionable? Roll the clock forward two years; tell me what it’ll look like when you (or one of your senior executives) are leading the people on whom your company relies to win? What behaviours would you expect to see? What do you do if you don’t see those behaviours? More importantly, why aren’t you seeing those behaviours – I mean, you sent people on a workshop with a great set of testimonials!

Did your expensive leadership development forum conduct personality type profiling? Was that what attracted you? Some of these activities are superb, and I know a few companies doing this really well. There is benefit in understanding what makes you tick as an individual or team, but beware! ‘Off-the-shelf’ profiling that repackages the findings and gives ‘insightful debriefs in a one-on-one exchange’ runs the risk of giving the recipient justification and excuses for poor, or bad behaviours.

Encouraging individuals to, ‘empower their subordinate staff to make decisions, and ‘take a greater level of ownership’ is a double-edged sword. I’ve intervened more than once where this manifests as detachment and disengagement from staff and the outcomes of the organisation. One particular experience stands out: when success (through application, by a person in a leadership position, of ‘forum-enlightened empowerment’) didn’t follow, ‘empowered’ staff began to question the logic or direction given. Their leader then saw people as incompetent or insubordinate – because $30K of development training meant they had to be right. It’s uncharitable to lay blame at the conference suite door of the leadership development forum; a company with a formidable reputation ran it. There were also problems with interpretation, assimilation, and subsequent application of the knowledge garnered by the attending leader – but it illustrates the value in thinking carefully about what you’re trying to achieve by investing in training and development. How will you measure success? Can you afford training and development that addresses symptoms, rather than causes, and that might even compound your problems?


What’re you going to do to make things better, and tackle the enemy inside you?

The India Monologues – Part Two (not the last by a long shot!)


Map of India contained in ‘Autobiography of a Yogi’ by Paramhansa Yoganada

I got back a few days ago from a trip to India.  At 44 years old, I have crammed a lot into a touch over four decades, but for some reason a visit to India never eventuated; no reason particularly.  In hindsight, it has always intrigued me – and candidly, my whistle-stop tour from New Delhi in the North, Agra, Mumbai and then Bangalore has left me wanting more.  I didn’t expect that – but then, I didn’t really know what to expect…which I think can often be the best way to approach things.


I met a lot of people with an opinion of what India is – most of them non-Indians, who really hadn’t been there very long.  I also met a lot of people all too willing to offer their opinion of what India is and it is sometimes better if they don’t.  For me, India just is what it is.  It is Royal Enfield motorcycles, Marwari and Kathiawari horses, spices, noise, contrast and contradiction. Traffic like you can’t imagine, colour, kindness, survival and opulence.  Stunning food, incredible people haggling, and literally unlimited aspiration.  India is at once modern, progressive and socially dislocated; it is underpinned by over 5000 years of history, culture and tradition.  In a country of 1.27Bn people, where the average farm size is an acre of land, they just send a satellite in the orbit of Mars.  There are 15 million credit card users in a country of 40 million e-commerce transactions.  It is a thriving, blistering maelstrom which makes you realise that there are no sacred cows in this incredible country where cows are sacred!

Traditionally, a symbol of the British leaving.  Now, symbolic of ideas flowing in and out of India...

Traditionally, a symbol to Indians of the British departure. Now, a symbol of ideas flowing both in and out.

One of the most stimulating meetings I had was with an independent think tank called Gateway House.  As the youngest think tank in India (just four and a half years young), there is something fresh, exciting and energetic about this impressive, Mumbai-based enterprise.  Founded by Manjeet Kripalani, who is graceful, smart, confidently feminine and humble, I love their philosophy of challenging power with the truth.  What Manjeet has set in motion represents, I think, a good example of what identifying the constituents of a life worth living, then building an enterprise around it actually looks like.  Manjeet describes Gateway House as, “sitting at the intersection of business and foreign policy” and I have little doubt they will be a significant feature as one of the many things shaping India’s future.

Micky - Bespoke Tailor, Colaba Causeway in Mumbai

‘Micky’ – Bespoke Tailor, Colaba Causeway in Mumbai

Micky – and his brother Vicky – together run the S.Bellissimo Boutique, a bespoke tailors at 23/B, Cusrow Baug, Colaba Causeway in Mumbai.  Micky is passionate about his craft; he seems to know everyone in Mumbai, and they all seem to know him.  Fluent in Italian and totally focussed on providing unique sartorial elegance (for clients which include high-profile cricketers from Australia, South Africa and New Zealand), he is a salesman and one of the best ‘closers’ I have ever met.  He is utterly unabashed by the word ‘No’ and manages to make you feel superb about departing with your money.  Vicky is one of life’s characters.  He hates working, but loves partying, girls and working out in the gym.  However, he runs around helping Micky treat clients like royalty and they deserve their success, which they are modest about and consider themselves blessed to have.

Reception - Infosys Head Office, Bangalore

Reception – Infosys Head Office, Bangalore

In Bangalore, a city of 8-million people; the ‘Silicon-Valley’ of India, I visited the head office of Infosys.  Bangalore I learned has the densest traffic, the highest number of smokers and the highest number of millionaires in India.  It is also ‘The City of Gardens’ and there are 280 of them registered. Infosys started in 1980 with US$250 and seven founders. Now they turn over US$4.1Bn and employ over 160,000 people – among whom are some of the brightest and smartest minds on the planet.  When you push aside the high-tech surrounds and the relative splendor of the Infosys set up, which are a little surreal at first, you realise the sense of social responsibility Infosys has.  They share wealth with employees through stock option programmes, contribute a percentage of their profit (after-tax) to help the poor and seem to view profit as a means to an end, not as the end in itself.

Bentley Showroom, Mumbai

Another truly impressive individual is Ashish Hemrajani.  In 1999, as a 24 year old, he was on holiday in South Africa.  Whilst lying on a beach, he had a flash of inspiration which resulted in him getting the first flight he could back to India and establishing a business which contracted companies to import software.  From being an importer, he now exports software and BookMyShow now sells around 5 million tickets per month.  Ashish loves racing ‘Enterprise’ boats, golf and watersports.  He is a board advisor to New Zealand Trade and Enterprise who explained that, “India is a large market – it doesn’t need to go anywhere”.  Asish offered the view that to survive and grow, New Zealand needs to export.  To him, innovation is a mindset issue and whilst he thinks Kiwi’s are good at sales, business needs to be a more aggressive in order to scale up.

Kathiawari Horse in Mumbai

Earlier this year, 550 million Indians voted for and united behind a single idea, personified in their new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi – India First.  Aspiration is a powerful thing and yes, India has huge challenges ahead.  So how to engage with India?

*     *     *     *     *

Everyone from New Zealand I met kept saying, “don’t under-estimate cricket!”. That doesn’t especially make sense – why would you?  However, I think we have.  Concurrent with and co-incidental to my visit was a New Zealand Trade Delegation led by two Ministers and a former New Zealand cricketer, Stephen Flemming.  I am a proud supporter of New Zealand cricket, but it struck me as odd; I mean, how would New Zealand – rugby world champions – react to a trade delegation from…I don’t know, Lithuania say, bringing one of their international rugby players as the pin-up for a trade delegation?  I watched Dr Alan Bollard, the former NZ Reserve Bank Governor explaining on BBC World News one morning about how dialogue was taking place to determine the conditions that night need to be in place before there could be talk of a Free Trade Agreement (FTA).  This also struck me as odd; three years ago, the Prime Ministers of both New Zealand and India declared there would be a FTA. The NZ Government produced a glossy plan that saw the FTA reached by 2015, however to date it has not eventuated.  I have listened to rhetoric laced with ‘value-propositions’, ‘collaborative approaches’, ‘opportunities’ and ‘partnerships’ all aimed at increasing New Zealand’s export market with India from 30% to 40%.

 *     *     *     *     *

There is danger I think in being too focused on engaging with India with one’s own agenda in mind.  It might sound counter-intuitive, but from my brief engagement with the people I met, it seems there is little focus on how a country like New Zealand, for example, might actually help India first.  Education, tourism and skilled migration are considered high performing areas of New Zealand’s trade relationship with India.  However, PM Modi is on a drive to clean up India and part of that is through his ‘adopt a village’ scheme, whereby politicians assume responsibility for a village and its subsequent development.  It strikes me that New Zealand has long traded on ‘Clean, Green, New Zealand’ – well then, can we not explore how we might assist India with our approach to being ‘clean and green’; we might also explore how we might learn from India in doing so.  Then there is cricket – what if a social, non-professional cricket club put together a team that consisted of specialists in refuse disposal, water purification, engineering, roading, recycling, IT, food hygiene, sanitation…and so on.  The team might undertake a tour of India, playing ‘grass roots’ cricket on scrub-land pitches with ‘No.8 wire’ kit to connect with Indians in a community – for the love of the game.  The off-spin would be relationship development and trust-building, which might lead to discussion about how New Zealand know-how could help Indian hard-work and adaptability (and vice versa).


An Indian friend of mine posted a message on Facebook this morning; it read: “Giving, with an expectation of return in the form of a compliment, or a thank you, is not giving – it is a trade.”  I think that is a point we have under-estimated.  In Maori culture, there is a proverb, part of which goes like this:


He aha te mea nui o te ao
What is the most important thing in the world?
He tangata, he tangata, he tangata
It is the people, it is the people, it is the people

 *     *     *     *     *

At it’s heart, this proverb seems to be about change – and at the heart of change are people.  What if we were to approach India with no expectation of anything in return?  How might we help India first  in order that Modi and the Indian people move toward their aspiration of India First?  I think India would surprise us.  There is no doubt, India is an assault on the senses.  However, I like the idea of it being a bit like a new pair of boots – they are uncomfortable as hell if you try to walk a long distance in them when they are new; your feet will blister and you won’t be able to wait to get them off your feet.  However, if you break them in slowly; if you walk short distances, let them get wet and look after your feet along the way then you will love wearing them and won’t want to ever take them off.  Ashish Hemranji calls India, “the t-shirt with the hole in it you never want to throw away”.

 *     *     *     *     *

India took me out of my comfort zone. You may like India, or not but even from my short time in that incredible country I do know this: you will struggle to be indifferent toward it.


The critical requirement to recognize, retain and encourage talent.



It staggers me – literally staggers me – that we make such very poor use of a key organizational resource: talent.


Back in 2006, I recall watching Sir Ken Robinson makes the case for a radical shift from standardized schools to personalized learning; essentially he was advocating the creation of conditions where kids’ natural talents can flourish.  Very powerfully, he followed this talk up in 2010 in Long Beach, California and said something which was a ‘light-bulb’ moment for because he elegantly described ‘reform’ as simply improving a broken model. What he said is therefore required is not an evolution, but a revolution; ‘this’  – what ‘this’ might be for you, needs to be transformed into something else.


Innovation is hard because it means identifying and challenging what we take for granted.  This is not comfortable for a number of reasons and a real challenge for any organization is to innovate fundamentally.


The founder of the Indian company Infosys, Nagavara ramarao Narayana Murthy, once observed: “our assets walk out of the door each evening. We have to make sure that they come back the next morning.”   The fact is that there are all sorts of people  who don’t enjoy what they do for a living; they endure it, deriving no pleasure from it.  There are also people who love what they do; it is who they are to their very core and it speaks to what Sir Ken Robinson calls, “their sense of authentic self”. For any organization to continue with the belief that everyone – or even, the majority of those – working for them loves what they do is a mistake with enduring consequences that become more difficult to recover from as time passes.


It is unfortunate that organizations – and often this includes militaries – tend to reassess processes and methods without changing any underlying assumptions about the organizational purpose and design; the consequence of such an approach is that the organization will work well until the competition (or an ‘adversary’ in military terms) does something we thought they either wouldn’t or couldn’t do;  or where we thought our current capabilities and the way we do things were able to cope in the event they did do something we thought they either wouldn’t or couldn’t do.


A favourite colleague of mine from the United States once suggested to me that part of the cause for this is that both authors and stakeholders are allowed to create their own value criteria.  He is very understated in his manner, and I had to let this idea develop a little.  During that time, I considered that perhaps the other causal part is lack of depth to understand the assumptions that are causing the base problem – in other words our descriptions are too generic (for example, ”the organization needs to be agile, mobile, ethical, sustainable, all-weather, adaptable, survivable, etc, etc, etc”).  Finally, there is the causal element of a risk management approach, rather than consequence focused approach.  My military experience taught me that you plan for the worst and usually contend with what is most likely.  Not to plan for the worst is a vital ingredient in the recipe for guaranteed mission failure.


Bureaucracies are deliberately designed and manned to allow complex organizations to function under known conditions.  They were/are not designed to be agile, innovative, or adaptive . . .in spite of public pride or narrative to try to prove otherwise.  When a CEO needs help with something the organization will develop over a generation or more, and what they get from the staff are localised agendas or well-intentioned, but what I call ‘heroic’ language.  It has been my experience that most senior leaders make good decisions when presented good information. To get good information, leaders need someone they can trust to provide a new perspective combined with deep understanding of the fundamental purpose for the organization. Too often, when circumstances don’t fit the organizational model, there is simply no-where to obtain the necessary information.


The same favourite colleague of mine, to whom I referred earlier, also happens to be one of the most modest and smartest people with whom I have ever had the pleasure to work.  I learn from him every time we engage in conversation and I value him as a mentor enormously.   He has been doing some work redesigning the officer basic course for the US Army’s Armor/Cavalry branch. His start point was with identifying the problem that the Army uses initial officer entry education to solve, plus the unit problems – that new Lieutenants use what they have been taught to solve.  The first part of the problem is interesting because while busy fighting for 10 years, Army doctrine, training, and concepts of operation have not kept pace . . . so defining the role that expertise in mobile armored firepower and reconnaissance and security plays at the tactical level in a 21st century military strategy is no longer commonly or easily parroted.  The second part of the problem is interesting because this course is more than just orientation to serve as a platoon leader, it is the foundation for a profession.  How they are taught and who teaches them is arguably more important than what topics are taught.  The 20th century military training and education model was built on certain assumptions, and certainties, about how industrialized armies fight and train to fight.  In the 21st century, those assumptions have changed, yet western armies still cling to the industrial traditions in training.  The  model applied is more aligned with special operations assumptions (but not techniques or methods) to development of human capability within a specific professional military specialty.


To put this in broader terms: The life that today’s senior leaders and executive leaders experienced as junior leaders is not the life that today’s junior leaders will experience in the next five years, nor is it the ‘mission context’ their organizations are designed for.  Many leaders actively resist any change to years of tradition.  Institutional systems are not flexible, often locking up when faced with something perceived as “non-standard” or “non-approved”.


When senior leadership is committed to changing the ways things have been done to be more relevant to today’s problems, we’re happy to be helping change frames of reference and forward thinking assumptions.  When senior leaders are not committed, the most valuable lesson I have learned it to keep pushing the boundaries anyway!  As one of my colleagues likes to say, “This requires original thought” – and it more importantly also requires that we recognize, retain and encourage talent – the more diverse and divergent in thinking, the better!







Think smart: there is always someone cheaper…


I made a choice with the delivery of my services and products to focus on quality – and not to compromise on that.  As a philosophy, this is central to everything.  I do a lot of business based on a discussion to establish what needs to be done, a handshake to seal the deal, and then I set about delivering what I said I would – if anything, I tend to try to under-promise and then aim to over deliver. However, if there is a downside to this approach then it is that engaging me to deliver my services or to buy my products is not cheap.

Regular conversations and strategy discussion with trusted, level-headed and straight-talking friends, mentors – and indeed clients – means that thought and input that has gone into this philosophy and method of conducting business.  One of my friends, with whom I speak regularly on the frustrations we both have to learn to deal with because of the same mindset about this topic sent me the photograph up above and he suggested I write about it as the topic of my next blog….so here it is!

I have spent a long time developing knowledge, enquiring, studying, paying attention and refining my approach.  My experience to date – not all of it relevant – has been hard-earned; my military service taught me many things – not least of which was that you can do more than you think you are ever capable of.  It also taught me that a sense of humour is vitally important (even if it is little ‘dark’ at times), humility is an exceptional quality and being un-relenting in the pursuit of the elusive and mercurial nirvana, ‘excellence’ is both right and proper.  I have come to know that there is no such thing as ‘an expert’ – and to be wary of anyone who claims to be one.

There is an awful lot I didn’t – and couldn’t have – learned in the military too.  Business can be mercenary; the customer is not always right, but the best ones know that and it is why they come to you in the first place.  Not only that, they will pay you to help when they are not right, or they don’t know, or they just can’t do something themselves – and you need to be respectful of that.   It has struck me that people tend to classify products or services (not just mine) as either ‘expensive’ or ‘inexpensive’ and this, together with a sense of what constitutes ‘value’ for them, influences how they judge spending their money on buying products or services.  This is the healthy, and normal way in which relationships are built; this is how trust develops and foundation clients invest their loyalty – in return for which, you give the best you have got….always.

In my line of work, good horses – like good leaders – take time to develop; they require investment and benefit enormously from an environment in which they can learn and are allowed to make mistakes.  The knowledge and skill-sets I have developed are focussed on ensuring that when people pay their hard-earned money for my services, they know it is expensive because it is worth it.  However, it has to be tempered with this:

Rule #1: Provide the absolute best product and/or service you can; Rule #2: Be honourable and authentic in the way you deal with people, and; Rule #3: Don’t be greedy.

At the beginning of this year – and again, after careful consideration and lengthy discussion (you know who you are AC FarmTech Ltd – thank you) – I changed my pricing models for both my consultancy work and my horse training;  I am just going to talk about the horse training here by way of illustration.  When a client contacts me with an enquiry for a one-off session, I explain that I charge a call-out fee (which covers my time in turning up at the agreed location); at my discretion and often in negotiation with the client, this fee may be waived – an example might be under the circumstance of a referral from an existing client.  In addition, I charge a distance fee per Km travelled (usually based on a return journey from my home location to wherever I am meeting the client – again, this is negotiable; for example, I have a client who comes to pick me up as a matter of convenience primarily for them).  When I arrive at the location where the training session is to take place, the meter starts running and there is an hourly fee charged – this is where trust is built; I am not greedy or wasteful of time.  After all, if I want to establish rapport and an enduring and authentic relationship with a client where they can feel comfortable about working with me and their horse and they trust what I can do or bring to the party – then why on earth would you abuse that?

There are times when an enquiry from a potential client might sound something like this:

Me: …”now that I have understood you are concerned about ‘x’, ‘y’, and ‘z’, let me explain the costs involved in engaging my services. There is a call-out fee of this many dollars, I charge this much per kilometer and my hourly rate once I arrive at your location is this much.”

Potential Client:…”oh that’s a lot.  I don’t want to pay that..”

Me:..”Of course; I understand.  You don’t have to engage my services if you don’t want to.”

Potential Client:…”but I have spent $12,000 on this horse and it has these problems and I can’t do anything with it; it doesn’t feel safe to be around and I don’t want to ride it while it is like this….what you are charging is too much.”

Me:..”Really? How much do you think it should cost?”

Potential Client:…”Well, I don’t know, but can’t you come along and have a look and see if there is anything you can do?”

Me:..”I would be delighted; do you want to pay in cash, or are you happy for me to invoice you afterwards?”

Potential Client:…”oh I am not paying for a consult, I just want you to come and give me some advice.”

Me: “And you want me to provide my knowledge, which you are seeking out –  for nothing – to help you with a horse you paid $12,000 for and now can’t do anything with it?  I think perhaps it sounds like I am not able to provide what you are looking for, but I wish you the best of fortune in resolving the challenge you have on your hands.”

There is of course a degree of ‘poetic licence’ in relaying the above conversation (which may or may not resemble and actual and very recent conversation) in order to illustrate a few points.  First point:  you don’t have to engage my services or by a product from me; there is no need for either of us to be impolite and I completely understand that there are both objective and subjective elements involved in spending money on something.  I am not offended if you walk away.  Second point: if you are seeking specialist knowledge and assistance, it has a price tag – for a reason. Imagine entering a Mercedes dealership and complaining that for the money they want for the latest “C” class sedan, you could get three second-hand Ford Mondeos.  Why would you do that if you have entered a Mercedes dealership, knowing they sell quality, high-end, technologically fantastic  motor cars?  Third point: Go back up top and look at the photograph again…I’ll wait…… you are back, the third point is that there is always someone who can provide a service or product at a cheaper price; if for you, it comes down to actual price because that’s your budget and you don’t want to spend the money – that makes perfect sense. I am not offended if you walk away, but make sure you understand why and have thought about the question, “at what cost?“.  Fourth point: because of points one to three, if you try to obtain my specialist knowledge and assistance on what might be done about the problem you have, and then you take that advice to get someone cheaper to do the work – I won’t be offended when I walk away.
I have client – a longstanding one (and the one who comes to pick me up and transport me to the location of her horse) – who expressed this view at one of our last sessions:…“I have spent $8000 on this horse and I will spend what it takes to put right the issues; there is no time pressure or deadline – I just want to get things right. Without doing that, we can’t enjoy her and she is not able to enjoy working with us.  She is already heaps better after just two sessions and most of all – thank you for not making me feel stupid”….
I realised how lucky I am, because actually, all my clients have that kind of view on engaging my services and working with me and their horses.  I didn’t really know what to say at that point, so I tipped my head and began to gather my long lead-rope and then tie it off neatly.  A little embarrassed, I muttered something like, “thank you and you are very welcome”.  
In the end, it really comes down to this: When I received the photo from my mate, it made me think again about our conversations regarding the importance of having an uncompromising focus on quality.  This obsession with settling for the cheapest price, or seeking out specialist knowledge for nothing in order to take that knowledge for someone cheaper to do the work is a thing that we have to stop;  one hell of a tattoo to explain otherwise, but remember – you asked for it. 


Will the ‘disruptive effects’ of technology even make us blink?

Leap of Faith

I was reading about Google’s push toward driverless cars ( and the associated concern about the potentially disruptive effect of this technology on the future for taxi-cab drivers.

Here’s what bugs me….

Meeting someone for the first time is laced with nuance, subtlety and learning. We scan the other person for gestures and signals as a way of creating rapport – a way of bonding. It is a social activity that puts us on the same ‘wavelength’; it let’s us determine whether others agree with us, or like us – and a way for us to tell others that we like them. The ability to work out what is really happening around us depends on being able to pay attention.

Taxi drivers are masters of this art; if you want ground-truth and a real sense of what is going on in the world, then take a ride in a taxi-cab and pay attention. Whether you are in a New York yellow and black cab heading downtown, a green ‘eco-cab’ from Wellington airport driven by an enthusiastic and deeply polite Ethiopian-Kiwi, a distinctive London TX black cab artfully weaving through the maze of back streets to avoid traffic, or a beaten up Peugeot in the chaos of Cairo being driven at breakneck speed as close as possible to other road users matters little; what the drivers of these beasts of burden all have in common is street-smarts and know-how, and a down-to-earth view of the world that cuts through crap like no other. If you don’t want to talk – you don’t have to; they don’t mind. If you do want to talk, then you had better be willing to listen or be well-informed and sure of your facts…..I recommend even if you are well-informed and sure of your facts that you opt for listening!

You see, somewhere along the way ‘technology’ was allowed to run riot. Don’t get me wrong – I love technology; what is not to admire and to marvel at how you wish you might have even a fraction of the genius that leads to new technologies being in our lives; this is not about ‘bashing’ technology. Instead it is about wondering if we let ourselves get a little swept up in it all and being in danger – serious danger – of forgetting that the application of technology is about helping us as humans do things smarter. If we can’t articulate exactly the problem and exactly how the technology helps, then we risk having things that look shiny and bleep and flash lights, but that come with problems and second and third order consequences we hadn’t even considered.

I get the concept of technological ‘exploring’ too. We don’t have to wait until everything is perfect, otherwise we would never embark on anything. But just for a moment, stop and think about the throw-away expression of “knowing something, like the back of our hand”. Do you really? Experiments have shown that 5% of people can actually identify the back of their hands from a photograph. I also know people who would struggle to find their own arse in the dark!!

What happens when we stop being able to read body language signals? My own experience is that the work I do with horses would then be impossible; oddly, the closer to the wild the horse has been, the more subtle the signals seem to be – and the closer the attention I have to pay…but then I have never been the sharpest knife in the drawer!! The best leaders I have been privileged to work with (whether in support of them, or in a capacity where I am developing them) pay attention. One of the hardest things when helping horse owners is often showing them how to pay attention to the signals their horse is giving them. Technology helps – sometimes, the fabulous iPhone is invaluable for being able to take a video clip for example and to play back a recording of something in order to help illustrate a point. The speed with which we can communicate, the automating of mind-numbing process, the crunching of vast amounts of data and sorting of information – all things for which I have been grateful to technology for; and of course that someone way smarter than me at working out how to invent it, did so.

From my military life, I recall conversations about the application of technology to navigation being fantastic, but at the same time I recall the concern about what happens when power-sources ran out, or satellites went down – what if you couldn’t whip out a map (or chart for my Navy colleagues) and compass and work out where you are and how to get from there to where you needed to be? If you let technology replace humans in taxis – what about in armoured vehicles? We already have drones, so why not armoured personnel carriers too?

When I pause for a second to consider the second and third order consequences of letting technology run away on us, two things occur to me. First, human ingenuity will always find a way of outwitting technology. Second, ‘disruptive’ as an effect is not necessarily bad – but losing sight of the fundamentals of human interaction with either another human, or with an animal,or with the world around us in general is a bad thing.

So when it comes to Google seeking to replace human drivers of taxi-cabs with an automated driver system, I am going to take a leap of faith that communication through body language has been going on sufficiently for over a million years; interaction and paying attention are fundamentals.  That means just because you ‘can’ and you have the technology to do so, doesn’t mean you necessarily ‘should’ try to replace things which have interaction at the core,  fun as it might be to see what happens. – why would you do that?  It would interesting to ask a taxi-driver for their perspective.

On being able to distinguish.


I was reflecting on three women and the way in which they operate in male-dominated environments:

From the age of 23, my wife had responsibility for not only ‘driving’ the ships on which she served, but as a gunnery officer she was also responsible for commanding the employment of the weapon systems on the ship to protect it.  She can strip and assemble a machine-gun and still loves the smell of cordite!!  During her time as a Naval Officer, she was at times, the only female aboard – a situation she refers to as being like, “having a couple of hundred big brothers”.  My wife is also a trained hydrographical surveyor and taught spherical trigonometry.


Among many other things I love about her, in spite of all this, she gets frustrated that she can’t lift a bale of wrapped baleage weighing in excess of 60Kg if I am not around.  She beats up on herself and tells me she, “doesn’t feel entirely confident riding a horse like you do”, and will berate herself for the fact that it seems to take her ages to dig a hole big enough to plant a shrub or tree.  I should also point out that my wife is stunningly beautiful; she competes in half-iron events, we have run an off-road marathon and a number of off-road half-marathons together and she swims like a fish (I swim like a spluttering house-brick!).


After she left Naval service, she worked in maritime intelligence analysis, then managed multi-agency operations coordinating the activities and requirements of several government agencies, and now she teaches border security at postgraduate level whilst conducting her own academic research.  The world of academia has helped this very accomplished woman find her voice and she is passionate about her work.  My wife was recently told by a man who holds a senior decision-making position in her organisation that, “if she wanted to get ahead in the organisation it is time to give up your passion and return to a role that would increase her exposure”.  F#@Kwit!


We have a couple with whom we are close friends; aside from our couple to couple friendship he is a great mate, hunting colleague and sounding board of mine and she has been a colleague for whom I have the highest regard an in whom I trust unconditionally, as well as the fact she is a dear friend.  So, this particular lady is highly intelligent and professional;  she cares deeply about delivering the best possible results she can in her work and has an incredible work ethic and depth of knowledge. She applies her knowledge and considerable intellect to exceptional effect trying to increase understanding of some very difficult and often complex situations and issues for senior decision makers in the organisation for which she works.


This lady is also beautiful, a wonderful mother to twins, travels extensively and at short notice with her work, and gets frustrated that moving cows from paddock to paddock on their property goes from a thing her husband makes look easy to a chaos of otherwise calm animals exercising free will and intention contrary to hers, when her husband is away as a result of his work.  Last week, during a conversation with her boss – a man who occupies a position three steps down from the most senior man in the organisation – my friend confronted him over the unreasonable manner in which he was discussing a particular topic with her.


“Do you have any idea of, or awareness about how you come across?” she asked; it stopped him in his tracks – a reasonable indicator that clearly, he had no idea or awareness of such things at all.  She then got up and walked out of his office, with him trying to recover from the shock of that particular bucket of cold water, calling after her to come back in a reeling mixture of “somewhat stunned” and “apologetic” in tone. To her credit, she didn’t break her stride and re-convened the meeting later in the day.


The third woman I want to talk about is a mesmerizing force of nature, originally from Iran.  When this lady was 14 years old, she declared herself an atheist (punishable by death in Iran at the time); as a student, following an interview with an Imam who advised her that the biggest threat to the regime in Iran was that posed by single, educated women – she started a feminist movement.  When she was 30, her mother (who still lives in Iran) put her on a plane to New Zealand for her own safety!!  I don’t think I have met anyone as willing to challenge, well almost everything, like she does; it is done with phenomenal mental dexterity, incredible depth of knowledge and articulate confidence.


She also loves men who will carry heavy items for her, open doors and allow her to step through them first and who can tell when she is vulnerable, but make it safe for that to be so without exploiting such a rare circumstance or demeaning her for it.  This lady is sensual, feminine and bold; she drinks neat vodka and red wine (not in the same glass), dances with vitality and works tirelessly.  She laughs at herself and sees the humour in some of the outrageous things she does; it is impossible not to be a little in awe of her.


These three women have many things in common, not least of which is the virtue of courage.  They are not the only three people (who happen to women) I know – and about whom I could have talked – to illustrate the example they set and I expect readers can think of many more.   However, I thought of them when I read this article about a recent speech delivered by the Australian Chief of Army, Lieutenant-General David Morrison:

Of the many things he said, particularly powerful was this:  “… we live in a world where the squandering of women’s talent, the traducing of their potential, is a global disgrace.” 


If ever you are lucky enough to observe horses in the wild, you will see the matriarchal nature of the herd; the lead mare – not the stallion – determines how and when and where the herd moves.  The stallion’s job is mostly that of a sentinel; he stands guard and provides the warning of danger – the mare determines how the herd will react or act upon the alert he provides.  Of course, he has other roles, but in return for access to breeding, he doesn’t get that just by looking good – he has to earn it in both behaviour and character; ultimately, the mare selects the stallion with whom she will breed.


In chimpanzees, Dr Jane Goodall ( observed one of the most successful ‘Alpha-males’ in one of the troops was the son of one of the best mothers in the troop Gombe Stream Chimpanzee Reserve in the British protectorate of Tanganyika.  I had the pleasure of listening to Dr Goodall talk in a seminar at ‘Te Papa’ when she last visited New Zealand a couple of years ago (she is speaking at Wellington Zoo this coming weekend by the way); she explained that the essence of the success could be attributed to the balance exhibited by the mother.  My summary of her explanation is a little simplistic, but in general terms, she wasn’t too protective – just enough; she wasn’t too stern a disciplinarian – just enough; she cuddled her son – but not too much; she let him explore and get in to mischief – just enough.  The outcome was a male who was the ‘alpha male’ of the troop for many years…it is interesting to ponder whether he definitively ‘led’ the troop or whether his mother’s role was that of charting the course of what ‘success’ might constitute?


To extrapolate an element of Lt Gen Morrison’s speech, any organisation (or grouping) that values the male over the female is archaic and doomed.  The ‘old white men’s clubs’ which dominate institutions need two things to happen: first, take a long hard look at yourself, and second be challenged.  Embracing a diverse and inclusive philosophy is a start-point, but not enough; ask this – “how would I know that my organisation both understands and recognises how to be stronger by not squandering talent?”.  In our consultancy work, we often engage a higher proportion of females to work in our teams; why? because they think differently to men and often we are helping organisations deal with problems that were created by ‘male-dominated’ thinking.  However, we try really hard to ensure that our focus is on ensuring we harness the talent of the best people available and understand how to play to the strengths of our talent.  On a simpler lever, in a horse herd, both male and female have critical roles and without both, the herd is weaker.  When we are digging holes to plant shrubs, I can be the ‘Neanderthal’ wielding a spade to dig a hole quickly, whilst my wife pays attention to ensuring the shrub is set in the ground in the right way to give it the best chance at survival – we also plant more in a day, because we play to each other’s strengths.


The final thought for today is this:  My father-in-law raised both his daughters starting in the mid-1970s at a time when he was a relative societal anomaly as a man in the sense that whilst he and my mother-in-law both worked to provide a household income, he also took an active role in the running of the household; it wouldn’t have occurred to him that as a man, he shouldn’t cook, clean, shop as well as all the other things that go with raising two daughters.  Both his daughters grew up with a robust sense of self-worth and set out into a world where in spite of ‘glass ceilings’ it never entered their minds that they couldn’t do something because they were female.  He and my mother-in-law are incredibly proud of both their daughters (as am I of the one who is now my wife!!).


What horses have taught me about interaction beings is that it doesn’t matter who you are; what matters is how you are treated.  In the context of human interaction, this means learning to focus on things other than gender; focus on strengths, the contribution of the talent of people around you and if you get that right, people respond positively and the outcome is that you are better together.  Taking time to get it right is an important part of the contribution to what Lt Gen Morrison describes as “being able to distinguish the soldier from the brute”