Manager versus Leader. Confused?

Last week I coached an experienced sales professional as part of the follow up on a Leadership course he attended.  We were getting along fine, finding much to agree on over how dysfunctional the human race is becoming, the immigration crisis etc., and then he said something which threw me a bit.

“Now that I don’t have a team of people reporting to me, I don’t see myself as a leader.”

I didn’t see that one coming.  As you can imagine, that comment gave us plenty more to talk about.

It has got me wondering, though, how many others are confused about the difference between leading and managing people.  Do you have to have a team reporting to you before you can describe yourself as a leader?

In my view, certainly not.  I think that once you can walk and talk you can be a leader, and in fact can think of numerous examples of leadership by young people.  I used to teach the clarinet and saxophone, and many of my pupils were starters, ie age 8 or so.  There was the boy who so enjoyed learning that he encouraged his younger brother to make a start by learning the recorder.  The one who was honest enough to say he would rather learn the guitar, thus challenging his parents’ vision of what a good use of teenage spare time consists of.

You can read ten books on leadership and get ten different definitions of it, but one which works for me is that a leader is someone who inspires others to follow.   (A useful definition of a manager, by contrast, is someone who is paid to execute on a plan.)  If you take that leadership definition, then you start to see it all around you.  Recent seasonal examples you may have seen could include:


  • the person who helped the younger people with their Christmas presents before opening their own (coaching, self management, empathy)


  • the person who went without item x at the dinner table in order to ensure that the guests had what they wanted (self management, selflessness)
  • the person who suggested the party game because she saw that others were bored, even though she would have been happier reading her book ( situational awareness, selflessness).

Anyone can be a leader, and it is something you earn rather than have awarded to you.

Coming back to where I started this article:  is it at all significant that a 53 year old experienced, intelligent and high performing professional in a technology company should be confused about what leadership is?  Is it another worrying sign of what is happening in society, ie that we are losing sight of the basics?

I know I bang this drum far too often, and the start of a new year is not the best time to be fostering doom and gloom.  However, on the positive side, we can all do something about this.

My call to action, if I may, is to urge you, dear reader, to treat 2017 as a back to basics year. Let’s put more emphasis on doing the basics right:  building connections between people, helping them to find meaning in what they do, and doing our part as leaders to fight the incoming technological tide with some emotional intelligence and some dignity.

My warmest wishes to you and your families for peace, health and happiness.

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Posted in Leadership Skills, Management Skills | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Procrastination and Preferences

Last Saturday I had dinner with a couple who have moved into the village recently.  They have a bitch working cocker spaniel who has become our dog Ross’ girlfriend, so we already have plenty to talk about.  Ben is a doctor, and we found ourselves talking about Myers Briggs – a subject I rarely raise at the dinner table as it tends to generate dirty looks from my wife.

Ben and I were comparing our profiles, as you do in these situations.  He is ENTJ and I’m ENFP.

“Ah, you’re a P.  That makes you a procrastinator I presume?” he said.

As it happens, he was right, and we went on to compare notes about my open-ended preferably non-deadline-driven P world versus his deadline-focussed, measured and mapped out ideal J world.

As a thank you for dinner he sent me a link to a TED talk I’d not seen before by Tim Urban.  It’s called “Inside the mind of a master procrastinator”, and the talk delivers exactly what you might expect it would – a brilliant summary of how a procrastinator works.

I particularly liked the way he visualised this type of brain for us.  I recognise it in myself.


The instant gratification monkey is the voice in your head which is able to find reasons for not doing the thing you planned to, and jumping into something (anything in fact) which will give us more short term satisfaction (or so the monkey has us believe).

It causes us to run up against deadlines in a state of stress because we do not allow enough time to do the job properly.

The message in Tim’s TED Talk is an excellent one:  if you are a procrastinator you learn that the thing which gets you to do something is called a deadline.  As you approach one of these, your guardian angel, which he calls The Panic Monster, suddenly wakes up, and galvanises you into action though a lot of screaming in your head.


Procrastinators gradually learn that the way to lead a slightly more orderly life is to set deadlines for themselves.  (Or, as in my case, marry someone who will do it for them).

Here’s his point:  the really important things we want to do with our lives (have children, set up my own business, get fit) tend not to have deadlines set against them.  As a result, unless we a good at goal and objective setting, the procrastinator can drift through life waiting for things to happen, and not achieving their full potential.  I certainly wasted 10 years in corporate land in that mode, and should have set up my own business 10 years before I got round to it.

To ram home his point, he put up his final slide in the talk:  a square populated by a large number of little squares (4680 of them, to be precise).  That is a way of representing a 90 year life measured in weekly boxes.  Imagine how many of those boxes you have already filled in (possibly not particularly productively).  The rest lie ahead, but when they’re gone, you’re gone.  Think about it.

My daughter has recently decided to resign her job in a leading London PR agency to take a 3 month sabbatical in India, during which she intends to take stock and have a long, slow think about how she wants to productively use her remaining squares.  She’s so much braver than me, who also at 27 was on a career path in large corporate world which I was not enjoying particularly, and where I was procrastinating on doing something proactive to change my situation.

I got lucky:  8 years later (400 boxes down the toilet, as it were), I got made redundant, so they stopped my procrastination for me.  I woke up with a jolt and sorted myself out.

Moral:  if you are a procrastinator, recognise your important ambitions in life (it helps if you write them down), and work out how to set some short term goals which will get you started out towards achieving them.  Remember the Chinese proverb:  the longest journey starts with one small step.

This is my final message of the year, and it feels like a good moment to ask you to consider a big question over the next few days, when you may find you have more time on your hands than usual.

Are you procrastinating on something important, and if you are, what is it going to take to get you to wake up?

It might be an external force of some sort, but the chances are this can only come from you.

What are you waiting for?




Posted in Change, Life Skills | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Leadership: saying “yes” when you really want to say “no”?

My nephew David is an inspiring young man.  In his late teens he quit college and set up his own graphics design business with a friend.  2 years later they sold up and he decided to go it alone whilst travelling the world.  He rocks up wherever he fancies (San Diego, Oslo, Lisbon…) and gets on with building wesbites and designing stuff for his global client base.  Why wouldn’t you?

I know  a lot of people who wish they’d had the courage to say yes to that sort of thing much earlier in their lives.  Living their dreams and finding out what life has to offer outside the confines of their comfort zone.

He is currently building an online business which, funnily enough, is going to be called “Saying Yes”.  Its aim will be to inspire other (typically younger) people to say yes to opportunities when they come across them.  He’ll do that by posting stories from people who have done just that, in which they’ll describe the moment and the impact it had on them.

He contacted me the other day, and asked me to share my “Yes” example with him.  I wasn’t sure which one to share, as several sprang to mind.  The day I said yes to conducting a private concert for the Queen Mother, when I had never conducted a choir before.  The day I said yes to running a fundraising campaign at school which aimed to raise enough to buy two grand pianos ( I was 16 at the time.  We got our two pianos).

Yours truly at the machine in question

Yours truly at the machine in question

I decided to share the story of the day I said yes to applying for an organ scholarship to Oxford, when in my heart of hearts I didn’t think I stood a hope in hell of winning it.   I was developing as an all round musician, and at the time was having weekly music lessons in piano, organ, clarinet, saxophone and singing. I was too much or a generalist, I felt, and did not have the specialist skills I needed.


I found the organ difficult, especially the baroque repertoire which required precision and meticulous practice.  I am not a precise or meticulous person, and whilst I love Bach’s music, it scares me a bit playing it.

The thing is, the person who suggested this was doable believed in me.  Alastair Sampson taught the organ at Eton, and had the business of helping his pupils to win Oxbridge scholarships down to a fine art.  When he retired they gathered all of his scholarship winning pupils together for a reunion.  There were more than thirty of us, 8 of whom were organ scholars at King’s College Cambridge – the gold medal if you will of these musical Olympics.  He knew how to bring out the best in his pupils, and believed in their potential.  There was no doubt in his mind that we should be doing this, and so I trusted him.

So we agreed my show piece for the audition.  This was “Final” by Cesar Franck.  This was an ambitious choice, because it starts with a three page pedal solo, as you can see in this video.  Playing the organ with just your feet takes some courage:  get it note perfect and you win extra points.  Mess it up and you have got off to the worst possible start.


I put the practice in, to the extent that my legs used to ache at the end of a day, and I even got blisters on a very awkward part of the anatomy.  Organ benches are made of wood.

On the day it went well, much to my relief, and a couple of days later I got the call from Balliol College, Oxford, offering me the scholarship.  No one was more suprised than me, but Alastair of course wasn’t.  He never doubted it.

I learnt a whole lot from that life changing experience.  Most importantly I learnt the effect of having someone believe in your potential.  In my experience most people have far more potential than they realise, and it’s people like Alastair who we need to help unlock it.

Maybe David’s website will help people to see their potental better, by learning from others who have said Yes to challenges at critical moments in their lives.  I hope so.

If you have said Yes to something and you think your story could help inspire others, please let me know and I’ll put you onto David.

Meanwhile, just to show that we can also overcome weaknesses by sheer hard work, here’s an informal video of me playing some Bach in our local church.

Posted in Leadership Skills, Life Skills, Personal Development | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Inspirational Leadership: what’s the story?

Great leaders tell great stories.

typewritter1Stories engage people, are easy to pass on, are easy to remember,  and – crucially – they appeal to the part of the brain where we make our decisions.  If you want something to get done, appeal to an emotion of some sort.

And if you want to appeal to emotion, try telling a story.

I was running a leadership programme this week, and the theme for the afternoon was story telling.  Normally I give people time to prepare to tell us a story by inviting them to bring an object of personal significance to the event, and to think about how they are going to explain it to us.  This week I decided to take the exercise to a new level.

I asked people to be prepared to tell us a story about something they found challenging as a teenager.

The results were startling.  Bear in mind this was a group of people who did not work together all the time, were of differing status within the function (we had people with not only their boss but their boss’ boss in the room), and who I would say were largely untrusting of each other.  I was quite ready to pull the plug on the activity halfway through if they failed to engage with it (which I thought was distinctly possible).

Instead the complete opposite happened.  One of the most senior people in the room started us off by telling us about the day her parents told her and her sister they were getting divorced, and how she chose to stay (much to his surprise) with her father rather than live with her sister and mother.  The opening sentence of the next one was “As a teenager I was destined to be a delinquent.”  Then someone described how hard she was finding it seeing her marriage fall apart.

And so it continued.  There were tears as well as (thankfully) applause and laughter.  The impact on the group was tangible.  People had chosen to be vulnerable with their story, and as a result others responded by showing trust and mutual respect.  I felt I saw a team form before my eyes.  One of the most cynical people in the room (used to be a consultant – they’re the worst!) summed it up for all of us:

“In just two minutes I have completely reformed my opinion of someone.  I had no idea that storytelling could have that effect.”

The great thing about storytelling is that it doesn’t need to take extra time.  Changing the way we communicate can in fact save time, because once you have connected with people and established trust you don’t have to work so hard convincing them to do stuff.  You’ll get productivity gains too, as they’ll become engaged with what you are trying to achieve.

Try weaving it into the way you connect with people.  Add a story to your next presentation.  Open up with it when you are selling something to someone you don’t know.  Invite your team to tell their stories.  Allow some time for it in your meetings.

If you’re struggling with how to structure your story (sometimes Beginning, Middle, End is all you need, by the way), here’s one I made earlier.  It’s based on the structure of all fairy tales, and most of Walt Disney’s famous films.

Give it a go, and tell me a story at some point to let me know how you get on.













Photo:  Jorge Marquez

Posted in Communication, Leadership Skills | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Ping! Another email to read? Think again!

I meet enough frazzled business people to know that email and unproductive meetings are the two biggest time wasters in the workplace.  Of the two, email is easily the most damaging, because it is the source of so much stress.  Irrelevant, poorly run meetings are at least a chance for a breather – a cup of coffee and time to tune out and think about what’s for dinner.  Time for some R&R?  Easy – organise yourself a meeting!

Dysfunctional meetings. Tool 1: getting people to shut up.No, email is the one to watch out for.  People let it overwhelm them, to the extent that they never stop checking them.  Because having a clear inbox is for so many of us a sign that we are on top of things, we never get off the hamster wheel:


According to research quoted by Jocelyn Glei in her new book “Unsubscribe:  How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distraction and Get Real Work Done”, there is a clear link between spending time on email and stress.  “In other words”, says Glei, “the more frequently we check our email, the more frazzled we feel.”

So here are 5 tips to help you to not become another member of the email victims club:

  1.  Don’t check them so often.  Durrrr.  If you check them every 3 minutes, (apparently we check them 77 times a day), try doing it once every hour.  Then move to 4 times per day and so on.  You will be able to concentrate on what you are doing (it takes 64 seconds to get back into what you were doing, so when you add yet another spam email to your block sender folder, it costs you over one minute).  You will discover that the really urgent emails turn into phone calls, less urgent ones are fine with a less immediate response, and the time wasting ones you can kill off in bursts of email slashing and burning on the train home from work.
  2. Turn off notifications.  Put the gadget out of sight and out of mind.  Turn off Outlook when you’re not using it.  Turn the screen away.  Turn off the pings.  YOU decide when to allow it to intrude, not the other way round.
  3. Manage expectations.  Tell your colleagues you only look at email 4 times per day.  If they really need a response, pick up the phone or come and talk to you (just like the good old days).
  4. Use the technology.  Some emails don’t need your attention now, but they will need it later.  Use Outlook Calendar or some other app to file the email in the appropriate date and time for when you do need to deal with it.
  5. Reduce the noise.  Download “Unsubscribe for Gmail” app (free, iTunes) and it lets you unsubscribe with one quick swipe.  Joyous!

Email is never going to go away, and it is always going to exercise an inappropriate amount of influence in our lives.  We can however manage it better and reduce its impact.

What techniques do you use to help you cope?


You may have noticed I haven’t blogged for a while.  My father died 6 weeks ago, and truth be told it rather dampened my blogging mojo.  Normal service more or less resumed now.

jim-cropeJim was a prisoner of war in Japan for over 2 years during WW2, and he became a member of the Far East Prisoners of War club (FEPOW).  This organisation’s motto is:

“To keep going the spirit that kept us going.”

I find that inspiring, as did Jim, who fought amazingly hard right to the end.  He shrugged off bereavement, loss of limbs, hospital visits and Lord knows what else, where many others would I think have succumbed.

You proved the point, Dad.  Now you can rest.




Posted in Life Skills, Time Management | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

Why you and your colleagues don’t trust your manager.

“The propensity for email, texting and quick-type apps has led us to forget some of our people skills, including distinguishing the nuances of language and meaning, fostering of a feeling of belonging among groups of people, and knowing our bosses and colleagues well enough to have confidence that others will pull their weight. That, in turn, has diminished implicit and earned trust among the people we work with.”

So suggests Georgina Kenyon in an excellent article on BBC Capital.  She goes on to talk about how lack of trust leads to fear, which leads to employees feeling they have to show their face at work, even though flexible working is so easily available to all of us because the technology is there.

She comes to an arresting conclusion:

Georgina_Kenyon“No matter how much a work rock star you might be, your manager does not trust you. Your colleagues do not trust your manager.  And, truth be told, you probably don’t trust most of your colleagues or your boss, either.”

Gulp.  She said it, not me.

This level of fear in the workplace leads to employees turning into children.  They find it hard to have the courage to ask for time off or to negotiate flexible hours.  In summary, it leads to conflict avoidance, about which I’ve written before.  It inhibits collaboration, and leads to what Phyllis Moen, professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota in the US, calls the ‘mother, may I’ problem.  Not quite at the level of asking to go to the toilet, but not far off it.

This subject of “Child” behaviour crops up reguarly on the leadership courses I run.  I often ask managers what percentage of people in their teams they would characterise as having a fundamentally Child ego state.  The answer is usually at least 20%.  This strikes me as probably conservative, with the figure in reality being much higher.

Who shall we hold responsible for this?  Is it all about the technology, which is inhibiting us from having meaningful relationships at work (or anywhere, for that matter)?  Is it managers’ fault for allowing fear to breed, and not spending enough time with their employees so that trust has time to develop?  Or should we blame the employees for allowing themselves to avoid the important discussions and telling themselves they have no power to influence change?

It’s probably all three.  I think we agree on several things here:

  • This is here to stay.  It can only get worse.  The technology isn’t about to uninvent itself.
  • Managers need some help.  They need to recognise the fear issue and know how to go about dealing with it.  Enabling them to hold genuinely Adult conversations with their team members would be a good start.
  • Employees need some help too.  They need to see that “flexible working”, “team collaboration” and other such fine concepts are more than catch phrases:  the organisation has to model these behaviours from the top and live and breath them every day.  Employees need to step up and not allow themselves to be ground down into submission.

What is your experience of trust and fear levels where you work?  How does this compare with 5 years ago?  How do you see it progressing?  Do please share your experience using the comments tab.


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