The blog.

How would you live if you believed you had all the time you need?

It’s Friday, I’m going away on a trip I have organised with friends.  I find myself chasing my tail once again by attempting to interleave work, preparation and packing into an ever-reducing amount of time.  By 3pm I’m exhausted.  It’s not a good way to begin.

Here’s a question I ask myself:  How would I live if I believed I had all the time I need?

This idea runs counter to so much advice in the blogosphere: live today as if you will die tomorrow, get up at 5am and get your day in order, don’t try to ‘make time’ just reprioritise.  There are merits to these approaches and many find them useful.  However, there is a profound limitation embedded within them.

They all speak of a concept of time as a scarce commodity in a way that can easily throw us into heightened levels of stress and anxiety: ‘how will I meet the project deadline?  I will skip my morning run or finish this on the weekend.’  Or more insidiously ‘most people my age have achieved so much more”.

It’s easy to forget that our understanding of time is a human-made construct.  There are the largescale times of the seasons based on the tilt and orbit of the earth. However the minute hand did not appear on clocks till the late 17th century and most villages in Europe lived by the toll of the church bell till not much more than 100 years ago.[1]

It is our beliefs about how and why we pack our lives with so many things and chase ever increasing rates of productivity which feed straight into our living in a perpetual state of urgency and heightened alertness which is bad for our health and our soul.[2]

Time is much more malleable and spacious than most of us are taught to think.

Physicists understand that our experience of time changes according to our relationship to the environment around us: that time and space exist in relationship to each other.  This is evidenced in many experiments,[3] the most famous being the Hafele-Keating experiment.  Atomic clocks in aircraft flying opposite ways around the world will register different times from each other afterwards, albeit a few nanoseconds.

All of us have personal experiences of how time stretches and condenses.  Time flies when you’re having fun….

A friend recently told me of a fall he took climbing.  I don’t think he would describe it as fun being in freefall for about 1.5 seconds before the rope caught him.  However he was astounded by how much thinking and observation he did in that time.  He decided to write down everything he could remember of that and quickly filled three A4 pages.

The case I am building here is that our experience of time is variable rather than fixed.  Further, we have the power to adjust the story we tell about time in a way that shapes not just our experience of time, but our entire lives.

While we cannot ‘make time’ we can create space around our lived experience which is timely, calm, reflective and moves us in a direction we choose.

The Ancient Greeks understood this, making a distinction between Khronos (what time is it?) and Kairos (what is it time for?)

Here’s a recent and practical example of what I mean.  A New Zealand firm that let its employees work four days a week while being paid for five says the experiment was so successful it hopes to make the change permanent.[4]

The change actually increased what its 240 employees achieved in a week.  At the same time, stress levels decreased significantly as people were able to attend to life outside work.   People’s sense of empowerment and wellbeing at work improved significantly.  All because of a change in perspective from time being scarce to being sufficient or even abundant.

How do we bring this spaciousness and abundance into our own lives?  In my experience we begin at the micro level through paying attention to our thoughts about each moment.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi opened our understanding of how our specific mental state relates to our performance or being ‘in the zone’[5]  The Zone is largely understood to be the point at which the size of the challenge and the level of our skill are matched.  It engages our total focus as our perception of time fades and our sense of reward is heightened.  Think of athletes moving apparently effortlessly or artists totally absorbed in their creation.

In his model the difference between feeling in flow or feeling anxious depends on whether we have the necessary skill to meet the degree of challenge.[6]  I find an insight here.  The difference between feeling in flow or feeling anxious can be less about an objective measure of my skill  and more about my perception of that skill.   It’s about the story I am telling myself about my capability.  To paraphrase Henry Ford “whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right”.

So how does this relate to time?  I was privileged to take part in a sailing world championship recently with two friends.  There are moments in racing when I have a handful of seconds to execute specific tasks with precision in dynamic circumstances. I’ve had enough butter-fingers moments to make me nervous about “getting it wrong again”.  Having this story in my head as we approach the top mark sets up my body for tension, anxiety and a fumbling performance.  I decided to try a different technique.  Approaching the top mark, I repeated “I have all the time I need”.  I wasn’t promising myself more time, simply that the time I had was enough.  My anxiety dropped, my mind focused and as I paid attention to what I was doing, things happened more smoothly and consistently.  My friends can still tell you of butter-finger moments.  However, they were fewer, more quickly resolved and, just as importantly, I was less stressed by them and better able to transition mentally to the next task/challenge.

By using this mantra, I interrupted my patterns of anxious rushing and become more aware, thoughtful and present.

This isn’t just about the individual.  There’s an alchemy in groups when we all use this mantra.  I remember an important conversation in March with 11 people, all united in the need to address sensitive matters and restricted to one hour.  We decided to trust that we had all the time we needed.  Rather than measure the moments, allotting so many minutes to each person, we committed to listen to each other deeply and let the conversation flow.  We trusted that things would unfold in the best way if we aimed to be in flow – matching our skill of attending with the challenge of ensuring people felt fully heard . The results were profound insight and a powerful sense of connection with each other.  We finished with a minute to spare.

When we allow time to be spacious our experiences do become more profound.  Real work gets done and relationships are strengthened.

Further, when we consistently pay attention to the present moment, the micro, we also change the macro – the whole arc and experience of our lives.

The only moment we can ever influence in our lives is this moment….and the next….and the next.  My capacity to live life well therefore rests in being as alive and present as I can be moment to moment..  If I am lost in anxiety about the future or regrets about the past, I squander the present.  With all my senses and awareness present and with all the gifts and love I have to share, I can shape my life and positively affect the lives of those around me.

It’s a skill to practice.  The more I practice the better I become – as listener, friend, partner and actor in this world.

I hesitate to share this last bit as, in my culture, it is so private and so little discussed.  Yet it sits at the heart of my experiences of the last year and at the heart of what I write now.

On November 8 2017 my father died, not before his time, but very quickly, without warning and alone.   And this is indeed the heart of it all.  As mortals we know there is a final moment in our lives: a conclusion to the innumerable moments we have lived and the moment when I most hope we can be present to the fullness of what it means to be human.

I had observed my father during his final year become ever more alive to the joy of living: walking in the woods, taking time for conversations with people (he would strike up a conversation with anyone).  He also became more and more clear about his beliefs and the importance of attending to the needs of the young through how our nations and world are governed.  He was deeply thoughtful about what makes a society good and just.

He had become practised in the art of being present and alive.  It shaped his life moment by moment to the very end.  He was a joy to be with.

I choose to follow his example – clumsily at times, but with a sincere intent.  I know I am choosing to make space for clear thinking, creativity, open-heartedness and the gifts of family and friendship.   I will keep practising this mantra.  No matter how tight the deadline, how great the pressure, I have all the time I need.









Which essential force in the world do we rarely name?



We have just celebrated Valentine’s Day when we wrap up Love in the romance of dinner, flowers or a box of chocolates.  It is not something we normally call out as being a major operating force in business and the world and yet…

In India on a 23 day trekking and mountaineering trip

It was definitely loving for me and my fellow travellers to accept each other’s foibles. Definitely loving when they supported my climbing being prioritised over their own.  Are we not taught that tolerance and selflessness are qualities of love?

We are unlikely to travel together again, or even see each other again.  This means the commitment to loving went beyond pragmatism.  We had strangers commenting on how connected and tight knit our group was, including Vinod and Sanjay who had very little English: a joy to be around.  The feeling gradually intensified over the time we were together and made the trip one of the most memorable of my life.

In Chamonix with my friend and climbing partner

Rob and I shared a love for climbing and for the mountains whose beauty silenced us.  We took enormous delight in seeing each other experience this more fully during our time in Chamonix.  There was a depth of mutual commitment that allowed us to work around each other’s moods, each other’s blocks and limitations and to keep anchoring back in what was beautiful, amazing, possible and achieve together what we could not have achieved alone.

A Country Wedding in France

The wedding celebrations of two friends in a village near Paris formed a vast metaphorical cauldron to hold the love of friends and family as they gathered.  Over several days it filled up to the brim and overflowed as a blessing for the bride and groom and for everyone there.  We shed genuine tears at leaving people we had met a scant 4 days earlier, because we felt the bond of sharing something precious.

Inside a Global Business with Global Teams

I think of Cliff, a leader who consistently gets the best out of people, whose organisation is seen as a hub for talent with increasing competition to join his team because people know they and their careers will be looked after.  He might not use the ‘L’ word.  He has more than enough awareness to know that his commitment to listening, learning, challenging, supporting and taking unfettered delight in people’s success – plus always looking for the win/win/win – is a pretty good imitation of it.

To be clear, I’m not talking about a wishy washy concept of love where everything has to perpetually be ‘ nice’ or kind.  Every parent, every friend knows the importance of setting boundaries out of love, knowing that ‘this is where I stand’, ‘this I will not accept’.

My experience shows me that something profound happens when we make love an essential quality of our relationships.

One of my mantras is that we lead through the quality of our relationships and that the first and most important relationship is with ourselves.  I also acknowledge the old saying “you cannot give to another what you won’t give to yourself”.   So if I am to be generous, considerate, appreciative of others then I also need to practise generosity consideration and appreciation of my own being and actions.

This plays out at work, in marriage, through our friendships and our community roles.  My leadership and my life are expressed through the network of relationships that I care about. I care because we share DNA, commitments, intentions, goals or values.

It gives me and you a different starting point when we navigate the frequently complex challenges we face professionally and socially. The solutions are implemented through relationships as well. When love is at the centre of a solution it is inevitably more sustainable.

This sits at the heart of the work I do.  For in my experience, no matter how complicated the situation at first appears, when we are able to look deeply enough and when we genuinely care about the relationships it becomes much, much simpler.

I would wish for us all to cultivate loving hearts.


For more information about Ruth visit or email

Are you a winner? Your answer matters.

I started this blog on Tuesday November 8 2016 when it seemed the world held its breath.  Who would win the U.S. election and be the 45th President?  After all, the winner’s personality, values and beliefs – in short their leadership – would profoundly affect us all.

Throughout the previous few months, I had found the theme of winning emerging repeatedly through media coverage of elections and other world events as well as in my own life.

Winning is not something I would have identified with for most of my life.  Indeed I would have shied away from it, till it was pointed out to me how deeply embedded winning is into our first world culture. We are all affected by our relationship to winning whether we are aware of it or not. In particular it affects our relationships to others as leader, mentor and role model.

As with all such matters, it is our underlying beliefs which are in the driver’s seat. You may tell your spouse or friend that coming midfield with a personal best was great.  However, if deep down you believe that second place is for first loser, that is the message which will come through loud and clear in your tone, energy and even in the things you don’t say.  Becoming aware of our underlying beliefs means we can evaluate them and change them if they no longer serve us.

Let’s consider four versions of our relationship to winning and then come back to the implications of this for how we lead.

First there’s the Donald Trump version which to me seems to be summed up in his statements “I’ll accept the election result so long as I win” and “I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally”.

It’s the version of winning where we need the external result to validate our internal sense of self-worth so much that we rework what happens into stories that reassure us[1].

I suggest we all have our Trump moments when we re-run an argument in our mind till we convince ourselves ‘I did the right thing’ a.k.a. ‘I won’.   I know only too well the appeal of applying this type of balm to my wounded pride.  The dangerous thing is that our need to ‘win’ in this version is insatiable.

This isn’t purely personal.  It’s something we have taught our children with every test and competition.  There’s only one first prize and that’s for the best. People treat you differently (better) when you win it.  This struck me forcibly the first time I won a major competition.  It felt weird… and seductive. Winning must mean you’re a better person, right?  The act of winning (or losing) and being a winner (or loser) are conflated.

Before dismissing this as ‘not you’, note that Marshall Goldsmith[2] identifies ‘winning too much’ as the number one unhelpful leadership behaviour of the most successful people, closely followed by ‘adding too much value’- or needing to contribute your ‘right’ opinion even when it is not wanted or relevant.

Yes I am suggesting that there’s a little bit of Trump in each of us.  The question is whether we are self-aware? If we are, we can change tack.

Still unsure?  Try this question:   How easy is it for people to tell you that you are wrong?

Going back to Marshall Goldsmith: if someone hasn’t given you tough feedback in the last 60 days, you can guarantee people are inhibited from doing so.

Here’s another: Do you endure ‘feedback’ at work or home with gritted teeth or even directly ‘correcting’ their perceptions?  Perhaps, as I used to, you avoid such discussions as being too painful, which is a different version of needing the external result to match my internal story.

Here is a second version of winning which draws on our internal, self-validation.  Some years ago a friend shared with me a profound insight that was essential to him becoming world champion in an Olympic sailing class.

“I used to aim to beat the competition” he said.  “Then I realised this meant all my focus was on them.  Now I simply sail the very best I can.  I find I end up ahead of them anyway by the first mark.  The rest of the race I sail for myself.”

He has shifted from “winning to beat the competition” to trusting his own judgment and skill, based on years of coaching and direct experience.  He shifted from reacting to what others were doing to primarily sailing his own race.  This enabled a significant step up in performance and achievement.

While this is a great example of self-leadership I suggest that it is only appropriate for leading others in arenas where the rules of engagement and desired outcome are known and agreed.[3] The biggest challenges faced by leaders today generally do not fit that description.

I observe that people in the Western World are currently in the middle of exploring a third version of  winning as self-realisation.  How can I be the best version of myself, the best leader, the best shaper of my life?  On one level, it is still about achievement.  How can I live up to my fullest potential as evidenced by external accolades or even internal experiences such as feelings of calmness, clarity, personal power?  It’s still ‘all about me’.

However, as soon as we start considering what it means to be ‘the best version of myself’ we are naturally led to consider our interdependencies on other people.  This is reflected in the old saying that it’s better to have a ‘winning team’ rather than ‘a team of winners’.

When we understand our interdependencies we shift the definition of ‘winning’ from a personal outcome to a shared one.  This is the fourth version of Winning I want to consider.

This is more profound than simply negotiating a win-win outcome.  It involves letting go your need to achieve and trusting in a deeper sense of personal value which comes from giving your worth to something that is larger than you.  It’s the shift to true servant leadership.

Recently I was privileged to hear Mark Bilton[4] describe how he faced the vitriol of franchise owners of Gloria Jeans when the company was facing bankruptcy.  His humility, determination and personal involvement as CEO were essential ingredients in these same franchisees helping to create a turnaround success story.  The company was sold after 18 months for over US$160m.  He was able to bring hope that there was a future worth working for if they all pooled their efforts.  In this story everybody won: the franchisees, the employees, the suppliers, the banks and the customers…. Not to mention the business owners.

Let’s bring all of this back to leadership and how we grow and develop as people leaders.

Our relationship to winning seems to me to reflect stages on a personal journey.  My friend Karyn exemplifies this beautifully.  A 3 time Olympian and world champion she has done something even more impressive (at least to me).  In service of giving back to the sport she loves, she has made the mental shift from competing at the elite level to club level – and enjoying it.  She also generously contributes her time, energy and expertise to complete beginners and works hard in forums at the pointy end of setting strategy for the sport for the benefit of all people, not just the elite.  Her definition of winning has clearly morphed from personal excellence to team excellence to an appreciation of the win a whole community can have through shared passion and engagement.  The world is blessed to have people like Karyn.

The next decade will require all senior leaders to expand how they think about winning and their roles in creating winning outcomes.  Challenges are becoming more obviously complex which means shifting our thinking from seeking a win for a particular interest group to seeking a collective win for all involved.  This is something that President Obama as ‘Leader of the free world’ has been grappling with for the last 8 years in the face of a resurgent Russia, an increasingly powerful China and an ever-complex web of Middle Eastern affiliations[5] – not to mention the social effects of concentrating wealth in the hands of a very few and accelerating concerns around climate change.[6] In simplistic terms the solution has to be built on the insights of all stakeholders.  Therefore no one stakeholder can define what that solution is.

Leadership becomes less a factor of having the right answer and more one of holding the space within which ‘warring’ or competing parties can find common ground, see their role in the current problems and define a new way forward which has wins for everyone.

This involves stripping away ego as it is no longer about me, rather it is about something far bigger than me which I find meaningful.  Think of the movement to end apartheid lead by Nelson Mandela but which came to fruition only with the eventual engagement of P.W. Botha and then F.W. De Klerk.  Or the amazing achievement of all parties involved in creating the Good Friday Agreement for Ireland, which ended decades, indeed, centuries, of violence.

There is an intensely personal, I would say spiritual, journey involved in leading in this way.  It’s not for everyone.  Yet if you seek to be a relevant leader for the future, I believe this last version of winning is one you urgently need to explore.

As 2017 begins and Lunar New Year approaches, I invite you to dedicate time now to an honest appraisal of your relationship to winning and to consider whether this serves the intention you hold for your life, your relationships and the future you seek.  The more people who are prepared to do this, the more we can hope for a resilient future which we actually want – because we can trust that, in all our diversity and quirkiness, each one of us will find ourselves to be a winner.



[1] There’s nothing wrong with seeking external validation, indeed it’s vital to keep us intellectually and emotionally grounded. However, there’s a big difference between confirming whether we are on the right track and seeking public accolades to reinforce our sense of value as a person.  The former comes from a place of open-mindedness where both confirming and dissenting information are equally appreciated.  The latter is part of a fixed and limited mindset, as described by Carol S. Dweck, which inhibits innovation and embeds divisive and even aggressive behaviours.

[2] For a fuller description read Goldsmith’s article  His full list of the top 20 unhelpful habits is at


[3] I would link this to the qualities inherent in Technical Leadership as described by Heifetz, Linksy et al for example here


[4] Humanity in Business conference ‘Authentic Leadership’ Sydney November 30 2016

[5] See for example the Iranian Foreign Minister’s insistence that Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria and Iran all need to work together to find a way to peace


[6]  Last year it was reported 62 people held the same wealth as the bottom 50% of our worlds population.  This year Oxfam say it is down to 8 individuals.

Wishing you joy – a gift to unwrap with care

I would like to share with you a gift a very dear friend gave me.  She showed me (and continues to show me) that finding joy in life is a commitment and not a goal.

After all, we don’t get to control what will pass or how our best plans will unfold.

It’s November and I am in New Zealand with my friend.  Let’s call her Agnes.  Agnes and I have been planning this trip for 3 years, since before she was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer.  We would climb a mountain together to celebrate being alive in a new decade of her life.

Very little went as planned, yet it went 100% according to our deeper intention.

Our first foray to test skills and fitness in the snow ended with one high step as Agnes strained muscles essential to stabilising herself on uncertain ground.  A very minor injury, but enough to mean climbing was out of the question.

Less than 6 hours later she was urging me to climb with our guide without her, not to lose the opportunity for me.  She quoted her mantra which I had heard so often throughout chemo and surgery: “it’s all good”. There’s good in here somewhere.  I just have to be open to finding it.

I should add that her other mantra is “if life gives you lemons, add vodka”!

It would have been so easy for Agnes to turn her very real and intense disappointment into resentment or bitterness.  Her commitment to personal honesty precluded this as she focused on who she was being in response to what happened and accepting (versus fighting against) the events themselves.

So, with the generous and sensitive help of our guide, we changed plans.

If you have climbed in New Zealand, you may have stayed at Plateau Hut.  It’s the launch point for those hoping to summit Aoraki Mount Cook, the country’s highest peak and a worthy climb.

It is a beautiful place, literally perched above the Tasman Glacier and looking directly across to Mount Cook, Mount Tasman and the other peaks around.

We had been joined on this trip by Mara, an Italian woman with a beautiful soul who spends her life as a ‘refuge or hut guardian’ (now there’s a metaphor for life).

In a blissful bubble of isolation (this was 8 to 12 November), while our guide and I completed a very enjoyable climb, Agnes stepped with an open mind and heart into what the day offered, feeling joy when watching the joy and excitement of others.  For example:  Mara’s overwhelming delight when one of the other climbers at the hut lent her his skis.  Agnes forged a beautiful connection with the two gregarious, confident young men who never-the-less had fears about their futures.  She delighted in the beauty of the place, the joy of being alive and pondered how to share this with her children.  With a desire to be the best mother she can be, she asked herself “how do I live my life to the fullest in a way that embraces and nurtures them?”

I respect Agnes deeply for living her life truly according to her values.  By this I mean staying committed to them even when it got hard.  Her values were like anchors during a storm.  They gave her a sure starting point from which to work through each situation as it arose, releasing her attachment to the outcome she had planned for.

The morning of our departure we took a final walk up Glacier Dome to breathe in deeply the spirit of the place.  As we descended back to the hut the tiny specs of snow which had been dusting our clothing gradually thickened into large soft flakes.  Back at the hut we learned that, on this one morning, the helicopter pilot was late for work. We watched the cloud base gradually lower till the Tasman Glacier was blocked from view and understood there was no lift home for us today.

Eight people stuck in a hut with nothing to do except be with each other and our own entertainments.  How can I do justice with words to the experience of this?  Eight people moved in time with each other through the moods of the day: fun and laughter, thoughtful story-telling, personal quiet time and reflection and a great deal of energetic digging out snow to keep access to the hut and toilets open.  Almost by way of counterpoint one person went against the harmony we created.  He had come to climb Mount Cook and nothing else would do.  He struggled with his frustration and disappointment because the snow storm ruled out a summit attempt for a number of days.  Eventually he cut his whole trip short.

At 1pm the next day the cloud lifted and it was time to go.  No need to share contact details, just heart felt good-byes as this wasn’t about being friends for life.  It was about sharing a moment in time.

Agnes and I both felt deeply blessed by what we had experienced.  We definitely fulfilled the intention of our trip.  A mountain was climbed.  However the mountain we climbed together was metaphorical.  A new decade of life was truly celebrated and much joy was experienced and shared with people who were simply willing to be.  We could not possibly have planned this.  And Agnes lead the way by keeping her heart open to what might unfold….

I thank you Agnes for your wise and determinedly joyful heart.





The Vital Art of Changing Our Minds

Take a look at the picture above.  You might see a pretty landscape, confronting terrain or a climbing playground.  I stopped rock climbing at the age of 30.  As much as I loved it and saw others climbing safely and well, I became overwhelmed by the risks involved, so I stopped.  At 47 I have started climbing again –  I’ve changed my mind.

Now this may not sound like any kind of endorsement to you.  However, I believe that being able to change our minds at this level is vital, literally ‘life-giving’.  For at the heart of all of our seemingly intransigent problems is an issue of our mind’s view of the world and beliefs about what we should do and are capable of doing.  Expanding our mind’s view opens up new ways forward.

I am talking about something much deeper than integrating new information as it becomes available.  This is about addressing our fundamental and often unconscious beliefs and assumptions which underpin our mind’s view.  A vital part of our work as adults is to become conscious of them for they silently shape all our decisions and actions.  With awareness we can consider if they still serve us or those we care about and, if not, replace them.  Without this work we are guaranteed to be making limiting decisions affecting what we and others can achieve.

There is a plethora of research into the importance of early experiences and socialising on brain development.  Many of us will know the Jesuit saying of “give me the child for his first 7 years and I will give you the man”.  During this period we are building our first frameworks of beliefs for making sense of the world – without awareness or the ability to critique what we are absorbing.  We continue to build on this foundation throughout our lives, for humans are profoundly sense-making creatures.  We naturally piece together elements from our experiences which affirm the mindset and beliefs we have[1]

The multi-award winning film Sherpa[2] offers a powerful exposé of this process in action.  It explores the experiences of Sherpas and Western climbers at the time of the tragic ice avalanche on Everest in 2014 in which 16 Sherpas were killed.

Many of the people filmed present individually cohesive, yet mutually conflicting understandings of what is happening.

Tensions rose when the majority of Sherpas threatened to stop all climbing because they were angry with their government’s lack of support and out of respect for those killed.  The climbers were heavily invested in their objective of summiting Everest and many wanted to continue.  These are different and yet reasonable points of view.  Then during a terse discussion about the Sherpas, one Western climber asked his Expedition Leader “Can’t you talk to their owners?”   As the cinema audience gasped in horror at the slavery-era belief implied by this statement, I wondered what my version of that might be?

What’s certain is that we all have hidden beliefs which others would find bizarre and we need other people to help us uncover them.

An extra twist for leaders

Traditionally, leaders are paid to have the vision, set the strategy and drive the execution.  We believe we are responsible for finding the answer. This works very well for leading technical problems where similar matters have been successfully resolved before[3]

Increasingly we find that the proper understanding of the problem exists across multiple stakeholder groups.  For example:

  • What is the proper response to issues of environmental sustainability?
  • Is my Government doing the right thing about the economy, social policy, foreign policy?
  • How are disruptive technologies and Gen Y thinking going to influence my industry/business?

No one person can derive the solution to such complex issues as these.  They have to be co-created.  If you’re in a senior leadership role, you know this challenge well.  It requires a being able to step beyond our prejudices and preconceptions to engage others.


We can think we are expanding our thinking and testing our beliefs when actually we are still sourcing from within our paradigm.  An example of this is the AFR Business Summit held in Melbourne, Australia in March.  It was an excellent program with some superb speakers and panellists on the question of “risk or growth?”  A fair question for the business world.  What struck me was that concepts of growth were predicated on the conventional wisdom of increased consumption.  No one addressed current estimations that we are already consuming 1.6 times each year what the planet can sustainably produce.[4]

This reminded me of the wisdom in the humour of Douglas Adams.  He wrote in ‘Life the Universe and Everything’ of a spaceship hovering above Lords Cricket Ground in the UK protected by the most powerful force-field in the known universe – the Somebody Else’s Problem or SEP field.  “Any object around which an S.E.P. is applied will cease to be noticed, because any problems one may have understanding it (and therefore accepting its existence) become Somebody Else’s. An object becomes not so much invisible as unnoticed.”   The truth of this is both funny and frightening.

Changing our minds requires commitment and a sense of adventure

Otto Scharmer and his colleagues at the Presencing Institute, MIT have been helping leaders for the last 20 years to radically open their minds, hearts and wills to what is new, unknown and thereby generate radically different solutions.  As mentioned above, we need other people to help us uncover our hidden beliefs.  One powerful tool they teach is called an empathy walk.  It means deliberately seeking out someone who operates at the fringes of our community, perhaps holds opposing views and then deliberately suspending all judgment and preconceptions as we spend time with them.  Our aim is to see through their eyes, hear through their ears, feel through their skin, to understand how they love what they love and honour what they honour.  We don’t have to share their beliefs, yet we can discover how their world makes sense to them.  It’s a great antidote to that SEP field!

I was privileged to have a long conversation many years ago with James Strong, former CEO and later Chairman of Qantas about the understanding he forged of people at all levels of the organisation.  This he developed by giving time and attention to people in their world, building connection and valuing their ideas.  Some might call this ‘management by walking around.’ However, the intention was akin to the empathy walk.

The gift of the empathy walk is discovering our hidden prejudices, assumptions and misunderstandings.  This awareness automatically changes us, enlarging our thinking so we become much better equipped as leaders.  We then have the mindset necessary to tap into the power of collective wisdom which reaches well beyond our experience – to truly lead innovation and to shape new paradigms.

I stopped climbing when I was 30 because I had run out of mental and emotional reserves.  I didn’t know at the time but I was struggling with a perfect storm of inherited beliefs of “don’t push your luck” and “don’t trust yourself”.  Each time I lead a climb successfully, rather than confirming my competence it became another lucky escape from what I believed was an inevitable accident.

The easy path is to walk away from what we find hard, to stick with what’s comfortable.  The personal challenges I encountered climbing were potentially life threatening. They certainly felt hard and intractable.  Bashing away at the problem directly wasn’t going to help.  So I went on a walk around it, intentionally experiencing new things and learning new models to adjust my fundamental belief structures.

At 47 I have no ambitions to be a great climber or alpinist.  I’ve left my run a bit late!   My intention is to be in wild places that nourish my spirit for as long as my body will let me.

The power of the journey is knowing that I can, we can, change some of the deepest and fundamental drivers behind how we show up every day, the impact and influence we have on other people and the solutions we see and support.  Whenever a problem feels too big to handle our best response is to practice the art of changing our minds.  For it breathes new hope into the biggest issues – no matter how complex and intransigent the challenge may seem.



[1]What statisticians have long referred to as confirmation bias.

[2] Award winning film Sherpa: Trouble on Everest

[3] See publications by Ron Heifetz, Marty Linsky from the Kennedy School on Adaptive Leadership, Harvard Kennedy School.


Leading in times of fear and hope – the temptations of the easy path

How do you lead across the gap between a morally ambitious, hopeful vision of the future and the immediate, obvious reaction to difficult times? Do you even want to?

Welcome to 2016: ongoing refugee crises and the geo-political turmoil causing people to flee; concerns about China’s economic leadership, plunging oil prices and the ripple effects on resource driven economies.  All of this seasoned with the visceral fears being promulgated by IS/Daesh and its hydra-forms around the world.  That adds up to a lot of fear.

It also adds up to a big choice for anyone in a leadership role – as every Republican and Democrat Presidential candidate in the U.S. knows.  Align people around fear or choose hope?

Angela Merkel[1] has committed herself to hope in the ideal of a united Europe.  She is leading Germany’s open-armed welcome of Syrian refugees despite the clear pressures this places on local communities, the economy and the risks of strengthening right-wing extremism.  Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Órban[2] presents the alternative response, simplifying the problem by making clear distinctions between those who are welcome and those who are not.[3]

One may seem an obviously morally preferable path.  Yet there is a big gap between inspiring through envisioning what ought to be and leading people to bring that same vision into reality when things get murky.  Witness the unfolding ramifications of events in Cologne on New Year’s Eve and  evidence that terrorists responsible for the December attacks in Paris arrived by posing as Syrian refugees.

Truthfully, the deck is stacked against Ms Merkel.

Leading by aligning around hope is hard work as it requires innovative problem solving.  In the words of Daniel Kahneman[4] this means ‘slow thinking’ – creative, effortful engagement from Ms Merkel, the people of Germany and those who are co-creators of the Syrian crisis, over a sustained period of time.

Aligning people around fear, on the other hand, requires virtually no effort.  We are biologically wired to respond to threat (real or imagined) in a way that is patterned on ancient survival skills and our own past experiences.  In that sense our fear driven responses are entirely predictable and automatic.

When we are responding from a place of fear we lose our capacity to think creatively.[5] In the face of modern complex challenges that is dangerous.  More than that, evidence for the hopeful path washes off as it requires creative, effortful work to reconsider a position, while evidence for the negative sticks.

Psychologically we can only come from one place at a time – hope (with options for creative thinking) or fear (predictable, past-oriented thinking). 

This means we are ALL responsible for the part we are playing in shaping the zeitgeist, which will enable either hope or fear to thrive.  This is not somebody else’s problem.  This is an individual and local matter, as well as a national and global one.  We each have a responsibility to pay attention to:

  1. Our intention as leaders – to model and inspire fear or hope.
  2. Where we set the borders of our awareness – do I see how my decisions and actions link into a wider issue?
  3. Our fundamental beliefs and values.  When pushed, do I truly believe in shared, human rights?

I want to offer one small yet powerful key to all three areas as a starting point: we make a choice for fear every time we put a label to someone.  

Just take a moment to think about that.  Every time we label someone we give our brains a shortcut to assess and respond to a situation.  Our brains love such rules of thumb[6].  We couldn’t function without them.   Ah you’re a WASP[7]!  No further thought required.  I know how to respond. Ditto refugee, feminist or even such positive-sounding things as ‘a high-potential’.[8]

In some way I have defined you as ‘other’ and by doing so have just stripped you of your individual humanity and therefore the basis for all of your natural, human rights.

At this point, psychologically, I am capable of doing anything to you – even killing you.

If you think I am overstating things consider the last argument you regretted with someone you love.  We are all capable of wounding when we lose sight of the person’s name, individual value, intentions and deeper motivations.

At the very least you have given up your ability to build connection, let alone a hope-based alignment.  You have very subtly given up the basis for truly informed and creative thinking.

So our first action is to become aware of where and how we are using labels with people involved in the situations we face.  Some of these are unconscious.  We have to work backwards from knowing we are not treating that person as equal to considering how we are labelling them as different/inferior.  Sometimes it’s about labelling individuals as part of a group.  Think about the debate surrounding the language of refugee versus migrant versus illegal migrant in Europe, the Middle East and Australia.

The second action is to get curious and get behind that label – to identify names, faces with real needs and personal motivations.

It sounds simple in principle and can be profoundly challenging in practice.  It takes courage and commitment.  It will probably also involve a good dose of humility.

This is where real grounds for hope come in.

You don’t have to like the person to engage with them as a human being and open up the possibility of outcomes which are radically different from our fears.  Proof?  Ninety-five percent of hostage negotiations with trained negotiators are successful.[9]  George Kohlrieser in his book ‘Care to Dare’ makes a clear case for this in a business context – indeed wherever we find ourselves in relationship with others.  In short, if there is no relationship – build one.

If you’re like me, at this point you’re thinking of all the people you wouldn’t touch with the proverbial barge pole.  While this may be human, if we are in a leadership role, I believe we are required to step beyond this.  Quite literally we have to lead a new way for others to follow.

Day by day we choose whether to build intellectual muscle for hope or fear.  Building a resilient hope-based community takes time and is the multiplied effect of individual effort.  Think of the responses of the community of Charleston, grieving deeply for the people killed last December by Dylann Roof after they welcomed him into their church.  They showed extraordinary compassion and dignity, while not shying away from the horrific nature of what had happened.  The people of Charleston were lauded for their humanistic and heart-felt response to events, which many linked to a long-term building of an integrated community lead by their Mayor of 40 years, Joe Riley.[10]

This is not about adopting a saccharine approach which reduces people to helpless ‘victims’ needing our pity or support or minimising the reality of deeds done.  The horrified call to action experienced in response to Aylan Kurdi’s[11] death does not belie the reality of some refugees bringing their traumas and past grievances with them.

This is about engaging each other as individual humans with a name, valid needs and motivations and at the same challenging unacceptable behaviour.

In my experience it requires diligent effort.  We will label and judge.  It’s part of what we do naturally in a healthy way to deal with the vast complexities of life.

What’s important is the clarity of our intention and the quality of our attention to the challenge.

Whether you lead whole organisations or are the captain of your own life, my invitation to you is this.  The next time you find yourself attaching a label to someone to define them as ‘other’ or as justification for a point of view, interrupt yourself and get curious.  Honestly seek to put names, faces, desires and motivations to the very same people and observe what more you learn, how your thinking and understanding changes.  For in that small step is the beginning of the road to our best of hopes, for everyone.


Ruth McCance is an Executive Confidante, Coach and Faciliator with over 20 years’ experience in guiding people on their leadership journey, as they navigate change for themselves and their organisations. Beginning on the basis that we lead through the quality of our relationships, she will help you develop a ‘symphonised’ way of leading which harnesses not just your own power but the power of those around you.   

Ruth’s vision is of a world where the most powerful organisations are guided by people who lead through difference, not despite difference, leaving a legacy of amazing achievements by establishing deeply connected human networks.

[1] This recent article in the NY Times summarises the dilemma well

[2] For example as outlined here

[3] See also

[4] Daniel Kahneman 2011, ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ published in the US by Farrar, Straus and Giroux  and by Penguin Books in 2012.

[5] If you’re not familiar with this, google amygdala hi-jack or review any psych textbook on the fight/flight response.  You’ll also find a summary in the George Kohlrieser article link in footnote 9.

[6] This is the thinking fast which Daniel Kahnemann sets out in exquisite detail in ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’

[7] Originating in the US, this is the acronym for White Anglo-Saxon Protestant.

[8] The first person I’m aware of grappling with this is philosopher Martin Buber with his concepts of I:thou.  If you know of others please let me know.





Where are you on your leadership journey?

I often speak to people who have been in leadership roles for many years.  When I suggest that leadership is a calling for them, I get emphatic nods of agreement.  This is often quickly followed up with a slightly embarrassed cough and a “well I wouldn’t necessarily use that specific language”.  After all, ‘calling’ has spiritual overtones which seem at odds with how we think about business.

Exploring the idea further, what emerges is a sense of vocation or sustained commitment to taking the lead in some form.

Whatever language is used, leading is an integral part of their whole life’s journey which brings depth and meaning.

Now journeys are interesting things in that they have milestones as well as an overall direction or intention.  They set a trajectory for us which might send us over mountain ranges or other hazardous terrain.  Our individual walking of it is unique and the landscape and milestones can be anticipated.

This insight has significant bearing on how we interpret and respond to leadership challenges.

I am usually engaged (initially at least) to help the leader ‘fix’ something – the team, a restructure, problem employees. When we respond to such challenges in the business-driven context, we get one set of answers which will do the job.  However, when we place the same challenges in the context of a much larger leadership journey we discover something entirely different.

The challenge is no longer just about the immediate results.  It is revealed as an iteration of a current leadership milestone or lesson on the way.  For example, fixing the team can be about clarifying the leader’s intention around the culture (s)he is building.  The leadership strategies then focus on how (s)he intends to breathe life into that culture through who (s)he is being as leader, just as much as what (s)he is doing – or what (s)he asks the team to do.  The results are richer, wider reaching and longer-lasting….. and infinitely more rewarding.

This is definitely the harder path and therefore undertaken by people who feel compelled or called to take it.  Else, why not just play the short-term game and collect your bonus?


There are many different paths into leadership: the traditional school-university-corporate pathway, via small business, sport, religion or simply through pursuing our own ideas and vision and finding others become inspired to follow.  Whatever the way in, it seems that each person can identify a seminal moment, most probably in the early phases of adulthood, when they realised others were relying on them to lead.  Consider your own moment.  What was it about that situation that was different?  What were others seeing in you or needing from you?

For those of us in the corporate world we are readily funnelled into an established pathway of increasing seniority without needing to pay too much attention to questions of leadership.  This can help us defer some of the milestones/lessons for a little while. Entrepreneurs and small business leaders may find they just have to ‘get on with it’.  There isn’t the time for navel gazing!

Ultimately I believe all leaders will ask themselves the questions (in some form) “what am I leading people towards?” and “what gives meaning to who I am and what I am doing?”

The trigger can be when work conflicts with family priorities or health.  Perhaps we discover that driving change through our own force of will is not enough. Or we have a challenge ahead of us which we simply don’t know how to tackle.   We might find ourselves at the pointy end of the corporate hierarchy and we fear there will be no more promotion for us.   Or indeed part of us simply knows that that the deeper questions exist and are worth answering.

These are painful and transformative times as our comfortable thinking is thrown out of its easy chair and forced back onto the road of discovery once more.

Without the bigger perspective of the whole leadership journey, the temptation is to give in to the sense of defeat (I should be further on in my career/ the situation can’t change) and decide to settle for less.

However, when we engage sincerely with questions of meaning people notice straight away – our spouses, friends and colleagues.  The changes are both subtle and deep – and mark the beginning of a new phase of the journey.

Our sense of calling becomes clearer and our energy returns.

In this phase we are invited to become conscious of and reconsider the beliefs and assumptions we have built up about ourselves, leadership and how the world works.   Some beliefs will be kept and treasured.  Others will be let go (with gratitude as they have served us well to this point) and new understandings take their place.  The reassurance is that this road has been walked, analysed and understood before  by many great leaders and thinkers throughout the ages[1].  We find ourselves in good company and don’t have to walk without a map or guide.

So my question to you is “where are you on your leadership journey?”

Over the next few months I will be speaking with a number of leaders from all walks of life to identify more of the milestones and waypoints they have encountered.  I would welcome hearing about your journey as well to add more details to the map. You can contact me at  I will share the collective insights and learnings early next year.  After all, knowing more of the journey helps us to be much more confident in continuing to step forward and take the lead.


[1] Lawrence Kohlberg and James Fowler for example.  It is also evident in the work of people like Peter Senge and Jim Collins/Jerry Poras.

People leaders: Are you special or just (extra)ordinary?

The pros and cons of being special

Being special has a strong appeal.  It’s the glow of being marked for success, of standing out.  And it brings its problems too.

As a young child I coveted accolades such as “especially mature for her age” and “intelligent”.  Comments like this had my heart brimming over with pleasure.  While I was the only child in my village it wasn’t too hard to attain (and retain) such status.  Then came school…. And my drive to be better than, different from, not surprisingly made me no friends at all.

The desire to be special is deeply embedded in our socialising[1].  Cinemas are dominated by the narrative of the (super)hero who will single-handedly save the day.  Australia’s political pastime of changing party leaders supports the myth that everything can be resolved if only the right (special) person is in charge.  Ditto the current run for Republican nomination in the U.S.  Ditto the reliance on the new CEO with their allotted 3-5 years to transform the organisation.

This is where it gets problematic.

When we operate on the basis of being ‘special’, we rely on our specialness being evident to others.  So, apart from being a social failure at 5, my seeking to be special had me locked into a world of continual comparison and competition where slogans such as “2nd place is first loser” had a sinister, but truthful ring to them.  I was compelled to view everyone through the eyes of critical judgment and/or envy.   Either I am privileged because of my specialness or your specialness makes me unworthy.  Indeed, your success diminishes me.

At age 5 or 55, it’s fundamentally the same dynamic.

Think about it.  For the executive, it’s the tightrope of ambition – standing out from the crowd, without alienating those you need to support you.  Or the Peter Principle – I shine until I’m stretched just that bit too far, then I fail publicly or dwindle into mediocrity.

This place is dispiriting and exhausting.   And lonely.  There is no building of empathetic bridges from this place.  No opportunity to truly influence, engage or direct in a way that outlasts our time in the role or which stretches beyond our inner circle.

I want to offer you another place from which to lead.

Dare to be ordinary

I was in my 20s when my first mentor John E. Warren[2] dared me to “be ordinary.  From there you can become extra-ordinary.”

I was a bit shocked.  What did he mean?

Being ordinary means accepting and relaxing into our human-ness – literally warts and all.  We become deeply aware of personal foibles and failings, just as we are aware of them in others.  We also become aware of something else.  For when we stop our struggling and striving to be special, our attention is free to move away from ‘me’.  I can become attentive to something much deeper that is available to us all, because we are human. This is the wisdom which practices of mindfulness point us to.

Now this is a scary prospect as it can feel like letting go of a treasured part of our identity and source of success.  Doesn’t ordinary mean ‘unremarkable’?  Aren’t we revealing the parts of ourselves which we believe decent society would prefer we kept hidden?  It takes courage and commitment. When I ask even highly committed leaders to begin regular dialogue with people on how they can lead better (a very speedy path to humility and ordinariness), part of them resists with internal kicking and screaming.

In truth being ordinary leads to a much more grounded sense of personal value, a much more compelling position from which to lead.  Once we take that step, our fears drop away as we discover something intriguing and transforming.

Through allowing myself to be ordinary, I found that I became more interested in what was possible, rather than in my perceived status. This naturally had a profound change on all of my relationships, for I was no longer in subtle competition.  And this transformed my ability to lead through the quality of the relationships I formed.  Further, once I saw myself as ordinary I became free to be the best version of myself – which might be quite different from anyone around me.  I could create my own path.  This means I also gave others the freedom to become the best version of themselves.

Your success does not diminish me.  It augments me.

And this is where the extra-ordinary comes in.  I’m punning on words, yet there’s a truth in here.   I am in a sense ultra-ordinary in that I am exploring the fullness of what it means to be human, yet most particularly me.

When we can lead teams and organisations to embrace ordinariness, what we achieve together becomes visibly extra-ordinary[3].

Extra-ordinary leadership

The complex and interconnected challenges for business, environment, society and politics require us to find new ways of working and being together.  The results need to be win/win/win to be durable and founded on deep mutual understanding and respect.  This is a co-creative and collaborative path.

I suggest the world, your business, your team needs you to be an extra-ordinary leader and not a special leader.  Special leaders, no matter how talented they may be, are bound by their very beliefs to take us down an increasingly fragile and unwalkable path of division.

Let me offer an example of extra-ordinary leadership.

The new mayor of Newark New Jersey, Ras Baraka,[4]  campaigned on the platform of “when I become mayor, we all become mayor”.  It’s an egalitarian and socialist sounding promise which he’s turning into a pattern for real change in the deeply divided city and in a country which decries socialism.  His method is simple (though not easy): holding people accountable, finding what is common across the needs and desires of poor blacks, police and commercial interests and articulating that as a vision for Newark to move towards.  His previous detractors are now actively speaking in his favour as a man who operates with authenticity and a simple commitment to do what is good, just, fair.  This is a description of a person who is leading from the position of ‘everyman’.  I am sure he will make mistakes.  But this is not about perfection.

Each of us has the power to change our beliefs, including whether we are ‘special’.  I consider it part of our job as adults to become aware of our core beliefs, to evaluate them and change those that no longer serve us – or the people we lead.   This sits at the heart of the work I do with people in senior leadership roles, to become extra-ordinary leaders.

Do you believe that excellent leadership is about the special individual? Is your own intention to be special?  Do you believe that you have hit your career ceiling because you are not special enough?  Or do you choose a different path of relaxing into being ordinary and focusing your efforts on what is individually and collectively possible?  These are not comfortable questions and most people need the help of an objective and trusted person to properly address them.

Neurologist and author Oliver Saks epitomises for me the (extra)ordinary man[5].  His death on Sunday 30 August this year marked the passing of a great mind and a great heart.  He believed in fundamental change, in the possibility of learning and in the value inherent in all people, including those ‘written off’ in mental institutions.  By doing so, he transformed our understanding of mental health and of the human condition – in the most gentle way.   Here are his closing words from a NY Times article he wrote when he learned that he had only a few months to live.

“I cannot pretend I am without fear.  But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude.  I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return…  Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”[6]

Here’s to all of us leading from a place of such extra-ordinary wisdom.




[1] For a comprehensive and compelling analysis of this and its implications, see Dr. Carol S. Dweck, in her book ‘Mindset: How you can fulfil your potential’ Pub. Little Brown 2012

[2] John E Warren, Psychotherapist, Founder of the Centre for Psychospiritual Develoment, Anglican Minister and author of two books “Your Hidden Career: emotional survival, growth, success” Wakefield Press 1993; and “Emotional Power: Tapping the Inexhaustible Energy of Your Spirit” Written with Rita Riedel, Axiom Publishers 2004.

[3] Quick side note: Ordinary is not the same as conformist.  There’s a dynamic in some organisations where ordinary means ‘same as us’ as in ‘don’t rock the boat’.  That’s not what I mean.

[4] NY Times sourced 31 August 2015 at®ion=top-stories-below&WT.nav=top-stories-below

[5] Read his obituary here



Why unoriginality is the key to innovation

I have not had an original thought.

While I run the risk of invoking witty criticism, I think this statement is true for all of us.  Paradoxically it offers an important insight into how we shape progress and lead significant and innovative change.

Let me explain.

The Western culture of individualism and the ‘healthy ego’ leads us to celebrate originality.  Our sense of identity and self-worth can be strongly linked to how I identify the contribution I make or how others perceive my unique legacy .  Indeed, the quality of my intellect and reasoning are strong predictors of the level of respect I will command in the business world – and what better way to demonstrate that than with truly original thought?

Yet our deepest thoughts were probably already considered by Aristotle or a Mesopotamian sage many centuries ago. Just not in our context, nor with our scientific knowledge or language.  This is why we can read ancient texts and be inspired and why Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” is still labelled a best-seller after 2000 years!

Further, all over the world people are having the same insights as you and me concurrently. There seems to be a synchronicity shaped by our context.  Think of Alexander Bell and Elisha Gray who were separately and concurrently developing the telephone and filed for patents on the very same day[1].

A current example is the corporate leadership buzz around ‘mindfulness’.  Our technologically savvy and over-stimulated world is creating a hunger for inner peace. This wisdom has been part of the tradition of every great faith for centuries.  Now thousands of people around the world are firmly proclaiming the importance of meditation in business, social and religious contexts.  Each person’s insight is important in addressing a real issue and they are neither original nor unique.

Hmmm.  This starts to sound like heresy and what does this have to do with innovation?  After all individualism has been essential to the development of capitalism and the overwhelming growth in standards of living.  Our belief in meritocracy, human rights, democracy are all linked to individualism.

The first part of the answer lies in how powerfully and quickly we can effect change when we put ego aside and tap into the combined power of our collective wisdom and insights.  It’s there to be shared just as soon as we open our minds, hearts and will[2] and listen before we freely offer our own insights.  Then we achieve the seemingly impossible.

Take the stunning breakthroughs with prosthetic technologies.  Modern warfare (mines / IEDs) leaves more people alive but maimed.  The US Government made significant funding available to pioneer sophisticated options for people needing prosthetic limbs.  The requirement though was that learnings were to be shared – an open protocol was to be created.  The speed of progress has been breath-taking.  And although specific people are now patenting their own commercially lucrative variations, the collaborative and open sharing was a massive catalyst to what has occurred.  If you haven’t been following this one (and I can understand it may not be on your radar) check out IEEE / Spectrum.[3]  We are at a point where in a few short years prosthetic arms have evolved from having limited utility to now being able to handle delicate tasks and communicate sensation.  Imagine the joy of being able to hug your child, your spouse once more….

How much more quickly might we have developed communication technology had Bell and Gray openly shared their learnings and worked together, rather than engaging in a race to the patent office?  What other technological breakthroughs might be just around the corner?

The second part of the answer is that we may have no choice.  Leaders I work with keep encountering the same insight:  the opportunities they are really excited about and the complex challenges that they see go way beyond traditional concepts of business.  Hierarchical and individualistic approaches to leadership are insufficient to the task.  They won’t work.

Take the exemplary success of Unilever in moving to a genuine position of sustainability. They began by throwing out conventional wisdom around making quarterly forecasts to market analysts as this was driving short-termism. Instead, the people at Unilever have worked closely with their entire ecosystem of suppliers, customers and communities to think longer term about transforming the business.  They have moved a long way towards their goal of doubling revenues while enacting their three-point sustainability plan: to help more than a billion people improve their health and wellbeing, to halve the environmental footprint of their products, and to source 100% of agricultural raw materials sustainably.  Read any of the interviews with Paul Polman for an insight into his philosophy and approach.[4]  He is a man who radiates pride in what he and his team have collectively achieved.

There is excellent work being done in developing new leadership models. Two in particular are Otto Scharmer and the ‘Presencing Institute’ based out of MIT and Ron Heifetz and Martin Linsky’s work on Adaptive Leadership at Harvard. These present models of co-creative and future focused leadership versus authority-based and historically-grounded leadership.   I am sure there are others you know of and value– I would love to hear about them.

However, discussions about moving towards collaborative styles of leadership have been happening for decades.  So something is getting in the way of turning talk into action in all but a few exemplary instances.

I have worked for years with leaders who honestly desired to become ‘more collaborative’.  The biggest impediments they had to overcome were perceived threats to identity, status and sense of control…  To put it bluntly threats to people’s egos. “How can I trust you to understand my world, my priorities and to execute things to my standards or with my quality of vision?  Am I to share the glory?? After all, who remembers Elisha Gray?”

This happens while we operate according to a sense of purpose or meaning which focuses on our individual achievement.

Fulfilling an individual’s ambitions is not leadership – and certainly not the leadership we need right now. As leaders we are called think bigger and wider than we ever have before.

The paradigm for businesses is changing from “profit is good” to a recognition that “a business cannot thrive in a community that fails”. [5] Indeed there is much convincing commentary that our consumption- growth based business models are broken: we already consume about 1.5 times what the planet can sustainably produce.[6]

The function of leadership at Unilver involved creating space where ego can be put to one side among people who might believe they have nothing in common and indeed are in competition, building space for thoughtful and assertive challenge and deep, appreciative listening and learning.  Leading means to become a channel for what needs to emerge, the future that needs to be created[7].  The solutions created at Unilver look very different to what any individual might have conceived and deliver a win/win/win.  That is something to be rightly proud of.

In summary, if you know you are wedded to the concept of ‘your idea’ or are motivated by recognition of the part you play, you are stopping yourself from leading in a way that matters, a way that is urgently needed.  The invitation is to step beyond this and lead something larger than yourself, knowing that you won’t be doing this on your own.  The world is waiting.


Ruth McCance is an Executive Confidante, Coach and Faciliator with over 20 years’ experience in guiding people on their leadership journey, as they navigate change for themselves and their organisations. Beginning on the basis that we lead through the quality of our relationships, she will help you develop a ‘symphonised’ way of leading which harnesses not just your own power but the power of those around you.   

Ruth’s vision is of a world where the most powerful organisations are guided by people who lead through difference, not despite difference, leaving a legacy of amazing achievements by establishing deeply connected human networks.



[2] Otto Scharmer ‘Leading from the Emerging Future’  various citations incl. Introduction and Chapter 8 available at – though I recommend the whole book.


[4] [4] Here’s a recent article

[5] Paul Polman, CEO Unilever .  For a fuller outline of Polman’s position see any of the many articles posted.  Here’s a recent one


[7] These concepts are beautifully explored in Otto Scharmer’s book Leading from the Emerging Future, which also contains some moving and inspiring case studies of transformations happening around the world.