Tag: leadership

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 www.ruthmccance.com or email ruth@ruthmccance.com

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 http://sherpafilm.com/trailer/

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

[4] http://www.overshootday.org/earth-overshoot-day-debt-cant-ignore/

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 ruth@ruthmccance.com.  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 http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/31/nyregion/newark-mayor-ras-baraka-wins-praise-for-trying-to-unite-city.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=mini-moth&region=top-stories-below&WT.nav=top-stories-below

[5] Read his obituary here http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/31/arts/oliver-sacks-wrote-awakenings-and-cast-light-on-the-interconnectedness-of-life.html?_r=0

[6] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/19/opinion/oliver-sacks-on-learning-he-has-terminal-cancer.html


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.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invention_of_the_telephone#Electro-magnetic_transmitters_and_receivers

[2] Otto Scharmer ‘Leading from the Emerging Future’  various citations incl. Introduction and Chapter 8 available at http://www.ottoscharmer.com/publications/books – though I recommend the whole book.

[3] http://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/biomedical/bionics/dean-kamen-luke-arm-prosthesis-receives-fda-approval

http://spectrum.ieee.org/biomedical/bionics/special-report-prosthetic-arms; http://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/medical-robots/darpa-and-osrf-developing-nextgen-prosthetic-limbs-in-simulation-and-reality

[4] [4] Here’s a recent article  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/inclusive-capitalism/paul-polman-why-the-role_b_7652954.html?ir=Australia

[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 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/inclusive-capitalism/paul-polman-why-the-role_b_7652954.html?ir=Australia

[6] http://www.ottoscharmer.com/sites/default/files/2011_BMZ_Forum_Scharmer.pdf

[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.