Leadership as narrative: Idea #3 – Bless Yourself with Space

This is post #3 of 5 in a series unpacking five big ideas about the role of storytelling and narrative in leadership. If you missed the first two posts then feel free to click here and here to get the context for what follows.


The first post in this series was call out to leaders everywhere to consider the idea that we’re all artists – hopefully creating something that moves people as we go about doing our best work. Flowing out of this, post number two introduced the suggestion that the best leaders intentionally shape big stories – GRAND narratives – to help their followers find meaning and context for their lives and work.

It’s been nearly a year since post number two was published, meaning that I sit here typing away in a state of no little embarrassment. I let this blog almost go the way of so many out there… becoming the digital equivalent of a barren shipwreck. Lifeless. Desolate. Never Visited. Well and truly… Sunk.

I’m a big believer that when something goes awry however, the best way to start a salvage operation is by pursuing a path of radical honesty. So let me ‘fess up’ to you, the reader, about the genuine – albeit inexcusable – reason for my neglect.

Many of you will be familiar with the concept in time-management of thinking about all the things you have to do in terms of their Urgency and their Importance. In fact, in the classic “7 Habits” book Stephen Covey helpfully articulates a four box model for understanding where our time ends up going… I (somewhat cheesily) think about these four quadrants as areas of Delusion, Demand, Distraction and Delight. (It’s not for here to fully unpack this so watch a nice little video here on Covey’s Four Quadrants if you’re unfamiliar with the model).

If I’m honest, I’m starting 2013 sat firmly in the quadrant of Demand. Urgent AND Important. Good stuff… Lots of stuff…. that needs to get done… NOW.

Now if Im generous to myself, most of this has come from simply working out in the first eighteen months of running a company just where the boundaries are. I’ve been lucky enough to have a load of great opportunities come my way and have just kept adding and adding and adding. In 2012 I…

  • Helped the leadership team of a medium sized business turn their company around
  • Worked with a national charity to help in reshaping their whole approach to training leaders
  • Designed and delivered training for clients in Manchester, London, Derby and Stockholm!
  • Ran a major fundraising event for three charities I really care about
  • Volunteered a big chunk of time to serving the vision of my local church
  • Worked part time as the Marketing Director for a brand new conference and community centre

As I sit here I can pull up my task management software and tell you that I have over 300 action items across all my various lists.

Let me be clear. None of this is to brag. Having a silly amount of tasks and commitments with little time left for reflection, creativity and nurture does NOT make me proud. If this kept up for long, it would be downright unhealthy.

Which brings me to Idea #3. Bless yourself with space.

I’m not alone in my tendency to keep saying “yes” to good and worthwhile activities. Most of the leaders I talk to across the business, community and the charity worlds all have schedules crammed to bursting with appointments. They have personal and professional projects happening left, right and centre and they’re driven to make an impact across a whole host of contexts.

The problem arises when the sheer avalanche of demand on a leader’s time forms a suffocating layer that all but kills the small seeds of ideas and habits that – with a little bit of nurture – could form their greatest contribution.

It takes thought to construct, cultivate and communicate a truly great narrative that helps you AND those you influence find greater levels of purpose and connection.

To truly make a dent, to really leave a legacy, you need to be intentional in shaping the story of your cause.

To be blunt, if you’re going to be the best leader you can be you need some space. To bless yourself with that space, you’re going to have to sacrifice. And some of those sacrifices might make you unpopular. That’s leadership.

As it stands at the moment, I’m drowning in commitments. Now, I appreciate the irony of my admittance of being in a state of overwhelming complexity whilst running a company that is supposed to help leaders gain greater clarity. You know what, it’s pretty vulnerable to publicly state that you’re in danger of becoming a hypocrite. What’s more important for me than being presentable however, is being authentic. So – for now – I’ll swallow that risk.

My question to you is this – How’s it going?

As you kick off this new year, what do you need to unpick to move into a greater level of impact in the things that matter most? What’s it going to take for you to look back on the narrative of 2013 and realize that it didn’t happen by accident but by design?

What could happen if you blessed yourself with some space?


Title image courtesy of cooleewinds : Creative Commons

Leadership as narrative: Idea #2 – Don’t just tell stories, build a narrative

This is post #2 of 5 in a series unpacking five big ideas about the role of storytelling and narrative in leadership. If you missed the first post then feel free to click here to get the context for what follows...

So let’s say you buy the idea that leadership has some kind of storytelling bent to it and the notion that in some way, we’re all artists… what next?

Well, idea #2 is a bit of what I’d call a “Woah boy” concept. It’s be easy to assume that idea #2 would be about how to tell better stories: maybe start talking about the idea of structure, characters, plot etc…

Woah boy!

We’ll get to that. But first there is another matter, a call to those on a leadership and storytelling journey to consider the level that they are thinking, speaking and acting at.

Because before they get to telling stories, the best leaders recognise that influencing others isn’t just about being able to spin a good yarn. The best leaders see the wood for the trees with their understanding and playing to the idea of having a grand narrative: a larger story that gives context, shape and meaning to those individual, momentary tales. For instance…

  • The “I have a dream!” speech saw Martin Luther King capture the imaginations of a nation with a compelling and well told story, but it only really made any sense inside the context of the unfolding grand narrative of black people being freed from oppression in post-slavery America.
  • Virgin’s escapades in becoming the world’s first space tourism operator find their meaning and credibility inside the grand narrative of over 40 years of Richard Branson’s big idea – Proving you can create a massive, global brand of companies that are part of a family rather than a hierarchy” whilst having as much FUN as possible.
  • And on a somewhat more down to earth level, the encounter I had today where I allowed my schedule to be disrupted to spend some time encouraging and affirming someone in an area they were struggling with might not mean much by itself. Yet placed inside of the grand narrative I’m looking to shape about being a guy who serves and raises up leaders around him then it fits… it connects… it finds meaning… it makes sense.

So, why is all this relevant? Well, again let’s start by defining our terms – What is Leadership?

As many people as you could ask for an opinion is probably just as many different answers you’d get back on how to define the idea “leadership“. Any definition is a reduction, so for a moment let’s just allow ourselves to adopt a crude and incomplete definition of leadership.

Leadership is the art of influencing, serving and enabling followers to go beyond the purposes they could otherwise fulfil without your presence.

If we adopt this definition we sit atop a hill where leaders have two objects in view: the interests of their followers and the accomplishment of worthwhile purposes. Part of the human condition is the inbuilt desire to be caught up in something worthwhile, to be involved in a cause that outlasts us, to end our days feeling that – somehow, and in some way – those days mattered.

In short: people are looking for a purposeful grand narrative that they can find a role within.

I wrote in a recent post on Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address that part of its ability to endure as a timeless piece of oratory is the simplicity and compelling way with which he made it clear exactly where those listening could fit in the context of the grand narrative of ending the Civil War that claimed over 85,000 lives at that one battle alone. A great leader therefore is one who creates or at least taps into a grand narrative and then enables followers to find their place in that unfolding story.

That leaves those of us who aren’t leading countries or multi-million dollar businesses considering how we apply the notion of having a grand narrative. I think it’s this…

To engage in a simple big idea that drives your team / family / department / organisation / life.

Now realise here that I’m not so much talking about a vision, but a simple (yet BIG) idea. When you look for it, you see grand narratives in play, each of which are marked by their having a single and gleaming thread of an idea running through them from beginning to end. And it’s true not just for the classic/best known stories of our time, but its also true in the life stories of great individuals, teams and organisations.

Classic Grand Narratives

  • Lord Of The Rings – Small’s ability to overcome Big.
  • The Bible – God’s unfolding plan of eternal salvation.
  • Star Wars – The Force, Family and Redemption (and the End of the Empire!)


  • Martin Luther King – Ending injustice.
  • Margaret Thatcher – Rolling back the state.
  • Mahatma Ghandi – Non-violent resistance.


My own big idea for the grand narrative I’m ‘writing’ is Raising up leaders one at a time with believing that clarity can come from complexity. Increasingly, that big idea informs how I think, directs what I do and shapes how I lead. And I think having that evolving grand narrative helps anyone following see what their part to play could be… which helps us connect, share and grow together in leading more purposeful lives.

So here’s the inevitable question. What’s the big idea for your context – your team? your business? your family? your life? How would having a grand narrative change the engagement of your followers? Let me know by leaving a comment in the box below/clicking the link above…

And because it’s always worth 1m19s of life here is an extract of Martin Luther King’s beautifully crafted “I have a dream” speech

Forest image courtesy of Van Pelt : CreativeCommons

Just for fun: How life in the 1500’s (sorta) shapes language and culture today

I received an email recently from a friend with some fun “facts” about the how life in the 1500’s still ripples out into some of today’s common language and practices.

So I did a little bit of research on each piece (not too much… it’s just for fun, remember!) summarised and inserted a few links for “credibility”…  Even if some of what follows is historically dubious and tongue in cheek it’s interesting to be reminded how our past has the potential to shape today’s words and habits… Enjoy…

Life in the 1500’s:

Most people got married in June, because the practice was to take a bath annually in May and so folks still smelled pretty good by June. However, since they were starting to honk a touch, brides carried a bouquet of flowers and spices to hide the body odour as well as ward off evil spirits. Hence the custom today, of carrying a bouquet when getting married.

As is the case today baths consisted of a big tub filled with hot water.

However, unlike today the man of the house had the privilege of the nice clean water, then all the other sons and men, then the women and finally the children.

Last of all the babies. By then the water was so dirty you could actually lose someone in it – particularly a small someone! Hence the saying, “Let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water!”

Houses had thatched roofs, thick straw piled high, with no wood underneath. It was the only place for animals to get warm, so all the cats, dogs and other small animals (mice, bugs) lived in the roof, with the end result of a continual stream of these little mites and their various “droppings” falling onto your (relatively) clean bed. Richer folk addressed this problem by building a bed with posts and a sheet hung over the top, affording some (limited) protection. That’s how canopy/four-poster beds came into existence.

The floor in the bedroom however was most likely dirt. Only the VERY wealthy had something other than dirt and invested in slate and straw. Hence the saying, “Dirt Poor.

Sometimes people were given pork at times of celebration. When visitors came over they would hang up the ham to show off, hence the phrase. “Bring home the Bacon.” The family and their guests would then gather round, cut off a little of the meat, talk and ”Chew the fat’‘.

Bread was divided, according to status. Workers got the burnt bottom of the loaf, the family got the middle, and guests / wealthy folk got the top, or ”The Upper Crust’‘.

(And my favourite… based in a tiny bit of truth but blatantly exaggerated so included for sheer funny points!)

England is small and the local folks started running out of places to bury people. So, they would dig up coffins and would take the bones to a bone-house and reuse the grave. When reopening these coffins, 1 out of 25 coffins were found to have scratch marks on the inside and they realized they had been burying people alive! So, a practice began of looping a string around the wrist of corpses, threading that string through a tiny hole drilled in the top of the coffin, up through the ground with a bell attached to the other end.

Someone would have to sit out in the graveyard all night, (the graveyard shift) to listen for the bell; and therefore any poor soul found waking up under six feet of dirt could tug away and be ”Saved by the Bell”

Any more to share?? Let me know in the comments box… 

Bride image courtesy of missturner : Creative Commons

Leadership as narrative: Idea #1… We’re all artists

A few weeks ago I read the criticism that flew at the UK Labour leader from within his own party for his coming up short on energy, strategy and narrative.

As a lifelong student of leadership I’ve learned and taught much about how leaders can improve the first two. However, I’d never even heard anyone directly make any link between leadership and the creation of narrative. What a weird idea!

My curiosity was peaked and so over the last few weeks I’ve mulled, read, researched, tweeted and pondered my way to having shaped five ideas on leadership as the creation of narrative…

These ideas will not be wholly original, nor completely revolutionary. However, I’ll venture that they’ll be quirky, provocative and hopefully contribute to an evolving conversation that is going on across interesting and colourful corners of the internet where thinkers are reaching for fresh insight on how to lead well.

The next five blog posts will unpack these ideas, and I’m hoping that you will join the debate on how narrative and story-telling are applicable to those on a journey of leadership.

Before I unwrap idea #1, let’s do our due diligence and define our terms. Question. What is narrative?

Starting with grammar 101, the word “narrative” is a noun… a thing.

But it’s a thing in the same way that “honesty” is a thing. Or “beauty”. Or “love”. It’s an abstract thing; a thing that you can’t touch, taste, smell or even see in the physical world around you. A narrative is something that you can only discern in your heart and make sense of in your mind.

Websters defines narrative as the representation of an event or a story in art. I like that. It’s worth repeating… and reading again… slowly…

“Narrative is the representation of an event or a story in art”

A simpler way to say it might be that a narrative is effectively a story expressed through some kind of art. So, knowing what narrative is, let’s move onto the “why?” question. Namely, “Why would I as a teacher / corporate exec / property-manager / scientist / pastor / fill-in-your-own-blank be interested in the idea of narrative and art??”

Here’s my answer: Idea #1 sets out that…

We’re all artists, it’s just a question of whether we’re consciously practising


Hang on Sean, I’m not an artist I’m a…

  • bookstore manager
  • teacher
  • data analyst
  • student nurse
  • youth worker
  • pastor
  • boardroom exec
  • soccer mom
  • whatever

Yes, you might have a label that defines your occupation, but don’t buy into a worldview that being an artist is limited to a profession in the same way as is – say – being a surgeon.

The simplest definition of an artist is someone who creates things that move people. And therefore the creation of art is not restricted to the traditional Masters we think of like Da Vinci, Shakespeare and Mozart or the modern notorieties of Damien Hirst or The Chapman Bro’s. There’s a growing school of thought that rightly declares art to be something WE ALL engage in inside of our various careers and vocations. And it’s an idea that has profound implications if we take it seriously…

One of the most followed bloggers in the world, Seth Godin, put’s it this way…

Making art 

My definition of art contains three elements:

  1. Art is made by a human being.
  2. Art is created to have an impact, to change someone else.
  3. Art is a gift. You can sell the souvenir, the canvas, the recording… but the idea itself is free, and the generosity is a critical part of making art.

By my definition, most art has nothing to do with oil paint or marble. Art is what we’re doing when we do our best work.

Our best work.

Entering data. Nursing a patient. Managing a project. Teaching a class. Leading a team. Running a home. Whatever you spend your week doing I bet there’s some element that counts as “work”.

Here’s how I’d suggest that your work becomes art and then a step further into becoming narrative… stay with me…

  1. As you go about your work you bring something of yourself, your character, your essence to that effort, particularly when you want it to be your best work.
  2. As you carry out that work with your own unique “flavour”, your work becomes a creative exercise.
  3. Creativity that has conscious intention behind it becomes art.
  4. A cohesive collection of creative artwork develops a pattern.
  5. That pattern evolves into a thread, a story… a narrative.

So here’s the thing… the issue is not whether your work and life has a narrative – it does! We’re all busy in the creative process everyday, and as days turn into weeks, turn into months we create a story, a narrative of life that has the potential to communicate, to impact and to change.

When they’re doing their best work, leaders construct narratives that usher their followers into purposeful action. They know where they fit in the story and they move in harmony with its evolution. When leaders fail to create a story that their followers get caught up in – or, even worse, create a story that confuses or bores their followers – the potential to lead and achieve is limited.

If you’re someone looking to influence and you get that you’re creating a story that inspires, confuses or bores, then can you get started in building a narrative that is compelling…?

That’ll be idea #2

This is an incomplete and evolving thought and I’d love to hear from you. Let me know your ideas in the comments section by using the box below/link above. 

Teacher image courtesy of kodomut : CreativeCommons

MonaLisa image courtesy of  xiquinhosilva :  CreativeCommons

273 words that changed the world : Lessons from Gettysburg

Most Brit’s don’t know much about American history.

I haven’t read any books on the Civil War.

I never watched North and South – apparently an epic TV mini-series in the 80’s with a young Patrick Swayze riding around dramatically sprouting blond chest hair.

Ask me about Presidents involved, key battles or the political in’s and out’s of the Confederacy and the Union and most likely I’ll look for the quickest escape route from the conversation.

And from a thoroughly unscientific poll of British friends, colleagues and family in the it seems I’m not alone.

Many people in the UK will have heard the phrase “Four score and seven years ago”… but most likely we’re unable to say where it comes from.

The sentence “A government of the people, by the people and for the people” will occupy a dark recess in the back of our brain somewhere, yet we probably can’t cite the source.

Which is all a huge shame.

It’s a shame because the 1863 Gettysburg Address spoken by Abraham Lincoln to a crowd of thousands attending a memorial service for 45,000 men who died at this crucial Civil War battle is one of the most masterful pieces of communication ever delivered.

And we’re much the poorer for that lack of knowledge.

It’s a speech of less than three hundred words, which lasted less than two and a half minutes. It’s a piece of oratory that has passed the test of time, that left its mark on a culture and influenced the political landscape and governmental processes of an entire nation. And with a little attention, it also yields priceless lessons for those of us down on the ground today, who are simply interested in communicating a little more clearly in our everyday to-ing and fro-ing.

I once heard someone make a bold statement – “The quality of your life IS the quality of your communication”. In many respects, that person was right. Life works inside a never-ending process of internal dialogue that we call “thought”, and an external dialogue where we exchange those thoughts with others.

The level of effectiveness we have in being able to share our thoughts, problems, ideas, questions, concerns, emotions, goals and our dreams determines the extent to which we are able to influence our world.

Abraham Lincoln stood up as one man addressing many. All he had to influence that crowd were the words he had prepared. The tradition of the time was to impress those listening by speaking boldly for hours. He chose another route. He chose brevity. With no loss of boldness.

Here are three of the many (which I’ll look to unpack in future posts) lessons that we can all extract from this beautiful piece of prose – particularly those who speak publicly.

1) Reality Bites, so Be Real (Words)
Lincoln’s address doesn’t contain any hyperbole or waffle. He goes straight to the heart of the matter and he chooses language that conveys the emotional reality of the situation. At an event setting aside a portion of land to a become a memorial for the dead, Lincoln admits “We cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract”.

Followers respect leaders who tell it like it is. Rather than seeking to falsely mask or diminish any unpleasantness, they speak to the heart using words that communicate things plainly and truthfully,  Question : Where are you avoiding cutting to the heart of the matter?

2) Say less and Slow down (Style)
Type “Gettysburg Address” into Youtube and you get around 2,500 results. Of all the versions available the one I love most is the above clip spoken by actor Jeff Daniels. He shows the beauty of spacing; the impact of a good pause; the art of breathing inside and between sentences to create a rhythm and pace that draws a listener in rather than turning them away. This is tough for passionate types as the temptation is to speed up and get everything across quickly because quite frankly there’s just so much to say!!

Here’s the thing… brevity creates clarity. By saying less AND giving your listeners time and space to process what you say, your message becomes far more compelling. Listen to Jeff’s recitation and notice his pauses… Would you have paused in the same places? Contrast this to Gen. Colin Powell’s version and notice the differences and the impact on how those differences in pace make you feel. Remember, same words, different speed.  

3) Finish by placing your listeners “inside the narrative”  (Structure)
The UK Labour Party Leader, Ed Milliband, was recently criticised for being short on strategy, energy and narrative. Now, I’m a story-teller and a student of leadership, so the critic’s accusation made me stop and think “What on earth does it mean for a leader to build narrative?“. The Gettysburg address reminds me.

From about the halfway point in his speech Lincoln sets about making it clear what he want’s his listeners to do next. That’s roughly 50% of his communication devoted to answering to the listeners’ unspoken question – “Where do I fit in this story?”.

In certain circles this might be described as “making a call to action”. Whatever you call it, if you major on the response you desire from your listeners it gives your message a much higher chance of taking root in their hearts and their minds. Question : What action do you want your listener to take once you’re done? How can you start building their potential response into your narrative much sooner?

What do you think… Why not do my job for me and share the other communication lessons you think we need to learn from the Gettysburg Address by leaving a comment in the box below or clicking the link above??

I owe a debt of thanks to my friend Don McAllister at linchpinbloggers whose own superb article inspired this post. Follow him on Twitter @Don_McAllister or subscribe to his outstanding blog here.

19 days of rain : Dark clouds, big plans and daily habits

Manchester in January isn’t a particularly inspiring place.

The average daily temperature is 3.8 degrees celcius – a shade under 39F for my American friends!

We’re blessed in receiving 69mm of rain across an average of 19 rainy days in the month!!

And the Met Office tells me we can expect to benefit from a total of 50 hours of clear sunlight over these 30 days. Yes, that’s right, less than 2 hours per day of any hope of natural Vitamin D!!!

So you could say that living round here, January is a month where you need to create your own inspiration. Mother-nature isn’t likely to give you much of a pick-me-up all by herself.

In a cruel twist of irony, this is also when we are bombarded with relentless magazine articles, news items and blog posts on goal setting, New Years resolutions and the process of creating personal change. Which is great… except everything inside you wants to have not much more to focus on than the choice of exactly which fire to sit next to, whilst drinking lots and lots of tea.

Using Google Reader I regularly scan something in the region of 75 blogs and news sources. I’ve been somewhat surprised this year at the sheer range of ideas and approaches there are towards goal setting and creating change.

For every commentator passionate about “Dream the dream, then make it happen” there is equally someone next door championing “Live in the now, worry about today and tomorrow looks after itself”.

It may seem a little like “trying to have your cake and eat it”, but at where I am  in my own leadership journey I think that this is a matter of “both-and” rather than “either-or“. For instance…

I’m a big fan of Michael Hyatt. He helps me think through how to live with defined purpose. How to shape compelling goals. How to stay focused. In his words how to “lead intentionally“.

I also appreciate a writer called Jeff Goins. Being more of an artsy-creative he’s much more about “feeling your way there”. In a recent post boldly named “You don’t need a plan to change your life” he sets out a manifesto for creating habits that simply work for you day by day, rather than trying to plan out a somewhat artificial route towards success.

So is it goals that change your life or habits?

Big plans or Daily rituals?

My inspiration for January is to embrace both. I think wellness, happiness, fulfilment, the “QUAN” – all comes back to age old principles around balance.

It’s great to have goals to focus on, to have a mountain-top to aim for.

It’s also vital to remember to enjoy the climb on the way up and just be in the constant process of celebrating each footstep.

So here’s my dual-sided commitment to January. My inspiration amidst 19 days of windy, dark wet-ness!

Three Habits

1) Sunday is a no-technology day. A day of rest. No work, no writing, and NO TWITTER / FACEBOOK (although I’ll probably have a few “posts” scheduled in advance in Hootsuite :-). Family, friends, church, exercise (even outdoors!) and books: time for leisure and relaxation – as my cousin might put it – “ol’ school”.

2) Running. A while back I ran a 10K. It was one of the best things I ever did. Today I tried on a jacket I had tailored for me as a treat last year and it was ummm… snug!! Time to lose the christmas padding.

3) Sugar-free. In November I cut sugar from tea and coffee. This month I’m extending to all refined sugar. No chocolate, no sweet drinks and no strawberry pavlova (which I know the guys at home will make now just to tempt me!)

Three Goals

1) Complete my marketing plan for the year for MuchClearer. I’ve got great products and services available – it’s just about getting out there and sharing them with passion, humility and a mindset to serve .

2)  Work through a full personal and business finance review including getting my taxes in on time. Borrrrr-ing! But necessary.

3) Create at least two intentional magic moments with my family. I stole the idea of creating magic moments on purpose from Anthony Robbins in some great leadership training a few years back. Initially, I was cynical – “Surely magic moments should be spontaneous, serendipitous, accidental… Right??” Well, being happy to admit being wrong… My cynicism was plain dumb. I mean it’s great when you stumble across a magic moment with friends or family, but wouldn’t you know that we do a lot more stumbling when we consciously get creative about making someone’s day!

F. Scott Fitzgerald baits us all by saying that “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”

What do you think… Is it possible/helpful to embrace change by being goal focused AND simply living in the now?? Which one works best for you?? Why not leave a comment using the box below or the link above??

Rainclouds image courtesy of StooMathieson : CreativeCommons

Drops image courtesy of scelera : CreativeCommons

TeaCup image courtesy of Widerbergs : CreativeCommons

Beating procrastination : The honesty payoff

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Today I confess… I am a TOTAL procrastinator. Here’s FOUR reasons why I shouldn’t be.

  1. Over the last ten years a lot of my work consulting to big companies demanded high-value knowledge of the principles and practices of achieving peak-efficiency.
  2. I’ve had the immense privilege to run change projects alongside some of the best in the business on Lean Manufacturing, Operational Effectiveness and Performance Improvement (doesn’t that sound fancy!?!).
  3. I’m now fortunate enough to be trusted by clients as to coach them on how to manage themselves, their time and their workloads so as to squeeze more out of each week than they thought possible and…
  4. I EVEN deliver a successful training course on Getting Things Done called “Achieving More with Less than Before”.

But having done a bit of reflection and self-examination recently, I’ve realized that my mind is a pandora’s box of contradiction. Sometimes I’m a bit of a machine in accomplishing stuff and other days… well… let’s just say that if my life was The Truman Show ratings would plummit!

Image courtesy of Liako : Creative Commons

And yet – thankfully – I’ve also been reassured that this is perfectly normal. Here’s a list of a few paradoxes about where I was the week before Christmas – see if you can identify with any of the following…

I was a month overdue on getting my website live and yet

I managed to spend an average of 46 minutes a day on Facebook / Twitter.

I completed 103 things on my to-do list with still 167 still outstanding across all my current projects and yet…

I “found time” to download a game called Zombie Farm onto my phone and get to level 3.

I had all the information I need to raise an invoice for a client on Monday and yet

By Friday I’d still not hit send.

When I look at these contradictions and by nature being a bit of a problem solver I found myself asking the question “Why…?”

“Why, when I have every reason not to procrastinate, do I end up wasting time?”

Well after some thinking, discussing, reading back over my journals and books I’ve remembered something important… Procrastination has very little to do with logic. It’s got EVERYTHING to do with emotion. An emotion that’s becoming so cliché it’s almost taboo…


Have a read of this definition of procrastination and see if it strikes a chord with you.

Procrastination is a “resistance” we manufacture inside ourselves to delay us from starting or completing a task; A resistance driven by a fear of the perceived cost of starting and/or the outcome of finishing that task.

It’s worth reading that again, taking a pause and letting it sink in. Because it’s pretty well true.

I listened to a podcast where David Allen – the inventor of the world’s most successful time management system, Getting Things Done® – freely admits that he procrastinates. He procrastinates because he’s human, and being a human he has a brain, and his brain runs according to the same rules as the rest of us.

Here’s the thing that David and those of us who teach this stuff each know and continue to learn more deeply every day as we practice and teach. It’s our emotions that drive us and the systems we develop for being productive are simply means to manage our emotional resourcefulness to be able to think, create, produce, resolve and complete on the commitments we make.

So what’s the trick is to blast through our procrastination?? It starts with asking a very straightforward question… Honestly, it’s so simple that it’s almost annoying….

“What am I so afraid of?”

The answers you get back are pretty penetrating, but it’s only by getting to that answer and responding appropriately that you’re ever going to have a hope of moving past your procrastination. Let me be vulnerable for a second and illustrate with a personal example.

The MuchClearer website. I’d started with the shell three months prior but had delayed, shirked, avoided, tinkered and tweaked my way to being a month beyond the date that I should have gone live. Once I remembered that my messing around was probably fear based I asked myself the above question. Here’s what my brain gave back to me…

“What if it doesn’t work?”

“What if people don’t like it?”

“What if it’s not very clear!?!?”

I realized that my fear of the website not being “perfect” on launch and my imagined worst-case scenario of getting all kinds of feedback from people with “X is wrong”, “Y sucks”, “Z’s not very clear – how dare you call yourself MuchClearer!!” had frozen me into doing everything I could to avoid putting it out there. The tweaking was just masking an internal conversation that – if it didn’t change soon – was simply going to kill the whole project.

So what do you do when you’ve identified what you’re afraid of. Simple – do whatever it takes to make the cost of obeying that fear and staying stuck MORE than the cost of getting it done in spite of your fear. In laymans terms – make delaying hurt more than finishing.

I did this two ways…

1)      I vividly imagined being 6 months out – still having no website, no more clients, no income and being a drooling mess sat on a pavement begging for change (hey – it could happen!).

2)      I changed the implication of “It’ll never be right and people will hate it” to “It’ll never be right and if people are good enough to give me feedback then I’ll just always be improving it.”

With 1) I increased the pain associated with staying stuck in the fear. With 2) I decreased the pain associated with getting the job done.

Finally, I then used a trick a mentor once shared with me.

“Sean, if something seems overwhelming, just do the ‘first-five-minutes’. You’ll get momentum and who knows you might finish it in one sitting”

Image courtesy of slimlibrary : CreativeCommons

I did the first 5 minutes. 8 hours later – website finished, online and 4 supportive emails received from visitors.

Here’s some takeaways for you…

  • If you’re procrastinating you’re normal. Welcome to the human race.
  • All procrastination is resistance rooted in a fear that’s probably hidden from view.
  • If you want to break out of it then work through the following…

1)      “What exactly am I procrastinating on?” (i.e. identify the specific task you’re avoiding?)

2)      “In my mind what am I imagining the cost is (e.g. physical/mental/emotional) of starting and / or completing that task?”

3)      “How can I make the cost of my procrastination greater than the cost of getting it done?”

4)      Just do the “first-five-minutes”

It all starts with getting honest… Brutally honest. And let’s be truthful, that’s never comfortable, but if you can work through it, the payoff is worth it.

What’s your experience of procrastination? What tips do you have for blasting through your fear / overwhelm? Leave a comment using the box below/link above.


Procrastination is driven by hidden fear – Here’s how to overcome it | http://ow.ly/8m8nH

Why am I putting that off? No, really… why? | http://ow.ly/8m8nH

Delaying / Avoiding / Shirking something? Just do the first five minutes | http://ow.ly/8m8nH

Procrastinator? At least be honest (there’s a payoff!) | http://ow.ly/8m8nH

Pride, Planning and Picking The Right Wrench

Today I faced a test of manhood that strikes fear into most men at some stage in their lives.

The challenge is one that’s all too common and yet when presented in front of the modern man it cant fail but pierce his heart with questions laced with angst…

“Do I have it in me to get it done?”

“Have I got everything I need?”

“What happens if I fail?” 

Yes folks, I got a flat tyre.

Not just the “slightly decompressed” type of flat, but “metal on the pavement” kind of flat. There was no hope of reinflating and driving to the nearest garage for a repair. This trial would demand a jack, a wrench and a basic knowledge of motor vehicle maintenance that every red-blooded male should (but not necessarily does) have.

So after a quick view of how-to videos on YouTube (of course simply to check the right sequence of loosen, jack, remove, fix, return, jack) I lifted out the spare, organised my tools and began my attempt at mechanical conquestry.

I failed.

After 30 minutes of pushing, pulling and cursing my way through trying to loosen the lug nuts, I had to face the reality that even despite two sprays of WD-40 – not a single one of them would budge. I’d failed to get past Step 1 in a 6 step process. So there I was… sweaty, grimey and beaten… even more deflated than the sad rubber symbol of my manhood that stared up at me from the pavement.

But then a glimmer of hope. The guy over the road offered to help with “an extended torque wrench”. After disappearing into his garage, he proceeded to stride out with a confidence that I could only envy. Quickly, my role was reduced to simply standing there limply, holding a torch to help him see what he was doing as the light faded.

A better man than me however, he never once took the opportunity to gloat. Rather, he seemed to take real joy in being able to help. With a sincere and gentle manner he explained that I was never going to be able to remove the wheels with the “free” wrench that comes with the car, it would take a piece of kit that retails for about £80 to deliver the right amount of leverage to loosen the wheel nuts grip.

And then, after an hour of my failed efforts, in less than 4 minutes he’d released the bolts, replaced the tyre and was headed back inside with a smile on his face at having solved a problem for the day. I was totally grateful and yet at the same time totally dejected having to pick up my ego off the floor along with my utterly useless toolkit… However being the reflective (and writing type) it got me thinking.

Sometimes the right tools are hidden.

Sometimes they’re expensive.

And sometimes you have to ask for help to get access to them.

It made me think of the many projects I’ve worked on where things have gone flat and a huge amount of time and effort have been wasted, mostly because of two main reasons…

1) of a lack of forethought as to what tools might be necessary to do the job and (more frequently)

2) a lack of willingness to change direction once its clear that the current approach with the current tools just isn’t working.

I’ve seen change initiatives tank because a leader won’t shift direction and use a new, much more proven and effective tool because of “how it’ll look”.

I’ve watched IT teams quietly disband because the plan was wedded on one piece of technology working, when a perfect low-cost alternative could have salvaged the effort.

And in the personal lives of some people I’ve been privileged enough to coach I’ve seen folk wrestle and strive for far too long because they’ve refused to reach out for help or keep clinging to using a “tool” or strategy that was never going to be suitable for getting the leverage they needed to create the change they were after.

So some questions…

1) What tool in your personal/work/project arsenal seriously needs an upgrade?

2) Is your ego preventing you from seeking help in fixing a problem you’d rather solve alone?

3) Who or where can you go to get help in getting the right tools to get your “jobs” done?

Sometimes its ok to hang back and shine a torch on someone else helping to fix the problem. Life and work is predominantly a team effort. With the right tools, the right mindset and a good dose of teamwork (read: HUMILITY!) pretty much every challenge, every change, every trial is do-able.

Even modern motor maintenance.:-)

I’d love to hear your thoughts once you’re done reading. Why not leave a comment using the box below / link above?

Photo credit: Flat tyre by GalvinStOurs: CreativeCommons

Photo credit: Wrenches by Herkie: CreativeCommons

On the Mountain, Actions Matter (incl. Book Review : No Way Down)

I’m a massive fan of mountains. A lot of leaders I know are too.

From February to October, I try and free as many weekends as I can to get out of the city and head to the Lake District. Scrambling up and down England’s highest peaks along routes and ridges with names like Mickledore, Great Gable, Kirk Fell and the phenomenal Lord’s Rake… it all makes for memories that could fill the pages of a Tolkein classic (at least in my mind!).

Over the last couple of years I’ve tried to be a little more adventurous, hiking 70 mile treks, carrying gear to sleep up on mountainsides and ensuring Im well equipped to cope with sudden attacks by killer-sheep! I’ve also kept a journal about the many principles and truths that are learnt from being in the outdoors, which equally apply across the different arena’s of life, leisure, work and leadership.

Often other writers have a way of putting things far better than you can (or at least I can). In “No Way Down”, the story of how the world’s second highest peak – K2 – claimed 11 lives in 2008, Graham Bowley distills down to two short words what it is that draws many to the dangerous challenge of taking on mountain expeditions.

“When you’re on the mountainside balancing judgements about weather conditions, available resources, route options and goal priorities – including the best chance of a safe return home – simply put… actions matter.”

The book was a Christmas present from another mountain-loving friend. It documents in terrifying detail how a group of mountaineers died in brutal circumstances as huge sections of ice collapsed whilst the majority of climbers were on the summit, sweeping away all of the teams’ ropes and destroying any hope of a safe descent.

I explained the story to my mother, who always worries when I head out on my own treks and whose reaction to the book was representative of a lot of folk… She simply shook her head and asked “With all the risks, what reason would anyone have for even attempting something like that?”

I think the story of the book and my own (somewhat less daredevil!) experience points to one reason at least. Most people – if pressed – would say that we are all searching for a context where our actions truly matter.

Lets face it… a lot of the time the impact we’re having in the different areas of our life is vague and questionable. We’re raising families, working in communities, running businesses, and if we’re honest we wonder if what we did made any real and lasting difference.

The thing with the mountains is that decisions and actions matter in very visible ways. Plan well, equip yourself, make the right calls and if you’re lucky you get the satisfaction of mouth-watering views and a safe return home. Turn the wrong way at any one of a number of decision-making crossroads and you end up being one of the increasing number of people that end up in a mountain rescue helicopter each year.

Conquering a summit and/or getting home to hug your loved ones is the clear end-result of multiple decisions and actions… some small, some large – ALL significant. 

A few thoughts as we start a New Year considering the year that’s past and the year to come…

1) Ask yourself some key questions looking back

  • “Which of my actions really mattered in 2011?”
  • “Who did I impact for good?”, “Who did I help?”
  • “What decisions did I make that set me up for 2012?

2) and looking ahead…

  • “What really matters to me going into this year?”, “What do I want to remember about 2012?”
  • “What small, consistent actions would help me climb a (metaphorical) mountain in 2012?”

Thanks for reading and Wishing you all a Happy, Healthy and Memory-filled 2012.


Why not leave a comment using the box below / link above?

20 reasons why leadership is a gift

Image courtesy of stevendepolo on CreativeCommons license.

Many people talk about leadership as being a gift.

It’s normally taken to mean that leaders are those with a unique talent. A special endowment. The kind of leadership X-factor that sets them apart from the rest of us because we just don’t have that “gift”.

Right off the bat… that’s just not how I see leadership, and increasingly many others in the leadership world.

So first I guess we need to define our terms by asking “Well, what is Leadership??”

Which is a HUGE question!!

To put it into perspective Leadershipfreak Dan Rockwell has been keeping a (quite phenomenal!) blog since late 2009, writing daily on many of the different aspects of what  leadership is, and how to grow and perform as a leader. Averaging 23 posts a month and 300 words a post that’s over 165,000 words written explaining many of the unique facets of the leadership diamond, and I’m sure he’d say that he’s still learning!

Image courtesy of nikilok on CreativeCommons license

For simplicity’s sake then, let’s take what I consider to be the most concise and yet the most profound idea around of how to define Leadership. John Maxwell (probably one the most read leadership authors on the planet with 19 million books sold to date) consistently keeps coming back to a central principle that Leadership is Influence.

If you have the capacity to influence… no matter how large or small… then you can call yourself a leader.

And guess what… We all have something of that capacity.

At home. At work. In our community. In our family and friendship group. Or even just in our own lives. If we care about people. If we set a standard that goes against what would be easiest. If we simply try to exert some kind of influence to make an impact… we’re leading.

I was given a car once. It was an awesome gift. However, once I’d taken possession of the keys, it was completely my choice as to whether to abuse it, thrash it, ignore it, neglect it, or treasure it and steward it. To use it for mostly selfish reasons or who knows, to maybe use it for some good for those around me.

Throughout 2012 I’ll be writing on some of the ideas that have helped me take some up-and-down steps along a journey of continually improving leadership. However for now, seeing as its Christmas I thought it’d be helpful to start by setting out 20 reasons why leadership is a gift, or to put it another way… 20 features of the gift that is leadership…

1)      We get to set an example that some people will follow.

2)      We get to encourage others when they need it.

3)      We get the pleasure of seeing people thriving when we’ve sown into them.

4)      We get to take an idea and mould it into an opportunity.

5)      We get to say no.

6)      We get to say yes.

7)      We get to give.

8)      We get to raise up other leaders around us.

9)      We give permission to people to go beyond what they thought they could do.

10)   We give permission to people to go beyond what they thought they could be.

11)   We get to shape people’s perception of reality (now there’s a blog post in the making!)

12)   We get to make people laugh.

13)   We get to set a standard that is respected.

14)   We get to make choices that are remembered.

15)   We get to say “I tried and failed, but I’m further than I was before”.

16)   We get to learn.

17)   We get to build.

18)   We get to create.

19)   We get to connect.

20)   We get to create a legacy that will hopefully outlive us.

What about you? Why do you think Leadership is a gift…?? Let us know in the comments box below or the link above.

And of course, wishing you and your families a  very, VERY HAPPY CHRISTMAS!


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