Who am I?

Who am I?
The search for enlightenment

The simple answer might be ‘Geoff Roberts’, but that is just a name. There are plenty of other Geoff Roberts’ in the world and even plenty of Geoffrey Malcolm Roberts’ – there you go, did you know my middle name or even that I had one? Yes, the name is somehow part of who I am, and I will happily answer to Big G, Big Geoff or in my early schooldays Kangaroo Kid (I could put together a mean long or high jump in primary school).

‘Who am I?’ prompts a somewhat deeper search for identity. A cook, a son, a husband, a stepfather, and brother, a facilitator, a writer and many more to greater or lesser levels of accomplishment. These too are part of who I am, yet really they are things that I do. Yes, the fact that I choose to do (most of) then gives insight but ultimately I may choose not to do any of them and yet I still exist. They are no more me than that name.

Being somewhat antipathetic to religions of any sort I cannot fall back on “A child of God” or whatever label followers adopt. Nor does atheism, especially the radical Richard Dawkins variety, offer much hope; indeed the question itself might be ruled out of order in favour of a more prosaic ‘What am I?’ – a collection of chemicals that somehow randomly came together in the past and found a way to propagate themselves into the future.

So, if not my actions or my beliefs, then am I my thoughts? I hope not. Who can deny at least occasionally having the odd inappropriate thought pop into consciousness, only to be promptly quashed by that internal editor who functions inside our heads? Maybe I am that editor? The usually invisible and occasionally conscious process that guides which thoughts persist into action, which generate ongoing thoughts and which are stopped in their very emergence. This is a guide who steers me towards what has previously been found to be effective, safe etc., which sometimes enables my mind and my body to experiment and which occasionally just says STOP!

This is a moral filter at work – ‘Thou shalt not kill, paedophilia is wrong, respect other people’s property…’ And it is also a practical, life serving one – don’t jump off things without a rope or a parachute, don’t slit your wrists just to experience the feeling of oxygen deprivation…

Of course all of this is learned – babies are fearless, we learn our moral code from our role models and those role models can just as easily be bad as good. What matters to us changes with life experiences.

So, who am I? Surely I am more than a collection of neurons.


The-Selfish-SpectrumI have faced a couple of situations in the last week or so that led me to take decisions that were almost entirely in my own self interest. This left me wondering about the concept of selfishness, the extent to which those decisions were selfish and indeed how that concept plays out in our daily lives.

I understand that there are psychologists who argue that every decision we make is ultimately selfish in that it meets with some inner need. So for example, someone who spends their days ‘selflessly’ helping others would actually be doing so because that is how they find their inner satisfaction.

I also wonder if I’m getting more selfish as I get older and I start to understand what I really need. Both of the situations I mentioned above related to what, in my view, were distinctly unsubtle application of organisational politics. Now I like to think that I am as good as any, and perhaps even better than most, at organisational politics yet on both of these occasions I explicitly chose not to play the game. Both of these were volunteer roles and yet there are other volunteer roles in which I continue to willingly play some fairly delicate political games. So what is the difference?

Certainly in one case I was becoming increasingly disillusioned as a very small cog on the periphery of a very large organisation  and maybe that is not a role that I like to play. I am happy to admit to myself that the follower roles that I prefer is one where I still have significant influence and I will happily play a number two, or even three or four, role when I am at least listened to and at best taken seriously. Indeed as I write, I start to realise that was possibly behind my order opting-out. Specifically, that my advice and expertise was being ignored and overruled and the explicit delegations made to me were being unilaterally removed for no apparent reason.

So is it about control? I don’t think I’m too ashamed to say that to some extent it probably is. After a life of bending and twisting, as well as helping others to bend and twist, to help deliver the greater good there is a part of me that keeps saying that “it is about time I got what I need and stuff the rest of them”.

So yes I guess this is selfish and no I am not guilty about it. I will argue that in our lives there needs to be space for ‘me time’ as well as ‘us time’ and perhaps I have just created some of the former.

What about you? To what extent do you think you act selfishly?

Followership – what makes a good follower?

Followership  LeadershipThere are millions of pages read about how to be a good leader – just type both into Google and you are likely to get around 288,000,000 hits for Leadership and ‘only’ 472,000 for Followership. Moreover, from a cursory look at the topic, it seems that much of what is written is designed to inform Leaders about how they can garner better/more followers!

So, I am interested in how I can be the best follower I can be – given the leader I have (and I recognise that ‘my leader’ may change from moment to moment, task to task, environment to environment etc).

As an input to an enquiry at Roffey Park, where I am an Associate, I wrote a ramble on the topic. I repeat it below and welcome your thoughts, additions, criticisms, whatever – just say what comes into your mind as you read it…

You asked what I might like to contribute on the topic of followership. Truth is that I do not have any ‘theoretical’ inputs to offer and, as I said when I originally expressed an interest, this is one of those areas in which I have had a passing interest the many years without the opportunity to develop that interest into something more structured. Hence the willingness to participate in the group that you lead.

When I think about it, I find it extremely difficult to disentangle what it means to be a good leader from what it means to be a good follower. Perhaps this might be addressed by looking at, on the one hand, what a follower expects from their leader and, on the other, at what a leader expects of their followers. This might seem like a classic statement of the bleeding obvious but in my experience it has been rather rare to find a leader who expounds, either privately or publicly, what they expect of their followers; likewise, it is probably a very brave follower who advises their leader what they expect of them!

Whilst I might like to stay away from leadership, it is perhaps rather difficult in this context and so the following points are necessarily an incomplete expounding of my thoughts-incomplete in terms not only of the list of topics but also the explanation of that list.

Firstly, and perhaps above all, I expect a good leader to communicate effectively and I guess that puts an obligation on the followers to let of their leader know, in one way or another, when they are not being communicated with. I vividly remember a time when, in retrospect, I had the priorities of my job out of sync with the immediate needs of my staff. I was spending an increasing amount of time away from the office on strategically important stuff and came home one day to find a post-it stuck to my desk simply saying “Geoff you are no longer available”. This brought home to me more than any textbook or classroom exercise the importance of availability and communication when the followers needed it. Fortunately the relationship I had with my team was such that not only did they feel able to leave this message but they also knew that I would take it in the spirit intended.

I expect my leader to be open and honest with me, even if that occasionally means saying the equivalent of “I’m sorry but I can’t talk about that at the moment”. As a follower I must accept that there are occasions when my leader might be involved in delicate or confidential conversations which it would be inappropriate to disclose at the time. For me, the followership version of openness and honesty centres around not hiding the bad news from my leader as well as disclosing my feelings as well as thoughts about what is going on. I cannot expect them to lead effectively if they do not have the full picture.

This whole communications game has a feeling of being a dance, in which each party has to find out what the other party needs to know and passes such information along appropriately. Which brings me to another aspect of leadership and followership-communication style. As a follower I think there is an onus on me to find out not only what my leader needs to know but also how he wants to find it out. Does he want detailed written weekly reports or is he happy with a quick chat on the phone every Friday afternoon? My own style, generally discursive and flowery, caused some considerable tension between me and one of my bosses until I realised that his approach was very terse and factual-after which I changed my style and things became much easier.

Where there is a legitimate difference of opinions I expect my leader to represent that difference to other parties, rather than simply putting their own view forward. In return, I must commit as a follower to the principle of corporate responsibility and not undermine decisions taken by my own and other leaders.

The next thought that comes to mind relates to trust. As a follower I want to be left alone to get on with my own work knowing that my leader is there if necessary for help and advice. Reciprocity suggests that as a follower I must trust that my leader is doing his work on my behalf.

“I think there is an important area in followership to do with learning when to give up a particular battle. This could they simply because you recognise that the battle you are currently engaged in is simply not winnable, or it could be because of a recognition that giving up on the current battle releases resources to fight on more strategic fronts. The effective leader can guide the followers in this, but ultimately it is for each follower to make their own decision about where to put their resources.

I think I might also argue that an effective follower recognises that on occasions the boss might need help, even when the boss themselves might not have made such a recognition. I used to have a follower who was very good at taking things off me once they got past the initiation and into production phase-they did this because they knew where my strengths lay (not in production mode) and how theirs could complement me. Another aspect of this that might not be recognised very often is the loneliness of being a leader. I would not know whether to label it mentoring, coaching, counselling or what, but I am certain that an effective follower knows when their boss needs some form of support and is prepared and able to offer that support.

A good follower knows and respects the leader’s short, medium and long-term priorities and does not pester them with issues outside that envelope unless the follower can demonstrate the strategic importance of their issue.”

Asking difficult questions for a living…

asking difficult questions“So Geoff, what do you do for a living?” is one of those questions I get asked so often. It  begs either a full answer or, more often, a one-liner designed to either satisfy the craving of some contact who is not really interested or provoke someone who really wants to know into asking more. Hopefully the one-liner might be good enough to provoke the former type of enquirer as well!

So here is my answer

I ask difficult questions

I have to admit that I rather hope that when I make this response you in turn will ask me something along the lines of “Can you explain a in little more detail what you mean by that and how it will make a difference?” So here goes.

I want to start from proposition that we are all deluded about the world in which we operate. Each of us carries around in our head a map of the world, not a geographic map (although that will be part of it) but a ‘map’ of how the world works. But Alfred Korzybski is alleged to have said that “A map is not the territory”. So my map of the world, built up from my own experiences, learning, values, beliefs etc is uniquely mine and contains all those beliefs, biases and assumptions that have helped me function effectively in the world so far. But I’m sure you have already spotted the problem with my map – your experiences, learnings, values, beliefs etc are different to mine and so your map of the world is uniquely yours. They are both right and they are both wrong

The only basis upon which I can act is my own map of the world and because that map is both inaccurate and incomplete my choices are necessarily limited. They are limited by those implicit assumptions that allow me to function efficiently. I pull up at a red traffic light and assume that before very long it will turn to green so I’m happy to sit and wait; but after 5 min, 6 min, 10 min it has not changed green, do I hold my assumption that it will in due course change or do I revise my assumption to one that says the light is broken and drive through it? Perhaps a somewhat prosaic example but let’s have a look at how this might work in your organisation. As someone who works in organisations and helps others facilitate change, I so often come across a refrain along the lines of “Oh, we don’t do it that way round here” or “It can’t be done” or “Well, I will have to ask permission from xxxxx before I can do that”. Each of these responses illustrates one or more assumptions about how the organisation works. There are rules and processes and procedures and cultural norms and imperatives of all of which conspire to inhibit the possibility of change. At the simplest level, I could simply ask “What would happen if you just did it?”, although I usually need to delve deeper into the answer to that question asking, for example, “When was the last time somebody got sacked for failing to follow the procedure or taking their own initiative?” (Usually the answer is never – actually some people in my ex-employer often quote a specific individual, but he was actually sacked for covering up and lying about his mistake not for the mistake itself, a very big difference).

One of my favourite sayings, and I will claim it for myself unless and until someone can show me an original source, is “It is easier to ask forgiveness than permission” and, by the way, you are more likely to get it.

This surfacing and challenging of the assumptions is, of course, at the heart of any coaching process and it is perhaps no surprise that as part of my work on organisational change I end up coaching individuals, helping them find new ways of seeing the world (new maps) and hence new approaches to the personal or organisational challenges that they face.Simply responding the the question “What do you do for a living?” with “I am a coach” seems both insufficient and not really distinctive.

So please, next time you meet me and I respond “I ask difficult questions”, please ask me a difficult question in return.

Manifesto of Possibilities – Set your people free

This is an emerging piece of work outlining my ‘manifesto’, designed to give you a feel for what I do, why and how I do it. I will be really interested on any thoughts this provokes for you – whatever they may be and whether you regard them as critical or praise.

empoweredManifesto of Possibilities – Set your people free

The answers are out there, the people need to be free. One would think that organisations are there solely for the benefit of some ethereal entity ‘the company’, but the company is there for the benefit of its many stakeholders and without the engagement of those stakeholders it can and will only survive in the short-term.

Mindless, thinking-less, managers believe that if they only set SMART stretch targets that all will be well, without really understanding the individual motivations of the people who work for them but should be working with them. Yes, money does matter in a way, but only in the societal ecosystem we have allowed to be created for ourselves; how much more inspiring is the possibility of an autonomous response to great leadership challenge. “Set your people free” applies not only in its original context but also to those within organisations. Allow them to master their science, there art, their whatever… and in the process they will develop beautiful systems capable of spectacular outputs. We only need management, especially old-style Plan/Organise/Control management, when we feel the need to control other people. Well, I ask, do you Mr Manager want to be controlled or would you rather develop your practice in pursuit of some greater good? Inspired by Bill Clinton “It’s the people stupid, not the stupid people”.

So set your people free – ask a good question, and answer is out there somewhere, let us go and find it. The search is not aided by plans and timescales but by the passionate search of somebody doing what they can, where they can, when they.

Practical leadership – when to walk away.

Walk AwayI have just been reflecting on the various organisations in which I have a voluntary interest, typically as a trustee or school governor. Every single one of them either has had, or currently has, significant leadership issues – perhaps that says something about the type of organisation in which I get involved but I really wanted both myself and you to reflect on our behaviour when faced with serious challenges.

Throughout most of my working life I was paid, and sometimes handsomely, to face and deal with the challenges of organisational stress and change. I mention this because I have come to recognise that facing similar challenges as a volunteer is fundamentally different. In the first instance a security driver always kicked in, after all my employer paid my mortgage and set up a pension which now allows me to volunteer my time. The situation with volunteering is fundamentally different, I can walk away at any time and can even arrange such a departure that most other people involved would recognise that I was neither implicitly not explicitly knocking the organisation for which I had volunteered. Indeed I did that three or four years ago when I temporarily gave up all of my involvement in school governance because it was taking over and I realised that I needed to pay more attention to my business and personal life. Well, that is what I said at the time.

Reflecting on that, and taking account of my current circumstances, I wonder whether I had just had enough. I guess that I volunteer in the belief that those receiving my services will value them and be prepared to listen to what I have to say. Better still, act on it. When this does not happen, the change manager in me says something along the lines of “Well, the system is stuck and I am part of the system. What can I do differently that might provoke a different response?”

As a professional, one tries and tries and tries alternative tactics and strategies in an effort to unlock the system. Equally, as a professional I have come to realise that there is a time to walk away. I have probably mentioned before that, in something like 30 years of change leadership, one of the key lessons I have learned is “Do what you can, where you can, when you can”. The implications of that statement are that on occasions one ought to walk away from a challenge, partly because walking away is itself an intervention that might shift the system and partly because a change agent’s time is usually best spent on situations where they can make a difference rather than tiring themselves out in trying to move the immovable object.

So my proposition is that the statement “I have had enough of this” might well be my subconscious telling me to walk away. What do you think? Especially for those of you who volunteer your time, what keeps you there when the going gets tough?

Giving things up

calvin-hobbes-new-years-resolutionsA couple of days ago my wife called me into the kitchen. She had been rummaging around in one of the cupboards and found some paperwork and one or two other items that she thought were mine, and indeed they were. Not only were their mine but they had been in “Geoff’s Drawer”, situated immediately above the cupboard in which she found them. So full had this drawer becomes that a few items had overflowed and fallen into the cupboard below, only to be discovered some months later when my wife just happened to be rummaging around at the back of the cupboard.

Is your life, your office, your brain a bit like this? So full of stuff and ideas and projects and ‘must dos’ that some of them get overlooked for a very long time. Mine certainly is.

Well this is a time of year when we typically start to think about what we are going to do new or differently next year – those New Year’s resolutions. Whether or not the New Year is a good time to make such resolutions is perhaps the subject of another blog, but assuming that we make them at some time or another there is another aspect to which we might pay attention. What am I going to give up?

It is a bit like that a full drawer, only when I have a good clear out and throw away some stuff  do I really appreciate what is important to retain. Similarly, creating change typically involves stopping doing things as well as starting new things.

So here is a suggestion, when you make your new years resolutions how about making one of them that you will stop doing something, that way you will create space in your brain for whatever it is you want to start doing.

Competitive collaboration

Michel Roux' service 'apprentices'

One of the things that really struck me about the recent Michel Roux series was how different it was from other ‘reality TV’ shows. Unlike Ramsay’s offerings, there was no shouting, bullying or swearing; unlike Sugar’s Apprentice there were no over-confident 20-odd year old ****s biting at each other and unlike the jungle there was no Gillian Keith! More a case of a group of individuals working to become a team in the hope that some of them could win a life-changing prize.
Never once did I see or hear any evidence of an individual trying to get one up on their colleagues or to position themselves as a ‘winner’. No, it was so evident throughout that this was a team game, even though there would ultimately be winners. What a wonderful demonstration of the power of teamwork to allow individuals to show themselves at their best.

What are you missing?

Opportunities are all around us – if only we can see them and take action…

I was just watching a National Geographic TV programme about African wildlife, specifically watching a black-headed crane diligently searching in the grass for the grubs etc that it eats. I noticed a large fly, or maybe flying insect, buzzing around the crane’s head while the crane continued foraging. SUDDENLY the crane flicks its head up and snaffles the tasty treat that had been buzzing around it. The incident left me wondering…

…what opportunities might I be missing that are there all around me but I do not notice because I am so focussed on my current task?

Had Alexander Fleming thrown away that Petrie dish containing the penicillium mould just becasue it was not the desired outcome, who knows how many more people would have died of curable ailments before someone else discovered penicillin? We need to work with the paradox of focussing on a clear outcome whilst remaining open to all and any posibilities.