Stimulus and Response – The Love Affair

‘I love you, I really do’. He slides up beside her, his hands reaching out to take her face gently into the palm of his hands. His lips touch lightly onto hers and his eyes twinkle in delight.

‘I can’t live without you Stim, I really can’t’ His hands slide to the back of her head and gently move through the glossy blonde hair. Then strangely, he feels her hand on his chest as she gently pushes him away, before running her fingers through her hair to organise herself. She looks at him, her eyebrows dipping slightly.

‘You know I love you Res I really do, but I need to be honest with you…..’ He senses the rebuff and moves slightly away from her, but still holds her hand so she cannot move too far away. They are getting ready for a party, all old friends coming  together. It is a regular, relaxed, fun time with people they’ve known for years. She had been standing at the mirror, choosing ear rings when he came up and kissed her, his aftershave mixing with her perfume as they came close.

His face crumbles at her words. She has been a little bit off over the last few days, certainly not her usual loving, close, caring self. He tries to listen, but his heart rate has risen and he senses the  blood surging through his veins. Their love was beautiful, everyone said so – a whirlwind romance, wonderful to watch, a classic love at first sight, a match made in heaven. And now, living together after all these years, it had seemed perfect to him. Yet here in the bedroom, he feels a sense of fear and concern. He doesn’t want to say anything, doesn’t want to speak, but he has to.

‘What’s the matter Stim’? The words come out slowly, quietly, tentatively. It seems wrong to even ask.

‘Look Res’ her voice is confident, sure, straight. She takes him over to the bed and pulls him down to sit on the edge, their legs touching. ‘I love you, just as I did when we first met. You are very special, we’re meant to be together for ever and ever I’m sure. I don’t want to be without you,  I really don’t, but …….’. The air seems to shift between them. Stim sighs deeply and squeezes Res’s hand. They’re both silent.

‘I just need a bit more space that’s all. Just a bit, not too much just a bit. I need to be my own person. I think you need to be too’. She can see he is trying to hear, but he seems close to tears as he looks at her.

‘I just want to do what is right for you, give you what you need, be there for you. I love you Stim I really do’. His voice is quiet, hesitant. He squeezes up tight to her, only to find her moving away again slightly, creating more space again between them. It feels wrong.  All of it is wrong and he wants to move to her. Yet no matter how he hates it, he stays where he is, because that’s what she wants, but he feels very uncomfortable.

‘Look’ Stim tries again. ‘We can continue on how how we are, but it will be the same and then, more of the same’. Res looks confused. ‘You know…. I do something, you respond in the way you always do. We know the routine and everyone around us does too. It feels like the same old, same old’.

‘But isn’t that good, you know predicable, comfortable….’? Res looks at her, his voice rising slightly as he replies. There is a fine line of sweat across his top lip and red patches are beginning to appear on his neck above his shirt collar. ‘Isn’t that how couples work, you know like in tandem’? He senses her irritation and stops, watching as she pushes herself up off the bed and moves away.

‘Okay, okay, what do you want’? He drops his head into his hands, so the words are muffled and indistinct. Inside he’s expecting disaster –  a break up, news of another man, divorce looming.

‘Just to try some things differently. So, there is space for something else to happen, rather than just the usual, what we always do. Something different’ Stim responds. Then she smiles. ’How about we practice tonight? You know, I do something and you respond differently, check yourself before doing what you might always do’. She winks at him, which is most disconcerting, because she has never in all their time together winked at him. It is  such a simple thing and he wants to react straightaway, or to say something to tell her that it’s just plain weird. He can’t stop the automatic reaction, his eyelid beginning to twitch. Instead though, he takes a deep breath and counts to ten. Which seems to take an age, but during that time he thinks. There is just the tick of the bedside clock filling the silence. He really wants to wink back, get them both in sync again, but he doesn’t. Instead, as ten clicks through his head, he pushes out his tongue and rolls his eyes. She bursts into laughter.

‘Okay let’s do this Ms Stimulus. Let’s go courting again, do some things differently at the party. See what happens to us and maybe to others tonight too’. He slips on his jacket and takes her respectfully by the hand. She is smiling now.

‘Thank you Mr Response, that would be lovely, very lovely. And we can count in the gap together. Ready to give it another go’? Her eyes sparkle at him. They both hold their breath, heads rocking to and fro as they go through the count. Then before Stimulus can stop him, Response is heading out of the door, taking the stairs two at a time, whooping and cheering.

Grahame Pitts – December 2020


This story comes out of a number of leadership conversations about habitual reactions. Sometimes simple everyday situations, sometimes tougher emotional loaded moments. Unless we check ourselves we can often respond in a certain way and in a way which we know is pretty predictable. This can be beneficial, we all know what to expect  from each other, but this habit can also limit us. So, a particular stimulus – perhaps a situation, a person, an emotion – can immediately invoke a particular response. Stimulus and response are powerful and almost symbiotically linked. Yet in all this, we may be missing larger, more interesting, opportunities.

How do we change our responses? By being aware of what is going on right in the moment. Then by creating a gap between the stimulus and the response. Actively working at stopping a habitual response – watching out for instance for those ‘yes buts’, ‘no that won’t work’ type of comments – by creating more space before responding. Perhaps, as in the story, using a count of  ten, taking a long deep breath. Maybe, just checking in with your heart and mind or sensing the reaction occurring in your body. Most importantly, doing something which stops you immediately reacting.

Enjoy pausing!

Some possible reflection questions:

  1. Where do you get into unhelpful stimulus response situations? At home, at work? Do you know what triggers them? Are these specific situations, or is there a reoccurring theme?
  2. Sometimes, can you give yourself a gap before responding? What method would work for you, giving you more time to respond with a different choice?
  3. Where can you experiment right now? What one place can you try this out in the next few days?
  4. And turning the model on its head – what new stimulus do you need in the coming months to create opportunities for new and different reactions?

Knockout Fight

“In the left hand corner representing joy, hope, anticipation, creativity, please give it up for Jhac our latest contender for the world title” the announcer’s voice boomed around in the darkness followed by muted clapping from the auditorium. Jhac waved and after a tentative half confident walk around the ring, settles on his stool in the corner and as his gloves are tightened, listens to his coaching team go through the final briefing.

“Come on Jhac you can do it ” calls a lone voice making him smile, his mum is in the crowd, willing him on, as she has at every bout since he’d chosen to take up boxing. Now she’s up on her feet chanting his name and others are half heartedly joining in. It doesn’t matter one way or another to her, she is there for her son and will be forever. Now she’s turning round shouting up into the rows behind and that gets the boozed up ones going, jeering, cat calling, telling her to f* off, sit down.

The pa systems booms into life drowning the argument and then the lights are flashing, followed by billowing iced smoke which swirls around the long corridor from the changing rooms to the ring.

“And now ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the defending and heavy weight champion of the world, representing doubt, worry, failure, despondency, Mr DWFD, or, as we know him Baaaaad Boooooy. The crowd are on their feet, stamping to the music, clapping, shouting and there emerging out of the smoke is the biggest boxer Jhac has ever seen. He fills the space, not just physically but emotionally and mentally too. He’s huge and threatening and ignores the crowd completely as he strides to the ring, squeezing through the ropes and eye balling Jhac with a sarcastic, arrogant look. The commentator reels off the belts, the titles Bad Boy has won. The crowds howl their delight and everyone can feel the anticipation of another annihilation ahead. It reminds Jahc of a fox hunt, a blood letting, the closest people can come to war without getting hurt themselves, baying for damage and destruction. Jhac’s mum does her best, shouting back and waving her arms, until a steward physically pushes her down into her chair and holds her there as she screams at him.

Bad Boy begins his ritual, pacing round the ring, beating his chest and growling, coming closer to Jahc’s corner every time, before finally walking right up to him and spiting on the floor between his legs. Jahc looks at the globule of phlegm and laughs, before standing, screwing his boot symbolically into the spit and raising his gloves. The bell hasn’t rung, the referee is about to intervene and give the normal set piece lecture, but it is too late they are off. Jahc is dancing round the ring, skipping to the music, which is then suddenly turned off as the management realise what is happening. Bad Boy isn’t happy, he’s used to dominating from the word go. He growls a ‘fuck you’ growl and lumbers across toward Jahc and swings. The right cut slices through the air, he’s fast and he knows it, the silence in the crowd says they know it too and they suspect it is all over before the bell has even rung for the start. Not Jahc though, he ducks, pivots and the boxing glove hisses past his face making Bad Boy stumble as he boxes into empty space.

Jahc’s mum is on her feet again yelling, the neutrals in the crowd are suddenly shouting for Jahc and new bets are being placed. Jahc’s heart is bounding, he’s following the drill the team has agreed, take the game to the opponent, don’t let him get into a groove, keep him guessing. Right thinks Jahc, great theory, but this guy is huge, deadly and now he’s mad too. The sweat begins to trickle down his face as he dances away and around the ring, making Bad Boy chase him and he neatly ducks away as his opponent tries to trap him in the corner, even managing to get a soft punch to the Bad Boy’s arm as he slips away again.

One minute, two minutes he’s still there skipping, weaving, occasionally making a punch but largely staying out of trouble, following the game plan for round one. Stay on your toes, stay focused is the last thought he has as the pile driver hits him, the glove smacking into his face, the soft leather crumbling against his cheek, before fully making contact and lifting Jahc off his feet and throwing him across the ring. He sees the crowd, the lights, his mum in the corner of his eye as she gasps and her hands go to her mouth in horror. There isn’t much more because his head hits the floor and he’s out cold.

“Five uh, six uh”, Jahc can hear the count through the haze, he knows he has to get up, but can’t, everything has gone to mush. His corner are yelling, he hears them. “Seven uh, eight uh” its all over he can’t get up, then he’s on his knees, blood drips from his nose onto the canvas. “Nine uh” he’s on his feet, just, bent over but up. Bad Boy snarls and charges toward him, the bell rings, the referee tries to intervene, but Bad Boy has none of it and brushes him aside before smacking Jahc on the nose and crashing him back onto the ropes.

There is uproar, the crowd want a fight but a relatively fair one, Jahc’s mum is climbing into the ring and being pulled back by the radio commentator whose microphone she has just sent flying as she stands on his crib notes. Jahc is a crumbled heap on the floor, he looks dead and his team gather on their knees around him, the smelling salts are waved under his nose. The referee mutters about stopping the fight, the competition doctor is being summoned, it looks like it is all over and Bad Boy has done it again.

Jahc remembers getting to his feet, seeing the red stain on the canvas and hearing the sound of his nose breaking, then nothing else. Now he thinks he can hear people talking, a face with a bow tie peering at him, looking in each of his eyes, then he slips away.

“Wo there boy where you going” and Jahc wakes to find himself walking past a gardener digging a vegetable patch, who is now leaning on his spade and eyeing him up and down, his eyes sparkling under his weather beaten cap. Jahc can see the path stretching off in the distance and turns to go.

“Funny gear to be wearing for a walk if you don’t mind me saying” and he points a dirty finger at Jahc’s bright blue shorts and then at the boxing gloves on his hands.

“Um, yea, well, you know, well never mind, I’ve got to be going now” and his eyes are drawn to the road ahead which looks warm and inviting, with the sun glinting in the distance.

“Ah ha, okay but you want a bit of advice”. Jahc doesn’t want to hear this old boy’s thoughts, he just feels a right idiot standing here half dressed and he waves his gloves around in a circle trying to be polite and without realising it does a little jink and circle as though he’s sparing in the practice gym.

“Classy, real style, if I didn’t know better I’d say that’s natural talent I’m looking at there” and the gardener rams his spade into the soil and moves over towards Jahc.

“ I have plenty of people pass me here you know, most don’t even see me, they’re just busy rushing by. He turns to look at the sun in the distance and it plays onto his wrinkled face creating shadows and highlights.

“You know they’ve had a go at something given it their best shot, hit some failure, I guess that might have happened to you hey” and he winks and then points at the soft gloves on Jhac’s hands.   “I don’t judge, because using your talent, well that isn’t easy. I know everyone who comes past here has given it a good go, there are others that don’t even start, so well done you, but I wonder….” and the gardener seemed to drift away into his thoughts, before turning, picking a large ripe tomato and fitting it neatly into the palm of Jahc’s right hand glove. “Known to have super powers these toms you know. Me I don’t know, but they taste great with a bit of salad though. Enjoy”. So Jhac does, but it’s tricky, not just holding the tomato in a boxing glove but eating it too, because it slips and slides and bursts as he bites into it. The taste though is exquisite and fills him with warm, hopeful sensations as he swallows.

“Come on Jahc let’s go” the shock of the water on his face and then the towel is roughly rubbed over his nose, coming away red and snotty brings him round. Then the bell rings and he’s on his feet, wobbly yes and nervous, but he’s out there ready to fight again. He tastes tomato on his mouth, have his back up team been feeding him supplements between rounds, he can’t remember. He can though hear the crowd who are rooting for him now and booing as Bad Boy comes lumbering towards him leering and cursing. He must have been given drugs he thinks because he can feel energy coming back and he’s back on his toes, dancing a little, bruised but already thinking through his plan. Audaciously he waves to the crowd, they roar back and he feels their support and notices his mum standing on the press table howling too. The commentators are going mad, not at mum, they’ve given up controlling her, apart from peering round and through her legs up to the ring shouting into microphones. They sense a shock is on the cards and it is.

Jahc wipes his nose with the back of his glove, then spits on the floor and quietly says to himself “ My way is the right way, but you’ve got to fight boy and fight smart”. Then he’s away parrying, jabbing, bouncing in and out of range. His team are yelling instructions, the gym work comes back, the practice moves, previous fights, he can see it all in his mind and then he sees the final move.

Bad Boy is worried now, he’s run out of ideas and finds himself chasing Jahc round the ring hoping to trap him in a corner. He doesn’t see it coming, a shimmy, a duck, a punch to the stomach making him double up, then the hook to his chin and he topples backwards like a large tree. “Timber” shouts a smart aleck in the crowd and time seems to stand still, until bang the torso of Bad Boy hits the canvas with a resounding thud. Jahc doesn’t look, his right hand hurts too much, it must be broken he can’t go on, the pain is shooting up his arm and into his shoulder. He wants to sit down, lie down, anything to take away the shock, but he hears his team telling him to stay there, walk and in a daze he listens to the count. Then the auditorium erupts. He’s done it, he’s knocked out Bad Boy.

Jahc doesn’t normally dream, he’s usually just exhausted at the end of the day, yet tonight he does. He’s wearing his winner’s belt and he’s back with the gardener and they are both laughing, and recreating the fight in the garden. Jahc pretends to knock out the old man, which he does carefully as his wrist and arm are plastered up to the elbow. The gardener falls gently backwards in amongst the rows of vegetables and flowers, squashing the carrots and lies there giggling to himself before pointing up at Jahc and saying

“Yup that’s some talent you’ve got there, watch out world”.


Post Script – Just a few ‘mulling’ questions:-

1. Do you know your talent(s)? Are you using them well, honouring the skills you have been given?
2. Are there blockages you are facing, what can you do about them?
3. Who can support, help you, encourage you, challenge you to keep moving forward? Or, perhaps point to a new direction, or how to address an issue in a different way?
4. Who do you know who deserves your support and encouragement? Maybe someone younger, a friend needing to make  a change, a member of your family?
5. At work, how are talent people supported? Are you pushing individuals to work well and productively every day? How much talent does your team have, could these be used more?
6. In the world at this tough time, what can you and I do, with the talents we have, to help tilt the world back to to safer stronger place?


James Goes Running

James pulled out the dusty mud crusted trainers from the bag he’d thrown them in all that time ago. Down here in the cellar all was quiet, just the occasionally hiss of the boiler as it began heating the house for the day ahead. He sat on the steps and pulled each one on, tightening the laces to just the right tension ready for the road ahead. With a deep breath and pulling back his shoulders, he took the steps two at time, the running shoes creaking and leaving dried earth behind on the steps. Out of the house he walked to the gate, turned into the road and set off at a gentle pace, shaking the sleepiness from his joints and muscles. He remembered what a great time of day it was before everyone woke up, the calmness and tranquility, no noise yet from the houses as he padded gently past. Before long James was in a rhythm, his body remembering and adjusting to the style and pace he ran at. His breathing regulated and steadied. Now his mind dropped into neutral and he noticed the world around him, yet he had as much attention inwards mulling and considering the day ahead and beyond that his future. The birds chattered, another runner passed with cheery hello and smart BMW roared by as the ‘bright young thing’, as they called him, from next door, shot past on his way to catch the 6.30 commuter train to London. He ran on taking the slight hill ahead with ease and confidence, letting his legs stretch out and enjoy themselves.

“Morning James, good to be out and about hey. Lovely time of day for a jog I say” and James looking to his left found himself running next to a rather rotund man, with billowing shorts to his knees, bright yellow trainers and a blue basketball hat crammed down over a bush of bright ginger curly hair.  He ran with an unerring confidence  and strength considering his size and shape. He thrust out his hand.

“CC’s my name, Captain Confidence actually but most people abbreviate it. We all need to believe in ourselves hey James and I’m your man to help there”. He nudged James in the ribs, his elbow seeming to send shock waves into his chest and directly up to his brain, where a fizz and a pop suddenly made the world a bit brighter and sharper, the birds now chirruping loudly in his ears. CC settled into a steady rhythm next to him and whistled as they turned left together into the park and set off round the perimeter track.

“Morning CC, morning James, good to see you both”. James startled, moved his eyes away from CC to his left and saw a tall gangly runner next to him wearing a trilby hat and a long overcoat, neither of which impeded his movement. His height meant he seemed to walk rather than run and he strode along next to them.

“Reggie Resources here, good to make your acquaintance, now what do you need?” and he pulled open his coat to reveal pockets stuffed with everything you could imagine.

“Maybe a map, or a compass, perhaps some Kendal Mint Cake, or better still, a brand new pair of running shoes” and with a broad flourish dived into a pocket and revealed the latest Nike trainers.

“Later, later old chap” retorted CC. “Plenty of time for all that, let’s just get into a good steady rhythm first”. And the three of them set off along the path together.

“You’ll definitely need contacts, I have a whole book full here” whispered Reggie to James, showing him surreptitiously a small leather bound notepad, before sliding it back into his pocket. James smiled. He thought his first run would be hard but it wasn’t, not physically, not mentally and actually, running between these two he felt carried along and somehow supported by them both. They swept round the bottom corner of the park and headed toward the bandstand where to everyones surprise,  the local town band sat tuning up, just as though it was a summer Sunday afternoon. The bandmaster seeing them, lifted his baton and the music flowed towards them, almost lifting them off their feet with its depth and resonance. The notes fell and rose with their running and the instruments shared in their journey, from the big base drum with its steady regular deep beat, to the tiny piccolo picking out softer detail. James’s heart lifted and a broad smile came to his face and he felt his toes lift his feet and his stride grow, until he was almost off the floor and flying. CC, Reggie and James glided on past the town band and floated on and around the side of the park.

With a miss timed e flat on the tuba and a clash of the cymbals, the music came to a sudden halt as the band master leapt from the stand and rushed after the three runners, waving his baton madly.
“Wait, wait….. wait for us” and he beckoned behind for the band to follow him “Don’t you want inspiring music to help you along?”

“Sounds great to me” said Reggie ever resourceful and thinking of other places this band might come in useful. CC didn’t reply, he was still bobbing about and singing to the last tune, skipping lightly over the grass, jumping up on the park benches, floating, then landing perfectly back on the ground. James liked the band, the sound inspired him with his running and without a thought of the consequences, invited the band to come on the adventure with them. So off they went, James, Reggie and CC taking longer and longer steps and finding, with the music playing, they could hurdle the park benches easily. The band, not quite as fit or able tried to keep up, found they lacked the puff to run and play at the same time, starting being crafty and as the three went round the perimeter of the park, they cut across the grass saving time and energy and allowing the trumpet players to have a quick smoke occasionally too, while they waited for the three runners to arrive.

James came back to the park gate after several circuits and turned out into the street, the music faded and looking back he saw the band waving him off. There leaning against the metal railings, stood CC and Reggie.

“We’re around any time, for sure when you are running, but other times too. Just let us know and we’ll get out trainers on ready” and both gently saluted him as he sped away down the street.

At his house, James stopped and did some gentle stretches to finish his run. He felt calm and relaxed and ready to face the day. Not bad for a first time out in ages he thought and clicking through his mind were all sorts of ideas for developing his career. He marched up the garden path, humming a catchy tune he’d heard earlier and headed in for a shower …. work called.

Grahame Pitts

December 2016


Post Script
So, imagine you are  needing to shift something in your business, or yes, you are lookng to make a career move. A couple of questions:-

– Do you know the resources you have available that are within you? Or, are they other external resources you sense you need? Are there other people who you need to make contact with and ask for their help and guidance?

– How confident are you, what gives you more confidence? Is your confidence grounded in reality, will others see how practical, experienced and capable you are? Can you describe your skills and talents well?

– Are you fit enough for the journey ahead, physically, mentally, emotionally? How do you maintain high performance, to move ahead daily to achieve your plans?

– What inspires you, keep you going when work may be tough? Listening to music, looking at wonderful art, being outdoors, reading great books?  Where do you go, what do you need  to lift you and give you creative direction?

PS James got the job he wanted, he persevered and got there!

Spinning Plates

“Where do you want em boss? Some pretty ones here, not just those plain old white ones we seem to have hundreds of them”. Harry, the facilities manager, added the plates to the pile by the door of the CEO’s office, smiled at what he saw, felt slightly confused about it all, then picked up the old boxes and headed back to the warehouse. Caroline heard him, waved but hadn’t time to stop, too much going on. Life had been manic since the promotion, a whirlwind of meetings, decisions, financial information. She grabbed another plate and with one flick of her wrist positioned the crockery on the stick and neatly organised it, along with the others spinning around her.
Some in the office thought it was an art installation, others thought it was a new keep fit regime, some thought Caroline had shares in a homeware factory. It was though, they all agreed, an amazing sight. Endless plates spun in the sunlight, the canes supporting them wiggling and bending as they held the centre of gravity. And better still, was the skill and grace that Caroline had, in moving quickly and confidently between them, giving some an additional twist to keep the plates spinning. She hummed to herself, occasionally doing  a light jig, as she went about her work.
The plates spun in her office, out in the open plan office and now in service centre too. She had to pay special attention there, as phone calls to customers were key and any plates crashing to the floor would have been disastrous. Roger the service manager had taken to giving the most wobbly plates a spin. He knew what spinning plates was like, he’d had years of experience himself and now when he thought Caroline wasn’t looking, he lifted one or two plates from their poles and hid them in a cupboard.
“A head office plate has just arrived”  called Jane the PA, through the maze of sticks around her. Caroline turned her head and sure enough Jane was just taking a large hand painted plate from a jiffy bag and holding it out to her.
“Okay, wait, wait, let’s just clear a space and we’ll get it going” and between them they shifted the other plates around a little. Then with one huge throw of her arm and with Debbie, the FD who’d just arrived holding the stick, the plate began to spin. Everyone held their breath, the plate twisted , slipped on the pole with a screech, but with the combined energy of Jane, Debbie and Caroline working together and wiggling the stick, they got it centred and it began to spin and whirr in the air.
Even though she said it herself, not bad and provided she didn’t take a lunch break, stayed late and came in at weekends, it seemed to be working. Which was why, as she sipped quickly at her cold coffee, she didn’t appreciate Geoff the HR Director’s quiet reflective comment.
“Have you noticed how some of the plates seem more interesting than others”.

She muttered under her breath at the interruption but made herself stop and look around. He was right, some did seem more colourful and almost cried out for more space to spin in.  Caroline walked about under the plates looking up at them carefully, finding herself attracted to certain designs, shapes and sizes. Not all were huge by any means. Of course the head office one was, they all knew it had to be there and needed constant spinning. Jane brought her another coffee as she studied the plates and as she sipped and munched her favourite chocolate biscuit, she considered each one. Then she made a decision and sometimes alone, sometimes in consultation with her executive team (who had been summoned to look at the plates), she began to pull some out, neatly taking each unwanted plate and pole and putting it  aside. First the small side plates, then the white ordinary dinner plates and as they went, her heart lifted a little. Harry was hastily summoned and he repacked boxes and placed them on his trolley.  She ignored the coughs, the taps on the office door, the muttered comments “that was my plate, it’s very important in my department you know”, “wrong call you’ll regret that” and went about her work. Soon there were a just a few beautiful plates spinning and beside each one a director stood, occasionally wiggling the stick. Caroline walked around them all, checking they had the right ones, moving at the right speed, adding a twist to a pole now and then and watching as each plate seemed to change and grow in the sunlight. To her amazement one or two slowly turned into a golden colour, with beautiful embossing appearing around the edges and now these plates almost seemed to spin by themselves.
“Well would you look at that” said Geoff and pointed to the head office plate. It still spun rapidly but now it was smaller, not quite such a  bright colour, seeming almost to draw less attention. The executive team laughed together, as they watched the FD niftily reposition this plate near the golden ones and there, they continued to spin very happily together.
The white plates were later used on the ‘smash the crockery’ stall at the next family fun day. Roger owned up to the plates stored in his cupboard and his judgement was shown to  be pretty good, apart from one small plate which had some interesting swirls of colour in the design. This one, some senior managers kept spinning and they found it was a potential winner for the budget next year.  Caroline got home early some days, leaving others spinning plates, but knowing when to intervene, using her energy and her skills wisely. And it made her smile when visitors to the business asked to see the plates, particularly the golden ones. Sometimes she showed them, at other times she just talked about confidentiality and went about her business with a spring in her step. Head office seemed pretty satisfied too.
Grahame Pitts
October 2015

From previous newsletters, I have been given feedback to ‘please anchor the fable with some practical challenge, to take it back to my business’  So, in the spirit of this, a couple of questions below. However, knowing we all see different reflections in stories, from ‘ah ah’ to ‘bah what nonsense’ (keep telling me Nigel), your own thoughts and reactions are fundamental, so trust them ahead of my prompts. Enjoy your leadership thinking and analysis, then follow your energy to go and deliver the results you want.

1. How many plates are you spinning? Are there a few high value ones which require more attention than others?
2. Who in your team needs to be attending to which plate? Where and how do you need to delegate and what do you need to do to ensure those plates become rich in colour, or even gold?   
3. Where do you need show courage? Is there one plate that needs your particular attention? 

4. Where else in the organisation are there plates, perhaps hidden, which need finding and spinning?

Hot, Cold, or Just Watch the Meter

Joanne watched the meter on the wall ticking, the numbers clicking over slowly as she studied and compared them to those on her plan in the folder in front of her, which by now was covered in red marks everywhere. “Come on, come turn over faster’ she muttered willing the numbers to roll forward, knowing though really, if anything, the clicks were even now a little further apart. In frustration, Jo grabbed her chair, climbed up and on to her desk getting to eye level with the meter which blinked happily back at her, making one more click as another sale came in “Move dam you, move’ she said quietly and lent her head against the warm glass surface willing the meter to rotate, which it did to her command and made yet one more shift. She sighed and shut her eyes.

“Ugh um, hello, um, what are you doing up there” said a voice below her and the new Finance Director standing in the doorway, smiled a professional concerned face up to her.

“Something wrong with this machine I think, it might need a service. We worked it too hard last year, now its on a go slow” the CEO replied. Brian liked Jo’s style, it was one of the reasons he’d joined the business, so he wasn’t surprised to see her slumped against the meter, but he was surprised when she ripped it from wall and hurled it down onto the floor where it smashed and parts shot everywhere.

“I’ll come back later shall I” said Brian breathing deeply, wondering if he’d be the next one thrown across the room. It wasn’t so good to know your boss worked out in the gym every morning, lifting weights and had a regular one to one judo class with a black belt teacher.

“No I’m fine” retorted Jo, kicking the plastic case across the room toward him, which he trapped neatly under his foot as it tried to escape from the room. The heat behind him wafted into the office. The both knew the business was working in overdrive to get the sales, you could feel the tension out there, the stickiness of the temperature really too high to be either efficient or effective. Being successful was one thing, maintaining success completely  another. Brian closed the door and as they sat on the soft chairs he put the remains of the box onto the coffee table.

“Never did like that thing anyway, glad it’s gone. Could see it blinking away from my office, so it must have driven you nuts”. Jo smiled, it did sometimes, but mostly she loved seeing the sales coming in and the margins holding up. Still now she’d have to do it by hand for a while, but the numbers were interesting so why not, pencil and paper, or computer, they’d do just as well. The air conditioning kicked in cooling the room and the two of them sat in silence, enjoying the quietness now the ticking was dead. The circulating air calmed them and the buzz of the business outside fell away.

Jo sniffed the cold air. “We need this ourselves you know, we each need some personal air conditioning don’t we”? she mulled, before pouring them both a glass of water. “I love being out there in the heat of the battle, working our way ahead through difficult terrain, finding the next solution. All the regular day to day business stuff, it gives me a real buzz. But you know, maybe our job is different now, we need to be able to manage the two worlds, the heat of the daily battle and the coolness required to think about the future, the market, the changes to our business model”.

“Surely we just balance both” suggested Brian and he got up and opened the door. They both stood in the doorway and felt the blast of heat on one side and the cold on the other. It made logical sense to be right there but it felt confusing, like being on the edge of a weather front. Jo pulled Brian back in the room and shut the door.

“Actually that’s worse, neither one thing nor the other, more a confusing muddle. We need the coolness, the reflective thinking and then we need to be out there driving, pushing, motivating everyone, setting the example”.

“But surely we just have to make the numbers, that’s the important thing and that’s what head office are looking for. You know the score, no if but’s, sorry’s, excuses, make the numbers every quarter, deliver”.

“Agreed, but they don’t dictate how we get there and that’s our role, our choice. Maybe its doing more of what we know works, driving things harder. Or, maybe its about doing things differently because its time to change. That’s our job Brian, to sit in that middle ground, to think well, to think coolly and then to apply it back into the heat of the day. Its hard for anyone to think when the temperatures in the 90’s and you’re being bitten to death by the mosquitos. I do know though, that just waiting for the meter to turn isn’t our job”.

“Okay so let’s agree some cool time for people, not off site navel gazing, but real good clear thinking, creativity, matched with hard sharp analytics, done on a regular basis” mused back Brian “And it’ll be great if we can avoid some of those weather fronts that sweep into our exec meetings sometimes”.

“Yup and what I need to do is to talk about why this it might help and how we’ll do it. Give a good context, get people used to the idea of hot and cold – good, fast paced delivery, with a lot of movement and agility – and also – reflection, planning and challenging the way we do things, whether our plans are right, checking assumptions and mind sets”.

“Right boss, lets start with us, I’ll round the executive team up for an air conditioned moment together at the end of the day. Meanwhile, I’ve some work to do and you know most of these sales figures anyway”. He left another folder on the table, stood for a moment under the central fan, the adjusted his white linen suit and left the room.

Jo smiled and turned to her desk and picked up the phone, it was time to set up a visit to a major customer and then make them the focus for the team meeting at 5.00. As she punched the number in, a beautiful tortoiseshell butterfly fluttered in through the office door on a draft of warm air.

Grahame Pitts

May 2015



This short story comes from being with a number of leaders who have felt the pressure to constantly maintain success year after year, particularly from a number one position, even though the market has changed dramatically. There is a need to change, but moving from the original source of success is difficult and indeed may be wrong, so clear, cool thinking is important. Some leaders naturally have the gift of ‘cool thinking’ , managing themselves and others well in order to handle these pressures, others find this much harder.

A well known and critical competence for senior leaders, is the ability to move confidently along the spectrum of ‘operations’ to ‘strategy’  and I have noticed over years, the most successful manage this movement well, whether in meetings, in 1.1 conversations, or at planning sessions. Those leaders move from detail to concepts easily and are also able take others on that journey.

Now I notice, the most successful leaders, also have the ability to move between cool, clear reflection and the ability to lead in the heat of battle, inspiring others to deliver more. They are not taken hostage by circumstances and instead use all the skills and leadership in the business to find the right way and the right style to go forward.


Thinking Fast & Slow Thinking – Daniel Kathneman

Hostage at The Table – George Kohlrieser

Who Moved My Cheese – Spencer Johnson

Good to Great – Jim Collins

The Other 90% – Robert Cooper


Efficiencies don’t Rule the Waves

The Dark Prince whispered in The Butchers ear, as they listened to the rhythmic creaking of the oars in the galleon, his warm management accent sing songing into the first mate’s brain, alerting it to potential savings deep inside the ship.

“There, hear it? The slap of an extra blade in the water, I reckon we can do without that oar, third back from the left, unnecessary I’d say, what do you think?”

The Butcher tilted his head to one side, his shining bald palette glistening in the full sun high overhead. He concentrated hard, the furrows on his brow crinkled together, his left eye squeezed shut as he pushed his nose forward to sniff the air.

“You might be right there, maybe we can double up on two and four, although we need to take car: we’ve been running regularly on 24 hour rotating work patterns for months now, so the guys will be tired, mistakes happen.”

The Dark Prince ran his fingers through his beautifully brylcreamed moustache, expertly twitching up the two ends into elegant points.

“You’re right, of course, but the Admiral will have our guts for garters (and he loves his garters they both knew) when we next come into harbour. He said we were over crewed, wouldn’t listen when we talked about the size of the jobs we were doing; always available to head out anytime; needing a full crew ready to go”.

The Butcher nodded, glancing at the map then easing the tiller slightly to the west. His mind slipped back over their years of their working together, coming into the service as apprentices; believing back then in the purpose of what they were doing; transporting messages across the empire; feeling they were part of something important. Those were great times: the great voyages; the different people they’d encountered, friendly and unfriendly; the open cheque book; fun times on expense accounts. Now those good times were all a distant memory. Although it was difficult to pinpoint a moment of change, it just seemed to have somehow sneaked up on them bit by bit without them knowing. Now the old camaraderie had gone, the crew were with them just about, but there were mutterings, complaints being passed up, nothing extra given when the shifts changed over, none of the old bantering. Certainly no fun across the ranks.

“Decision taken, bring up Oarsman 3,” snapped The Dark Prince, as he flicked dust from his uniform jacket, buttoned up his shirt and straightened his tie, ready to deliver the bad news.

Oarsman 3 down in the belly of the ship was exhausted, he knew his timing was out, all down the line he could hear grumbling as others tried to keep a regular rhythm. No one wanted to blame him, they tried to cover but when the normal steady beat stammered, they knew they lost power and each time it took more energy to recover.

“Go and get 3B out of bed he’ll have to take over early today,” shouted Oarsman 6, always the natural leader of the rowers on this shift. The cabin boy grabbed back his water can that he’d been passing along the line of sweating rowers and turned to head down the stairs to the ranks of sleeping men, tossing and turning on hammocks on the floor below. He crashed straight into the stomach of The Butcher coming along the narrow passageway and was tossed lightly aside, into the ranks of the rowers, as he struggled down the dark enclosed deck toward the front of the boat.

The Butcher grabbed Oarsman 3 and attempted to haul him out of his seat, but he just shrieked with pain as his feet still under the straining bar refused to follow his body.

“Out you, out!” Screamed the Butcher, whacking 3 around the head as he struggled to free himself, and together they crashed back down the narrow gap between the rowers to the hatchway and upwards to the sunlight.

On deck, the boat had almost come to a halt; the oars on the left side of the ship now out of line with some pointing skywards where The Butcher had knocked into the rowers. Those on the right hand side were still moving but slower now, keeping a rhythm, the combined movement making the boat move slowly in a wide circle. Stumbling up through the hatches came the off-duty crew, complaining, swearing, yawning as they marshaled in ragged lines on the deck. Then came the on-duty crew, sweaty, blinking in the fierce sunlight, shaking stiffened legs and stretching arms and backs.

“Attention!” shouted The Butcher, attempting to bring them all into disciplined lines ready to witness the yet another efficiency saving. The Black Prince snapped his feet together, put his arms behind his back and smiled his slightly masochistic smile as Oarsman 3 was brought in front of him. They all knew the routine – a quiet word from management then over the side you went, an old oar followed, you were given a little help after all, company policy. Some made it back to shore, some didn’t, but they all knew the routine and the management speech: “it was necessary for the benefit of the whole ship, for the whole crew, for the rest of us to keep our jobs; it’s nothing personal, men.”

Except this time, the plan didn’t work. Just as The Black Prince lent forward to begin his well rehearsed speech, pulling his jacket sleeves up to reveal his new gold cufflinks bought with a recent quarterly efficiency bonus, a murmur began to swell across the massed lines of the crew. The Butcher screwed his face up, shutting an eye in his usual style, sweeping the decks to see who was talking. It seemed to be somewhere at the back. No the front. Or was it the new recruits? The women? (Who accepted them on board anyway, he’d never agreed with that policy although they could pull an oar as good as any of the men and better technically too. So, he kept his mouth shut), the section heads? The freelancers? Where was the ring leader? Now all the lips were moving, all softly chanting together, “No, No, No”, and then, as The Dark Prince raised his hand to silence them, (and of course with every expectation of beginning his own management speech) the chant rose to a thunderous roar, now accompanied by stamping feet (all in time of course, the whole crew had learnt the skill of efficiency and good use of effort).

Number 3 oarsman squashed between the roar of his buddies behind him and the ever increasing irritation and concern of management in front of him, stared at The Dark Prince as his eyes bulged, his face went bright red with rage and he roared his anger at the crew. His spittle rained over Number 3 who was frozen to the spot, stunned by the deafening noise bounding in on him from all sides. The Butcher, meanwhile, sensing the situation was spiraling out of control pulled his dog whip from its holster. This was largely ceremonial and he hadn’t used it professionally in years but its appearance enraged the crew, who at seeing it surged forward causing the Dark Prince, The Butcher and the other managers to back up against the foredeck then onto the rear gunwale. The angry “no, no, no” now turned to a gleeful “jump, jump, jump” and to add insult to injury the crew began a well rehearsed dance throwing their hands in the air and pointing at their leaders. Now old oars were passed forward out of the storage lockers, hand over hand over the heads of the crew and tossed one after another into the sea.

Without a command the crew pressed forward. Oarsman 3 found himself pressed up against the shiny buttons on the jacket of the Dark Prince and he smelt the mixture of expensive after shave lotion mixed with brylcream. The Dark Prince in return was the closest he’d ever been to a crew member and he didn’t like the sweat and slightly unpleasant smell tickling his nose.

All this was a side issue though, because the crew had the momentum and still shouting “jump, jump, jump” pushed forward. The junior managers went first, tipped over the side, more oars following them into the water. Oarsman 3 felt a hand grasp the back of his tunic, pulling him back as the pressure from the crowd behind grew. The Dark Prince teetered on the edge of the deck alarm now showing on his face, along with a thin trickle of perspiration running down his left cheek. Oarsman 3 reached out, getting hold of one shiny brass button on the Captains blazer, and for a moment this held them together. They both watched, eyes transfixed, as the cotton stretched out between them seeming to hold for an instance and then, with a pop, the button and jacket parted. Accompanied by one last roar and a manic swiveling of his arms, the Dark Prince toppled from the deck, spiraling through the air, his dark blue uniform and brylcreamed moustache appearing and disappearing in the sunlight, before he hit the sea with a splash.

The Butcher, smarter by far, had leapt for the mast and now dangled mid ship above the stamping crew. Oarsman 6 held up his hand and the crowd went silent. The anger had gone out of them and now their eyes moved between the Butcher on his perch, looking rather like a giant parrot, bull whip hanging loosely in his hand, and the Dark Prince and the management team in the sea below, splashing and swimming as they organised the oars into a raft.

“Hey Butcher, what’s up, not about to take flight are you?” the crew laughed and jeered. Again, Number 6 held his hand aloft, and the crew softened.

“Tell you what, we’ll do you a deal Butcher boy, how about you become the Captain, we reckon we could work with you. But you go back to how you used to be, using all our skills, involve us in the decision making. And, you face up to the Admiral and sort this efficiency nonsense out. Do that and we won’t make you swim for it. What do you think?”

“Yea come on!” shouted some of the crew, mostly the older ones who knew Butcher from other times, and had been part of some great offshore and onshore exploits with him in his younger days. “We know you’re a good guy really, come on, step up and show us.”

The Butcher looking down at them felt a sense of relief waft over him, and then, a second later a feeling of hope, which was helped by seeing the Dark Prince who was shaking his fist up at them and cursing up at them all. Maybe, he thought, they could do it differently, he’d always wanted to captain his own boat. They’d have to concoct a good story, but it might just work. Ultimately he knew the Admiral believed in the right things, even if he went about them in completely the wrong way. He’d listen he felt sure. He wanted smart bright things at the top running the boats now and he craved success that was for sure. And, perhaps Number 6 would make a good first mate, the crew would respect that decision and he’d seen his leadership skills at work often enough. He drew the old bull whip up, curling it into loops, and flung it out to sea, just missing the Dark Prince who let out an expletive toward the Butcher which completely confirmed his decision. Seconds later he was on the deck, ready to negotiate a new way forward, although he knew there was a lot of listening to do first.

Later, in years to come at the officer training school, they would talk about this moment and how it changed the style of the navy forever. How crews were motivated and developed and led differently from that moment on. They would also talk in the bar at night of how successful the boat had been and how the brutal Butcher returned to being a great leader, leading endless campaigns and delivering the Admiral great success (and a top navy award at the end of his career). They also mentioned that Oarsman 6 got his own boat two years later and men and women queued up to work with him. Oarsman 3, who never was much good at rowing, became a galley cook, eventually retiring and setting up a fish restaurant. Occasionally he was visited by a man who looked remarkably like the Dark Prince, or may it was just a similar blue jacket with a missing button that stirred a memory for ex-Oarsman 3.

Grahame Pitts

December 2014

After writing this story and while still reflecting on a question of ‘efficiency savings only take us so far and sometimes nowhere’, I picked up two classic Harvard Business Review articles both of which resonated with this question – ‘Leadership in a Permanent Crisis’ and ‘Discovering Your Authentic Leadership’. These put this fable into a more practical context, with good case studies and sound research. I hope you enjoy these articles too.


Groundless Ground

The snow settled on the peak of his all purpose balaclava, as Jack studied his compass in the last light of the day. The worst of the storm was over but he knew more was coming, the air too quiet and too heavy. He shivered and felt his bones and muscles move and complain. The needle wavered, refused to settle. Jack snapped the case shut and admitted to himself the reality – he’d told his team the direction was clear, the compass sure. This was good leadership rhetoric, but he suspected it would hold no more credence, now the food was running low and winter settling in.They’d left with so much hope and expectation. A great adventure had been planned, seeking gold and riches to be found beyond the hills, in a land of plenty, with green fields and bountiful crops. Oh, the talk in the houses and pubs, the hope and desire to find something that didn’t have. Their own lands were barren, the water fetid, dug from wells where the water table was wasting away. So the king had supported Jack taking the very best the kingdom could provide, the elite of all the men and women. Not just the physical best, the brightest brains, the most creative and some of the strangest. People laughed about the strangest and it took all Jack’s communication skills to convince the kings advisors to take those three with him. One, ‘Isof the Demolition’ had just been released from jail for creating a magnificent mega firework, the best ever to explode over the city, which sadly had landed on the chancellor’s roof, burning a large hole in his smartly combed thatched roof.

Those skills though had been very handy when a marauding hill tribe rode into camp one night, screaming, swords waving, slashing tents. By the time Jack had grabbed his gun, pulled back the tent flap, the screams had turned to whimpers as a huge burst of light, sparks, smoke and noise erupted from the camp fire. Isof, sharp, smart, undisciplined, always late for daily inspections but ready with unusual solutions anytime, had thrown a ‘number 4 star burst’ firework (home created, in his girlfriend’s garden shed) onto the smoldering embers. The resulting explosion, removed the helmet of the leading attacker, singed his eyebrows and sent him and his horse hurtling into the darkness. Dust flew around the remaining riders, causing  a sooty smog where no one was sure who was who. One of Jack’s soldiers, making the most of this, jabbed his sword into his best mate who’d just that evening taken a weeks wages off him in a dice game. The next morning they would discover a metre deep hole where the fire had been, which intrigued Isof and scared witless the rest of the troop, who from that point on refused to march next to him, let alone shoulder the sacks he carried.

One attack, one enormous explosion seemed to be enough and no other attackers chanced their luck. Now Jack, wished for a bit of that type of distraction, anything to take his mind off what lay ahead. A good fight, rather than this endless trudging. He looked ahead through the light and steadily falling snow. The track ahead seemed to disappear, which wasn’t surprising really as the edge of the map had also disappeared two days ago. Jasmine his second in command turned the map over at that point and began drawing a new map on the other side, amongst the notes, lists and mullings Jack had been recording over their time on the road. They now had virtually a new map for the cartographers to work with when they got back, including a set of hills named ‘foodllleat’ after a mouth watering list Jack made one evening as he pondered a warm bath, a meal and a good nights sleep when he got back home.

Right now, he could hear the team trudging up the mountain behind him, their voices coming ahead and echoing slightly in the gorge they were climbing through. He could hear Jasmine his number 2, setting time a with an old army marching song. Most joined in, but in between the beats he could hear grumbling and cursing. All Jack’s training told him they needed to stop, turn back, get home before the worst of the winter set in. He knew he was responsible for his men and women, they couldn’t take much more. Yes, they’d been lucky, several cases of foot rot, one flesh wound to a buttock (!) and one burst appendix. One of the creative’s had skills in surgery – Jack couldn’t look –  but Jasmine said it was a miracle and he should be proud of his creative’s as well as his elite soldiers and his strange ones. He was of course but didn’t tell anyone, he didn’t want to appear soft. Now supplies were low, morale was low, but his instinct said they were close, but he knew from reading the history of the kingdom, many had trod similar paths and failed, losing everything.

He stamped his feet, bringing life back to his frozen toes and stepped forward. His right foot found solid ground, his left swinging through found nothing and he tumbled head over heals downwards into a deep snow drift. Snow went into his mouth, up under his jacket, up his trousers legs. His balaclava jammed down over his head, so when he stood up, he staggered around like a madman thinking he had been blinded before realising the problem and wrenching the hat upwards. Up above him, the troop arrived, the singing faltered to stop and he could see them looking left and right for him in the early evening gloom.

‘Down here you numbskulls’ he yelled, just before he slipped again, forcing him to grab frantically at a spindly rowan tree with his right hand, as a slab of ice moved under his feet. He turned and watched the snow slip away down the mountain slope, before dropping away into a blur of nothingness.

‘Stay there boss’ yelled one the team and hauling out a rope, quickly he made an anchor. Within minutes Jack was back on the track. Except now they had a problem, Jack hadn’t slipped off the side of the track. Without realising it, he’d walked off the end. There was no more track, it had simply ended, disappeared, except for a very convenient ledge, one last stop before the slide, drop and likely avalange down into the valley somewhere below them in the snow and mist. There was no way forward, all the team could see ahead were snowflakes and air. Jack tried to hold onto his disappointment, not express his crushing feeling of defeat. All around were cliffs, outcrops, rocky snowy, with no way through not even a sheep track. The gorge had taken them high and direct and now there was only one way to go and that was back.

Jack felt the eyes of everyone on him, looking, seeking his leadership reassurance. He went down on his haunches, a signal for them all to huddle up for a briefing, except this time there would be no brief, he had nothing to say. The team threw off their packs and either crouched down or made seats out of their kit, wanting a rest and a smoke.  They knew the routine from their time together over the months on the road. Everyday always a team talk, a straight honest conversation, where plans made or changed and then on they would go. Jack took a deep breath, this was the worst moment of his career, a moment he thought he would never have to face. His team stared at him, trusting him, waiting for his words of calm which had seen them through so often.

‘Sorry everyone’ he said so quietly, that they had to lean forward to hear him, his words coming out slowly, coated in the cold mist. ‘I think we have lost this one, it is all over, time for the long walk home’. He tried to keep his face calm and relaxed, but everyone saw the tear escape from his eye & roll down his cheek.

The team looked at each other, dragged on cigarettes, pulled scarves tighter and gloves higher, anything other than look at Jack. That is except Isof who was whispering madly to the other two ‘strangests’. The troop were used to this, it was normal and they were strange after all.

‘Cuse me Gov, sorry but you have got to be joking. This has to be the moment you’ve have gone on and on about. All that useless training, stupid scenario planning, budgeting, rationing, yakkty yakkty yak. This is it!’. He would have said more, but his head had now disappeared inside his sack, which made everyone nervous and move away from him. He popped out with a ‘star burst 14’ in his hands.

“You’ll be needing this, only way to see it’ he said winking at the other two strangests, who nodded their heads in agreement.

Jasmine who had been slumped forward feeling exhausted, shot upwards off of her pack. ‘Wait he’s right, this is it, this is it…. groundless ground ….. this is the moment, we’ve found it’ and with that, she did a little hop and clicked her heals together.

‘Groundless ground, groundless ground’ the team mantra began swelling up and around the team. They’d practiced it, talked about, imagined it, listened to the King rant on about it as they left. Never really believing this moment would arrive. As they sang, stamping the rhythm on the icy ground within their boots, they watched Jack’s head come up and a broad smile appear on his face.

The creatives were chattering madly, gesturing, pointing out into the mist. The soldiers looked confused, just Isof took action. He light a star burst and hurled it out into the valley. It spiraled away from them, the touch paper fizzing and turning in the semi darkness. Then it exploded, creating a broad arc of bright white light out in front of them. They all saw it, a barely defined path through thin air, almost just two lines leading away from them. The firework dropped away, the mist and dark closed in again  but everyone was left with the picture inside their minds and across their eyeballs.

‘Okay’ shouted Jack, all the exhaustion gone, ‘Lets go’. He went to the end of the physical path and looked ahead. He could see it he really could. He turned to Jasmine, she could see it too. Groundless ground, that mythical state before something new appears. He’d grown up hearing these stories, hoping it was real, knowing you had to go over this to get to the future. He’d half believed it but here it was. He took a deep breath, went inside to calm himself and rehearsed all the plans for this point – the attitude, the mind set and the strength required. He also listened, as his ancestors whispered good wishes into his ears.

‘Ready’ he cried, ‘Ready’ the return cry came, bouncing back from the echoing mountain and from his own team. ‘Another ‘star burst’ please Isof’. The firework flew upwards, outwards and exploded, Jack stepped forward. The air held him, he seemed to walk on a solid nothingness but as the others came behind the shape of the path appeared under their feet. Then  looking back further, a completely solid path was behind them which Isof, always last, was  stamping on with his feet.

Jack knew what to do, look ahead, be confident, hold the future in his head and he did. Jasmine did too, he could sense her next to him focusing and knowing how to walk on groundless ground. Their team marched powerfully forward in harmony too. He looked ahead, he could just make out something in the distance, some colour, greens, yellows and some distant music coming to his ears. Treasure awaited.

Grahame Pitts. December 2013

I would like to thank David (and further back in our history, Mikki) for the essence of this fable. Groundless ground is a key moment in organisation change and indeed in personal change. There is a reality, a moment or time, when you know you have to move forward, follow and trust the plan and yet there is a real sense of nothing solid to stand on, no tangible results yet. It is literally a stepping into the unknown. Worse still, the sceptics have been waiting for this moment and they start to shout –  to complain about misuse of resources, poor management, impact on morale, the need to pull back, stay in known markets, stick with known products, etc. 

This is a moment of leadership – the ability to not just stand on groundless ground but to walk forward, taking others with you, knowing the ground will form and become solid as you move ahead. You will have seen this in your own experience – as the results firm up, the path ahead becomes clearer. And as those results come then guess what, most of the sceptics will then follow, once the tarmac is laid on the path and the lamp-posts light the way!

A Ship in Stormy Seas

Sometimes a common thread emerges during my coaching work with different clients. The following illustrates one such recurring theme.

My client gave me a very real sense of a ship in stormy waters. I sensed the vessel had been at sea far too long and desperately needed to find harbour, to re-provision, to refit. But this ship was mid-ocean, its captain a man on a mission with no time to stop. There was still direction, the sea anchor was out, but the rigging was worn and the crew tired from continual activity, facing yet more adrenalin-sapping storms.

Why do I use this image? Because no matter how long the conversation went on it seemed impossible to get to movement on the real issues. The pace, the stretch going on for the leader – both in the business and his life in general – seemed to force his whole approach into a racing maelstrom. I desperately wanted to steer him into the shelter of a safe harbour, so he could rest and draw back – mentally and physically – but I could not get him there. In coaching, it often seems that the boat has to either be in harbour, or at least sailing slowly, so that new perspectives and possibilities can first be seen, then considered, then actioned.

The link to leadership is very evident. Someone who is continually under stress can get used to that approach, accepting it as the norm, and then judging all their thinking and activity by this calibration. Sometimes it is successful, particularly if close to the leader’s natural style. But options are missed, the rocks ahead not spotted and there is no provision for long term thinking. All this is understandable, except that as leaders we are paid for our ability to see both the immediate and the longer term course – for our business, and for ourselves as well. We are also role models: our style and approach influences others, either as an example to be followed ‘it gets results for him so I’ll try it too’ or in reaction ‘he’s lost the plot, his usual judgement is way off course, no way am I doing that’.

The work of leadership is about producing results regularly, consistently, but just as importantly, it is about building organisations capable of continuing to meet challenges, ready for the future, a place where people want to work. This may seem obvious but it is a tall order. Results win out and, in the case of my sea captain above, there is no space or capacity to look at the often nebulous ‘cultural’ issues. It is hard enough to stay on top of current performance and the dichotomy of the short term versus the long term often seems too wide to bridge.

So how do we find a way through this? Well certainly, look after yourself. Beware heroics: we all love those saviour leaders, but they do not build sustainability and continuity. They risk the ‘burn out’ option – a bright firework in the dark. So look after yourself holistically and attend to your physical, mental, emotional and spiritual needs. If in doubt, listen to your body; it will guide you to the right starting place.

Beyond that, create a strong team: a team that can share leadership and allow you to rest; that can take control of the boat, using their technical skill and natural talent wisely. If you’ve recruited well, they will step up – will want to step up – and indeed will be affronted if you keep control and power close to you. I like the analogy of ‘first amongst equals’. Have you seen the goose video? It offers another analogy, this time from nature. When geese fly they share the lead role, they ‘honk’ their support, and they always look after the tired and injured.

But enough of the metaphors and analogies. Take action to look after your self. Step back regularly – including taking your holidays. Your best work may be done as you reflect and think away from the office. Get a good team around you, get them working well, and let them take the wheel and help steer the boat on the journey to success.