Unframe the moment

Do not leave your song unsung
Poems neglected, threads unspun

Unleash the power of your story
Fan the flame of your heart’s glory

As you define your own self metric
Sing this moment and feel electric

Let the compass of your heart lead
Prick the unconscious, make it bleed

As your questions come up for air
Feel yourself become more aware

Live your life, a duet in answer
Soaked in movement, be a dancer

Paint the music that is yours to give
Unframe the moment, and truly live!

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It’s been two years since I opened the doors on two training spaces in West London, where I have been running Aikido classes twice a week. It has been a strangely demanding commitment. Tremendously rewarding, as even with students coming and going over the period, a hardcore group has stuck with it. The progression of my students is humbling and never fails to evolve in me new learnings and insights into my own ongoing development.

I have never understood my own instructor better than I do now. For example: I now know the range of frustrations that come with giving over a portion of your life to others who do not always share the same level of commitment. But this just serves to highlight how special it is when a small collective of dedicated individuals repeatedly deliver on their commitments to their path in Aikido (and in Business, or in anything for that matter).

As I prepare for my second journey to Japan I am reminded of many such experiences from two years ago. I look forward again to losing my smaller self for a while amongst those who train every day; sometimes twice a day or more. In Japan I learned that being a part of something bigger than just yourself was as important as any other aspect of my training.

Otsukaresama desu, or in English “we have trained hard together”. This is something you might say to your fellow Aikidoka on the mat at the end of a training session. In saying it you have acknowledged that none of your personal development on the mat is possible without the dedicated efforts of others.

Another Japanese phrase that has stayed with me is moui ikkai which translates simply as “one more time” or “and again”. It is used to encourage training partners to switch off the judgemental part of their minds and return to the business of learning and, essentially, transforming ourselves into something better than when we stepped onto the mat.

This attitude, plus more practice with less critical judgement of errors, creates an irresistible process of incremental self-improvement. Working always towards greater flexibility in both body and mind, whilst gaining plenty of inspiring memories to stoke the fires for the journeys ahead.

Creativity

When we witness the creativity of children we also internally register the level of energy at play in what they are doing. The adult universe, filled with consequences and limitations on energy, sets itself apart from the child’s universe so that it can function predictably and reliably. For many adults the creativity of children is a direct challenge to their very being, and subsequently the strategies with which they go about their day to day lives. The energy inherent within child-like creativity is vibrant, unpredictable and somewhat susceptible to volatility as it can only be steered or influenced, never fully controlled.

Therefore, it is not hard to understand why it is that creativity is so carefully compartmentalised within the adult world. We have ‘creatives’, ‘arty’ types or ‘conceptual’ types that have a distinct role in the adult spheres of politics, business or education. Then there are entire domains of ‘The Arts’ where the cultural signifiers of their adherents are rooted in emotion, play and creativity. Wherever we see a new direction emerge in human interest we can be certain that a burst of creative energy has been the animating factor. The tendency towards conserving existing structures is as strong in adults as it is to reserve the use of energy for only those objectives for which there will be a clear return on investment. Whereas children, to a large degree, have very little idea of what they could possibly lose; or never regain.

Therefore, it is entirely probable that as useful as human memory has clearly been to date, it is a substantial factor in subduing the thrust forward towards the new. Arguably one the predominant factors of the new, right across the span of human culture, is the representation of difference and otherness. Across the globe we have a cacophony of voices that fall upon a spectrum of perspectives that have never existed together previously in history with such potential for connection and inter-relatedness. Therefore, there could also be an argument that as mankind is getting older there are elements within our collective and individual psyche that are, in a sense, becoming younger.

It is precisely within this youth of mankind’s psyche that we find the energy with which to make new sense of the world, and in doing so to apply this new sense-making to the generation of ways to validate a multitude of perspectives.  Seeing the bigger picture and the broader purpose of our ability to be conscious and self-reflexive beings has begun to form a new wave of human development. With heightened creative energies in the mid to late 20th Century we saw post-modernity begin the project of deconstructing even our living memory, releasing huge potential for mankind’s future endeavors.

The cradle of the emergence of creativity within the adult spheres in the 20th Century can be connected to the reduced levels of scarcity and heightened levels of security. Both are important factors in aiding a child’s playful self to emerge. So too, it can be argued, has it influenced humanity’s second childhood in the 21st Century. Whether this second childhood is ameliorated and made anemic by potential social engineering projects such as universal credit is a risk we can neither mitigate nor take lightly.

However, there is a tantalising possibility that we may yet give life to an era and a global wave of creative beings, wherein there is no limit to what could be envisaged, engineered or inhabited. We can only be certain of one thing and that is the vital importance of creativity as a vital factor in the ongoing success of the human race.

“It take’s a long time to become young”. Pablo Picasso

Seven years

It’s 7 years now since launching New Star Networks (NSN) and I have learned many new things from being in the driving seat of what is an increasingly substantial company.

Here are 7 key learnings that have totally changed my outlook in business.

There’s never just one driving seat in a successful business.. and this is a good thing.

The more drivers you have in your business the more likely your business is to enjoy continuous growth. When others in your business truly get to drive it then the quality of information they can learn from is so much greater; as it is deeply personal and meaningful. In a company like NSN where we have two equal majority shareholders leading the business, continued success has come from making space for the other to excel and to gain support where needed. This in turn has influenced the development of other roles within the business over time.

Ignorance will never be blissful again as a business leader.

Whoever steps forward into a position of leadership from Team leader to Department head through to Company director, information will be the fuel they run their engine on. All the information from around the business is vital in being effective in whatever part of the business you’re in; especially if you want to make a real impact. The best way to stay informed is to communicate regularly and meaningfully with the rest of the business at all levels. Increased awareness of other departmental and individual goals within the business increases the quality of the information you work with. It also enables you to fit it all together quicker and more meaningfully. Ask yourself if there are things in your business that you don’t fully know about and then take some time to reflect on how valuable that information might actually be and how it could help you to be better at what you do.

You can’t save people from their past or future mistakes.

In any business you will see people join and leave for varying reasons. In a successful start-up the loss of a colleague can simply be due to the increasing complexity of the business as it scales up. I have found that when I hire someone, I take on not only the person but also their aspirations; this also includes their own limiting beliefs from their past. One of the things that makes me good at what I do is my capacity for empathy, it also means that I have a tendency to try and help people. It can also mean that there is a temptation to try and prevent them from taking paths that might limit their future potential. The fact is that it’s just not always possible to help people to achieve all of their aspirations during the time they are a part of the business. For some their personal journey needs simply to include more essential things like emotional and financial independence (rather than running a company for example). Seeing this has been helpful in that it shifts the context from facilitating every goal, which is frankly knackering for all parties, to enabling them to go further on from wherever they are currently at. I have found that supporting autonomous decision making and assisting in the development of real skills and capabilities is, generally, the most meaningful impact a conscientious business leader can have.

What got you to where you are won’t get you to where you want to go next.

Whatever energies might have driven you at the start are likely to change somewhere along the line. If it was a chip on the shoulder that helped you take a swing at the next challenging day, then there’s a chance that a measure of success will knock it off. If it’s a financial number that drives you then the day will likely come, if you stick at it, that this number comes up and flips a switch inside you from being compelled to being confused. You can make the number larger, and if that works for you that’s great. I have found that investing my energy in people has been a great driver, but also being honest that I need to invest in myself has been quite an eye opener. In any case, having a purpose beyond your role in the company will help you to do that job a great deal better.

Your failings are where your future capabilities lie untapped.

Tap into them, both on your own and with the help from others. Seek out mentors and sounding boards but don’t miss out on vital feedback from the people you have around you on a day to day basis. Becoming more open to learning from everyone around me has been immensely helpful; regardless of the level within the business people are at they will have perspectives and insights that are truly valuable. In my own life I have steered away from heavily technical information whether it related to technology or to the financial mechanisms usually associated with a Finance Director. In the last seven years I have repeatedly challenged myself in both areas and have been rewarded with powerful insights and a healthier sense of what I am truly capable of.

How we talk to ourselves will impact on how we talk to others.

This is a tricky one and I feel privileged to know about it through my work as a coach. It is best understood by putting yourself in a high-pressure situation and then taking a moment to catch what you say to yourself about how you are doing. The words will be yours and they really do have a direct impact on how you think about what you do next. I invite you to think for a bit longer about the style of how you are speaking to yourself, the number of ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ (and ffs’s) and the tone used. Phrases like ‘I’ll never understand that’ or ‘it’s just not something I’m good at’ or perhaps ‘I was never one of the smart ones at school’. Maybe this reminds you of someone you knew earlier in life, maybe you unconsciously absorbed it as a way of handling stressful moments. In any event, if you don’t like the way you are talking to yourself there is a strong chance that others will not like the way you talk to them either. Changing the way that I speak to myself, both when under pressure and in everyday life, has helped me to communicate better with others. This is a vital piece of self-work for anyone in a leadership role.

The best form of leadership is to embody the thing you wish to communicate – and then help others gain an experience of embodying it as well.

Even just phrasing this insight is a work in progress. It gives what I do in NSN more meaning to me than just what is delivered in the P&L or in terms of customer products or service experience. It challenges me to become increasingly more conscious about how I do what I do. It continuously asks what it is that I and others around me do well, what can be done better, and who is best positioned in the moment to take the lead. Actions quite literally speak louder than words and everyone is listening more than we might think. This is at times quite daunting, but the rewards are real and the sense that I am learning at a whole new level is enough to keep driving forward.. hopefully for the next seven years.

Being Useful

I recently attended an event that focused on the idea and practice of Servant Leadership. I was impressed. It was a decent sized group of adults with a fair mix of men and women. All of them were senior business professionals of one kind or another, and they were all keyed into the idea of Servant Leadership, to one degree or another. What they all seemed to agree on were the 5 main ways of being a Servant Leader:

  1. Be accepting
  2. Be authentic
  3. Be present
  4. Be vulnerable
  5. Be useful

We had 5 tables around the room, and each table took an aspect of being a Servant Leader and discussed it. We all ended up with many points or distinctions that could be made about our chosen aspect. My table had number 5, that of being useful. Below are 6 key elements of being useful as a leader that emerged for us, and my own reflections on each of them:

  1. To create an environment for success
  2. To step forward or back as needed to make the system work
  3. To mine your own talents and transfer capabilities/knowledge
  4. Two questions: How can I help? What do you need?
  5. To ensure that your company’s wider footprint is useful as well
  6. To have a useful vision

The first element seems obvious, and yet so often it is overlooked. It’s almost a given that most businesses are aware of their immediate office environment, lighting, posture supportive chairs etc. The environment that matters the most to me is one where each person within the business nurtures a positive regard for the other. This ultimately creates an environment where you would not want others to have any less of an opportunity in life than you have. The servant leader in this case can be most useful by embodying this themselves.

The second element connects for me, to an insight I had whilst driving my car around busy London roads. I noticed that there were occasions when, even though I absolutely had the right of way, that by not giving way to others I was ignoring the wider issue. That of the build-up of traffic flow leading back into other parts of London; the wider system. Yet if I allowed someone through then it could move, even just a little bit, and others behind me would have an example to follow that was perhaps different from how they had previously thought. This insight has subsequently influenced my approach to leadership in business. Stepping forward or back as per clearly presented needs (or as per my vision of the whole). Simply taking a parcel to the post office or offering support to someone who needs it at whatever level of the business can be the difference that makes the difference, even just a little bit. And even just a little bit of flexibility can be what the system needs to make it flow.

Mining your own talents is a fast track to being vulnerable in front of your colleagues. This is because it is a form of learning. It is where you take unconscious competence and make it explicitly accessible to others. The reward is both in the giving away of the newly tacit knowledge and in the emerging awareness that existing talents and skills can be developed even further and communicated with increasing clarity. The act of transferring capabilities is a step further, in that the information transferred by the leader is even more consciously engaged. The leader is literally living with the ongoing lived development of the person they are working with; making sense of the other persons journey through their eyes as well as they can.

The two questions, how can I help and what do you need are inherently servant like in nature. They are also the very definition of being useful to the person to whom you are asking the questions of. They must of course be balanced within the context of the wider whole, time and degrees of impact in the service of the wider vision. However, there is no getting around the fact that by asking either of these questions you will be getting into the nitty gritty in short order. And what you learn is often very rich. For example, what a person really needs can be quite different from what you think it is, and therefore what might motivate them or enable them to do well can be best discovered by asking them directly what they actually need. Asked alongside the question how can I help? sets the context more firmly within the business environment, focused on their core responsibilities. This question can help a person to feel secure enough to ask for help i.e. training that they might not otherwise feel comfortable to ask for.

Having your company’s wider footprint become useful is a development somewhat of the earlier insights from stepping forward and back. Whether your company has a global or local footprint it will always have a wider impact than the immediate focal points of your business plan. Whilst we can never be fully mindful of the myriad ways in which our companies have an impact further afield, we can always strive to reduce the potential harm to others we might otherwise cause, and to help others to have a better quality of life than they might otherwise have. As is becoming increasingly clear that we live in a deeply interconnected world, our thoughts and deeds have a much stronger chance of impacting on others across the globe. Threats from climate change, viral insights or fake news spread on social media, cyber-attacks/increased security and advances in medicine through internet enabled collaboration across the globe are just a few examples of how whatever we do impacts everyone else, to some degree or other.

Which brings me onto the last element, that of having a useful vision. In this case for me it has a similar essence to having a vision for my company’s wider footprint. Although this vision has grown over time it has always aimed to include as many people as possible, to the degree that I would my own family; within a framework of aligned personal and company goals, meaningful rewards and ongoing personal development. Working together to create meaningful and productive working lives that support and nurture families, futures and the next generations. This vision means that from time to time the more lucrative rewards of business ownership are deferred to some degree. However, in the long term the environment is more sustainable, the people are more motivated and more people can experience a greater quality of life.

The double-edged sword of mindfulness

 

The classic perception of mindfulness is as a relaxing and grounding way of finding our centre and bringing greater attention to our sense of being. It is generally pursued through a variety of meditation approaches, most of which are usually experienced in short order as being quite other than relaxing or grounding. Meditation mats and cushions largely end up in a cupboard, Reiki CD’s in the attic and occasional yoga classes recede into distant memory like the flexibility of youth.

Ironically, people engage in mindfulness more often than they are aware. The main way that people engage in mindfulness is not even meditation. Mindfulness is most often experienced when beginning to learn something. Those first few steps of feeling off balance, falling out of ones’ comfort zone and into an array of confusing new information can turn up the volume and brightness on the world around them. Sometimes overwhelmingly. As a temporary member of the Consciously Incompetent we face our greatest challenge. The challenge to our own sense of self both internally and socially.

In fact, the whole experience is often compounded by the social element; as if the volume and brightness of our discomfort were not already turned up high enough. We unavoidably see our maladaptation multiplied in the eyes others around us. As adults, we must run the gauntlet of potentially being stigmatised, classified as unfit for certain levels of social sign off and approval if we fail in public. Yet at no other time are we so exquisitely attuned to learning. Our senses are never so keen or our processing powers as super-charged as when we are immersed in a learning rich environment. And a learning environment is grounded in failure and crowned on reflection with layers of consolidation and emergent capabilities. Put simply we cannot learn deeply and meaningfully without making mistakes and mistakes, as adults, are socially taboo.

However, it is the deep power of this newly unresolved and confused sense of reality that can help us to open up our mental models and make room for new data. The practice of meditation or mindfulness for most of us can be an exercise in self-torture as it is a pure pathway to heightening our awareness. Anything going on in our psyche at that moment in time will immediately become brighter, louder and generally enhanced in every way possible. Mindfulness therefore is one of the last things a troubled mind should look to for escapism, but entirely the way forward for engaging meaningfully and purposefully with life. No discomfort = no gain.

Therefore the double edged sword of mindfulness is that, as it cuts new ground ahead for us, it also cuts us open in the process. If we are not prepared to be open we will resist most of the new and strange information and experiences that want to rush in and become a part of us. My argument therefore is that the stuff deep inside us, that mindfulness raises so powerfully to the surface, is best dealt with through active learning and using the entirety of our being. It needs a purpose, in order for it to become repurposed within the context of our ongoing personal development. And personal development should always be ongoing.

In particular it is in the processing of our demons through creative endeavours that we knit ourselves larger and more encompassing, such that we are increasingly less frightened by our own shadows. These shadows can be reduced as our attention and our being grow and occupy the dark spaces, and it is from these dark spaces that we draw energy and insight for where we can go and who we can grow into being next. It is in this newly grounded and open space, with all of our demons put to work, that we can luxuriate into the quality of being we generally associate with meditation or mindfulness. As our attention begins to know no reason to flinch back from foreign boundaries our sense of self can know its true radius and in doing so find that there is truly no boundary.