Personal leadership

Personal leadership is a way of leading by first becoming conscious of one’s own values, priorities, goals and furthermore one’s own mental and emotional strengths and challenges. In taking the task on of becoming more conscious of these areas we begin the journey of leading ourselves forward, pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps. As these areas become more conscious we begin to create a greater capacity for recognising how the lives of others around us can be developed by doing the same. The way we listen to others and what we listen for changes over time, such that we can begin to see pathways ahead of the people we are tasked with providing leadership to. We gain the privilege of being able to walk some of these same pathways with them and the ability to recognise when a fork in the road lies further ahead, and to plan accordingly.

The simplest form of personal leadership however is an embodied one, and yet it often speaks the loudest and carries the deepest and most abiding messages. The starting point of leading in an embodied way is to find as many ways as possible to become comfortable in our own bodies. It is also important to find a way to access a centred place where your emotions are undisturbed, whilst your mind is open to new information. For all the expanded freedoms it has created for the mind, the modern work routine is now largely a disembodied one. We take the escalator or lift rather than the stairs, drive to the shops rather than walk and very rarely, if ever, do anything that tests our body’s sense of balance or flexibility. I have found that engaging in a regular embodied practice helps to bridge the gap in our lives between the unconscious pulse that drives us and our mental world with all its tactics, strategies and goals. I don’t believe it really matters which practice you take up be it Running, Football, Yoga, Pilates, Martial Arts, Feldenkreis, Rolfing or the Alexander Technique are all great in my experience.

Personally, I chose Aikido to stick with for the long term and have found the journey to be immensely helpful in finding my centre, and thereby increasing my degree of comfort in my body, whilst challenging me to expand my comfort zone in numerous ways. Having a lifelong embodiment practice brings all kinds of tacit knowledge that is impossible to learn any other way.

  • Working with your body for any period of time where your heart rate is elevated immediately reveals that your own actions can influence your emotions. This is powerful knowledge for anyone playing the long game in any field of endeavour; taking the rough with the smooth without losing your drive or passion.
  • Working with others in an embodied practice reveals what it’s like to influence a teams’ performance and how to meaningfully change it; real time action and physical dynamics in any team game reveal a wealth of personal and interpersonal information.
  • Constant maintenance of ones’ own body in the pursuit of an embodied practice will grow a deep self-knowledge and sense of well being that lets you know that you are essentially OK, regardless of temporary upsets in your day/week.
  • Increased flexibility in the body sets a pattern that the mind will hungrily adopt in times of stress, making you more adaptive to challenging situations/interactions.
  • Specifically from long term practice in Aikido I have found that learning how to fall safely has helped me to reduce reactivity and defensiveness in pressured or confrontational situations.
  • Above all, the simple and continued act of paying more attention to your own body will leave your mind with greater freedom to handle great complexity (without the persistent multitude of distractions that arise when we are alienated from our bodies).

In summary, if you want to lead effectively start with bringing your self on-board, no other special knowledge is required, and furthermore most people need leadership from centered and grounded people. Being led from ‘how’ a leader is, rather than from ‘what’ they know sets the widest and deepest frame for whatever specific content needs to be shared. Whatever challenges may arise being grounded and centered in the body means that you will have space inside to work on the questions that present themselves in the moment. It also means that the people you are leading will feel good about being influenced by you. And it is a long-acknowledged truth that people remember less about what you said and more about how you made them feel. Therefore, feeling grounded and centered is primary to personal leadership. From there developing the space inside to meet new challenges in a balanced and flexible way will position you extremely well to be an effective leader. The learning never stops, the comfort zone never extends far enough and the space inside could always be a little bit larger. Living at the edge of these aspects of ones’ self is arguably the edge of personal development, and arguably the best place to be leading from.

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Mushin Mugamae

Mushin Mugamae can be interpreted as ‘no heart, no posture’. Mu is a negative prefix and shin is heart or kokoro when read on its own. Gamae is kamae when read on its own, meaning posture. To quote Professor Tomiki:

With a still heart one can access the wonders of nature and by suppressing action one can still the gods of change.

This short quote gives a powerful insight into the impact of bringing Mushin Mugamae into our world. With a still heart our attention opens to its fullest, with nothing to fix upon in any direction. From the state of Mushin Mugamae there is no ‘kokoro’ which therefore means that all that remains is what is aware of the Heart and the Mind and the Soul (all are meanings connected with kokoro); pure awareness. From this state there is also no posture, which means that we have not yet stimulated or caused any changes to our environment or to others in any way. The moment we adopt a posture, even if it is simply to the neutral posture of Shizentai, we have committed ourselves to the physical world and its causes and consequences.

From this place we are still very open and aware and not yet committed in any direction. We are empowered to be highly receptive to external actions, such that we are in a position of advantage should an opponent/attacker commit themselves against us. All directions of movement are available to us whilst the attacker has limited themselves to an unfolding strategy that is susceptible to being countered by a flexible, centred and responsive body-mind. The abiding sense of awareness, prior to any intention to act, of Mushin Mugamae is a powerful baseline for Aikido and life in general. From this state of mind we carry less tension in our bodies, which means we can bring more of ourselves into action in a focused way when needed.

shodokanlogo

If we reflect on the Shodokan symbol in the light of what we know of Mushin Mugamae it reveals itself to be a kind of diagram. The Shodokan symbol could therefore be interpreted as the white background being the underlying state of Mushin Mugamae. The red centre (rise) being the energy we receive from the sun (our heart). The blue (fall) part being water (our postures in our environment). The directional points of the symbol can be seen as the directions in which our attention can be directed, and in which our bodies can be moved. Based on this analysis it is therefore possible to see Mushin Mugamae as a place from which all things arise and from where all things are possible. Professor Tomiki stated:

This symbol is composed of red representing fire, blue representing water and white representing infinite space.

We begin our Aikido sessions from Mokuso which can be seen as a way of accessing the state of Mushin Mugamae. At the beginning of all kata or competition our best results can be said to come from carrying a sense of Mushin Mugamae with us even as we move; extensive research has been carried out on the positive influence of Mushin by Manaka Unsui (2017). The effect being a kind of switching off of the smaller (identity) self and an increasing of our fullest potential self (spirit), unrestricted by fears, planning or strategizing. From here there is receptiveness, flexibility, speed and fearless engagement. This quote from Professor Tomiki beautifully sums up Aikido with Mushin Mugamae at its core:

Non-conscious action stemming from a neutral physical posture (in other words, neither aggressive nor submissive – mu gamae), executed without emotion or prejudgment (mu shin).

 

Bibliography

Allbright, Scott., Aikido and Randori: reconciliation of two opposing forces. Crowood Press Ltd (2002).

Deshimaru, Jean Taisen., The Zen way to the Martial Arts. Rider/Century Hutchinson Ltd (1988).

Lee, Dr Ah Loi., Tomiki Aikido Past and Future. Kelmscott Press Ltd (1988).

Nariyama, Tetsuro., Aikido Randori. Shodokan Publications (2010).

Nariyama, Tetsuro., Shodokan Aikido Dojo 50th Anniversary Commemorative Book. Shodokan Publications (2017).

Unsui, Manaka., Kakusei-Mushin: A research study on the ideal mental state in Martial Arts. Robert Gray Publications (2017).

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!

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.

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.

Triggers Broom & My Aikido (reflections on learning and unlearning)

 

Triggers Broom & My Aikido

 

I was recently reminded of a wonderful scene in the TV show Only Fools and Horses. The scene in mind featured the character called Trigger talking about getting an award for having the same broom for 20 years. For those who don’t know the scene this is what happens:

Trigger, Del, Rodders, Sid and Boycie chatting in Sid’s cafe.

Trigger has just been presented with an award for saving the council money.

Trigger: “And that’s what I’ve done. Maintained it for 20 years. This old broom has had 17 new heads and 14 new handles in its time.”

Sid: “How the hell can it be the same bloody broom then?”

Trigger: “There’s the picture. What more proof do you need?” (Trigger proudly shows a photo of his broom to the others).

Whilst this is clearly a gag that derives its humour from the deadpan straight guy persona of Trigger. He clearly identifies so closely with the ‘idea’ of his broom that he doesn’t get that with all the changes he has made to it, it has long since ceased to be the same broom.

Something about this stuck in my mind. It reminded me of what continuous learning feels like. The constant making and unmaking of mind and body over time. Generally experienced as a sense of being continually crap at what you do, triggered by criticism from a mentor or senior, or our own internal voice.

In Aikido, every stage of the way from white belt to black belt is a lot like the process of sketching with a pencil; you start with the broader outlines then work towards finding greater accuracy and a clearer representation of the thing you are working on. It’s all still Aikido and it’s all still you, but with every iteration subtle adjustments are made and newer versions of both you and your Aikido emerge.

Even at the point of achieving a black belt in Aikido the mountain that had been ascended turned out to be a hill with several higher peaks ahead. A year and a bit since my own 1st Dan grading and I am only now starting to get comfortable with being a continually corrected and changing being. I count this as the most tangible and valuable achievement on my Aikido journey to date.

In the areas of my life in business and when training others in the working environment this piece of awareness has really helped. I have had a greater appreciation for how other people experience feedback and why the learning experience is tough at times for everyone.

The main thing is that whilst the broom is always changing, it survives the changes refreshed and ready for the tasks ahead. The key difference for us is that, with every unmaking we are remade with greater potential for mastery and self-knowledge than ever before.

The take away then is that we should be content with the ‘idea’ of our best version of ourselves as being the thing that is continuous even as we let go of our old sketches of our previous selves. Becoming less defensive, and in doing so becoming more open to becoming the very best version of ourselves that we can. At whatever stage of the journey we are at along the way.