The Problem with Narratives

January 24th, 2020 by Douglas McEncroe · Leadership

shutterstock_522892558It seems today that everyone has a narrative. It is more than an approach or a general philosophy, it is a line of argument that leads to a given conclusion that does greatly change over time.

Facts and data that fit into this narrative are embraced, facts and data that do not, are conveniently ignored. Sources are grouped together according to the narrative you have which means that you don’t read, dialogue or exchange ideas with people who could challenging your thinking and help you explore other perspectives. God forbid, that would threaten your narrative.

What poor leadership!

For anyone who exercises leadership and who therefore has some level of responsibility for the lives and careers of the people they lead, following the culture of narratives is just not good enough. It is the epitome of poor leadership.

I have always been influenced by the Greek and Roman Stoics. Over a period of about two hundred years they honestly explored the essence of what it meant to live a good life, of what it required to be a complete human being. People like Socrates, Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius demonstrated a love of truth, no matter how much that truth uncomfortably challenged ideas or beliefs they had previously held.

People exercising leadership need to be open to all data, to all facts and let the chips land where they land. As reality today is so complex, simple narratives can never capture what is really going on. It maybe uncomfortable to challenge previous ideas, beliefs or opinions but you will get closer to what is really going on and help your people execute the actions that are really needed.

How much do you love truth?

A good question for all of us is , how much do I love truth. Or as JFK put it, how much am I prepared to put up with the discomfort of thought instead of the comfort of opinion?

True leadership was never comfortable.

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Changing the culture through conversations

August 29th, 2019 by Douglas McEncroe · Liderazgo, Organizational Culture

shutterstock_487400503My clients often ask me; how do we change our culture? The main reason for this is that with a new strategy coming in, some things become less important while others actually get in the way of the strategy being implemented.

One of the difficulties of adapting an organisational culture is that most people aren’t actually conscious of it. Much like national cultures, people behave in certain ways because they share a common way of interpreting the world and their place in it. You only see your national culture for the first once you go and live in a different culture, learn the language and then start to see the world from another angle. When you return to your own country you see a whole lot of things you never saw before. Changing an organisational culture therefore requires helping the employees see their present culture and clearly understand the assumptions that underly it.

Making the new strategy understandable

A common problem that I have come across in a lot of organisations is that the senior management team has a clear understanding of what their new strategy is but if you go down two levels of management, the people have no idea of what it is. Too often the strategy is expressed in terms suitable to a McKinsey consultant but is completely incomprehensible to an average manager. The first step then is to describe the strategy in ways that the average person can understand and also, point out how it is different to the previous strategy and why it had to be changed.

Bring the people together

To adapt a culture, it is desirable to bring large groups of people together and help them become more conscious of:

  • What the new strategy is.
  • What the present culture is.
  • What should the new culture look like.

These peoples’ role in this should not be passive but rather they should work as active participants in shaping the new culture. A great methodology for this is the World Café that can be employed in meetings of 200 people yet organises them in tables of four so that people are involved in intimate conversations in which they feel free to open up. The key to these conversations are:

  • Rotating the people so that they change tables at the end of each round
  • Having clear concrete questions that they can talk about
  • Harvesting the contributions of each table so that the whole group can arrive at tangible and clear actions to be taken

I carried out some wonderful World Cafés back in Spain both for government and private organisations and achieved great results.

It surprises me that more companies don’t employ these types of actions as it can be done quickly and economically. And yet, you can arrive at achieving a critical mass of employees who understand what the strategy means to them, what the present culture is, how it needs to change and what are the behaviours that need to be adopted.

There is a collective wisdom that companies can tap into. Employees have so much knowledge and great ideas if only they were asked to participate. This is one way of converting them into active contributors in the change you are looking for.

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The responsibility of Leading

August 4th, 2019 by Douglas McEncroe · Culture, Leadership, Personal Development

John AdamsI am reading a biography of John Adams, a leading figure during the American war of Independence, one of the authors of the Declaration of Independence and the second president of the United States.

I must admit to being a fan of this period of American history, I find it quite extraordinary the quality of the founding fathers, their intelligence, their culture and their humanism. Just before the revolution broke out, Adams, despite his fervent patriotism, successfully defended a group of British soldiers who had fired on a mob killing several Americans in an event that became know as the Boston Massacre. His defence of these soldiers earned him the scorn, and even the enmity of his fellow patriots, but his commitment to the principle that all men are innocent until they are proven guilty led him to take on the defence. In today’s world of trial by social media in which people’s reputations are destroyed without a shred of evidence, one could well wish that there were more people who shared Adam’s commitment.

Reading his biography I am struck by the incredible level of his culture. For a man whose life was filled to the brim with a frenetic legal and political activity, he always found time to widen his knowledge, continuously studying the law and reading history, political treatises, philosophy and poetry, or indeed, conversing with people from whom he could learn. He also found time for his friends and to a wealth of correspondence, which I suspect helped clarify his own ideas and reflect on his experiences. When he went to the first Continental Congress he himself was impressed by the general level of the delegates from the thirteen colonies gathered to study and debate the dangerous step of declaring their independence from Great Britain. How lucky these colonies were to have this generation in their greatest hour of need.

The distractions that make us worse

I often think how poor we are today in comparison with regards to the depth of our knowledge. We seemed to be trapped in a sea of banality. The commercial television stations are an insult to our intelligence, the ABC and Sky bastions of tribalism while social media gives a platform to people who talk about complex issues with the depth of a five year old.

How easy it is to get addicted to all of this. We carelessly fall into having to catch up on the latest newspaper article or look at our Facebook page. We pick up our iPad or smart phones for the latest fix, but what value does all this give us? Reading history is hard work but we get an insight into how society and organisations work. Reading good literature requires time and concentration but it gives us understanding of what moves human beings and nurtures our compassion. Reading the results of hard work carried out by true experts in any field reminds us of the complexity of the issues facing us today and helps be open to listening to different sides of any argument.

What do we owe the people we lead?

I used to read the press on my iPad before going to sleep, making me nervous and sometimes angry. I have replaced it with books. I notice that I am calmer, more tolerant and am thinking more deeply. I have also become more sceptical about people who defend positions like a zealot and I refuse to be enlisted into the battalions of the right or the left. It’s a constant struggle but I think it is worth it.

Surely anyone who is leading people owe them their best selves. John Adams, and I believe many of his contemporaries, constantly worked on becoming better human beings. I doubt very much that they would have been seduced by today’s press or social media.

What can you do to become the person you can be? What can you bring of yourself to the people you lead?

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Diversity and Goodwill

July 27th, 2019 by Douglas McEncroe · Leadership, Organizational Culture

GoodwillAbout a week ago American social psychologist and Professor of ethical Leadership at New York University, Jonathan Haidt held two public lectures in Sydney and Melbourne. In Haidt’s most recent book ,The Coddling of the American Mind,published in 2018, he expresses great concerns over the lack of trust between groups with different opinions or world views.

Haidt argues that this current situation is made worse by social media that groups like minded people together and tells them every day that their thinking is correct. This in turn, he argues, is further reinforced by our natural tribalism. Haidt believes that our minds are hard wired for what he calls “groupish righteousness” and that it is only over the last few centuries that we have partly overcome this, due to disciplined, rational reasoning.  This reasoning has been underpinned by a level of goodwill that assumes that other people, who may well think differently to us, do actually have the best interests of society at heart.

What will happen if this goodwill begins to disappear? I think we can see the answer to this is the worrying state of our western democracies.

Diversity of thought in our organisations

So how will  all of this play out in our organisations? If we believe the press and academia, we could easily think that diversity is limited to ethnicity, gender and sexuality. In reality, diversity is much more complex, it also covers different thinking approaches, values and interests. In today’s complex environment, organisations need all the diversity they can get. The question is however, if we are returning to a type of tribalism, how can organisations get the most out of the richness that diversity offers and avoid the tribal warfare that plagues so many companies.

Organisations need to consciously promote the exploration of different thinking processes, varied perceptions and needs of different parts of the organisation. They need to champion meetings, particularly between middle managers, from right across the organisation, and create processes in which people can communicate the pressures and challenges they are facing, their understanding of the situation their organisation is facing, and their insights about what is happening not only across the organisation but also in the market generally.

Simple exchanges are not enough

Organisations also need to reinforce goodwill, trust and respect. Built into the processes that underpin these meetings there must also exist the constant message of a common cause, a reminder that there is a general goodwill to try to find solutions that are in the interest of the majority. They also need to remind all employees that, although they may have their differences, they also have many things in common.

Communicating upwards

Finally, something must happen to these insights. Too often the great work of middle managers is lost in a jungle of organisational politics. Senior managers need to support these meetings, have direct access to the insights that come out of them and implement actions that take into account these insights.

Time is running out

Haidt is even more concerned for generation Z (those born after 1996) who have grown up on social media and who are now entering the workforce. This generation may well be even less prepared to deal with different perceptions that come out of diversity. He reminds us that the natural dynamics taking place in our societies make it even more important to actively manage a respectful exchange of differing perceptions. Left to our own devices we could easily fall into tribal feuds that will produce nothing good for our future organisations.

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The Arrogance Trap

July 19th, 2019 by Douglas McEncroe · Leadership

LuciferYesterday, while working out at the gym, I got into an interesting conversation with the owner who, as well as the gym, has a great practice as a personal trainer and as a health consultant to a lot of corporations.

Anthony has a degree in Physiology from Sydney University so is not your typical gym guy. He does magnificent work and is very successful. When he was just starting out with his corporate work back in the beginning of 2007, he got a good project from Nokia. One of the people he worked with was the Director of Marketing. A few months after he started, this marketing guy called him into the office and said to him, “Anthony, we are very happy with your work but if you want to continue  with us, we have to make a few changes. Having a 90 Billion dollar business like Nokia on your books is the best thing that ever happened to you. You’ll be able to get a lot of business just because you are working with us. So, if you want to continue with Nokia, you’ll have to do the work at cost price”.

This genius was great at screwing a small supplier just starting out, but absolutely clueless about what was happening in his market. Three months after that conversation Steve Jobs launched the iPhone and Nokia went from having more than 50% of all phones sold in the world to having its corporate value decline by 90% over the next six years. In 2013 it was bought by Microsoft.

The enemy of good Leadership

The failure of Nokia has become a case study analysed by MBA students right across the globe. One of the three reasons identified for that failure is the arrogance of its senior leaders. This self-satisfied attitude is as far removed from good leadership as one could imagine. In Jim Collin’s analysis of the leadership that existed in those companies that, over a long period, consistently outperformed their competitors, the second factor he identifies is the humility of those organisations’ leaders. The quote from Harry Truman that Collins uses to kick off his chapter on Level 5 leadership, captures this spirit perfectly:

“You can accomplish anything in life, provided that you do not mind who gets the credit”

Harry S Truman

Years before “Good to Great” was published, another great leadership thinker, Robert Greenleaf captured the same spirit in his book titled Servant Leadership. Greenleaf inverted the organisational pyramid moving the CEO form his position of Kingpin at the top of the pyramid to that as servant at the bottom of the pyramid. From the base he gave service to the organisation so that senior management, middle managers, workers and suppliers could operate creatively and without fear.

In Nokia back in 2007, middle managers were too scared to say what they really thought, to share what they were seeing and hearing out in the market. The arrogance of senior leadership will do that every time with the whole organisation being the loser.

Satan’s snare

At the end of that great movie “The Devil’s advocate” Al Pacino, who plays Satan, almost succeeds in tempting the young lawyer played by Keanu Reeves to renounce all his values in exchange for unimaginable power and success. At the end Reeves resists and the whole two years in which this young lawyer had risen to the summit, but at the cost of losing his soul, evaporates and the characters return to scene where it all began. Pacino, defeated, tries again to tempt Reeves who this time only half responds. Pacino thus succeeds in at least getting in the thin edge of the wedge. He looks into the camera, smiles and says, “Ah, vanity, my favourite sin”.

Don’t let Lucifer get you!

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What do you want?

July 12th, 2019 by Douglas McEncroe · Liderazgo, Organizational Culture

Genie LampOne of the hardest things in coaching, or indeed in consultancy, is getting people to the stuff that can really make a difference. So often a coachee, or even a senior management team, will beat around the bush with stories about their problems, about other people or about their competition.

As a coach you can indulge your client, lending a sympathetic ear to all of these stories, or you can do what you are being payed to do and push.

“If a man does not know what port he is steering for, no wind is favourable to him.”

This phrase that Seneca wrote two thousand years ago, like most of the observations made by the Stoics with regards to human beings, is as relevant today as it was then. Before my coachee and I can do any meaningful work he or she has to tell me what they want. Who do they want to be? What do they want? I often need to ask this questions up to ten times before I get a meaningful answer. What comes before is usually an endless barrage of problems they are presently facing, often blamed on others. Perhaps the reason for this is that so many executives are on a fast moving treadmill of urgent affairs that apparently need to be dealt with today, wether or not dealing with them will provide any real long term value.  This frenetic activity doesn’t allow them enough of those quiet moments to reflect on what they really want.

Frustration on the wrong track

Being on the wrong track is a constant source of frustration for people because deep down they know they are not doing what they really want to. This of course means that they are not being the person they want to be. This is also true of companies who have opened up new areas of business that don’t really go with who they are.

Answering this question truthfully can be the beginning of some very creative work that can lead to some amazing results.

So, what do you want?


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Getting to the important stuff

June 28th, 2019 by Douglas McEncroe · Leadership

TimeKnowing how to manage your time seems like a skill that only junior managers would need to learn how to master. And yet, again and again I work with senior clients who are spending too much time on activities that are not creating long term value.

Important but not Urgent

Covey’s work back in the 1980s with his four quadrants classifying activities into Urgent and Important, Urgent but Not Important, Important but Not Urgent and Neither Important nor Urgent continues to be very useful. I still use it with a lot of my coachees and find it is quite amazing how much insight they get when they realise that they are not spending much time at all with activities that, although not urgent, are indeed very strategic. This, for the type of senior executives that I am working with, is a real problem.

However, the deeper question is the more interesting one. Why are they doing this? Almost all of these executives intuitively know that they are not spending enough time on the most important things and yet they don’t seem able to change things. All too easily they blame external factors:

  • It’s the organisational culture!
  • It’s my boss!
  • The clients are so demanding!
  • It’s the people from Head Office who keep on asking for things that we don’t really need!

Although the there are elements of truth in all of these utterances, they don’t represent the main reason why executives don’t get to the important stuff. Very often, more assertiveness or a good dose of courage to push back would go a long way in changing their situation.

What lies behind the inability to change?

Even more importantly, I have found that the reason people don’t change their habits is that deep down, they don’t really want to. Harvard University’s Robert Keegan has shed light on why this happens. In his work on immunity to change he has found that although the commitment to change that certain executives make is real, they have an unconscious commitment to a conflicting goal which is stronger. Kegan’s process to identify these opposing goals requires real work, but it is effective. It involves identifying what these opposing commitments are and analysing the assumptions that underly them. Very often these assumptions, under the hard light of logical analysis, prove to be false thus making it easier to reinforce the commitment to change. The very fact of making all of this conscious is, in itself, something that makes change easier.

All of this, of course, requires work and this brings us to the big question. Are you really prepared to do what it takes to change the way you do things?

That is the question I ask all my clients.

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Connecting with your stakeholders

June 14th, 2019 by Douglas McEncroe · Leadership

StakeholdersIn today’s organisations most of leadership is not exercised through hierarchical structures but rather through a complex network of relationships. Results are obtained by getting a diverse group of people to collaborate with you.

I am constantly surprised by the number of my clients who don’t really understand this and who have therefore not developed nor the strategy nor the skills to manage those relationships.

Barry Oshry’s work on organisational dynamics has highlighted just how easy it is for people in organisations to misinterpret the behaviours of other people who work in different parts of the organisations, and then react accordingly. Too often we let our faulty perceptions determine the manner in which we approach people whose collaboration we need.

Sincerely, what’s it like in your world?

The key to building constructive relationships lies in questioning your interpretation of reality and finding out what is really happening. The best way to do this is developing a sincere curiosity about the lives and work of the people you deal with. It is really helpful finding out the answers to questions like these:

  • When you wake up at 3.00am in the morning, what is worrying you?
  • What is the main thing you are trying to achieve?
  • What organisational pressures are you under?
  • What is the most important thing for you?
  • How are the organisational dynamics playing out in your part of the organisation?
  • What motivates you?
  • What is happening in your life outside of work?

Obviously, you just don’t go up to your nearest stakeholder and hit them with questions, you find the answers to these, and other relevant questions, over time. Almost all people react well to someone who is sincerely interested in them. They tend to become more relaxed and more open, and this is fertile ground for achieving collaboration.

Me Too

Relationships are a two-way street. It is therefore important that your stakeholders also understand what it is like to be in your world. You therefore need to communicate the answers to all the above questions so that the other person also understands your context.

Nothing like a good coffee

There is an art to these types of conversations and good leaders work on developing their ability to manage them. Always look for ways to have a more relaxed conversation, over a coffee or a lunch. These conversations are the oil that makes relationships go well.

Being clear on who your stakeholders are, dedicating time to building relationships with them and improving your skills in these types of conversations, are key aspects of leadership in today’s complex organisations.

How are you doing in this?

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Question Like Socrates

June 5th, 2019 by Douglas McEncroe · Leadership

SocratesTwo weeks ago, the Labor Party lost the Australian elections. The polls got it wrong, as did many of the Labor politicians and their voters who expected a clear victory. No doubt the party had been brave in the clear transmission of their policies, but it would seem that they misjudged the nature of the Australian electorate at this point in time.

Facing Socrates

My interest here is not in the politics of this situation, I could find plenty to criticise in all the political parties. What interests me is how some of the Labor politicians and many of the people who supported them, are reacting to this loss. Much like Hillary Clinton and the Democrats, many of them blame the electorate for having gotten it wrong. As it is the voters who have the absolute power when it comes to putting in governments, it would seem an exercise in futility to blame them for getting it wrong. Mature leaders would want to start with questioning themselves, what did they misinterpret, what part of the reality in which they operate did they not see? Do they need to revisit some of their values, their interpretations and their assumptions? Could they face Socrates in the market place of Ancient Athens and answer his questions in a sincere pursuit of the truth, or would they answer with some clever sophist response that avoided all personal responsibility?

No doubt, Social Media, with its algorithms that group like-minded people together into comfortable gangs in which everybody agrees with each other, helps people avoid the discomfort of a virtual conversation with Socrates. Reading the same papers whose journalists have the same views as you, likewise does not prepare you for questioning yourself after an unexpected failure. True learning only comes from engaging with people who have different perspectives, and truly listening to what they have to say.

All organisations need to question like Socrates

In business too, there is a lack of critical thinking. In too many senior management teams the arrogance of some leaders, based on past successes, make it difficult to question their analysis of the current situation or entertain the merits of other peoples’ ideas. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • When was the last time you questioned your values?
  • When did you last actively engage with people who see things differently to you?
  • Do you listen to others with an open heart?
  • How would you fare in a face to face with Socrates?

Organisations need to actively practice critical thinking, seek out different interpretations and protect people who have the courage to question the Status Quo.

How does your organisation fare in this?

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Opening up to different views

February 21st, 2018 by Douglas McEncroe · Organizational Culture

Facebook ManipulationI must admit to being disillusioned with the press today. The difficulty to be financially viable has made the newspapers abandon the rigor they once honoured. So often, what you read is not based on fact, nor reflects a writer who values truth. It seems that few journalists invest the time to check the veracity of their sources. Social media is, of course, even worse.

The manipulation of information

And so my search to be informed and to understand, as best I can, the reality in which we live, has led me to pursue other sources. The study of history is always useful as good historians still practise their craft with dedication and rigor basing their interpretation on original documents and being open to participate in debate with other historians who often have a different interpretation of what happened.

Another source is interviews with a very diverse set of people who share their real life experiences. I confess to being a fan of Richard Fidler’s “Conversations” which gives you access to people who you would probably never get to meet. At the end of last year, he talked to futurist Mark Pesce who is one of the pioneers of virtual reality on the web. The conversation centred on how social media, particularly Facebook, is using algorithms to manipulate the information people read in their news feed and the advertisements they are targeted with. The net result is a grouping of people who share common views thus amplifying their biases. These algorithms assure that all the news and all the opinion pieces that they read come from people who think like them. This is great for business because people love reading things that make them feel they are right. However, far from a debate between two learned historians who explore different interpretations of real events based on historical facts and original documents, people on Internet are grouped together with like minded individuals and fed news that often has little connection to the facts.

I find this an extremely worrying trend, for the hope of Internet was to have people well informed so that they could form their own opinions independently of the manipulation of the media. In contrast, what is happening is the creation of tribes who are ever less open to exploring other points of view or even investigating what actually happened in any given situation. And the worse thing is that they are not even aware of it.

Tribalism in organisations

Also in organisations, like minded people get together and amplify their biases. It can be people at the same hierarchical level, it can be departments or business units or it can be people from different companies that came together in a merger. The point is that if people only exchange views with people from their own group, then they don’t get together and listen to other people with different perspectives, different information and different interpretations. It is precisely this interaction between people with diverse experiences that a more robust thinking can prosper.  The pursuit of truth and the search for new ways forward are fundamental for an organisation’s well being.

JFK said it rather eloquently some fifty-six years ago at the Commencement Address at Yale University:

“The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie – deliberate, contrived and dishonest – but the myth – persistent, persuasive and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the clichés of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought”.


Tips for leaders to battle group-think

Leaders need to encourage the discomfort of thought, both at an individual, group and even corporate level.

Far from using algorithms like Facebook that indulge peoples’ desire to communicate with people who think like them, leaders need to bring people with diverse perspectives together and facilitate a process in which different groups can share information and interpretations in pursuit of a more complete picture that reflects the complexity of reality.

When forming an opinion, ask yourself:

  • Where did my information come from?
  • How do I know if it is true?
  • What facts is it based on?
  • What motivations lie behind it?

Explore other peoples’ worlds, be curious to know about their challenges, interests and their perspectives.


A healthy organisation values different inputs and understands that reality today is enormously complex.

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