Often we define ourselves by our limits. However, our human potential is not limited to our role, our status, our resources or our authority. Our potential in networks is exponential.  When we do what we can and move beyond what we alone do, much more can be achieved.

In a recent project, we had one of the inevitable budgetary issues that affect work. We didn’t have the money to proceed with our plans. Steps were underway to solve that problem, but finding budget takes time. Instead of defining ourselves by the limits of our money, we asked ‘what can we do now with what we have?’. After a short creative conversation, we developed a new way to deliver our project, one that involved tests with the resources we had and investing in ideas that had proven success. We switched our model to use the resources we had, to leverage networks and experimentation.

Every time I hear the phrase “above my pay grade” I cringe. It is used to describe information, decisions and actions that are beyond an individual’s limits. Often these are limits people have imposed on themselves. Where they are real constraints, the individual still has the ability to act, to influence or to work around that constraint with the help of others. If you can’t approve it, go influence the person who can.  If that doesn’t work, build a coalition to influence the person who can.

The most insidious limits are those that we alone know. These limits are the thoughts that constrain our actions.  “I am not famous enough”. ‘I am not good enough”. “ I can’t do that”. “I am not influential/smart/powerful/wealthy enough”.  These are the limits that paralyse us even when others expect or demand our action. Limits like these hide in all sorts of forms; respect for others, following process, honouring traditions, fearing consequences and failure, etc.  These limiting thoughts are the simplest yet hardest to break.  We need to unthink them and act.  

We have fewer limits than we know. Together we have few limits at all.

The Four Capabilities of a Social leader

Senior executives need new mindsets and new capabilities to be effective in the networked work of the future. Four capabilities will help e executives make the most of their networks:

Personal Knowledge Management: Personal Knowledge Management gives executives the personal learning skills to manage the flow of information and to deepen their personal networks. As executives personally learn to Seek>Sense>Share they develop critical digital skills for network leadership.

Working Out Loud: Working out loud is a practice that helps surface the value of work and learning in networks. Leaders are already the focus of attention. Making their work in progress visible to others is a highly valuable step because it accelerates trust and learning.

Leading in Networks: Network leadership requires leaders to surface shared purpose, build trust and influence and enable collaboration. Expertise, rank and orders are replaced with adaptive leadership techniques that manage learning, tension & alignment.

Creating Value in Networks: Leaders need to be able to set a strategy for their and their team’s engagement with networks. They need to be able to accelerate the maturity of value creation in those networks as they develop through Connect>Share>Solve>Innovate.

Developing leader’s practice of these key capabilities will enhance their effectiveness in enterprise social networks and the future of work.

The Cancer called Strong Leadership

Cancer begins when a cell abandons it purpose in the body and begins to replicate. Because cancer cells look like healthy cells, they defeat the body’s defences. Cancer kills because invasive cells strangle the healthy ones.

‘Strong Leadership’ is a cancer. With three word slogans, assertiveness and decisiveness, strong leadership tricks people into comfort, rather than defence. By refusing to admit error or debate, strong leadership rapidly becomes dangerously comfortable. Suddenly strong leadership replicates rapidly squeezing out real leadership.

‘Strong leadership’ is direction. As a style, direction works in a limited range of leadership scenarios where actions are predictable and little flexibility is required. Direction requires little or no trust. Direction doesn’t allow for the system to learn or even admit mistakes. The more complicated and complex the scenarios the more unhealthy direction is.

We are in a highly complex and interdependent world. Simple direction won’t cut it any more. We need to engage the learning and human potential of everyone. To do that we need to influence and we need to inspire. We will need to collaborate and consult the ideas of others. We will need to learn adaptive as we take the opportunities around us to make change. The work of making the future will belong to everyone, not just ‘leaders’.

The danger we face is that strong leadership strangles the debate and engagement required. Taking the high ground of comfort, strong leadership replicates at the expense of the leadership practices required.

The future of leadership won’t seem as clear cut and may even feel risky. We won’t be as certain as what we are doing. We will be more certain as to where we are going and why. We can have confidence in our own abilities. Let us put our faith in our own potential and the potential of others.

Speaking to Senior Managers

Senior leadership engagement in change is a hot topic. Social collaboration makes the absence of leader engagement obvious. I’m often asked to speak on collaboration, learning and leadership to senior executives. As I used to be one, people want me to share a little of my passion for these topics. Here are some suggestions to guide you in your senior leadership engagement.

It’s not a priority

Collaboration, leadership and learning is unlikely to be a priority for your senior leaders. Sure they’ll discuss it but they don’t want to do it. They don’t know anyone who got made a CEO because his team was the most collaborative or the most agile. There is always a bigger business or customer problem that is on their mind.

Rather than engage in an argument as to why this mindset is wrong (it is – see Big Learning), I start with understanding the real business problems that they want to solve. Once we understand the business problems we can connect collaboration, learning and leadership as solutions to that problem.

Avoid Capitalised Nouns

Senior executives are busy and distracted. They don’t want jargon and hype. They are allergic to empty captalised nouns. The more you use words like Collaboration, Leadership, Engagement etc without making them tangible the less credible you are. The more it sounds like a futuristic vision or a quixotic quest the less relevant you are to their world.

Tell Stories

Stories make change tangible to busy & smart people. Ben Elias of ideocial.com remarked to me recently that it is hard for people to conceive of how their organisation could be highly collaborative. They have never seen it, so the ideas and practices don’t connect with their reality. Specific stories make that connection. Tell rich and engaging stories of how things can be and how to get there.

Ask for something specific

There’s nothing worse that taking the time of senior leaders, winning their support and not being able to define exactly what you want them to do. Always have a specific ask of them ready to go. Have two in case they say yes to the first. Better yet have a personal ask that is framed as something simple that they can agree to do to sustain change. The 3 simple habits of working out loud was designed as one such example.

When you are done, Stop. Leave.

Senior executive time is precious. Give it back to them. Tempting as it may be to bask in the glory of a good meeting and deepen rapport, you will win more credit by leaving when you have done your job. Remember when something is not a priority you are always on borrowed time.

The Emperor’s New Clothes


“By breaking the rules of the game, he has disrupted the game as such. He has exposed it as a mere game. He has shattered the world of appearances, the fundamental pillar of the system. He has upset the power structure by tearing apart what holds it together. He has demonstrated that living a lie is living a lie. He has broken through the exalted facade of the system and exposed the real, base foundations of power. He has said that the emperor is naked. And because the emperor is in fact naked, something extremely dangerous has happened: by his action, the greengrocer has addressed the world. He has enabled everyone to peer behind the curtain. He has shown everyone that it is possible to live within the truth. Living within the lie can constitute the system only if it is universal. The principle must embrace and permeate everything. There are no terms whatsoever on which it can co- exist with living within the truth, and therefore everyone who steps out of line denies it in principle and threatens it in its entirety.” – Vaclav Havel, The Power of the Powerless

What exactly is the power in your company’s hierarchy?

A Culture of Consent

Debates over structure, governance and power dominate management. We want to get the right balance between command and autonomy as if this is a formula that can be designed externally and imposed. The realities of power in organisations are simpler than we perceive.  

An organisation is not a state. Despite their orders, minions, wealth and luxurious surrounds, senior managers are not rulers. There is no army, no police force and no jail. Shareholders are not voters to provide legitimacy to coercion. Security guards have limits on their ability to apply force and is rarely constructive. Coercive power is in organisations is rather like the Emperor’s New Clothes. Senior managers know this well because daily they experience the limits of their ability to order.

Organisations have one form of power – exclusion through exile or ostracism. Senior management have security guards to escort you from the building.  Management can encourage others to turn on you. They can deprive you of this source of income and relationships in a community of peers, but have no other power. Look closely, they probably can’t even deprive you of resources, as these are usually under the day-to-day management of your peers. You already work around that issue daily as you make your organisation’s budgeting work.

All the power of the hierarchical leaders of organisations is given to them by the culture within the organisation. It is social influence, not power backed by force. Like the greengrocer in Vaclav Havel’s example above, you either live within that culture (and sustain its power) or you don’t (and become a dissident or rebel).

If the Emperor of Management has no clothes..

  • Change is closer than you think. Start to create new influence or question the sources and approaches of power and you are already leading change, potentially far more quickly than you realise.
  • Management are not a blocker outside the system preventing change. They are a part of the same system and equally aware of its issues. Encourage them to adapt management practice through conversations about influence, culture and the practices of power.
  • Network with like minded peers discuss and debate what needs to change. How should influence be structured in your organisation?
  • Culture is not a project just for the HR team. The consequences of the real cultural norms are far wider and far more important than a poster of values. Culture will shape what the organisation perceives and how it is able to respond.
  • Living in reality and being more human is harder than you think. First, you must separate reality from the views that you have chosen to believe. Second, you must continue to engage with the reality of the situation without the warm support of culture.
  • The future models of power in your organisation are a discussion for the community. Adopting elaborate models of autonomy and decision making without this discussion is swapping one naked emperor for another. If you adopting a new model, what is it about this model that makes it closer to the reality of influence in your organisation?
  • The ability to survive and restart reduces the threat of management power. That means a sense of personal purpose, savings of six to twelve months of living expenses, marketable capabilities and good external networks. Removing the danger from exile and strengthening purpose against ostracism frees the rebel to lead change.

“For the real question is whether the brighter future is really always so distant. What if it has been here for a long time already and only our own blindness and weakness and has prevented us from seeing it around and within us and prevented us from developing it?” – Vaclav Havel

Guest Post: The Dizziness of Freedom by Diana Renner

Diana Renner and I were discussing working out loud this week when Diana mentioned that she had an unpublished blog post in development that I recognised as the feeling of the ‘trembling finger’ when I am about to work out loud. This guest post is a result of that conversation. It is too good not to be widely shared.

The Dizziness of Freedom

“…creating, actualising one’s
possibilities, always involves negative as well as positive aspects. It always
involves destroying the status quo, destroying all patterns with oneself,
progressively destroying what one has clung to from childhood on, and creating
new and original forms and ways of living

Rollo May

 It has been almost two years since I stepped
into the unknown and became an independent consultant. Looking back, it feels
less like a step and more like a leap. In a single gesture of defiance, I
traded security for freedom, leaving behind a relatively comfortable,
predictable role in a large organisation. I had never expected to end up
working on my own. But the promise of freedom was alluring. It still is. At the
same time freedom opens up possibilities that are terrifying.

In his book The Concept of Anxiety,
Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard explores
the immense feelings of dread that accompany that moment when we find ourselves
at a crossroads in life. The moment when the choice to do something hangs in
perfect balance with the choice to do nothing. Kierkegaard uses the example of
a man standing on the edge of a tall building or cliff, from where he can see
all the possibilities of life. As he looks over the edge, he experiences both a
fear of falling and at the same time a terrifying impulse to throw himself
intentionally off the edge.

Every edge I have stood on has provoked
feelings of dread and excitement. Whether going into a first meeting with a new
client, writing a few pages in my book, or facing a bored and unmotivated
group, I have struggled with what Kierkegaard calls our dizziness of freedom.
Just like Kierkegaard’s protagonist,
staring into the space below, I have contemplated many times whether to throw
myself off or to stay put.

However, what seemed risky and largely unknown
two years ago rapidly has become part of a familiar landscape. It would be
natural to relax and enjoy the view… Yet I have
learned that it is at this very point that I need to become more vigilant than
ever and exercise my freedom to choose in three key ways:

  • To rally against the safe but numbing comfort of the status
    . I need to keep reminding myself that the
    greatest learning is just outside of my comfort zone. I need to keep stretching
    myself to keep growing.
  • To resist the strong
    pull of the crowd
    . I have found perspective on the
    margins, not looking to the outside for approval or acceptance, not following a
    trend just because everyone else is following it.
  • To interrogate the
    ’s criteria for what is good or successful. I am suspicious when I am being offered a formula to quick success
    or many riches. It is powerful to be able to question mainstream expectations,
    and carve my own path with courage and purpose.

The responsibility that comes with the freedom
to choose is terrifying. But the cost of not choosing is even more so.

We need to welcome this dizziness of
as a sign that we are, in fact, just where we need to be. A sign
that we need to slow down and reflect on the risk, then step off the edge

Diana Renner – Leadership consultant, facilitator, author of ‘Not Knowing – the art of turning uncertainty into opportunity’, Chartered Management Institute Book of the Year 2015, UK.

Twitter: @NotKnowingLab

I am and I do

Birthdays come around once a year. They are a repeating milestone. This year I have a small gift for myself – an absence of expectations. Instead I am focusing on what I am and what I do.

There is much discussion these days on the unrealistic expectations we place on ourselves. Every day’s to do list is a reminder to me that I fall easily for creating these expectations. Much of my life’s experience has taught me that most of the time we are neither quite as bad or as good as we think.

So this birthday, I am changing my expectations. I am.

On previous birthdays I have reflected on what I wanted to be. I set myself all kinds of milestones. I challenged myself to do more. Some I achieved but far too many became part of the overhang of what might have been. That overhang was mine alone, an unreal fiction and entirely unconstructive. Nothing more gets done because I once thought that I would have done more by now.

The last two years of working for myself has been a wonderful lesson in the importance of being & doing. I wondered what I might become when I began this process. I didn’t become anything. I am and I do. However, along the way I discovered:

  • I am helping people & organisations with collaboration, leadership, learning and the future of work, because it interests me and I work at improving my capabilities & connections every day
  • I am a baker because I bake whenever I can and I learn new techniques and approaches
  • I am a writer because I write whenever I have something important to say and I seek to get better with feedback.
  • I am enjoying a different life, because every day I am making new and better choices
  • I have a sense of purpose, because the purpose is in the work
  • I am happy. I just am. If I wasn’t, I would do something about it.

When other people want to hire your expertise, it is a solid reminder you are growing more every day.  When people admire your baking, or your writing or some other activity, it is a reminder that those skills are growing too. If nobody else notices, then you still know you are growing. When you ask yourself what made you happy today and there is always an answer, you are happy.

What you are now doesn’t matter. It just is. 

What you want to be doesn’t matter now. What matters is what you do today. 

Live and work your way forward day by day. I am.

CEO: This job is almost impossible

I am very pleased to be sharing with you today my first post as CEO. Apologies if it seems a little frazzled. I am by the challenges ahead but that’s also because I am writing at home surrounded by the turmoil of my young family. I thought I would pass over the usual inspiring memo and start a conversation here in our enterprise social network. I am humbled by the many posts here that saw me selected as your CEO. I now have a great challenge ahead to honour that confidence in my potential as a leader and to use my new position wisely. We have many challenges ahead and we will need to work together to solve them.

As he was leaving the organisation, my predecessor remarked “This job is almost impossible. You are going to need a lot of help to fix things”  Yet again he was incredibly insightful. 

A Big Challenge

I suspect I see the job of a CEO slightly differently to my predecessor but I agree on its challenges. I see the CEO as less of a commander atop a hierarchy. I haven’t won this role for my expertise or ability to make all the decisions needed. For me a CEO is a guardian of the organisation’s purpose and its impacts for customers, community and people. Ultimately, the CEO is held accountable by these stakeholders for their ability to facilitate great outcomes from the whole team.

To advance our purpose and improve our effectiveness, I will be less of a boss and leading the way as a change agent helping to create the needed focus, better performance and accountabilities in our organisation’s network. At the same time I recognise in a time of rapid change I need to lead the way as learner in chief. That will be easy for me. One of the reasons I am frazzled is that I have a big learning curve ahead and our organisation has a lot to learn.   

Learning on the job as CEO is almost impossible, how can you help me to learn the role, learn better ways of working and learn the future of this organisation?

Only A Job 

I am acutely aware that CEO is only one job. Some CEOs confuse the job and the role thinking that their personal power and expertise is the answer to the organisation’s challenges. I know too well that I don’t have the expertise and I don’t have the answers. You know that well. It was discussed aloud when you chose me.

My authority comes not from the role but from your confidence in my ability to help realise our purpose and to create the answers we need together. That is the only sustainable basis of your decisions to follow. We need to replicate relationships based in understandings of capabilities, effectiveness and authority for every role in the organisation so that anyone can lead, can contribute their expertise and realise their potential. Working together in this way and working explicitly on our relationships will make our interactions can be rich in trust and quickly identify those who would rather work elsewhere. 

Changing our leadership approaches and relationships is almost impossible, how can you help me to create new relationships in this organisation?

We’re Together in Change 

We need trust and strong relationships because we are going to work to use all our talents to fixing things together. We need the people closest to our customers and those with new ideas and new information to have the authority to make change and to call on the support of their colleagues to see it through. At times, we have valued processes and rules over outcomes for our customers and our people. Not all of our ways of working deliver the outcomes we want. We aren’t as responsive as we would like. We have work to do. All our employees have the responsibility to find fixes to the issues that they see in our business. They won’t be able to do that on their own. They will need your help too. 

We will only succeed in the harsh competitive environment if we have the ability to better leverage the talents and potential of all our people. Together we will focus on how we improve everyone’s effectiveness, autonomy and agility to deliver better outcomes for the organisation, its customers & community and importantly for themselves. Our collaboration will be critical to connect us, to share information and to solve the daily obstacles we face to better performance. Everyone has a role to play in this.

Realising the potential of all our people to contribute to purpose is almost impossible, how can you help me to accelerate our change?

Let’s Continue the Conversation

Attached to this post is a memo that the executive sent to the CEO some time ago outlining the importance of this enterprise social network to our strategy. Unfortunately, as it was a email it was only seen by the CEO and the executive team. As all our employees will contribute to creating value for our customers through collaboration and continuous improvement, it would have been wiser to share this with you earlier. As we move forward, our leadership team has agreed to write fewer politely worded memos and to engage in real conversations out loud here in the enterprise social network. I would ask you each to work out loud too.  Sharing our work as it progresses is a way to help us learn and improve.

Our future success is a real challenge. It always is. You might even say it is almost impossible, but nothing less would suit our very capable people. We will improve and deliver our purpose one day at a time. I am frazzled but I couldn’t be more excited as CEO as I have confidence that this amazing group of people will help find each day’s answer to the question: 

‘What Do We Need to Improve Today?’

It is almost impossible to believe that I am CEO of this great network of talented people. I know you will help me get over that too!

Previous posts:

#1 The Last Thing We Need Is An Enterprise Social Network

#2 Dear CEO: This Enterprise Social Network Doesn’t Work For You