People can grow. Practice compassion. Help better their practice.


In my office I keep a statue of Guanyin, the bodhisattva of compassion. I found the statue in Hong Kong over 20 years ago and loved the serenity & beauty of Guanyin. I also loved the reminder of the value of focusing on compassion for others. Guanyin is connected with the Lotus Sutra which established in the Buddhist scriptures that everyone can improve with the right practice.

[The Lotus Sutra] teaches us that the inner determination of an individual can transform everything; it gives ultimate expression to the infinite potential and dignity inherent in each human life. – Daisaku Ikeda 

The Compassionate Leader

Compassion is greater than empathy for the challenges of others. Compassion is when that emotion leads people to go out of their way to act to help others. Compassion is not a mindset. It is a practice.

Compassion requires a specific focus on each individual. Compassion is about helping each individual to relieve their situation. The ultimate belief of a compassionate approach is that everyone can improve, like the Lotus Sutra.

Traditional organisations with an industrial mindset encourage dispassionate leaders. With a fixed mindset of employee potential and mechanistic view of employee productivity, compassion is discouraged. Leaders need to play to the averages of teams, cut their losses on poor performers and move on. Leaders who show compassion will be seen as overly focused on soft skills or more bluntly as weak leaders.

When the future of work is becoming more human, we can no longer afford the waste in this dispassionate approach. We cannot predict the emergent practices which will define effectiveness in a new connected digital knowledge economy. Innovation, disruption and new value creation rely on leveraging diversity, new ways of working and learning. If so, how can we afford to write people off until we have tried to realise their potential contributions.

Compassion takes Practice

Much of the traditional concern in management around soft skills relates to concerns that these skills are just talk. However compassion demands more than the thoughts and talk of empathy. Compassion demands action.

Leaders can act in measurable ways to help their teams to learn, to improve and to practice new skills. The work of leaders in the future of work is to realise human potential. This will take the hard work of new practice.

Compassion begins with a focus on the individual and an acceptance of their real circumstances. Leaders need to understand an employee’s goals and build their plans around those goals and a frank dialogue about where the employee is today. Compassion does not require you to soften the blow of reality. It requires you to help change it.

Compassionate leaders must work to improve practice. Coaching will play a key role in encouraging employees to seek out, experiment with and learn from new practice. A coaching approach to performance aligned to the employee’s goals and the goals of the organisation can achieve dramatic improvement in individual performance.

Compassionate leaders do not protect their teams from change. They make them better able to benefit from change. These leaders teach new skills and perspectives, show the potential gains in new practices and find alternative ways to contribute for those who are adversely affected by change. Compassionate leaders see change as a way to better realise potential.

The future of work demands compassionate leaders. How is your leadership working to realise the potential of others?

Compassion is a necessity, not a luxury – His Holiness The 14th Dalai Lama

Talent is not an Asset. Talent needs a Community

Reading Austin Kleon’s Show Your Work for insight into working out loud, I came across the concept of a scenius coined by Brian Eno.  The idea of a scenius is that great talents arise from scenes that foster them. Great talent arises from interactions in an ecology of talent.

What really happened was that there was sometimes very fertile scenes involving lots and lots of people – some of them artists, some of them collectors, some of them curators, thinkers, theorists, people who were fashionable and knew what the hip things were – all sorts of people who created a kind of ecology of talent. And out of that ecology arose some wonderful work. – Brian Eno

There isn’t a War for Talent

Talent isn’t oil. We haven’t yet reached peak talent. There is plenty of untapped wells of talent left.

The concept of a War for Talent has motivated organisational HR departments and executives ever since a McKinsey Quarterly article coined the phrase in 1998. The article related to changing demographics of people entering the workforce that lasts to 2015.

McKinsey’s original war has almost run its race (& even been made more redundant by the forces of a changing economy). We might have arguments about new Wars for Talent now, but the competitive and hoarding nature of the concept has inspired managers ever since. Why wouldn’t you want to hoard the largest stock of talent? Why wouldn’t you want to win in the competition for a scarce resource?

The War for Talent also had another unintended consequence in organisations. Because acquisition was easy to measure, it focused organisations on the battle for talent external to the organisation. Internal talent was often inadvertently devalued in comparison to the battle to win new talent. Internal talent was rated on potential and regularly decimated. The focus on those rated high potential talent was retention. For the middle range there was little focus on deployment, development or growth in potential.

The scenius idea highlights why so many organisations that have pursued a stock oriented approach to talent have discovered that it fails to deliver.  Talent is not a stock to be possessed. It is a flow that grows through connection, purposeful work and community.

Talent needs a Community 

Organisations that have tried to hoard talented people generally find that their talent decays or departs quickly. The half-life of a stock hoarded talent is short. 

The surest way to lose talented people is to disconnect them from inspirations, deprive them of purpose and underemploy their skills and expertise. The hoarding mindset encouraged organisations to do exactly this. Organisations wanted to disconnect their talent from others who might poach them. They wanted to have more talent than they needed ‘just in case’ and sought to deploy talented people in roles that weren’t stretching them to have a pipeline of future talent ready.

In contrast, a community of talented people grows in number and skills. Talented people grow through the interactions in a scenius, their networks or other learning communities. They grow by reaching out to the example of others, by stretching the use of their skills and by learning against great challenges, not by sitting on a shelf waiting to be deployed.

Once you see the flow of network interactions within which talented people operate it becomes clearer that all the talent need not be inside your organisation. Organisations need to foster value in their talented people by purposefully networking your organisation.  

Organisations need to recognise that talent will be active participants in the flow of knowledge and learning experiences outside the organisation too. All employees should be encouraged to reach out into networks because it develops the talent of everyone in the organisation and gives your organisation greater access to the real strategic benefit of those networks.

Talents grow when they are deployed against challenges. Make sure your people have the opportunity to realise their potential in the flow of interactions around them. Give all your employees the chance to grow and leverage their talents in networks.

Leaders Can Authorise Debate by Working Out Loud

A key role for leaders is to authorise discussion in organisations. Leaders need to foster frank and authentic discussions by all employees. The best way to signal willingness to discuss the real issues is to start that conversation yourself and to show you will take action on the outcomes.

How do you invite questions?

I was recently asked what was my favourite aspect of a YamJam was. A YamJam is a Q&A session in Yammer usually by a leader or other authority figure. My answer was that my favourite element is that a YamJam authorises employees to question leaders and role models. This starts to create the kind of leadership that employees want: open, authentic and responsive.

Working out loud by leaders has the same positive impact. By openly sharing the work in progress with all its doubts, flaws and uncertainties, leaders invite others to engage them on that work. They make transparent their personal work processes for the benefit of others. The sharing authorises others to engage and respond to the leader’s work. This is a powerful tool to cut through hierarchy and change leadership interactions in an organisation.  Change the interactions and you change the culture.

Authorise the debate

The greatest barriers to human potential are the things we think we cannot do. Too often we look for others to authorise us to act. For many people and organisations, questioning leaders falls into the category of some we can’t do without permission. The role of leaders in realising potential is to release this constraint and authorise the kinds of generative conversations that enable organisations to be responsive.

Lead Human Complexity.


The more any quantitative social indicator (or even some qualitative indicator) is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor – Campbell’s Law

Traditional management often seeks to reduce complex human behaviour to a single measure to manage. This approach works well for unthinking machines but it struggles with the complexity of human ability to shape behaviour on expectations.

People aren’t Widgets

Economists have been looking at the impact of human expectations on policy decisions for centuries. However, too little of this thinking has made it into industrial models of management thinking.

Traditional industrial models of management treat human beings on the same basis as other elements of machinery in the manufacturing process. This approach does not allow for the difference between a machine and a human’s ability to alter performance based on their own expectations and as result of interactions with others. The creative potential of collective human intelligence quickly outstrips this approach.

John Maynard Keynes highlighted in 1936 how expectations can make even the simplest choices quite complex when interactions of other human actors are involved. His simple example of a prize for nominating the best looking six faces in a beauty contest:

It is not a case of choosing those [faces] that, to the best of one’s judgment, are really the prettiest, nor even those that average opinion genuinely thinks the prettiest. We have reached the third degree where we devote our intelligences to anticipating what average opinion expects the average opinion to be. And there are some, I believe, who practice the fourth, fifth and higher degrees.

The impact of expectations is found in many work activities. The expectations of peers can increase or decrease performance. Expected rewards shape behaviour, whether they are financial, status or emotional. Many highly skewed incentive schemes fail to achieve expected performance change because humans form a view of the likelihood or value of the returns for effort on offer. In some cases, a combination of human creativity, expectations and collaboration between employees & others will even produce totally unintended results

Human expectations of the future change the behaviour of people now. The accuracy of expectations does not matter. A critical role for leaders is to be a part of the conversations that are shaping the ongoing expectations in a team. Designing an incentive scheme and tracking the measures is not enough.

Networks Accelerate the Making and Sharing of Expectations

In our increasingly networked world, it is much less likely that any individual in an organisation will behave like a machine that has no choice but to optimise performance.  The networks inside and outside the organisation will create new expectations and accountabilities on individuals in the organisation. Expectations are just one part of the collective sense-making that will go on as people work to create value.  No individual or organisation is an island any more.

Leaders need to prepare to engage with this increasing complexity and to join the conversations to shape the expectations that will drive human behaviour. Creating a collective vision, building trust, realising human potential and fostering collaboration can all contribute positively to the expectations of individuals in a network.

If you leave the conversation to the network, you are losing your influence as a leader. You are also surrendering the potential for better performance.

The Creative Conflict of the Eclectic

“Chief among our gains must be reckoned this possibility of choice, the recognition of many possible ways of life, where other civilizations give a satisfactory outlet to only one temperamental type, be he mystic or soldier, businessman or artist, a civilization in which there are many standards offers a possibility of satisfactory adjustment to individuals of many different temperamental types, of diverse gifts, and varying interests.” – Margaret Mead

The Creative Conflict of the Eclectic

As a singer, writer, actor and more Nick Cave is a prolific and creative artist. Part of his creative potential flows from his long list of influences, if this partial list is anything to go by. The creative power of an eclectic list of influences from a variety of fields, genres and schools of thought is that it offers us the contrast & conflicts that enable us to push our work beyond its normal range. The ability to span a wider range of influences and to embrace ongoing conflict of schools of thought is an important part of why culture moves forward when management often sits still.

A wide range of inspirations & inputs offers us views that shatter our hallucinations and draw in the perspectives of the wider communities around us. Ideas profit by the testing of conflicting view points and the demands of additional stakeholders.

As Margaret Mead suggests in the quote above, we need diverse roles and viewpoints to be able to realise the creative potential of all people. We need diverse sources of conflict to see the world as it isAverages & standards constrain us. We need to leverage the creative potential of all human capabilities. In our organisations and our approaches to personal knowledge mastery, we need to resist the temptation to associate with similar people and to be drawn to the bubble of our own reflected opinions. We need to engineer difference of views and the conflict that flows from it.

The leadership task is not alignment without conflict. The work of leadership is alignment before, during and after conflict. In a world of continuous change, the conflict is inevitable. We must choose to embrace it.

But Conflict Must Change Work

Conflict and debate can be captivating. Generating new ideas and thoughts is often an extraordinarily exhilarating process. Creativity is itself an occupation for many.

Most organisations need more than creativity. They need change that can create new value.  The delivery of better value in its widest sense is what matters. That takes new and better ways of working.

Let the conflicts and the inspiration catch you in the process of making a little change. At that moment, there is a far better chance of inspiring some new form of value.

Inspiration exists but it has to find us working – Pablo Picasso

A Tasting Plate

Self-help books are full of the best practices of other people’s lives. We are each unique. Treat the example of others as less of a recipe and more of a tasting plate.

No Recipe

The world is full of advice on how to get the most out of life. Usually that advice is distilled from the example of other’s successes. However best practices are often highly contextual.

Each person has a different circumstances: temperament, upbringing, capabilities, commitments, relationships, goals and purposes. What works for one person as effective practice rarely works for everyone. This is one reason why self-help advice is often so maddeningly contradictory. There is no universal recipe for success. We would even struggle to agree what that means.

Tasting Plate

Treat best practices as a tasting plate. Try out those practices that appeal to you. Experiment to see what works. Do more of what works. Add your own twists. Recognise circumstances change. You may need new experiments from time to time.

Importantly, as a leader, recognise that your practices are not universal. Allow people the opportunity to experiment with working in the way that works best for them. That is the path to make the most of their potential.

You know the moment


You know the moment.

You know the moment when someone showed you what you were capable of achieving. That moment when another person helped you to see as possible achievements that you doubted yourself.

Someone helped you find your purpose, inspired you to tackle a challenging goal, refocused you on your strengths or helped you to find the missing piece of capability to reach new levels of performance. In that moment, someone helped you realise your potential.

That moment is a moment of leadership.

The person who led you in that moment may not have had a position of authority. It could be a colleague, a team member, a customer, a teacher, a storyteller or a stranger. Whoever demonstrated leadership did so from an interest in developing your potential, not from a position of power.

The conversation in that moment most likely did not feel like a ‘leadership’ conversation. It could have been a question, praise, a concern, feedback, mentoring, coaching, advice, suggestions, ideas, a chat or a story. Whatever the conversation in that moment, you knew they were genuinely interested in helping you to achieve what you were capable of achieving and because it would help fulfil your purpose. Whether or not, that conversation fulfilled a purpose of the other was secondary.

Leadership is the art and technology of realising human potential.

Every moment is a moment to help others find their purpose or their potential. Every moment could be one of those conversations. Everyone can make a difference.

So, how are you using this moment?

Every Conversation Counts

Leadership is how we realise human potential. Leadership is conversation. Every conversation counts. Don’t miss your chance.

Maya Angelou: …I mean, I mentor you. Everything I have learned, everything I’ve done, is at the ready when I talk to you. And in a way, you will never forget me.

Interviewer: Believe me, I won’t.

Maya Angelou: What I mean is you may forget how and where you got it, but in a few weeks, a few months, years from now, you will say something and think, Oh, I’m glad that came to me.

from a Maya Angelou interview in the Harvard Business Review

Leadership occurs or fails to occur in every interaction we have with others. Either we contribute to enabling that person to find purpose, to take action or to build capability or we miss an opportunity. Opportunities missed do not recur. The interaction that happens leaves a mark for good or leaves the other person with a query over the relationship

Realising human potential takes many conversations. You can’t impose purpose, commitment to action or learning on another. Talking at someone is the surest way to lose any opportunity to for any of these three critical elements of human potential. The fastest, simplest and most effective ways to undermine your leadership are failing to engage fully, having a surface level discussion or failing to authentically share all of your ability to assist.

In networks, where communication may be bound by looser ties of relationship and mediated by technology, mindful, purposeful and authentic conversation is an even more important practice. Leading in networks demands influential and insightful conversations to draw out and realise human potential. Human potential and the value it can create will only be realised where your conversations lead another person to learning, trust and commitment to act differently. You need to bring your whole self to have a chance of achieving that kind of change.

Follow Maya Angelou, bring everything to your next conversation and every conversation thereafter. Help another find a path to their potential. The impact of each conversation is the mark of your leadership.

How are you going to bring everything to your next conversation?

A leader sees greatness in other people. You can’t be much of a leader if all you see is yourself. Only equals make friends. A man or woman who sees other people as whole and prepared and accords them respect and the same rights has arranged his or her own allies

Maya Angelou whose leadership, works and wisdom with be with us forever.

One minute video on How to Build a Responsive Organization

The Slides used in this video are available here:


Hacked from The Responsive Organization slideshare:


Music: B-roll by Kevin Macleod