Truth and fear – poor bedfellows?

battle bus

It has been a bad summer for truth and a good one for fear.
Anyone who followed the Brexit campaign saw leaders pedalling the most outrageous misrepresentations of truths (aka lies). Perhaps the most obvious was the ‘Leave’ battle-bus which trumpeted the opportunity to repatriate the £350m that we allegedly give to the EU each week and give it instead to the NHS.

Truth got savaged by every tactic in the campaign – deceptive use of language, selective or provocative images, obfuscation, or simply ignoring or denying facts. To cap it all anyone who entered the debate, even with a genuine position from which to express an opinion, forecast or set of questions found themselves immediately tarred with motives of malign self-interest and bias by those who did not like their comment.

The outcome has left little positive gloss on any of the most active participants – winners and losers. We have embraced a summer of political silence that sees everyone pleased that we are doing well in the Olympics so that our minds are off the sordid argument and the division that now besets the country.

Across the pond in the USA, we can see a spookily similar storyline being played out in the presidential race of Donald Trump. His rhetoric – simple ‘solutions’ for complex problems, ‘betrayal’ by politicians, thin-skinned anger at critics and naked showmanship is further dividing a political climate that few would have thought could have become more partisan.

I confess to being disappointed at the perceptiveness and judgement exercised in the public space. It is as if people don’t care about truth nor understand the importance of testing what they hear. They merely make up their mind and then pick any argument however valid in defence of it.

History could have reminded me of this response had I paid attention. Yet doesn’t our society pride itself on being smarter than past societies? Despite living in the age of the ‘prosumer’ and savvy consumers of media, we don’t seem to use our expertise to judge leaders’ character and rhetoric.

Many leaders often spend a lot of time crafting carefully the content and clarity of their messages and decisions – making sure that they are right and well communicated. Does the summer offer any lessons to add to the preparation?

What could we learn from this?

1. We live in anxious times

I have known for some time that people generally are becoming more anxious. Just two statistics: In the US, the average high school pupil today has the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the early 1950’s. In the UK, the proportion of 15/16 year olds reporting that they frequently feel anxious or depressed has doubled in the last 30 years and is up to 20% of all teenage girls. The stress of modern life tends to be felt more strongly by certain groups – not those with the most responsible roles or high status but by the younger, the less educated and minorities.

The Brexit campaign crystallised around ‘fear’, for the economy vs immigration, and Donald Trump has managed to capture and mobilise the disenfranchised school-leaver, white demographic most hit by the loss of traditional industrial jobs in the USA (where he has a crushing lead of up to 40 points in some polls).

There are surely things to learn in this. We could learn a lot about how valuable it is to empathise with and articulate effectively the emotional anxiety of our people. Leaders need to be able to mirror well – reflecting the emotional concerns of people. Disconnected leaders do not communicate well.

Beyond this though we can see the vital importance of hope as a motivator. Fear acknowledged prepares for hope and people only buy into change when they see some hope of things getting better.  The summer shows that people expect leaders to tackle the right issues (their issues) with solutions – not ignore them and hope that they will go away.

2. Transparency beats spin

Looking at those politicians who are achieving cut-through with the general public – like Trump, Farage, Corbyn – we tend to see those people who display their character and personality. They are not perceived to be working from a carefully worked script, not hedging their words or operating with subtlety. We may not personally like what we see – but where it resonates people respond.

‘Professionalism’ is seen as a mark of untrustworthiness and lack of edge.

People want to be led by people.

We should learn a lot from this (especially if it is married to integrity and grace). Leaders need to inject themselves into what they lead and how they approach it. Leaders really need to believe in where they seek to lead. Too often we can settle for too many lowest common denominators to build a coalition needed to win support and lose sight of this.

3. Leaders are not as impactful as they presume

Leaders spend a lot more time thinking about their context and agenda than those whom they lead. Most people are over-media-ed, under-interested and with a short and emotional attention span.(Should we be thanking the internet for this?)

The result this summer in both the US and the UK has been no critical assessment of what a leader says, the happy ignoring of changing policies and messages, and no probing to understand exactly what people mean when they announce their latest thoughts.

The learning points from this for leaders though are a bit of a curate’s egg.

Firstly, for most people, what leaders say is simply not as important as leaders think it is. Even in business leaders are nowhere near as relevant and impactful as they believe. In 2013, when McKinsey examined the engagement of frontline workers using their Organisational Health database they found that leaders overestimated their ability by over 60%! Hence why most workers remain disengaged in their jobs.

As leaders we need to understand the small part that we play in most peoples’ lives – even if they work for the same organisation as us.

This means that it is vitally important to find the best routes and topics to engage with people – so that we really need understand and communicate with constituencies well. It also means that the soundbite and our personal story and its relevance are very powerful tools to influence effectively in these topics.

4. Psychologic > logic*

Perhaps my overwhelming observation of the campaigning of this summer is that in the end it was emotional psychology rather than rational thought that shaped outcomes to date. The arguments that won tapped into the big fears of a fractious and worried population who anticipate that the future is not better than the past and that their dreams for life are cracking.

The casualties of this have been facts, assumptions, logic, reasoning and objectivity. We are a generation that thinks with our feelings.

We might decide from this that logic is not a powerful motivator. However, we should perhaps learn that when facts do not seem very compelling to people, it may be because they are not the most important ‘facts’ – witness the new spotlight in the press being focused on the ‘losers’ from globalisation (the less educated in our society) and the acknowledgement that the winners in our society need to do more about it. We need to start with the issues and work back to the facts – not the other way round.


As we thankfully see cracks emerging in the Trump bandwagon there are perhaps two final points that spring to mind.

Firstly, truth remains constant and make a habit of reasserting itself over time and shaping the legacy of leadership. It is always good to keep this front of mind when leading – and lead into it not away from it.

Secondly,  leadership is not for the fainthearted…a more anxious, less attentive, more fragmented populace facing more headwinds than in recent history is not an easy group of people to lead in whatever context leadership is needed. So, lead where you really care.

Next week, I will blog about a lovely example of leadership that does exactly this and provides some great food for thought.

* I borrowed this observation from Robert Waterman (of ‘In Search of Excellence’ fame).


Leaders need help to be effective helpers

shutterstock_259338482Leading is a lot more to do with accepting and giving help than we often realise.

Many of us carry in our heads an image of how leaders should behave that is at odds with how people actually influence us (aka lead us).  Our model for leadership is rooted in a presumption that they should have specific expertise and knowledge that followers do not possess – a sort of unique secret sauce! After all – this is how they became a leader and hence why they should not need help, isn’t it?

Yet even a cursory amount of thought should challenge our assumptions – not least if you look at the way we all resist ‘leadership’ provided from this perspective. Most leaders will readily admit that in many situations in their organisation they do not have the best expertise to solve an issue. Even in knowledge-based organisations the leaders are rarely those with the most knowledge or insight.

Yet we persist in our assumptions – and the result is that leaders come to their roles often with same assumption. Somehow being helped and being a leader does not sit comfortably. But those leaders who learn how to receive (and give) help well will perform much more effectively.

Leading is a lot about effective helping

The most successful form of influence is that which is perceived as help by those being led: where the follower is a kind of ‘client’ who is assisted to achieve their goals. This is even true when mandatory change is needed. Atul Gawande in his book ‘Better’ recounts the case of persuading medical staff to wash their hands more frequently to improve hospital hygiene. A clear policy with carrots and sticks achieved at best perfunctory compliance despite the essential nature of the change. It was not until doctors (leaders in the hospital but followers in this change) were really asked why hand-washing was problematic that a combination of approaches created success – including more and more convenient washing points and using gels that reduced the time taken to cleanse hands. In effect the goal was reached when doctors were helped to achieve the goal and not before.

In all organisations leaders need to lead leaders – hence why many would say that the best leaders are also those who know how to follow well.

I have always been very interested in the dynamics of giving and receiving help. It is at the heart of effective consulting and at the centre of the sort of teamwork that makes or breaks the resolution of most marketing, strategy or organisational issues.  Effective teams, by their very nature, demand fluid giving and receiving of help. So with the benefit of a recent break and ample time to catch up on reading I was able to read a book on the topic, by one of my favourite academics on leadership and culture, Edgar Schein. ‘Helping’ builds on much of what he has previously written on process consulting but has a more general focus and therefore is even more accessible.


The book duplicates some of what he has written elsewhere but is nonetheless a perceptive and useful analysis that highlights some valuable principles and tips and when I read, “….leaders must first learn to accept help themselves….and must become helpers to the organisation they are trying to influence,” it seemed worth a blog post.

Receiving help is tough

Schein points out that asking for help has a psychological impact on us. It generates anxiety, as we expose our vulnerability. In effect it places us ‘one step down’ from our potential helper – in a position of dependency.

This shapes the initial dynamics of any discussion. Unless handled well by the helper it can lead to a very unproductive interaction. Think of – calls to helplines, advice from a sales assistant, or a favour asked from a friend. Recall how many times you have found the ‘help’ to be less than helpful – things that you’ve tried before, a simplistic answer to an issue, or irritating or downright patronising. These are traps that are easy for helpers to fall into and Schein is adept at explaining why.

Such experiences and this anxiety probably account for our reticence in seeking help. Yet if, as leaders we understand and can effectively coach others to help us effectively, we can start to improve our own giving of help –  and hence our influence. Such skills are vital if success demands as a precondition that each party is ready to give or receive help, as in the hospital example above.

Key lessons for leaders

For me the most memorable lessons in the book include:

  • How readily we picture in our minds eye a helper as either an expert who can provide a specific service or piece of knowledge (think engineer or teacher) or as a doctor who should diagnose the issue and make informed recommendations. Neither of these mental pictures are the most useful ones to start off with let alone for addressing the complex organisational issues that leaders typically handle. A much more effective starting model is the ‘process consultant’. The move to one of the others should only be consciously adopted once we are sure that it suits the situation.
  • The reminder that effective help takes place only when both parties are ready to give and receive help and not before. This is an emotional readiness. Getting to this starting position needs both relationship and task issues to be addressed first.
  • The value that this ‘process consultant’ mindset provides in making a helping interaction effective: the focus on accurate understanding of the issue; equalising the power balance between helper and helped; and creating the conditions to explore problems together. It is a powerful mix.
  • The need to start any helping interaction with what Schein calls ‘pure inquiry’ which means that the helper needs to start with as few assumptions as possible and ‘access their ignorance’. This helps to redress the power imbalance that exists at the start of the discussion and ensures effective communication of what the problem is and what shape it has. It empowers the ‘client’ to retain ownership of the problem and play fully their role in its resolution.
  • The immense value of asking for feedback on what is and is not helpful – especially early on but also periodically. This is the best way to check that the helping model we are using is the most useful one for the person being helped and that what we doing is working.


The book is a great reminder of some basics for effective influence and for offering real value in any role. It reminded me of the need to recognise my own attitude (and reluctance) to being helped and to use the insights that can be gained from this to make sure that I approach leading and securing commitment not just with the right attitude but also with the right tools and skills to unlock a positive impact.

Maybe when I am next lost, I will not so readily wait for access to Google maps rather than asking someone who may have local knowledge…?

* ‘Helping’ by Edgar Schein p129


The Economist on the collaboration curse

manThe Economist this week featured an interesting article in its Schumpeter column on the often hidden problems of the emphasis on collaboration throughout business and its impact on productivity, creativity and original thought.

As a fan of collaboration in general, I was pleased and amused to read a lovely summary of the downsides it creates when it receives unthinking endorsement and emphasis.

It captures very well the potential issues that it creates and the tendency to see the benefits but fail to read the costs. It highlights our inability to really multitask (something that I have always noticed when walking behind someone on their mobile phone in the London streets!), the already well-understood costs of disruption and the mental set-up/set-down time that serious concentration exacts. All of which make collaboration great…up to a point.

A great short poke at over-emphasis on one feature at the expense of others!


Half-price goats and propositions

Screen Shot 2016-01-06 at 14.00.41

Just before Christmas I opened my inbox and was disturbed to see this intriguing offer from Oxfam.

It was part of a drive to boost sales of Oxfam gift cards. These are cards that you give to someone to explain that as a present to them you have given a gift to a needy person in the developing world, in this case – a goat.

Why did this make me stop and think (and then decide to blog about it)?

…because I felt that it broke a cardinal aspect of good marketing: all brand messages should always act in accordance with their proposition.

Emotionally this offer clashed with my understanding of the proposition – the reasons that I had bought the cards before.




My problem…

I found myself facing a series of interlinked challenges:

  • If I am giving a gift to someone that is simply a gift to a third person why would I want to halve the cost of the gift so that I save money? It undermines the value of the gift to me which is the gift to the charity.
  • How does this help the person for whom the gift is intended. Surely a goat costs an amount of money and half that amount therefore only buys half a goat…so it is worth only half as much as a whole one?!
  • How does this help Oxfam? If I want to buy goats for people at Christmas and they halve the cost of a goat, then, as I do not have more people to whom I want to give goats, surely the offer simply raises half as much money.

Even when I read the details more closely and realised that they had another donor who would pay for the ‘other half’ of the goat I was still suffering a real sense that this was a breach of the whole idea of giving a gift that is a donation to a third party. I felt that it was something that diluted the value not strengthened the value of the brand. Yes – it may encourage new buyers but then I was emailed and I am not a ‘new buyer’.

Hence this blog post: In a world of competing voices and hyper-competitive categories, diluting your proposition is to inflict wounds on your brand or idea and should be avoided at all costs. The key to doing this well is to put more effort into crafting your proposition.

The power of a strong proposition

The proposition is a fundamental strategic tool, the bedrock of marketing, and a touchstone for decisions on commercial policy and actions.

The clearer and the stronger that it is then the better for the organisation, brand or group that it speaks for. All brands have a proposition but too often people have not put the research or thought needed into it. This often leaves organisations with inconsistent or ineffective ones, or overly complex propositions that cannot be communicated clearly across the organisation (let alone to the outside world!).

A great example of the power of real thought and clarity can be seen in P&G’s approach to advertising strategy development. It is a discipline that helps to capture a ‘reason to believe’ in the brand which then anchors every marketing communication for the rest of its life. For new brands, an enormous amount of research and thought goes into creating a sustainable and powerful statement so that all the investment and activity that then supports a brand continually builds equity that lasts as long as possible.

The proposition captures the value that the brand brings to the world. It is it’s ‘reason for being’ and for sustaining and cannot, even in this age of personalised marketing, be all things to all people. Brands, or organisations, can offer multiple aspects of value – of relevance to different people, occasions and situations – but these must all be consistent with each other and over time. The energy and analysis that shapes them enables them to sustain and perform well in the face of competition.

Clear propositions work for us too…

Of course, a well-constructed proposition is not just of value in a straightforwardly commercial environment.

It provides the rationale to the outside world for any brand, group, body or even person. All groups, organisations and people have propositions. We spend a lot of time ‘selling’ in our lives in all sorts of contexts.

Daniel Pink reminded us of this in his book, To Sell is Human. Indeed, we all spend an enormous part of our lives selling, mostly in a non-sales environment, trying to persuade our children to do something (or not do something), people to volunteer their help, others to come with us to see this film or artist, go to that restaurant, do this activity, stop irritating us, talk to us etc.  Every sale is made because someone ‘bought’ the proposition.

All groups, communities, individuals and activities have propositions. So it pays to make sure that, whatever you are responsible for, you have thought through its proposition and that you are clear about what it is.

What is a proposition?

To create a competitive and sustainable proposition there is a simple but vital question that needs to be answered:

Why should customers buy X … in preference to the alternatives (including doing nothing)?

This is in my experience is a remarkably powerful but difficult question to get a clear answer to for a brand. However, seeking a good answer for it provides a powerful direction and a guard against many different risks:

  • It anchors our actions in customer insights. It explains why our actions are relevant to them at this moment
  • It helps to push organisations to really be specific about who a proposition is for (and who it is not for)
  • It steers groups to stay outward facing and not disappear into internal and ultimately non-value adding activities and concerns
  • It provides a means of ensuring that actions remain consistent with what is best, across functions, geography and personalities

In doing so it can shape a mindset for the business – from customer service excellence at First Direct, or low cost at Aldi, to experience delivery at Apple or sound quality at Bose. The proposition can become a mantra to shape innovation, service delivery, product features and price positioning.

Creating a good proposition

I use a framework to structure the areas to look at when thinking about what a proposition should be. This helps to frame the questions to be asked and the analysis to be undertaken in a way that helps organisations to create something that is an effective base. It is a honeycomb structure that pulls together 7 key elements for the task.


This framework helps to produce a proposition that is strong, relevant and sustainable. If you want to read more about this it is available on slideshare.


I did not buy into the half-price goats. However, I did buy some gift cards and even in the cold light of January I still don’t get the offer. I am sure it should read more like: ‘Buy one goat and get Oxfam one free too!’







The Guardian on authentic politicians …

The Guardian had an interesting feature today on authenticity in politics written by David Shariatmadari which examines why the media profiles of politicians like Johnson, Sturgeon, Trump and Corbyn seem to have connected with the public. 

The word he picks out is authenticity and he pulls out elements of the definition in straight talking and consistent it also reveals however good a foundation it is it is not enough politically to be seen as an ‘effective’ leader. 

Good read.


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