Maya Angelou: She did not remain mute

May 30, 2014

I know why the caged bird sings

Words, voice, intellect, vision combine to give us Maya Angelou’s moving story

Maya Angelou [Marguerite Annie Johnson, 1928-1014] died peacefully this week at her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, U.S. Her Words, voice, intellect, vision combine to give us Maya Angelou’s moving story.

US President Barack Obama has led the tributes to Maya Angelou, describing the poet, author and activist as “one of the brightest lights of our time”. He hailed Angelou, who has died aged 86, as “a brilliant writer, a fierce friend and a truly phenomenal woman”.

Mr Obama gave her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian award, in 2011. He said: “Over the course of her remarkable life, Maya was many things – an author, poet, civil rights activist, playwright, actress, director, composer, singer and dancer.

“But above all, she was a storyteller – and her greatest stories were true.

A very public figure

Maya Angelou became a very public figure. Her achievements defy simple enumeration or ranking. Maya speaks of it most eloquently in her six major autobiographical works, including I know why the caged bird sings.

The words influenced a political movement, and inspired a generation of Americans as she gave witness to the possibility of personal triumph over the most severe and cruel circumstances of her early life.

Her words resonate with emotional power and yet without a trace of sentimentality or self-pity. They are neither humble nor hindered by any intruding egoism:

If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude. Don’t complain.

There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.

You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.

Never make someone a priority when all you are to them is an option.

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels. Life’s a bitch. You’ve got to go out and kick ass.

Courage is the most important of all the virtues because without courage, you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.

I’ve learned that you can tell a lot about a person by the way (s)he handles these three things: a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lights.

Maya Angelou, RIP


Lord Chesterfield had the skills of a master tweeter, but he would have despised such blatant self-publicising behaviours 

May 26, 2014

Lord Chesterfield, the Fourth Earl of Stanford, [1694-1773], sent a series of beautifully written letters to his son. Their content reveals how he could have been a master tweeter, and why he would never have embraced such low-class behaviour if twitter had existed in the 17th century.

The letters deserve their place in literary history. They reflect the attitudes towards those born to privilege and the steps believed necessary needed to succeed in life in the appropriately aristocratic fashion.

The letters were, naturally, never intended for public scutiny, but they were posthumously published and have become much-quoted and admired ever since. The advice reminds me time and again of those feel-good homilies tweeted and retweeted today.

Here are a few of his obsrvations, with some minimal editing to meet Twitter’s 140 character rule:

Aim at perfection in everything, though in most things it is unattainable…

…They who aim at perfection, and persevere, will come nearer to it than those who give it up as unattainable.

Know the true value of time; snatch, seize, and enjoy every moment of it..

…No idleness, no delay, no procrastination; never put off till tomorrow what you can do today.

History is but a confused heap of facts.

A weak mind is like a microscope, which magnifies trifling things, but cannot receive great ones.

You must look into people, as well as at them.

Let your enemies be disarmed by the gentleness of your manner, but at the same time let them feel the steadiness of your resentment.

As fathers commonly go, it is seldom a misfortune to be fatherless…

…Considering the general run of sons, it is seldom a misfortune to be childless.

It is more necessary to conceal contempt than resentment; the former being never forgiven, but the latter sometimes forgot.

Six, or at most seven, hours’ sleep is as much as you or anybody can want: more is only laziness and dozing.

The noble Lord would have been a magnificent tweeter, although he would not have approved of such low-class self-publicizing. In imagination I see that in contrast, the giant of English letters, the foxy Dr Johnson, would have become a compulsive tweeter, and would have cheerfully embraced the financial opportunities offered through the social media.

The fruits of his efforts?

Lord Chesterfield hints at the challenges of parental care in the comments above. He was later to discover that his son had disregarded the parental warnings, and acted according to what his father regarded as baser instincts by marrying a commoner. One of his own pearls of wisdom suggested that no one should offer unsolicited advice. For all his sophistry, the noble Lord seems to have ignored his own judgement in that matter.


Tony Abbott winks into a political controversy defending his budget cuts

May 22, 2014

A nod is said to be as good as a wink to a blind man, but for a leader, the public gaze is never blind

Australian politician Tony Abbott reacted to a moment of embarrassment during an ABC broadcast, [20th May, 2014] with a wink to the program’s presenter. He had appeared on the call-in show to defend budget cuts to health and education spending.

His embarrassment was produced by a call from ‘Gloria’ describing herself as a chronically ill 67 year old grandmother struggling with medical bills though his government’s budget cuts . Gloria gave a candid and emotional account of being forced to work on adult sex lines to pay for her medical needs.

His looking away and winking to the male Presenter went viral, interpreted as his disrespect for the sex worker or of her story.

What did he mean?

It is not important to prove his intentions. The social reality lies in how a public action of leader is interpreted. The interpretation will factor-in earlier actions and perceptions. Mr Abbott had previous form as rather casual in his remarks about women.

In the UK, comparisons were drawn with a recent story in which private emails of Richard Scudamore, a business leader were revealed to the public. The social reality was a perception of a leader with disrespect for a specific woman, and broadened to presumptions of casual sexism.

The stories bring out the post-modernist in commentators. Followers of the French postmodernist Foucault examine social events as ‘texts’ to be ‘deconstructed’. Foucault proposed a grand Discourse through which knowledge is produced and the hidden and suppressed voices of the powerless are heard.

While post-modern approaches remain contested, they consider that an interpretation of mine is no less worthy as a consequence of my flimsy grasp of the views of authorities. So here goes:

Tony Abbott’s wink ‘speaks’ of a moment of discomfort. He looks away from the source of embarrassment and his gaze connects with someone he believes to share his views. He is aware of the need to avoid alienating potential voters. He finds no form of words. His wink implies

I’m in it like a wombat in water. But I can still get out of it if I don’t show this slag what I really think. You see if don’t.

The power of the image

A wink is a wink is a wink. In the UK, it is often a nonverbal signal of complicity, the sign of ‘us’ in the near presence of the more-powerful them.

A friend, whose judgements on business matters I trust, falls in with the conspiracy theorists in his interpretation of an old photograph. It shows Lyndon B Johnson winking to a friend in public during the funeral of J F Kennedy . My friend believes the wink helps identify two conspirators in the murder of Kennedy. That’s one trouble with postmodernist deconstruction, sorting out the signal from the constructed reality.


Tony Cocker fronts up at Eon following Ofgem’s £12m penalty

May 16, 2014

Tony Crocker, The chastened CEO of E.on, heads for the media studio circuit to be grilled on the failings in the company following the record £12m penalty for systematic mis-selling

The BBC interviewed Mr Crocker as a follow-up to its own reporting on the fine:

Energy giant E.On is to pay a record £12m penalty following an investigation into mis-selling by the industry regulator. Ofgem has carried out a series of mis-selling investigations, and in December imposed a £3.5m penalty on Npower. Ofgem says E.On’s penalty is the biggest supplier pay-out to customers, reflecting the extensive rule breaches, both on the doorstep and by telephone. The energy supplier apologised for the “completely unacceptable” failings.

Moderated contrition

At an interview on BBC Five Live radio [16th May 2014], a well-prepared Tony Crocker just about managed to balance contrition with rejection of accusations of leading an ethically corrupt company engaged in a sanctioned policy of misleading customers to agree poor deals.

The great leader arrives

Utility Week had produced a sympathetic and admiring profile less than a year ago [September, 2013].

The story reads as ‘clever but nice guy comes in, quickly sees weaknesses in company’s relationship with its customers, sets up participative ‘listening scheme’ which fixes the problems’:

Tony Cocker is not your typical chief executive. Down-to-earth, friendly, fiercely intelligent, he doesn’t seem to possess the ego that usually goes hand-in-hand with a corner office. That may be why he was able to so quickly perceive that something was very wrong with the relationship between UK energy suppliers and their customers when he returned from a stint in Eon’s German HQ to take the reins in 2011.

Cocker decided that the situation called for a total reset of Eon’s relationship with its customers, and in January 2012 launched the “Reset” programme to do just that. A six-month initiative entailed a 28,000-strong customer panel, intense research with frontline staff and the launch of the customer council.

Eon drafted in business big shot and former Asda chief executive Allan Leighton to chair the council, who was not a man to compromise. Staff across the business, from the front line to Cocker himself, reported back to Leighton and the council, having what Cocker calls with a smile “very challenging discussions”.

By the end of the Reset period, Cocker had fully assembled his management team and board, and they were ready to plan further ahead. “We spent some time with our teams reviewing our strategy off the back of Reset. What we’d inherited as a team was a much more complicated set of strategies. It was 57 pages and simplified it down to one page, [which could be summed up as] “becoming our customers’ trusted energy partners”.

The article ended with a quote from Mr Cocker saying his plans were progressing nicely:

I would say we’ve made good progress, so come back and let’s have a chat in a year’s time. We’ll be there, eager to see if doing the right thing can really translate to a competitive advantage in today’s stormy energy market.”

Before Utility Week had a chance to accept his offer, Mr Crocker is admitting his plans are not progressing as smoothly as he would have liked.

Five down and one to go

To date, the industry regulator has found five of the six major energy suppliers in the UK to have been in breach of regulations and fined them accordingly. A spokeswoman indicated that their investigations are not completed, so the ‘one’ remaining supplier is not necessary operating to higher ethical standards.

Outrage and the path to reputational hell

Politicians and the media in the UK are finding the utility companies a convenient set of targets for their sense of moral outrage. Public sentiment retains enough loathing of greed and corruption among the privileged to have some to spare for leaders of our private and public organizations. Regardless of his good intentions, Mr Crocker has a long road to ridding himself and his company of the on-going damage to their intertwined identities.


Stephen Sutton, a young leader who won a nation’s love and respect

May 16, 2014

Stephen Sutton who died aged 19 this week won a nation’s love and respect for his courage and fund-raising from his hospital bed

Stephen will be remembered for his story of courage after diverting his energies away from a clichéd ‘battle against cancer’ to a transcendent initiative to help others with cancer. It was an effort to avoid another cliché of the cancer sufferer. One of Stephen’s powerful messages was that he wasn’t suffering from Cancer, he was living through it.

His thumbs-up image from his hospital bed helped his campaign which went far beyond his original fund-raising target.

And in this way he discovered what lies beyond acceptance of his approaching death. His discovery lies beyond what most of us never find, the nature of altruism and service leadership.


AstraZeneca takeover by Pfizer. Where do you stand?

May 12, 2014

LWD subscriber Professor Gordon Pearson has set up a petition to the UK’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, demanding they refer Pfizer’s takeover of AstraZeneca to the Competition and Markets Authority for clearance. You are invited to the debate

The petition

The takeover of AstraZeneca would be destructive of competition, lead to further abuse of the NHS and of public health, result in massive tax avoidance in UK and the US as well as damaging the national interest in terms of high quality jobs, research and science. The mechanisms for preventing such a damaging takeover are in place but are being ignored. The Competition and Markets Authority was set up by this government with the prime duty “to promote competition, both within and outside the UK, for the benefit of consumers.” Referring the deal to the CMA should be the very first step for the government to take.

If you agree with this analysis, you can sign the petition though this link.

The debate is already raging in the UK. The leaders of Pfizer and of AstraZeneca, and Vince Cable are due to appear before a parliamentary committee as this post is being prepared.

A Guardian article suggests questions that should be asked by the committee members.

Questions for Ian Read, chief executive of Pfizer

1 How can you guarantee this takeover will not jeopardise Britain’s position in scientific research and development?
2 Are you doing this primarily to avoid a multimillion dollar tax bill in the US?
3 On what grounds would you go hostile?
The proposed £63bn takeover is in the “friendly” stage. AstraZeneca has turned down three approaches and under British takeover rules Pfizer must put in a formal offer by 26 May.

Questions for Pascal Soriot, chief executive of AstraZeneca

1 What reassurances can you give that British R&D will continue to prosper under a stand-alone AstraZeneca?
2 If you survive this bid, what assurances can you give us that you won’t fall prey to another takeover in the future?
3 You have repeatedly rejected Pfizer’s offers and said you want to remain an independent company, yet you have asked the government not to intervene to protect you. Why?

Questions for Vince Cable, business secretary

1 How are you going to ensure this does not become another Cadbury-Kraft fiasco?
2 Is the coalition split on how to react to the deal?
3 Does the government have the legal right to intervene?

Your comments and views (whether you agree or disagree) will be welcomed by other subscribers to Leaders we deserve.


What I want to become: An exercise in creative leadership

May 11, 2014

Here’s an exercise in creative leadership. It takes five minutes to complete. Try it out for yourself or for your friends or with people you work with

Pantograph

You can do this exercise using an A4 sheet of paper, or a flip chart or using a computer or tablet. I will describe it for working with a sheet of paper but it is easy to translate for working from a flip chart or computer.

DSCN0857[1]

1 First you take a piece of paper and make two columns by drawing a line vertically down the middle of the page

2 Then at the top of the left hand column you write
I want to become ……

3 Then you complete the sentence with your wished-for future dream in no more than three additional words. It may be a professional wish or a personal one.

4 At the top of the right hand column write a statement about some quite different wish. You can select from this list of wishes suggested to me in the past. Select something as far away as possible from your statement in the left-hand column:

Airline pilot
Nobel Prize winning scientist
Famous explorer
Famous peace maker
Role model for children
Olympic athlete
Respected family person
Great teacher

5 Write down quickly ten ideas that would help you or someone else achieve the wish in the right-hand column. Let your imagination rip

6 Take a short break

7 Now turn your attention to the left-hand column

8 Look at the first item on the right and see what needs to be changed for it to suggest something in the left hand column

9 Write down the first thought that seems to connect with your own wish, opposite the first item on the right.

10 Repeat the process with the next item from the right hand column

11 Keep repeating the process. It will always be possible to find a connection for each idea

12 Take another short break before identifying idea you like most for a first step towards you reaching your dream

Why the exercise works and what might prevent it working

I know the exercise work because colleagues and I have tried it out on creativity courses around the world countless times. I expect it to have worked for you as a subscriber to Leaders We Deserve. The basic principles are derived from application of techniques for re-framing thoughts and visualizing future actions.

Sometimes it doesn’t work. There are various possible explanations for this. Most are to do with the specific circumstances under which the exercise was carried out. If it didn’t work for you, A conversation though the comments section of LWD may be found helpful. You can also find out more from courses and many books about creative problem-solving.