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I could be Trump in five seconds flat


Like so many, when Donald Trump announced his candidacy for the White House last year, I rubbed my hands in gleeful anticipation of what I felt certain would be the most wretched train wreck of a campaign in history. I expected a candidate that would make Herman Cain look informed, Sarah Palin look sane and Gary Hart look like a master strategist.

Like so many however, I entirely overlooked something primal and obvious: that it’s easy to lead mean people.

Trump supporters consistently herald their candidate’s outspoken honesty as his most impressive trait and insist it’s all the more rare because no other candidate has dared to say it like it is the way he does. They’re right too, because no other candidate has been first and foremost mean-spirited.

Honesty is a euphemism for ugliness. Bullying. Calling people names, insulting them, and doing it all from behind a Secret Service protected lectern.

But in reality, it’s easy to lead mean people because so many of them are itching to act on their worst instincts as soon as someone gives them the cover to do so. It’s a rationale that has played out again and again in the formation of everything from totalitarian regimes to organised crime families: the megalomaniacs in the middle attract to them anyone who has ever wanted to be a bully or worse and feel that they can at last get away with it with impunity. Stick a guy like Trump behind a lectern, and it’s a license to do and say all the things you’ve been dying to.

The thing that enabled Hitler (look, I’m hardly the first to invoke Godwin’s Law in reference to Trump) to steamroll over the German constitution, reshape societal norms and launch his catastrophic course was not that the Nazis were smart, skilful and convincing; these weren’t on the whole, especially bright guys. What they had on their side was the easy willingness of the worst members of society to jump on a bandwagon that let them act out their darkest fantasies. Not those in uniform, but those who stepped aside and cheered them on as they practiced organised persecution.

All Trump has done is reach out to the section of the population that wants to do the same thing. Anyone could do that in five seconds flat.

What if we assume there is a difference between people and their ideas?


On April 20, 1999, teenagers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 13 people and wounded 23 others at Columbine High School in the United States; one of many such tragedies in that nation of schizophrenic gun laws, but perhaps the one that is best known because of the 2002 Michael Moore movie.

In the justifiable search for a root cause of such a horrifying incident, the conservative factions turned their attention as they have done so often, to heavy metal music, using the argument that the messages contained within it, have the ability to lead especially susceptible children to acts of violence.

When it was suggested (erroneously, it turns out) that the leading musical light for Harris and Klebold was the polarising rocker Marilyn Manson, the whole thing picked up a dozen gears. It’s not hard to understand why Manson troubled middle American moms and dads; on the one hand, the very nature of their generically conservative political and religious viewpoints makes Manson a terrifying threat; on the other, Manson’s visual persona and music videos appear purposefully designed to shock.

Indeed, the video for his song The Beautiful People is a flash flood of dystopian images which are as mesmerising as they are twisted. It’s hard to believe it didn’t elicit a chuckle when Manson and his people first viewed it because as a visual representation of the song, which is also singularly unbeautiful, it’s absolutely spot on.

In the years after Columbine, Manson was haunted by the stench of culpability based on the often repeated view that his lyrics and visuals specifically advocated hate, violence, death, suicide and drug use. His defence was that he was actually trying to say there is a way past those thoughts.

For many however, the debate centred not on the content of Manson’s words, but on the content of his character and he was confidently labelled a satanic nazi in at least one credible newspaper headline; the editors apparently taking the view that if it looks like a duck and walks like a duck …

And yet Manson was responsible for one of the most sane comments of all in the movie Bowling for Columbine, in an interview clip with Moore himself:

Moore: If you were to talk directly to the kids at Columbine and the people in the community, what would you say to them if they were here right now?

Manson: I wouldn’t say a single word to them. I’d listen to what they had to say and that’s what no one did.

He could have answered that question in a million different ways, but despite the way he looks, Manson’s response was that of a concerned guidance counsellor. Perhaps the comment was the external expression of an internalised feeling of persecution; perhaps he wished someone would listen to him instead of talking, talking, talking.

But it’s the one scene from the movie that I have never forgotten for one simple reason: we are all really good at making assumptions about the content of other people’s thoughts and character based on the most superficial of evidence.

As a result, we constantly connect dots that in actuality may not even remotely exist. When we disagree with someone else’s point of view, we assume that all of their views must be equally wrong and that by default, they are an idiot. When we dislike someone’s taste in music, we make an assumption that they have poor taste in everything else too. When we observe someone’s ethnicity, religion, gender or nationality we assume aspects of stereotype.

But what if we’re wrong? What if instead of making assumptions, we made a decision to first find out. Or if we must pick an assumption, what if we assume there may be a difference between people and their ideas?

What if we assume that people are depending on us to get along?

-UNDATED PHOTO-Undated file photo from showing former U.S. President Ronald Reagan at his first mee..

Back in 1986 when Reagan and Gorbachev were beginning to warm to each other, they met at Reykjavik to hammer out a deal that suggested we might actually see a world free of nukes. The talks hung up on the issue of the fictitious American Strategic Defence Initiative (a.k.a Star Wars), and ultimately broke down at the last minute. When the two men parted ways, you could see disappointment on both their faces, in part one assumes because history would have recorded them as potentially the greatest peacemakers of all time had they come up with a deal; in part, I am given to believe, because neither man had too much love for the menace of their nuclear arsenals.

But while the Reykjavik Summit ended without a treaty, it did enable the men who had met only once before, to get a better measure of each other, and to each get a sense of how far their rival was willing to go at the negotiating table.

That was important, not just because it opened the door to further talks and an eventual treaty of sorts in 1987, but because the entire world was depending on them to step above their rhetoric and posturing and make a solid effort to get along.

Had Reagan vs. Gorbachev been nothing more than a remake of Kennedy vs. Khruschev or Nixon vs. Brezhnev, the result probably wouldn’t have been wildly different: the odd increase in tensions along the lines of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis or the 1970 Cienfuegos submarine base crisis (CMC II) as peaks in an otherwise shapeless tapestry of general non-cooperation.

But what we could all stand to recognise is that non-cooperation can be no less destructive than active sabotage. By refusing to get along for the 69 years from 1917 to 1986, the United States and what turned into the Soviet Union created distractions, viewpoints and even whole industries built on nothing but paranoia and single-minded self-interest that would otherwise never have had to exist.

Had all that energy been channeled toward cooperative ideas, the notion of a third world may simply not exist as we perceive it today. This, within a diverse capitalist / socialist framework where each nation elected to follow its preferred economic ideology and continued to joyfully beat the hell out of one another at ice hockey.

The destructiveness of non-cooperation is just as evident today, in any sphere of existence you choose to examine. And you’re guilty of it too.

As a South African, I see it every day. We’re waging an ideological war that cannot possibly have a good outcome, but which is nevertheless fuelled by our individual everyday thoughtless prejudice. It’s a race war, but it’s also a gender war, a war about economic status, a war about selfishness in which the most significant weapon we each wield is non-cooperation.

And it all comes down to you. What if we changed our every day assumption from I must come out on top to people are depending on us to get along?

Could the difference could be a world in which we’re free to disagree, but which is also free of figurative nukes?

How did business life become the ‘E’ channel?

It’s really irritating when you realise you’ve been trying to compete in the wrong field. I do a lot of things in my professional life and have three distinct income streams as a result. Each of them is what I call a long-route idea; the revenue never turns up anything like as fast as I would like it to, but it is more sustainable and considered to be more weighty by my chosen audience as a result.

If you know me, the most obvious example is Happy Sandpit, and it is here that I had an epiphany in recent weeks.

For better or for worse, Happy Sandpit is my vehicle for deep research into organisational culture, employee engagement and leadership, and over the three years since it became a full-throttle thing, I believe I have added credible new data, stories and hypothetical test points to that body of information. In 2016, that will accelerate rapidly as we broaden our geographical reach.

One of the best ways of marketing the work is to speak at conferences where there is a broad audience, and in reaching out to those, I have found myself in the middle of the professional speaking world, competing for space on stage with people who clearly have very different goals to my own.

I have no specific criticism of those goals because each to their own and I have to accept they each have a business model. But there is a difference which I have only recently been able to define.

Where I, and certainly many others like me, seek credibility through academic and high-level business channels, many of my competitors consider speaking to be a reality TV show on ‘E’. They make themselves the focus, not their ideas. It’s not about coming up with anything new as it is about a steady stream of selfies. It’s about personality and showbiz razzmatazz rather than thought leadership. It’s about misusing hashtags.

It irritates me that I have taken so long to see it because a fair chunk of my energy this year has gone into trying to find space for the Happy Sandpit research at conferences where showmanship is the greater order of the day. But still, I have to ask: how did business life become the ‘E’ channel?

Why I don’t believe in role models

Ernest Hemingway

Of all the insane ideas that people have come up with, anointing another person as a role model has to be near the top of the list.

It’s true that no man is an island, and that no one person can come up with a sufficiently strong flow of great survival ideas that he or she can exist in solitude. As a natural response to that, it’s common human behaviour to look to those around us who have more good ideas than the average and place upon their heads a crown of superiority. You know the thinking, because you’ve probably done it: I want to be like John F. Kennedy, staring down the Russians, or I want to be like Ernest Hemingway, living life on the edge while shaking up the literary world. I want to be audacious like Richard Branson, cool and innovative like Beyonce or irreverent and non-conformist like Kanye West. 

That thinking is riddled with catastrophic flaws however.

Role modelling only works when it is applied narrowly and very, very selectively. Kennedy was undoubtedly a charismatic and often brave leader, but he was also a terrible husband and an irresponsible playboy whose family had to repeatedly save him from his own lousy instincts. Hemingway was certainly an outstanding writer (if you don’t agree, get the hell off my blog, you hater), and an adventurer with a zest for life, but he was also an unreliable alcoholic whose deep insecurities made him a constant danger to himself.

Since each part of any personality informs every other part of that personality, role modelling only the good parts is really kind of stupid. There’s a reason Hemingway doesn’t have a hundred copycats; you can’t be part of a whole. To revere him therefore is to revere the best and the worst traits which means you’re wishing for a substantial number of flaws among your improvements.

If on the other hand, one assumes it’s rational to cherry pick aspects of a person’s character to model, one needn’t look to famous or historical figures because fatally-flawed, but sometimes brilliant people exist all around us. Every one you meet has something to teach that can be of use to you.

Simply, if you’re going to role model only parts of Richard Branson’s character, you may as well focus instead on your nearest office colleague and try to copy the two things you like best about them.

You can deny the truth but you cannot deny the consequences of denying the truth

Global warming, school shootings, Syrian genocide … they all have one thing in common: our innate ability to pretend things will be okay because we’re going to get around to them one day soon.

Though you may occasionally give in to thoughts that you can bend the universe to your will, it’s usually been my experience that things happen in a fairly predictable way. You can claim that you didn’t know things would go wrong when they do, or that a bad result was just bad luck, but often, unfortunate things happen because you have been simply trying to outrun inevitability using the childlike logic that if you turn your back, maybe it will go away.

Since denialism is a construct to justify inactivity, the consequences of denialism can go completely unchecked for years. You only stop to take care of things when a pin prick has turned into a gaping wound that can no longer be ignored.

The snag is that realism is limiting. You can’t enjoy a bottle of wine if you think of the potential liver damage it may do. You can’t treat yourself to a wide screen TV if you focus on the opportunity cost of not investing the money instead. You can’t get together with the love of your life if you focus on your very real flaws. The cool kids will tell you to just let go and live a little bit because there may not be a tomorrow.

But they’re wrong. There usually is a tomorrow, and in the average life, there are potentially thousands of them. Unless you choose to deny that too (in which case, chapeau), that single truth makes denialism even more limiting than realism. Sooner or later, you’re going to be handed a bill.

Here are four ways to avoid that bill being any bigger than it has to be.

If the experts keep saying it, you should listen

Cigarette packs have carried labels saying ‘this shit will flat out murder you’ for years. Personal finance gurus have regurgitated the same old facts about avoiding credit card debt since credit cards were invented. This stuff isn’t new. You really don’t need to hear it again to know what you should and shouldn’t be doing if you want to avoid a gaping wound.

If it’s on your doorstep, treat it like it’s real

Even if you think the experts are tiresome bores, the next time you have a niggling cough or have to resort to a second credit card to pay the first, you’ll at least have to acknowledge that they have a point. Your gaping wound is acquiring a ‘dead certain’ status if you continue to deny its existence when it has come home to you.

If your gut has an opinion, go with it

Your gut knows. When you feel like what you’re doing is stupid, it probably is. When you feel that you’re not being real about something, you’re probably not. One glass of wine won’t hurt you, but the odds are that when you’re getting into the car after bottle number three, your inner voice will tell you that you probably shouldn’t do that. Usually, it’s right.

If you ever need to convince yourself, abandon it

You can lie to anyone you like, but if you try to lie to yourself, you’ll never get away with it. Never in a million years. If you’ve ever had to spend time trying to convince yourself that what you’re doing is okay, then you already know you’re a truth-denying twit.

Why compromising feels a lot to me like losing

In my early teens, I seriously considered a career in politics. I could see myself running the planet, declaring war on people I didn’t like and commanding all living beings from my secret caviar-filled mountain-top bunker. At the time, it seemed like a reasonable goal.

Some of my aspirations have slightly evolved in the years since, mostly because I have grown to truly despise the notion of being political. It goes without saying that anyone with a functional brain hates politics (if you don’t agree, you need to get that aneurism checked out, stat), yet most people believe it’s good practice to be political, to bite their tongues and (shudder) to compromise.

I’m a pretty compromising guy. I have a happy household where I am the only male in a sea of three females, which could actually make me the definitive master of the art. But mostly when I compromise I do it with honesty. If I don’t want to do something, I’ll say so. It’s worth it for the points, and it pre-empts any later concern about what could be causing my frequent grimaces of pain and self-pity when I end up doing it anyway.

I like to do things for people who I deem to deserve it. And I like deciding who those people are. But lately, that list has been getting shorter. I’d go to the ends of the Earth for my family and close friends and I’d go some considerable (though shorter) distance for many others. But in general, I’m no longer much compelled even to get out of my chair.

The reason, is that I don’t believe human beings are capable of a give-give scenario with relative strangers. In the absence of love or sex or deep emotional involvement, someone is going to be doing more taking than giving. It’s practically a rule.

They say common needs make for strange bedfellows; that there are circumstances under which teaming up with an erstwhile opponent can offer otherwise unattainable benefits. On the surface that may be true, but only if those strange bedfellows have an identical level of dependency on one another’s resources.

Because the snag with compromising is that it doesn’t work in reverse. If I give you something today, in order to keep you happy, I can’t just take it back tomorrow. Look at what happened to Germany between 1945 and 1989 because all the compromising Churchill and Roosevelt did with Stalin didn’t change for one second that he was a total asshole.

In such a relationship, you can’t say everything that is on your mind. You may find yourself having to go with an idea you know to be inferior. And you’re always having to shred your own needs in order to satisfy the other party.

I know my unwillingness to compromise makes me appear unsympathetic. Perhaps arrogant. That’s a pity. I don’t wish to be any of those things. But since, for the most part, you’re asking me to lose by asking me to compromise, I don’t see much upside in it anymore.


Your biggest engagement challenge: you don’t think for yourself

The biggest threat to the survival of your business in the next ten years could be your inability to think for yourself when it comes to matters of culture, and how it drives employee engagement.

In my experience, it’s a typical point of view that organisations that excel in this area are fascinating but risky; circus sideshows that thrill and inspire marvel, but offer nothing in terms of real-world practical example.

We know some of their names because their successes are well documented., Google, and the Virgin companies come immediately to mind. Yet, despite all we know about them, the average company response is to seek safe harbour in old world thinking.

Since, in particular, large organisations naturally gravitate towards bureaucracy, their thinking on how to create change is all too regularly strapped to the glacial-paced processes and policies that should be the targets for change in the first place. Because they’re not learning, trusting or listening organisations, they’re unable to apply those philosophical hallmarks in the pursuit of those aims. It’s the ultimate Catch-22.

We want our people to love their work, their employer, their colleagues and their customers, but the moment they walk through the front door on a Monday morning, it’s 1983 inside. The bosses do the bossing, the workers do the working and there’s a tight blanket of control, however dysfunctional it may have repeatedly been proven to be, tainting the air they breathe. Engagement improvement programmes have the same air flowing through them, lending them the spectre of another short-lived management Mexican Wave, with the appropriate lack of long-term enthusiasm those evoke.

Communication around engagement is steeped in disengaging language. Activities around engagement are unremarkable, albeit shoehorned into a fresh box.

Collectively, corporate South Africa has grown up on the point of view that more analysis always trumps intuitive, swift action. In that belief lies the fundamental challenge to creating great people environments.

The simplest truth is that most companies already know what to do if they dare to think for themselves. You can test responses within your own environment before making wholesale changes, but you don’t need six months of discussion to work out how to get started. If you do, you’re not serious about it.

Work harder, not smarter

I was asked by a junior the other day: how do I get to be like you? Leaving aside the ego-trip that anyone thinks I am successful, I get why they asked the question. In working like I do, I have a constant flurry of (generally) positive activity around me. On top of that, I have two wonderful little girls and an incredible wife, with whom I have created an exciting and rewarding multi-layered existence.

That’s the good stuff. That’s the upside.

The dark side, which people such as my inquisitor don’t see, is that building anything, a company, a relationship … a life … takes tons of constant work. It’s hard. At times, the pressure is immense.

Yet hard work can have a positive compounding effect. Lots of ongoing sales prospecting begins, over time, to yield the sorts of results that make it all look easy. But since the journey is often invisible in the end result, it’s hard sometimes for an onlooker to connect the dots.

The truth about success is actually very basic. When I was in my 20s, I worked long, long hours, often over weekends, always during the week. It wasn’t unusual for me in my late 20s, to be at the office 14 hours per day because I was learning and building and determined to get myself into a position to run my own life.

Over time, I had the knowledge to start projects of my own, and later on, to start companies. But I still work long hours and allow work to bleed into the weekends when it has to.

The junior who asked me the question likes to be done by 16h00, is irked when there might be a work requirement in the evening, and considers weekends to be recovery time from their half-assed work week.

To the question: how do I get to be like you, I only had one answer. You can’t. You won’t. It’s never going to happen. I don’t care if that sounds arrogant.

This business of working smart, not hard (which the junior thinks they do), is a weird one. I think working as hard as I did when I was young, had the curiosity, the energy, nothing whatsoever to lose and not one real sacrifice to make, was precisely working smart.

I think that’s the definition of it. The junior’s perception is that work mustn’t get in the way of life and that finding shortcuts in order to finish early, is working smart, and arguably there’s some logic in that.

But if the purpose of work is just to do some stuff as quickly as possible so that you can pick up a paycheck in order to play, you lack the ability to achieve depth. It’s that depth that is the life force of success.

It doesn’t just land in your lap. Working smart and working hard are the same thing. Anyone who tells you they coasted to success without any effort is full of it.

Why do companies persist with Theory X policy-making?

I’ve had a mixed bag of conversations this week, alternating between organisations I would classify as progressive, by which I mean they have the philosophical chops to be able to move forward, and those that are so steeply mired in a Theory X-based bully culture that they can’t even see why they’re limiting their own way ahead.

I feel so naive at times; I am literally baffled why a group of people would be able to operate for more than a day under the emotional and intellectual strain that some companies slather themselves with so lavishly.

It has been 55 years since professor Douglas McGregor of the MIT Sloan School of Management wrote The Human Side of Enterprise in which he described his Theory X (in which people need to be controlled if they’re to achieve anything at all) and Theory Y (in which people are ambitious and self-motivated and thrive well under a high degree of freedom) hypotheses.

That’s one hell of a long time. Long enough for the ideas to have spread. This was after all, a best-selling book.

But ideas have to fire up a receptive mind if they’re to grow into anything and as I keep discovering, there aren’t enough of those out there.

A large part of the work that we do at Happy Sandpit, my organisational culture consultancy, is helping companies to formulate a set of deep-seated Core Values that fully describe them. Not the total bloody nonsense most companies have on their walls, but Values that are inherent and important and worth defending with blood if necessary.

The process of getting to them is one of uncovering the true philosophical mindset that guides that particular organisation and the quickest way to get to that, because it’s clear that most organisations have no idea how misaligned their words and actions actually are, is to examine the company through the artefact of its policies.

Most company policies are just so much protectionist bullshit they shouldn’t exist at all. They were written into law for that particular company not because they felt they were under siege and needed to protect themselves against threatening behaviour, but because some Theory X-fuelled jerk was given the right to start making amendments.

Enforced laws become habits and over time, Theory X companies watch with perplexity as innovators, free-thinkers, and really talented personnel fail to stick around more than a few months without a ridiculous package of salary and perks to keep them chained down.

But to me the reason is simple. I’ve always been a Theory Y thinker. People are good and want to do good things. Where management of individual transgressors can resolve a problem, there’s no need to create a policy to restrict the movement of the entire group.

It’s a more challenging response, because it means you actually have to do some work in understanding how the individuals that comprise your organisation can play out their best role. And I believe it is as clear as daylight that organisations that do this, are the magnets for real talent.

Is your organisation Theory X or Theory Y? Are you sure? Read the policy book. You could be in for a shock.