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.


The truth behind seminar operators and their confusing degrees of quality

When you sit through a seminar these days, they often contain an upsell to a programme of sorts. Some of them are good and well worth buying into. Some of them, not so much. You can usually tell the difference between them by the way in which they’re sold, however.

For instance, it’s common for the operator of a dodgy scheme to offer you a range of options, calling them Silver, Gold, Platinum and Platinum Plus or variations of those categories. The Silver one is always cheap and nasty and you can ignore that. The Gold one seems okay, but you’re now nervous that you’re not getting what you really want. So you consider the Platinum one, or even the Platinum Plus, and you end up spending more money than you should. You may have seen this sort of thing before and been confused by it, precisely because it is indeed confusing.

In fact, Platinum Plus is all you should ever, ever want, but you should be paying the Silver price for it. Think of it like this: if Steers were to sell burgers the way these guys sell programmes, your options would be the following:

Table for Blog Post

Now, I don’t know about you, but I have to wonder why anyone would want any of the other options when Platinum Plus is the absolute minimum standard I would accept. And should you be paying R200 for the absolute minimum standard? Not on your life.

You’ll see how operators of credible training programmes tend to be a lot less obscure and get to the point. If they’re not, you’re probably being confused for a reason.

5 reasons that elections offer a (fragile) leadership masterclass

Today, David Cameron, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, asked the Queen to dissolve parliament, in preparation for a general election on May 7. Next year, on November 8, Americans will go to the polls to vote in the successor to President Barack Obama. In Nigeria, the elections are underway. Last year in South Africa, we had our own. Elections are a regular fixture on any democratic calendar and they are often painful. But in them, there are lessons for any leader who wishes to understand what really drives engagement, and what turns it away.

If today’s business leaders get one thing consistently wrong, it’s failing to create followers. Since by definition, you cannot lead without someone following you, that makes them hardly leaders at all. It’s the one thing that needs most urgently to be remedied.

Here are five lessons that any leader ought to note:

1. I want to be led by someone likeable.

Politicians, or at least their strategists, understand that in order for people to get behind you, you need to give them points of connection. Call it low-information politicking if you must be disparaging, but there is a very clear reason why the President of the United States gets handed a baseball mitt for a quick game of catch in front of the press photographers, when Air Force One touches down on the tarmac.

There’s a reason why the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom pops into a local pub for a pint when he’s out gathering votes, again for the benefit of the photographers.

Without these moments, those leaders are hard to separate from their wealthy families, top educations and privileged backgrounds, which offer only an embarrassing comparison to that of their would-be electorate. You can take those things out of the headlines however when you share imagery of baseball or beer drinking, and you have something that looks to voters who aren’t doing anything like enough analysis, like something they have in common.

It’s hard to accept for anyone who really cares about the issues, but that sort of thing is critical to the election of most major western politicians. When people think a candidate is one of them, or at least that they share enough common interests to really ‘get’ each other, they’re more at ease giving those candidates their votes.

But let’s be clear about something. Obama really does like baseball. Cameron really does like beer. The importance of those photograph is not to create an unreal perception, but to highlight a humanness that can otherwise be lost in the mist of politicking. They don’t get the opportunity to be mere people very often, so they don’t waste it when they get it.

Being likeable is job number one, and as I write this, there are 20 South African CEOs right off the top of my head, who somehow have utterly failed to grasp that obvious fact.

2. I want to be led by someone who looks and sounds like a winner

No electoral candidate will get anywhere near centre stage if they don’t have the gravitas to seem attractive. It’s not specifically about good looks, but it is about polish and the obvious aura of confidence. That’s a demanding mixture because in most cases, elections are fought on promises about the future, which requires real belief.

People who are committed to a course of action that seems mountainous in its scope, are compelling. Especially when that course of action appears clearly aligned with a greater good.

Speak about the future with conviction, and have solid ideas for how you intend to pull it off, and you tick the confidence box.

Many leaders, and a good number that I know personally, spend their time fidgeting with the small stuff, creating the impression both that they simply lack the vision to pick a point in the future and aim for it, and the confidence to truly put their skills to the test.

3. I want to be led by someone who seems honest

Let’s accept that real honesty is a rare commodity and that a certain amount of ego and self-interest is always going to drive any leadership agenda; nevertheless, there are people who are out on the leading edge, challenging things that are clearly troubling, and those who are obviously pushing an agenda that only serves them and theirs.

Leaders who speak from the heart and add in a dose of measurable sacrifice of their own, score highly with voters for good reason. Those who demonstrate their ability and willingness to do the things that they are asking of others, similarly earn respect.

There is a natural order of things when it comes to effective leadership. Leaders must understand that their role is to gather willing support through deed and action for the things they aim to achieve, which depends on people being able to believe them. You don’t create belief by being contradictory; by saying one thing, but obviously doing another.

4. I want to be led by someone who knows it’s not all about them

Elected public servants in advanced democracies, tend to be frequently reminded by their electorates that their job is to serve. In less advanced democracies, they often make the error of believing they have the right to lord it over a nation full of servants.

That latter mode of thought, is too often the case in corporate structures where leaders don’t run any real risk of being removed by their people.

When democracy works best, a leader is elected with a mandate to achieve the things the electorate has green lighted, because they have at least tacitly approved that leader’s manifesto, by voting for them. Not all leaders get that, and in many cases, it is the elected official’s highly-influenced agenda which has overriding importance.

Corporate leaders must understand that though their position is not subject to the whimsy of elections, their ability to achieve great things is absolutely tied to the will of their people to offer more than the bare minimum. Achieving that has more to do with serving an open agenda than many would care to admit.

5. I want to be led by someone who aims to create magic, not personal comfort

The truest measure of a leader is the quality of the people he or she surrounds themselves with. A great team of people can achieve great things; cronies and friends almost never will.

When leaders are appointed within an organisation, just as when political portfolios are given out following an election, you get the clearest view of all, of just what the next year or two will hold.

I want the credentials of those who are being appointed to speak for themselves. I realise I won’t get the opportunity to vet them personally, but I don’t want to be left feeling that someone has been appointed because they are close enough to the leader’s agenda that they’ll provide comfort and cover. I want those people to be so undeniably right for the position to which they are being appointed, that I can confidently predict oncoming magic.

The bottom line

As a leader, I consider elections to be like master classes of both what to do, and what not to. Usually, the people who win have charisma, believability and a brave agenda. How many CEOs can we say that about, right now? If you want real insight into how it should (and shouldn’t) be done, the lessons that are coming your way are free. Don’t waste them.

Why it’s not only okay for the BBC to sack Clarkson, it’s necessary.

It’s astonishing how many people have come down on the side of Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson in the past few weeks, as if he’s an embattled hero being persecuted by his wicked employer. Fans will be fans I suppose, and one thing Clarkson has done is to polarise a very large number of people into communities of those who love him and those who love to hate him.

He wouldn’t much care about that. He’s taken a vast amount of pride over the years in saying whatever he felt, regardless of who it upset, partly one suspects because it’s good for the show’s controversial stance, and partly because he genuinely likes to run his mouth. And there are millions of people who love him for it.

Those people seem to number among them the most vocal proponents of the ‘forgive Jezza’ movement, and from what I can tell, they appear to have hinged their argument on two main ideas: that because he’s the spiritual leader of Top Gear, the show will be nothing without him, and that since that’s just his personality, he should be allowed to get away with things that others may not.

When you strip emotion and fanatical fandom from the argument however and examine the facts, the story is pretty simple. An employee, who had already received several warnings for his behaviour, verbally and then physically assaulted another employee.

In most, if not all organisations, that is a sackable offence.

When you’re such a significant generator of revenue however, it brings with it a host of new dilemmas. Forget his celebrity; were Clarkson the number one sales person for his organisation, the same question would have to be asked: if we lose this guy, we lose a whole chunk of revenue. If we keep him, we compromise a rule which we will struggle forever to enforce in other, similar situations. So what do we do?

Let’s be clear: the BBC did not create this situation. Jeremy Clarkson did. The BBC did not pick this dilemma. Jeremy Clarkson did. The BBC, it seems highly unlikely, would have ever chosen to cause probably fatal damage to one of its most successful products by firing the star, but as an organisation, it didn’t initiate the events that led to it. Jeremy Clarkson did.

So what do you do? I think I’d be joined by 99 out of 100 Fortune 100 CEOs in saying that when it comes to a point of Values like this, you have no option but to fire the star. It’s not only okay; it’s necessary.

I’ll miss you Jeremy Clarkson. But I’ll never blame anyone for your demise, but you.

You can’t hope for success and keep wasting your todays

There’s this scene in the George Clooney movie Up in the air, in which he tells a character named Bob (who he is in the act of retrenching from his job), that he doubts his children ever really admired him. Naturally, it angers Bob, but Clooney’s character isn’t just being obnoxious. The Bob character studied French cuisine in university 30 years before, but gave up on whatever dream he had to be great in that field the moment he was seduced by a corporate job, even one that didn’t pay very much money. Fast forward 30 years and Bob, who has performed averagely in his average job, and achieved average amounts of recognition, coupled with average raises, is considered to be superfluous to requirements. Companies do that. It’s the worst thing about them.

There’s a fork in the road here. I could create an argument that any company that has a Bob on its payroll is one that obviously doesn’t grow its people very well and ought to be shamed into taking a long, hard look at itself. I reckon I could do that pretty successfully, because I believe it. More companies are like Bob’s employer than any of us cares to admit, and that is the worst thing about work.

I could alternatively create an argument that Bob should have tried harder. Having made a decision, he should have grabbed it with both hands, and all of that pseudo-motivational BS that management trainers and the like, try to tell you. Except that I don’t think the guy ever had a chance at being good in a job that was a compromise from the outset. His mistake was to sell out and you can’t just decide to love something.

I could make those arguments, but neither of those is the most important one in that scene, which I have watched over and over. The thing that gets me every time is the fact that Bob, much like the overwhelming majority of the western world, I have no hesitation in saying, is a sleepwalker. I’ve personally experienced this. I’ve allowed a year or two (thankfully never more than that at any one time), to pass by almost unnoticed as I talked myself in and out of the job I was in. You go through the motions, you do what is expected, but never enough to get any recognition. You’re just kind of, there.

And then it’s a year later. And then it’s another one.

I’d like to see a sequel to Up in the air in which Bob has rediscovered his excitement for French cuisine, opened a restaurant at the age of 55 and is finally having more fun days than boring ones. That’s probably pretty sappy, but I’d like to see it.

We’re all guilty of a little sleepwalking through our lives. But you can’t do anything worthwhile if you’re not excited enough about today, to do something about it. All those todays add up to one big chunk of either wasted or well-spent time. But don’t kid yourself that they’re ever just freebies.