The leaders we choose to be...

“We all wear masks…”

(Will Self)

Last week I was editing a film of the fabulous staff of a ‘special’ school.

As the head of the school was on camera, a few of her words really struck me; I’ve listened to them again and again.

“… I feel strongly about that sense of authentic experience. We’re all coming with difficult experiences and a few scars here and there…[…]… but it’s part of what role models resilience to the kids. I think they see that in all of us. That’s part of what works; that they can look and see people that have overcome…”

Yet acknowledging our difficulties and scars can be contentious in many work environments. Acknowledging that we might be need help now is even worse.

We are only slowly getting used to the idea that it’s (mostly) human beings who show up in the work place. Human beings who have joys, worries, vulnerabilities, sicknesses, dreams, ambitions, friends, families and loved ones.

But there is still resistance to hearing about our humanity at work. Senior leaders are expected to ‘contain’ their anxieties and shield their ‘followers’ from the realities of the world. Followers are expected to provide their ‘deliverables’ without question and demonstrate ‘resilience’ as they encounter what feels like increasing stresses and difficulties along the way.

Meanwhile, everyone disengages, puts on a ‘brave face’ and starts looking for the exit.

Our working lives are becoming more precarious and daunting than ever before. We need a better conversation about who we are in our workplaces.

As leaders, we can valiantly mask our vulnerabilities and anxieties while expecting others to do the same, or we can demonstrate a different kind of courage by showing up authentically, speaking differently and bringing our collective humanity out of the shadows.

We build our resourcefulness through visible expressions of care and love, not through blind denial.


I’m a fan of Helena Clayton’s work. Take a look at her website and click on the ‘Leading from Love’ research report.

My copy of Margaret Wheatley’s ‘Who Do We Choose To Be?’ is getting well thumbed, especially around the pages discussing ‘islands of sanity.’

Steve MarshallComment
This is not a daffodil
Daffodil: iPhone

Daffodil: iPhone

This is a not a daffodil; it’s a digital image. A daffodil is a completely different thing.

Despite my best efforts, you are not looking at a flower.

Even though I observed carefully, watched the way the petals became almost luminescent as the light changed, got close up with my iPhone, made the photograph and then worked it on my computer screen, adjusting the colours, contrast and saturation as best I could.

And, hopefully, this works on your screen too. But who knows?  Screens differ. Eyes differ.

So, let’s be clear. You are looking at a representation, an interpretation, an abstraction of my experience of the flower.

This kind of substitution is widely offered across consultancy, academia and learning. We are provided with a smart theory, a neat diagram, a model, an interesting idea narrated in an expensive book, even the dreaded 2x2 matrix. The ‘deliverable’ is an interpretation of someone else’s experience.

The assumption here is that it is possible to usefully know about a flower even if you’ve never actually experienced one.

But there is a big difference between ‘knowing about’ and ‘knowing’….

As I work with groups developing community, connection and identity, I realise that the models of human behaviour become meaningless. I don’t want to hear that our leadership experiences can be reduced to the tired metaphors of ‘juggling’, or ’spinning plates’, that trust can be reduced to a mathematical equation, or that our learning follows a defined ‘cycles’. 

These are convenient ‘images’ of real life but, as surrealist painter René Magritte might have said, that kind of ‘understanding’ can be treacherous. We don’t lead theoretical lives.

When trying to find a different way in the world, the questions that emerge are beyond simplified propositions and abstract interpretation.

It’s more about whether we can look each other in the eye and say;

“Yes, I know…. I know that feeling. I see you…” 

Real, practical, meaningful learning happens in community, when we find ways to deeply share our individual, personal knowing, rather than deliver experience as abstract theory.


Enjoy another look at René Magritte’s inspiring ‘The Treachery of Images’; his well known image of a pipe, below which he wrote, “Ceci nest pas one pipe.”

In ‘Daring Greatly’, Brené Brown invites us to ignore critics and pay attention to ‘the man in the arena’: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause;who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”

Finally, it’s an old one, but Stanley Herman and Michael Korenich’s ‘Authentic Management’ offers some really helpful notes on ‘about-ism’, ‘should-ism’ and ‘is-ism’. It’s a really helpful guide to our modes of thinking and experience. Only a few of quid on Amazon when I last looked.

I used to work really hard...
Selfie: Nikon D3S

Selfie: Nikon D3S

… but I don’t do that anymore.

Nor am I trying to hack my life, maximise my multi-tasking, or re-boot myself.

But for long time, I held to the belief that working hard, doing stuff I loved, would mean that I wouldn’t need to work hard, doing stuff I hated. The discipline served me well, almost right up to the moment when it suddenly didn’t and, last year, I crashed into ‘burnout.’

But as I’ve negotiated a sometimes tentative, still fragile, transition to a new way of being in the world, I see more easily the fear inherent in my limiting ‘work hard’ assumption.

We live in a media world that assaults us with the view that we aren’t good enough. The cult of ‘performative workaholism’ hustles us to work ever harder. Elon Musk and his call for an exhausting 80 hour work week are celebrated. We must continually work longer hours, obliterate our task list, reach ‘in-box zero’, move more ever faster, be somewhere else…

Yet my work is about showing up and being present; offering witness and paying deep, profound attention to fellow practitioners and clients.

Honestly. It’s helpful to be awake.

And I’ve noticed that as I make space in my day for considered reflection, take a pause for breath, schedule my energy (as much as my time) and take time out for family, colleagues, nature, exercise and creative endeavour, the quality of my listening, observation, perception and empathic connection increases.

It’s clear to me that less is more.

Better than that, it just feels so darn good.

We are starting to see renewed calls for a 4-day work week and corporate wellness programs remain popular (though often controversial).

But the more systemic intervention is to design routines work that are heathy, sustainable and well-paced, encouraging creativity and renewal rather than a fatally habitual 24/7 toil.

In a world where we seem to be accelerating ever more rapidly towards unhelpful chaos, time and attention are transformative.


Lila MacLellan looks at the ‘The risk of thinking of your job as a higher calling’.

Nancy Klein’s ‘Time to Think’ is a classic read for those interested in alleviating the urgency in our lives.

If that doesn’t work, are a look at Jeffrey Pfeffer’s ‘Dying for a Paycheck.

Steve MarshallComment
We Change Together
Gang of 4: Canon XA11

Gang of 4: Canon XA11

“An attitude of wonder begins with appreciation rather than suspicion, acknowledging the limits of what we know.”

(Howard Zehr)

I realise that I’m not all that interested in people who can tell me what they know.

But I’ve become very interested in how to help people to work with what they don’t know. This is the place where the possibility of meaningful change has the potential to be genuinely transformational.

After 20 years of wrestling with change as a consultant and academic, the most concise thing I can say about the way we go about change in our organisations is, “Whatever you think about it, the chances are that it won’t work like that…”

Yet we are easily seduced by the notion that we should know where we’re going; that clear vision or a slick powerpoint deck will help us lead our people through change.

And with a decent map, we will find our way.

For the last 12 years, I’ve been part of a research group at Ashridge working together on the doctorate in organisational change and I know that I’m not the only one who thinks change can be tricky. So I checked in with a few friends and colleagues to make a short film of them trying to describe how they support doctoral candidates attempting major, transformational change. They were each talented, humble and brilliant enough to admit that they might not know. But that together, we can find our way.

What matters here is not the lone genius working away on a pet theory; social transformation requires collective intelligence to generate action and resilient change.

It turns out that if you want to go somewhere new, the map is no use.

We need to get lost.



The Gang of 4 featured above are (from top left - clockwise); Megan Reitz (@MeganReitz1), Geoff Mead (@NarrativeLeader), Margaret Gearty (@Margigold) and James Traeger (@jrtraeger).

You will also see current candidates Paula Aamli (@Paulettya) and Niel Stander (@NielStander), as well as alumna Pleuntje van Meer (@Apolloniavmeer) join the search.

The film, ‘Doctoral Magic’, which seeks to articulate a quality of learning through relationship that is difficult to name, was shown at the Hult Global Faculty Summit in Jan 2019.

Steve Marshall Comments
Niel: Nikon D3S

Niel: Nikon D3S

We were together. I forget the rest.

(Walt Whitman)

We need to feel that we belong.

We also need to celebrate diversity, welcome others and host generously.

Peter Block says that, “The essential challenge is to transform the isolation and self-interest within our communities into connectedness and caring for the whole.”

Today, it feels that we are failing the challenge.

I made this picture of my friend and colleague, Niel, in an almost empty house. A shipping team had taken everything that wouldn’t fit into a few suitcases. Niel had been ordered to ‘leave the UK’ after a minor bank statement issue. He ran a thriving consulting practice, generated his share of VAT, paid his rent and council taxes in advance and had savings in the bank. He was a valuable, contributing citizen doing good work.

None of which made any difference when he attempted to renew his visa. Niel, his wife and young daughter had their passports taken from them and were deported, excluded, they don’t belong here anymore.

I know I’m not very good with exclusion. It bring images from my childhood. Sit on the naughty step. Stand in the corner with your face to the wall. You’re not in our gang. You’re not on our team. That shame can still rattle through me now, and I see it in our efforts to build walls, whether administrative or physical, to stand between our communities.

We are in. They are out.

Or vice versa.

I’ve come to believe that whenever we fragment and separate, we deny our greater potential. As we categorise or label others as ‘not us’ we move towards a world of silos and division which limit our ability to envision the positive, generative futures that are increasingly essential to our survival.

Ironically, Niel’s recent consultancy work is about bringing inclusion, security and empowerment to excluded communities in developing countries. He has the rare capacity to meld the safety of belonging with the potential of difference and diversity.

It’s work that we sorely need.

Whichever side of the wall we stand.


You will find Niel in Pretoria, South Africa via Sensibus Consulting or @NielStander on Twitter.

Take a look at ‘Community; the structure of belonging’ by Peter Block.

It used to be that astronauts would claim that political borders couldn’t seen from space. Sadly, it now it seems, our fences are easily visible.

Steve MarshallComment