Grit

I’ve been thinking about writing this post for a while, it’s probably been formulating in some way or another since I decided to leave my last job (a year ago), initially it felt too raw and too personal, then it felt too risky, then it felt pointless, and then this week it felt necessary again. It’s a blog post about leadership, management, connection and self – feel free to jump off now if that’s not your bag. This week three key things influenced my thinking:

1) Terry Dunn, a manager at Wigan Council, caught the headlines due to his unique email style. Terry who has worked for the council ‘man and boy’ since starting twenty years previously as an apprentice, now as Head of Environment, was communicating with colleagues about staffing restructures and also commented on his weekend plans and forthcoming wedding. A spokesman for the council said that Terry was ‘acting on feedback from employees that said they wanted to know more about senior managers’. A union spokesperson compared him to David Brent, we’ll come back to that in a minute.

2) I watched Ken Loach’s film Spirit of 45 a stunning documentary made using archive film and recent interviews, it charts the phenomenal achievement of the post war Labour government who established the Welfare State, the NHS, national infrastructure for transport and so much more. The most striking impact for me came from hearing people describe the power of the collective, the shared vision, the wish and want for a better existence, ‘The Spirit of ’45 hopes to illuminate and celebrate a period of unprecedented community spirit in the UK, the impact of which endured for many years and which may yet be rediscovered today’.

3) Finally, I started reading The Icarus Deception by Seth Godin. I’m not sure why I started it this week, I’ve had it for months, but I decided to start it on a flight home and I couldn’t put it down. The basic premise of the book so far (I’m forcing myself to take the second half more slowly because I don’t want to finish it!) is that Godin is laying the challenge to his readers to identify what their art is and treat work as such, the opportunity to create art. The title draws on Icarus who disobeyed his father, flew too close to the sun and plunged to his death, ‘The lesson: Play it safe. Listen to the experts. It was the perfect propaganda for the industrial economy. What boss wouldn’t want employees to believe that obedience and conformity are the keys to success? But we tend to forget that Icarus was also warned not to fly too low, because seawater would ruin the lift in his wings. Flying too low is even more dangerous than flying too high, because it feels deceptively safe’.

Screen Shot 2013-08-11 at 16.59.22What does all of this have to do with leadership and management I hear you ask? As someone who has held several management positions over the past ten years, I’ve been thinking a lot about my fit with a management role. Considering myself, my skills and attributes, what drives me, what drains me, where I’ve come from and where I might be going. I’ve also been thinking about what I admire in others, especially quiet leaders and the power of introverts. Anyone who has read this blog before will know that about twelve months ago I quit a job I’d loved dearly, with no certain path for the future. My father’s (long anticipated) death coincided with my last working weeks, a perfect storm in some way. Since then many hours have been spent considering the future, I’ve established myself as a freelance knowledge transfer consultant, which has afforded me the opportunity to take more time deciding where to focus my energy and to pick and choose my work, the novelty of which has yet to wear off. It also affords me the freedom to structure my time and effort, to spend time working for love not financial reward, whether that is supporting the development of Social Care Curry Club or taking photos of the Rowcroft Hospice Choir, and it also allows me to work anywhere with a decent wifi connection.

One thing I’ve come to realise, helped this week by the three influences above, is that while I don’t think I was a particularly bad manager, in fact if I’m completely honest I think I was an alright manager, it still didn’t drive me or satisfy me enough. The act of managing people just doesn’t resonate well with me, shepherding people to conform and obey, and neither does the notion of being managed either if I’m completely honest. There’s a line in Godin’s book where he says ‘Just because you’re winning a game doesn’t mean it’s a good game’, twice in my career I’ve taken a job with less responsibility than my previous one, a significant pay drop to boot, and on both occasions I’ve climbed up a ladder quite quickly to end up with managerial responsibilities. It would be easy to start applying for management jobs again now, but just because I can be a manager doesn’t mean I should be.

Screen Shot 2013-08-11 at 16.59.46Leadership however, that’s a related but different game. I love leading and I love being led, I seek out leaders all the time and I love watching people lead others. I particularly enjoy watching leadership on social media. One of the things I love most about social media is it’s flat structure, I love analysing communities and discussions and watching people lead, from within the network. The flip-side can be watching people who think they know more, the self appointed gurus, stumble around offering approval and advice, some of which seems to me stuck in an old school management culture. For all the talk of digital leadership, what we seem to be too often stuck on (at least in discussions around social care) is digital management – issues of access, barriers, permission, control. Trying to shepherd people into conforming and using the right platforms, the right hashtags, fitting in to some pre-arranged mindset.

I’ve already raved about Dan Slee and colleagues work on Best by West Midlands, but the more I have thought about one element, the discussion around barrier vaulting, the more I’m not sure I agree with the observation that it’s harder to take a JFDI approach in 2013. If people wish to remain in their organisations, their silos, then yes, social media is much more above radar now, but if they really want to make a break, to change the status quo, to do it differently then I think they absolutely need to take a JFDI approach, if they can afford to live with the consequences. They could be inspired to harness the Spirit of 45, to consider a different future, a brighter future, to expect and deliver on that. They need to dig deep and find their grit!

Screen Shot 2013-08-11 at 17.11.55

Grit is the enemy of the industrial age! The industrialist prioritises conformity and obedience to ensure efficiency at all costs, the last thing they need is grit clogging up the machines, or scratching their goods. To quote from Godin ‘Digital smoothness is the antithesis of grit’. I wonder in our discussions of digital leadership whether we are focused on ironing out the grit, creating a digital smoothness, when instead we could be releasing true individualism, encouraging people to stand out, supporting outliers and creatives. Instead it seems that the focus is subtly on control, external motivation and approval as a weapon to ensure compliance (hence the obsession with Klout scores and other measures of influence).

Where does this leave us then? I think we have a workforce that craves connectivity with their managers, who wish to know about them as people, and we have managers with the best of intentions getting it wrong. How does this happen? I would hazard a guess that HR had informed the management team that staff when surveyed had indicated a desire to know more about their managers. Of course they do, because staff aren’t robots, they’re not machines, they wish to be led, they crave connectivity, they want to know that their managers are as human as they are. There isn’t a management text book that will successfully teach you to care authentically;  I don’t know but I’d reckon that Terry Dunn is hampered by his environment, a man who does genuinely care about his colleagues, but whose sincerity is lost in translation in that email. Personally I think staff ‘wanting to know more about their managers’ is code for ‘staff wanting to feel connected and trust their managers’.

Which brings me back to Godin who argues that the future lies in the connection economy. One that rewards the leader, the initiator and the rebel, where value is directly related to the information we produce, the trust we earn and how often we innovate. The future he paints is one where we each need to identify a journey with which we wish to commit our heart and soul, one where we are willing to speak up, to speak our truth, not to just conform and perform, he defines grit as ‘the attitude of someone who realises he has the power to care and is intent on doing something about it’.

I’m not sure where my personal journey will take me just yet, I’m taking my time to figure it out, but I intend to continue to carve my own path, to not buckle to conform to fit in with the crowd. I’ll not apologise for it either, I am that irritating piece of grit in the bottom of your shoe, I am the lump of grit that clogs up your smooth efficient machine and asks the difficult questions, I have no manager to rely on to motivate me, I will motivate myself and not give that responsibility to someone else, and better still I will not seek the crowd’s approval. For once if this post gets no hits, no comments or reaction, I’ll not assume it’s because it’s not good enough, or didn’t resonate, I’ll not try to identify the lessons for next time so I can change my style so it gets more attention or hits. I’ll accept it for what it is, I’m creating my own tune, not seeking to dance to someone else’s, this is my view and that’s ok as it is. It doesn’t need the crowd to approve, in the words of the management guru David Brent, I’m riffing:

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11 thoughts on “Grit

  1. While I love the instant disposable nature of a post written off the cuff there is something hugely rewarding to both write – and read – something that has been shaped by reflection and has percolated through layers of rocks and sediment before emerging as a glass of cool, refreshing mineral water. As this post most definitely is.

    I’m chuffed that you liked the Best by West Midlands I had a role in. Collaboration made it. And I’m quick to point at IEWM, my @comms2point0 colleague Darren and a stack of contributors for credit. But while I’m chuffed you like it I’m even more chuffed that you’ve read it and don’t agree with all of it. That means it’s prompted thought and reflection. Perhaps to something you’ve thought about for some time.

    From my corner of the internets I think JFDI as part of the day job is harder in 2013. (JFDI is the approach of just flipping doing rather than drawing up a policy and seeking permission.) There’s at least three reasons for this. Firstly, it’s a lot harder to chuck up a Facebook page when everyone is on Facebook. That’s just the trade off for digital becoming more mainstream. Secondly, with people covering the work of two or more people the spare capacity to innovate has shrunk like – to continue the water anaology – a pool of water in the baking summer sun. Third, is the never ending cycle of cuts and job losses.

    I’m struck by one digital innovator I’ve known and admired for many years who found themselves under extreme pressure to stop JFDI’ing. The organisation didn’t like it. Thankfully, they’ve moved to fresh pastures but the unwelcome attention this pressure must have brought must have been difficult to bear with a mortgage to pay and children to keep fed and clothed.

    But that’s not to say that there isn’t a place for JFDI. There is more than ever.

    After reading your post one thing struck me. While for me, JFDI is harder as part of the day job, it probably means that that zeal to connect and experiment has been pushed into places where it can flourish. In short, that’s away from the day job. Thinking it through, the things I’m most proud of have all been done away from work but have helped me do a better job. That’s things like comms2point0, the brewcamp meet-ups and the commscamp unconference I contributed towards.

    For me, it’s not being denied the space between 9 to 5 that’s the issue. It’s the ability to trickle the gritty ideas that have come about through the freedom to experiment into the day job. Or in the case of a freelancer, the client’s workplace.

    Feel entirely free to disagree with all or some of that. It means you’ve had a bit of that thought and reflection stuff that’s as welcome as a cold drink on a warm day.

    1. Dan, thanks so much for taking the time to comment, and of course to read my original post – it won’t go down in history as my most coherent or concise!

      I think your explanation for why JFDI isn’t as easy is completely plausible; can’t argue with any of it, especially in local government. I am constantly impressed and inspired by the individual’s I know who still commit to working in such a hostile, and restricted and increasingly restrictive (and not just economically) environment for little reward.

      It’s interesting that you reference the things you’re proud of as happening out of work, and yet having a positive impact on the day job. I can relate to that, in my last role I found myself working unsustainable hours and doing the stuff I really loved, squeezed late into the night and at the weekends. I feel incredibly lucky that I’ve managed to focus now on the stuff I love doing, that I’m completely intrinsically motivated to do, but for several years it was the people I met online, at unconferences I took annual leave to attend, who I connected with at the weekend, who sustained and without doubt improved by day to day practice. So, while I can agree on how much harder it is to JFDI in a work environment, I think you’ve demonstrated how it is still possible to JFDI outside of that and see the benefits translate back. Arguably it shouldn’t have to be that way, but we all have the choice to change where we put our working effort, or how we spend our non-work time.

      I think my reflected thought having spent an hour away from this post admiring the Devonshire sunset, is that true digital leadership relies on us *all* identifying what is important to us (our art as Godin would frame it), and giving ourselves permission to pursue that, to not worry what others think (within reason) and to connect with those who will support us to make our work/art/dreams happen. That’s the responsibility of each of us, not just our managers, CEOs or politicians.

  2. Blooming love that last paragraph. If this was 1985 I’d have cut that out by now and stuck it in a scrapbook with PrittStik.

  3. Hi George

    great post and I’ve now read it (and your and Dan’s exchange in the comments) a couple of times. I too like this paragraph:
    “true digital leadership relies on us *all* identifying what is important to us .. and giving ourselves permission to pursue that, to not worry what others think (within reason) and to connect with those who will support us to make our work/art/dreams happen.”

    Of course, that’s true of all leadership as well as digital leadership.

    And yet.

    Leadership has become a bit of a scammy product really hasn’t it? People sell it, package it, offer courses and certifications in it (I am currently taking one), put it on a pedestal. When all you have is a leadership hammer, every problem looks like a staff engagement nail. I feel that in some ways too much is written about it: Terry Dunn is probably guilty only of thinking too hard and deliberately about it, and of trying too hard.

    Believe in yourself, in what you are doing, and in those around you. Everything else flows from that.
    I hope! 🙂

    Martin

    1. Thanks Mr H, always appreciate you taking the time to read and comment. Unfortunately I think you could be right re leadership becoming commodified and I suspect you’re spot on with Terry D.

      As for your call to arms, got to believe that haven’t we, so much in life is about wearing hats – if you think you look good, others will too. See number nine https://georgeblogs.wordpress.com/2013/03/19/a-letter-to-my-niece-on-her-third-birthday/

      I’ve got some great hats you could borrow if you wish to test this theory to the limit 😉

  4. I loved this remarkable post, George, and also the debate in the comments.

    As an aside on the Terry Dunn thing; I think this is a product of years of institutional suppression of personalities, which is then attempted to be countered by a personality-by-numbers approach which just makes the whole thing much worse. The world will be a better place when organisations recognise that workers are happier and more productive when given the opportunity to express their personalities.

    1. Thanks John, appreciate it. I think the comments make blog posts, this one being no exception.

      You’re spot on with the personality by numbers analogy; is a great way of framing it. ‘This situation is mainly about restructure, so it requires a large covering of number six and a smattering of nine’. I think we’ve evolved to spot authenticity, and to be concerned when it’s absent, I think good leaders naturally spot this, and good managers probably do too, it’s just so many have their hands tied about how they can then respond. I’ll think about this more, thank you.

  5. Bloody brilliant George. I just can’t imagine how much you an think things over and then turn it all into a piece like this. I was looking for inspiration and have found it in buckets! I’m also keen to get you along to the Bridport Festival of Hats next month. X

    1. Thanks Julie, got an overactive imagination I have! Constantly trawling for inspiration and trying to make sense of it – is probably why I’m hard to manage 😉 Sooo disappointed to miss the hat fest but will try and get along in 2014.

  6. Hi George,

    After finally getting around to reading this my personal favourite line is
    “I will motivate myself and not give that responsibility to someone else, and better still I will not seek the crowd’s approval.”
    I think this sums up the key message for me and something which I feel people often forget – Many times i see people seeking permission, not taking personal responsibility, instead handing it to other people to deal with like stinky piece of cheese pulled from the bottom of your shoe.

    I think leadership, management and all those terms are a load of s**t as they get people focusing on things that perhaps aren’t right for them…

    We need to shift the focus to the individual and getting the best from people. I recently read the book “Finding your Element” by Sir Ken Robinson and it sounds much like the Seth Godin book you are reading. It doesn’t talk about leadership or management – it talks about being true to yourself and doing what your “mind, body and soul” are yearning to do.

    I appreciate that this is a bit of a Utopian situation as the great Karl Pilkington once said if everyone did that who would collect the bins, or pick up the rubbish 🙂

    But there is a serious side to this comment and that is that grit is necessarily and so is grit remover – for what really matters is balance and for every piece of grit we need the ability to remove it and that maybe the same person…although would require a greater sense of enlighten self worth that most people demonstrate.

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