Three lessons from a Zen Taxi Driver.

Driving in London isn’t fun. Sometimes it’s bearable, but most of the time it’s crap. Too many cars, too many vans, too many bikes, too many humans. Unending lines of traffic, all trying to get from A to B, perhaps via C and D; all in their own heads and all wishing all the other people would just disappear and leave the roads to them and them alone.

In one of the opening scenes of Danny Boyle’s 2002 zombie classic 28 Days Later, the main character walks across a deserted Westminster Bridge and around a London without a single vehicle. It’s meant to seem like some unreal and eerie waking dystopian nightmare, but for anyone who’s driven or worked around London much it’s an exquisite daydream.

Looks bloody perfect

I drove the streets of London myself for a while in the late 1990s, working as a medical sales rep. Every day I would hammer around the North West of the city trying to speak to doctors about some drug or other. They gave me five minutes of their time; I’d give them some branded tissues, or a car-care kit, or a pen.

I hated it, to be honest. I wasn’t very good at it for a start, because the whole thing – for me at least – seemed so fake. I pretended to be cheerful and chirpy [I know, not really my vibe] to the receptionists who pretended (sometimes) not to hate everything I stood for, hoping eventually that I might be allowed a few moments with doctors who were only after the branded foldable halogen desk lamp. Sometimes they pretended that they would try the drug I was talking about if they got the chance, and I’d pretend to believe them. I was talking to people all day, but not one conversation was authentic. I don’t think I’ve ever been so lonely in my life, and it ended up being quite depressing really – ironic as I had a load of sample anti-depressants in the boot of the Vauxhall Vectra 1.8 16v LS [that’s correct, I had the wheels to match the vibe]

Oh yeah, and the traffic.

On top of everything else, I had to pick my way around Kilburn and Camden, Neasden and North Farm, Holloway and Hampstead, Edgeware and Islington. Traffic everywhere. Every main road blocked, every back road full of people like me, desparately trying to balance a map on their knee as they checked the road signs. For this was a time before Sat Nav or GPS – I had a paper copy of the London A to Z, thumbed to death, covered in the fluff from Wotsits mixed with my own hot, despairing tears.

Okay the late 1990s wasn’t that long ago but this was the same tech

And I guess for a long time I carried that frustration with me whenever I drove around London, the tension I held in my shoulders and chest making my neck ache and my head pound. And I assumed everyone else did too.

And then, one evening, I met a man who changed all that. I met the Zen Taxi Driver.

It was a few years back now, not long after I’d joined CDM. After a long day of authentic and open leadership, I got a taxi back from the office – a car company taxi rather than a black cab – and struck up a conversation with the driver that has stuck with me ever since.

It started when he stopped for a young couple at a zebra crossing, and they moved like aged tortoises actually getting across the road, without acknowledging or even seeming to notice the fact that he had stopped to wait for them. I remarked that this kind of thing must be frustrating for someone driving all day, and rather than giving me the (probably expected) low energy agreement, he disagreed, for three very clear reasons. You may even consider them lessons, if you like…

This is a zebra crossing

The first lesson the driver talked of was about empathy, and honestly I felt a bit embarrassed that he had to point out the very obvious to me: that I had no idea what was going on in the lives of that couple, or the driver who was desperately trying to overtake in those one way, two lane roads through Hammersmith, the lady dithering about whether to turn right, or anyone else you could mention.

Maybe the couple had just had bad news about someone in their family.
Maybe the guy in a hurry was trying to get to his wife who’d gone into labour.
Maybe the lady was trying to remember the road where she had lived during the war.

Or maybe none of those big things. Maybe they just weren’t having the best few minutes, or hour, or day.

Whatever it was, none of them even realised that for that fleeting moment your lives intersected, and you were never relevant to any of them, any more than they should really be relevant to you. You have no right to judge them, nor should you feel the need to do so.

Which led on to the next lesson. My guide had hundreds, perhaps thousands of these micro-meetings every day… ephemeral encounters between people who may well never, ever cross paths again. And his philosophy on this was simple – that none of these people should willingly be given the power to influence your mood or feelings. You have it in yourself to decide what you will allow to affect you and what you will not. So have some respect for yourself, and don’t be so keen to give every passing person access to your emotions and the ability to affect your day. They have no right to affect you, any more than you have any right to judge them.

The third lesson that our teacher talked to me about was the individual experience of time. The way he put it was simplicity itself: “everyone walks to a different beat”. Some people’s internal metronome runs really fast – you’ve seen them doing a walk-jog-walk-jog thing down the pavement just to be half an hour early to work; you’ve seen them frustrated when things are ‘derailed’ or not going fast enough for them. And other people move at a much slower pace. Strolling rather than marching; always time for a ‘by the way’. Everyone has their own pace, one no better or worse than the other: just… different. Except for you, of course: just perfect in the middle, right? Hmm. Perhaps the truth is that to some people you seem incredibly impatient, and to others you’re glacially slow?

Empathy, and acceptance. People walk to a different beat. It’s not for you to judge.

By the time I got back home, I’d had one of the most in depth, introspective and interesting conversations I’d ever had. There was nothing I didn’t already know, as such, but damn if it didn’t make me consider how I was moving through the world.

I won’t say it was an epiphany, because there were so many other things happening in my life at that time which had such a profound effect on me too – new job, new baby, newly without a mum, to name but three [those and many others are in some of the blogs here too, somewhere, if you care to have a look around].

But here I am, probably seven years on, and I’ve decided to sit and write about that man, and the zen-like wisdom that he patiently and clearly articulated like it was all so very simple.

Lessons of self-control, self-respect. Of acceptance, of humility, of empathy. Crucial lessons for a life lived well, and I don’t know about you but I’ll take those with sincere gratitude from wherever I can get them.

In that spirit, I’ll leave you with a couple of thoughts which I’ve carried with me from that moment and likely will continue to carry with me for as long as I wander (and wonder) around this planet of ours.

First, I still have to catch myself sometimes, so I let myself off about that. We are all in our own minds, our own worlds, and so it’s human nature (literally and figuratively) to be wrapped up in what we’re doing and where we are going. We are all the lead actors in our own biopic, and those people whose paths we cross are the extras [and given special effects techonology nowadays they could actually all be CGI and you probably wouldn’t notice]. But still, I make the effort to catch myself; to remind myself that they are in their own world too, that their fleeting actions shouldn’t influence my emotions, and that my beat (at that moment) is different to theirs.

And it’s a simple, kind of daft thing… but since that day, I’ve never said that “I’m in traffic”. Because I’m not in traffic, I am traffic. Okay, it’s not life-changing. But I promise you, it does change one’s attitude to all the other cars around. They’re not deliberately in your way, making you late, any more than you are deliberately in theirs. You’re together, at this moment, just trying to get somewhere.

And here’s the [probably quite obvious to you, dear reader] next bit… none of this is really just about traffic. I don’t think I got that at first, so I make no apologies for holding your hand through it.

Because the truth is that we are all traffic, of course. Human traffic, thrown together into lives that we often don’t really understand and certainly aren’t evolved to be able to manage. But together, fellow travellers, all just trying to get somewhere. Along the way you try to surround yourself with the people and situations that help you along and give you energy, and avoid those which drain you or bring you down. And thus you make your own way, making it up as you go sometimes, but hopefully with some broad idea of where you’re heading, and you criss-cross with other people doing the same. We are all traffic.

Who knows, we might need to ask one another for directions one day. In the meantime, safe travels. Make sure you text me when you get there, okay?

Time waits for no man – part one

So there I am. Poised, ready. Coiled like a leopard ready to leap out onto an unsuspecting prey, every muscle tightened in anticipation. I know I’ve planned everything just perfectly, nothing left to chance after weeks – months even – of analysis and adjustment. And as the moment approaches, I can see the people around me shifting uncomfortably, the realisation dawning on them as slowly yet inexorably as the sun rises, that I am the one whose preparation has paid off; who will, today at least, be triumphant. And almost like it was written in the stars, inch by inch the world seems to shift around us all until the inevitable happens.

For in that moment, I am the man who is standing on the exact spot directly where the train door opens. I need not take a single step to my left nor to my right, but simply step forward and in and find the double seat (the golden ticket!!) that my diligence and meticulousness have earned.

Just a few more metres…

And if you’re thinking that is any train door then bless you, dear reader, but you are naïvely mistaken. For that is the train door which, on the other side of the train, will also be the train door nearest to the escalator when I arrive at my destination station.

Prized seconds have been saved ladies and gentlemen! Perhaps even as many as 30 seconds! That’s half a minute!

Until the world stopped last year, this was only one tiny part of my daily military operation.

Every single second accounted for.

If I leave the house at this time and take this route, I can make the station car park in around 16 minutes (depending on traffic, with 14 minutes as my personal best), then park here rather than there because whilst it’s a little further away from the entrance there’s more space to park quickly so it’s actually quicker. Then, if I have 90 seconds or more before the train is scheduled to arrive, that’s just enough grab a coffee from the coffee shop because the guy recognises me and starts making my “flat white, two sweeteners” as I walk towards him and then I tap and go and still make ‘my spot’ on the platform, this time walking up as the train slows to a halt and almost nonchalantly hit my mark so it looks like it’s coincidence (ha!) but you know, dear reader, that this is anything but.

From the train station to the office I pick the route with the least potential for human traffic, and my pass is in the pocket of my rucksack that I can reach without breaking stride and I’m through the revolving door, quick hello to the security guard and through the gate thing and before I press the button for the lift I see if I can check to see if one of the lifts has my floor illuminated so I can just jump in at the last minute.

Another 40 seconds saved! Hallelujah and praise be to the master of time!

All this in order to get to our office space about 45 minutes before the start of the official working day. Nice to be one of the first in, to say hi to the early morning crew and get myself settled in before the rush of the day to come.

And on the way home, I do it all in reverse.

I know that from the time I come out through the doors I can be on a train (not at the station, actually on the train) if I have 13 minutes. Any less than that and I’m into a weird walk-jog-walk-jog thing which I’m not fond of but will resort to if needed because the next train isn’t for twenty minutes or something monstrous like that and time waits for no man and time flies and yes of course time is money people time is money.

(Yeah, but is it?)

The week before last, I went into our offices in Central London for the first time since the 9th of March last year. Exactly 1.2 years since I’d done the trip which used to be my daily grind. Something that felt so familiar and so alien at the same time.

To be honest I’d forgotten some of the timings, and I didn’t know how long it would take to get a ticket at the station (season ticket having run out last year of course) so this time I left myself a bit longer.

I drove the same route, but without one eye on the clock.

I parked closer to the entrance because the car park was pretty empty. No need to do my weird walk-jog-walk-jog thing anyway, because I had a bit more time.

It was the same guy at the coffee shop as it had been 14 months and 12 days previously, but as I had more than 90 seconds we had time to chat about how long it had been and laugh about how he’d forgotten everyone’s “regular” because no one came in regularly any more.

I didn’t bother walking to “my spot” on the platform.

My home station on May 18th, 1961 – exactly 60 years and 2 days before my most recent trip on May 20th this year. Honestly hasn’t changed that much really.

The train ride itself was somewhat dystopian but then it was always going to be wasn’t it? The weirdest bit was coming into London and seeing all the landmarks which in times past would have told me precisely where I was and when I needed to get up to get to the doors at the right time, but not really being sure of the order of them. And it didn’t really matter anyway, because the train was empty of course.

Then from the station to the office, it was like nothing had changed.

That massive building still not finished – not that anyone is going to want Central London office space anyway nowadays…
That human traffic zigzagging across the road and pavement, magically avoiding each other like it was a film and we’d all rehearsed our marks and movements to avoid being within the magical (coincidental or conditioned?) 2 metres of each other…
That homeless guy re-selling copies of the Big Issue. In the same place as he ever was. Wait, has he been there every one of those 438 days…?

[Can that be right? That the world stopped for so many, but for so many others it just… didn’t? I think I’ll come back to that one another time…]

My experience of 10 days back brought something sharply to mind, which I’ve been thinking about a lot since. It’s probably obvious to you, of course

What the hell was I thinking, putting so much self-inflicted time-related stress into my life? So much unnecessary tension thinking so intently about the seconds here and there? So much pressure to get it all so tight that the smallest distraction, diversion or delay would scupper the whole thing?

The car driving too slow on my route, the kids taking my spot on the platform by fluke not by hard graft and painstaking preparation; the tourist with the rolling suitcase going across the flow of human traffic. All purposefully messing with my time.

Turning me into the walking tension headache that needed 45 minutes in the office before work started just to unwind, right?

I’m embarrassed at my own stupidity. I know that anxiety can take hold of me sometimes, yet I created this perfect recipe for stress and gobbled it down willingly every day. I guess it took 1.2 years of not doing it to make me realise that I’d been doing it, in some way or another, for the previous 20 years.

Joni Mitchell once sang that

Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?

Joni Mitchell – Big Yellow Taxi

Too true Joni, too true. And once in a while you notice that the thing that’s gone shouldn’t have been something you were holding onto so tightly in the first place.

So from here I’m going to take the pressure out of my own relationship with time. Less saving and making up, and more ensuring I have a some to spare, so if I lose a little here and there I’ll still have enough.

They say that time waits for no man, but it’s waited 20 years to work that out I probably have as much as I need, and more than I gave myself. I’d love it if you could learn from my mistakes a little quicker than that.

Post-COVID uncertainty and the Rumsfeld Paradox

Okay, before I go on, I’m not going to be able to solve all the uncertainty that we all have about the world that will emerge from COVID, like a young polar bear emerging for the first time from the only home it has known, born through a winter of hibernation and squinting at the sunlight reflecting from the pure, blinding nothingness of the frozen tundra tumbling off as far as the eye can see… and further than the mind can imagine.

If anything, I’m going to add in another level of uncertainty. Sorry.

Anyone who tells you they know how these things are going to play out is a charlatan or a confidence trickster. Or possibly a ‘futurist” [I wonder how many of them predicted this eh?]. We’ve never been in anything like this (obviously) and there has been too much change (obviously) and so even if you’re in the “we’ll probably go back to pretty much how things were with maybe a little more working from home” then sorry, but you’re making it up too.

Right now, I probably have about three or four conversations a week with someone about what we think might happen. I don’t mind having them because each one helps me a little to work out what I think I would like to happen, and perhaps give me another couple of questions which I need to ask or answer which would add to the information I’ve got.

But I’m also okay with the fact that I will never have enough information. I can read every article out there and listen to every bit of gossip about what so-and-so agency are doing (most of which turn out to be nothing more than gossip) and do another loads of employee surveys and fill in a thousand templates for the network [true story] and I’d have all the information and it still won’t be enough. Because it won’t be relevant to me, and my team, because we’re not anyone else. As the Smiths once said:

“This one is different because it’s us.”

The Smiths, Hand In Glove

I don’t know about you, but I think a good segue from a 1980s indie band from Manchester would be to immediately cut to a former two-time US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld. Let’s do it!

I’m not going to comment here on the politics of old “Rummy” (as he was affectionately known by people who knew him affectionately) because I don’t know much about them and I’m too lazy to find out. I’m also not going to comment on the fact that between serving as the youngest ever Secretary of Defence under Gerald Ford he worked for various big US pharma companies (my particular niche area of advertising) before then becoming the second oldest Secretary of Defence under George Bush. Again, I know not enough, and care not to find out.

What I am going to pick out from such a busy boy is a comment he made to the US press about the existence of Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq.

[Bear with me we are getting somewhere I promise.]

Rummy said the following:

As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns: the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

Do me a favour and read that again. I grant you, it’s tough not to get dragged down by the context and by the fact that it’s another politician avoiding answering another question. But give it another read for me.

There’s actually an incredibly astute, and almost philosophical point. And it’s something I’ve been coming back to quite a lot in the conversations about the future world [you remember, the baby polar bear thing].

Because yes, there’s stuff we know.

We know we can work remotely, and do bloody good work. Arguably we’re more efficient, and if we could all have got rid of the real estate sitting dormant in every major city, we’d have been a shitload more profitable.
We know that we can build, nurture and maintain authentic relationships, with each other and with our clients, despite not being (sometimes never having been) in the same room.
We know that this has taken a toll on people’s mental health and wellbeing and boundaries and the flow from home to work (I don’t like “balance”, but that’s another blog).

And there’s some stuff we know that we don’t know

We know that we don’t know how we’ll feel on inevitably crowded public transport.
We know that we don’t know who’s going to want to work where, and how that’s going to affect how we work as teams together.
We know that we don’t know how we’re going to react to the polar bear situation

But hell, if there isn’t also a load of stuff we don’t know we don’t know.

There are problems that haven’t happened yet.
There are opportunities that we can’t imagine yet.
There might even be new kinds of feelings which come about precisely because of this meta-uncertainty.

We’re not good with uncertainty. It causes stress and as animals we’re not good at dealing with that because the society we’ve built up around us is bigger and more complex than, as animals, we have evolved to deal with.

But I think the existence of the “unknown unknowns” can actually be a source of calm. Forget about the things I don’t know about, there are things that I don’t even know I don’t know yet! Yes it demands that we “adjust the sails” and deal with ambiguity, but is there anything more ambiguous than the year we’ve just done?

Yes it was hard, and remains hard, but we did do it. We made it this far, battered and tired but still we made it. And that tells me that we’ll make it again.

It won’t be how we think it’ll be. But there’s a bit of me that’s interested in finding out what I don’t know.

Hope, optimism and faith

First thing yesterday morning, for a change of routine*, I went for a walk with a friend who lives down the road. We walked and talked for an hour or so before the working day began, through the woods, down the hill, round and back up; squelching through the mud and breathing in the cold, damp air as the day woke up around us, the mist lifting from the ground, as the sun strained to force its way through the early morning cloud.

The woods over the road

[* The ‘change of routine’ was, in and of itself, so important, and made such a difference to my mental state. Worth diving into that in more detail another time for sure. Watch this space.]

My friend happens to be a clinical psychologist, which always makes for a fascinating and introspective conversation. So as we walked we talked about the world and how, as simple, habitual creatures, we’re uniquely unable to process or handle the situation in which we find ourselves. Like many domesticated animals we have become defined by routine of one kind or another – and we build our lives around those routines.

Day by day and week by week we have the commute, the office, that place we go for lunch, the coffee shop, the takeaway on a Thursday night, the drinks after work, the visit to the Grandparents, the pub lunch on a Sunday.

Those fit within a more expansive set of routines, too. A couple of weeks somewhere in the Summer, a camping trip with friends, maybe a festival, gigs and plays and birthdays and traditions, getting together for the holidays.

And we’re so caught up in these routines we can’t help but hope and even plan for their return, despite the fact that this planning is a pointless and possibly damaging exercise. Because every time we plan, we create too much hope, and hold that hope tighter and tighter as the plans threaten to break apart once again.

Wondering if the plans for the wedding will go ahead. Plans to visit the family for Christmas. Plans to get the kids back to school. The holiday postponed from last year to this, and now… who knows?

Each time we hope that this milestone or that will be the one. We’ll be out of this by Easter. We might be back in the office by July. Surely it’ll all be over when the kids go back in September. Christmas is still a way away, surely…

And now we’re wondering about half term, and bloody Easter again. Do we just go round again? Keep on rolling the dice? Keep on predicting the future, and feeling so disappointed when we get it so wrong. Perhaps even feeling a bit stupid and bit naïve for thinking it’d be that simple…

As we walked through the woods [perhaps a little out of breath on the big hills] my psychologist friend told me a tale of an American airman by the name of Jim Stockdale, who was shot down over Vietnam in 1965, captured and sent to the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” – a prisoner-of-war prison where American prisoners were held through the Vietnam War. Stockdale was kept in a windowless cell with a bare light bulb on 24 hours a day. Routinely tortured for information, during his time in captivity he had his leg broken twice. Every night he was locked in leg irons.

Yet where many of his fellow POWs died, he survived. For 8 years until his release, he refused to give up hope. In his words:

“I never lost faith in the end of the story… that I would prevail in the end”

Stockdale, L-R: just hours before his ill-fated flight; being greeted by his son on his return; and later in his career as a highly decorated war veteran

But this isn’t a story about keeping hope. It’s a story about how to keep hold of a kind of hope that doesn’t destroy you bit by bit; piece by piece.

Because when asked in an interview with author Jim Collins about those who didn’t make it, Stockdale was quick to reply:

Oh, that’s easy, the optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart. This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.

US Navy Vice Adm. James B. Stockdale

Personally, I don’t mind a bit of optimism. When we all went to festivals back in the day I was always the one who would always look up at a cloudy morning sky and say “I reckon the sun will burn this off”. Sometimes I was right, too. But I didn’t pin all hope on it, and so if it didn’t that was okay. We had a lot of fun dancing in the rain.

But having the discipline, the fortitude and conviction, to confront the brutal facts? Right now, I think that’s as true for us as individuals as it is for any of us as family members or business leaders; as simple, social animals, desperately missing our connections in ways we cannot comprehend.

Maybe the brutal fact is that this, in some form, is going to be part of life for longer than any of us could possibly have imagined, and rather than predicting the future we must accept the situation as it is and make the very, very best of it, keeping faith that we will prevail in the end.

Maybe the brutal fact is that those most valued friendships will just have to be nurtured over video calls. Yes, young children you’ve known so well will be growing up and changing and you will miss some of that. Maybe the wedding isn’t going to be able to go ahead this year, either; at least, not as it was planned. But remember that you can stay connected, that love is patient; and keep faith you will prevail in the end.

Maybe the brutal fact is that the work will suffer in some way, or change in a way you weren’t expecting, or develop into something that you don’t understand. But be authentic and genuine, keep your integrity, stick to your values. And keep faith you will prevail in the end.

As a leader in times like this, getting the balance right is really important. Mentioned in these pages before, Harvard professor Nancy Koehn ran a webinar last year [when we thought we were in the middle of things but in retrospect perhaps were only at the beginning] about leadership in crisis. In this she talked about getting the balance between brutal honesty and credible hope.

The brutal honesty [interesting that it’s the same visceral, violent word – brutal – as Stockdale used] is that we cannot be certain. That we are at the whim of an enemy we cannot see. That predicting the future is a fools errand, as it always is. That we may yet find even darker days.

The credible hope comes from our dependable dedication to the values and ideas we hold most dear. We show up, every day, in service to the mission we have set. And yes, we can paint a picture of the future, whenever it may come, that has meaning and, yes, even brightness.

Because a bright, fresh, new dawn will come, as sure as day follows night. Perhaps not the one we imagined, or hoped for. But it will come.

So keep faith in the end of the story. We will prevail, in the end.

Decisions, decisions.

I once heard about a checklist for making decisions consisting of three simple, sequential questions. Does a decision need to be made? Do I need to make that decision? Does it need to be made right now? If the answer to any of those is ‘no’, then you’re off the hook, decision-wise.

I’ve always thought it was a slightly flippant way of looking at things, but hey, I’m a slightly flippant kind of chap so I kind of liked it. Sometimes there actually doesn’t need a decision, and rarely right now. So when I have considered it, it’s usually to get more information or opinion so the eventual decision can be more informed and, as a result, better.

But the last one – does a decision need to be made now? – brings danger with it. Because in a dynamic, fast-changing situation every delay could mean another potential option has been lost.

Imagine you’re driving down the motorway. Every time you pass a junction, you’re ruling that way out as a potential part of your journey for the day. A lot of the time that’s because you know where you’re going, so that’s a considered, thought-through and sensible decision. If you want to get to South Wales from London, stick on the M4 and you can’t go wrong.

But what if you’re not sure where you should be going? What if you were thinking of maybe going on holiday for the weekend but every time there was an option you bottled it? On past the junction signposted Oxford, past the Cotswolds, not sure about Dorset and couldn’t decide on whether to pick up the M5 down to Devon or Cornwall. And before you know it, the Severn Bridge is looming into view and you’re going to Wales not because you decided to but because you didn’t decide anything else and now you’re on the bridge and Wales is on the other side and you can’t stop or turn back so guess where you’re going on holiday…?

Wales here we come!

[Apologies here to anyone who isn’t familiar with the geography of the UK – please find details here – suffice to say my wife is from South Wales and it’s probably the trip I’ve done more than any other so it’s etched into my mind. Feel free to transpose your own well-worn road route.]

My point is that if you leave every decision to the final point then actually you’re not making a decision at all. It’s an illusion of decision making served up as leadership, when it’s actually just indecision for starter, procrastination for main course and inevitability for pudding. All followed by a cheese board of bullshit when you claim that the end decision was the only option.

Of course it was the only option in the end, but that’s because all the other possible options whooshed by one by one.

Taken to a completely ridiculous theoretical endpoint, in the current world, that’s how someone might end up having to close all schools the day after the first day of term! I mean, just imagine!!

Copyright @MattCartoonist

Decisions, therefore, come down to a exploration of the information you have in front of you, and a judgement on whether it’s enough.

Yes, bring other people into the decision-making process if you like. People you trust; people who might offer a new perspective; people who’ve experienced something similar perhaps.

By all means check if there really needs to be a decision made right now or whether there’s more time to gather more information.

Perhaps even try it out in a small way, like putting a splodge of paint on the wall to see if you like it as the light changes in the room through the day.

But for crying out loud, at some point just crack on with it, okay? Otherwise you’ll be sitting in Wales on holiday, wondering if you can find somewhere who’ll do a Devon cream tea.

You’ll never have all the information you need to make a decision.  If you did, it would be a foregone conclusion, not a decision.

David J Mahoney, Jr.

Yes, well said sir.

Sorry

No, really. I’m really sorry. I know I was wrong and I take full responsibility for the impact this has had. I can probably have a go at trying to explain to you why I acted the way I did, but I am not trying to make excuses and appreciate that, whatever my intention, the actual impact is something for which I must take responsibility.

I’m sorry.

Elton was right – sometimes sorry does seem to be the hardest word.

But bloody hell, isn’t it powerful?

Sorry takes the wind out of the sails of any argument, any conflict. In seconds, it lays the foundation on which reconciliation can be built.

It has to be sincere of course. An insincere apology can be worse than no apology at all. And ‘The Power of But’ is more dangerous here than anywhere else. “I’m sorry, but…” means that actually I’m not really sorry at all.

[In case ‘The Power of But’ is  a new one on you, the word “but” has the power to make anything that came before irrelevant. “I think we’re going to make it but it’s going to be incredibly difficult” makes you think how difficult it’s going to be; “It’s going to be incredibly difficult, but I think we’re going to make it” fills you full of hope and and motivation. Tread ye carefully, for The Power of But can wreak havoc in the wrong place in a sentence.]

I’m not talking about the “sorry” that every British person says when someone bumps into them and it’s not their fault but they’re very British and that’s just what we do. The German stand-up comedian Henning When once said something along the lines that that the way to know someone’s nationality is to take a run up and deliberately ram into them with a shopping trolley. If they turn round and say sorry to you, they’re British.

“Sorry”

And I’m really not talking about the sly and sneaky non- apology politicians and other kinds of sociopaths and egotists tend to use, which usually goes something like “I’m sorry if you were upset by my actions”. This actually puts the blame on you for your stupid and unnecessary feelings rather than taking the blame for the actions. “I’m sorry you feel that way” fits into that same weaselly passive aggressive bucket. Ugh, and just in case that’s not enough disgust, may I also add UGH.

Ugh

No, I am sorry. I am very sorry.

Sorry says that you accept your part of the conflict, and want the conflict to end. You take responsibility for your own actions.

The best thing about sorry is that it doesn’t mean that you weren’t wronged in some way yourself. There are nearly always two sides to any conflict, with each person sure, in the moment at least, of their own position. But the magic is that it doesn’t matter if you can say sorry. And you always have that simple word with you, ready to drop into the middle of a storm and watch as the wind dies in a second, sails empty and flapping in the memory of the gales that threatened to destroy just a few moments ago.

There’s a powerful phrase I heard a few weeks back which has stuck with me. For the life of me I can’t remember where I heard it, and Google can’t help me which makes me think I actually might have misheard it, but as it exists in my memory it’s perfect….

Leaving aside the wrongdoings of others, we ask ourselves “how was I at fault?”

Clearly it has its roots in counselling or therapy of some kind, because even the phrasing of it is beautifully inclusive: “we ask ourselves” not “you must ask yourself”.

And the simplicity of it really gets me. Yes other people may have done the wrong thing. Yes they need to take responsibility and consider how their words or actions may have affected you or exacerbated an already difficult situation. No one is denying any of that.

But let’s put those things to one side for a moment, take a breath, and consider the idea that we weren’t perfect. That we were at fault in some way – how we phrased something, how we reacted… how we were perceived as a result (because, lest we forget, perception is reality of course).

Find your own fault. And then apologise, sincerely and without expectation or hope of reciprocity.

It’s truthful, and disarming, and vulnerable (that word again) and incredibly, uniquely powerful. It’s the start of the rebuilding process. The first step towards a brighter place.

Give it a try. You know that your mistake was just that – a mistake. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, just that (leaving aside the wrongdoings of others, remember?) you’ve examined where you were at fault.

Admit you were wrong, Maybe have a bit of a plan for how you might start to fix things. Ask for forgiveness.

Start with sorry, and you’re making a start.

And if it doesn’t go the way you hope…

I’m really, truly sorry.

Fighting fires

When I was a kid, I watched my father [hi Dad!] walk into a burning building. I was maybe 8 I guess? Our house backed onto a farm and (so the tale goes) some local kids had been smoking in the barn in the evening and it caught fire. Next to the barn was a little cottage where an old lady lived, with a load of cats – like a dozen or something – and she had refused to leave the cottage before all of them were found and she couldn’t find one and “what if it’s still in the house??!!”…

My dad wouldn’t claim to be “brave”, I don’t think. I imagine he’d consider himself much too sensible for daft ideas like that [he reads The Times, for crying out loud] but on that evening [probably with an “oh for fuck’s sake” under his breath if I know him] he walked into the burning cottage to ‘convince’ the lady she really should think about making her way out of the building sometime soon if turning into a roast old lady wasn’t in her immediate life plans.

Anyway, you’ll be pleased to hear that he came out, jostling the old lady in front of him. You’ll be delighted to know that all the cats had, of course, left the cottage some time before, because as we all know cats only care about themselves. My old man [who, come to think of it, would have been younger then then I am now: what a mind fuck that is!] was coughing and his face was black from the smoke and soot and my mum was really cross with him which at the time I thought seemed a bit unfair, because, you know, he was a bloody hero and all that.

And then the fire brigade turned up and we got to watch them putting the fire out, and it was very late and very exciting and I think I got to wear a fireman’s hat [although I might have imagined that because I’ve watched too much TV in my life and that’s the kind of thing that happens in a montage at the end of a TV program about a fire isn’t it?].

My fake memory

Up to now, I haven’t had the opportunity to save an old lady from a burning building [although I did have my bravery tested once – perhaps one for another time!] but that doesn’t mean that I haven’t had fires to put out in my own way over the years. Oh no!

Because that’s what leaders have to do, right? Solving problems, making things better, fixing things. Filling gaps, plugging holes, and “putting out fires” [See what I did there?].

To be honest, I’ve never really liked the phrase “fire-fighting” when talking about work problems. It feels too reactive to me, like you’re forced to jump from the hottest, most urgent thing to the next, constantly on edge, constantly turning to find something else threatening to burn out of control. And so I think the phrase actually makes things worse, somehow.  But I do get the association of course.

Because we know that, left unattended, problems are more likely get bigger and less easy to deal with, just like a fire, until they’re totally unmanageable. And because we know deep within us, through thousands of years of generations upon generations from our earliest times on our planet, that fire has huge power and fearsome energy. Not just in what it does – how it destroys all in its path – but in what it does to us as people.

Just like our ancestors before us, we’re drawn towards fire. It’s deep within us to fan it or fight it, and so all too often we find ourselves simply gazing into it, transfixed, lost in its dancing light.

Nature’s cimena

And just like fire jumping from tree to tree and house to house, the closest possible proximity in which we’re forced to work in our overstuffed offices mean than even the smallest spark can catch, and grow and draw people in to fan or fight or stand and gaze once again.

But as much as we are mesmerised by fire, no matter how wondrous and fearful we find it, what we tend to forget is that the following day the ashes hold only a memory of the fire that once was, and hold no one’s interest for more than a fleeting moment before the winds of time disperse them.  Every fire that ever was ended up as ash in the wind.

And so perhaps one positive thing that I’ve experienced through the maelstrom of Bloody 2020™ is that the forced virtual nature of work has meant that when problems do arise there’s more space for consideration.

I don’t mean there’s more time, of course; not when the line between home and work has completely blurred to the point that it’s not actually visible any more, and I’m working earlier and later than I have in many years because it’s not like I’m going anywhere, and yes it’s getting physically and emotionally exhausting, as the stark sharp split between the imitation intimacy of a video call and the silence when it ends is jarring in a way that as simple, social animals we were never designed to be able to comprehend so we feel somehow empty in the moment, like we’re mourning the human connection that felt so real just a few moments before… [shit, sorry, where was I?]

No, I mean that there’s more physical and emotional space between us – space between the trees, if you like, so fires don’t spread so inexorably. With a watchful eye, some even die out all on their own.

Because with that space, people can consider their actions and consider what they might have done differently. The shared experience of lockdown and everything that’s gone with it means there’s more space for considering what someone else might be going through as well.

And so it seems people find it harder to hold a grudge from afar. People realise that they miss each other, individually and as the office buzz in the background as they work.

Starved of the oxygen of incidental interaction, disagreements become distant, irritations become irrelevant, niggles become nothing. And thus the flames of conflict are dampened, free to fizzle out naturally, quietly, simply.

There’s a lovely quotation I saw recently from a French writer/Aristocrat which goes:

L’absence est à l’amour ce qu’est au feu le vent. Il éteint le petit, il allume le grand.

Roger de Bussy-Rabutin

Which (as I’m sure you know) means:

Absence is to love what the wind is to fire: it extinguishes the small, it inflames the big.

I think that’s true, not just of romantic love but also of the companionship we all miss from our working relationships. The wind of absence has made the ones that were important to us before even more important now.

But perhaps the very same wind can blow out a lot of little fires of little inconsequential problems, too.

All without a fire-fighter to be seen…

A post-office world?

When my wife [hi Sarah!] and I made the decision to move out of South East London [big up big up Crystal Palace massive] three years back, I planned to work from home for “at least” a day a week. I was going from a 45-minute commute to one which would take an hour and a half, and anyway it’s not like I actually need to be physically ‘in the office’ every day…

Needless to say, that didn’t happen. Most weeks I was in every day, with perhaps a day working from home every couple of weeks. And when I did, I made it very clear what I would be working on…

Because tradition states that work is something that was done… well… at work. And everyone knows that all this newfangled “working from home” nonsense really just means dossing around doing nothing. No way that someone could be as productive from home, or that they could really be trusted to do their work instead of drifting off and playing computer games or watching daytime TV.

“Oh yeah right working from home mate yeah? Like nice one yeah?!”

Of course I knew that wasn’t the case: if anything I tended to work longer hours, with less distractions, fewer interruptions and less breaks than I did at the office. Without my friendly neighbourhood Finance Director [hi Jonny!] sitting next to me ready to wander off and grab a coffee, I was smashing through my to-do-list at quite a pace.

In fact, if I had organised a bunch of things to put on my WHF to-do-list which might have taken me a whole day to get done in the office, I might even find that I was through it by early afternoon and freeing up time to get to some of the important stuff that often got bumped by the urgent stuff.

But I always felt I had to check in with people too to prove I wasn’t off doing what I thought people might think I was doing instead of work. Call it “virtual presenteeism” if you like – an email, a text, just to say “I am still here, and I am still working”.

And I was also conscious that it was all very well for me to be working from home, because I’m in the privileged position of being the boss of the agency and thus a) largely setting my own work timetable and b) having no one to tell me what to do or where to be (in London, anyway!). Not so easy if you’re the Account Manager with the client on the phone all day, or the Planner with a creative team to brief…

Within a matter of days, lockdown meant that “WFH” was the norm. And soon everyone showed that they can work just as hard, just as effectively, just as productively from wherever their laptop was set up.

We’ve still had some issues – of course we have. The blurring of lines between work space and home space has meant that hours become blurred too; sometimes too much. I still have the occasional twitch which pushes me into digital presenteeism… now using Teams or WhatsApp as much as the other channels I used to use. “Video calls” where instead of a load of faces it’s just a sea of initials or avatars made everything feel very cold and unnatural [luckily we’ve pulled ourselves up on this and have made a real effort over recent weeks – it’s made a massive difference].

Stolen from my cousin Nick’s post [hi mate!]

And I’ve written recently about the lack of opportunity for ad hoc, in person, informal learning from colleagues and co-workers which I found so valuable in my formative years.

So there’s stuff to fix, but surely the stigma around working from home will have been the one victim of this virus that we can be positive about?

Hmm. I’m not sure.

When our office spaces are back to something like normality, will the assumption return that work is done “at work”? If we don’t need to work from home, wouldn’t it just be better if most of the people were in one place most of the time?

I think there are various truths about this whole thing that we’re going to need to reconsider, and possibly reconcile, over the coming weeks and months…

  1. There is no substitute for personal, face-to-face interaction. None.
  2. I would not have the relationships that I have with the people with whom I work had I not spent a lot of time with them in the same place [specifically “the office”, in case you’re wondering].
  3. Building an organisational culture without being physically together as a group would be really, really difficult. Not impossible, but tough.
  4. A strong organisational culture makes a company more resilient to a crisis, with shared values acting as the strongest foundation for honest, genuine working relationships.
  5. Some people have been more productive working virtually, with associated benefits in their mental wellbeing and emotional and physical energy
  6. Some people have found working virtually incredibly difficult, with the blurred lines between work and home feeling both draining and isolating at the same time.
  7. Some people will work like a dog no matter where you put them.
  8. Some people will do as little as possible no matter how much faith you put in them.
  9. Virtual hugs are not as good as actual hugs. Especially from me, as I am a world-class hugger [N.B. this is not my personal opinion – I have a full trophy room to prove it].
  10. It’s all about trust.

Yeah I know, I funnelled you into that last one. But it really is.

And so before you do anything else, assume positive intent. I know it’s obvious, and I know it’s not always easy. But it’s also surprisingly uplifting.

Assume that people are trustworthy. That they care about their work and their colleagues. That they want to do a good job, every day.

That they trust you to do the same.

Let’s all assume that we’re all doing our best, unless specifically proven otherwise, and a lot of this “new normal” [aaaarrrrgggghhh that phrase again] planning will be a lot easier. Start with trust and we can crack on making a new kind of totally flexible working – flexible around you as an individual with specific requirements and specific responsibilities, in all parts of your life, like never before – really work. For all of us.