A Pathway to Purpose

A Pathway to Purpose

Who should read this?

Anyone who has had strong emotions that led them to behave in ways they later regretted. Anyone who wishes to look back on their lives in years to come and feel proud of the way they lived and the impact they had on the people around them. Anyone who wants to live in a more deliberate way that influences their future in ways that take them closer to their aspirations. Anyone in a position of influence who wants to facilitate constructive outcomes for their business, community, family or any other social or economic structure.

If any of these apply to you, then please read on.

What follows is a pragmatic look at what a personal Purpose is, how to define one and then use it for your benefit and the benefit of others.

This idea of defining purpose is often seen as a ‘spiritual’ endeavour. Whatever you choose to believe is fine with me, but I want to make clear that what I am writing about here is not limited to spiritual belief systems.  You may believe that your purpose is decided for you by a higher intelligence, or that you decide it for yourself. Whichever belief system you hold, the pathway to purpose discussed here will be relevant to you. This process will help you to articulate a Purpose that is practical and useful in all areas of your life.

What is a ‘Purpose’ and why would I spend time defining it?

When I was first asked the question ‘What is your purpose?’ I reacted with arrogance and contempt. To me this was a ridiculous question – ‘Life has no purpose, we are born, we live, we die’ – end of conversation. I was missing the point. Defining a clear purpose for yourself and consciously paying attention to it is a very powerful way of lifting yourself out of reactive behaviour and taking action to live up to a clearer picture of who you want to be. Maybe a better question for me in my early 20s would have been “What kind of person would you like to be?” – I might have listened to that. If this question resonates more with you, then feel free to think of it in this way. Defining a purpose for yourself is about articulating the kind of person you would like to be, clearly and succinctly so you can easily access it when you need to. Once you have a clear statement that articulates your purpose, you can use it to pull you towards behaving the way you want to behave rather than behaving the way your emotions or other people want you to behave. This is useful in guiding life in general but becomes especially beneficial when trying to make decisions in highly complex and uncertain situations or when under significant pressure. During these times having a clearly defined Purpose Statement can lift you out of emotional reactivity and into a much more effective and conscious way of behaving.

So, what is it? It is a crystal-clear idea of the effect you would like to have on others in any given moment, and over the long term, if you were being your ideal self.

Why spend time defining one? To help you to move more often in a direction that matters to you so that your life has the impact on other people and the world that you want it to have. Acting in line with a clear purpose can improve your personal and professional life dramatically over the long term.

What is the difference between a Purpose and a Goal?

Often people confuse the two and I’d like to make the distinction clear before you start the process outlined below. Your Purpose has no end. It is the North Star in the distance that gives you a reference point to help guide you towards the life you want to live. You will set goals that align with your purpose, but these goals will have a finish line. Each time you achieve a goal, you can set a new goal, but your purpose remains consistent – it doesn’t change.

For example, a good friend of mine has defined his purpose as ‘To leave a legacy of leadership’ and he consistently lives up to his statement. In line with this purpose, he may decide to set several goals in the next six months:

Goal 1: establish three mentoring relationships with inspiring young leaders

Goal 2: put more efficient processes in place for the management of my business so that I have more time to coach and mentor people

Goal 3: get qualified in an area of neuroscience relevant to my field so that I can better support my clients

All these goals align with his purpose – completing them will enable him to ‘leave his legacy of leadership’ more effectively. In six months, he will either achieve these goals or not. His purpose, on the other hand, is ongoing and could give birth to any number of goals now and for the rest of his life.

In summary:

Purpose gives you direction.

Goals give you milestones to achieve as you travel in that direction.

The steps to defining your Purpose and putting it to work

Before we start the process, I’d like to paint the picture of where we’re heading. This process aims to help you to create a concise expression of your purpose so that you can easily bring it into your mind and apply it to decisions you are making in the moment as well as to guide your longer term goals. Your Purpose Statement will express two key components: 1) something about your resources, natural talents, values, motivations, skills or experience that you wish to consistently leverage, and 2) the impact or effect you would like to have on others. For example, you may be someone who can listen well, and instilling confidence in other people is important to you. The idea is to bring these two components together into a single statement such as: ‘My purpose is to listen carefully so that I can help people overcome their fears and act with confidence’. This may not sound very grand or significant, but you would be surprised at just how useful a statement as simple as this can be – more on this later, stay with me.

Step 1: Looking back

The first of the two components of purpose is accessed by looking backwards and reflecting on your life from early childhood through adolescence and adulthood up until now. A good way to do this is to reflect across three domains of influence:

  • Culture: Your cultural background including family and social influences. Clearly parental and other close family relationships are important in how we form our values and motivations in life. Local community and School life also play a major role in shaping who we are. Explore what was valued and what was punished by the cultures you grew up in.
  • People: The people who have significantly influenced your life. In addition to your most significant family relationships this includes other people who have inspired you, people who have caused you suffering or both. Friends, extended family, professional colleagues, sporting coaches, teachers, or mentors – who has had a significant influence on you? How did they influence your beliefs, values, and principles?
  • Events: What events have had a lasting effect on you? I recommend you take an honest look at past events without avoiding or glossing over painful times in your life. Most people have experienced some form of hardship or tragedy. The nature of this reflection should be to look back at these objectively and ‘mine’ for any gifts that came from the experience. We are not trying to relive pain, but to take a distanced, compassionate perspective while asking the question – what, if anything, did that experience give me that could now be useful to me? For example, when I look back with this lens at traumatic events in my life, I see that I have developed an ability to be resilient. I can recognise conflict before it gets out of hand and I can diffuse it with humour or by creating common ground. These attributes were developed in circumstances that, at the time, I would rather have avoided, but now I can choose to see them as gifts that may not have been available to me without those experiences. Look for the gold that you can extract from all areas of your life.

When I take groups through this process, we do some of this exploration in small groups of three or four. This works very well in a guided process, but I would not recommend doing this with anyone close to you – at least at first. It’s important to look at your life with as much honesty as possible. If you’re working with someone close, you may hide from certain aspects of your life, or they may be tempted to pass their opinion which may not be helpful. If you work on this with anyone else, a good coach or therapist may be a better choice as they are more likely to create a safe space, devoid of judgment or advice, where you can cultivate new insights from your past.

The main output from this phase will be to populate the first circle in our diagram – your strengths, values, and motivations. In this circle you will list all the useful qualities you possess that are inherently motivating. As we’re looking to create a useful purpose here, we’re not populating this box with all your hang-ups and insecurities – as wonderful as they are! We’re looking to define the things that you want to use as you move to looking forwards.

Step 2: Looking forward

The next step is to consider the impact or effect you would like to have on others. The work you have done in Step 1 can be very useful in defining this. What valuable qualities have you gained or recognise in others from your life experience that you would dearly love to pass on?

Picture the key people in your life, your spouse, your kids, your parents, your friends, your close work colleagues, the team that reports to you etc. Imagine 10 to 15 years from now and ask yourself the question – who were you to them?

What impact have you had on their lives that you would feel very proud of and satisfied with? What did they get from you – was it confidence, compassion, resilience, ability to challenge themselves and others, belief in their own agency, a sense of adventure, contentment, ambition, a healthy perspective on life’s challenges, assertiveness, courage, humility… … …? What positive attributes where cultivated in them because you were in their life and not somebody else?

Often people struggle with this idea for one or more of the following reasons:

  • You don’t want to overstate your importance in other’s lives.I get it, but like it or not you are affecting these people’s lives anyway (and by extension the many lives that they influence). Your actions create a ripple effect that extends way beyond your immediate relationships. For example, almost everyone talks about their work with family and friends. So, if you have a job, people are talking about you over dinner. What do you want that conversation to sound like? Do you want a family you don’t even know to hear and feel the stress of a loved one feeling devalued at work because you were too busy to listen? Or do you want that family dinner to be enhanced because the mood of your work colleague is good after a connected interaction with you that made them feel valued? Someone else’s stress or happiness may not be your responsibility, but you will be influencing it whether you want to be or not. The question is, do you want to influence in a more conscious way so that you can be the person you want to be to them more often, or do you want to ignore the impact you are having and hope for the best?
  • You don’t want to commit to something you can’t deliver on. I get this too, but there are no guarantees here – life is full of probability. Clarifying the impact you would like to have on others doesn’t guarantee that you will have it. However, clarifying it and trying to bring it to life in your interactions will increase the probability of you having the effect you want to have over a lifetime. We’re concerned here with improvement not perfection.
  • It feels too restrictive to pin it down to just a few words. Yes, its difficult but that’s OK – for now just write down all of your thoughts about the effect you want to have. In the next step, we’ll talk about how to refine things further.

After populating your second circle in step 2, your diagram might look something like this:

Step 3: Draft a statement

This step is tricky, so I’ll give you a few pointers before you start:

  • You don’t have to get it ‘right’ first time. In fact, there is no ‘right’ statement, only useful ones. Draft something that feels close and we’ll refine it in Step 4. To give you an idea, it took me ten years to arrive at a statement that works for me – just go with a draft that feels useful and accept that it will be refined over time.
  • You are not trying to create a marketing tag line. This statement only needs to mean something to you and nobody else. Don’t get stuck in trying to find words that other people would understand just from reading them. If you know what you mean by your statement, that is enough.
  • Words are insufficient. You probably won’t find a statement that articulates all the subtle ways in which you could live your purpose. The goal is not a statement that describes everything you could possibly do. The goal is to define some words that will call on you to think of the many subtle ways that you could live your purpose in any given moment. If the statement helps to guide you towards being the person you would like to be more often, then it is doing its job.
  • This isn’t a professional career goal statement. It should be broad enough to cover all areas of your life and specific enough to be practical for you to apply.

The structure of the statement will look something like one of these:

My purpose is to use my [insert key strengths] to [insert most important desired impact] or,

My purpose is to [insert most important desired impact] by [insert how you will use your key strengths].

To get there, have a look at your left-hand circle and try to distil into a few words the essence of the gifts you most want to leverage. Underline the words that resonate strongest with you. Can you combine them into a concise expression of the tools/experience/capability/strengths/values that you want to use?

Once you have that, do the same for the right-hand circle… try to distil your desired impact into just a few words.

Write down as many different versions as you need to. The trick here is to avoid overthinking it – write and write some more. Try not to stop an idea before it has a chance to get onto the paper. I’d like you to try this before you read the example of my purpose that I share later in this document. When you read another person’s example it might take you in a direction that isn’t entirely your own. Its best to give this a good effort yourself before looking for inspiration from others.

Step 4: Test your purpose

Well done! You have a purpose statement! It is a draft – it will most likely change. The first step in testing your statement is by performing some scenario analysis.

Scenario 1: Family

Pick a close family member – your spouse, one of your children, whoever you like. Reflect on how you relate to them. Now read your statement. If you were consciously paying attention to your statement, how would it shape your interactions with them? Would they be any different?

Scenario 2: Work colleague

Think of a team member that reports to you or someone you want to help at work. If you paid attention to your purpose statement, how might you change the way you engage with them?

Scenario 3: Professional Influence

Think of an important meeting you have on the horizon. How do you want to influence that meeting? If you act in line with your purpose in the meeting, how might it help you to have the influence you wish to have?

Scenario 4: Career progression

If you consider your next set of career goals – how does your purpose statement shape your thinking? Put aside for a moment what opportunities may or may not be available to you and think only about whether your purpose statement challenges your thinking in the right way – does it broaden and deepen your thinking about your career aspirations?

Scenario 5: Challenging people or conflict

Think of a person who you find difficult to relate with, or maybe you’re in conflict with. IF you decided to apply your purpose to your communication with them – what ideas come up about how you could cultivate a more effective relationship? This is a tough one, but it’s a good test of an effective Purpose statement. A strong purpose statement should call you into being your best self in even the most trying circumstances. Incidentally, your purpose may lead you to stand up to them or stop engaging with them completely. That’s fine if it’s a conscious decision moves you closer to having the impact you want to have in the most important areas and relationships in your life.

Scenario 6: Helping a friend

How might your purpose statement help you when you’re talking with a friend about an important decision they

must make, or helping them with a challenge they’re facing?

Scenario 7: Prioritising your work

Imagine prioritising your working week in line with your purpose statement. What would you add to the list? What would you remove from the list? How might it shape how you go about your work?

If, in each scenario, your purpose statement leads you to take different decisions or behave differently, or if it reinforces that you are already behaving effectively in that situation then your statement is a good one so far. If not, then try to generalise it so that it fits these and any other scenarios that are relevant for you.

Some principles to assess the usefulness of your statement:

  • A strong purpose statement is applicable to all areas of life, not just work
  • A strong purpose statement calls us to act in ways that we can be proud of
  • A strong purpose statement holds us accountable to try to be the person we want to be even when its very difficult e.g. in our most challenging relationships

Once you’ve completed this scenario analysis in theory, do it in practice. Consciously review your purpose statement before you enter a meeting, or in the morning before you wake up your kids, or when you’re about to give someone some feedback, or when you’re trying to prioritise your working week or when you’re about to go to dinner with a friend. Think about it and apply it to as many different situations as you can. In each case, reflect on how it shaped the way you behaved and the decisions you made. Also reflect on how it felt to behave that way and what impact you are having. Consider the possible knock-on effects of your actions. If it is shaping you in the right direction and you’re feeling good about the impact you’re having, then you’re on the right track!

Step 5: Refine and repeat

By now you will be consistently thinking about your purpose statement and putting it to the test in real-life scenarios. Feel free to amend it as it becomes clearer to you what is most important and most impactful. Periodically go through these steps again to see if you gain any further insight. I’ve run through my own life history in group sessions hundreds of times and I still gain useful insights through the process.

There you have it – A Pathway to Purpose. In the next section I share with you my purpose and how I try to apply it in my life. This might help you to get a sense of what you’re aiming for. Remember though that this a very personal journey, my purpose has meaning for me – yours needs to have meaning for you.

My purpose

Before you read this section, I encourage you to go through the steps above for yourself first. If you read this without first drafting your own statement, you risk being influenced in a direction that may not be entirely your own. Assuming you have been through the process at least once, these examples may help you to refine your statement and put it into practice in your life.

My purpose is to enrich as many lives as possible in my lifetime and have fun doing it. I do this by compassionately challenging people’s perspectives and helping them to see things from different angles.  About 10 years ago, my first draft statement was something like: ‘to have a positive impact on people’ and over the years the nature and extent of that desired impact has become clearer. Other people in my life have expertly, and sometimes bluntly, offered me the opportunity to re-examine my perspective on things. This has led to me into a life that is far richer and more satisfying than it may have been if I’d stuck to my old ways of viewing the world and my role in it. There are 10 years of reflection and practice in my purpose statement and I can’t possibly explain all of it here. However, I can try to break it down for you:

“Compassionately challenging perspectives” resonates strongly with me because I’m good at it, I find it motivating and it made a huge difference to my life when others did that for me. This shapes the way I facilitate and coach. It often helps me with the way I respond to my kids. When I don’t have this in the forefront of my mind, I often fail to be the parent I want to be. When it is at the forefront of my mind, it helps me to show empathy and persuade rather than allow my frustrations to run the show.

“Enriching” is a word that, for me, encompasses the effect that I’d like to have. It can be personalised – your idea of living an enriched life might be different to mine – and that is the beauty of it. If possible, I’d like to be a catalyst for people to grow in ways that lead them into a richer, more satisfying experience of life. When in focus, this manifests in the way I listen to people. It calls on me to be present with people rather than distracted. It makes me think hard about how I can be helpful to people if they’re experiencing challenges in life. It makes me joke around at home and have fun with the kids, sometimes when I don’t really feel like it. It makes me call people more often. It makes me read my emails back before sending them to ensure they’re not too task-focussed and missing a personal connection. It led me to get over my insecurities and play the guitar and sing at family celebrations while encouraging other family members to join in – now a regular feature at family barbecues. There are many examples that I could talk about. There are also many times when I have been the opposite of ‘enriching’ to people. I’m far from perfect, but I can’t think of a time that I have acted poorly when this idea of enrichment was at the front of my mind.

“As many lives as possible” was added to my statement about 5 years ago after delivering a series of leadership workshops in many different countries for a large UN agency. During this work I realised that millions of people’s lives would be affected by the leaders I was working with.  It opened my eyes to the potential scale of impact effective leadership might have in the world. This part of my statement reminds me to think bigger than I would otherwise. It has shaped several decisions in recent years that have significantly increased the reach of the work I do with my close associates. It led me to accept invitations to Syria and Yemen, despite reservations about the risks involved. With clarity of purpose, me and my team jumped at the opportunity to directly help people who are leading in the front-line to save and enrich the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in the world. The leaders we worked with rarely have access to the kind of leadership development we offer, and this was a way to make our contribution to people affected by major conflicts and who desperately need support.

“Have fun doing it” came into the statement after feedback I was given six years ago. I was told that I can be a little too intense and that I’d be more impactful if I brought more humour and lightness to interactions where I’m ‘compassionately challenging perspectives.’ The feedback sparked a strong enough realisation for me to incorporate it into my statement. I want to remind myself to hold things lightly sometimes and to enjoy the journey I’m on. This has helped me to relax a little more when I’m faced with challenging personalities, and to be more patient when working with people who are resistant to having their perspective challenged. It’s also helped me to pay attention to and celebrate progress.

“In my lifetime” is there to remind me that I have one life and that time is short – it’s a call to action. I want to be as enriching as I can as often as I can in the time that I have.


I hope you have found this piece useful and you’re feeling inspired to have a go at defining and then applying a purpose for yourself. I hope it helps you to enhance your everyday relationships and guide decision making so that you can create a more enriched life for yourself and the people around you. The world needs as many conscious, purpose-driven people as possible. Such people create a ripple effect of positive impact that extends way beyond their immediate circle of influence. I hope that reading this inspires you to be one of them.


I bet you that this article will help you to make better decisions

I bet you that this article will help you to make better decisions

I love reading widely and applying ideas from different fields to leadership and coaching. This article draws from World Champion Poker player Annie Duke’s book “Thinking in Bets” which explores the ingredients of good decision making. This may appear an unlikely source of wisdom for leaders, but Annie makes the case that Poker – a game that requires players to make a high volume of quick decisions that have immediate consequences – is fertile ground for learning about how to make good decisions. What follows is my attempt to pull from her work some key points I hope you will find useful.

We’re not as smart as we think we are

Most people want to feel competent and have a positive view of themselves – we like to think we’re smart and good at making decisions. There are good evolutionary reasons for this that I won’t go into now, but this drive for a positive self-narrative leads to biased thinking that affects our ability to improve decision making.

Resulting – A form of hindsight bias

“Resulting” is our tendency to judge the quality of decisions by the corresponding outcome. If something good happens after a decision, we say ‘that was a good decision’. If something bad happens, we say ‘that was a bad decision’. Annie argues that this is a poor model for assessing decision quality. Your excellent strategy may fail, and your poor decision could yield a great result. Binding your assessment of decision quality to outcomes is unhelpful because it will stop you from analysing decisions that precede positive outcomes and lead you to doubt good decisions simply because they didn’t deliver the outcomes you hoped for. Of course, decisions do influence outcomes, but our cognitive bias tends to ignore the role of probability and this limits our ability to learn and improve decision quality over time.

Luck or Skill? It depends who you are talking about 😊

Most outcomes in business and in life are probabilistic in nature. They arise from a mix of skill and luck. A useful goal for business is to maximise the influence of skill and minimise the influence of luck. To do this we need to clearly discern between skill and luck when we are assessing why certain outcomes occur. One of our challenges is that we tend to apportion luck and skill differently depending on who we’re talking about. Let’s assume I’m a fairly confident person. If I make a decision that doesn’t lead to desired outcomes, I might put it down to bad luck, blame a colleague, or highlight unforeseeable changes in the market or some other external factor. If a decision someone else makes results in a negative outcome, then I will likely arrive at a different conclusion – ‘they got it wrong!’ Conversely, if my decision or recommendation goes well my brain shouts ‘I knew I was right!’, but if someone else’s goes well it concludes “they just got lucky.” Alternatively, if I lack confidence in myself, I will be overly self-critical when bad things happen and discount my contributions when good things happen. Regardless of the personality type, the risk is to miss the opportunity to accurately assess the role played by my skill or the skill of others versus the influence of probability.

Let’s say a CEO is discussing Sales strategy with their Sales Director. They have different perspectives on the best strategy to increase revenue by 4% in the next quarter. After strong disagreement and discussion, the CEO goes with the Sales Director’s recommendation. If, in the next quarter, revenue decreases the CEO might think ‘I knew it was the wrong strategy – I shouldn’t have given in’. The Sales Director might think – ‘I was just unlucky, nobody could’ve predicted that market event’. If revenue increases, the statements may be reversed – the CEO thinks ‘they just got lucky, nobody could’ve predicted that market event’, while the Sales Director is thinking ‘I knew I was right, the CEO should listen to me more.’ Not much learning will come from either perspective. Regardless of what happens to revenue in the quarter, it would be far better to ask questions like “Did we make a good decision given what was known at the time we made it?” “Could we have overlooked something important? If so, how do we avoid overlooking that next time?”. The answers to these questions will be valuable whether revenue went up or down because they are focussed on learning rather than preserving a positive self-image.

Diverse viewpoints result in better decisions

Inviting credible dissenting voices into a conversation and seeking to understand their perspective is very important to mitigate the risk of decisions being overly influenced by unconscious bias. One way to cultivate understanding and breadth of consideration is to consciously argue the case for an opposing viewpoint. The CEO in the above example could ask herself, if I were trying to convince the Board to endorse budgets required for the Sales Director’s strategy, what compelling arguments would I put forward? This opens the CEO’s mind to learning more about other perspectives and is likely to result in a much better strategy overall.

Build a culture that encourages people away from defending false positive self-narratives

People will adopt behaviours valued by the groups they identify with and avoid behaviours that are punished or frowned upon. Holding each other accountable to values and principles agreed in advance will significantly enhance an Executive Team’s performance. The team agreement can include specific values and principles that invite people out of their natural inclination towards perpetuating false positive self-narratives. Credible scientific research papers must highlight assumptions made, possible problems with methodology and other papers that contradict their conclusions. Exec Teams could emulate this in some way, for example, by including a value of ‘Full disclosure’ to encourage people to be transparent about self-identified holes in their own reasoning – “I’m 70% confident about this idea. I have assumed X, Y and Z are true, but accept that they may not be. In addition to building the business case for my idea, I’ve sourced some market intelligence that suggests the idea is a bad one and I’d like you to challenge my thinking so I can see as many angles on this as possible.” Some might interpret this statement as weakness in the leader, when in fact its much closer to truth and opens the possibility for collective decision making rather than fearful (and privately non-committal) agreement with the loudest, most confident voice at the table. Values that support diversity of credible opinion, transparency, robust discussion, continuous learning (from success as well as failure) will help to improve the team’s decision quality over time.

Structure and Process with a different lens

Social norms operate within structures and processes that reinforce or work against them. If a CEO is trying to encourage diversity of thinking then meetings need to be designed to have enough time for deeper discussions, and to invite multiple perspectives on matters being discussed.

When building strategy its helpful to start by imagining the future and then track backward to the present to define the steps that will get you there. However, we know that people tend to be overly optimistic when thinking in this way. Once this first draft of vision and strategy is defined, a ‘pre-mortem’ is an effective process that reduces risks introduced by over-optimism in the planning phase. Perform a pre-mortem by asking everyone in the team to imagine we have failed in realising the strategic vision then ask them to privately write the history of the failure. What went wrong, why? What did we not see coming? Once individual thinking is recorded the histories are read aloud and the team can start to refine the strategy. Getting people to record their own thoughts before reading them out is another simple but effective process that improves decision quality. Our opinions are very easily influenced by other’s opinions. As soon as one person speaks in a room, you can guarantee that it will influence the thoughts others have. It is much better to get all thoughts out of people’s heads before they can be massaged away by the words of others. These are just a few of a number of processes you could consider to improve decision quality over time.


I hope you have enjoyed my take on some of the ideas Annie Duke presents in her book ‘Thinking in bets’. You’ll find many more useful insights in the book if you’re looking to improve the quality of your decisions… stay safe.

Copyright 2017 Infinity Leadership | All Rights Reserved | Designed by Altitude IT


Start leading like a human…

Start leading like a human…

This article follows on from my previous article Stop leading like an Ape… where I discuss the impact of our evolution on our capacity to lead effectively. In summary, I discussed how the brain and nervous system have evolved to keep us safe and this can sometimes limit our effectiveness as leaders.

At the end of the article I said I would write about how to leverage our evolutionary gifts rather than be limited by them. It’s taken me a year to get to writing this because there are so many different approaches that have value. Rather than allow my primitive instincts to continue my procrastination, I’ve bitten the bullet and highlighted here some areas from my studies, personal and professional experience that I believe are of most benefit in getting beyond our in-built Ape-ness… enjoy!

Our hero in this story is the prefrontal cortex – referred to as the PFC from now on. This is the area of our brain that can, among other things, evaluate many variables to make conscious choices.

It procured to me when writing this that a high performing PFC would be doing many of the things we would expect of a high performing leader or team. For example, an effective leader leverages the full capacity of the resources available to them to deliver an intended result. This requires them to respect and consider inputs from their teams and the external environment. They must recognise that they do not have all the answers. Clarity of purpose, open communication lines, listening, consultation, enquiry, followed by decisive action and objective analysis of outcomes are essential. In an effective team, leadership changes hands seamlessly depending on what is needed. Conversations are robust, respectful and outcome focussed. Team members acknowledge the value each person brings and leverages diverse strengths, helping each other to develop over time as they take action. Trust is critical for high performing teams – each person must trust that the others are acting for the benefit of the team.

Similarly, to be high performing in a leadership context, the PFC must leverage the full capacity of the whole brain and nervous system. To do so, it must have clarity of purpose, open communication lines with other areas of the brain, it must ‘consult’, ‘listen’ and ‘enquire’ into the messages being sent up the line. It must be able to objectively assess the value and limitations of these messages and decide accordingly, sometimes prioritising feelings and others prioritising logic as appropriate to the overarching, clear purpose. It must have trust that whatever internal information received through emotional experience and automatic thoughts is intended to be of benefit to the whole – not to sabotage or disrupt. Negative emotions and thoughts can be limiting, but they’re there for a reason, usually to avoid perceived danger, so they should be heard and understood even if they’re not acted upon.

In order for our PFC to perform in this way and lead us out of reactive ways of behaving into purposeful, conscious ways of behaving the following areas are important to consider:

Clarity of Purpose

Developing a compass for our life and leadership by reflecting on our Purpose, Values and principles creates clarity in our PFC and sets up sign-posts to direct attention in the brain and to take actions that keeps us on track.

Over many years I have defined a purpose for myself – to enrich as many lives as possible in my lifetime and have fun doing it. When I’m on my game (see below) this can transform my approach to a conversation or issue I’m facing. It gives my PFC a distant point of reference it can use to navigate through all the internal noise and fog generated by other parts of my brain. Paying attention to Purpose allows us to make a choice and take purposeful rather than reactive action.

Building self-awareness to facilitate effective communication within the brain

A leader can only consider the input of all team members if they elicit their input. If we take this metaphor and apply it to the brain, this means our PFC needs to develop the capacity to proactively communicate with other parts of the brain and nervous system – it needs to seek input. Developing this capacity takes time and practice in the following areas:

  • Understanding the events that have shaped us allows us to explore helpful and unhelpful emotional triggers and scripts
  • Building the neural pathways required for us to observe, accept and name our emotional state
  • Building our ability to ground ourselves in the moment and settle our physiology
  • Developing the ability to choose what we pay attention to
  • Regular reflection to cultivate helpful perspectives on events

For example, I received some feedback many years ago from a one of my direct reports – “Lee is often combative in meetings”. Up until then, having a strong opinion and pushing it had been a successful strategy for me – I didn’t even realise I was doing it never mind the negative impact it was having. On reflection, I had a lot of evidence in my life that this strategy worked. Growing up in Liverpool in the North West of England I needed to stand up for myself, have strength in my conviction and hide weakness. Leaders I admired early in my career had this trait too – I saw nothing wrong with it… until the negative impact of this approach was pointed out to me. I was damaging important stakeholder relationships and creating fear in my team – not a very enriching brand of leadership. I still get these messages from my brain and nervous system – ‘Lee… fight, defend, be strong’, but with lots of practice, coaching, reflection and commitment around the areas mentioned above I can now (often but not always) see these messages clearly before they drive my behaviour. Over many years I have cultivated an open line of communication between my PFC and the parts of me that are trying to keep me safe from some real or imagined harm. These messages should be respected, they can be very useful – but our PFC needs to be able to see them clearly as just one of many inputs to a decision that it needs to make.

Building social awareness to better interpret messages coming from the other people.

Our perception of other people’s behaviour and intentions has a significant impact on our emotional state and behavioural reaction. Developing a greater capacity to understand the behaviour of others is therefore very useful to our brain leader. Some key capabilities of social awareness are:

  • Paying attention and deciphering the emotions others are experiencing
  • Demonstrating empathy and compassion
  • Seeking to understand the perspective of other people
  • Engaging in courageous conversations that improve trust and mutual understanding while moving towards desired outcomes
  • Understanding how the behaviour of others might trigger our patterns of thought and emotion

The best example of the power of social awareness that I can think of was with my own father. We are both head-strong and many years ago we were in a heated discussion about managers. He was complaining about his management, I was trying to help him to see their perspective. We were getting nowhere except more and more frustrated. At one point I sat back and asked myself, why am I so frustrated in this conversation? The answer was clear… he is not listening to me… not once has he validated my perspective. Then, I shifted from self to social awareness and looked at him. The frustration on his face and in his voice was obvious and I asked myself… why is he so frustrated? The answer was clear… not once have I validated his perspective. We both had the same problem – neither of us felt validated. So, I spent the next few minutes acknowledging his perspective and seeking to understand more about his position. I didn’t have to agree with him, I only had to demonstrate that I understood him and suspend my need to feel validated. We both calmed down and left it there. The next day we’re on a bush-walk and he says to me “How do you think I could improve my relationship with your brother?” I nearly fell over! I can’t remember him ever asking for my advice until that moment – especially not about my brother. We had one of the most productive, connected conversations on that walk that I had ever had, and I firmly believe it was sparked by the few minutes of validation I had given him the day before.

Putting in place external structures to guide our brain leader.

No matter how self and socially aware we are, some of our ancient brain structures will escape the notice of our PFC. Therefore, our PFC leader needs some external structure in place to mitigate the risks of flawed thinking and behaviour. For example, let’s look at Unconscious Bias – a hot topic over the last decade or so. Being aware of your unconscious biases – has little to no impact… they’re unconscious and, by definition, they happen automatically without any involvement of our PFC leader – in fact, they will be influencing our PFC leader in ways we will never observe in ourselves. The only one way to mitigate the risk of unconscious bias is to set up helpful external structures. For example, deliberate exposure to conditions that contradict the bias – e.g. immersing yourself in diverse cultural/social environments. There are many ways in which our brains work illogically or imperfectly that require external structure to overcome. For more on this area I highly recommend reading Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kanneman.

Regularly refuelling our leader.

Regular investments in renewal of the PFC is critical. Sleep, diet, exercise, mindful practices, creative activities and so on need to be part of a regular routine of investment to ensure our brain leader has the resources to handle the load.

For me, exercise is critical. If I’m not exercising, I’m off my game. Whatever it is for you, it needs to be prioritised in the diary.

In summary, if we want to overcome the limitations of our evolution while and harnessing its gifts our prefrontal cortex needs to be the leader of our brain. Clarity of purpose, self-awareness, emotional regulation, social awareness, external structures and regular re-fuelling are critical factors in building the leadership capacity of our PFC. And, as with any effective leader, its status as leader should be held with humility and recognition that its role is not to control everything, but to mobilise the full capacity of all available resources in service of a clear higher intent.


Stop leading like an Ape…

Stop leading like an Ape…

We are unique. We have the most highly developed, intelligent brains on this planet. Our pre-frontal cortex accounts for a relatively minute part of our brain and nervous system and yet it has delivered powered flight, advanced medicine, Beethoven’s fifth, the internet and consciousness itself – “I think therefore I am”.

There is no doubt that we’re smart, but why do we have those smarts and how are we using them?

We are the product of millions of years of evolution. Our brains started out as a basic tool for survival – to sense danger and rewards in the physical environment. More recently in our evolutionary history, we developed a social radar as our survival increasingly depended on others. Status in the social group is critical to us. Rejection from the social group would mean no place by the fire, less food, no friend to stand up for you in a fight and no children. The larger the social groups, the more brain power needed to navigate relationships, communicate and co-operate. We went on to invent technologies and began shaping our surroundings to help us to survive and thrive… and the rest is history.

Our intelligence has evolved in service of our survival. Think about that for a second. The part of your brain that thinks, has working memory, knows you exist and can create a language of mathematics to describe the Universe emerged because incremental improvements in intelligence kept you alive long enough for your kids to become independent. Nothing more (or less) than that.

And what does this have to do with leadership?

This world needs a critical mass of leaders capable of using the evolutionary gift of intelligence in service of more than their own survival instinct and social status. We feel intelligent, and we are… but too often that intelligence is a slave to the drivers that helped our ancestors to survive millions of years ago. What kind of world could we create if we reversed the master-slave relationship? Imagine what might be possible if we loosened the chains, inherited through millennia, that hold us back from leading with a greater purpose in mind.

We need to upgrade ourselves… the old software is not up to the task. We need to stop leading like Apes.

How we might try to do that will be the topic of my next post… I need to think a bit more about it before I subject myself to potential rejection by you 😉

ps. I LOVE Apes, I just don’t want them running the show!


Shaping culture from the inside-out

Shaping culture from the inside-out…​

In our work, we often come across people who feel powerless to influence the organisations they are a part of. While you might expect this from middle management or front line staff, in our experience, this feeling is also expressed at executive level… surprised? This is the level that can make changes right? This is the level that can pull the necessary levers… surely they must feel all-powerful? Wrong.

People in authority can change the ‘seen’ variables such as policies, procedures, processes, IT systems, performance measures etc. However, this is only a part of the picture. ‘Unseen’ variables such as culture, values, basic assumptions and the thoughts, feelings and motivations of individuals – make up a significant, and largely ignored part of the picture. A recent study of more than 100 companies engaged in major change efforts demonstrated that 85% don’t deliver on their objectives. The two reasons they found: 1) underestimating the complexity of the change, and 2) not paying attention to the inner aspects of change – the ‘unseen’ variables we mentioned earlier1.

So, how do we address the unseen variables? The most common approaches involve changing policies and processes in order to push people and cultures to change e.g. embedding the organisation’s values into the performance management system or building a new IT system to support desired behaviour. These approaches are important, but the problem is that it often stops there. ‘Unseen’ variables such as what the staff think about the organisation’s values, their capacity to bring them to life and how this aligns with their personal values are often overlooked. Paying attention to the internal world of stakeholders involved in a change is essential for effective leadership. This is where authentic leadership can make its contribution.

Nelson Mandela said that “changing the universe is an inside job.” Leaders need to recognise that they are a part of the system that they are trying to shape. If we want to change the system, our first step is to pay attention to the internal aspects of ourselves. What are my values? What big assumptions am I making? Why do I lead? What is my leadership about? Without answers to these questions we can feel powerless, unable to cope with the overwhelming scale of complexity and change all around us. Answering such questions though provides a solid foundation from which to lead- a kind of compass we can use to navigate through change, allowing us to move in the right direction even when we can’t see the destination. A leader who is clear about their own internal world, who shares that world openly with others and acts with skill and discipline in line with their purpose is a leader people want to follow. This is the bedrock of effective leadership and it is independent of position or title.

When people across an organisation begin to express their leadership in this way, they begin to influence the system of which they are a part without even realising it. External change flows from internal change and we see the system begin to shift in a purposeful direction rather than scrambling to stay afloat in a volatile ocean.

We saw this clearly with a client we worked with over 6 months. Our focus was addressing the internal aspect of the leadership culture. We spent little time talking about strategy, metrics, examining the effectiveness of performance systems etc. Rather, we invested our time in exploring the internal assumptions each leader was making about their own leadership, their relationship to other leaders and their relationship to the broader system. At first, people were confused, they wanted solutions. However, the trust we built led them to persevere in cultivating the soil rather than immediately planting the first available crop. They spent time understanding themselves first, then used that self-knowledge to build more open and honest relationships within the leadership team. Gradually, and then suddenly the external, visible ‘solutions’ started to emerge not only within individuals and the leadership team, but also in the broader system of stakeholders.

One example was that they completely redesigned their promotions review process. Previously, leaders would see the promotions process as a battle to be won and argue for their own staff members to get promoted above those in other teams. This process took weeks of analysis and hours of painful meetings where conflict would disconnect the leadership team and sometimes result in grudges that caused problems elsewhere. Through their deeper, internal work a better solution emerged. They designed a process based on the principle of “Owning your No” If a leader recommends somebody for promotion and others in the leadership team disagree – it is the responsibility of those disagreeing to justify their “No”. This has led to a dramatic shift in the culture of the leadership team. For example, if a leader says “No” because they don’t know that staff member’s work well enough, it becomes their responsibility to get to know it before the next leadership team meeting. If it’s because that staff member lacks necessary experience, it becomes the “No” leader’s responsibility to work with the staff member’s leader to help them get that experience. This has led to cross-functional mentoring relationships which is creating a more collaborative and cohesive culture across divisions.

What was a painful and lengthy process, weeks of analysis and unhealthy conflict during decision making has become an ongoing process that builds relationships and ends in a short sharp ratification process where agreement is reached within a couple of hours. The broader ‘system’ is benefiting from reduced time and stress, more transparency, more development opportunities for staff (e.g. mentoring), less conflict, more ownership for decisions, the list goes on…

“Owning your No” would never have worked if we had started by defining that process. It only works because everyone in this leadership team focussed on the ‘inside job’ of personal change first.

Notes and references:



Infinity Leadership Pathway

Infinity Leadership Pathway

I’m delighted to share with you the “Infinity Leadership Pathway” which has been developed to provide a framework for developing exceptional leaders…

The model describes a pathway for conscious personal and professional growth. All conscious, goal directed growth starts with an increase in Awareness – something new enters your realm of experience. This gives rise to Choice, which is followed by Action. As we take action we receive Feedback from the environment which raises our awareness and so the cycle goes.

This pathway can either continue to flow and expand or it can falter and implode depending on a number of capabilities. A new experience can generate strong negative emotions resulting in a reduced capacity to think clearly. Therefore, between Awareness and Choice, the ability to Regulate Emotions is critical if we are to effectively evaluate our choices. Between choice and action our ability to broaden our perspectives and Envisage Possiblilities will give us access to a wider range of potential actions. As we take action, the mindset we hold will significantly influence what we see in the feedback and whether or not we learn from it. If we Adopt a Growth Mindset then we will look for the learning opportunities in the feedback. If we do not, then we will be more likely to look for evidence of the success or failure of our actions and miss valuable information that could help us to grow. The extent to which we then Pause, Reflect and Consolidate to extract meaning from events will influence the value and relevance of what we feed into our awareness which sparks the next cycle.

At the centre of the Infinity Leadership Pathway is Attention. What we pay attention to determines whether the pathway falters and implodes or flows and expands.

Paying attention to our emotions facilitates choice and gives rise to Expanding Possibilities. As we take action, we develop new habits and create Expanding Capabilities. Through action and feedback we generate Expanding Experience. Finally, our ability to consistently build awareness results in Expanding Wisdom as we gain greater access to the full depth and breadth of our knowledge and experience.

The Infinity Leadership Pathway is proving to be particularly powerful in helping clients to grow their leadership capability. The capabilitiy building that we have done in each area, based on relevant and established leadership theory and Neuroscience research, has provided tangible and relevant tools for people to apply in their daily roles.

Above all, the realisation that high attentional control is a critical skill for leaders has been both powerful and daunting for our participants. Leaders have relentless demands on their attention and it takes effort and practice to build the mental muscle required to exercise conscious choice over where we place our attention. While this is certainly not the only essential leadership skill, we think it is one of the most important of all.


“To Do” or “To Be”? That is the leadership question

“To Do” or “To Be”? That is the leadership question…

I began this morning with my daily question – What is most important today? I use this question to focus my attention on the most important tasks of the day. As I completed this morning’s list I felt pretty uninspired. It had been a tough night with both kids waking us up at different times the night before and I was feeling tired and frustrated. Through this lens, the list before me looked daunting and not much fun. I looked around… my wife was cooking some eggs, my 4 year old was eating his Weetabix, and the baby was quietly chewing on his fist. In that moment two things occurred to me:

  1. My state of mind today will influence everyone else around me, and
  2. Today will be an uphill struggle for me (and therefore everyone else) unless I change my state of mind

Then the idea came to me… I needed to write a “To Be” list.

So, I gave the “To Do” list I had just compiled a new title – “What are most important things I need to do today?”

Then I started a separate “To Be” list entitled – “What is most important about how I show up today?”

The new list was much more inspiring and my state of mind began to shift the moment I started to write it! Here is this morning’s “To Be” list:

  1. Be positive
  2. Be disciplined
  3. Be connected to your higher purpose – ‘to be a positive influence on the people around me’

My “To Be” list provided the fuel I needed to spark up a positive conversation with my wife, and to have a bit of fun with my two boys before tackling my “To Do” list head on. Incidentally, item 3 on my “To Be” list resulted in me adding a task right at the top of my “To Do” list… and here I am, energetically writing an article that, I hope, has a positive influence on you.

As I began writing this piece, I realised that there is a link between my “To Be” list and Emotional Intelligence.

Goleman’s research showed that, in high-IQ roles, emotional intelligence becomes a much stronger indicator of exceptional performance than IQ. In other words, successful leaders who pay attention not only to what needs to be done, but also to how those things are done, are likely to achieve better results for their business than their peers.

Holding the right balance of attention between tasks (the ‘what’) and emotional intelligence in relationships (the ‘how’) is one of most difficult of all leadership capabilities. It requires strong neural networks that connect logical with emotional regions of our brain – regions that many people have worked hard to separate! So how do we develop this capability in leaders?

Leadership development that engages logic alone is not enough to create or reinforce the necessary neural networks. Attending a lecture on new and interesting leadership theories is valuable at one level, but it will have little impact on shaping the networks that connect logic with emotion in your brain. Neuroscience has shown that “Brain cells that fire together, wire together” (Hebb’s Law). So, if a leader wants to become more effective they should consider strengthening networks between logical and emotional regions of the brain by immersing themselves in development experiences that activate both simultaneously.

So, “To Do” or “To Be”? I hear you ask…

In my view, an exceptional leader will pay attention to both.

Supplementing your “To Do” list with your “To Be” list could be a very good place to start!