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A leadership reflection: Today is tomorrow’s yesterday


In the first of a new series of articles offering lessons for leaders from everyday life, Alan Ward finds inspiration from an unlikely source. His moral for leaders is to embrace the present and not to let your past dictate or constrain your future.

During my summer break, I was able to spend some time with a very remarkable lady, who exhibits many of the characteristics talked about and promoted in the world of leadership. And yet she has had no behavioural development training or coaching, nor has she ever been a 'leader' in the formal sense. Her name is Elsie. She describes herself as very ordinary and she is 82 years old.

Looking back

Elsie grew up in Battersea and was evacuated from London with her sisters in 1939. There are lots of stories from that period in her life: leaving her parents behind, living with unwelcoming strangers, half-finished schooling. What really strikes me about the telling is the lack of blame or self-pity that could so easily have consumed her view of the world from those early experiences. Elsie relives the tales in a matter-of-fact, this is what happened, sort of way. She is not judgemental of her parents, foster family, the government or even the enemy forces that interrupted her carefree childhood. On the contrary, she enjoys relating the funny incidents, amusing asides and childish pranks that still bring a smile and fond memories. Elsie does not indulge in 'if only' scenarios, longing for a fantasy that might have lead to any number of different life stories. Instead, she embraces all that has happened and values those connections that enabled the next phase in her journey.

"How much more empowering to accept that our experiences have all been part of the learning: they add to our knowledge, understanding and resilience."

I wonder how many of us look back on our corporate careers in such a non-judgemental way. Whose fault is it that we are where we are, who is to blame for the course of our own stories? The same might apply at political, economic and social levels for our industry and organisational fates. How much more empowering to accept that our experiences have all been part of the learning: they add to our knowledge, understanding and resilience. Try answering and repeating this sequence. I am able to do Z because I did Y. I was able to do Y because I did X. I was able to do X because...

I went with Elsie to the London stage show 'Dreamboats and Petticoats', which is set at the turn of the 1960s and told through musical hits of the time. Whilst there was obviously a high degree of nostalgia and a deep connection to lost loved-ones from that era, Elsie appeared to be reliving the whole experience, truly being in the moment and recreating the feelings of joy and freedom from over half a century ago. Indeed, this was a common phenomenon across the audience with all ages dancing in the aisles and singing along as though we really had turned the clocks back! She said afterwards that it had been a real tonic and she felt so well and happy as a result of the show. This has also been the subject of a recent BBC TV programme, 'The Young Ones', in which a group of pensioner celebrities were encouraged to live for one week as if they were in the year 1975. The results were quite remarkable with clear physical improvements and huge increases in confidence.

How much time do you spend dwelling on the things that went wrong versus those that went well? Reflecting not only on the events and behaviours that lead to success but also conjuring up the feelings and associated senses of the triumph can be tremendously stimulating and trigger a desire for more similar opportunities. Asking people to describe positive events and to re-engage emotionally with the moment will be far more motivating than over-analysing step-by-step processes. Briefly think of a successful event or joyful moment at work and just notice any physiological changes for you: breathing, facial expression, heartbeat, others.

Looking forwards

Elsie is not in denial of her age. She knows it will take longer to climb the stairs on a bus. But she still takes buses. It is only recently that she has retired her trusty bicycle "for the safety of other road users". Although her time horizon does not stretch to another half century, she does want to see her youngest grandchildren start work or go to university. She is planning a trip to visit them in the Philippines next year. Her imagination is focussed on the joy and excitement of arriving, rather than the fearful possibilities of the journey. Language is important too. When talking about a potential Lottery win, I notice that Elsie always says "if" instead of "when", so that any windfall would be a wonderful bonus rather than some life-saving essential to be relied upon.

"Turn your SWOT analysis around so that threats are followed by opportunities and weaknesses by strengths."

 Do you epitomise a 'can do' attitude? Confidence in the future comes from visioning positive and meaningful outcomes. Paying attention to the pitfalls and dangers makes good sense for risk management but if that is where your focus remains then it will be very difficult to look further ahead and see that welcoming horizon. Turn your SWOT analysis around so that threats are followed by opportunities and weaknesses by strengths.

Here and now

There is no question that for Elsie, and all of us, the past has brought us to the present. However, she does not allow the past to dictate or constrain the future. If she had a family motto, I guess it would be either "just do it!" or "if not now, when?" Living for the moment means savouring, experiencing, learning from every day. I have never spent more than a couple of hours with Elsie without her finding something to marvel at or laugh about. There is something childlike in her curiosity and appreciation that remains core even though her own childhood was far from peaceful.

I encourage you look around in wonderment and embrace the time that is now. Make it easy for your people to do the same. What memories are you creating today that will make Q4 2010 something special to remember?

Alan Ward is a director of Performance Consultants, the leadership development and coaching specialist. Drawing on its experiences in business and elite sport, the firm develops tailored programmes and events that enable leaders to enhance relationships, improve their effectiveness and achieve their goals.

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