Leadership Through Self-Knowledge


As you can see, bamboo figures prominently in my blog pages. The same design at the top of this page is also on my business cards. I fell in love with bamboo during the years I lived in Japan. Near Kyoto is a place called Arashiyama, where I loved walking through the Saga bamboo forest. Surrounded by swaying, creaking, clicking giant bamboo, I felt safe, calm and reassured.

What can we learn from bamboo? Bamboo has many fine qualities. It is resilient. It bends but does not break easily. One night when living in Tokyo, I returned home from a party during a snowstorm. The snow had begun when the party started and by the time we all went home after midnight, it was deep and wet and still coming down. I shared a taxi with friends and we slid across Tokyo. I got home to see the row of bamboo in my small garden bent parallel to the ground. So I put on boots and a heavy coat over my party dress and went out to shake the snow off the bamboo. I was amazed to see them spring back to their old selves once the snow was gone. It was as though nothing at all had happened to them.

Bamboo is flexible. Not only can it bend and spring back but it sways and bends in the wind, adapting to the circumstances but retaining its strength and integrity.

Bamboo is fast-growing and sustainable. Of all the natural materials that we use for building, bamboo is perhaps the fastest-growing and the most renewable of all. Some bamboo self-propagate at an almost alarming rate. This is a fine quality when you want to grow building materials and food.

I chose bamboo as the theme for my website and business for the qualities above and for the calm and peaceful feeling that it gives me. Its fresh young shoots are delicious, the plant itself is wondrously green and beautiful and, at the same time, strong, flexible and enduring. Bamboo has inspired Asian artists down through the centuries. It has many of the qualities that I admire in good leaders and in people in general. We can learn a lot from spending some time with bamboo.

Japan, where I lived for sixteen years and which taught me so much, has recently suffered several devastating blows to its peaceful life and tranquility. Thinking of these difficult times for the Japanese, I am reminded of the bamboo that I learned to love in Japan. I’m reminded of the resilience, strength, dignity and flexibility of the Japanese people. They will need all these qualities to face the challenges ahead.

Windows into China

Everyone is talking about China. “This is the Chinese century. “ “China is the next great world power.” “China’s capacity for consumption and production will save the world’s economy.” “China’s military power is a threat to other Asian countries.” China inspires admiration, fear, envy, avarice and excitement.

Some of us are lucky enough to go there, meet people and see some of the country for ourselves. Each one of us who goes to China has a unique experience. We each interact with the country, the culture and the people in different ways, with all our experiences passing through the filters of our own histories, values and expectations. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to observe China objectively.

In November 2010 I had the privilege of seeing China through a lens not available to many visitors. It was my good fortune to participate in a kind of learning tour, known as a Quest, sponsored and arranged by Leaders’ Quest, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to improving the quality of leadership in the world and to influencing the way leaders have impact. (See Leaders’ Quest at http://www.leadersquest.org) One of the aspects of the Quest that I liked best was the process of giving our hosts the space to open up to us and reveal to us their part of the huge pageant that is China. They opened windows into their worlds and let us see some slices of real people’s lives in this country where generalizations are all but meaningless. The hosts told us unique stories about their China, not the China of the headlines but their own personal China and how they influenced and were influenced by it. The more often we visit a place and the longer we stay, the less certain we may become about what we think we know and understand about it. I have spent a lot of time traveling and working in China, and this Quest gave me the opportunity to be surprised, appreciative and to question my own assumptions and “knowledge” about China and its people.

The Sunday morning cooking class in an old Beijing hutong house delighted the foodie in me and enabled me to expand my Chinese food repertoire. The instructor, a fast-talking, no-nonsense chef, Zhou Chunyi, welcomed us into her home and kitchen and taught us knife skills, seasonings and cooking techniques in rapid-fire English. We made enough food to take much of it back to the hotel and share it with our fellow Questers who had chosen other morning activities. For any foodies heading to Beijing, contact Ms Zhou through http://www.hutongcuisine.com/.

Walking through a large Beijing park in the morning is an experience in live entertainment, music, dance and exercise. There were groups of people doing tai chi, ribbon dancing and vaudeville-style song and dance complete with musicians and a female impersonator in Chinese opera makeup. As one of our group observed, Chinese people should travel abroad to teach westerners the art of un-self-consciousness.

On our visit to Beijing University, we met Professor Zhu Feng, a professor in the School of International Studies and Deputy Director of the Center for International & Strategic Studies (CISS). He regaled us with a wide-ranging talk on the current economic conditions in China and the outlook for the future, and answered our questions about political change, the military and the future of Hong Kong.

During a week in Beijing and Chongqing, I met professors, private equity leaders, AIDS-affected children and the head of the foundation that supports them, an environmentalist with his own NGO, leaders of several social enterprises, a publisher and a journalist, a senior doctor at a large public hospital, an entrepreneur who employs skilled handicapped workers, the deputy head of the Chongqing Foreign Trade and Economic Relations Commission, two Tibetan scholars and the Leaders’ Quest interns from city and countryside. In total, it was a whirlwind view of modern China and its people that left me with questions and conundrums to ponder and an overwhelming sense of possibility. Some of the people I met engaged my interest and curiosity so much that I want to get involved. The question for me is how and when.

Reflections on Events in 2009

In 2009, the passing of Michael Jackson, the King of Pop and a man of staggering talent and showmanship, shocked his fans around the world. This kind of loss can bring on personal and even group catharsis. Losing great and admired figures such as Michael Jackson ad Princess Diana forces us to reflect on life itself and to feel compassion and grief for those we’ve lost. If they can die, then our eventual deaths seem more certain. Look at the gatherings of fans and admirers, and the outpourings of grief for the late heroes. Think of Princess Diana’s funeral procession, which shocked Britain as people called out her name and cried audibly in grief for someone they never actually knew.

I’ve always felt that Michael Jackson was a sad figure, despite his wealth and success, and that he seemed very lonely. Fame and wealth can be painfully isolating and may not bring the happiness we often assume should accompany public adoration and the ability to acquire anything we want. Striving and anticipating can be more emotionally rewarding than actually getting, which can sometimes prove to be a letdown.

So while Michael brought joy and excitement to millions of people and will leave an unparalleled musical legacy, his own life seemed, at least from the outside looking in, to have been very difficult and conflicted in many ways.

Most people, including me, don’t have to worry about the burdens of immense wealth or being pursued by the paparazzi. We can do our food shopping in peace and go out to dinner without being mobbed by strangers. Our very anonymity gives us wonderful scope for making choices about our lives. We are in control of ourselves and our lives through the options we identify and the choices we make. Sometimes it’s lilberating to realize how many choices and options we actually have.

The start of a new year, while an arbitrary date on an arbitrary calendar, can be a time for reflection and hope for the future. While I don’t encourage people to make unreasonable and wildly optimistic resolutions, it can be useful to make some goals for the future and start some new and healthful habits. We can put the previous year and its problems behind us and decide to live consciously and intentionally in the coming year.

Helping Leaders to Help the Organization

Most of our work with clients is on leadership, management, communication skills, and self-mastery.  We have helped leaders to identify and change behaviours and attitudes that were interfering with their effectiveness or limiting their scope in the organization.  These have included personal and interpersonal behaviours, the use of grounded and ungrounded assumptions for decision-making and negotiating, attitudes toward conflict and conflict resolution, having difficult conversations when coaching direct reports, creating a trusting work climate, managerial courage when making tough decisions, managing up effectively, building lasting relationships with peers and clients, setting expectations and standards for staff behaviour and performance, setting and maintaining personal boundaries for time management, self- and perception management through increased self-awareness and self-control, and other related behaviours and mindsets.

We can’t change anyone, but we can help people change themselves.  If people are open to self-examination and willing to consider changing, then our responsibility is to help them do so.  We don’t accept coaching assignments when we feel that either the fit is not good or that the person doesn’t meet our readiness factors for coaching.  Collecting pre- and post-coaching feedback helps us and the organization to assess the effectiveness of the coaching.  At the end of a coaching engagement, we send a feedback questionnaire to our clients, asking them to return it directly to the HR/learning professional, not to us.  We ask our client organizations for feedback about our coaching work.”

Board Certified Coach
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