"We evolved to need and depend on each other. It’s part of our biology."
It was 5:35 am, pitch dark, 6 degrees and cloudless. The road was very wet. Still eight guys were waiting to start the Thursday bike ride.
The whole way we were sprayed by vehicles beside us and the bikes in front. Soaked, dirty and cold we pulled in 45 kms later at our favourite café, ready for a coffee and pastry.
In the middle of the usual post ride banter, someone asked, “What time is the funeral?”
I asked, “Whose funeral?” and was told of the tragedy fallen on a cyclist from another group: his son had recently taken his own life.
“That young guy ticked all the boxes,” someone said. “An ‘A’ student at uni, a beautiful girlfriend and a large social circle. He suffered from anxiety but was under the care of good professionals… Not good enough I guess.”
I was devastated. He was the fourth young man connected to my immediate circle of friends who’d died by his own hand in the past six months.
Apparently eight hundred people attended his funeral. He was truly loved and is truly missed.
By chance, later in the day I listened to an interview with Hugh Mackay, Australia’s most eminent social researcher, talking about the ‘epidemic of anxiety and mental illness in the Western world.’ He says the evidence is overwhelming humans are hard wired to live in community. We evolved to need and depend on each other. It’s part of our biology.
“We only find ourselves in the faces of others,” says Hugh.
Yet these days we don’t live that way, led to believe ideal humans are strong and independent.
The result is a fragmenting society: more marital breakups, one parent families, people living alone, shift work, FIFO work, job changes and house moves. Many of us don’t know our neighbours so don’t rely on or trust them. Our faith in institutions and leaders has diminished. On-line ‘communities’ are a pale imitation of coffee with a real person. We retreat into ever disintegrating nuclear families, or on our own, doing life independently.
How are young men affected? Many don’t experience family or community behind them simply because those people are often not there.
‘Does anyone believe in me?’ they wonder. ‘Does anyone, other than my mum, really care?’
I went through this experience in my late twenties. It makes you anxious and stressed. Your body pumps too much adrenaline and cortisol. You get exhausted and don’t think straight. You have lots of friends but don’t talk to anyone for fear of looking weak (and you know they don’t know anything anyway). You party to dull the anxiety. You react impulsively to events and make poor decisions. You care little about other people.
What is the solution? Hugh Mackay says we must learn compassion, real compassion, which involves reaching out to people and making a sustained effort to know them.
This is so important for young men!
They need interaction with a man who has come alongside in support. Someone with the skills and courage to engage with difficult topics like: ‘Who am I?’ and ‘Why am I here?’.
I am calling for all mature men to reach out to a young man in your life and offer what you have: a willingness to believe in him, an ability to listen and ask questions, and your years of experience.
Many of us will find this uncomfortable because we don’t think of ourselves as ‘mentors’. It’s too formal a word, perhaps. Or we’re afraid of being rejected or not knowing what to do or say.
But all this can be overcome. Look at the resources on Men’s Business for guidance. Join a mentor community.
The prize is raising up a magnificent generation of men who will help rebuild our social fabric.
Hugh Mackay – Australia Re-Imagined, Podcast: http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/bigideas/reimagining-australia/10003652
Hugh Mackay – Australia Re-Imagined, Book: https://www.booktopia.com.au/australia-reimagined-hugh-mackay/prod9781743534823.html
Recently I had a coffee with a young friend who runs a not-for-profit organisation.
Normally he is one of the most positive people I know, which is why I so enjoy being with him. He makes me laugh. I’m inspired by his commitment to reconcile communities which historically have not understood each other. And he makes me wish I’d focused more as a young man on making a difference instead of money.
But that day my friend was really down. One of his organisation’s most important funders had just communicated they would not be renewing their grant. The implications were serious going forward regarding staffing and programmes.
He took full responsibility for what happened, which is a powerful thing to do when things don’t go to plan.
But then he started blaming himself for everything that had gone wrong. He felt he should have seen this problem coming. I really felt for the guy.
It was very familiar to me. I’m hard on myself when I’ve done something wrong. I default into ‘shoulda, woulda, coulda’ mode, incessantly mulling over things I believe in retrospect I should have / could have / would have done differently to prevent the disaster from happening. I play every possible alternative scenario through my head as if I could have known the outcome in advance and changed it.
Our culture seems to require a ritual self-flagellation when one has done something wrong. People want to see remorse, a necessary performance of penance displaying how really, truly sorry you are.
You then declare, ‘This will never happen again’ and hope someone believes you.
After you’ve spent enough time in the dog house, you sense the gods and those you’ve upset are finally appeased. You can then move on.
I’ve raked myself over the coals this way many times. It’s always sincere. But is it really being responsible? And does it lead to useful change? No!
The problem with ‘what’s wrong’ thinking is staying stuck there. It’s past based and mostly about protecting my ego. Feeling guilty and stupid does not encourage reflection, learning and adaptation.
Carl Jung, the great psychoanalyst, realised both the ubiquity and damage caused by self-condemnation among modern humans. Once one discovers the worst enemy is oneself, what then? Unless one believes God forgives, or can forgive oneself, “…we…condemn and rage against ourselves. We hide it from the world and refuse to admit ever having met this least among the lowly in ourselves.”
But if one truly wants to be responsible, learn and improve, what else can one do?
A few years ago, one of my best clients announced he was not going ahead with a multi-million-dollar consulting engagement. I’d been counting on it and was shocked. How could I have got it so wrong?
Everyone was upset with me – my boss, my colleagues and my client. I was flogging myself hard, wishing the earth would swallow me up.
Then a wise friend made a mind-altering suggestion.
“Why don’t you stop making yourself wrong?” he asked. “It’s not leading you anywhere productive.”
“I have to take responsibility,” I replied defiantly, wedded to the binary thinking of right / wrong, blame and shame. “The buck stops with me.”
“If you really want to be responsible,” he sniffed. “Ask yourself, ‘what’s missing?’”
It took a while but eventually the power of the question seeped into my brain. ‘What’s missing?’ gave me space to stop and inquire. There was no blame in the question, just curiosity.
Very quickly I realised I’d been trying to do too much on my own. I wasn’t using the expertise of smart people in the firm. Serving clients really suffered.
This simple insight helped me tremendously. I handed some responsibilities over to others and collaborated more with our experts. I prepared well for client meetings and workshops, which reduced my stress and made them happy. It was a virtuous circle.
When I recently told my young friend this insight over coffee he could see ‘what’s wrong?’ led only to self-condemnation. He was actually not to blame for anything. There was no way of foreseeing the funder’s negative decision. All that mattered now was an effective response.
What was missing was to keep sharing the vision with as many people as possible. He still had money in the bank and many leads to follow up. His burden lifted a little.
As mentors we can lift the curse of self-condemnation and help people think creatively. The technique is very simple. If someone is blaming themselves for a mistake, make the distinction between ‘something is wrong (with me)’ to ‘something is missing’. Share from your own experience of blaming yourself. Ask them how each statement makes them feel. For most it is a huge revelation. You’ll see them lighten up and gladly let go of making themselves wrong.
By asking ‘what is missing?’, you will encourage them to reflect without blame, shame or guilt, work out how to clean up the mess, and determine appropriate actions to move things forward.
Have a look at the website http://www.mensbusiness.net for more resources on being a better mentor.
I recently went away for a weekend together with twenty guys. There was no booze, drugs, porn, hookers, gambling, betting, fine dining, big games to watch, films or entertainment of any kind. The phone reception was terrible. We slept in bunks and had to listen to each other snore.
All we did was hang around the campfire, talk and listen. But it was a profound experience. In the words of my friend Malcolm:
What made it so great for me were the stories. One guy told us how he survived eleven years in a refugee camp. Another man shared his sorrow watching his parents get old. Another told us he'd stayed too long in the wrong job, wasting years at something he didn’t enjoy. Others shared how they felt about long term unemployment, debilitating illness, bereavement, depression, divorce, boredom and bullying at work. It was real and authentic, with nothing held back.
We grappled with the concerns men ponder privately but rarely ever vocalise, like:
• ‘Why do I feel disappointed with life?’
• ‘What is the dark side I am trying to hide from others?’
• ‘Where have I become divided against myself?’
As the poet Rainer Maria Rilke said, finding answers was not the point of the weekend,
The stories were generous and vulnerable. They became an anchor, assuring us we weren’t not crazy. They provided a bridge to hope, wherever that is and whenever (if ever) we get there.
One would think a group of men from the same community would slide easily into these conversations, but we didn’t. Some of us have known each other for over a decade but not exchanged more than ten words. A nodding acquaintance over coffee or a bike ride is an insufficient basis for men to feel comfortable opening up.
Silence helped dispel the initial awkwardness: on arrival after dusk, we were asked to walk without speaking for half an hour along a starlit road, wondering why we’d come. But on our return to camp you couldn’t shut us up.
We discovered how much we need friends. Real friends who will listen without interruption as we reveal our fears, pain, hopes and dreams. And without judgement as we admit to immaturity, selfishness, cruelty or thoughtlessness. And who’ll be generous and vulnerable enough to share their own stories.
We realised how we all find it difficult to maintain meaningful male friendships. You can be surrounded by wife, kids, colleagues and neighbours and still be lonely.
As journalist Billy Baker reports, when life revolves around work, getting to and from work, daddy time, chores and ferrying the kids around the easiest thing to drop is male friendship.
Dr Roger Patulny of the University of Wollongong says,
It’s made more difficult because our entire society is trending towards greater isolation:
• Fly-in Fly-Out rotations are hard on those who work away from home up to six weeks at a time, often eleven to twelve hours per day, seven days a week. The unspoken rule on site is to keep your problems to yourself. People don’t see their families or friends for weeks on end, and have no involvement in the local community.
• Workplaces where everyone wears a white collar aren't much Better. It can be hard to have meaningful friendships at work.
• A quarter of households now are people living on their own, up from eight percent in the 1950s.
• Then there’s isolation of working from home, shift work and all the time we spend in front of screens.
Loneliness can have serious health consequences, on a par with smoking and obesity for older men.
What do we do about it?
• Admit it to yourself when you are lonely
The problem when you are lonely is you don’t know it because you’re not talking to anyone. You just feel like crap, your confidence is low and the last thing you’re going to do is reach out.
• Remind yourself it won’t last forever
Male loneliness for most of us occurs at specific times of life caused by specific things. Retirement, divorce, illness and redundancy are incredibly isolating. Try and identify what’s happened in life to push you into a shell.
• Tell another guy you’re lonely and ask him out for a coffee or a beer.
If he gets all weird and embarrassed on you he’s the wrong person. Give the poor guy a break and ask someone else.
• Try to learn something from the experience
These times of loneliness and isolation can always teach us something. Where are you suffering in life? What do you need to change? What do you need to stop or start doing?
There are no easy answers but understanding yourself is a good start. We’re going to be putting some useful Learning Tools on our Resources page very soon to help men find out how to help themselves through loneliness.
If you want to find out more about our men’s activities or learn how to host a men’s weekend, please get in touch
When we first met more than fifteen years ago, my friend Pierre was enjoying life at the top of one of Europe’s largest law firms. For years, he’d been the global managing partner. His clients included important families and some of the world’s largest multinationals.
He then moved to London to take over the firm’s booming mergers and acquisitions practice. Pierre and his wife lived in a gracious apartment beside Royal Albert Hall with views over Hyde Park, enjoying all London had to offer. In his profession, it could not get any better.
But in 2005 the dream came to an end. Pierre was asked to move back to the Netherlands.
This was definitely not part of the plan. He and his wife loved cosmopolitan London, and had been planning eventually to retire to the US to be near their three children.
From a career point of view, he’d reached a dead end. Pierre was being pushed aside to make way for younger blood.
He agreed to return home and face the supposedly inevitable decline of a senior lawyer thought to be past his prime. To his credit, he was ‘committed to not being grumpy’ and decided to go out on a high note.
At the time, I was supporting Pierre as his coach. I thought the best way for him to prepare for an uncertain future was to get clear about his strengths. Neither of us realised how much this would change the direction of his career.
“Before I left London,” he said at the time. “We worked quite a bit on my strengths. Just doing the questionnaire was fun in itself*. It laid them out for me on paper. That was important. Then I was able to see I could live from my strengths. I didn’t do anything differently. But I was more comfortable doing the things I had to do, in my own way.
“For example, I used to be very transactional, totally focused on getting the job done. When I learned have all these strengths in relationship building, I began to put more attention on my co-workers. Not surprisingly when I became more relational I got so much more done! I started conversations. I became a better lawyer.
“In particular, I saw an opportunity to get closer to younger lawyers. I always knew I had a talent for mentoring people. It came naturally but only when I identified it as a strength did I begin to use it. Being more conscious of what I’m good at allowed me to be that way more consciously.
“It was important to concentrate on these strengths at that point in my career. I ’institutionalised’ them in myself.”
When I caught up with Pierre again, almost ten years later, he recalled the importance of this transition period.
“Looking back, I can honestly say I returned to the Netherlands wholeheartedly,” he said. “I began coaching younger professionals. I became the father of my juniors. The firm did not recognise the value of what I was doing initially but I did it anyway. The young people started challenging me too. I grew a lot in the process.
“Over time people recognised this was valuable. We developed a proper, firm wide, mentoring programme. Now there are around two hundred young lawyers taking part. Each one has a senior person looking after them. It is institutionalised.”
I was really proud of Pierre. Without any initial support, he’d created a wonderful legacy for future young lawyers coming through the system.
Instead of fading away as expected, he is now working out of the firm’s New York office. He and wife are delighted to be nearer their children. He told me about the results of his support for young people at work.
“It’s the first time any of them have seen their strengths laid out in a systematic way. They are amazed. It’s wonderful because it’s not about anyone’s weaknesses, only encouragement.
“I believe this generation, the Millennials, don’t want it to be all about business. They need more attention, someone to talk to. I used to get it from my partner in the car on our way to a meeting but now it must be systematic.
“Many need encouragement to go for a partner position, or be directed away if that’s not right for them. I’m able to be sincere with them in a way I never could before because we’re talking about an individual’s strengths.
“To be honest many of the young men don’t know who they are. They think everything must be perfect because this is the law! They can become very insincere as a result, pretending everything is fine. In reality they are all worried.
“Unfortunately, there aren’t enough female partners for the young women to look up to. But that gives them a lot of focus. The young women lawyers feel a sense of responsibility to be role models for those who come after.
“Recently I experienced one of my most satisfying moments at a dinner. An associate came up to me and said, ‘You always took the time to speak to your children when they called you. I will remember that when I have a family.’
“Identifying my values and being challenged on them was also important. The values were not new, but by framing them and putting them on the wall, my values became my constitution. Being a good lawyer I comply with them. In the dead of the night I could look at them and think, ‘Wow they’re not bad.’ My wife thinks they reflect who I am.
“I am now focused more than ever on living my strengths. This can be done in an arrogant way, but I just keep saying to myself that’s how I want to work.”
*Gallups Strengths Access
Disclaimer: I receive no payment from Gallup for recommending their strengths inventory. I just think it’s so good everyone would benefit!
My friend Joe is different from your typical mining executive. Like his colleagues, he is dedicated to keeping the plant working 24/7. But Joe is equally curious about the inner workings of human beings, starting with himself.
“A few years ago I went on a personal development journey to get a deeper understanding of who I am and what makes me tick. I wanted to be a more authentic ‘me’ unbridled by either real or perceived organisational or social barriers. I was fortunate to have a coach*, who as a first step encouraged me to get a better understanding of my strengths**.
“There are thirty-four strengths in total. We are all unique so for each person some are more dominant than others.
“This way of thinking is very different to the typical organisational approach which is largely to ignore strengths and focus almost entirely on weaknesses.
“I was sceptical when I first saw my print out. I read the descriptions of some of my top strengths and thought, ‘That isn’t me.’ For example, number two on my list is ‘Includer’, described as someone who spontaneously notices people’s good qualities, is accepting and inclusive of others and helps them fit in.
“I needed to validate them. I asked myself, ‘Are they true?’ and ‘Do they resonate?’
“I notice people’s good qualities some of the time, but definitely not all the time! So does that make me an Includer, or not?’
“Then my coach suggested I think about them as talents, which require a regular and constant investment of time, skill and knowledge from me to develop into strengths where my performance is consistent at a high level.”
What Joe was saying resonated for me. I am very good at thinking strategically and learning new things, and possess a strong drive to achieve results. But I don’t operate in these modes 100 per cent of the time. Hence, I find it helpful to think of strategy, achieving and learning as talents worth developing into strengths. I’m sure it will be a life-long project!
I then asked Joe which talents or strengths were top of his list.
“The surprise was four of my top six all have to do with relating to people. It took me a while to accept I have this softer side but gradually I realised it’s true.”
Joe’s relationship building talents draw him to work with others to achieve a common goal, talk to people about their hopes and dreams, share what he knows with others and exchange ideas. He enjoys having deep, speculative conversations with interesting people and developing others, helping them figure out what they need to progress. He is a curious person, fascinated by the mysteries of life. He believes in the fundamental connectedness of the world.
“I also realised the way I get things done is primarily through solving problems. This means I seek to understand the facts to figure out what’s wrong in a situation and then work with others to resolve it. I appreciate the rewards of successfully resolving difficult issues together.
“I always think about the future. I need to be inspired about what is coming or life feels dead. I can go through hard times now if I’m looking forward to better times ahead.
“Lastly, everything I do must be consistent with my core beliefs. Unless I stay true to my purpose in life and my values I lose direction.
“That had me explore the question: what is my purpose in life? I realised I am here to make a positive and lasting contribution to the people and the environments around me. I am willing to go to great lengths to improve people’s lives, helping them resolve problems affecting their quality of life.
“In terms of values, what is important to me is being the kind of person who respects others and does what he says. My priorities are family, community, environment and well-being.”
Joe sent me a four-page document bringing together his purpose (why he is here), values (what is important and how he makes decisions) and his talents and strengths (how he is going to get there).
“I’m really glad I did this work. I’m moving on from my job soon so it’s important to go after opportunities that play to what I’m good at.”
Joe has worked for big corporations most of his career earning a predictable salary with good benefits. But he is not worried about the uncertain future.
“Being futuristic has me be interested in what might lie ahead. I enjoy thinking about it and how to get there.”
He is not too concerned with who is next employer is going to be or how much he is going to get paid. Instead he is focusing on the big picture given by his talents, strengths, purpose and values.
“I’m really not sure what the specifics are. I want to work where friendships and team work are encouraged. I want to be around people interested in developing themselves and the organisation is interested in its people.
“I’ll seek roles that fit my values and organisations defining their purpose by their contribution to society. I need to work for a vision I can believe in.”
* Deborah Protter of The Values Partnership
** The best strengths inventory I know of is the Gallup Strengths tool. Millions of people have used it:
Disclaimer: I receive no payments or benefits of any kind from Gallup for recommending their products. I just want everyone to discover their strengths!
I asked Greg, a good friend who has built up a thriving business, is a wonderful dad and husband and a contributor to his community, to tell me the story how he got to where he is today.
“It certainly wasn’t school,” he said. “I was one of those dumb kids. The teachers told me so. And my class mates. Everyone.
“The truth was I had no academic ability,” he continued matter-of-factly. “I’d read something but try as I might I couldn’t get it. I never had the answer. They kept telling me I was dumb and I believed them.”
My heart sank at the thought of it.
“I was also small, weak and totally un-sporty,” he said. “My ego was broken.
“I cared what people thought of me and wanted to compensate for my failures. Fortunately, I was good at communicating and made friends easily. I deliberately set out to get in with the smart, sporty, popular people. Especially the big, cool guys. They protected me.”
“How did you become the person you are today?” I asked again.
“It’s only the past ten years I’ve thought about that. How did I become me? I didn’t used to think I was unique or special. Everyone seemed the same.
“Now at fifty I’m discovering all about myself. Strengths Access* put it in a box for me and wrapped it up.
“It’s helped me identify the combination of strengths and talents unique to me. For example, I already knew I am good at relating to others but now I realise I have this ability to understand someone’s thought process. They feel comfortable with me because I get inside them. It is a gift few people have.
“I’m also good at motivating people, building relationships and aligning teams. Only a small percentage of the population can do what I do. Now I know I am special. I feel more whole as a person.
“It’s also allowed me to accept my weaknesses. I’m now ok with my academic history. Being ‘dumb’ doesn’t matter anymore.”
I leaned back in wonder. Here is an accomplished man who for most of his life thought he was rubbish. But that was just a story, fabricated more than forty years ago by people in authority telling him a lot of crap about himself. Unfortunately, he believed it.
I think many of us, including me, have had similar experiences.
This story helped Greg survive in some ways but soon became limiting. Anything positive he did, like creating friendships, he dismissed as a mere tactic to escape the burden of being ‘dumb’.
By discovering his natural strengths and talents, however, he has been given an entirely new story about himself. He realises he is an effective communicator. He has the gift of winning others over. He can lead teams of people. Ultimately Greg knows who he is and what gives him joy in life. He is at peace about the past and can now concentrate on making his unique contribution to the world.
“I’m very clear what I will and will not do. It’s a small thing but I used to write job descriptions for people we wanted to hire. I thought that was what the boss supposed to do. I am the one paying the money so I should be clear who I want to hire, right? But I’m no good at that sort of thing. It’s bad for me, bad for the business and bad for the people we’re interviewing. It wastes so much of my time doing something I’m no good at. I’ve given someone else the job.
“I also hate cold calling. I found a great guy in the Philippines who sounds completely American. He is bright as anything. He makes initial contact with potential clients, finds out if there is any interest and if so, I’m handed a warm lead! I end up closing a lot more business than before.
“Now I’m spending most of my time with clients. They’re the ones paying the big money for our people. I need to understand what their needs are and get my organisation to deliver. Everyone wins.”
Watch for more articles about people developing their strengths. Please get in touch to talk about strengths based mentoring.
*The best strengths inventory I know of is the Gallup Strengths Access. Millions of people have used it: https://www.gallupstrengthscenter.com/Purchase/en-US/Index
Disclaimer: I receive no payments or benefits of any kind from Gallup for recommending their products. I want everyone to discover their strengths!
The boys were sitting quietly around the fire with no idea what was coming next. All they knew was the final stage of their ‘passage to manhood’ was about to begin.
Nearby I was helping their fathers prepare for this important event.
“You’re about to do something that will change your son’s life forever,” I began. “But first you’ve got to make a promise: stop trying to fix him.”
They looked puzzled.
“You may not realise you try to fix your kids,” I continued. “But as parents we focus too much on their weaknesses. It’s part of our culture. Just ask my daughter. She had to tell me several times to stop!”
A few smiled.
“The world is telling our boys they are inadequate,” I said. “They are bombarded with messages demanding perfection for how they should look, dress, speak, feel and perform. Who they are right now seems never to be enough. Many feel anxious about the future and wonder how will they succeed in life.
“But your boys don’t need fixing because there’s nothing wrong with them! From now on your job as a father is to focus your attention on everything that works about your son. He’s had thirteen years to develop into the person he is today. He has unique strengths and talents. There’s never been anyone like him and there never will be.
“You may not see his strengths, however, if they differ from yours. For example, you could be ultra-competitive in sport and business whilst he puts all his attention on caring for others or reflecting about the future.
“You also may be pushing him to become something he is not. Ask yourself if your aspirations for him match what he naturally loves doing.
“Where is your son at his best as a human being? When does he most shine in life? What does he love to do? In a few minutes, you’re going to tell him in front of everyone. Finally, each boy’s strengths should also be acknowledged by another man in addition to his dad.”
Soon the men returned to the fire and sat around their sons in silence. A throne-like chair bedecked with branches was at one end. I motioned for the first lad to take his place.
“I call on this boy’s father and his advocate to step forward,” I announced. “Tell us who he is.”
His father stood beside the throne and began speaking, unable to hold back the tears.
“My son’s greatest strength is his kindness. He is the most caring, thoughtful person I know. Animals, children, his brother and sister, his friends, his mum, his grandparents, it doesn’t matter. No one is left out.”
A few boys turned their heads, finding the intimacy too much. The others stared in astonishment. The men were wiping their eyes.
Another man stepped forward and stood on the other side of the throne.
“The strength I see in this boy,” he announced. “Is his strong presence in front of people. He tells wonderful stories that are both moving and funny.”
The boy seemed to grow in front of our eyes, a look of pure joy on his face. For a moment, he was a prince, his father a king and the other man a lord. These men had named his very essence in front of the important people in his life, etching it into the core of his being.
One after the other all fifteen boys took the throne to be anointed into their new identities by their dads and other men. It was a beautiful, intimate moment.
I was delighted for them yet felt a note of sadness creeping in. My father was proud of my performance at school and sport, which felt good, but he couldn’t help me uncover the strengths and talents behind my success.
His main interest was for me to become an investment banker. It was comforting as a young man to have my future mapped out but it kept me in a vacuum, unaware of who I was and where I could best direct my energy, except to fulfil his dreams for me.
Now, forty years later I bring my strengths to leadership consulting and mentoring. I’ve worked with hundreds of leaders, many of them senior people. When we first meet, most are unaware of their strengths, or even why it’s important to understand who they are when at their best. Like me, their Dads probably never told them.
“I used to think, ‘If I’m good at something, I’m good at it,’” one client recently told me. “’What else do I need to know?’”
Few have been taught to develop their strengths as the way to succeed and flourish. Instead they get stuck grinding out results, putting their attention on fixing their weaknesses.
When these leaders identify their strengths*, however, the effects can be transformational. A CEO of a not-for-profit recently told me, “Now I’m consciously thinking about my strengths. When I come up against a challenge, I think of ways I can use my strengths to address it. Things come to mind I would not have thought of otherwise.”
A CEO of a tech start-up said to me, “I’m now aware how weighted my strengths are to thinking strategically. It’s a relief to know I can focus on strategy and not worry about execution. I have some great people who do that way better than me.”
My wife Deborah, a strengths coach at The Values Partnership, says, “Once you discover your strengths it is important to ‘own’ them. This means accepting who you are and are not.”
That’s hard for people who believe they need to be good at everything. But the real joy of owning your strengths is getting to focus on what you most love to do.
“It took a while for me to own my Command strength,” said the tech CEO. “I used to get angry and later felt ashamed for losing control. Now I know there’s nothing wrong with me. I redirect the powerful energy of Command to take charge in ways that reassure people and give them confidence.”
The head of the not-for-profit added, “I’ve had to learn how to deal with people’s reactions to my strength of generating new ideas. Now I frame my thinking in ways people can hear it.”
If you want to spend your time and energy doing what you love my encouragement is to understand who you are at your best by getting to know your strengths.
I also encourage you to help the young people in your life identify their strengths. Tell them how they contribute to the world. Encourage them to focus on what they’re good at. You will leave a legacy of confident leaders who know who they are.
*The best strengths assessment I know is Gallup's Strengthsfinder.
This article also appears in LinkedIn. If you enjoyed it the next describes the journey of how to develop your strengths as a leader.
Please get in touch with Deborah firstname.lastname@example.org or Miles email@example.com at The Values Partnership to find out more about developing your strengths as a leader.
I was travelling to Melbourne with mixed emotions, excited about my daughter Lily’s twenty-first birthday party that evening, but also worried I had no idea what to say in my father’s speech.
The risk of getting it wrong was high. I’d heard Lily and friends groan regularly about cringe worthy ‘Dad jokes’ at birthday party speeches. Humour had to be avoided.
Even worse were some of the awful fathers’ speeches I’d witnessed. These men told embarrassing stories about their children, ironic and sometimes clever, but lacking warmth, acknowledgement and appreciation.
I’d hoped these dads were just trying to be funny. Or wanting to counterbalance the gushing emotional tributes sure to come from friends and family. Or maybe I was being too sensitive.
Yet I could not help feeling these birthday boys and girls had been profoundly let down by their dads.
I wanted to do better in my father’s speech. But high up over the Nullarbor with only ninety minutes to landing, I was drawing a blank.
I flicked through my e-mails, my standard delaying tactic for avoiding challenging tasks. I noticed an unopened message from Lily sent the previous day containing an ‘interesting article’. As I read on I knew Divine Inspiration had come at just the right time. I had all I needed for the speech and hastily scribbled some notes before the plane landed.
Here is what I said:
“Good evening all and welcome to Lily’s twenty-first celebration!
Just yesterday she sent me an article called Why Gen Y Yuppies Are So Unhappy maybe some of you read it. If the article is accurate there are a lot of unhappy people in this room!
If you have not read it here is a quick summary. We are introduced to Lucy, a typical Gen Y who has been told her whole life she is special. But when faced with the reality of working life she soon realises she is not special at all. In fact, she is like most everyone else, and well behind some massive high achievers. All those medals she’d received for finishing ninth in the dressage competition count for little now in the Deloitte Graduate Programme. So the message to Lucy is something like get over yourself and get to work.
At the end of the article, the author fails in his attempt to shift from relentless negativity to something positive. His final message to Lucy is ‘Ignore how other people are doing, keep dreaming big but stop thinking you’re special.’
I wonder how poor Lucy feels after all that. If I was her I’d be confused and discouraged. She’s been raised in a culture comprising social media, friends, school, university, colleagues and her employer who all constantly compare her to everyone else more publicly than any time in history. Furthermore, since she was small her ambitious parents have told her she’s special because of her achievements great and small.
Lucy is trapped in this world view.”
I paused, feeling time slow down. Confident smiles on the faces around me faded, revealing an aching vulnerability. Beneath their poise was uncertainty about themselves and their futures. They were hungry for encouragement. I kept going.
“So I want to propose a radically different view: I think you Gen Ys are special! Each and every one of you. Not only for your grades, sporting achievements and career prospects, as important as those are. It’s really about who you are as human beings. No one who has ever lived or will live is like you. Each one of you has a unique gift to offer the world.
Please take time to find out who you really are. Not just the superficial stuff we can all see. Ask people you love to tell you what they see in you. And hold on to it for all your life.
I cannot wait to see who each one of you becomes as you blossom into your full selves.
Now I’m going to tell you about someone particularly special this evening – Lily – and the twenty-one things I love about her as a person, in no particular order:
The mood had lifted. When I finished many young people thanked me. They felt special! A few had private conversations with older people in the corners to voice their self-doubts and gain reassurance.
Soon, however, everyone was up having huge fun, dancing away like mad fools until the early hours. It was one of the best parties I’ve ever been to.
I was reminded how crucial are such milestones in life. Even more important is that men step into these opportunities to bestow blessings on young people, fill them with confidence, let them know we believe in who they are and stand with them.
Why are these moments so powerful? Unlike the love of a mother who bears and nurtures a child from inception, a father’s love is discretionary. The indifference of many men toward their kids is in part reflected in lukewarm speeches at weddings and birthdays. Sadly, these guys seem to forget the immense power we men have to build up our children. Or worse, we shy away from it.
By naming a child’s strengths and gifts publicly, telling the whole community why this young person is a special human being, a man is announcing his full approval to the world and sending them forth.
If you are a father, or have a close relationship with a young person, please create occasions to speak into their lives both privately and publicly. Or if you know a father, please encourage him to do so.
And we need to recognise more than achievements and awards, the useful but ultimately external stuff that fades away. Instead we must keep reminding our children who they are as unique human beings. It is one of the most important jobs we have as men.
 Adam’s Return by Richard Rohr
A lot of fathers assure me they do.
But what do the boys think? Do they feel they’re getting what they most need from their Dads?
I decided to find out. I approached a private boys’ school in my neighbourhood in Perth, Western Australia to conduct a survey. More than 250 boys from years seven, eight and nine participated, over 50% of the twelve to 14-year-old cohorts.
We asked the boys to respond to six questions, giving them a range of responses to choose from (maximum three) plus a free text option. Here is a brief summary of the survey results.
Our conclusion: Teenage boys need support from their fathers to face the future with confidence, not through telling, pushing or nagging but by dads being interested, encouraging and acknowledging, and giving boys space to learn.
We were eager to share these results so the school invited almost a thousand fathers of boys from years seven to twelve to come to a discussion evening.
We were hoping for a couple of hundred but on the night forty men turned up.
It was disappointing. Over ninety-five percent of the fathers weren’t there.
I rationalised many must have been busy with other pressing priorities at home and work. They probably pushed the invitation to one side and soon forgot about it, like I often do when I’m under the pump. And then there’s ‘school fatigue’ from too many invitations throughout the year.
Maybe some fathers thought this survey wasn’t relevant or they already knew it all. Possibly some men felt they’d be criticised and stayed away.
But there was no way to find out. I had to let it go and switch my focus to the men sitting in front of me.
We had a lively discussion interpreting the results. Most of the fathers came to a similar conclusion as we did: They need to spend more time encouraging, building up and guiding their sons to fulfil their dreams for the future. But a light touch is needed, providing a supportive backstop whilst allowing their boys to figure life out for themselves.
But then suddenly, out of the blue, one man shouted out, “I have a real problem with all this. My son spends every waking minute on his bloody PlayStation. I don’t know what his problem is. When I was eleven my mates and I were camping on our own!”
You could hear a murmur of agreement coming from pockets around the room. Obviously this guy wasn’t alone in his concerns.
I did a quick fact check in my head. My first canoe trip as a boy back in Canada was led by two 17-year olds rigorously trained to lead wilderness experiences, backed up by adult staff back at camp. It would have been impossible on our own.
My friends in the Scouts went camping at eleven, but were always supervised by adults.
Another friend recently told me how at eleven years old he and a friend pitched a tent two hundred metres from the house on the family farm. But they were home in their beds by ten o’clock, terrified by the sounds of the night.
I concluded these grumbling men were idealising their own childhoods, exaggerating memories of independence and freedom. They were not curious what forces act on their sons to choose PlayStation over being outdoors.
I learned a lot that night, concluding fathers need to get to grips with three things.
First, we need to be aware of ourselves and the environment in which our kids are growing up. Men cannot allow the negative aspects of technology, consumerism and busyness to consume our children, and must actively intervene on their behalf.
Second, many men give more to their jobs than their families. I did for a long time, telling myself I was ‘providing’.
But I was also very ambitious and funding an unsustainable lifestyle. I had to learn be honest with myself and clarify what was most important.
Third, I realised a lot of fathers get stuck in short term behaviour management with their kids - homework, chores, punctuality, squabbling. Men must understand the big game is to prepare their sons to face the world, which requires learning how to encourage, affirm, listen to and empower their boys.
At the end of the night we announced a series of six seminars for fathers on how to address these challenges. Half a dozen men regularly turned up. They were humble guys, eager to share. No one had taught us the critical skills so we learned from each other.
We began by talking about our own Dads, both the positive and negative, to understand better a father’s role. We dug deeper into what boys need from their fathers. We learned how to identify and nurture a boy’s strengths. We explored the essentials of developing responsibility, discipline and collaboration. We discussed how to talk to boys about sex and pornography. And lastly we looked at rites of passage for boys.
I know most men want to give their boys what they need. The challenge for all of us is to invest the time and develop the skills to do it.
Miles and his colleagues run rites of passage events for fathers and sons. Please get in touch if you are interested.
Lesson 6 – The Wisdom of Gollum
‘Lesson from the Road’ is a series on the discoveries I made about myself both as a man and husband whilst walking almost 600 kms together with my wife Deborah.
Our journey followed The Way of St Francis, an ancient pilgrims’ route through central Italy. It was a beautiful and uplifting time for both of us. But along with the joy we also experienced tears. As we walked, issues came up I’d never fully addressed and could no longer push away.
I’m glad to say by the end of the pilgrimage, my twenty-five year relationship with Deborah was stronger. These stories from the road recount what I learned on the way. I hope they entertain, illuminate and even help in your relationships with the people you love.
Here is lesson six. Please share it with others who might want to read it.
Walking is a form of therapy. There are few distractions as you trudge down the road for hours on end. As the scenery slowly passes by in front of you, your life passes by inside in much the same way.
One thing I began to notice was how much I talk to myself. It’s as if there’s a conversation going on inside between two quite separate people: ‘me’ (whoever that is!) and a Gollum-like character I never see. He seems to sit just outside my peripheral vision, rendering judgement and opinions on just about everything. And I defend.
One day after a sharp disagreement with my wife, the little guy had the volume turned right up.
‘Nasty Deborah,’ said Gollum, seemingly on my side for a change. ‘Nasty, nasty, nasty. She was so mean to you!’
‘Yes, she was,’ I silently replied. ‘Totally unreasonable. She made me so angry!’
‘You were right,’ he continued. ‘She deserved to cry.’
He got me. I suddenly felt a surge of remorse. What a jerk I’d been!
Gollum then cunningly changed tack.
‘You are the nasty one!’ he cried. ‘Nasty, nasty, nasty. You made her cry!’
‘I know, I know,‘ I said. ‘Shut up about it will you?’
‘You’re cruel,’ he went on. ‘She is your wife. How can you live with yourself?’
And so on it went for kilometres!
Am I crazy or is this normal for at least some people some of the time? To try to make sense of it all I visited Steve, a psychologist I’ve known for many years.
First, he reassured me I’m not crazy. He then had me look at my past to understand why I behave the way I do.
After the death of my mother I was thrust into a role of responsibility at the age of fifteen. I had to be strong for Dad and my three younger brothers. If I fell apart I feared the family might too.
I did such a good job looking composed I can’t recall any adult ever asking how I was doing. That was hard. I wish someone had the insight to realise it was all a pretence.
I just got tougher, concluding if I’m not going to get cared for then no one will.
We had no outlet for our grief at home so there was a lot of conflict amongst the siblings and with Dad. I felt compelled to act as disciplinarian and peace maker.
The end of school was on the horizon and I desperately wanted out the day it was finished. I became an achiever, pushing aside my feelings and the desires of my heart, and trying to looking competent and in control. Weakness and failure repelled me. Gentleness was a luxury. When the pressure was on no one got a break, especially me.
This way of operating did not change much over the ensuing forty years. My harder edges got a bit rounder here and there but looking back at my life this way, I can see why I still react the way I do.
When my wife Deborah gets sick, for example, I have little empathy. Instead I feel like an adolescent, protesting, ‘Who is going to look after me?’
If she makes a trivial error, I criticise her because people shouldn’t make mistakes. If she wants to sleep in on the weekend and walk around all morning in her pyjamas, I get anxious because I think there is too much to do. Sometimes I even make up ‘rules’ I impose on her without consent; for example, if I get up early to exercise so should she.
After each outburst I feel remorse for being so hard. I don’t want to be this way but I do not feel I have much choice. I always end up in an endless loop arguing with Gollum!
The powerful insight from Steve was to give myself a break. While it’s useful to take responsibility for my behaviour, self-condemnation leads nowhere.
So I’ve started some experiments. Like hanging around with Deborah doing nothing. No achieving, no results, no agenda, no schedule. Just chilling. Giving her a hug and getting some in return. Picking a rose from the garden and putting it in a little vase on her bedside table. Laughing at my mistakes. Encouraging her to walk around in pyjamas on the weekend. Maybe even having a nap after lunch.
And just because I can do something, I might even say ‘no’ and trust it will take care of itself.
Gollum seems to be a bit quieter lately.
Have you ever realised just how superior you are to other people? I do, sometimes even with my wife. It’s not a recipe for a success in a relationship! Look out for lesson seven.
I’d love to hear your story and maybe even publish it in an article! Write something, paste it into the Comment box on the Contact page and send it along.