September 2009

The developmental digest for emerging leader/managers devoted to growth and excellence


Section 1 - Topical Topics

Leadership And Moral Decisions

In our previous issue we addressed some of the neuro-psychological underpinnings of decision making and also of learning processes in general. There’s little to debate on the relevance and importance to any effective leader of both of these cognitive skills but the discussion has raised some interesting questions regarding applications.

I’d like to deal with these special concerns here and, in particular, those that concern the controversial aspect of decision making in a moral context.

It’s true, leaders can find themselves in some pretty tight spots on moral issues; as one remarked recently, "It’s the occasional demand to ‘play God’ that unnerves me the most. I’m not sure I want that job!” You may well agree with this sentiment. Yet we have to demonstrate effective and appropriate leadership in many such situations, usually not of our choosing and often significant, perhaps even critical in impact for all or some of those involved.

A quick review . . .
Let’s accept that a leader is concentrating on two basic endeavours – focusing the desire for change that’s resident in others as well as on facilitating the creation of a sustainable new reality.

We may need to look at these as two separate actions in many moral situations. Moral issues do tend to change in their perceived value as they migrate from personal to public domains and they may not be entirely consistent even within the same person over time.

Driving moral-based learning experiences and associated decisions is the same dopamine-based response that generally applies. It originates in the Nucleus Accumbens Septi (NAcc) of the forebrain and plays a vital role in generating both rewards and addictions; when it’s stimulated, we experience pleasure. The process incorporates an anticipatory mechanism and significant modifications can be effected through the actions of the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC). This way, with repeated exposures, we learn that certain events are intensely, somewhat, or marginally pleasurable and we’ll respond accordingly.

We have little or no conscious control over this mechanism and often may not even be aware of its impact. So, in effect, many of our most significant decisions, actions and responses are not only deeply entrenched but they are unknown to us.

At the same time, we’ve been misled into believing that the subsequent rational (conscious) process is actually doing all the work and thus has sole accountability for the output! When we experience direct conflict between the product of our ingrained response and that which we have reasoned using the prefrontal cortex alone we are ‘in two-minds’ and confusion abounds.

This dichotomy, of course, has to be resolved at some point, and the two minds seek reconciliation – a balanced perspective which is optimally appropriate to the circumstances. Left to its own devices, the brain accomplishes this quite well; when we attempt to override it, to impose ‘executive’ control or give way to the raw emotional reactions (the limbic hijack), we confuse ourselves and everyone around us.

Moral Impact . . .
So, what makes a moral issue different from other life experiences? One aspect, likely a pivotal one, is the scope of its impact; the locus of its effectiveness. Many issues in life affect only our selves; there’s little or no impact beyond the borders of our own consciousness – what we think or feel about the circumstances in which we find our selves, or whether or not we’ll choose to respond to what is happening to us.

Within the bounds of our private perceptions – the values we attach to our experiences – we owe no allegiance other than to our selves. The instant, though, that we reach out and touch the reality of another person, we cross a boundary and we are subject to issues of morality. Morality is about responsiveness.

So, when we respond to situations that involve others, and how we might treat them, the moment that our consciousness touches another, we incur special responsibilities. This is central to the role of a leader – one who focuses and facilitates change in others. Leadership is a moral proposition whether we like it or not; there is no escape.

The matter of balanced minds is now imperative. We cannot, as leaders, afford the luxury of allowing either emotionality or rationality to dominate our thoughts and/or actions. Mastery of the merging of the minds is an essential aspect of any leadership intervention.

However, our learning and decisions are initiated at the emotional level and executive influence is brought to bear by our higher, rational functions later in the process. An effective blending is required or the outcome is tainted. How can we be assured that this is always accomplished?

The Significant Challenge . . .
Consider the following scenario. John and Julie are siblings, on vacation together and having a wonderful time. After a very pleasant day hiking in the countryside they return to an excellent dinner and a bottle of wine and liqueurs. At this point it occurs to them that sex would be the perfect way to end the day.

Julie is on the pill but John nevertheless uses a condom. After the experience they agree that while it was meaningful it will not be repeated. A few months later they discover that the experience has actually deepened and enhanced their relationship, yet it remains a secret between them.

My question to you is, "Did they do wrong?”

This provocative situation was originally proposed by psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who in his research discovered that there were a definite majority who immediately condemned the action, some with forceful expression. When pressed to defend their strong judgment and condemnation, they responded with rational arguments such as the known adverse impact on the genetics of children resulting from such incestuous unions or the strong possibility that such behaviours can disrupt or at least undermine normal family relationships.

Haidt would point out that double precaution had been taken and that their relationship had actually benefitted. Undeterred, those opposed would seek other rational reasons why such behavior could not be tolerated, including ultimate appeals to authority – the Bible, accepted social practice, ‘decent people’, all of whom state that it’s wrong!

The decision about the ‘rightness’ of this type of behavior is not rational – it’s emotional. Something deep inside us tells us that no matter the circumstances, incest is abhorrent. We will not usually condone it no matter the argument that can be made. Our emotional mind has made the decision and it’s left to our rational mind to explain it.

So, there are two separate systems at work in moral issues and they’re sometimes in conflict. This is indicated by what happens with psychopaths who appear to lack the emotional component and are guided or even driven by rationality alone. They are well able to explain and defend their actions fully independent of what normal people would or could accept – it seems, in this case, there is no emotional decision to consider.

By contrast, consider the unfortunate condition of those who are autistic or ‘mind blind’. They have experiences at the emotional level but lack concern or awareness of what impact these might have on others; they are detached from altruistic feelings, empathy or responsiveness to the condition of others. The so-called ‘mirror neurons’ in their prefrontal cortex are inactive. They feel but they do not identify with others and/or act to express them selves.

What to do? . . .
Most of us are not affected by such extremes and must wrestle with the balancing process, but we need to do so in full knowledge of how we are creating the decision. We must have control, or even mastery over the balancing process – so consider the role of perspectives (for framing) and perceptions (for assigning value)!

Let’s begin by accepting that all events are neutral. It is the individual who both frames and evaluates the experience or event thus bestowing value upon it. We are all well able to assess the meaning of a situation independently of others; the question is can we do it effectively?

If we credit both minds, the emotional and the rational, with having their own independent logic systems, and if we can accept that they will each work diligently to produce an optimal answer, and given that there will be a balancing given sufficient time and the absence of distortion, we can appreciate that wisdom will follow.

When we force the process, either by rushing to a conclusion, by overriding the natural process to generate a ‘desired’ outcome, or by allowing one or other of our minds to mislead us, we will develop sub-optimal solutions. There are approaches that will tame this error proneness resident in each mind if we choose to use them.

The ‘trick’ is to use the rational mind more as a lawyer than as a scientist. This means that, as we reflect and consider all the arguments in a complex moral situation, we need to use

  • Evidence-based information
  • Probing questions
  • Cross examination
  • Argument and counter-argument
  • Verification and validation, and
  • Reasoned conclusions

The alternative is to take the scientific approach where we narrow our scope of attention, focus on confirming evidence, build supportive arguments and attempt to prove our working hypothesis. This is indeed a reasoned approach but it can result often in win-lose outcomes.

There are challenges enough as we proceed. Our rational mind is limited in the number of variables it can manage at any one time – seven plus or minus two is a good number; there’s a pitfall known as the ‘certainty trap’ where we can delude ourselves by being selective in choice of input, the process can be distracted by current mood and preoccupation, it is relatively slow and it may need external/objective reference criteria to ensure impartiality.

Likewise, the emotional mind is subject to distortions such as a vulnerability to ‘loss aversion’ where the fear of loss is disproportionately stronger than the hope of gain, pleasure ‘hijacks’ where we defer considered action in favour of immediate gratification or pleasure, impulsivity and impetuousness and even that old bogeyman ‘stereotyping”. Note that most of these will occur below the threshold of conscious awareness.

The Bottom Line . . .
Deliberate awareness and due diligence will help us to make better moral-based decisions. It will take conscious and consistent effort and, regrettably, there are no quick fixes, easy formulae or ‘stock’ answers. In pressured situations, when time is short, we’ll rely on our emotional mind (our ‘gut’) but we do have the opportunity to school this mind through continuing perfect practiceand proper rehearsal.

In novel situations, where we have no precedent to rely upon, cold rationality will serve us best. We must always be alert for the rational pitfalls mentioned above though and our rational mind is receptive to training and enhancement under our control.

It all boils down to "keep an open mind and an open heart and the future will unfold the way it should”. Why not give this some thought?

I'd welcome your questions, comments and suggestions. We can all learn through dialogue and your experiences will undoubtedly gain more value when shared. Please contact me at

A Note to our Readers . . .

Previous series of articles on the topics of

  • Tomorrow’s Leaders – a model for SME organizations
  • The Leadership Crucible the ‘making’ of leaders
  • Leadership Characteristics a comprehensive catalogue of leader qualities
  • Succession Planning the strategic argument, principles and strategies, and
  • Managing Change – every person’s guide to painless processes

have been summarized as discussion guides for those who lead and manage through mentoring and coaching. If you would like to secure a copy for your own use, please contact us.

It is a pleasure to share ideas with you and we’d welcome your questions, suggestions and comments. They’ll assist us refine and expand the essential value of these initiatives. Thanks in anticipation for your participation.

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Timely Insights

Peer Group Organizations...

Contact a peer-advisory group operating in your local area. Here’s a sampling of some of the largest:

Innovators Alliance
Coverage: E & SW ON               

Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO)
Coverage: .BC, AB, SK, MB, ON, PQ   

Presidents of Entrepreneurial Organizations (PEO)
Coverage: SW ON                     

Women Presidents’ Organization (WPO)
Coverage: BC, AB, ON, PQ

TEC The Executive Committee
Coverage: BC, AB, SK, MB, ON, PQ, NB

Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO)
Coverage: BC, AB, MB, ON, PQ, NF, NB, NS

Virtus Inc.
Coverage: Greater Vancouver

Human Capital Institute...

A brief reminder is appropriate, as we head into the busy fall season and put the pressure on for year-end results. The Human Capital Institute (HCI) is an excellent source of informational and inspirational workshops and seminars.

This established organization prepares a regular listing of a wide range of instructional events all centered on the growth and development of our most valuable asset and strength resource – our people. If you’ve not perused the offerings recently, take a minute now and refresh / revitalize yourself!

For more details, go to

Quotable Quotes...

"If you think you are too small to be effective, you have never been in the dark with a mosquito."

-- Betty Reese

"There are no mistakes. The events we bring upon ourselves, no matter how unpleasant, are necessary in order to learn what we need to learn; whatever steps we take, they're necessary to reach the places we've chosen to go." 

-- Richard Bach

"We all have different desires and needs, but if we don't discover what we want from ourselves and what we stand for, we will live passively and unfulfilled."

-- Bill Watterson

"In order to change the world, you have to get your head together first."

-- Jimi Hendrix

"Live your life as an Exclamation, not an Explanation."

-- Source unknown

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Section 2 - Talk Back

Coach's Corner

A selection from frequently–asked questions

Dear Coach,
I had a major bust up with my partner a couple of months ago where I said some really inappropriate things which I sincerely regret. Later, I realized that I was in the wrong and I apologized and I even sent her some flowers and a card. She accepted my apology but since then she’s been very distant and even cold towards me. I’m trying to do the right thing by her but it’s like she’s waiting for me to blow up again. Have I ‘blown it’, or can we rebuild this relationship?

You did well to recognize your mistake and to apologize; you did even better to go another step and back up your words with action. This is a great first step. It’s not too late for you to complete the job you’ve begun.

What you need to consider now is the reality of your partner; her feelings and responses are the basis for how she will choose to rectify the situation. She may forgive you and move forward; she may decide to hold a grudge, nurse her feelings and discount your future intentions; she may decide to wait a while to see if she can feel safe once more.

Ron MCMillan of Crucial Skills offers a useful metaphor for this situation. He suggests that your efforts can be likened to pebbles which are dropped into a pool of water. The water represents distrust and suspicion; it can be deep and it’s everywhere. You’re hoping to build a pile of pebbles that will build up and rise above the surface – representing a new focus for your ongoing relationship. Instead the pebbles just seem to sink to the bottom and have no real cohesion; they’re just dispersed across the bottom of the pool.

What you need to do here is to focus and thereby limit the suspicion which feeds the distrust; this means you must create a context for your relationship which will capture and concentrate the pebbles and make them count. In effect it’s like putting the water (distrust and suspicion) into a container; the container clearly represents the area of specific concern.

The conversation might go like this: "Two months ago we had a misunderstanding and at that time I said several things which were inappropriate, such as . . . I’ve apologized to you, retracted the statements fully and asked for your forgiveness.”

Then you continue with your objective, "I’m hoping that you and I can restore our warm / caring / personal / respectful / professional relationship going forward.

Finally, you create the ‘container’ of commitment for which you will hold yourself fully accountable, "In the future you can expect that I will manage my emotions, be sensitive to your feelings and respectful of your rights. I will do all I can to avoid further misunderstandings and to protect our relationship / interests.”

You do not need a corresponding commitment from her – your word is your covenant. If she should choose to offer one, then that’s ‘double strength’ but unnecessary, so neither expect nor demand it. You are handing her the container and, if you handled this initiative well, she’ll even help you by putting some of the pebbles in herself.

I hope this helps.

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Commentary - The Power Of NetCells...

One of several unique features of the Polaris Program is the concept of NetCells which are peer-to-peer advisory groups. Participants are invited and encouraged to construct and sustain a small group of colleagues who will serve as a virtual advisory board.

I love to fly – pure.  I don’t mean as a passenger, and nor am I referring to clutching the controls of a powered aircraft.  I mean to fly effortlessly and freely in a glider or sail plane.  The sensation is unique, exhilarating and the closest experience to perfect expression that I’ve ever known.

When I’m airborne I feel I can achieve anything – there are absolutely no impediments.   When I land I have a deep sense of accomplishment and satisfaction.  To attain any part of this though, I need teamwork and direct assistance to launch.  The initial part of my flight is a tow to a height of 3000 feet or more behind a tow aircraft.  When we fly, we work together to get each pilot to the release point. 

It’s just the same in business!  So, let’s consider doing the same thing for our careers.

I’m recommending NetCells.  This is a self-help group that comes together regularly to assist one another get to the ‘release point’.  Instead of an aircraft, we focus on Issues – governance, leadership and/or management ‘wrinkles’ that might occur in the smooth fabric of business. 

Our purpose is to ‘gain altitude’ – to broaden our perspectives, deepen our insights and expand our awareness levels.  We achieve this by setting up a ‘tow’ – eliciting focused responses from selected colleagues which we’ll use to clarify, define /refine, and assess our own viewpoints.

Here’s how it works.  Individuals are invited to join a ‘parent group’ with up to five others to create a ‘pod’.  Subsequently each member has the opportunity to form another pod of equal size, involving other persons, but perhaps with an alternative focus.

The process is a monthly (or semi-monthly) cycle where each pod member selects and posts the details of a current or emerging issue on a confidential Bulletin Board for the other five pod members to access and consider.   A simple format can be used to ensure clarity and brevity.

With the help of a ‘bridge link’ the pod then teleconferences so that each member can respond to questions and clarify his/her specific issue, taking approximately ten minutes per person/issue.   At the end of this brief discussion, each member offers one or more of the following:

  • An insightful question
  • A provocative suggestion / solution
  • A substantial networking contact.

For the first three sessions, such contributions would not be compulsory so that familiarity and confidence can build within the group.  Thereafter, this is the ‘price’ of membership.

On receipt of the input from other pod members, you’re on your own – free to fly wherever you want or are able within your competencies.  There’s no retroactive reporting or accounting – the focus is always forward, and of course, you have to land on your own.

The investment of time and effort is very small and the potential rewards are great.  Sometimes it will be a short flight, but on other occasions we’ll fly long, high and far from such a launch.   Without the tow, however, we likely will not even ‘get off the ground’.   You’ll never know how well you can fly until you leave the ground.  

Is it worth a try?

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Point Of View - Your Job Description

This section is a guest column. Those with different and interesting viewpoints are invited to state a case on a related topic. Articles are most welcome.
Your job description
. . .

Of late I have found myself spending a great deal of time working on job descriptions. I have written new job descriptions, reworked existing ones and eliminated those that were no longer valid. As we worked through the list of 30+ position descriptions, my co-workers and I found ourselves contemplating the purpose of a job description. It is certainly a valuable tool for recruiting new talent for our organization. Managers use the position description as a barometer for measuring employee skills and experience. Employees have a keen interest in them as it lets them know what is expected of them in the roles.

Recently I came across a help wanted ad that left me pondering what the job description would look like and, more interestingly, the resumes of the individuals that would feel worthy of responding. The ad went something like this.

Help Wanted: Looking for an individual with a mighty purpose who is willing to grow into a huge presence. If you are ready to apply all your efforts to reach your peak, apply within.

Have you discovered your "mighty purpose”? Are you ready to apply all of your efforts to reach your peak?

Looking back over the last 9 months of the Polaris program, David and Amanda have helped to move us forward in the direction of our purpose. They have offered encouragement, tools and meaningful discussion, all to aid us in reaching our peak. As for applying all our efforts, I think this one is up to us.

Whether we have discovered our purpose or are still searching, we can choose to show up each day and be our best selves.

Yes you are worthy. Your resume is perfect. So go for it!!

Make your work to be in keeping with your purpose

-- Leonardo da Vinci


Shirley MacBeath

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Section 3 - On The Horizon

The Positive Workplace - Permission To be An Optimalist

Permission to be an Optimalist

Thriving People, Thriving Workplaces

Think about your workplace:

  1. Is there a climate of psychological safety in which workers are allowed to learn from mistakes, and there is an acceptance of human fallibility?
  2. Is there a suffocating climate of fear of failure?
  3. Is there micromanagement to eliminate possibility of mistakes being made?

"The perfectionist manager loses out, as do his employees and the organization: the best people leave, and those who remain fail to learn.” (p140)

The Pursuit of Perfect
Perfectionism at work is just one of the many areas Tal Ben-Shahar addresses in his latest book "The Pursuit of Perfect”.  Whether you’re a perfectionist or not this book is highly recommended. Tal interweaves his wealth of knowledge of well-researched concepts with compelling personal experiences. The result is a very readable analysis of the dangers of perfectionism and an outline of a healthier alternative that he calls "optimalism.” In Part 2, he applies the ideas to specific areas of life that are dear to his heart: education, parenting, relationships and the workplace. Throughout Tal interjects practical suggestions and advice for how to reduce perfectionist tendencies. In Part 3, he offers ten meditations on specific topics.

The central idea is that being an optimalist, in the state of positive perfection, is adaptive and healthy, while negative perfectionism is a maladaptive and neurotic state. Tal draws a link between healthy optimalism and the goal of Positive Psychology, the scientific study of optimal human functioning.

Continuum between Extreme Perfectionism and Optimalism
At one end of the continuum, extreme perfectionists reject reality, failure (and success) and painful emotions, and are rarely satisfied. At the other end of the continuum are the optimalists. They accept the realities of being human and the inevitable, mixed results that come with purposeful action. They’ve learned to appreciate "good enough.”

There are shades of grey between these extremes on the continuum. People can experience varying degrees of perfectionism and optimalism in different parts of their lives.

Reality for Extreme Perfectionists

  1. Perfectionists reject the reality, constraints and experiences of the human condition.
  2. They believe it is possible and desirable to be perfect, and constantly strive and expect to get there.
  3. They set impossible goals and standards.
  4. Unwilling to accept themselves, they are destined never to feel good enough.
  5. In effect, they rarely give themselves permission to be human.

Failure/Success for Extreme Perfectionists

  1. To the perfectionist, a good life is completely without failure.
  2. Hurdles are unwelcome, mistakes are catastrophic, and criticisms are devastating.
  3. So focused are they on the destination, they are unable to enjoy the journey.
  4. Even though they might succeed, they never feel successful.
  5. Since accomplishment is never perfect, they even reject success when it comes.

Emotions of Extreme Perfectionists

  1. Because feelings can be so volatile and unpredictable, perfectionists do not permit a range of human emotions. They seek a constant and perfect tone, whether it’s positive or negative. There is no pleasure in accomplishment, and no pain allowed in failure.
  2. Because perfectionists want to look good, they fear exposing their mistakes
  3. They can be beset by procrastination and paralysis ("if I don’t try, I won’t fail”).
  4. With high expectations they are hard on themselves and can be as hard on others.
  5. They tend to be fault finders and pessimists.

Reality for Optimalists

  1. They set high standards and ambitious goals that are attainable and grounded in reality.
  2. Their goals are flexible and adaptable. They are willing to experiment, take risks, seek feedback, and see the benefits in criticism.
  3. They are curious with a genuine desire to learn.
  4. Optimalists value the journey, expect detours, and seek to learn from (not fear) failure: "learn to fail or fail to learn”.

Emotions of Optimalists

  1. They permit a full range of emotions, accepting both the pleasant and unpleasant experiences.
  2. Optimalists appreciate and savor success, and can find satisfaction in a less then perfect performance.
  3. The "good enough” mindset results in more energy. Coping and learning increases self-confidence, encouraging optimalists to take on more challenges.
  4. A rich emotional life of high self-esteem and self acceptance is the reward for being an optimalist.

Psychological health
In a recent email Tal explained to us, "Where we are on the continuum between optimalism and perfectionism is one of the better predictors of mental health. It doesn’t explain everything, but it explains a lot.” On curiosity and intrinsic motivation, Tal offered, "Optimalists tend to be more intrinsically motivated, and curiosity is a form of intrinsic motivation. Perfectionists are usually driven by their need to prove themselves, not by their desire to learn.”

Acceptance and mindfulness
Amongst the many practical ways to become an optimalist, Tal advocates active acceptance and reminds us of the importance of mindfulness:
"Active acceptance is about recognizing things as they are and then choosing the course of action we deem appropriate and worthy of ourselves.” (pp. 51-57)
"Accepting myself, sensitivity and all, is more likely to help me become more resilient. When I accept the emotion – when I accept myself – that’s when I am in the best mindset and heart-set to change.” (pp. 51-57)
"Permission to feel, to experience the experience rather than to ruminate on it; it’s about accepting emotions as they are, being with them rather than trying to understand and ‘fix’ them” (p. 68)

Finding peace
Tal’s practical "Time In” exercises, reflections, and meditations help the reader lessen the grip of perfectionism. However, Tal does not set up unrealistic expectations. No quick fix, no silver bullets. It takes time, hard work and regular practice.
This book reminds us to allow ourselves to have a good enough life and to give ourselves permission to be human. So begins the journey of moving towards optimalism, and to a place of peace, satisfaction, and happiness.

Many thanks to Tom Weirich, colleague, friend and fellow member of Positive Workplace International (PWI)! Tom is an Advisor with Wells Fargo Advisors, and helps people thrive and prosper by working at the intersection of money and happiness.

After recently reading and reviewing Tal’s book for our PWI team, Tom and I co-wrote this article below for Positive Psychology News Daily (PPND):

.... With thanks to dear friends and colleagues Amanda Horne and Tom Weirich for their inspiring work and wisdom!

Back myself next month from the left coast!

Amanda Levy

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