Speech at TEDx, Durham, 11th March 2017 (watch here)
Hello. You’re probably wondering what’s with the pearls. Well, pearls have a dirty secret, and I’m here to tell you about it. It’s all about the pearls. So if you only remember one thing about this talk, remember the pearls.
Pearls are associated with such glamour, aren’t they? I inherited my first set, from a great grandmother who had been brought up at Hampton Court Palace. My second set were from Hatton Garden, given to me by my boyfriend when we worked next door at Deloitte Consulting. I bought my third set in Beijing when I took our Ashridge MBA students out there on a study trip.
But their glamour is hard-won. They have grit in their hearts. Their beauty and lustre is the result of a defence mechanism, designed to protect the oyster against a threatening irritant. I’m from Scotland, and in Scotland they don’t say ‘pearls’: they say ‘perils.’ And perils is exactly what the beauty of a pearl is bearing witness to – it owes its very existence to the oyster being in peril.
Pearls and peril – it takes two to tango. This is the guiding metaphor for my talk. My name is Eve Poole, and I’m going to talk to you about Leadersmithing. I’m going to talk to you about grit, about learning, and about smithing. My story will need some props. Here they are: a tiara, a bible, a brain, an almond, and a miniature marble font.
Let’s start with grit. For that I need a tiara to add to the pearls.
Are any of you fans of The Princess Diaries? Do you remember that moment when she is reading the letter her father wrote to her before he died? She is having a crisis, and his letter reminds her that there are some things that are more important than fear. That’s brilliant, isn’t it? There are some things that are more important than fear.
I wonder what you are too scared to do. A talk like this? In life, there is a lot to fear. But there are also a lot of things that are more important than fear. Still, in politics, in business, in so many areas of life, we seem to be struggling to field leaders that are brave enough to do what need to be done. Too many of them seem to be too scared to stick their necks out and deliver what the world needs.
I wanted to find out exactly what was holding leaders back, and whether there was anything we could do to accelerate the development of the next generation of leaders. I’d been working with the BBC and the Stanford Research Institute on creativity, and I’d come across the story of Arthur meeting Merlin for the first time. If you know your Arthurian lore, you might recall the story. As a young boy, King Arthur comes across the wizard Merlin for the first time in the forest, where he is surprised to find that Merlin has been expecting him, and has already laid the table for breakfast. Merlin explains to him that he had been born at the end of time and was living his life backwards, which is why he already knew the future, for it was his past. So at Ashridge we asked a range of board-level business leaders: “What do you know now about yourself as a leader that you wish you’d known 10 years ago?” We thought that maybe we could turn this 20:20 hindsight into 20:20 foresight, so like Merlin they would know the future. But what they told us was pretty grim. Most of them had learned their leadership painfully, through failure. Cue my next prop, the Good Book.
Do you recognise this, from St Paul? ‘We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.’ [Romans 5:3-5]
Does this remind you of the pearl, yet? You can’t have the beauty without the pain. But cultured pearls reduce the pain. To create them, they inject a bead into the oyster, which attracts just a few defensive layers, but looks incredibly like the real thing. Could we do that for leaders?
Let’s talk about learning. Here’s my brain. Always good to bring a spare. Traditionally when we have been preparing our future leaders at universities and business schools we have tended to focus on the cerebral. We have assumed that we are rational beings, who will always have the presence of mind to stop and think before we act, ideally drawing on our excellent Durham education. But most leadership happens when we are under pressure. Something is going wrong, and everyone is looking to us to fix it. And who is in charge at that stage? Not this grey thing. This almond, actually: your amygdala, which is the most ancient part of your brain.
Have any of you seen the movie Inside Out? It’s a great way to explain the role of emotion in brain functioning. Do you remember those clunking balls in Riley’s head that represent her memories? The ones that have been tagged with intense emotion get singled out to be stored separately as core memories. Like those times we’ve been at our most terrified. And we’ve only survived as a species because fear stops us repeating things that may jeopardise our future. So when we evolved from being reptiles, we hung on to that little almond, the tried-and-tested survival mechanism based on emotion, which holds our core memories and is primed to grab the wheel any time our bodies feel like we are in peril.
So if leaders are held back by fear, could we seed the amygdala with the sorts of core memories that might help leaders, rather than hold them back? Could we use our research to give them a sort-of muscle-memory for leadership?
Meanwhile, back at Ashridge, we’d turned our research on what leaders wish they’d known 10 years ago into a simulation. Basically, we devised a programme, using actors, whereby participants over a couple of days would have the opportunity to encounter and practise the critical incidents identified in our research. To learn more about the learning process, we wired participants up to heart monitors, and tracked their progress. We collected a welter of detail on demographics and personality, and we triangulated this with learning reviews at the end of the simulation, and at 3 and 6 months afterwards. The result? A direct correlation between increased heart rate and increased learning. You simply learn better under pressure. Your learn faster, because cognitive functioning increases under pressure, and you learn more permanently, because the memories you form are tagged with emotion.
This is the silver bullet. Or, in my story, the bead in the cultured pearl. If we can isolate the templates you need for the future and teach them to you under pressure, you will be cognitively resourced to cope with similar situations in future. Let me explain exactly how this works.
Have you heard of ‘fight or flight’? Well, it’s really ‘fight THEN flight’. Under pressure, your body immediately optimises, both physically and cognitively, or order to assess the threat. If this assessment suggests that you are resourced to cope, you stay in ‘fight’ mode to see off the threat. If the threat is too big, your body then transitions to ‘flight’ mode to get you safely away. So there is a moment of assessment in there, even if it is infinitesimally quick.
Here’s another movie reference. The Matrix. Do you remember Neo walking round that bullet? That’s the kind of time I want to buy leaders – to extend that moment of choice about how best to respond. And the clue is in those tabloid headlines about grandparents lifting cars off toddlers. It shouldn’t be possible, but somehow, in the moment, ‘hysterical strength’ made it happen. So it’s a call, and a psychological one. You don’t even need to be resourced to cope, you just have to think you are. So if I can get you templates for all the things you think you fear, you won’t be scared of them any more. Instead, they will feel somehow familiar, and that familiarity – that muscle memory – will help buy you the time to select an appropriate response.
One guy who came on our simulation explains it this way. He’d been back at work for a while, when someone came walking towards him looking furious. He felt that his face starting to go red, and he became aware of his breathing. The hairs on the back of his neck went up, and he said all he could see was a superimposed picture of the actor in our simulation with whom he’d had a huge row. That was enough to prompt him to take a breath, and say: ‘you look upset, shall we talk about it?, which totally changed the dynamic.
But is there a way to build this into the day job, rather than having to rely on training courses? Here is my final object. It’s a miniature marble font. To be precise. It’s a Cadgwith Font, and an apprentice piece. It’s made from serpentine. The only place you find that in Britain is in the Lizard Peninsula in Cornwall. Historically, if you wanted to work it, you would apprentice yourself to a stonemason there. When your 7 years were up, you would copy the font in the local church at Cadgwith in miniature to show you were job-ready for the big stuff.
I love this as a metaphor. If we can do the full range of leadership activities brilliantly in miniature, ideally under pressure, we seed our brain to feed these templates back to us when we need them in the future. Like a vaccine, there’ll be just enough in the system to trigger the right response.
It made me start thinking about leading as a craft, and my ‘templates’ as apprentice pieces. Then my sister married a man called Mr Smith. At the wedding, she delivered a speech in defence of the name, pointing out its heroic heritage. Smithing, I thought. That’s what this is about: Leadersmithing. It is about the day to day craft of leading, and keeping at it until you achieve mastery. It is about foundational practices, craft skills and trade secrets.
And we know all of them. We don’t know what is coming in the future, but we do know what leaders have learned the hard way in the past. So if we can at least code these lessons in, we’ll be able to free up cognitive resources for leaders to respond to novelty in the future.
Let’s face it, it’s all rather like Strictly Come Dancing, isn’t it? Like learning the tango, you need to start with the basic steps, then you can choreograph them together to create the dance. Even the most seasoned performer will still feel nervous on the night of the final, but if their feet know where to go, the rest of them will catch up. Apparently even Laurence Olivier suffered terrible stage-fright. When asked how he coped, he said: ‘I send on Mr Technique and hope to follow him later’.
Let me give you an example of Mr Technique, in case it helps you identify something you’d like to feel more fearless about.
After my MBA, I got a fancy job working for Deloitte Consulting. One day, a client discovered an error in an email that I had sent. He went bananas. He rang the global head of Deloitte to complain. Being in a different time zone, the call went to voicemail. This did not improve his temper. Next, he tried the UK head of Deloitte. He was also on voicemail. This did not improve his temper. Next, he tried the Audit partner. He was also on voicemail. This did not improve his temper. Finally, he called me. He shouted a lot, and used words down the phone that I can’t possibly say on camera. And my reaction? I just wanted to go to the loo. Not a career enhancing response. But when I thought about it, no wonder. The shouting had made me feel threatened. Poole in peril! My amygdala, that little almond, had rushed out to save me. It had scoured the place for templates, and had found a match: ranting senior male person? My Dad. Me? Aged 3, accused of causing to fall a jam-jar that had smashed an ancestral fruit-bowl. And what’s a top strategy when you’re 3? Yes! An ‘accident.’ Euch, I’ll get your mother! And the shouting stops. Age 30? Not such a great response.
It made me realise that I had been avoiding conflict for years, particularly with men, which is why I had no templates. So I set about getting them. I called it my ‘picking fights with chaps’ experiment. You know that thing in meetings when someone says something ridiculous, but you know you shouldn’t take them on, so you just simper and let it go? Well I started ramping up the pressure. First it was just passive-aggressive Writing Down of the offending remarks. Then it was: can you repeat that?, in varying shades of incredulity. Then it was, I’m not sure I agree with you, could you say more? Then finally, the day of reckoning. A year or so afterwards, I was standing in the car-park of the Chinese takeaway in Berkhamsted when an Ashridge colleague rang to shout at me. He was really rather cross. But I was actually hugely calm, this time. I could hear a voice in my head coaching me through it: ‘just let him rant, listen well, and apologise.’ And this time I didn’t need to go to the bathroom! Result! So it really doesn’t take that long to lay down better templates, you just need to be deliberate about it.
While the research suggests that learning under pressure is the optimal way to learn, you can build up to it slowly, like I did with conflict. I don’t know what brought you here today, or what it is that is holding you back. But if there is anything that you fear, why not try something like this? Or if you are feeling brave, you can schedule in the right kind of high-pressure practice, like we did with the actors for my guy from the simulation.
Leaders aren’t born. They are made. They are made through their experiences. So to be the leader you want to be, all you need to do is diary it in. It may be uncomfortable, but it’s a good sign if it is.
So remember that TED lady in her pearls and tiara. Pearls and peril – it takes two to tango. They are beautiful, but they have grit in their hearts, because some things are more important than fear.