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Why good leaders have to leave the teams they build

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Leaders come in two broad flavors: 1) self confident ones, and 2) insecure ones. The self confident ones build teams, empower those teams, develop leadership within the team and then move on to their next challenge. The insecure ones micro-manage, insert themselves needlessly into processes, and cling to their authority role under the guise of being ‘indispensable.’

The best leaders have one overarching goal: to make themselves dispensable. They achieve this through a number of tactics:

  • Hire good people – better, smarter, faster than themselves wherever possible.
  • Performance manage the weaker performers, while putting the bulk of their energies into the higher achievers.
  • Create a culture of experimentation and innovation, where trial and error are celebrated.
  • Promote the achievements of everybody on the team, while taking minimal credit for themselves.
  • Support the team from the background, letting others take center stage.
  • Consciously develop team leadership by pushing responsibility downward, and developing everyone’s leadership ability, not just that of their clones.

It may seem counter-intuitive to try to make yourself dispensable, but that is exactly what the best leaders and team builders do. In my first book, Haul Away! Teambuilding Lessons from a Voyage around Cape Horn, I interviewed the captain of the Europa, a 400 ton tall ship, who had started his career in a one-person rowboat, and who explained his philosophy of becoming a leader:

Captain and crew of the tall ship Europa

Captain and crew of the tall ship Europa

I personally never ‘sought command.’ I started my career in a small boat, where you are the skipper by default. Over time, the boats got bigger, I got older, and my experience grew.

The lesson here is that leaders need to build and empower teams, and then move onto that ‘bigger boat,’ so they can do it all over again. The smart organizations are the ones who recognize the need for good team builders to keep moving and growing, leaving a legacy of successful teams and newly-developed leaders in their wake.

Haul Away! Teambuilding Lessons from a Voyage around Cape Horn

Haul Away! Teambuilding Lessons from a Voyage around Cape Horn

To learn more, or to explore having me speak to your group or team about leadership, please contact Rob Duncan at greatcapes@gmail.com or via the Contact tab on this page.

What leaders can learn from primate behaviour

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baboons together

Another day at the office

I find primate behaviour fascinating, with its tribalism, social relationships, grooming rituals, quests for dominance and power plays.

In many ways, the organizations we work in are mirrors of primate life.

baby baboon

Yum, melon rind...

I recall being at the Brooklyn Zoo a few years ago, catching a break from the heat and watching a troop of baboons act out their daily routine.

At the centre was the Boss baboon, all alone, surrounded by heaps of melon pieces and rinds. He had all the food to himself, and no other troop members would go near.

After a few minutes, one or two of the older baboons would go up, pick a few nits out of the Boss baboon’s fur, and generally groom their way closer to the food.

After some appropriate grooming, these inner circle baboons were allowed to help themselves to some melon.

Emboldened by this display, a baby baboon ran into the inner circle and – not knowing about the grooming rituals – grabbed a piece of melon rind and wandered away.

baboon fight

Oops - looks like I violated a protocol...

The resulting outburst was fearsome! The Boss exploded in a rage and everybody literally went ape.

The baby baboon shrieked and darted up onto the safety of a ledge, and kept shrieking and shaking as if to say: “What did I do wrong???”

Good question. What are the organizational lessons here?

  • Learn the social norms before helping yourself to the food. There are established patterns of social interaction in all organizations, and we ignore these at our peril.
  • Pick some nits before picking fights. Everybody likes being groomed, and a well-intended kind remark helps build social cohesion and strenghtens relationships.
  • Don’t freak out if you make a mistake or two. Nobody was going to hurt the baby baboon who made off with the melon rind. It was sufficient to scare the heck out of him, and help educate him on the norms of the troop.
  • Learn from your mistakes. If you keep repeating the same behaviours that freaked out the troop, sooner or later someone is going to sink their fangs into your backside.
  • Remember, it’s all about harmony. When everybody feels comfortable and relaxed, we can all get back to work.

What do you think? Feel free to comment on this post and share your own “primate lessons”.

To learn more, or to explore having me speak to your group or team about leadership, please contact Rob Duncan at greatcapes@gmail.com or via the Contact tab on this page.

Interviewees needed for doctoral research on social networking

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I would like to interview managers and executives who have consciously encouraged the use of online social networks in their organizations. This is for my doctoral research looking into the use of online social networks like LinkedIn. If you would be willing to be interviewed by me for around 30-45 minutes, I would be hugely grateful. I will share the interview questions with you prior to the interview, and your responses will be kept confidential unless you wish otherwise. I will also be pleased to share a synopsis of my findings with all who participate. If you are willing to take part, please let me know at greatcapes@gmail.com and I will be in touch with further details and to schedule an interview time. Many thanks!

Leadership lessons from the 2010 Olympics, part 2

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Rob Duncan in front of the Olympic rings in Coal Harbour

Rob Duncan in front of the Olympic rings in Coal Harbour

As the games unfold, I can already see a few things that were obviously done right, and could be emulated by other leaders. Here are a few ideas:

Early warning: Vancouverites were warned early and often that nothing would be as normal during the run-up to the games and while the games were on. This extended to closing traffic lanes, which was done on a seemingly random basis in the weeks before the games started. The message was clear – get out of your cars, take transit or stay home! Leaders who anticipate disruption can smooth the way by feeding the warnings out there early, and by lowering positive expectations, as was done in the case of traffic control.

Creative catastrophising: By putting every negative outcome out there as a possibility, in the bleakest possible terms, from traffic gridlock to cost overruns, the real events can only pale by comparison. In my west end neighbourhood, we were expecting to be invaded by a quarter million people swarming our streets and taking over our cafes and restaurants. Buck up, get out of town or huddle at home was the message. In the end, there have only been a few more people here than usual, traffic is lighter if anything, and I have had no trouble getting a coffee from my favourite haunts. By allowing maximum catastrophic thinking to take root, people end up pricing-in the worst outcomes, and can only be pleasantly surprised by reality.

Appealing to collective pride: I haven’t met a Vancouverite yet, who hasn’t responded to the call to showcase the best aspects of our city and country. In my famously antisocial neighbourhood, people are actually smiling at one another, and having the small, pleasant, inconsequential snatches of conversation at streetcorners that I associate more with New York than here. In the last few days, I have seen people stooping to pick up bits of trash off other people’s lawns, and a sense of civic pride that I haven’t seen for a long time. I suspect all leaders can gain by making major challenges into a point of collective pride!

Please feel free to weigh in with your opinions and ideas. Or to explore having me speak to your group or team about leadership, please contact Rob Duncan at greatcapes@gmail.com or via the Contact tab on this page.

Leadership lessons from the 2010 Olympics, part 1

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Rob Duncan - Vancouver 2010

Rob Duncan - Vancouver 2010

Okay, I admit it: the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver are shaping up to be cool – real cool! I have to think that the leadership behind the games has been largely responsible for what is shaping up to be a terrific show.

I haven’t always been convinced we were going to pull it off without a hitch. While it was exciting to see all the buildings being erected and the city decorated, the Vancouver Olympics were facing many challenges. Limited parking in Whistler, not enough snow on Cypress mountain and multiple transportation and accommodation shortages being some of the key issues.

Fortunately, many precautions were put in place to help the Olympics move smoothly, things like closing schools and implementing driving permits to reduce traffic and increasing the use of buses to service displaced drivers.

I will be observing the games with an eye to divining just what the leadership “secret sauce” was that contributed to the success of the games. I would love to hear your thoughts on leadership lessons from the games. Go Canada!

What everyone can learn from actor training

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A few years ago, following up on a dream from my youth, I went to study acting in New York. I was fortunate to have been accepted into the Stella Adler Studio for a 12 week course with Maureen Megibow, and I made the most of it by taking all the additional training I could get my hands on. Famous for producing talents like Marlon Brando, Robert DeNiro and Martin Sheen, the Stella Adler Studio is one of the great old New York acting schools, and I quickly realized that I had made a wise choice. In terms of technique, Adler’s version of “the method” has always struck me as being a lot more accessible than many of the other variants. With Adler technique, the focus is on “what does my character want?/what is in the way?/what will he do about it?” In short, I don’t have to relive the death of my childhood dog to play a father paralyzed by grief at the loss of his child. It’s make believe – get it?

Rob Duncan and fellow cast members in Noel Coward's Waiting in the Wings

Rob Duncan and fellow cast members in Noel Coward's Waiting in the Wings

After I returned from New York, I was able to draw on my actor training in a number of ways. The first was through acting itself. I was quite pumped up by all my New York acting experiences, and was able to get cast in both short and feature-length films, as well as a play. But perhaps more interestingly, I was able to use the training and coaching I got in a number of useful ways.

Actor training made me a better teacher, speaker and manager – and can help you. Consider these examples:

Developing stage presence: Theater training helps you understand your body as an instrument of expression. You learn how you move, which of your mannerisms and habits help you express yourself, and which are a hindrance. You also learn simple tricks like understanding where the light is in a room and how it is (or isn’t) hitting you so you can get into a position that makes you look less like a shadowy goblin!

Hitting your marks: Another trick of the trade is working with marks. When you do stage and film work, everytime you move, you are aiming to land on a particular spot. Most of the time, the mark is literally marked on the floor with a masking tape “X.” The same is true in giving a presentation or teaching a seminar. By scoping out the venue, I usually like to work out a few choice spots to stand, where the lighting is good and the audience gets a good view of the screen if I am using one. Masking tape is usually part of my gear, but I have also used pennies on the floor in a pinch. The idea isn’t to remove sponteneity, but rather to have some guidelines of where to come to a rest – this actually frees you up to be more spontaneous!

Exercising your voice: I worked with great coaches like Roger Simon and did a masterclass with Andrew Wade from the Royal Shakespeare Company who showed me how to treat my voice like a muscle and exercise it, so that you can actually relax more, and project farther at the same time. Roger has a great workout where you power up your voice in 20 progressive increments, with a view to “smashing the lightbulb across the room” with the final one. Both Roger and Andrew were great for clarity and enunciation.

Learning how to improvise: I trained in improv at the Gotham City Improv, and it is an incredibly valuable skill to have in the workplace. Improv at its best involves creating a hilarious shared story with a group of people – a story that moves fast, never misses a beat, and ends up where nobody predicted! The trick with improv is to understand that when the story comes to you for input, all you need to do is move it along a tiny little bit – you don’t have to hit a grand slam or deliver the knockout punchline everytime! Removing that anxiety from yourself lets you be a more effective and giving team player. Sometimes you just have nothing, so you simply offer up something like “…and then she jumped on the bus and…” and toss it over to another team mate. The key is to keep it moving, and then when you least expect it, you’ll say something hilarious. Will anyone who was in our class ever forget the substance known as “boil matter?”

An early film poster from my ongoing "Before he was Famous" days!

An early film poster from my ongoing "Before he was Famous" days!

There are many more lessons to be drawn from acting training, including the power of intention, making bold choices and growing a thicker skin. But no matter what you do as a profession, I highly recommend heading down to your local community center or night school and taking a class in acting or improv. It will enrich your life and career in ways you never anticipated, and you might just have fun! To learn more, or to explore having me speak to your group or team about theater in the workplace, please contact Rob Duncan at greatcapes@gmail.com or via the Contact tab on this page.

Using facebook to create an innovation community

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I am currently completing my doctorate in the area of collaborative innovation through online social networks. One of the “living experiments” I am watching is the effort by BCIT’s Applied Research Liaison Office (ARLO) to create an online community that brings together students, industry and faculty. What ARLO has done is set up a Facebook fan page (http://www.facebook.com/BCITARLO) and endeavored to populate the community with a healthy mix of students, industry people and others who are interested in applied research and innovation.

ARLO Facebook Page

ARLO Facebook Page

As with everything experimental, there are both successes and challenges. Some of my observations so far are:

Challenges:
- Getting members to sign up, and to stick around.
- Achieving the right mix of participants.
- Keeping the content fresh and appealing.
- Getting members of the community to interact with each other.
- Moving beyond the surface contact nature of Facebook.

Successes:
- Increased awareness of the ARLO office and what they do.
- Stimulated the creation of a student-led consulting group.
- Opened a two-way communication channel with the market in a medium they like.

Is Facebook the right medium to create this type of community? Only time will tell…

To learn more, or to explore having me speak to your group or team about collaborative innovation through online social networks, please contact Rob Duncan at greatcapes@gmail.com or via the Contact tab on this page.

Passion, vision, growing together

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I am excited to set up this blog to share my experience and ideas on leadership and development.  I will be able to pull all the best resources I have found over the years and over the web and present them in a format that is both easy to understand and easy to apply to normal life.  My vision is to help individuals and teams to identify their true goals and help them prepare and accomplish those goals within their own schedule. I will be adding a video blog shortly so that you can get a better idea of who I am and what I am truly passionate about.  Please come back soon to absorb and  interact on knowledge that you can actually use.

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