Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Obstacles and the Art of Manipulation

Did you know that obstacles are designed to deliberately manoeuvre us in a direction that someone else wants us to go?

Obstacles take many forms, and there are many more varieties than those you might traditionally associate with a military context. Furthermore, there are people you deal with every day who deliberately use obstacle-like tactics to force you to take a certain direction, much the same way that military obstacles are deployed in times of conflict. Surprised? I bet you're not.

The trick is to know how to get around obstructors, and never allow yourself to be channelled into a space (mental or physical) where your adversary has the upper hand. You need to outsmart, outwit and outmanoeuvre at all times: and bring your best game when you know you're heading into enemy territory. My advice: either breach the blockade head-on, or find a way to get around it without being ambushed.

It can be as simple as identifying the threat for what it is: a personal attack, a diversion, a show of strength, or even a hostile takeover. Then, step back and reappraise your options. Other times, though, you'll find yourself left with little choice but to play them at their own game and fight through. Either way, seizing control is your ultimate objective, and you do this by being aware of the sometime-malign forces at play.

So, in summary: out-manipulate the manipulator!

Have you ever been forced into a corner? What did you do?

Monday, November 1, 2010

Left, Centre or Right?

Ever reached a point in your life when you couldn't remember how you got there, didn't want to be there and had absolutely no idea how to get out?

When you feel that way, everything seems so difficult: even the most simple change is like turning a ship in rough seas without a rudder. The reality is we sometimes need to take time out to consider our situation and make some decisions about what is the best course of action available to us.

Back in the day I was taught that even the most complex problems can be reduced to three choices: Left, Centre or Right.

It's that simple! From there, everything evolves in terms of considering the pros and cons of each option. I still apply this basic principle in dealing with just about everything. I believe the complexities of modern life encourage many of us to overcomplicate consideration of inherently simple problems. We make everything sound more difficult than it is and the prospect of identifying any solution seems inconceivable.

Next time, try to step back from the situation and look at it with a view to identifying three different courses of action you could take: this is your Left, Centre or Right.

Honestly, Left, Centre or Right. It doesn't need to be any harder than that. What do you think?

All the best,

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Sunday, August 1, 2010

Where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise*

I was astonished by the level of interest in my last blog (Bully for you?) and I can't thank enough everyone who took the time to share their views and experiences.

Sadly, the number and examples provided - through blog comments, twitter & email - highlighted the extent of this insidious problem. Bullying is widespread, from childhood through to adulthood, and the variety among your responses indicates that it is not limited to a particular demographic.

Common themes emerged from your responses: apples not falling far from the tree; the flow of behaviour from the schoolyard to the workplace; the importance of leadership; and, above all, the importance of leading by example.

There were also many references to our propensity to ignore the problem when we see it, allowing others to suffer the indignity of being bullied while we look the other way or stick our heads in the sand.

If you refer back to my opening comments within 'Bully for you?' regarding bystanders – I put the question to you: is an adult who ignores a colleague being bullied at work really any different to those kids who sit on the sidelines and upload videos to the internet of other students being bashed? The answer is no.

Just as ignorance of the law is not an excuse, neither is affected ignorance a defence against allowing a colleague, friend or, worse still, a child to be subjected to bullying - so as to ensure the bully's attention remains firmly fixed on others.

I agree with the view put forward that jealousy plays a significant role in the psyche of the bully. I'm sure many would consider this aspect to have been discussed ad nauseum over the years so I won't join the fray. Suffice it to say: with any kind of insecurity comes an inherent instinct to attack those we see as a threat. It's a primal instinct. Sadly, however, there are those among us who have yet to evolve. Until they do, zero-tolerance is the only answer.

Pondering all this has drawn me to the 'character' factor. So, rather than belabouring the bully issue further, I'd rather encourage reflection upon the positive: that is, what type of person does not bully and will not tolerate bullying.

Consider how we gravitate towards good people in our lives, the friends we choose and why we choose them, consciously or otherwise. I think it's fair to say that the good among us seek out other good folk to share our journey, based on some kind of shared set of values, likes, dislikes and so on. We may look for people with similar values and morals, or gravitate to those who belong to the same 'tribe' as us, or perhaps it's a geographical thing. Whatever the qualifier, within our own social and professional circles resides the strength to stand up for what is right.

Bullies gather their power from the reticence of others to stand up to them. They thrive because spectators allow them to, leaving the victims to fend for themselves. Again, survival is a primal instinct but with evolution comes enlightenment and there are many things that enlightened individuals can resolve without resorting to or exposing themselves and others to confrontation.

In response to the many requests for an 'answer' to bullying - I don't have the silver bullet, but in my view the power resides with the spectators to not provide the environment within which the bully may thrive. While it's impossible to prescribe an absolute template that will achieve this - because every situation is different - there are basic things that can be done to curtail this type of behaviour:

  • report it to the appropriate manager, senior person or HR/IR representative - not always ideal but in those places where management do not tolerate bullies you will at least be heard;
  • if a colleague has found the courage to report a bully, then support them - there's nothing worse for the victim than to make a stand only to be thrown to the wolves by supposedly empathetic colleagues who desert them at the crucial moment;
  • don't engage in or encourage gossiping about others - gossip only leads to individuals being ostracised and attacked;
  • don't do business with bullies - this is particularly effective in the small to medium enterprise environment. So, if you come across them actively spread the word, it'll eventually come home to bite them on the bottom line; and,
  • if you're strong enough, stand up to the bully either on your own behalf or on behalf of a victim.

In essence, don't be one of the adult versions of those rotten kids on the sidelines who upload video of a victim being bashed senseless in the schoolyard.

Remember, bullies are cowards and without the right set of conditions they have no power.

All the best,

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* Thomas Gray from the poem 'Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College'.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Bully for you?

You know, when I heard recently that school bullying had resulted in yet one more poor kid resorting to suicide, I was shocked, really shocked.

Unlike my school days in the 70's, kids now not only have to suffer the degradation of being filmed while being bashed senseless in the school yard - but they're forced to relive it all over again (and again and again...) due to the pathetic bystanders, sitting on the sidelines like jackals, who upload the victim's humiliation straight to the internet. I find myself wondering what sort of an environment these kids come from and what their parents must be like. But that's a Pandora's Box that I'm not about to open today.

[As you read on, please feel free to delete the word 'bully' and insert the word 'coward'].

Sadly, the bully virus continues to infect a certain type of individual from childhood through to adulthood. Some carry the disease without showing any obvious signs of their condition until they spray their vile contagion upon an unsuspecting colleague/s. Typically, those poor unfortunates targeted for contamination by these creatures are maligned if they dare attempt to report the symptoms.

Bullying of any kind is abhorrent to me. It appears within the workplace under many guises. The classic is the top-down bully usually associated with an overbearing, physically intimidating male manager or supervisor - the embodiment of the schoolyard bully who never grew out of it. There's also 'upwards' bullying where individual supervisors or managers are targeted by a 'mob' type mentality amongst a group of, usually well-organised, disgruntled staff. But it doesn't end there. There are plenty of less obvious derivations.

In recent years I've learned that there is an alarming tendency for women to be bullied by other women, one–on-one, in the workplace. Based on the examples discussed with me, victims are usually bright, motivated, energetic and, above all, friendly women who find themselves suddenly dropped within the sphere of control or influence of a woman/or women (because, yes, some travel in packs - often referred to as a coven) with absolutely no regard for new arrivals, preferring instead to suffocate their victims rather than welcoming or encouraging them.

I can name at least half a dozen amongst our closest friends who at some point have been targeted like this. The usual treatment, I'm told, includes outright abuse, derision, intimidation, obstruction, humiliation - the list goes on. In every case it was relentless and no amount of remonstration made the slightest difference at all.

If anything, singling out the bully only made things worse. Some victims were prescribed medication to help them cope. Others were forced to take leave, before going back in to confront the antagonist once and for all... no matter what the cost. However, in every case, the situation became so untenable that the only option was resignation, without any acknowledgement by management of the treatment they'd been subjected to or even a commitment to actually addressing the issue and extracting said bully from their position of influence.

So, bullying isn't always found at the end of a fist. There are many other malicious blows that can be thrown by adults in the workplace.

No matter what form it takes, bullying is ugly, cowardly and totally unacceptable and every one of us has a moral obligation to ensure that it is not tolerated.

So what are your views on bullying? Have you been targeted by a bully? Or, have you been able to take a stand and do something about it?

All the best,


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Tuesday, June 22, 2010

It's better to give...

We are on holidays this week, introducing our son ‘Captain’ Morgan to my family, so this post comes to you from Western Australia, looking over Perth’s pristine beaches across to Rottnest Island.

Sitting in our apartment last night, we spent a couple of indulgent moments watching the sun set over gilt-edged clouds at the far edge of the Indian Ocean, as we quaffed an Australian merlot and generally enjoyed life. The moment prompted a number of thoughts, not the least of which was a memory of a period in my life - a little over ten years ago - when I lived in Perth and my career was well and truly in the wilderness.

At that time, having farewelled a promising military career, medical discharge in hand, my employment options were looking dire. This, despite personal and (with the benefit of hindsight) inflated expectations that as a former army officer, the multinationals would be falling over themselves, begging me to take a plum job complete with six-figure salary, flash car and regular business class travel options. Would you like fries with that?

Reality check! Soldiers beware: Being ten foot tall and bulletproof doesn’t really cut it in the corridors of corporate Valhalla. We have a tendency to be classed as square pegs trying to fit into round holes.

It was time to ask for help.

So, I fired a distress flare, writing to a number of senior officers who I’d had the pleasure of serving during my career, in search of written endorsement for my contribution back in the day. I was very pleased to find, within the space of a couple of weeks, that references were speedily returned from some now well-known, some less well-known officers, all equally deserving of their status as patron and mentor.

One of these leaders, not surprisingly, went beyond the call for a letter and over the next few years gave me a lesson in what it really means to be a mentor. In short, having begun the process with a reference, over the following six years this man continued to step up personally with guidance and the occasional catch up session, including ongoing written and verbal references for me, all of which inevitably steered me from the wilderness and into a brighter and significantly more prosperous future.

For that, I will always be immeasurably grateful.

Ever since, I’ve made an absolute point of trying to ‘pay forward’ that same generosity of spirit. I do this by mentoring those people around me who I see as having great potential, expectation and drive balanced with selflessness and humility.

Obviously, these people come into my orbit as a direct result of the opportunities that have come my way, thanks to a mentor who supported me all those years ago. As a result, I believe mentoring is a core obligation for managers at every level in an organisation, if that organisation is to truly encourage and develop its leadership potential as I referred to in my last post.

The great opportunity with mentoring is that there is huge personal reward in being able to guide and advise someone when they are making important decisions about their future.

The trick is to understand an individual’s motivations. I’m not of the ‘greed is good’ ilk, so my approach to mentoring is very much assigned to the person in front of me. Try to understand what it is that motivates them, what they want to achieve, their personal goals and aspirations, without any expectation that your mentoring of them will benefit you. Because it’s not about that.

I encourage anyone with accountability for others to mentor those you are responsible for, and ask yourself, ‘why am I championing this person?’ If the answer is that you just want to see them do well, then you’ve nailed it.

And if you are a person with responsibility for others and you are not mentoring any of them because you are too busy managing, meeting deadlines or focusing on your own career, perhaps you could rethink the way you are developing your team and, importantly, yourself. Mentoring is an inherent element of your personal responsibility as a leader.

Consider me now stepping off my soapbox, and humbly thanking those of you who have already provided commentary on my initial blog posts. Again, I welcome your comments and thoughts on mentoring.

Have you been mentored well, or perhaps you mentor others?

All the best,


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Monday, June 14, 2010

Competence, Empathy and Courage

Mid-last year I accepted an invitation to address a group of police counter terrorism commanders on the subject of leadership and in preparing my notes I realised that trying to simplify and define the subject was a task fraught with danger. After all, I was sure that this specific audience would already have strong opinions on what they would call 'leadership' based on their own very individual experiences and knowledge of people they considered to be leaders.

Searching all things leadership online, much of what I found suggested that leadership was increasingly being defined in a variety of ways to suit an industry or context. What I wanted was to identify some fundamental elements that could be applied in any environment but especially to my audience.

Fortunately, I was able to call upon a handful of genuine experts on the subject, close friends from all over the world who I consider to be the real thing. So, I sent out a quick email, setting the scene and inviting their thoughts. When I eventually gathered and reviewed their responses, I found that they had all kept it simple, refining their thoughts to just a few key elements - without a single piece of corporate jargon to be found! Ultimately I extracted from the mix three core elements that provide a foundation for any leader in any context: 1. Competence, 2. Empathy, and 3. Courage.

I'll keep the explanation short but essentially, a leader must absolutely know what they are doing, what they are responsible to achieve and, above all, they must instil confidence in their people to trust their judgement (Competence).

Also, a leader must lead by example. They must understand fully what they are asking of their people and understand the impact of their decisions upon them. To do so requires an ability to put themselves in their people's shoes (Empathy).

Finally, having set the course and prepared and resourced their team, leaders must then trust their people to carry out their tasks without interference (or allowing others to interfere) with the plan once 'action' has commenced and, having done so, they must be prepared to stand by them no matter what the result or consequences (Courage). Put more simply: "Back 'em or sack 'em" as my Father-in-law says.

That's it in a nutshell and if I try to capture that all in a quote, I'll go with this one: "
Surround yourself with the best people you can find, delegate authority, and don't interfere as long as the policy you've decided upon is being carried out."- President Ronald Reagan

When I eventually delivered my address I focussed on these three core elements, along with quite a few other issues, all of which, I'm relieved to say was met with a particularly positive response. So, I'll leave you with one final quote which I also included that evening.

"There is a difference between leadership and management. Leadership is of the spirit, compounded of personality and vision. Its practice is an art. Management is of the mind, more a matter of accurate calculation, of statistics, of methods, timetables and routine; its practice is a science. Managers are necessary. Leaders are essential."
Viscount Slim of Burma

Until next time, I'd appreciate your thoughts, questions and comments: what does leadership mean to you?

All the best,


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Saturday, June 5, 2010

I am born...

G'day to anybody out there who may be interested. I'm Chris Allen and this is the first time I've blogged. I've mulled over this for some time as I've slowly come to grips with what blogging, tweeting and so forth are all about. But with some extra time on my hands (can't believe I admitted to that!), now's as good a time as any.

I've recently finished my first book, an action story - the premise for which is based very loosely upon some of my exploits and those of a number of my significantly more intrepid friends who are still out there doing it for real. Writing has been a labour of love and hate for the best part of a decade but I've really only given my blockbuster the attention it's deserved in the past couple of years. I finally put the finishing touches to it on the eve of our son's birth back in January and now, with some considerable anticipation, have begun the search for a publisher. However, with the lion's share of the work for the book done now, I've apparently become unmanageable at home as I've had nothing to occupy my overactive imagination. So, as a result of some serious hounding from my wife, Sarah, I'm blogging, essentially in the hope of finding a suitable, more immediate outlet for my two-fingered dissertations.

Back in the day I was an Army Officer, a Major. I began my career as a private soldier in the Australian Army before being commissioned and had the great fortune to also serve on attachment to the British Army and the New Zealand Army during a career that spanned almost 15 years. I take great pride in my service as an infantryman and paratrooper and consider myself very privileged to include some extraordinary and courageous people within my select circle of closest friends.

Unfortunately, my military career came to an end as a result of injuries I sustained in service, wear and tear mostly, and so since 1997 I've been engaged upon a number of diverse but all equally challenging pursuits. I spent a fair bit of time in getting back in shape post-injury, some sporadic periods at university (although actual completion of my bachelor studies continues to elude me), a stint in East Timor as the security manager for an aid agency at the height of the emergency in late 1999, and then a bit of time in the professional wilderness contemplating life and the universe. You see, there just wasn't a great deal of call for injured, retired ex-paratrooper Majors in civilian life at that time. Go figure!

It was the September 11 tragedy in 2001 that saw my expertise in relation to risk management and risk mitigation strategies once again in demand. As a result, for most of the last nine years I've been heavily involved in various government security tasks, working for the Australian government and the New South Wales State government including, most recently, with the Department of Justice & Attorney General.

Incredibly, all of this came about because a young Perth boy decided early on that he wanted to write action stories and, if he wanted to do that he'd need to get out in the world and see some of it for himself. Now, I'm working on the second book – a sequel to the first - while we're nutting out publishing arrangements. Keep your fingers crossed for me, if you don't mind. It's a very exciting time in our household. Meanwhile, as I sit here at our kitchen table on a lazy Sunday night, I've been musing over exactly to what end I may or may not use this blog. My current thoughts are that I would like to occasionally engage you over things I'm interested in. Off the top of my head that will probably mean leadership, mentoring, struggling nations, underdogs and the everyday hero.

Now, this has been a practice run so in the best traditions of the aspiring author I've stuck to the adage that '...the best thing to write about is yourself'. Fear not, though, if you're curious enough to drop in again, I'll aim to keep future editions more succinct, much less rambling and, hopefully, much more interesting than this.

All the best,


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