Leadership: Some Unchanging Truths

If you run your own business, or manage a business for somebody else, you’ll doubtless understand the importance of leadership. You will have witnessed the powerful benefits of confident leadership: contented and motivated employees, satisfied and loyal customers, all combining to produce a business that is commercially successful. You will also have heard or read about, or possibly experienced, the destruction wreaked by people in responsible positions who have little or no leadership qualities. The damage inflicted on businesses with poor leadership includes unhappy staff, poor productivity and dissatisfied customers, all of which add up to poor financial performance and a very uncertain future.

    When business is difficult, it’s hard not to take it personally. After all, it was your personal dream and ambition that got you into business in the first place: the dream of being your own boss, the dream of having a better lifestyle, the dream of creating financial security for you and those you care about. So, when business is difficult, it invariably impacts on your personal life through stress, irritability and preoccupation with finances when you should be spending time on yourself and on those you care about. Not a very happy situation, I think you’ll agree.

     So what is this thing they call leadership? The theories abound. Some are called contingency theories, and focus on the different types of leader required in different situations. Others, called trait theories, consider the personality characteristics of different leaders and their leadership styles. Whatever theory you subscribe to, the reality of leadership is that, to be a successful leader, you need to be able to create a vision, communicate that vision, and motivate others towards its fruition. These activities require creativity, inspiration and an exceptionally strong level of self-belief.

     This brings us face to face with an inescapable truth: your success as a leader, as with anything in your business or personal life, is about you. It’s about your self confidence, your self-esteem, your belief in your ability to realise your vision, your natural talents, and your self awareness. How do you become one of those people who radiates self-belief, high energy, and an indestructible faith in their own vision and in their ability to fulfil that vision? Do you have what it takes to be that kind of person?

 That energy, that vision, along with an indestructible self-belief is right inside of all of us. It always has been. Most of us have covered it over and hidden it from ourselves with a toxic cloud of self-doubt, self-criticism, worry, pessimism and anxiety. That toxic cloud can, with some self-understanding and some small changes to how we live through our day, be blown away. And when it’s gone, you’ll be absolutely amazed at what will be revealed inside of yourself: the resources, talents and behaviours that will change your business and improve your life beyond recognition.

    How many times have you been introduced to some whom you would describe as really successful? And how many times have you been taken aback at how little such people seem to conform to our stereotype of the successful and effective leader? There is a great and powerful leader in all of us. All it takes is to be true to yourself, and to be as honest in recognising your powerful talents and potential as you are at remembering your past mistakes.

     True leadership is about how you create and behave in pursuit of your dream. And how you behave is a function of how you think, which is, in turn, shaped by your belief systems. “Whether you believe you can, or whether you believe you can’t, you’re right!”

     Question your most deeply embedded beliefs about yourself, about others, and about the world you inhabit. Look at things from a different angle. Stop identifying with your most strongly held beliefs and allow yourself to be wrong about some of your most fundamental assumptions. Therein leads the road to change. That’s what will lead you onto the path of self awareness, self respect, self belief and fearless creativity.

 And that’s the path that others will want to follow. That’s real leadership!  

 Nicky O’Brien is Director of Training and Outplacement with Hartley People

Time Management and Self Honesty

If you open your web browser and key in the search term “time management”, you’re likely to find a host of time management aids that includes activity logs, daily and weekly planners, and Urgent/Important matrices. These tools are valuable, and will enable you to get a good, strong fix on just what it is that you’re doing with your time, and how you might use your time better. Unfortunately, while these tools can yield some improvement in how you use your time, experience shows that they rarely solve the underlying problems related to poor time management.

    Why is that? If the truth be told, people who are really interested in improving their management of time will already have downloaded these aids to improved performance. As any experienced insurance broker will tell you, the clients who carefully and proactively plan their insurance cover are the ones who are least likely to need it. Very often, the real question to be answered regarding time management challenges is not “How do I….?” but “Why do I….?” Let me explain.

    The participants I encounter on Time Management training courses are grown-up, mature, intelligent adults who understand the importance of the doing things at the right time. For example, when I ask them the question “When was the last time you missed a holiday flight due to poor time management?” the response is invariably “Never!” Showing such people how to manage their time is a waste of time. They have no problem in prioritising and completing the tasks that really matter to them. For such people, the question that needs answering is not “How do I manage and organise my tasks?” The most important question is “Why do I keep putting off completing certain tasks?” So, when you look at the tasks that tend to get pushed out for days and weeks on end, you really need to be honest with yourself. Here are a number of possible reasons why that task keeps getting carried forward on your To Do list or in your diary:

  • You simply HATE doing it
  • You don’t feel that you’ll make a good job of it
  • You want to make TOO good a job of it, and can never find the time it deserves to be given
  • You promised yourself that you’d get it done by a certain time and date, but that deadline keeps slipping

 In short, the problem, very often, is not the amount of time we have, but our attitude towards the task.

    There’s a simple antidote to all four of the above: DO IT!! Stop agonising and procrastinating! You’re really kidding yourself if you believe that you’re making your day any easier by putting off these tasks. You can easily shift them from today’s list of actions to next weeks To Do list, but they’re still ticking away in the back of your mind, causing untold stress on an unconscious level. Here are some guidelines that might help you change your time management behaviour, and transform your day in the process:


  • Make a list of the tasks you tend to delay completing
  • Don’t spend too much time analysing why
  • Set a deadline for completion of each task
  • Remind yourself that the promises you make to yourself are the most important ones to keep
  • The next time somebody or something threatens to get in the way of your promises to yourself, remind yourself that


“Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you….”   Carl Sandberg

Nicky O’Brien is Director of Outplacement and Business Training with Hartley People


Why Cash Can’t Buy Commitment

It was the height of summer, and the restaurant was packed with a mixture of locals and tourists. We sat in the luxurious comfort of the cool breeze from the air conditioning unit right over our heads, smugly sipping on cold beers as the owner apologetically turned away group after group of hungry people at the entrance for the want of somewhere to seat them. She seemed to materialise out of nowhere.

    “Hi,” she said, flashing a welcoming and appreciate smile. “Can I get you some menus?” Before you could say spaghetti carbonara, she had reappeared with menus and a jug of iced water. “Are you okay for beers?” she asked, eyeing the dangerously low levels of the amber liquid in our glasses. She returned, almost as quickly, with two beers, uncapping them with professional ease and placing them on the table. During the following seven minutes (I counted them!), the young waitress performed the same routine at three other nearby tables. I watched in awe as she glided from customer to customer, doling out water, beer and, above all, smiles of appreciation and friendliness. Her presence transformed the space she occupied.

    After about an hour, we were on desserts. The dinner had been unspectacular, but her warmth and helpfulness had more than compensated for any lack of attention to detail with the food. The restaurant had quietened down considerably. “Thank you very much,” I said, when she came to the table carrying our Americano coffees. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a waitress having to do so much work in such a short period of time.”

    “Oh,” she replied, blushing a little. “It’s nothing. To tell the truth, I love my job. And I like it even more when we are very busy.”

    “Really?” I asked, intrigued.

    “Yes,” she continued.

    “And what is it that you like so much about your job?”

   She stood back, her forehead compressed into lines of concentration. “You know, it’s funny that I haven’t ever asked myself that question before. But, I suppose I like to help people. When customers come through the door, they are hungry, thirsty and weary. It’s very satisfying when you see them leaving, and they are rested and happy with their food and drinks.”

    “Very interesting,” I said. “But what about the difficult customers, the ones who never seem to be happy?”

    “That’s easy,” she replied, her expression lightening. “Most of the time, if I keep on smiling and being nice to them, they finally thaw!”

    “And if they don’t?”

    “I have my secret weapon!”

    “And that is?”

    “My boss, the owner of the restaurant, is always there if I need his help. He respects me, and will never allow a customer to offend me.”

She’s probably on, or close to, minimum wage. She works harder than many people who get paid twice as much. Yet she keeps smiling, and her presence possibly generates more business than an expensive marketing campaign, through that most priceless and credible of sources: Word of Mouth.

The secret? Our first two non-cash motivators:

Firstly, we do best what we love to do. Find people who simply love to do the job that needs to be done. There are people who love to manage, market, sell, measure, file, serve, process, rescue, counsel, research, design, clean, cook, pour and wash up. Find them and take them into your business. The results will astound you.

Secondly, people need support, not supervision. The days of the supervisor who clock-watches, monitors, controls and disciplines are long past. Make sure that the people who deliver your business promises feel supported, secure and respected. These things cost nothing, but money can’t buy the results.

Of course, people need to be paid. We all need money to survive. But you can’t purchase motivation. Next week, we’ll find out why.

Nicky O’Brien is Director of Training and Outplacement with Hartley People


What’s Left?

Let’s begin our first blog with a definition. (You’ll find that I use definitions quite a lot!)

Employees: People without whom your business can’t survive, the ones you depend on to combine your raw materials and other factors of production with their expertise, experience and motivation to produce profitable goods and services.

OOPS! Sorry! I said a bad word there. Did you spot it? I apologise. I used the M word. M as in Motivation. How silly of me. Of course, we don’t need to consider employee motivation. That piece is done and dusted. After all, your employees are paid a wage. AND they have a job to go to every day. How blessed they are, and how fired up they must feel as they journey to work every day, bursting with a desire to continuously improve, and to go where no Lean consultant has ever gone before.   

If you’re one of those employers or managers who think that the people who work for you jump out of their beds every morning, overcome with gratitude because they have a job to go to, think again. Unless you’re a recent arrival from outer space, you won’t need to be told that people are facing unprecedented challenges in trying to provide the very basics of food, shelter, clothing and education for themselves and their families. The anecdotal evidence is powerful. And, if that’s not enough, the recent Second Irish League Of Credit Unions ‘What’s Left’ Tracker survey of 2012 should leave you in no doubt. It paints a grim picture: 810,000 (45%) of working adults are left with €100 or less each month after bills are paid. This means that almost one in two Irish workers are under financial stress. And, as many of us will know from experience, continued financial stress infects other aspects of our lives, including our sense of self-worth, our relationships, and the quality of the work we do.


This point was brought home to me very powerfully when, over a cup of coffee, a friend of mine who works in the HR Department of a successful multinationaI recently discussed morale in his company.

    “Yes,” he pined, “our company is very successful. And, yes, pay rates are good. And, yes, we’ve got a super duper employee engagement programme that enables us to track employee attitudes and morale. But the talk in the canteen tells a very different story. People are financially stressed. Their take-home pay has been slashed by tax increases. They’ve seen how some long-established businesses in the locality have gone to the wall. The feedback is that our employees are waiting for the axe to fall, as has happened to so many of their friends and neighbours who, up to recently, worked for similar blue chip companies. Our line managers feel that they’re expected to do more with less, and are afraid to say ‘no’ to increasing senior management demands for higher productivity despite fewer resources.”    

    In my experience in training and coaching, chronic stress, anxiety and fear are among the most fatal barriers to high performance in people at any level of a business organisation. This begs the biggest question of all: When your company simply can’t afford pay rises or bonuses, but you desperately need to motivate your people to higher productivity, better quality, stronger sales growth and the kind of customer care that generates repeat business, what’s left?

    There has never been a better time to look at non-financial approaches to employee motivation. And when you do, you’re going to discover something priceless: The most powerful motivators are non-financial!

Next week, I’ll share with you some insights into what REALLY motivates the people who work for you.     

 Nicky O’Brien is Director of Training and Outplacement Services at Hartley People