What Does It Mean To Be A Living Leader

Blog written by Maurice Whelan of Unleash Potential and reproduced here with his kind permission.

Some years ago I attended a training course given by Penny Ferguson to the organisation I worked in.  Penny is a forthright presenter with very strong views about leadership. I thought it would be useful to review Penny’s bookThe Living Leader to gain a greater awareness and understanding of leadership in the context of coaching. Also I thought it would be apt to remind myself of what leadership in business means today and what particular skills are needed to achieve success. Penny tells the reader that she has completely changed her opinion on what leadership is actually about.  She once believed it was primarily about developing skills and acquiring more knowledge around the various theories on the subject of leadership. She believed that success was essentially about learning these skills and putting them into practice. She has changed her whole way of thinking in recent years. This change emanates from her experience of dealing with many International companies and global Chief Executives. She now believes that Leadership is not primarily about what you do, it is aboutwho you are and who you choose to be. Or to put it in philosophical terms, leadership is more about being rather than doing“Leadership is a potent combination of strategy and character. But if you must be without one, be without strategy”.    Norman Schwarzkopf.

Penny’s concern is about achieving organisational success and leadership is a fundamental part of that ongoing success. Every organisation must have a clear vision to be successful. To make that vision a reality, organisations need Leaders with the right skills, attitudes and character. The key learning for me was just how important questioning was to the successful leader, something Leadership has in common with coaching. “You can tell a man is clever by his answers. You can tell a man is wise by his questions.” Naquib Mahfouz Penny states that outstanding leaders recognise that asking the right questions is critical, not least because leaders require all the pertinent information before making a decision. So, for Penny, becoming a listening leader is essential to success.

It is interesting that She focuses heavily on the skill of questioning, which of course is a fundamental requirement of the executive coach. She underpins the importance of incisive questions and urges her reader to use the ‘who, what, where, when and how’ questions to uncover the information needed to make executive decisions. The incisive question needs to become second nature to the leader. Penny’s book highlights for me the fundamental role that incisive questioning play in excellent leadership, and indeed in many aspects of life, including coaching. It reinforces for me the central role of questioning in my coaching work and the need to bring this skill to the clients awareness and encourage them to use open questioning within their business life.

The book is an articulate, informative and inspiring read and I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in the subject of leadership. Better still, if you ever get an opportunity to attend an event where Penny is speaking, grab it with both hands!


Having your attention in the right place can make a real impact

Penny Lola

So often when we really want to help people become the best they can be we focus on the least helpful place – we focus on what they are doing wrong and suggest ways that they may like to improve.  We are putting all their attention on where they are under-performing.

Let me give you an example – lets say you have an underperforming employee whose figures have been low for the last few weeks; he’s been returning poorer sales results and his motivation is nothing like it used to be. His quarterly review is coming up and you have a list of issues that need to be addressed.  He will be aware of this and it is quite likely that he is now so anxious about this review that the words ‘get it over and done with’ are the only thoughts that can enter his head on the subject. Now ask yourself, is this looking to be a meeting with a positive outcome and where are both of you putting your attention?  On his areas of failure or weakness.

You sit down to meet him, tell him about his poor figures, his underachievement, and your concern about his apparent lack of motivation. There are apologies and murmurs of agreement as you set targets for next review, and then the whole unpleasant process is over, and you look forward to what will surely be a much better review in three months time. But what is he focussed on? He is of course focussed on what he’s done wrong and what he’ll need to get right for the next meetings. The bigger picture is put aside, brilliant work is forgotten and rectifying errors are at the forefront of his mind. Have you changed his way of thinking so he can now work on positively enhancing his performance? Quite probably not!  Outcome – an even more de-motivated employee who does not feel good about himself and has probably not owned the problems or the solutions!

Now, consider this. You hold the meeting, only this time you start off by talking about the areas where you know he does have strengths. You focus on how well he handles his customers and what excellent relationships he has built with them, how pleased you were with his last report. You observe that he is doing some interesting activities for charity outside work, and perhaps say you admire his commitment to doing things for people just because he cares.  You then ask him where he would consider that he is not doing as well as he thinks – where he may be underperforming.  He explains that he’s had far too much work given to him this month and he’s unable to devote the same amount of time to sales as he had been. You ask him what he thinks needs to change to allow him to be able to refocus on sales and which bits of the work are taking him away from his role.  You also ask him what help he might need from you to allow that to happen. As he leaves you say how very good it is to see the old mojo back!  He laughs and says that he feels very different and much happier.

Your employee is now focussed on the positives – you’ve made sure he knows what his strengths are, and what to play up to. Not only this, he now sees the meeting as the ‘support’ meeting you first intended it to be – rather than a meeting based on a list of his downfalls. Issues are likely to be resolved if you are able to help in some way and by listening to him help find the root cause of the problem – but if you merely prompt people to be better without helping them to work out the reasons behind the bad performance, you’ll get no change at all!

Please don’t hear me say that you avoid telling people when they are screwing up but keep thinking about what you want the outcome to be.  If you want a highly motivated employee who is going to be motivated to improve performance and focus on solution rather than problem then getting them to focus on their strengths rather than their weaknesses is likely to have a higher hit rate.  Getting them to articulate the problem and then help them find the solution will enable them to ‘own’ it and therefore be more committed to making it work.  One of the things that I see happens a bit too often is that people find it very, very easy to praise their ‘stars’.  These people therefore keep feeling better and better about themselves and consequently perform better – wouldn’t you if someone keeps telling you what you are good at?  The ones who are underperforming don’t hear any praise just reminders about their weak areas that they need to concentrate on improving – how do they feel and how likely are they to be successful – their attention is in the wrong place.  Outcome – the gap between the high performers and the low performers increases!

When you get out of bed in the morning just feeling really great how do things work out for you on that day?  Easy answer – pretty well!  So, if you knew that you could really help each person in your team focus on their strengths, feel great each day, what behaviour might you change to make that happen?

Penny has worked with businesses like Sage and Argos to inspire long lasting positive change within the company, in order to take steps towards success and leadership. Contact her at The Living Leader to book an appointment.

Beliefs that drive Behaviours

'Beliefs and Behaviours' was covered at the Insights on Leadership day

‘Beliefs and Behaviors’ was covered at the Insights on Leadership day

‘Beliefs driving behaviours’ is something that I come back to again and again, as it is so important to understand.  It was a very long time into my life before I really began to really ‘get it’.  It is probably a sentence or saying that you have said or heard often, but understanding it at a deep enough level for it to have real meaning certainly took me considerably longer.

Firstly, let me give you the dictionary (or one of them!) definition of belief:-

1               An acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists.

2               Something one accepts as true or real; a firmly held opinion or conviction.

A belief is no more than that, and to demonstrate this let me give you a couple of examples.  Let’s say that you have a group of friends and you get together for a fun evening once a month at different houses.  You dearly love them all, but one of them really irritates you – the way she invariably parks her car making it difficult for everyone else; the fact that she is always late and has a different excuse; because she takes such ages making a decision on what to eat and then wishes she had something different when she see other peoples’ food arrive; how she talks too much at the lunch table and then ends up keeping everyone waiting; ………… and so on.  She now cannot open her mouth to say ‘good evening’ without it irritating you!  Now you share some of your irritation with your other friends and they keep trying to convince you that she has lots of qualities and doesn’t irritate them – they are trying to change your belief by telling you something different!  Opportunity of success – approximately zero!  Now, without knowing that you are doing it, as it appears to happen subconsciously, you will be constantly looking for her to demonstrate behaviours that reinforce your existing belief.  And – guess what – because that is what you are looking for, you can be sure that you will find those behaviours, and the ones that might demonstrate the exact opposite just pass you by.  If you believe something to be true then you will invariably look for behaviours that will bolster that belief – every time!

Now think of an example in the workplace.  Let’s say that one of the values that exist in your organisation is ‘our people come first’.  This is really important, and the ‘powers that be’ at the top of the organisation consistently keep telling you that this is so.  However, you work in an open plan office, which the Board of Directors walk through every morning to get to their desks, of which the majority are not part of the open plan style but pretty sumptuous private ones with the doors closed!  Now when they come through in the morning they stride through, very focused and go straight to their respective places, either to sit at the desk, call their Executive Assistants in to give them the day’s briefing, or go straight to a meeting etc. etc.  They could, as an alternative, choose to take a little longer to walk through and stop at the odd desk for a chat – maybe ask how their son’s birthday was at the weekend, how their holiday plans were going, has the new puppy arrived and have they got a photo …. plus, plus, plus!  Probably only taking an extra five minutes, but a very different style.  Now think of those two very different approaches and what your beliefs might be about this organisation that has a vision stating ‘our people come first’!!  If the demonstrated behaviours mirror the first example, there will be very few people who believe even remotely that they come first – they will believe the exact opposite.  And the sad part is that, even when they do something slightly different it is likely to be passed by because it doesn’t support the belief that ‘our top team don’t care about people’.  You cannot tell someone to believe something; you can only demonstrate behaviours that may encourage them to have a useful belief that supports what you want in your organisation.

Now come back for one moment to the first example of the ‘irritating lady’.  Imagine that for one whole month, every time you meet or speak to her you are determined to look for at least one thing that you really like about her.  I can tell you with absolutely certainty that at the end of that month she will have ceased to irritate you!  And the key to this is that YOU will have changed and not HER!!

Beliefs will drive behaviours – so what beliefs are you going to choose – about your life, your home, your relationships, your work?  It is truly down to you and just remember – ‘be careful what you look for as you might just find it!’

Penny has worked with businesses like Sage and Argos to inspire long lasting positive change within the company, in order to take steps towards success and leadership. Contact her at The Living Leader to book an appointment.

Don’t worry about yesterday or tomorrow!

Cover Image credit goes to JJ Paine

“Don’t worry about yesterday or tomorrow.  You miss a lot of the ‘now’ doing that.  There’s only so much ‘now’ to go around”.


Over 35,000 people have experienced the transformational impact of Penny Ferguson, in business performance and their lives.

Reading a book the other day these couple of sentences really sent bells going in my head.  The book is just an easy read fiction thriller and these few sentences just grabbed me.  How much time do I spend in thinking about the past and, in some instances doing something really useless ……. trying to rewrite history?  However much I know that, apart from perhaps taking a valuable lesson from it, I cannot change what has happened, do I allow valuable thinking time to be wasted with going over it?  Sometimes even going over it again and again a bit like a stuck gramophone record!

And what about the future – how much time do I have my attention there?  I am not talking about the potentially useful stuff, the creating the vision, setting some achievable goals – I am more asking myself about the fears and concerns over things that might or might not happen.  The answer is that, if I am brutally honest, too much time is wasted on that activity which achieves little.  It brings to mind something I read – I think in a Stuart Wilde book – many years ago; ‘there are only two types of things that anyone can worry about – the things that you can control and the things that you can’t.  Well, if you can control it then do something about it and if you can’t control it then there is nothing you can do.  So, in either circumstance, there is little point in worrying!’

The ‘now’ is incredibly precious and that is the only place where you might take your learnings from the past and do something that could impact the future.  Staying totally present sounds as though it would be really easy.  Just try it for a very short space of time – say one hour.  Then ask yourself the question “how often did my mind slip into the past or the future?”  You might just surprise yourself and recognise that perhaps it is not quite as easy as it seems!

Penny Ferguson is an inspirational speaker who changes lives and business. Part of ‘The Living Leader’ they provide leadership development programmes that promote long lasting and positive change in business. She has worked with businesses like Sage and Travis Perkins. For a competitive edge, see how Penny can help you at The Living Leader today.