Listed in the Best 25 Management & Leadership Blogs of 2019
Author: Stephen Drain
Hi everyone, I am a Partner in PwC in Auckland New Zealand. I lead PwC Forensics Services and PwC Leadership Development Services. I am the People & Culture Partner for PwC Consulting in NZ.
My particular area of focus in leadership is Authenticity.
Aunty Rewa was born in October 1906 in the gold mining town of Waihi on the southern end of the Coromandel. Her parents William and Letitia, both Pākehā, had a Māori nanny and asked her to name the new baby. And Rewa entered the family.
When my mother was born she was named after Aunty Rewa and thanks to the original Koha and longevity, 116 years later the name still lives on in our family. I don’t know anything of the Nanny but I do know that being given the opportunity to name a new-born and carrying that through another generation are both special events and show insight that make fascinate me. Gifting a name is indeed special, a true koha.
Of course I’m biased, but Mum is pretty special and moving another year into her tenth decade this month, celebrated yesterday with a small family lunch in Ōtautahi Christchurch, was a lovely family occasion.
“Bottled Peaches!” declared the Airport security woman on the way home – actually apricots – but I didn’t feel like splitting hairs. Mum’s special creation and this jar is from her 69th annual bottling session of Otago apricots, earlier this year, never having missed making them each year since 1952 or 3.
A birthday should be about gifting and I’m pretty fortunate to have come away with this little number.
But the true gift is time – with Mum especially – and Mum still providing for us kids all these years later.
Coming to the end of The Obstacle is the Way I was surprised when the author announced that I was now a philosopher in Stoicism. Although the title of the book is perhaps an obvious clue as to what follows, I hadn’t framed my approach this way. But I found much of the book confirmatory of the usefulness of the concepts of stoicism – especially in a world of disruption (i.e. always!).
The challenging client? Covid anxiety? A war? The intractable work issue? Passive behaviour that feels aggressive? Too many life admins outstanding? All of the above all at once? I try to monitor and notice my own reactions to life’s obstacles – does my heart rate increase, am I irritable, do I start doing detailed work and planning? To notice is to be present in the here and now.
I remember many moons ago working in the Auckland Central police watchhouse – where people who had been arrested were “processed” – until they were bailed or taken to court. As you might imagine, not all customers were particularly happy – many drunk, aggressive and abusive. But you had to search, photograph and fingerprint them, whether they liked it or not. In some respects, achieving the outcomes required behaviour that was the antithesis of the macho, forceful imagine of a uniform cop tackling an alcohol-infused melee. It required the ability to depersonalise the anger directed at you. It’s surprisingly difficult to fingerprint someone – hold their fingers over an inkpad, and roll each finger on the paper – all ten of them – if they don’t want it! I must have achieved a modicum of success as the senior sergeant asked me to stay on for a second six month tour because he said, I had the temperament. I declined, patrols were far exciting.
But it must have been part of my journey of stoicism, which has really come to the fore these last couple of years, although I’ve never really framed it for myself that way. Perception, Action and Will make up the three disciplines of this book and underpinning it is turning every obstacle into an advantage. In business we might say “turning lemon into lemonade”, or “pivoting now”, but what we’re doing is turning the challenge, the obstacle or disadvantage into an opportunity.
Put another way, declining to be a victim despite the circumstances of apparent unfairness, avoiding catastrophising a situation – living in the present – the book says that unfortunately “We have to dive endlessly into what everything “means”, whether something is “fair” or not, whats “behind” this or that..”. Actually most of the time when something isn’t going our way, the person, or people that might be the perceived cause, are more than likely not particularly interested in us. Sad, but good too! It can put perspective into our lives.
Been “disrespected” at work? Who hasn’t been? (who hasn’t done it too?). Was the other person acting with intention? Possibly, but more than likely it was just a moment. So don’t worry. Feed off what they said and come back more powerful appearing more considered and patient as a result.
It’s a perfect day for stoicism. Rain is here after what feels like months of fine weather (unconscious bias of course – there’s been some!), and it’s got that cosy, rain on the roof feeling.
An opportunity to catch up on life admin, and even restart a blog!
Headline Photograph: Stonehenge from a visit in 2015. The rocks were quite a bit smaller than I had imagined.
I’ve been grappling a bit over the last couple of years with resilience – the concepts more than the actual thing (I think!). People talk of building it up, focussing on your wellbeing to make sure you are resilient, especially during this Covid era when uncertainty about work, health, travel, whanau is ever present. It’ll be coming up four years soon since I saw my eldest son, now settled in Ireland with children of his own, one I’ve not seen in person. There are thousands of similar, and far more challenging situations for many Kiwis. I’m thinking especially those who have lost their employment or had their earnings restricted from business, or who haven’t been able to say farewell to loved ones who have died. It’s tough. And resilience is needed.
I was out at my little piece of paradise this long Waitangi weekend, doing some cleaning up, after a big clean up – moving bits of old metal, some electric power line fittings – trees in pots that had fallen over and so on. I’ve been very cautious – one of my legs is not what it used to be and I’ve been looking after my resilience by protecting it, having others to do the hard graft, leaving me for such strenuous activities as watering and fetching cold drinks from the fridge in the container (should you leave it on? – I hope it’s alright!).
Something switched – maybe I suddenly reached a tipping point and got tougher, but I grabbed all the old metal, electrical fittings and some bits of timber and lugged them up the hill to the bin. Cripes it felt good. Then I did it again. Then I moved the plants back upright. Then I attacked the door to the bore shed that’s been jamming – fixed that.
I’m certain it wasn’t all in my head, I have been weaker, but it had got in my head and now it’s out and I’m free and strong to do what I can. Well that’s what it feels like – probably won’t make the Olympic team quite yet, but you get the drift!
“is the ability to bounce back from unforeseen complications. It’s the ability to adapt. For example, suppose you leave your home at a normal time en route to your workplace. Unfortunately, you run into expectedly heavy traffic on the freeway. This setback is sure to make you late for a meeting scheduled that morning. A resilient person might grit his teeth and curse under his breath, but he’d ultimately adapt to this circumstance. He might seek a different route to his workplace, using his phone’s GPS feature. Or he may call his office and reschedule the meeting. Or he might compose an explanation for his tardiness that allows him to avoid others’ disapproval.
Mental toughness is a mindset. It not only reflects our ability to bounce back from unforeseen complications, but also demonstrates a positive outlook during the experience. It’s not just the ability to handle stressful situations. It reflects how we handle them. For example, a mentally tough person caught in unexpectedly heavy traffic might take the opportunity to listen to an inspiring audiobook. In fact, she might be pleased with her circumstance because it gives her the opportunity.”
Obviously there’s more to it in the book than I can relay here, but think about the times when things go wrong – do you see it as an opportunity? Or do you try and make sure the tracks are covered?
I’m not advocating pulling yourself up by the bootstrings necessarily but there is something to be said for thinking of the opportunity. But it’s tough. Mentally tough, but it might just be in your head as to which way you choose.
Almost the last thing I did in 2021 was walk. It could be the year of the mask but it was the walking recovery year for me. After having a chunk of muscle removed from my right leg (with a tumour) in September 2020, I set out to do what I had endeavoured to do in 2020 and that was to walk at least 365 times.
Under that goal you can have a day off, but be warned you have to make it up with two a day if you slacken off! I did 374 walks covering 1582.82 kilometres (I know, it’s the App – keeps it exactly – there’s no hiding). That would have been a reasonable marathon buildup distance back in the day. The average walk was 4.24km and the average per day was 4.33. It’s lower than I would like but I’ve noticed my resilience for longer walks building and 2022 will be about maintaining and building an average walk of 5km. I loosened my “minimum 2km” rule on account of the surgery but very few walks were below 2km. All walks were deliberate (that’s a rule), but I incorporated other activity like shopping, walking at my little piece of land, and occasionally to and from work.
I listened to lots of music (became addicted to True by Spandau Ballet on the walks) and audio books – including 1984 with a mention almost exactly ten years ago on this blog (by Orwell – one insight: it’s happening in parts of the world), Brave New World (Huxley – it could happen), Animal Farm – I love this book, something about the farm, not just the story (Orwell – it’s happened in many places), A Promised Land (Obama – opportunities missed from fear of one’s own authenticity), The Tragedie of MacBeth (a play! – Shakespeare – violence begets violence), Leading Change (Kotter – it takes longer than you think), Skin in the Game (Taleb – only when you have actual skin in your game (work) do you have the rights to be heard), Apropos of Nothing (Allen – he’s funny, very funny and showing humour and grace when under attack is effective), Wuthering Heights (E Bronte – it was every bit as good as it was in the sixth form, and shaped me more than I realised – even the location of my new build to a degree), The Road to Wigan Pier (Orwell – cheer up for goodness sakes!).
I walked in Auckland, Queenstown and Tauranga. Fewer places than I would usually, because of lockdowns and the resulting lesser travel. I have many favourite walks but standing out is Ohinerau – Mt Hobson – a gorgeous Maunga with spectacular views and sunsets and very close to home, the Arrow River by Arrowtown. Cornwall Park and the Domain are unbeatable really too. Maungawhau (Mt Eden) tests the cardiovascular system the best.
Reading back at this blog as I drafted it I cringed a little at the mention again of my cancer, but it’s part of me (well I live in hope it’s not physically!), and shaped me in unexpected ways. It made resilience real in 2021, it forced me to face existential questions early on and removed a fear of disease. Having it in the back of my mind – brought to the front of the mind every x-ray check up – has sharpened me in 2021. Live for now and get on with what I want to get done. Build the house, spend time with those that matter, and none with those that take the energy.
This is of course a leadership blog but after over ten years on it, there’s one constant which keeps me grounded in it and why sharing is necessary for leading. Authenticity. It’s everything in leadership. No degrees, accolades, books published or other high-sounding commendations can make up for a lack of it. Ask those who are led.
And grace – my word to start the year – we’re all human, so I try and will try more show grace in good times and in adversity. An old-fashioned word that captures how I’m feeling. And True? That’s the song I got addicted to on the walks. No idea why, but it’s true.
hari tau hou – happy new year!
p.s. the featured image is also Arthurs Point, Queenstown this morning – a stiff walk uphill!