Choosing to chose

Got this from my friend and mentor Peter Koestenbaum the other day, and it reminded me of a conversation I had with a friend over dinner who is facing a particularly difficult life choice that affects his family.

choice: red-blue pill matrix

“Where are you in this part of your journey of life, the part that discovers the enormity of your freedom, its blessings and its agonies?

Deep choices are not made logically, in a calculating way, but by the unconscious, the intuitive faculty. Nor can they be rushed to “closure.” If you are not ready to make a decision, then you just won’t make a decision, no matter how hard you try to make it. And if you do actually find the power to make one against your instincts, you will have made a serious error, similar to having a psychotic break. You have engaged in an “unnatural” act. Deep choices require dialogue. For as we think and talk and journal about choosing, the reality that surrounds us and in the context of which we must choose also changes.

Deep choices require the willingness to risk, which means to tolerate that anxiety and commit to the tenacity of improvising, of having the faith that we can make the decision succeed. We never have all the facts. And anyway the facts change, right as we choose. Making a decision is more a matter of displaying faith in ourselves.

…The soul first chooses and then it chooses to continue to choose in the same manner. Here is where a strong philosophy of freedom is of the essence.”

So, if you are facing a ‘deep choice’ where are you finding space and a trusted advisor/friend to engage in dialogue? Because, as the etymology of the word, dialogue indicates: it is ‘dia’-through and ‘logos’-meaning the exploration creates new opportunities and possibilities.

If your choice affects others, can you begin to engage in dialogue with them? This way you can create new solutions together. Dialogue is different from compromise. Compromise means each of you have to surrender something important. In dialogue, when we can both let go of our attachments, a completely new and creative solution can emerge. Also, because the choice we make is only the beginning, if we have shared in the co-creation of the idea, we can show the resilience and tenacity to keep choosing, even when the choice we made creates difficulty or problems.


Son of Saul: a MUST see movie & seeds of evil


The Son of Saul film is on for the next week and a half at the fantastic DCA cinema*. I saw it last night in the cozy Cinema 2.

I encourage you to see it if you can. Its an extraordinary film.

A photo posted by Joe Lafferty (@joelafferty) on

The director, László Nemes, combining some clever directorial decisions, manages to pull of the very difficult feat of communicating the horror of the holocaust without showing explicit violence.

The film focuses almost entirely on the face of the main Actor, Hungarian writer Géza Röhrig.

His pallid, almost expressionless face shows very subtle hints of the pain he is experiencing as he is forced to participate in the violence of this terrible event in human history.

The horror is all around, yet it’s on the periphery, a blur.

The work seems almost mundane, with the Sonderkommando following orders like automatons, moving bodies, discarding clothes. Routinely standing stock still, taking off their hats and lowering their heads whenever they come in contact with a Nazi soldier.

Nemes uses long takes without cuts, so you are carried around with Saul in this desperately awful environment. Sometimes seeing his face, sometimes over his shoulder. All the while pulling you into the scene, feeling his disorientation and paradoxically, his determination.

The use of sound and silence is very powerful. All around, we hear the shouts of the Guards and Sonderkommando barking commands. The voice of the guards promising hot soup and coffee after the ‘shower’ is chilling in its normality. We hear the terror of steel doors clanging shut as forlorn fists pound and we hear the horror of rising screams as the Jews inside realise what is happening to them.

The mundanity of this efficient production line of mass murder is very disturbing.

In one scene Saul is teased for being in the wrong place as one of a group of Nazi soldiers dances round him. Reminiscent of a school playground scene of bullying, it is grotesque in its familiarity. How close to this abuse is the kind of violence and brutality that enabled the holocaust.

I have shared a very disturbing article from the New Statesman recently which questioned the seeds and soil that enabled Hitlers rise. Rowan Williams article starts with Burke’s oft quoted phrase: “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” which he says lets us off the hook. Puts the evil ‘out there’ when in fact it is partly in here (in me/us) as the movie Son of Saul shows so clearly.


Williams argues that “What is necessary for the triumph of evil is that the ground should have been thoroughly prepared by countless small or not-so-small acts of petty malice, unthinking prejudice and collusion.” And that we must mobilise intelligently, which “demands being willing to ask what habits and assumptions, as well as what chances and conditions, have made possible the risk of evil triumphing. And that leads us into deep waters, to a recognition of how what we tolerate or ignore or underestimate opens the way for disaster, the ways in which we are at least half-consciously complicit.”

If you can make it, you must watch this movie.

This film was recommended to me by Alice Black, DCA’s Head of Cinema, as one of the best films she has seen in a long time.

*Declaring an interest: I’m on the Board of DCA


Is “being nice” the key to teamwork?

“After years of intensive analysis, Google discovers the key to good teamwork is being nice.”

group-are you happy?

Snappy headline, but a major oversimplification. The brief article speaks of a number of factors, summarising the key factor as being “psychological safety”. I accept this is a key enabler however, in my experience, there is much more required for effective team working.

I recently completed a piece of work with a multidisciplinary top team. They were in real difficulty. Suspicion was rife, and individuals in the group were antagonistic towards each other. This was displayed by making assumptions about what was motivating their behaviour and being critical of each others performance and motivations. To say it was a pretty dysfunctional team was an understatement. Things were critical. Organisational performance was threatened.

group wade through mud up hill-The Gauntlet 2 - 2013 - Mud Pit - 0684

I was asked to work with them to see if I could enable them to get ‘unstuck’ and turn around their performance as a team. Not being one to shirk a challenge, I agreed.

I met them individually to explore their views on what was needed to develop a more positive team performance. After these meetings, I created an agenda for an off site away-day to begin to investigate what they could do to work more effectively as a team. I did a benchmark questionnaire using a simple eleven question framework which I have used many times.

That initial awayday was difficult, but cathartic. We had a follow up session a few months later, and I also did some one-to-one coaching with the Director of the team.

Before we met for the debrief to review progress, I asked each of the team to complete a similar questionnaire to the benchmark. The results were very impressive indeed. On all eleven questions (on a scale of 1-6), the team had improved, some by less than one point, others by between two and three points. Of course, this is a self assessment, so I was interested to see how the team was when we met with the Corporate director responsible for the team.

The meeting was very powerful. Apart from the step change improvement in the numbers, the atmosphere in the team was completely transformed. The Director in charge said: “We haven’t changed, we’ve just learned about each other. We know each others strengths and weaknesses and we work much better to our strengths.” She went on to give an example: “I’m very task driven, so I knew that if I went into that meeting, I would have lost the plot. However George (not his real name) has really strong empathy, so I asked him to lead this session and it really worked.” By taking time to reflect on progress, a number of other examples were shared of the improvement in the teams functioning.

Apart from the scores, and some of these great examples, what I noticed was the shift in the atmosphere in the team from that first, very tense meeting. Now there was fun and banter – gentle teasing of each other. Team members made space for each other, and listened to each contribution with respect.

When it came to the Corporate director to speak, she said that she had never, in all her experience in coaching and team development, seen such a transformational change in a team. She had also noticed this in her interactions with the team and how the team was addressing some of the challenges facing the organisation.

So what made this happen? The article is correct in that one of the key enablers was psychological safety. Individuals in the team had to feel safe, to speak their minds. To give feedback, even if only tentatively to begin with. It took courage. To risk, to share something of themselves with their colleagues. And at the same time to have compassion for other team members. Just giving feedback with courage can be very destructive. However, if one only has empathy or compassion, then no one speaks honestly to issues and no change is possible.

Another key factor was they had come to conclude that this could not go on. They had to take responsibility for their contribution to the toxic dynamic that had developed in the group, and to change how they related to each other.

That’s a lot more than just being nice.



Our pledge

L1110767 patterson poem scotland

While clearing out the office I came across this postcard version of Don Paterson’s great poem about Scotland. The cards were produced for a Changin’ Scotland weekend in the run up to the Independence Referendum.

Enjoy Don’s inspiring words.

We, the Scottish people, undertake to find within our culture the true measure
of the mind’s vitality and spirit’s health to see that what is best in us is treasured
and what is treasured, held as common wealth to guarantee all Scots folk of whatever

age or origin, estate or creed the means and the occasion to discover
their skill or gift, and let it flower and seed to take just pride in all in our diverse tongues
folks and customs, and also what is yet distinct in us: our thousand thousand songs
our wild invention and our thrawn debate to act as democratic overseer
of our whole culture: wise conservator of its tradition, its future’s engineer
the very engine of of its living hour to honour our best artists, and respect
not just the plain cost of their undertaking but the worth of what they make, and every act
of service and midwifery to that making and to discover through our artistry
and fine appreciation of our art that we are not – so know ourselves to be
the whole world, both in microcosm and part and recognise in this our charge of care
to friend and stranger, beast and bird and tree the planetary and local space we share
we will do this wakefully, and imaginatively.


Getting the best out of your staff


Many managers procrastinate meetings with staff about appraisal or performance reviews. Managers feel under equipped to deal with difficult conversations and staff often dread the formal meeting. Some performance management systems are, as Demming said, “perfectly designed to give you the results you’re getting” – which sadly often is mediocrity!

An HR director once said to me the best performance management system is a blank piece of paper. The key is the conversation and dialogue. Recent research shows that organisations are moving away from Annual Performance Reviews because they create over complicated systems which are both unhelpful and very costly. 

I’ve learned over my years of experience working in many different organisations that having an honest conversation about performance and development is at the heart of creating a positive work culture. One where both challenge and support are present. Where staff feel valued as well as challenged to make their best contribution.

While a detailed exploration of this is beyond this short article, but here are some tips on one key area – giving feedback – that will pay dividends if you are able to implement.


  • make giving regular, timely feedback a key part of interactions with staff and colleagues
  • be open to receive feedback as well as giving it: specifically ask for feedback from staff and colleagues
  • sometimes give only positive feedback, and when you give positive feedback it’s OK to do it in public
  • when you give constructive or critical feedback make sure you follow the following ‘rules’: 
    • only give the feedback in private -make sure you also highlight what is good (an example is: “Joe what I liked about that presentation was you covered the key issues. What I didn’t like was it had too much detail and you ran over time. What I’d like you to change is to present with more clarity and brevity, and make sure you build in time at the end for questions and dialogue.”
    • make sure you are clear about what you want the staff member to change
    • check the staff member understands
    • and, finally, get ownership for needed actions and improvement

Joe Lafferty, Leadership Consultant and Team Coach, is founder of Lifetree, an international consultancy who’s aim is “Supporting responsible leaders to achieve their highest potential.”




“The economy is failing society”

What Is Wrong with the West’s Economies? Edmund S. Phelps; New York review of Books: AUGUST 13, 2015

A long read (in Internet terms), but worth it.

Introducing (in some cases) novel words: justice, inclusion, a good economy and human flourishing, into what Phelps sees as an overwhelming mechanised view of economics. And, he argues, “classical economics … has little place for creativity and imagination.”

anguish: emotion
Photo: Detail of Rodin’s Burghers of Calais © Joe Lafferty, all rights reserved 

It’s not all about money, however without adequate income, or the hope of contribution and improvement, human flourishing becomes impossible. “High-enough wages, low-enough unemployment, and wide-enough access to engaging work are necessary for a “good-enough” economy—though far from sufficient. The material possibilities of the economy must be adequate for the nonmaterial possibilities to be widespread—the satisfactions of prospering and of flourishing through adventurous, creative, and even imaginative work.”

The awful legacy of the predominant neoliberal economics is not shown in graphs, but in the lives of millions upon millions without hope for a better future. And the terrible waste of human potential who long for creative work and the possibility of human flourishing.

This failing in the West’s economies is also a failing of economics. The classical idea of political economy has been to let wage rates sink to whatever level the market takes them, and then provide everyone with the “safety net” of a “negative income tax,” unemployment insurance, and free food, shelter, clothing, and medical care. This policy, even when humanely carried out, and it often is not, misses the point that, even if we confine our attention to the West since the Renaissance, many people have long felt the desire to do something with their lives besides consuming goods and having leisure. They desire to participate in a community in which they can interact and develop.

…the good life involves using one’s imagination, exercising one’s creativity, taking fascinating journeys into the unknown, and acting on the world—an experience I call “flourishing.” These gains are gains in experience, not in material reward, though material gains may be a means to the nonmaterial ends. As the writer Kabir Sehgal put it, “Money is like blood. You need it to live but it isn’t the point of life.”

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by Pablo Neruda
Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.
For once on the face of the earth,
let’s not speak in any language;
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.
It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.
Fisherman in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would look at his hurt hands.
Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victories with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.
What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about;
I want no truck with death.
If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.
Now I’ll count up to twelve?and you keep quiet and I will go.


Director of DCA moves on to significant new Role in Creative Scotland

Clive Gillman-DCA

Dundee & the DCA will miss Clive’s significant talent & presence. He has made an outstanding contribution to the city and has led the DCA towards being one of the best arts venues in Scotland if not the UK.

The DCA has, under his leadership, encouraged new artists and opened up the world of contemporary art to many. Not just making art accessible, but engaging people to participate by taking workshops, watching great cinema or being part of wider events like Blue Skies.

I’m delighted for him that he has been rewarded with this significant role in Creative Scotland and I’m sure he will continue to make an impact on this new and larger stage across Scotland.

Congratulations to Clive!


Mingus on ‘awesome simplicity’

Real Creativity

A friend of mine posted a link to the brilliant short documentary on Radio Four where Courney Pine and other jazz musicians spoke about the incredible and groundbreaking album ‘A Love Supreme’ on the 50th Annivversity of the recording. See the link below to watch on BBC iPlayer Radio on catch up if you are in the UK. 

I recently re-listened to this amazing recording and I was reminded me of one of his great quotes which I’ve added to the picture above. 

“Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.”

If you’d like to catch the BBC programme here on catch up, follow the link below.

Courtney Pine on Charles Mingus.png



The discovery of slowness

I listened again to Glenn Gould playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations while ‘ripping’ my CD’s into lossless format for my new Linn streaming HiFi, and I took me back to an earlier post that still has relevance.

Discovery of slowness

Photo of Balgay Hill, Dundee, © Joe Lafferty, all rights reserved.

From the archives (original Post 2006).

I was facilitating a meeting the other day with a client group who were responsible for leadership development in their organisations. During our ‘check-in’, a number of folks shared on the frantic busyness they felt, and even more importantly, their internal clients felt. The pace and pressure, almost at a manic level, putting enormous stress on leaders.

We moved on from this and began to share on how valuable it was to create a space to reflect. To be out of the office. To only have one meeting, now, for the next 2-3 hours. Thinking time. Some commented on how this was a ‘treat’, which of course kicks in our Scottish mindset: who do you think you are to allow yourself such indulgence!

I’ve been listening a lot recently to Glenn Gould’s 1981 version of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. The sleeve notes inform that Gould has recorded this work twice, the first time in 1955. The difference between the recordings is considerable, exemplified externally by the timing: 38m 27s in 1955 to 51m 15s in 1981. Gould said he found much of his early work ‘just too fast’ and he expressed himself at length on what he called ‘the discovery of slowness’. He also referred to rhythmic continuity, not tempo, but one ‘pulse rate’. One constant rhythmic point of reference. His recording having an autumnal repose, some degree of perfection, not purely of technical order, but of a spiritual order.

Glenn Gould

As leaders, or as those that serve leaders to enable increasing effectiveness, it is vital for us to make space to think. To get out of ‘the thick of thin things’. This is not a ‘treat’ or a luxury we should feel guilty about. On the contrary it’s vital to our work and practice. How can we help our colleagues and clients if we merely collude with the frenetic pace they are under? Can we have the courage to make space for ourselves to think? To ‘slow down to speed up’.