Anatomy of a true leader?

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green_stick_figure_stand_out_crowd_1600_wht_1832In the Sunday Times business section this weekend Luke Johnson, Chairman of Risk Capital Partners and the Centre for Entrepreneurs, set out his list of the most important characteristics that a managing director should possess.

In brief these were:

The ability to motivate. The boss who can enthuse a workforce will generally do better than one who rules by fear.

Domain Knowledge. They must have sufficient technical understanding to gain the respect of their team.

The ability to listen. The best bosses don’t dominate debates but encourage feedback and leave their doors open. They listen to the shop floor by going there in person.

Decisiveness. Ultimately companies cannot function as pure democracies and someone has to make decisions rather than procrastinate. Employees need a sense of direction.

Financial literacy. Must be able to interpret financial statements and analyse accouts.

A sense of humour. Life is too short not to enjoy going to work .

Reliability in a crisis. Someone who doesn’t panic in the face of adversity and gets down to work in a diligent and professional way without histrionics.

Frugality. Having a thrifty approach to business. Extravagant CEOs set a bad example especially if they live beyond their means. A lean operation is the only way.

Delegation. The only way for start-ups to become large companies is for the proprietor/managers to learn to identify, promote, trust, and empower talent.

Adaptability. Modern companies need to be flexible and intelligent leaders thrive on change and are constantly learning.

Bravery. Outstanding leaders need the courage to make unpopular decisions. Those who fail to speak out on controversial issues and follow the consensus are followers not leaders.

That’s Luke Johnsons’ list and I can’t say I disagree with any of them. An interesting mixture of personality traits e.g. adaptability (being open to experience) and learned skills e.g. financial knowledge.

I’ve yet to meet anyone who meets all those criteria however! And when it comes to frugality it’s hard to say it abounds. When the average pay at the top of organisations is 130 times pay at the bottom and CEOs get rewarded for failure e.g. the Barclays CEO walking away with £28 million it’s hard to believe it exists at the very top of organisations.

If you want to comment or add to the list contact him at:




Autism Valued in the Workplace

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autism_single_ribbon_1600_wht_11808German global software company SAP has said it intends to gain a competitive advantage by actively employing people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

It will employ 650 people with autism by 2020, approximately 1% of the workforce reflecting the proportion of people with autism in the general population. They will be working with a Danish company Specialisterne which employs software testers and programmers who have autism.

The move follows a pilot scheme employing people with autism in India as software testers and is now expanding the scheme into Ireland, Germany and the USA. In India they found that they could do repetitive tasks with excellent speed and accuracy.

A finance company in the USA called Freddie Mac has also been hiring interns with autism for the last two years with a view to creating permanent posts. They say that they have had to work out how to adapt the working environment to suit the needs of “this uniquely talented group of people”.

Auticon, another German company, which employs consultants with autism as software testers found that they had to make some adjustments in an autism-oriented office. For a start they don’t have things which make noises or interrupt them or have bright lighting. You have to be very direct with instructions and not use simile or metaphors. Some consultants don’t like shaking hands. They tend to be very honest with their feedback as well which probably takes some getting used to.

Apart from the concentration and attention to detail researchers at the Californian Institute of Technology have found that people with autism are better than “neuro-typicals” at making rational decisions as they are less swayed by emotions. People with autism can also handle large amounts of data as they found at the University of Montreal in Quebec where one person could summarise and compare 8,000 documents on her computer.

Autism exists on a spectrum and not everyone who has the condition will find this kind of job suitable for them but SAP says that “people with autism tend to be really good at identifying mistakes and sensing patterns – a very good match for software testing”.

The President of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network in Washington DC believes this the start of the rise of autism in the workplace.

Source: New Scientist 1 June 2013 “Have autism, will travel”

How our instinct can deceive us

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Breathe London

In this blog I explore why it’s so important to slow down and examine our emotions, and those of people around us.

Making decisions based on gut instinct

Research over the last 20 years increasingly suggests we perceive our decision making processes to be dominated by logic, when in fact the way we tend to problem solve and reach conclusions is firstly out of instinct, and then through engaging our analytical side to justify our decisions. Malcolm Gladwell turned this topic into a whole book called ‘Blink’

The problem with this decision making process, is that our gut instinct is primed by our ancestral reptilian brain, our upbringing, current stress levels and how we are primed at every moment by environmental factors. Once we have made a decision based on gut instinct and backed it up with thought it’s very difficult for us to change our attitudes – they become…

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My most read posts in 2011

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Another year of blogging, trying to find the most interesting stuff that brings together work and psychology.

As I said last year it’s a competitive market place with many excellent writers and I think business psychologists can make a great contribution to the workplace in these difficult economic times.

WordPress tell me most of my readers come for the UK, the USA, and India with some from Africa and Brazil.

And my top 5 ie most read, posts:

My 5th most read wasEmotional Intelligence and empathy

My 4th most read wasEmotional Intelligence and self-control and those marsh-mallows

So still a lot of interest in EI out there

My 3rd most read wasMoral Judgements and decision-making which had the most comments and was also in last year’s top 5

My 2nd most read wasNo country for grey-haired men about ageism in recruitment affecting men as well as women.

And the most read, as many as the rest of the top five together, wasThe 4 agreements – shamanic Emotional Intelligence for the second year running.

This year I created a new blog about health and lifestyle issues and transferred the more general posts, about half of them, from here to uLearn2BU .

I decided that this blog needed to be more focussed on the psychology of work to supplement my Leadership and Management blog.

So many thanks for reading and for your comments and looking forward to more in 2012.

Decision-making and bladder control

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A researcher, Mirjam Tuk,  from the faculty of behavioural sciences at the University of Twente in the Netherlands won an Ig Nobel prize in medicine for her research on decision-making and bladder control.

One of her colleagues had argued that hunger and sexual arousal could make you more impulsive so she wondered if there were physical visceral experiences that might have the opposite effect. In the experiment she gave people water as part of what they thought was a water-tasting experiment. Half the group were given full cups while the other half only had sips.

They were all then given 45 minutes of tests followed by an impulse control test similar to the famous marshmallows test.

Those people who urgently needed to go to the lavatory tended to opt for the larger, deferred reward.

Tuk speculates (in the absence of neuro-imaging or actually measuring how full the participants’ bladders were) that, because the area of the brain responsible for controlling urine retention also controls other things such as cognitive responses, controlling impulses leads to more rational decisions.

Maybe if you have important decisions to make and you need to run to the lavatory you put off making the decision because you can’t concentrate on anything else but getting to the loo? Or if you were anxious about getting to the lavatory would you be more likely to make a quick decision so you could go?

Moral judgements & decision-making under the influence

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You  might think your moral compass is pretty reliable – you know what is right and what is wrong and make decisions based on that and also judge other people accordingly.

So would you push someone under a train if it would save 5 other people? Probably not if you are on antidepressants according to research at Cambridge University published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and reported in New Scientist recently; “Take antidepressants and you’ll be a soft touch”.

An antidepressant citalopram, which raises your serotonin levels (a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor or SSRI), was administered to 24 healthy volunteers who were then given this moral dilemma. Compared to other volunteers given a placebo they were 10% less likely to inflict harm on someone. In another experiment the drugged volunteers were more likely to accept unfair treatment than punish the other person’s greed.

The researchers pointed out that antidepressants are the most widely prescribed class of drugs (in the USA) so it’s important to investigate their effects on users’ social behaviour and moral judgement.

But what if instead you asked people to clean themselves or think clean thoughts?

Research published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology shows that asking people to clean their hands with antiseptic wipes or priming them to feel clean by reading passages about how clean they felt had the same effect ie they made harsher moral judgements on a range of social issues including pornography and littering than those who were primed to feel dirty or who didn’t follow the cleaning procedure.

The researchers concluded that: “Acts of cleanliness not only have the potential to shift our moral pendulum to a more virtuous self, but also license harsher moral judgement of others“.

And if you are a woman and you think you are too trusting, a drop of testosterone could increase your guardedness. Researchers in the Netherlands and South Africa placed a  drop of testosterone on women’s tongues and asked them to judge the trustworthiness of a series of male faces.

They also asked other women to whom they gave a placebo, then repeated the experiment but swapped the treatment. Women who had just been given testosterone were less trustful of the men than those given the placebo. And the effect was more pronounced amongst women who were normally more trustful. (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Vol 107 No 22)

Makes you wonder about juries or other situations where people judge others – not just so-called talent shows but more mundane things like selection panels or performance reviews.

Updated 6 January 2011: Having sweat samples hung under your nose in teabags sounds like something only a psychologist would devise. But it showed that when people are anxious they release a chemical signal that is detectable at an unconscious level by those nearby.

Participants were exposed to sweat from both anxious and non-anxious participants without knowing which was which. When exposed to anxious sweat they took longer but made riskier decisions.

Haegler ‘s research in Neuropsychologia showed that the participants rated both kinds of sweat equally unpleasant and couldn’t consciously tell the difference. Earlier research had shown that sweat collected from an anxious person triggered extra activity in emotion-related brain areas.

Haegler wondered if the perception of emotional chemical signals might alert individuals to danger but said that the results certainly suggested that; anxiety in humans can be communicated through chemical senses unconsciously”.


Old doesn’t mean stupid 

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It’s official. Twenty somethings aren’t at their peak mentally and the human brain can improve with advancing years.

The idea that it’s all down-hill from your mid-twenties is being re-appraised.

Short-term memory and reasoning may decline with old age but long-term memory, vocabulary, emotional intelligence and social skills, can all get better according to researchers at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine and reported in The Sunday Times; “Silver set rides wave of greater brain power” (27/6/2010).

Older people are more efficient at problem-solving than the young as they can draw on previous experience and older people also make more rational decisions. Researchers at the University of California studied people aged between 60 and 100  and found that they were less dependent on dopamine, the feel-good hormone sometimes associated with addictive behaviour, and therefore were less influenced by emotions or impulsivity.

This may explain why leaders and senior people in many professions and organisations are in their 50s and 60s. Two-thirds of FTSE 100 CEOs are aged over 50 and judges want to be able to work until they are 70.

A report from the Department of Work & Pensions: “Attitudes to Age in Britain 2004-2008” found that 48% of people found age discrimination a serious issue and more common, with 1 in 4 experiencing it, than any other form of discrimination. Stereotypically older people are seen as warmer and more moral but less competent whereas younger people are seen as exactly the opposite. The survey also showed that older people welcome flexibility and are keen to learn as well as to contribute their skills and experience. However they are less optimistic than younger people and more realistic.

The physical demands on older workers need to be considered as well as health issues like impaired vision, muscle strength, balance  and flexibility, Research from America, where 25% of 65-74 year olds are still working, shows that employers want the brainpower, experience and knowledge of older workers but not the risk of injuries or sickness absence.

Workers need to exercise their mental and physical faculties to keep healthy and motivated. There is growing evidence that mental and physical exercise can boost brain power. Three 40 minute walks a week can improve memory and reasoning while mental stimulation can improve problem-solving and reaction times.

See also “Practice makes perfect, probably

Updated 10 August 2010: The Ministry of Justice is proposing that people over the age of 70 should be allowed to sit on juries, although perhaps with an opt-out clause for those who didn’t feel up to it. Judges, who like magistrates and tribunal members have to retire at 70, have strongly opposed the idea.

Although it might save money, as most elderly jurors won’t need compensation for lost earnings, judges say older jurors could be more susceptible to illness and disability which could disrupt proceedings.

Couldn’t just be sour grapes could it?

Updated 13 October 2010: The Helsinki Times recently reported on a story in the Finnish financial newspaper Talous Sanomat which cast doubts on whether increased life expectancy automatically meant that people should work longer.

This debate has the Confederation of Finnish Industries arguing for a retirement age of 70 because of increasing life expectancy and the belief that people should work to that age. On the other hand the National Institute for Health and Welfare is urging caution because of the variations in health and the ability to work amongst older people.

Experts say only a small percentage of 70-year olds would be in good enough shape for paid employment as many 70-year olds suffer from memory lapses, muscle weakness, heart problems, and diabetes.