My No. 1 Leadership Book in 2015

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3 January 2016

On New Year’s Eve (relatively early on in the celebrations) a friend asked what my favourite book was in 2015. Later on in the evening I might have passed, but as it was I could answer within a split second. “Matthew Syed’s Black Box Thinking”, I said. “It’s bonkers brilliant and is changing my life”.


You can’t say that sort of thing about many books on leadership, can you? But it really is true about Black Box Thinking. I’ve recommended it to a number of teams I work with, and most people are gripped by it.

To explain why I think it’s such a big deal I’ll concentrate on just one aspect of the book.

Joining up success with failure

Syed deals brilliantly with the whole thesis that failure is an essential part of success.

I know, I can almost hear you thinking so do loads of other books as well. I agree.

I also know that there is no other book I have read that has made me appreciate quite so much the extent to which success and failure are so utterly joined up as a single process.

That’s what made it possible for this book to be such a powerful change agent in my life.

I feel that a while ago I bought the general ticket that we need to be okay discussing our failures.

It's why I’ve created a bit of a ritual to make myself do my own post-mortems on my performance after I’ve run a session somewhere for a Board or a team.

On the train home I say to myself, “Okay, Pete, which bits worked really well and which bits were the pits?”

Looking out of the window, I then conjure up in my mind the two or three moments I felt good about, allowing myself a bit of a smile at the one that worked the best, and then make myself remember the two or three moments I didn’t feel so good about.

If there was one that makes me cringe, it’s literally only a few seconds before I hear a voice in my head saying “That’s enough, Pete, time’s up, we’re not into navel-gazing!”

So I give myself a quick mental kicking, usually for having let myself become a bit too passionate or a bit too gobby, or maybe having handled someone too much with kid gloves when I was pushier with others – leading some in the group to think that I can have “favourites”, which is the last thing you ever want as a facilitator/ leadership coach!

As I’m acknowledging to myself that I screwed up, I always seem to find a way of comforting myself with the thought that so-and-so was a bit of a pain on that day. This leaves the notion just dangling that if they hadn’t been such a pain perhaps everything might have been fine, after all.

Years ago I read a book with the phrase “facilitators aren’t miracle-workers” and this is the sort of moment when I can enjoy recalling these words!!

Then I’ll tell myself time is up, back to work, there are loads of emails waiting and some of them should have had a reply by now …

And that’s it! Post mortem over.

I’ve looked at where I screwed up – sort of. And in the process I’ve managed to treat myself as part-victim as well as part-instigator of the screw-up.

Applying some rigour

Until I read Black Box Thinking my line on myself was that I was OKAY about looking at P Ashby failures.

 “Failure a key to success? Yep, I read that, been there, done it … next!”

Utter bullshit. I was pretending to myself.

As Syed explains more brilliantly than I could attempt to do, I had let my ego in on the process far more than is healthy for what should be seen as first and foremost a process of examination and learning.

A few seconds recalling the moment of a screw-up whilst looking out of the train window do not constitute anything approaching the sort of assessment of failure that Syed calls upon us to make.

Once we accept that success and failure really are a single process, we can see that we need to do so much more than this.

We need to apply some rigour to the process of asking precisely what it was that didn’t work, why it didn’t work and how we intend to make sure we’re not in the same position – again and again – in the future.

So, I need to say to myself that if, say, I was too passionate about something, as I know I can be, and this led to someone backing off because they associated my passion with a rigid position, I need to work out how I might reassure them and others in the future that passionate does NOT equal rigid.

Once I have some sort of strategy in my mind, I need to ask myself how confident I am that this would be enough.

Might there be another approach that would be even better?

And what would be the downsides of each alternative approach?

After all, every approach brings its own downsides.

Also, are there any possible upsides of my former burst of passion that I’m in danger of losing if I tone down the passion too much?

And so on and so on.

We need to be as systematic as we can be in analysing and assessing what went wrong and why, and thinking through possible alternative behaviours and strategies.

And we need to make sure that our ego keeps the hell out of it.


Sticking with the process

Maybe you’re wondering whether it really is worth committing the time involved to this careful assessment of what went wrong. After all, we’re all busy people, time spent doing one thing is time denied to something else, bla bla.

When I hear this voice in my head, I remind myself of Syed’s thesis that our future successes come through this process of rigorously analysing failures and keeping on scrutinising them until we have turned each of them into a personal breakthrough.

This is the point that I really missed before. We need to stick with the process until the stage where our insights into the causes of what was a personal disappointment have enabled us to achieve something tangible and deliverable that will make us better as leaders.

Until we are clear in our minds that the post mortem has delivered a result, the job has not been done.

So when something goes wrong in some aspect of your work as a leader, be pleased. Rejoice at the failure. Seriously. It’s your chance to create for yourself an opportunity to grow and develop.

You just need to say two things to yourself:

“1: Ego: you're out of here, now

2: I’m going to stick at this and come back to it as many times as I need to until I have lived in my head a different way of managing that situation that would be so much better and in that moment make me proud of myself as a leader”.

The key is to tell ourselves that we need to be ready to look for failure.

Then once we’ve found it we need to make ourselves take it apart, as if it were the black box of a plane that has just crashed, and analyse the different elements as carefully and closely as possible, because we’re on a mission to use this experience to make sure that we’re never in this position again.

We mustn’t just rely on a three second thought bubble in which we do no more than acknowledge something went a little wrong whilst spreading the blame around as widely as we can.

We need to strip away any elements of self-justification or blaming of others.

We need a proper conversation with ourselves to enable us to understand what went wrong and then work at converting what was a leadership weakness in that moment into a future leadership strength.

It is vital that we apply some rigour to this process and give it time.

No 1, however, is our own statement to our own ego:

“Sling your hook! I’m on the case and intend to end up with a great learning point that is going to make me a better leader.”

How brilliant is that.

Thank you, Matthew Syed!

And a very very happy New Year to you, too.

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