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Sustainable Leadership Revisited: A Journey through New Ideas.

A Twitter Journey through Sustainable Leadership

In my 25 years in business, I have had the pleasure to work with some excellent leaders. I must say that I did not have the bad luck to have to work with those toxic leaders you often hear about. Not all leaders score high though on … yes on what? What do we expect from leaders? And has that changed?
In the week of August 14th I started a small twitter journey about the book I wrote on sustainable leadership. The question I try to answer in the book is how can we make sure that leadership is oriented towards creating future value for society, organizations, teams, people and the leaders themselves. The key is that there needs to be a balance of stakeholder interests.

The World has become VUCA

This is important today. But difficult to achieve. Why? Because our world is kind of VUCA. volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.
But some people seem to doubt that. Here’s a tweet about that.

Many things change faster than ever before. The Least you can say is that demographics are changing. People born around the year 2000 have 50% chance of becoming 100 years. This is revolutionary and will require people to plan their lives and careers differently. Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott wrote an impressive book about that.

My book is about leadership in a VUCA World. But I am not the only one who is thinking about it. Here’s another take on that.

And yes, we should not overestimate the disruptions that are going on and mystify how organizations disrupt.

Character is the Basis of Sustainable Leadership

One key point of view is that character is the basis of leadership.

I don’t use the word authenticity because sometimes we need to be less ourselves in order to be effective. But here’s a view on authenticity.

Maybe we should talk more about humility.

Even though the world asks us to be very confident. That’s not always a bad thing.

But you need to sustain confidence. And think about what is not sustainable.

And what is essential to see is that it’s always possible to base leadership on less sustainable aspects.

I have chosen character over personality because character is more deep and available across people and throughout society. Character in Latin is moralitas. I believe very much that character has a moral grounding.
It has many dimensions. I identify 4: empathy, reciprocity, kindness and fairness.

You could also talk about reciprocity on a collective scale.

So character can define a culture. We see it often that a leader inspires people to behave in a certain way. You could say that they copy behaviour.
This is what I read in one post

We believe the future belongs to who ignore the pressure to slash jobs, capture value and retreat

Empathy is also important. But like with many things it has a dark side.

Our Context Defines Leadership and Leadership Defines the Context.

It is difficult to maintain one’s character amidst expectations (myths), pressure and temptations.

In my book I identify certain ways of keeping character intact even when leaders experience pressure. And when leaders succeed that can focus on trust, meaningfulness, growth, engagement.

One of the reasons why character is the basis for sustainable leadership is that leaders are unable to give certainty. they should not even try. But people want to eliminate uncertainty. Character is the single most important source of stability. If leaders can show consistency behaviour in terms of empathy, fairness, kindness and reciprocity, people will experience a degree of certainty even when the world is in chaos.



How you trust and are trusted is important. You need to identify the levers of trust.

Nokia killed itself because there was mainly fear.

If there is no trust, leaders need to invest in control: that’s a trade-off between risk and cost.

Trust is also important in Politics
And Mr Trump is very inspiring for leaders, probably not in the way he would like to be.

But Trust is not always obvious. Trust should not be naïve.

Behaviour defines trustworthiness.


A leader needs to create a context that provides meaningfulness.

Work that is meaningless is awful.

But sometimes meaningfulness is sacrificed just by focussing on execution. I call that actionism.

Personal Growth

People need to develop. Leaders can create a context that allows and stimulates that.

Development is not easy.

And humans get competition.

One way to stimulate growth is customisation of work.

Taking care of yourself

You can help yourself by creating your own story.


I talked about personality earlier. Leaders do not have to be extroverted, or charismatic. Yes, it might help. But introvert leaders seem to be better at building sustainability. And they can be effective as well.

Karen Glossop has an opinion on that.

The final word

The more I focus on sustainable leadership, the more I see how important it is. I am looking for experiences and evidence to see how we can develop leadership that is sustainable.

My book on sustainable leadership is just a start. The Journey towards sustainable leadership is long and uncertain. This was only a journey through twitter. I hope you have enjoyed it.
Thanks for reading until the end of this blog. If you like it, please share it.

Bad Habits

This Blog is inspired by a lecture on bad habits by London Business School professor Freek Vermeulen at the Executive Education Alumni Gathering, July 1st 2017.
Bad Habits

The Story of the Best Bank in the World.

This would be the story of CAPITEC. Capitec is a South-African Bank that started only 15 years ago. You might know that it is difficult to start a bank as there are many barriers to entry. But capitec did it and it grew into the third biggest bank in the country. Even more, Lafferty called them the best bank in the world. They are the only bank with a 5 star rating.

What makes them the best bank?

This is what Lafferty has to say:
It’s focused. That’s the first thing. It’s clearly run to a high ethical and business standard, I would say. It has the concept of the one product, which is the essence of its relationship with its customers.
And they do all that very well and consistent. They answer the strategic questions of who, what and how very well. They focus on retail customers (who), have chosen an extreme customer oriented strategy (what) and have executed that rigorously and consistently (how).

Breaking Bad Habits …

But surely, they are not the only bank who focuses? That’s right. Lafferty states that many South-African banks play in the premier league. But Capitec excels because they decided to break the industry’s bad habits, says Freek Vermeulen.

What are Bad Habits in Business?

Bad Practices are practices that have no clear added value. They often started for a good reason. But nobody changed the practices when the context changes. There’s a corporate or collective inertia. We continue with the bad habits because they are culturally transferred. We learn them through social interactions.
Changing bad practices takes energy. People have to unlearn habits and have to take on new habits. So that’s also a reason why they remain.
You can detect bad practices when people cannot clearly say why these practices are in use. But by taking the easy road and not questioning these habits, we deprive ourselves from valuable learning experiences.

What did Capitec do?

Capitec changed how the industry dealt with customers.

  • All banks close at 15h30.
    Capitol is open until 6pm and even on Sunday.
  • All banks charged a % fee for transactions. The more money involved, the higher the fee.
    Capitec charges a standard fee.
  • All banks inquired for income of the customer and adapted their offer according to the income.
    Capitol does not adapt the cost to the income.
  • All banks had a queuing system.
    Capitec has a comfortable sitting area and measures service and waiting time.

There motto is “better banking. better living“. And they focus on making that come true. Check out their value proposition in their latest commercial.

What can we learn?

So, what can we learn from the CAPITEC case?

  1. The Capitec Example shows that getting rid of bad practices can be a source of innovation. It’s one of the cheapest ways of innovation because it usually does not require high investments.
  2. We should not replace bad habits by other bad habits. In this case customer experience was the source of inspiration and it lead to installing simple and consistent practices that create value for the customers: clarity, hospitality, empathy, ….
  3. Looking for bad practices is something everyone can do. But people who have been long in the company have a kind of myopia. That’s why we should listen both to people who are new to the company and to the major stakeholders. Don’t ask new people to adapt to our (potentially bad) practices. Ask them to stay critical and to ask naïve questions.
  4. If the answer to these questions is “I don’t know”, “We have always done it like that” or “We cannot change that”, dig deeper. There might be a bad practice around.
  5. Capitec has a clear and consistent customer strategy that yields fantastic results. Their advantage was that they did not have any legacy. The started from scratch in a saturated and regulated market.

Freek Vermeulen on Bad Habits

Freek Vermeulen’s insights on bad habits are straightforward. Everybody immediately understands what’s at stake. He has written a book about it. It will be available as of November 2017.
Bad Habits
In the meantime, enjoy this lecture by Freek Vermeulen.

6 Pathways for Lifelong learning in a VUCA World.

Lifelong Learning is essential in a VUCA World. The @weforum has published a white paper on it. Here are 6 Pathways for lifelong learning for individuals.
Lifelong Learning

Learning Does not Stop When the School Finishes

Learning does not stop when school finishes. That’s the sentence the OECD PIAAC video ends with. The video shows how the skill acquisition (maths and reading) is changing in the world. The US and the UK seem to bellowing ground. Countries like Japan, Finland, the Netherlands and South Korea are either maintaining their level or they are progressing.

Skills are important to an economy. Talent is the raw material for future economies. In a digital world we need to invest both in education of young people and in retraining ageing people. If not there will be a divide between the educated and the non-educated.

Arguments for Lifelong Learning

To build a sustainable society we must make sure that people get education. They should be able and willing to learn and develop throughout their life-span. This is not new in itself. But there are two fundamental reasons why this has become more pressing than ever:

  1. the rate of change, and digital change in particular is dazzling.
    Industries are disrupted and new ways of working and living appear. The changes are challenging the traditional industrial way of working. We seem to be returning – maybe slowly – towards a talent market that is no longer solely based on employment contracts and job tenure, but on entrepreneurship and agility.
    The value of a degree is quite limited. Skills and especially knowledge have the tendency to become obsolete very fast. Jobs that we know today, will not exist in the future. They will disappear faster than in the past. So we have a choice. We can all become Luddites and try and stop these changes. Or, we can embrace them and tackle them through lifelong learning.
  2. We will live longer.
    So we will have to provide for ourselves longer than ever before. If the 100 year Life is to become a reality, we need to increase the productive hours. There are two reasons for this.
    First, pension schemes are under financed and cannot support pensions of 30-40 years.
    Second, we might see careers of 50 to 60 years. Are we able to do the same job during 6 decades? I don’t think so. We are not the Rolling Stones. The social, emotional, physical and mental challenges that we will have are tremendous. Andrew Scott and Lynda Gratton have given us these insights in their splendid book ‘The 100 year Life‘.This means that we will have to learn and unlearn continuous. It also means that we might have to develop 2 or 3 career orientations in our lifetime.

Is Lifelong Learning a Fact or a Desire?

Having multiple career orientations requires lifelong learning. But today I fear there is no common understanding of the need to engage in lifelong learning behaviour.
When I ask people if they have a plan B, an alternative route towards the future, most people reply that they don’t. But if you ask people what they would like to do when they would have to leave their current job, they do have an idea.
Most people do not invest (personal) time in learning. They do follow courses, but usually in the context of their current job. They want to keep up or become better in what they do today. In itself that is very honourable. But it might be not enough if digitization and longevity force us to reinvent ourselves continuously.
The World Economic Forum states in its recent report on Accelerating Workforce Reskilling for the Fourth Industrial Revolution that

Despite the growing need for adult reskilling, opportunities for broad-based and inclusive reskilling are currently not available at the appropriate levels of access, quality and scale of supply in most countries.

Progress has been made in the access to greater amounts of low-cost digital training across many countries; but a cohesive system which addresses the diverse needs of learners, dedicates sufficient resources, and brings together the right stakeholders in providing applied learning opportunities is still lacking.

These are harsh words. Especially the difficulty that low-skilled and elderly people have to pursue a path of continuous learning is troublesome. Like it’s often  the case, programs of reskilling do not reach those who need it the most. People who have the habit of learning will find their way faster towards new and old learning platforms. MOOCS provide a tremendous source for learning, but are not reaching all levels and segments of the talent market.
But there is no excuse for not knowing and not learning. In a VUCA world only the ones who are able to learn and apply their skills in a creative and connected way will succeed. The future is bright for those who can evolve throughout their entire career and life.

Pathways for Change

Should we then be pessimistic? The WEF report says that the coming (or arriving?) 4th industrial revolution brings also opportunities. It identifies 10 pathways for change.

  1. Take Stock and Recognise Existing Skills
  2. Understand Skills Demand
  3. Adopt the Right Mix of Financing Instruments
  4. Build and sustain motivation for adult learning through active labour market policies and accessible resources
  5. Create shorter learning modules that foster continued learning
  6. Determine the role of different stakeholders
  7. Recognize and promote on-the-job training opportunities and maximize informal learning opportunities
  8. Reach those that need it most—SMEs, lower-skilled workers and older workers
  9. Customized teaching for adults
  10. Harness the power and scalability of blended off-line and online learning, enhanced with virtual and augmented reality when relevant

These pathways have been identified on country level. And the report provides examples of actions for governments, companies, unions and institutions. But if you look at them, you can apply some of them on individual level. So I’d like to add some ideas for individuals to increase their employability through lifelong learning. Here are the 6 pathways for Lifelong Learning.
Lifelong Learning

Shared Responsibility

Fact is that lifelong learning is not common enough. It is a shared responsibility. Governments and organizations should create contexts where learning is easy, affordable and safe. Schools should focus on learning skills. Individuals should spend personal time in learning and be proactive.
In a VUCA World, learning is the greatest skill to have. And the increasing digitization offers opportunities to embed learning in daily life. Maybe, it’s now or never for lifelong learning. These 6 Pathways might help people to create their personal lifelong learning strategy. I will come back to these 6 Pathways in a next blog.

10 Defects of the Talent Market

Talent market

An Imperfect Talent Market

The talent market isn’t perfect. There are imperfections, paradoxes and dogmas both on the supply side and on the demand side. They pollute our thinking about talent. There are at least 10 talent market defects that make the talent market somewhat exclusive, limited and maybe toxic. It’s time to review them and think about how to deal with them.

Talent Market Defects

Here are the 10 defects. Each defect has different origins, different impacts and different solutions.

Talent Market Defect 1:
Labour Market Thinking

I use the word talent market instead of the more commonly used term labour market. If we talk about the labour market we focus too much on the work (labour) at hand. The demand for labour lies with the employees, freelancers, the people. The supply of labour is coming from the employers. As if the raw material of that market were the jobs, functions, the work.
The true raw material is the skills, attitudes, motivation, … that people bring to work. I wonder how that labour economic thinking came about. Probably labour markets have been dominantly seller’s markets, where the talent was abundant and the jobs (supply of labour) were scarce. And so the focus was on the work and not the talent. And the thinking got twisted around.
But today, Talent is not abundant. It’s becoming a seller’s market. Supply of Talent is dwindling. Demographics help us to understand the shortage in the markets. But increasingly organisations are fishing in a limited pool of that shrinking talent supply.
So let’s reverse thinking and argue that the supply of talent is what matters strategically.

Talent Market Defect 2:
Experience to Get Experience.

Young people who are looking for a job lack experience. That’s a fact. But many job profiles demand earlier experience. This is a vicious circle. How are people without experience to gain experience if experience is a barrier to entry?
The answer is of course that young people should acquire some experience as early as possible through student jobs, internships, dual learning, study projects. It’s about creating dots as Steve Jobs called them, as early as possible. But it’s more about life experience and maturity than it is about the acquisition of specific job-related skills.
For organisations it could be beneficiary to open up to young people more. Internships are the best way of doing that, provided that this channel is also used as a recruitment channel (and not only as a source of cheap labour).
When organisations stress the need for experience, they contribute to the tightness of the talent market. And yes, chances are that young people leave the company after a couple of years. And one could regret the “wasted investment”. But this kind of thinking is obsolete. The investment is only wasted when the talent of youngsters has been restricted. Young people can be a source of innovation, organisational learning, reverse mentoring, … Only when we treat young people like we did in the past, the investment in their talent will be wasted.
So let’s lower the barrier to entry and allow young people to yield returns.

Talent Market Defect 3:
Perfection Exists?

Reading certain job descriptions and their related profiles, I can only conclude that organisations are still looking for the perfect employee. Companies want experience, knowledge of multiple languages, a degree, a strong personality, the right attitude and immediate deployability.
Also in my company it’s a daily battle to convince hiring managers that there aren’t instant ready and perfect people in the current talent market. And the question is if there has ever been. If talent is scarce, perfect talent is even more scarce. And by focussing on perfection, we exclude people with potential for the job, but without all the specs.
This also means that all companies are looking in the same, small and shrinking pool of talent. Looking for the highest standards in a market that is demographically challenged is not the best idea. Companies must distinguish between the “must haves” and the “need to acquires”. Attitudes and values, but also intelligence and social competency are must-haves in all or at least most jobs. For some jobs a (technical degree) is a must-have, but in a lot of jobs companies could let go of that.
So let’s focus on the essential criteria.

Talent Market Defect 4:
The Degree Fetish

The degree is still an important decision criterion in the process of matching talent to jobs. It is in fact overrated. I will never tell someone a degree is not important. The main reason for this is that a degree is still an entry ticket to the conservative talent market. However, it is not a residence permit. The degree loses its value very fast. The value of the knowledge or skills acquired during studies is limited.
We cannot assume that the value of a degree comes from the mere transfer of knowledge. It’s much more important to look at the way the degree has been obtained. People can get a degree (the paper) by focussing on the minimal effort. They comply to the demands of the institution that hands out the degree as a proof of academic or technical knowledge.
But, a degree can also prove that someone is engaged, persevering, creative. So unless there are legal requirements to hold a degree in a job (you need a medical degree to be a physician), organisations should drop the degree spec from their job profiles. That makes those jobs more accessible for people who do not have the right degree. The fetish of the diploma is too exclusive and organisations miss opportunities to hire excellent people.

Talent Market Defect 5:
the Hole in the Cheese.

For many hiring managers it’s almost unthinkable to hire some one who has made a mistake. That’s probably because they’ve never made a mistake (irony). It’s remarkable how recruiters search for the holes in the curriculum. Recruiters typically do not like twists, bumps and holes in a career. Holes in the cheese are not that interesting. But I would argue otherwise.
We all make mistakes. Without mistakes there is no learning. People build careers by the grace of the learning by mistakes. So the holes in the cheese are interesting, but not to disproof qualities. The holes in the cheese are sources of information about how people learn, how they deal with setbacks, how fast they bounce up.
Everything has a story, both perfection and imperfection.

Talent Market Defect 6:
The Love for the Ideal Competency vs. the Fear for Bad Attitude.

We fall in love with people with a track record. The fact that they might not bring the right attitude is too often of secondary importance. Nevertheless in my experience more people are fired because of bad attitude than because of bad performance. I haven’t found statistics on it (only many blog posts).
And the old adage of any HR professional is that bad attitude should lead to immediate dismissal. There’s more hope when bad performance is due to lack of competence. There is no remedy for bad attitude.
But when we meet someone who has the right experience, we tend to forget about attitude. Our love for competency perfection is far greater than our fear for bad attitude. And that’s because hiring managers think they can compensate for the bad attitude. They tend to overestimate the capacity for people to control their bad attitude and they underestimate the damage bad attitude causes.
The cost of a dismissal because of a bad attitude is higher than a dismissal for lack of competence. And that’s because the collateral damage of bad attitude is far greater. Bad attitude is like a venom. It slowly poisons the relationships at work.

Talent Market Defect 7:
Harvest now. Invest later.

Our view of careers is still linear: study, work, retirement. Put differently: invest, exploit and live on the proceeds of work. Who invests? The person, families, the government. Organisations are looking for people who are trained for the job. That is called “train to place”. The reluctance to invest in people, reduces the pool of talent which we can recruit from.
Can we do something else? We can place and train. And this is often more efficient. Put someone with potential on a mission, and they will learn exponentially. Put someone who is trained on a mission and chances are that they will have to unlearn.

Talent Market Defect 8:
Adaptability above Employability.

Organisations hire people for who they are and what they can do. But once hired, there’s too often a pressure to become someone else. We expect people to adapt, to blend in. “Here we do it like this. It’s not right to change it.” In many organisations resistance is futile. And people who do not get assimilated will be removed.
And so we destroy value. Every time we hire someone, there’s an opportunity for the organisation to learn and evolve. And hiring someone always causes friction. Everyone comes on with new ideas, other ways of doing things. And so every new hire should make the status quo tremble at least. This takes energy but adds value.
The focus should not be on adaptability of a person (how well do they fit?) but on employability. And to make people employable, we need to give them the space to be who they are. That’s why we hired them in the first place. It’s a kind of psychological contract. And maybe it would not be wrong to make that psychological contract explicit and to customise the job as far as possible.

Talent Market Defect 9:
The Quest for the Active Components of People.

Much of what HR does is based on the concept of competency. A competency is a characteristic (skill, trait, attitude, …) that enables someone to be successful. It discriminates between high and low performers. I call that the active components of people. Companies have developed competency dictionaries to guide recruitment, career development, employee appraisals, etc. They focus on a couple of competencies that make a difference. Very often these are generic: customer orientation, coöperation, accountability, initiative, …
Not only competency profiles are interchangeable, they are also reductionist. They give us the illusion that we can measure the active components of people and that we only need to focus on these elements.
But a person comes to work as a hole. So we need a holistic approach. The best overall question to ask during a selection process is “Who are you?”. But we ask “What can you do?”. If we hire people not only for what they can do, but also for who they are we can focus on creating a more diverse workforce. The interaction of personality and competency is much more interesting than the reductionist view on competencies. Hiring interesting people who can create value, is much richer than the quest for competencies.

Talent Market Defect 10:
Look Like Me. Conformation.

People discriminate. Let me rephrase that, they have biases. And one of those biases is that we are looking for people who look like us. I call the the conformation bias. It’s easy to hire someone who looks like me, thinks like me, works like me. But it’s rubbish. Instead we should hire people who do not look like us.
Have you ever hired someone you do not like? I have. And it is not easy. But you should not hire people because they are easy. You should hire people who can make a difference. And so you need to hire people who are different from you.
Corporate cloning is not a good idea. Hiring managers should build a diverse team. And I am not talking about diversity in terms of gender and origin. I am talking about diversity of ideas, thinking, looking at the world. Yeah yeah, you’ll say. That’s valid for creative teams, management teams. But in a factory diversity is a nuisance.
Let me tell you this. Most probably you’ll find the greatest diversity on the shop floor. The shop floor most probably reflects society the most. Only, we do not use that diversity enough. We underestimate too often the value of bringing different views together to create a meaningful value. Diversity leads to creativity, in my humble opinion.
Diversity is not easy to handle. But if you hire the same people all the time, you will never change anything. You get stuck in a fixed trail. That’s never a good idea in a disruptive world.

No Illusions

I have no illusions. The talent market is drenched in assumptions and biases. It’s very difficult to break through dogmas. But unless we adopt another view of the talent market, it will remain normative and exclusive. And that won’t help us. So a first step is to understand how these dogmas influence the dynamics of the talent market and our own behaviour.
If you are led by these dogmas, you might want to reconsider them and experiment. To me the business case of a more open approach towards talent is clear: a bigger pool, access to more talented and engaged people, a diversity of ideas. Think about it.
An earlier version of this blog was published in Dutch and French on This is a reworked version.

What We Can Learn from Macron about Sustainable Leadership.


The Dwindling Popularity of President Macron

The popularity of President Macron is dwindling. That’s not unusual after elections. Many other (French) presidents have seen their popularity go down in the first months in office. But with president Macron there is something peculiar going on. We all remember his spectacular victory. Europe was excited. Macron had stopped populism in its worst form. For sure Macron was the better outcome compared to the dark alternative. As a political outsider he had left the traditional parties behind with his movement En Marche. He seemed to be the voice of reason in a time that reason had lost ground.
But then he did something peculiar. In his search for budgetary cuts, he reduced the defence budget. In itself that is not something strange. But what is peculiar is how he dealt with dissenting voices, or notably one dissenting voice. General Pierre De Villiers was against this budget cut and had voiced this. This was not to the liking of President Macron, who used the power argument. He said that he was the boss and if someone did not agree with the boss, the this person should go.

A matter of Trust

This is an issue because it is contradictory to the style Macron had promised, one of dialogue. With this argument he has killed dialogue and he has won on power. But power is very erosive. To maintain power you need to use it. And using power is not very sustainable. Because people get numb. Or they will find a way to evade. And if the latter happens the only thing a leader can do, is install more control. If there’s more control, there is less trust. If there’s less trust, people will adapt their behaviour to that.
The question is if president Macron is trustworthy. Trustworthiness is a matter of competence (can he do the job), loyalty (does he act on our behalf) and integrity (does he walk the talk).


The natural weakness of president Macron lies in the first element, competence. He has hardly any experience. People voted for him in spite of the lack of competence, and probably because of the integrity he has shown. Other candidates were burdoned with scandals or cumbersome proposals. In the first weeks after the elections he has shown competence.  The way he has handled Trump instills trust. But the way he has handled the military does not.


In terms of loyalty president Macron will face other issues. The reform of the French labour market comes up and many employed and unemployed citizens will see this is an attack on their interests, therefore they will see it as disloyal. This is always tricky in politics. you can never satisfy everybody, but you need to satisfy enough people. In these VUCA-times politicians need to take decisions not on behalf of the people of. today, but on behalf of the people of the generations to come. The tension between short and long term thinking is difficult to handle. We will see how he will handle this.


And in terms of integrity, the first cracks in the mirror are visible. President Macron has handled the defence crisis in an authoritarian way, in contrast with his promise. And he has also summoned both houses of parliament together in Versailles. This is only done in times of crisis (the Paris Attacks, the economic crisis, …). But he just presented his policies. Doing this he has put his prime minister, the head of the government, in his shadow. The way he solemnly strode through the corridors of Versailles and inspected the guards, has  given the impression of some vanity. Maybe the situation was overwhelming, but it was his decision to organise this gathering in a place that resonates monarchy, enlightened despotism and suppression of the masses. It was very un-republican. People called him le roi soleil afterwards. Not good. So he needs to restore this.

Protect and Build Leadership through Character

So Macron has to protect and build his leadership and he has to descend from his virtual throne to create trust. That’s his only capital. This means he needs to let go of the power arguments. Actually, if he does well people will give him the authority automatically. Now he seems to take the power. So dialogue, narratives, openness, humility, kindness, empathy, fairness and reciprocity are the answers to the question how he can protect and build his leadership and make it more sustainable. He has to use his character as basis for his political leadership.
So everybody knows that the mission ahead is difficult. But he must make clear that his mission is in the interest of everyone (or at least most of the nation). Leadership is about creating motion towards value. The fuel of that motion is trust. And there will be trust if people realise the president is at the service of all citizens and of a greater task.
Telling someone they have to do it because you’re the boss is never a good idea. Macron is teaching us that power, position or popularity are not the foundations for sustainable leadership. Character is.

In my book “Sustainable Leadership. How to Lead in A Vuca World, I describe how leaders can make sure their leadership can be sustainable. It can only be sustainable when it is based on character. The book describes how leaders can build and protect character from what I call erosive forces. It also explains how leaders can use character to build a context of trust, meaningfulness, development and engagement. You can find more info about the book here.

Tolerance with Skill.

ToleranceTalking about Religion

A couple of years ago I was sitting in a restaurant with some people I had never met before. We were at a conference and we ended up at the same table. These people were very friendly and conversation was very interesting. Suddenly someone asked if I believe in God. I was surprised about the intimate question. I said I did not. People looked at me with some discomfort. Someone said that life is incomplete without God. I replied that I could understand that, but that I didn’t need religion to try and be a good person, to be the best version of myself.
A bit later someone challenged me again by saying that I could not deny the evidence from the Bible. I kindly replied that to me the Bible is a story that people created a long time ago to create meaningfulness and that I could relate to the values that were described in that book. But that I did not see proof of any kind about the existence of God in that important book.
Why do I tell this story? I tell this story because it’s an example of how two opinions may diverge and never come together. The others could not convince me and I could not or would not convince the others. Yet, the discussion was civilised. We listened to one another and we were mutually astonished. Maybe these people felt pity for me, but I hope not. I did not feel pity for them. I respect every conviction as long as it does not harm others and as longs as nobody wants to impose it upon others. That is called tolerance.


Tolerance is not the same as indifference. I wanted to understand why they thought what they were thinking. Tolerance is a very empathic and kind way of being. And in a complex and ambiguous world I think tolerance is a useful and necessary skill or attitude. If you cannot tolerate ambiguity, you are in trouble. And I guess we are.
I see people defending their values and identity with passion, with conviction, but also with contempt for everything that does not comply to those values or identity. Religion, science, politics, … they seem to be drenched in the potion of identity. Yes, even science. And the result is that we start living next to one another, losing interest to talk to people who are unlike us. We start living in mental and social silos. We are closing the gates of dialogue one by one.

  • I see it in politics. What president Trump is doing in the USA does not show great tolerance. But also in Turkey, Russia there is growing intolerance. And maybe the Brexit was an expression of intolerance too?
  • I see it in religion. People who believe, seem to accept less that there are other convictions. This leads to fanatic extremism, radicalised youngsters, terrorism.
  • I see it in science. There was a call on LinkedIn to charge consultants using non-scientific models with malpractice. I hope it was a joke. Sometimes people are very religious about “their” science and are unable to see the flaws.
  • I see it in social relations. There is less tolerance between neighbours. There are more law suits. Increasingly people have a difficult time living peacefully together.

Tolerance does not mean we have to accept anything. Neither does it mean we have to agree to everything. It does not mean we can accept that one opinion or belief harms someone. It also does not mean we have to be tolerant for anything. Too much tolerance is often indifference or negligence.  Tolerance means that we accept that there are differences. And that we do not judge people on those differences. As the number of people is growing, as communities become more diverse and as the world gets more crowded, tolerance will be a key characteristic within communities. It is however dwindling.


What can we do? The key to tolerance is education. The more we know about the world and about its intriguing cultural and social variety, the more chance to have more tolerance. But in an intolerant world, education is mimicking the views of intolerant leaders. They impose their view of the world upon others and instead of building smart people, people are forced in a one-sided perception of the world. He who controls education, has power. And therefore education should be an independent force, like justice is independent from politics.
It’s OK to believe God has created the world. It’s not OK to impose genesis on everyone. And it’s not OK to deny scientific evidence about how the world evolved into what it is today. It’s not OK to deny evidence that human civilisation has been developing over many millennia. Ands it’s not OK to hide that information from children, just because it does not confirm certain beliefs linked to an identity.
Identity is good. Intolerance is not. In an ambiguous world we see difference as a threat. And then we become intolerant for differences. As Rabi Sacks tells us: we can learn more from people who are unlike us, than from people who resemble us. But, in an intolerant world, we shut people who are unlike us out as they are a threat to our identity.

It happened in the past, leading to atrocities in Europe. It’s happening now, leading to atrocities in Syria and other countries. It’s happening in France, in the USA, … Intolerance is a kind of mental apartheid. The world has never benefited from division. We thank the relative prosperity of today to a period of tolerance, collaboration and peace, that has not been seen before. But this tolerance was also guided by democracy and law. Today we seem to regress towards intolerance.
And more than digital skills, tolerance should be high on the agenda of any educational system. People should learn to think about differences and see them not necessarily as a threat, but as an opportunity. We should learn not to fear the other. And if we combine tolerance with competence (asking the right questions, checking trustworthiness, listening, …), we can create wonders within organisations, societies, the world.
And for those of you who might think I am naïve. Tolerance is a way of looking at the world, with interest and with trust. But one should always take into consideration that the other is less tolerant, less open. So as long as nobody imposes their views upon others, respects the often evolving values and laws of the community they are living in, we can live together and learn from one another. Let’s trust but verify. Let’s be tolerant, with skill.
Read also:

The Story of the Falling Man – A Tale that Could Happen to All of Us.

Falling ManThe Fall

His boss flew over to sack him. He was stunned. It felt like the walls were collapsing around him. A cold wind cut through his skin. He had not expected this. He thought they would discuss the new plans. That was what he had prepared for. He spent all week, including the weekends, to build further on the excellent results he and his team had produced the previous years.
When the boss told him the news, he was numb. He could not think. It  was like his brain shut down. The boss was talking and he did not listen. He heard the voice but could not register. He was answering but he can’t remember how. The world had stopped around him. And he was falling.

The Conversation

Falling Man: Why?
Boss: I just told you. You are not digital enough. The company wanted to become more digital, less analog.

Falling Man: You haven’t asked me to be digital before. You haven’t seen the plans my team and I have prepared for the next years. How do you know I am not digital enough? There’s a lot of digital in the plans. And there was a lot of digital in the way we got our results.

You can’t be digital. You are the wrong generation.

Falling Man:
How can there be a wrong generation? There is only right or wrong behaviour. Have I not delivered on targets? There was not a single year that I have let the company down. I have cleared up the mess for others. I have spent Christmas Eve on the other side of the globe in a godforsaken country where it is probably illegal to celebrate Christmas. I did that for the company and missed the best time of the year. My family had accepted it. It was for the good cause. My sacrifices for the company were great. I do not expect gratitude. I expect respect. I. Expect. Respect. 
The past is the past. We can only look at the future. In that future there is no place for men and women of the past. It is time for something new. Something disruptive. You stand for continuity, not disruption. And so there was a joint decision by the executive committee, endorsed by the board, that you should make way for the new generation of leaders. The ones who grew up behind a console. The digital natives. They will disrupt this company.
Falling Man (FM):
Why would the company throw away years of experience and years of potential. I can still deliver value. I am not too old.

It’s not your age. It’s your skills. You cannot keep up with new trends. You are a traditionalist. Your skills date from a time when everything was predictable. It’s not what you did, it’s about what you will not do.
I see that you have made up your mind, even though your argumentation is ludicrous and meaningless. What is the offer?
You will get paid generously. You need not to work until the age of retirement. You can enjoy life. See it as a liberation.
I don’t want to be liberated. I want to work, be useful, make myself relevant. I don’t want your pieces of silver. You nail me to the cross and smile. You say it’s not that bad. You say I should be happy with it. As if you do me a favour. Well, I don’t need favours. I need respect. Dignity. Fairness. 

You take it badly. These things happen. You should know. Whatever the reason, you should not take it personally.

You fire me, and I should not take it personally? How dare you?

He felt his blood pumping. His face got overheated. His eyes were spiking him to the wall. His fists were white with anger. He felt the tension in his body. The more the boss talked the more furious he became.
Well, I think you’re making a terrible mistake. You’re wasting a lot of money for nothing. But I know that you are just the messenger and that you are not the man to stand up against the executive committee. So I cannot blame you for this cowardice. I cannot expect a man like you to defend me and treat me in a dignified manner. So I suggest we could leave it here and get the paperwork done.

I’m glad you see it like that.
So let me get back to work. I have some work to finish.
There was an awkward moment of Silence. The boss stared at the corner of the table. And finally he spoke.
 You have to fill your box and leave immediately. And you’re not allowed to talk to anyone in the office when leaving the building. I’m sorry, but those are my instructions.

The Frozen Fall

Falling Man

Picture taken at Tate Gallery London

Months later one could still feel the pain in his words. He still could not understand. Oh yes, he understood the mechanics behind it. But he did not see the value of it. Here he was, looking for a new mission in life. His soul was scarred, he said. They made him stumble and he fell. It’s like he fell naked on raw concrete. His entire body ached.
He’s like the statue “Falling Man” by Giacometti, a fragile sculpture of man in a frozen fall. He stumbled and he fell. But it was a long fall. He seemed to be stuck in his fall. There was nothing for him than to resist and to protest.
He was working in the business of a friend.
But he missed the glory. The excitement. Everything was so predictable and so small. Every day is the same. He felt so unimportant.
What would he want?
He would prefer to be on a board or an executive committee.
I’m like a German God on a Volcano, he whispered. Nobody believes in me, yet I feel I have force.

I’m like a German God on a Volcano, he whispered. Nobody believes in me, yet I feel I have force.

Falling Man

This story is partly fictitious, although inspired by a true encounter with a falling man. I have met many people who were frozen in their. As if the act of falling prevents them from taking the hit. 
Here are some questions:

  • Why can’t they stop falling?
  • What must be done to help these people?
  • How can we prevent that people feel it’s a fall? What else could it be?
  • What does this say about their resilience?
  • What do people in a frozen fall need to get out of it?
  • What are the other questions we should ask to better understand and help falling people?
  • How can we make difficult decisions like that better, more empathic, less a surprise, more kind, and more fair?

I know these are just questions, and not answers. But maybe we should first define the list of questions to ask, rather than stampeding into the solutions.

Why VUCA is Relevant for Sustainable Leadership.


Is there really a VUCA World?

Someone asked me why I use the acronym VUCA in my book on sustainable leadership. He referred to a statement by Rob Briner who says that VUCA is an empty word. Change and uncertainty has always been around, so it’s nothing special.

That is true. Change has always been around. If you look with the perspective of a historian many events in the past are similar or even worse than the ones we are witnessing today. Let’s have a look (with a Western eye).

L’histoire se répète?

Migration – There have been migration flows before. In the 5th and 6th century AD Europe was shifting and entire peoples moved. These events still resonate in names, relics, language. You can read about migration here.
Wars – There have been wars in Europe. As a matter of fact we are in the longest period without war. You can see an interactive map of conflicts here.
Isolationism and Nationalism – There have been leaders who proclaimed isolationist views before. There have been emperors, dictators, … far worse than the Trumps of today.
Climate Change – Climate is volatile. There were even periods with a (limited) climate change. For a history of the current climate change you can check this BBC-page.
Technology – Technological progress is of all ages. And resistance to technology is also of all ages. In the first industrial revolution the Luddites were against industrialisation in the textile industry in England.
When I was 7 my mother said I would have a difficult life. In 1976 there was high unemployment, a conflict in the Middle East, the oil crisis. So what’s different? And why do we think that today is VUCA: volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.

What’s different?

War and Peace

First 72 years of peace in Europe make us think war is not an option. Wars have been fought in the Middle east, Korea, Vietnam, … The civil war in the Balkan and the conflicts in Northern Ireland, Basque Country, and the terrorist attacks in Germany and Italy came closer but had a limited impact. We have gotten used to peace and we are reluctant to recognize the change. Armies have shrunk and investments in defence and intelligence seem to lose in priority to employment and the economy. The recent terrorist attacks bring war back to us and in the perception this is tough. We have lost our resilience and we thought the armed conflict is for other continents.

Fast Technology

Second. Technological change has never been as fast as it is today. The scientific progress and the technological innovation is unprecedented. The speed of technological development, penetration and demise is scary. When two computers can develop a language human do not understand, it’s scary. This is a first in history.

The 100 year Life

Third, life expectancy has increased. Never before have so many people reached the age over 80 years. This changes society tremendously. This is a first in history. Check Gratton & Scott’s 100 year Life.

A Global Word

Fourth, in the past many of the disruptions were contained. They stayed within their boundaries. But today, everything is interconnected. This interconnectedness opens a lot of opportunities, but poses threats. In a global economy, there are winners and losers. And they can be in different countries and continents. In the past a change in one part of the world had less effects on the other part of the world. This is a first in history.

Climate Change

Fifth, climate change. The weather is going off the rails. Those who think it’s a hoax cannot deny the increasing temperature, the melting ice, the rising sea, the forest fires, the droughts, … These climate changes will lead to migration, conflicts etc.

A Sense of Loss

Sixth, there’s a fear of loss. Never before was there this kind of welfare and wealth. Humanity has collectively progressed. Even when we think the world is worse of than ever before, it’s not true. But people see that a part of the luxury comes under pressure.

VUCA is Both Reality and Perception

These 6 elements create VUCA. To me VUCA is both a reality and a perception. The latter element is important because people have a limited frame of reference. They don’t look back at the crusades, or the fall of the Roman Empire. They look at what they have known yesterday, what they experience today and what they want for tomorrow. And they have a VUCA-feeling.
And though there are similarities between today and previous periods in time, there are a couple of firsts.  And what’s more, the evolution is faster than ever. In the past we were facing stability with some disruptions. Today we have continuous and accelerating disruptions. And if you take into consideration that people have a short reference period, these disruptions are threatening, scary.

The Importance of Leadership

In these times people are looking for certainty and predictability. Nobody can provide that. Leadership has never been so difficult but it has never been more important. And leaders need to resort to other means than authoritarian leadership. Leaders cannot base their leadership on power, position or popularity. They need  to base it on character because character is the only aspect of leadership that is sustainable.
Unfortunately, I see the rise of a kind of leadership that does not solve the problem. On the contrary it adds complexity and uncertainty. Make America Great Again, America First, the Brexit, radical religious movements, geopolitical tensions, … all this does not solve anything. And also on the shop floor we see a kind of reductive or reduced leadership on the rise.
People are looking for control. They have the illusion that leaders can stop the shifts in the world. Or at least they think leaders can shape the shifts. We can’t. The best thing populist leaders can do is hide the truth for the naïve followers. Maybe some of the nationalist populist leaders can slow changes down. But very often the cost of doing so is greater than the benefits. No leader and no country can change much and even if it were possible, they cannot do it alone.
Through sustainable leadership, leaders prepare their organisations on coping with change and to become stronger in a VUCA-world. And that’s what they need to do. If everything changes around us, let’s be as prepared as possible.

VUCA or not. That’s not the Question

It does not matter how new or how intense VUCA is. It does not matter if the world has become vucanised or not. Leaders and their teams cope with constant and accelerating change. Their main mission is to serve the others and to create a context of trust, meaningfulness, growth and reciprocity. Such an environment is the best antidote against the despair and the helplessness a VUCA world inspires people to.

A Story About The Unbearable Lightness of Culture Change

This blog is about culture change.

Culture Change

We need to change our culture“, said the CEO, “if we want to execute our strategy“.
We often talk lightly about culture change. We know that culture is a determining factor in strategy execution. It can be both a lever and an obstacle. Whenever culture change is an explicit part of strategy, it’s an expression of doubt. Leaders doubt that the strategy will find fertile soil in the current culture. And so, there’s a decision to change the culture. But it’s easier to write that in a plan, it’s much more difficult to make it happen.
Here’s a story to illustrate why we should not take culture change too lightly.

Story – The WARP Culture

A CEO was hired to turn an international creative agency. He came from a very successful retail company that had excelled. After 30 days in the business he gathered all managers of the new company and told them how the future culture would look like. He projected only one chart.  “This is our new culture he said”. There were 5 words on the screen: WARP, winning, agile, relentless, profitable. For fans of Star Trek, warp means a speed faster than light speed.

The managers in the room looked at each other with great unease. They knew these were the words that were used in his previous company. So their new CEO decided to just copy the culture of the retail company and paste it into the new company.
It got worse. In every meeting, managers had to declare their adherence to WARP. There were WARP-meetings, WARP posters, WARP messages, WARP gadgets, WARP stationery. After a couple of months people were fed up. There were many jokes about WARP. People talked about the WARP-zone. The Star Trek Quotes were abundant. When the CEO sent yet another WARP message, the parodies and cartoons immediately circulated. What did he expect? After all, he was working in a creative company.
The CEO was startled. He could not understand why people resisted . He was full of good intentions and yet people were making fun out of him. The people in the company rejected the WARP culture and the CEO had to leave at the end.
This story is based on true events.

So why is it so difficult to change a company culture?

  • Culture is Intangible

    Culture is intangible. You cannot touch it. But you can feel it. When you enter an organization you can inhale it. The way people greet you, the way they interact, how they walk, how they look at you, what they do, what they don’t do, the use of words, the gestures, the rituals … these are all emanations of culture.
    The consequence of this is that culture is the result of many big and small acts across many circumstances. Changing the values is too often a cosmetic operation.
    The CEO thought he could make culture tangible by introducing 4 words. The words meant nothing to the new company. Making culture tangible through words, gadgets, … does not work if people do not experience the culture first).

  • Culture is Robust

    Culture is robust and resists change. People who enter the company and announce they want to change the culture are most likely to fail. More, the culture will eat them.Why? Saying you want to change the culture is an insult to the people who have been working for years in a culture they love. So culture change will meet resistance, sometimes in a subtle way. Instead to impose culture leaders should work with the culture, embrace its strengths, integrate. Because culture is stronger than any individual leader.
    The CEO thought he could change the culture on his own. Personal energy is not enough to change culture. Culture change requires a great deal of effort and is a very slow process. The CEO wanted to force this, but the culture did not bend. It felt attacked and it defended itself. 

  • Culture is Collective

    Culture is the result of all behaviours people of a certain group display. It’s about shared ideas, habits, rituals. Culture gives people a sense of belonging, certainty, direction, norms. Culture is created by the behaviours of many people. So to change the culture, you need to change enough people. People need to learn new ways of behaving and unlearn others. We all know how difficult it is to unlearn.
    The CEO did not involve people. He started the change and surprised his managers with it. Instead he could have involved a group of enthusiast. In that way the change would not have been linked to his person, but would have been a collective endeavour.

  • Culture is Unique

    You cannot transplant a culture of one organization into another. Every culture is unique. Culture to an organization is what personality is to a human being.The biggest mistake this CEO had made was to make assumptions about the recipe of culture change. He just introduced 4 values that had worked in his previous company. There is no reason to believe these values would stick in the new company.

Unbearable Lightness

Because of the above reasons changing a culture is difficult. So if culture change is part of strategy, take care. It might even be better to adapt the strategy to the culture than vice versa. There is an unbearable lightness to the notion of culture change. Too often we think that if we change processes, technology and context, culture will follow. Too often we think culture change is a rational decision. And too often we think that culture is generic.
It will not. People who think it’s easy overestimate an organisation’s capacity to evolve (fast) and they underestimate people’s reluctance to change. That lightness is unbearable and very counterproductive. In a next blog I will discuss how culture change can be facilitated.

Career Loss: Why People Stay in the Wrong Jobs for the Wrong Reasons.

Careers have ups and downs. We value the ups more than we appreciate the downs. But both might have value. So here are some insights in the psychology of career loss.

Your boss tells you …

Imagine you have gone through a successful career. You have made it to a senior leadership position. You made a lot of sacrifices in your personal life to get there. But now you are at that level and you are widely appreciated. You enjoy the view. And suddenly your boss tells you to take a step back. How would you experience that?
You might say it depends on the reason for this demand. Reasons for the question might be:

  • an organisational change, leading to a reduction in number of leadership positions.
  • a political decision to concentrate power, and you’re not a part of the dominant coalition.
  • an observation by your boss who has noticed you’re draining yourself.
  • a feedback that you appear to be less qualified for the job.

The third option is an act of kindness. But the other three will be perceived as an act of violence.

and offers you …

Imagine there is more information
You’re boss tells you to step down, but offers you another job. The job entails certain appealing characteristics like: less stress, fascinating content, working in a good team. But you lose all the perks of being a senior leader, including salary, bonus, and access to the board. Basically your career (progress) is over.
Here’s a choice.
You are certain to lose the status and salary, and you might gain a certain quality of life. What would you choose?
Again you might calculate. The loss is certain, the gains are not. And you might compare what you gain to what you lose. Are the gains enough to compensate for the loss? And here comes prospect theory.

The Psychology of Career Loss

Prospect Theory has been developed by Kahneman & Tvsersky. They kind of discovered that people do not calculate in a linear  and probabilistic way when deciding under risk. Imagine that you find a 20 Euro bill on the street. You will feel lucky. You might tell some friends about that (who will force you into buying them a drink). In any case, there will be some joy.
But imagine that you open your wallet and you notice that you have lost 20 Euros. You will feel bad. You might even retrace your day to know where you’ve lost it. It will bother you. And the value of the loss of 20 Euros will be higher than the value of the gain. In other words, you dislike the loss more than you like the gain. And you’d prefer to avoid the loss more, even if that would mean you’d have to settle for less or even no gain.
The same is valid for career decisions, especially when there is a career loss. Once people get to a position, they do not want to give it up. The psychological value of the loss is too big. And if they get an offer for another job in exchange, this job is worth less. People want to hold on to what they have and want a higher compensation if they have to give it up for something else.
There’s a big difference if you’re told to accept the other job than when you can choose to do so. But even then …

Unhealthy Jobs

People hang on to their job (level and status) and compensation package. They do not want to lose. And so they take decisions that are against their best interest. A very simple example illustrates this:
We’re in the restaurant business. There are four functions: serving the customer, cooking the meals, cleaning and doing the dishes. In big restaurants there is an industrial scale to all of that. The dishes are pushed through a washing street. There are actually people working in those washing streets. The work is not healthy: it’s humid and noisy. But when management proposed a rotation scheme, people working in the dishwashing area refused. Why? Because they receive a premium to compensate for the unhealthy work. And when offered to work in the cleaning function, they’d lose the money. But the money dos not compensate for the health hazard and if it did, people would need to save the extra allowance for the days they’d need to pay for the medical care. They did not.
So even if an employer has the best interest in mind, people might not bite. In this case accepting the offer it would mean to take a certain loss now, and accept an uncertain gain on the long run.

Ageing and Career Loss

He was complaining about the work load he had at his age. The man was commuting every day, working long hours. He was tired, he said. But there’s no alternative.
So I asked if there weren’t any offices closer to his home.
Indeed there were. So why did he not work there? Impossible, he said. My boss is in this location and I should be here. There’s no way I will work remotely.
So I asked if there weren’t any jobs in that other location so that he did not have to be close to the boss.
Yes, he said. But that would mean that I step down. And I have worked to hard to get where I am. I cannot defend a career loss. My neighbours will think I have been degraded. I would lose my company car.

People stay in the wrong jobs for the wrong reasons.

We all have to work longer than the generation before us. Life expectancy goes up and so does the cost of pension schemes. So it is not possible to enjoy retirement for 35 years. But we also know that a career cannot be only about progression, upward movements. If we have to work longer, taking a step down, or taking a less paying job will be one of the options. And this should not be only at the end of the career, but also throughout the career.

Sustainable Career Design

Let’s get rid of the idea of career progression, upward motion, and remaining as long as possible at the top. If we want to make a career sustainable, we must decrease that sense of loss every time we take a step down or take another job. Multidirectional careers should be the norm. But the psychology of career loss tells us that it will be very difficult to get there.
We often talk about career planning. I would rather talk about career design. Or career crafting. And to design sustainable careers, we will need to apply what we learn from prospect theory, behavioural economics, nudging. We have to make sure people do not stay in the wrong jobs for the wrong reasons. Maybe that will be the topic of a future blog.
career loss

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