The Power of Balance

David Lane Interviews Stephen Barden About Leadership

April 26, 2021 stephen barden Season 1 Episode 5
The Power of Balance
David Lane Interviews Stephen Barden About Leadership
Show Notes Transcript

David Lane of the Professional Development Foundation interviews Stephen Barden about the research for his new book How Successful Leaders Do Business with Their World: The Navigational Stance.

David Lane:  0:16  

Okay, welcome to this series. I'm David Lane, Professor and Director at The Professional Development Foundation. And the purpose of this series is to interview practitioner-researchers who have undertaken interesting research with applied ideas that actually are intriguing, and that we thought would be of interest to you. 

I'm delighted to welcome Dr Stephen Barden as our first interviewee in this series. Stephen is a Strategic Coach and Consultant who works mainly with the corporate leadership sector. And is, himself, a former corporate CEO, has undertaken some really interesting research on successful leaders and how they do business with their world. 

So welcome, Stephen!

Okay, can we just start with looking at what prompted you to undertake this research?

Stephen Barden  1:14  

I always trace the spark back to my own failure, actually, which is the last CEO job I did, and I was fired from it. And when I was going through the process, after that... I spent a year, I thought I need to go and find out what assumptions I had going into the job. Why did I behave in certain ways, which I felt in my case was basically looking after the interests of the shareholder, rather than perhaps looking after the entire organisation, as it were. And I think I called it in the book why would I, you know, slobber all over the hand over the hand that fed me rather than the entire organisation, if you like. What assumptions did I have? 

So off I went and I wrote for a year, I just sat down and wrote and thought for a year, what assumptions did I have? What did I inherit? Where did it come from? And that, to me, was a great cathartic exercise and it hit the spot. I did nothing about it, I then went into coaching. Then about 10 years later I thought I really would like to know, how leaders experienced their learning. And because... What I’d discovered when I was coaching was, there was a lot of stuff about, you know... what was the impact of leaders? How leaders should learn? How should lead? How leaders should act? What is a good leader, what is a bad leader? But, nothing was telling me about what was it that made leaders act in particular ways. What assumptions that they hold going in. 

So when I started the research, it was literally as bland as, you know, how leaders experienced their learning. And my assumption, assumption again, was, you know, how leaders experienced learning while they were in power, while they were in the authority. Learning under fire, if you'd like. And it was then that I discovered that as I was starting to do the research, that those assumptions were formed way back. A long time before they went into their terms of office, a long time before they even went into professional life. And they kept on, whether consciously or not, they kept on throwing open the door and telling me about what they did, and what they thought, and how they felt when they were children. So that basically was the trigger and what I finally went into,

David Lane:  4:13  

So what made you commit to the idea of adopting a research approach to look at this rather than just carrying on having a series of conversations? You see many leadership books which are basically just a conversation with a leader, and they have nothing behind them.

Stephen Barden:  4:31  

Because I was really irritated by people saying things like, you know, I think leaders should eat last and, and good leaders are humble and how did they know? I didn't know where they got their research from, and I don't think necessarily needed. I wanted to get a really thorough, rigorous examination of whether, number one, how they did their experience, I'd say. So that's why I used a constructivist grounded theory because it gave me the ability just to look at the data. And yes, construct the theory out of that. 

But I wanted to have a way in which I was actually examining rigorously, methodically, how these people. who I’d selected and they, by the way, I selected a group of really successful people. And they range from being successful because they were at the top of their tree to being spectacularly successful because they had actually changed the way people thought. The way their entire, you know, either in the military, or in education, or in corporate life, how people thought. 

So I went in there looking to see how these people, and in a really methodical way, how they experienced their learning. And, what was it that made them think this way, rather than that way, I did not want to go in and get more suppositions, I suppose I was saying, If I had these, if I realise the danger of assumptions without research, then I needed to go and do the research. I needed to actually go and track methodically that research. That's what I was doing. 

And it was, it was really important to me that when we merged from that research, there was a huge amount of data, which I examined and reexamined… And then, of course, I made life more difficult by going back to them and saying, is that what you said? Do you recognise this theme? So it was particularly rigorous? And it was, yes, it was very rich, and it's an examination.

David Lane  7:02  

Okay, so that's what you were looking to find out? What did you actually find out?

Stephen Barden 7:08  

Well, what I actually found out was that these leaders, and we can therefore extrapolate all human beings, but these leaders had formed as they grew up, as they were exploring as children, their world, initially, their family, and later on their environment, etc, they had formed a foundational assumption. They had built up, if you like, a foundational assumption, that basically... About the power relationship that they had with their world. What do I mean by the power relationship there that they formed? They formed an assumption about what they could or could not do within the world through this power filter. And, therefore, how to manage that world. How to make space for themselves in that world. 

Because we were looking at this particular group of successful leaders, what I discovered, and this really was very surprising to me, was that they all had built an assumption, constructed an assumption, that they in the world were in a reasonable power balance. They could, that's where it comes, they could do business with the world. In a sense, the title is quite misleading, because you can see it and go oh look, another book about how people do business. By doing businesses, I mean, how they manage, how they deal with how they interact with the world. 

David Lane  9:11  

That idea of balance between the world is quite interesting because if you look at a number of these stories, these people haven't necessarily come from easy backgrounds in which you think, okay, yup, sure, their life's in balance. They've come from some very difficult backgrounds, so how they come to that kind of idea of balance? That they can actually do business with their world.

Stephen Barden 9:35  

Yes, I found that particularly fascinating. I mean, one person who I call Lenux in the book, it's a mixture of luck and happenstance and also all sorts of things. But Lenux, for example, had come to Britain as a seven-year-old and, there’d been a grotesque mistake made. He had come from Jamaica, and he had arrived in the country, his mother immediately tried to go and make a living so and knew nothing about the education system. 

He and his brother were sent off, went off to go and register the local school, his brother was nine and he was seven. In schools where he came from, they started school at seven, he had, therefore, never been to school, and hadn’t learned to read and write. His brother, who was nine had learned to read and write. They mixed up the ages and they decided that Lenux was the older one, and the other was the younger one. So Lenux, of course, was, therefore, behind. He was there for as he said, as he puts it, in his own words, “I was classified as a thickie.” So, he was put into a special needs class. 

Whereas his brother, of course, who was supposedly seven, but actually was nine was now the genius. So I said, what, you know, what happened? He said, “I just saw it as a mistake, I saw it as a mistake, and I got on with it.” But I dived and dug and dug and what we what I discovered was, where he had been in the island, he had been seen as, if you like, the son of a big man. His father had gone off to the US, to Cuba to work so, therefore, was seen as somebody too big to be contained. And when his when he and his brother and his mother came to Britain, he saw himself in the same way. 

So therefore he was not a victim. He was big. He was big, he could do business. So he did what his father had done, he learned to do business, he learned to deal with stuff. So he was doing things like, for example, since he couldn't be an academic success, he became boxing champion of the school. He built up a community around him. So whatever he did, his assumption, his basic assumption, was I can do this because I am not smaller than the world, I am in partnership with it.

David Lane  12:39  

Okay, what would be the alternative to that kind of doing business with the world.

Stephen Barden  12:44  

The alternative, interesting, because like I call this assumption if you like, the foundational assumption, I call the navigational stances, because it is how they navigate with with with the world. Not necessarily what ends there but how they navigate through it. And so the Lenux’s of the world and most of these leaders work took a partnering stance. They saw the world as something they could work with. They could because, you know, if you are on an equal basis on a manageable balance, it's a waste of energy to do anything other than work with it, because you can it's there's a realistic chance you're going to get what you want. 

The opposite of it, rather boringly, I call the oppositional stance. Because now, if the world is perceived, and you assume the world is more powerful than you, or even less powerful, you're going to go in opposition to it. The more powerful it is, you think your assumption is going to be, you know, I'm always going to lose at the end. Or, you know, I'm going to have to really battle to find my way. If you feel the world is inferior to you, there's a balance that goes the other way you go the world doesn't matter. I5 doesn't matter, I really don't have to deal with it. Either way, you're going to ignore it, you're not going to participate in it. You're either going to try and avoid and escape it, because of fear, or you're going to try at you're simply going to say right the world is there to be yoked to my purpose. 

So, either way, you are not participating in it. This is, for me, it was very much that almost the workable application of being in the world. The concept of design, being in the world.

David Lane 14:52  

So what you discovered was the importance of navigational stances and how people relate to the world, and how they feel they can interact with the world, and as you say, do business with the world... As opposed to those for whom the world is a place of opposition and fight. 

And in fact, it seems to me, that taking that stance isn't about a reality of I'm actually in a good position or a bad position. It's how they conceptualise it because some of your people clearly were in a very poor position but nevertheless felt able to find a way to do business with the world.

Stephen Barden  15:34  

That's exactly right. Because they realise, and in fact, I introduced the book with the real story of a young man called Michael. His mother would send him off at the age of four, four and a half, out of the place they were staying because she didn't want him around. So off he’d go down to the, you know, to the local beachfront. And that's where happenstance and luck comes in. He was not abused, he was not taken advantage of… But he was able to get, you know, he was able to ask people for ice cream, they gave him ice cream, he was able to talk to people, he was able to make friends, etc, etc. and then come home safely. Now, it was, his mother been in abusive relationships he had been treated badly by some of the male figures that came in. 

However, the circumstances of his life enabled him to understand and to build up this assumption, hey, I can work with this. I can do this. I can you know, as long as I keep these parameters, as long as I'm able to navigate shrewdly and wisely, I can work with the world.

David Lane  16:59  

Okay, so let's look at how you actually went about doing this research? Because it's fascinating. So you want to look at successful leaders? So first, how'd you find them? And second, how did you get them to agree to participate? And then what do you actually do with them?

Stephen Barden  17:18  

Okay, so the original thing, and I always found it fascinating, so I thought, who do I want to talk to? I want to talk, and you can see my brain wasn’t massively original, I wanted to talk to corporate leaders, I wanted to talk to academic leaders, and I wanted to talk to politicians. And so the corporate leaders, I've worked with, yeah, the corporate leaders were basically I said, okay, I will go and take a look at people who are global CEOs, or international CEOs. People who have authority, that's what they all have in common, they had to have some authority, that they, together with their leadership group, or whatever, would have enough authority to change, to affect change in their organisation. 

So I went off, and I had a fairly good network of people that I could go to, and I went and found corporate leaders in the Far East, in Europe and in the US. And that was quite, that was quite easy. There was only one person who turned me down very politely and he said, “Stephen, it's not for me, but here's somebody who's who will fit the bill” so they were pretty good. 

The academics were also pretty good, you know, and I chose university and college presidents, as well as people who had made a great impact in high school education... And they were very good. And then I said I thought, well, what I’ll do next is the politicians so I wrote to…. And each, by the way, each one of them I wrote to them and provided a referee or a reference if you'd like of someone that we both knew so they didn't feel they were going to jump in and I did the

David Lane 19:28  

So you didn’t just approach them coldly?

Stephen Barden:

No!

David Lane:

Okay fine

Stephen Barden  19:35  

The politicians some of them I had known, some I had met, but most of them I have not met. but I said, this is me, this is what I'm doing, you know, you will be anonymous, everything is confidential. Nothing that goes in will go into being published without, at least, you knowing about it. That is the process and here's, here's somebody who knows us both, and will vet I’m not a complete commoner, ha. The politicians, I didn't get anything. I mean, you know, as I said in the book, I didn't get a cold shoulder, I didn't get any shoulder. And I realised then, because I'd always suspected, but then I realised, and that really the politicians felt incredibly vulnerable.

You know, that this sort of stuff? This was not something that…  And then, suddenly, somebody said to me, well, why don't you go for the military? And I will be eternally grateful for that. And a former Colonel in the army then introduced me to one general, who introduced me to another general, and I suddenly got, I got some real stars. I mean, I got some really good people. 

I also found another general in continental Europe as well. Again, not by this same source, who was also particularly good. And so what I then said to them all was, what I'm going to do is, I want to interview you, I want to talk to you, I will be asking these questions, and they will be recorded, the interviews will be recorded, I would then transcribe them, I would then send them back the transcription, the raw transcription and say, is this accurate? Well, they will then come back to me and say, no, you're lying, you lying bugger, ha, or they would come back and say fine. They would vet it. And then what I then did was I said, and of course, the methodology was constructed was grounded theory

David Lane  22:05  

Could you explain what that means a little 

Stephen Barden 22:06  

Well, what it actually is, it works with the data entirely. I certainly did, I said, I was only going to work with the data. I was as well, yes, of course, there was an acknowledgement within constructive grounded theory rather than, you know, pure, very tight grounded theory, that, of course, the researcher is going to go in with certain filters. So, therefore, I had to acknowledge, and how should I put it, I had to acknowledge and understand those assumptions and express them. So that we were as authentic and as clear and as honest as possible. 

But the data and, of course, what it then does, you go through a period of getting the data, looking at the data, and then relooking at the data. Almost meditating on it. Then I would code it and theme it in broad themes. And that's what I did, I themed each one to see if there was any concurrency. And then themed that even more narrowly, until we got a coherent narrative out of it. And then I came up with what that narrative was. If there was going to be a model, if there was going to be a theory on each occasion. 

So then I’d send them the raw stuff. Then I sent them again, the themes. And I said, let's set up a conversation with them. So that conversation was, you know, it was in most cases, verbal and me taking notes, but there was also an exchange of emails and correspondence in which they commented. And as you can imagine, you know, if they didn't, if they didn't agree with it, or they thought my themes, or my postulations were, were off, they would tell me. And they did tell me quite vigorously. 

And we then so I themed it and then narrowed it and then came up with these, what to my surprise, was this was a common set of assumptions that they had. Which first were quite clumsy, but then as we converse, they became more and more refined until we got this set of assumptions. Which I eventually called, in the original research I called it the navigational template, but then in the book, I called the navigational compass, because it was much more of a directional thing. And not those assumptions are not in any way that they all behave in the same way. Because for example, you know, one of the assumptions may be socialising in socialising the theme, those who I think, they like to socialise, problems and issues.

David Lane  25:38  

Can you tell us a bit about what  socialising is

Stephen Barden  25:39  

Well, socialising the file, it comes from, in fact, one of the generals where, what he, what he would do, before he made, he learned by mistake, if you like, that, if you want decisions to be effectively carried out... Don't make those decisions on your own, don't make them on your own, you need to go and talk to people, you need to go and explain why you’re doing. You need to get their buy-in. Because if you don't, their assumptions kick in, and you might find a perfectly good decision...Iit's failing, because it's just not carried out. So socialising the file was basically ensuring that when you made a decision, or when you're making a decision, you go and get the buy-in of people, all the time. 

The other one was, and of course, how each of these people socialise the file? In completely different ways. Yes. The other one was pragmatism. Pragmatism, which we defined as doing the best possible until the possible isn't best, and then changing the possible if necessary.

Stephen Barden  27:02  

So working with content. That was another thing that they all did they all were able, if necessary to stand the context on its head. 

David Lane  27:17  

You said that it was to some surprise that you kind of found this coalescing? What was the surprise about, you know, why a surprise for you?

Stephen Barden 27:29  

Surprise, I suppose was… A number of surprises. One that that navigational starts, the entry point into how they manage the world, had been with them for such a long time. And that it had, I could imagine being powerful, but it's been with them and remained with them. Fortunately, for them, it was a partnering one, but you can imagine that people with an oppositional stance would actually continue looking at the world through the eyes of the child. So that was one of them.

The other one was, my fear was that these characteristics, or these assumptions, would be a confirmation of the charismatic leader, the born leader... which I thought that's just, I can't have that. Because, you know, it meant that that the whole process of coaching if you like, the whole process of leadership development, would actually almost fall by the way. Because you know, all I need to do is, I actually say in the book, then is, if I want to be a charismatic leader just imitate charismatic leaders. 

But it wasn't. These assumptions were contextualised within each of the leader’s own experience. So that was a surprise, but it finally was rescued. And I think the biggest surprise for me was how these leaders really kept on throwing open these doors to their childhood. Without my asking and there's, I don't know if you've ever had this experience, sometimes when one does research or one does a body of work, particularly when no one is working with data, it remains quite thin. It remains almost quite two dimensional. And mine was... It was interesting hearing people talking about what they did in their work, etc, etc. But the magic, if you like, the depth only started emerging when they, of their own volition, started talking about their experiences as children and as young people. That was what made them, that's what they almost treasured, or anything else.

David Lane  30:24  

Okay, and you do make the point in the book about, you can't simply look at a charismatic leader and pretend to be one. So what you got from these people was a kind of genuineness, as opposed to, I have learned the techniques for being a leader. 

And therefore, as you mentioned earlier on the title of the book is “how successful leaders do business with their world” which sounds like a how-to book, but it isn't a how-to book... Because it's not about pretending to have the characteristics of a great leader.

Stephen Barden  30:57  

No. And that becomes particularly important, I think, for anybody who's a coach or a teacher or a researcher... Is that if we're going to look at leaders we can't simply look at the outside, look at the impact because that means we're saying we can develop leaders by changing their impact rather than changing their underlying assumptions. And I think the important point for me is that, David, if these assumptions are learned, which is what they are, they can be modulated, they can be relearned, they can be unlearnt. Yes, it can be difficult, but they can be relearned because the adult then can have a new perspective on what he/she experienced as a child. And therefore, we relearn. And that to me, is his leadership, that really is development, that really is leadership development.,

David Lane  32:13  

That's probably a good point to start before we go on to talk about the implications of this. So thank you, that was really clear. We'll then go on and talk about, well, so what? What are the implications of this research, for coaching, for leadership development? For bringing up children even?

Stephen Barden 32:39  

I think for the implications, certainly for coaching… There’s coaching, there’s recruitment, there's to a certain extent bringing up children if you like. At least being aware of that, I'm not a developmental psychologist and, you know, my children will probably think I didn't bring them up properly. But I think, in terms of coaching, what we can do with this is two things, or maybe even three things, there are always three things isn’t there? We can certainly start by… I developed an in-depth interview structure, which I use with practically all my clients now, in which I go back and discover what is their leadership, their navigational stance. Are they oppositional or are they partnering?

And then I then test it against the navigational compass, which is these eight or nine characteristics or assumptions that the research leaders all had and what I then emerge with is okay... So, this is what basic assumptions, or foundational assumption, this particular leader has and therefore, how suitable are they for that particular job? What do they need to adapt or change to become better leaders, both within that the context of that job because, and it's important to talk about context I think because I don't think that you can get really a generic leader. A leader in a media company, as I learned to my cost, may be good at a media company, which is very hierarchical, or it was in the days that I was there, may not be particularly good in, you know, a major technology company. 

So you need to be able to... But at least with this mode, we can say okay, if you want to work in a technology company, and you start using these tools, you will become a better leader... So that's number one. 

David Lane  35:12  

That’s the partnering bit, isn’t it? Learning to partner?

Stephen Barden  35:16  

Absolutely. And partnering is, you know, the partnering when you are working with someone, when you're doing business, you have to be incredibly alert. Alertness becomes the key to everything, you're alert to what's going on, you're alert not only to the text but to the entire ecosystem, which is that which is the job. You know, one of the leaders talks about being always aware of the rumbling in the ground. De had been a miner, and he always was immensely alert to the rumbling, as he called it, in the job. 

You know, generals who are massively aware of the capacity and the appetite of their people. So that was, it became, that's the partnering. And that you can certainly enable people to become more and more alert. So it is developing leaders. That's number one. 

The other one, becomes particularly useful when you do that analysis, that assessment, whether leaders, current leaders, how they are going to... How toxic or how benevolent they're going to be. So in recruitment, it becomes important, I think, to be able to say, not just has this leader worked in the industry before? Has this leader worked in the academic sector before? But, how is this leader going to treat their constituents? How partnering or how toxic they're going to be when they take on a job? I can imagine it would be quite useful for them for some political parties. That's the second one. So it's in recruitment and assessing the suitability. 

And then I think when you're talking about future leaders, you can then say, okay, so as a future leader, let's assess what you are doing now, let's assess what your assumptions are now. And perhaps, we can help break down some of the global assumptions about leaders, about being the solitary hero, or about being, you know, leading from the front or about, you know, the macho style of leadership, or even frankly, you know, assuming that all leaders have to adopt a coaching style. Really, do all leaders have to adopt a coaching style at all times? You know, as, again, as I say, in the book, you know, when your troops are about to cut and run in panic, do you sit down and teach them to fish? Wouldn't quite work, I would think.

So those are the sort of areas you can work with. And then what I currently do is, once we've done that assessment when we're developing leaders or coaching leaders, I then will coach them, with them, over a series of sessions, in which we start to get them to understand what's been going on. What their assumptions are, how they can change, how they can really learn how they can learn and how it fits with what they're doing now. 

As far as children are concerned, I think there are, I think, again, an awareness. One, of the key things about the navigational stance, that they all had, they all, were given the ability to experience things. Clearly, it is the role of the parents to protect them as much as possible, so that they don't fall off a cliff and they don't, they don't get abused as much as possible. But it's important that children are allowed to experience for themselves so that they get can gain confidence in participating in the world. That it's not, it's not a case of them becoming self-aware. In my view, and if you follow the model in the book, it's not... One is never self-aware, one is aware of the self in the world.

We’re never a vacuum, there's always going to be another agent and other beings in the world. So we need to be able to ensure that children are allowed to experience within reasonable safety, with reasonable security, and for parents then to be alert, when they find that their child is becoming more and more oppositional in their stance. So it becomes, I think, at least a starting point to begin to work with children as well, using, the model of the filter, the filter of the ability. 

Finally, and this came, it did not emerge from the book, although I talk about it, funnily enough, in a couple of podcasts that I've done is... I think, my suspicion is, and this may be the subject of the next piece of work is that companies, governments, countries, also develop a navigational stance. I use an example of, of example, the United States... If the United States, in its formation as a federal republic assumed that the people in the Native Americans and later black slaves were inferior to them, that meant that they were by definition declaring to working in opposition to what that word is. And that therefore this starts to impact, or this impacted, not only the way they dealt with the whole racial issues in the United States, but also dealt with how their foreign policy, of course. So then you see that, and I think, for example, the whole reaction to Black Lives Matter... And it's something that stems from this basic assumption of opposition that they have within themselves as well as outside.

David Lane 42:45 

Perhaps a cheeky question, you’ve mentioned it a couple of times, kind of learning from failure… Were you a successful leader, as a CEO?

Stephen Barden 42:57

[laughs] Um, I succeeded in a number of contexts… I think I was quite good in certain stages as a media leader if you like. But no, I  think I was finally a successful leader, you know, I had successes and I had areas where I was successful but I don’t think I was finally a successful leader and I’ll tell you why. Because at the end of the day, what I define as success is the ability to move the entire organisation forward. The entire organisation forward toward its purpose, towards its ends. And I don’t think, perhaps one when I was not exactly the chief executive but I was one or two down, I don’t think that I was able to move the entire organisation forward. I certainly know that in my last job, I was working in the interest of the shareholder and that’s not particularly good. I thought, in other cases, I possibly gave up too easily when I saw the opposition was strong against me, so, no. I didn’t move the entire organisation forward no.

David Lane: 44:37

The cliche is that all political careers end in failure, and I wonder if, you know, for CEOs. You talk in the book about what it means to be successful, and success defined in terms of the sustainability of the organisation, rather than the immediate glory of the CEO.

Stephen Barden 44:55

I think that’s absolutely correct, and the way you’ve put it is right. That success does one leave the organisation so that it can continue and sustain itself in this culture that you have created. You know, you’re going to have failures. You’re going to have individual failures. You know, the stock market will go down, the share prices will go down or you’ll lose this customer or this big client or whatever. As long as it is able to sustain itself going forward, then overall, it is a success. The CEO may fall by the wayside, which becomes less relevant. What is more relevant is, have you left a culture, have you left drive, have you left a navigational stance that enables this organisation to move to success.