Light and Shade

Author: Geoff Nicholson

I was talking to someone last week (not a client by the way) and they described themselves as feeling overwhelmed, down and having “lost their mojo”. Due to logistical constraints this was not discussed further at the time, but I have been thinking about it a lot since then.

As someone who has very recently undergone a massive career transformation, I am well used to experiencing similar emotions, and have tried numerous ways to deal with them. To say they have all been successful would be blatantly untrue!

What I was wondering is this: why do we feel that it is not OK to feel this way? Why do we feel that positive emotions and feelings are good and should be celebrated (posted on LinkedIn?!); yet their darker, more challenging counterparts should be hidden away and brooded upon in private?

I have no intention of delving into the recesses of psychological conditioning and behaviour within the family, workplace and society in general – but I would like to share some of my reflections on this subject.

I love music. I especially enjoy listening to longer passages – entire albums (remember those?), long tracks or symphonic works by “Classical” composers. Are concept albums still a thing? I digress. Anyway, can you imagine listening to an album (or playlist) where all the tracks are essentially similar? All the same tempo, same key, similar lyrics, same drum patterns, etc? Would that be a fulfilling experience? Well, not to me – although, to be fair, there are times when that type of similarity would be desirable (parties, for example). But generally speaking, what makes listening to music so enjoyable are the differences. The slow songs that provide contrast to the dance numbers. The ballads that tug at our heart strings, before the stadium anthem that awes us with its power and energy. It’s all about contrast.

I play in a band, and I generally plan the setlists for live performances. Despite what people might think, this is not a random process. Start and end with your best songs. Hit the audience hard and leave them with a great tune that they will sing or whistle as they leave (or go to the loo at half- time). But in between, slow things down. Reduce the pace and play a few mid-tempo or even slow songs in the middle, before building back up to that crescendo. You have their attention, use it.

Composers have been using this type of formula for centuries – the overture which is often bombastic and sets the tone – grabbing the listener’s attention from the start. The next movement will often be fast-paced but melodic – introducing further themes, melodies and harmonies. Then, just as everything is getting a bit predictable, comes the adagio section. The slow, and often dark and moody part that uses a lot of minor keys (the black notes on a piano). D minor, the saddest of all keys perhaps? A contemplative interlude that brings pause for thought and anticipation of what is to come, introducing some tension…. It may not be a very long section, but its importance is enormous. What comes after is almost always lively, pacey and “happy” (mostly major keys now). The appreciation of the faster section is enhanced by the slower, darker section before. The tension has now been released.

This is commonly used in all the arts. In stories, books, movies and even in adverts (look for the Nolan’s Cheddar Seriously Strong ad on YouTube). Why? Because we know it works! Remember how you felt when Dumbo was taken away from his mother? We all knew that the happy ending would ensue, but that doesn’t remove the power of the upsetting plot twist. One accentuates the other. So many stories use this format. Insert your own favourite here.

Music, film, stories, books, setlists. Ups and downs. Light and shade. Contrasts. Twists and turns. Tension/release. Overture, allegro, adagio, finale. So many examples.

Yet when it comes to our own emotions and feelings, we shy away from the dark side. We pretend everything is OK, even when it hurts us to do so. We bury stuff away, depriving it of oxygen so that it will suffocate and die. But does it? By keeping dark feelings in the dark, can we actually empower them further?

Why not try a different approach? Instead of hiding away from these feelings, embrace them. Revel in them. Even wallow in them! By meeting them head on, we can perhaps rob them of a lot of their power. Worth a try?

I would like to add an important caveat at this point. I am not a psychologist. I would not suggest for a moment that anyone suffering from a metal health condition (whether diagnosed or not) should try this approach. If in doubt, check it out.

Happy you = better decisions (promise!)

Happy New Year, and welcome to 2019!

For many of us, early January is a time for personal resolutions, many of which we will, unsurprisingly, fail to keep again.

For business owners and managers – no matter when the start and end of their financial year falls due – January is often a month to take stock of the year gone past, and to scope out their vision and plans for the year to come. And this year, those plans are coloured with uncertainty and a certain amount of trepidation, as we are now less than 80 days from a potential hard exit from the EU. This makes both the setting of goals and the making of decisions that much harder to achieve with any confidence.

There is now solid evidence from behavioural scientists that the ability to make good and rational choices is closely allied to the mental and physical well being of the decision maker. That being the case, I find it fascinating how little value business leaders seem to place on activities which directly relate to their own personal growth, the development of their leadership capabilities, and the maintenance of their mental and physical well being.

And yet, they are happy to spend thousands to ensure their staff have training and learning opportunities that will allow them to not only do their jobs to the very best of their abilities, but grow as individuals.

So why is it so different for us?

I’ve worked with many amazing CEOs over the years, and a common theme in our early conversations is the “impossibility” of them committing their time and/or their company’s money to their own personal growth and leadership journey.

Unpick the protestations, and you start to find some or all of the following excuses for why this is an issue for them:

  • I’m the boss – if I admit I need to develop my leadership skills, won’t that undermine my authority?
  • I don’t think I’m really worth investing in (impostor syndrome)
  • It’s more important to spend our training budget on the employees
  • I’m too busy to commit to anything else (other people’s calls on my diary are more important than my own)

Now don’t get me wrong – I’m anything but perfect, and have been extremely guilty in the past of neglecting my own development and well being in favour of that of my team for the very reasons above.

And if you ask, I’ll willingly share with you the occasionally apocalyptic consequences of this attitude… They were not pretty, and they were a direct result of failing to take care of those things that would have helped me be a more effective leader who made better decisions more quickly.

But I am getting much better at this, and part of my recovery has been to admit that I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of this leadership thing – despite having been one for damn near 25 years… So over the Christmas break I’ve been researching titles to include in the first incarnation of The Ultimate Business Book Club, which will launch in early 2019, and my reading has included the brilliant “Think Small – The Surprisingly Simple Ways to Reach Big Goals”, by Owain Service and Rory Gallagher.

Why is this relevant to decision making and confidence?  Well, what particularly resonated with me was Service and Gallagher’s summary of the factors that most directly impact on one’s well being, and why making decisions that benefit others first and ourselves second actually makes us feel more rather than less happy. Counter-intuitive, hunh?

Service and Gallagher have identified five factors which it is vital to have in place if you want to improve your well being – and thus your ability to make effective and sound personal and professional decisions.  They are almost mind-blowingly obvious when you read them (spoiler alert – money is NOT one of them), however if you want to know what they are, you have two options:

  • Buy a copy of the book yourself (it’s available on Kindle and Audible as well as in paper format)
  • OR fill in the form below to request our Leadership Well Being White Paper, which summarises these 5 factors, assesses why they are important, and identifies one simple action you can take in 2019 to deliver significant positive outcomes for the well being of both you and your business.