The Curse of Being Organised at Work, or Facing Up To Leadership Errors

I’m going on record as saying ‘WTF?’

Seriously, what happened? 

Yesterday was all terrible rush…tired…too much work…Monday’s. Today was…bored out of my skull. The very antithesis of yesterday.

It’s not that I don’t have work to do – I was still able to build up a task list, and it wasn’t all done by the end of the day. It’s just that I do thrive on having a challenge. The work I had to do today was not the most stimulating. It’s that crappy administrative work that lays untouched for weeks or months that sooner or later need completing, but no one’s that bothered if it waits. It certainly doesn’t keep me fulfilled, like I’ve completed a big piece of work. It’s just stuff.

What’s worse, is that I know my team are busy. There’s a lot of work out there, and they’re all beavering away. So it occurred to me that perhaps I’ve got this wrong. Maybe I need to reassess how I evaluate my team’s workload. You see, I’m often busy with the normal routine of work, so it fits in with everyone else sense of daily pressures. Right now though, I feel like my camouflage has been lifted, and I’m a sitting duck exposed.

I like to think I’m organised. I keep my inbox empty, placing emails in their correct folder, flagging the ones that need follow up work. The casework waiting approval is zero. No major deadlines are waiting. The most critical cases are waiting for key tasks to be completed; it’s not that they’re just waiting there to be written up. 

So I have to think, how is it the work seems less busy for me, but not for my team? I could take the easy way out, and say it’s an organisation thing. For sure, there are some tips and tricks I could pass on, and I have done in the past, but ultimately I think it’s a cop out. In fact, I worry that it’s victim blaming. You see ‘frontline’ workers, particularly caseworkers in child protection, have significant pressures heaped on them. They’re typically at the lower end of the pay scale, but the collective responsibility is much higher. Large organisations, particularly government departments operating on an outmoded neo-liberal economic basis, lose sight of the very real complexities their workers face. In other words, it’s not a system catered for efficiency. 

So now, seeing that the work my team hasn’t diminished, even as mine has, I feel compelled to reassess what I’m missing as a team leader. Am I providing all the available time and ability to help my workers out? I don’t necessarily mean completing tasks for them – I dislike this as it infantilises and people can become dependent on that sort of thing. What I mean is providing the space for them to complete their tasks. Help relieve their pressures.

For example, do they have clear case direction? A lot of times I’ve seen workers (in different locations) put off particular cases simply because they haven’t received any clear direction. Many government organisations operate a command-and-control style leadership process (ironic for a profession of mainly social workers), and so workers have a habit of waiting until given specific instruction. Sometimes leaders can fall into the trap of thinking clear direction has been given, or even forgetting to give any direction at all. Regular supervision can help minimise this, but for some case matters they simply progress nowhere, in a kind of indecisive stasis. The more rigid the hierarchy, the more pronounced the problem.

So in this instance, is it an opportunity for a wider dialogue with workers? Not just asking them how they are going, but clarifying that they know where there are going with each case? Is it about encouraging them to re-assess where they are? 

I can also examine collective approaches. Sometimes, everyone in a team is busy, and assumes everyone else is, so they don’t ask for help, and put off undertaking home visits, meeting clients etc. Again, I wouldn’t seek to complete those tasks myself, but rather examine how, as a team, we are organised. I can encourage a team dialogue – what is everybody doing today, tomorrow, next week? Are we able to re-organise our calendars to accomodate each other?

This is about active engagement with the team. I could just sit back and wait. Feel that I’m on top of my work, and in so doing I’m making myself available for my team when they do start to send work through for approval, or when a crisis hits. This is passive availability – it’s good to have, but it doesn’t engage with the needs of the team. In fact, it could grow resentment because it might be quite apparent I have little to do, and looks like I’m not helping.

I’ve already cautioned against helping with specific tasks, because I don’t want to infantilise, and it’s also inefficient. If I was helping with specific tasks, it would be like being an extra worker,  but I can only be in one place at a time like that. As a team leader I need to be available for everyone, and be in a position to prioritise as critical issues crop up (and this being Child Protection, they will). 

So having little to do is not the self-congratulatory slap-on-the-back it might seem. Assuming there’s a lack of ability in the team to organise can be destructive, because such a perception ignores the wider complexities of workload and how organisations are structured (and so becomes victim blaming). It leads to an uncomfortable question – am I not so busy because I have been ignoring pressing, underlying, issues in my team? Critical reflection can be difficult sometimes; facing up to errors and mistakes can be uncomfortable. This is an opportunity to correct particular team wide issues, and help my team by being present in the moment to help them, and facing up to challenges I might have decided to file long ago, when I really should have tackled them head on.

5 lessons about leadership from Game of Thrones Tywin Lannister

An important and influential figure in the TV series Game of Thrones (I’m assuming some basic knowledge of the series, and spoilers by the way), Tywin Lannister was portrayed as being feared and respected, with a ruthless streak (see how he engineers The Red Wedding). He was a noble, with a sense of honour (particularly about where his family was concerned) and stubborn family loyalty. On the other hand, he was also willing to use torture, murder and war to further his aims, and was not beyond turning against his former king (the “mad king”) when it bacame clear the rebellion of Robert Baratheon was going to succeed. 

Characters like Tywin Lannister intrigue me greatly, because they are still able to portray considerable strengths as leaders, while being undeniably brutal at the same time. It’s sometimes called the dark side of leadership, and is an important consideration in understanding how even ‘evil’ people gather followers. It’s important to recognise how the ‘dark side’ can affect us in our working life, and how we need to mitigate these effects by focusing on positive, durable leadership qualities.

Here’s 5 reasons I think Tywin made an impressive leader, in spite of his ruthless side.

1. He gives clear direction. One thing about Tywin is that he is clear about his instructions. When faced with particular crisis, setback or problem, he moves quickly to respond and resolve them. In the first season, after facing the disaster of the Starks defeating his son’s army, Tywin quickly reorganises his forces to respond. He sends his son Tyrion to King’s Landing to serve as the Hand, he directs his army to move away from the Starks, while at the same time instructing some forces to cause as much damage in the lands they are vacating. 

His clear direction relies on being able to separate the various challenges he faces. He is willing to delegate to achieve his aims – Tyrion gets effective carte blanche to rule as the Hand. In fact, he gives clear direction to Tyrion about what he should be during – “Rule” – how he should do it  “heads, spikes, walls” (so ruthlessly I guess) – and asserts a humane authority for Tyrion (a son he has always looked down on, both figuratively and literally) as to why he’s been chosen – “because you’re my son”. 

2. He gives second chances. Yes, believe it or not, Tywin Lannister actually gives people another chance. There’s an episode where he berates one of his subordinates for delivering crucial orders to a family that support the Starks (thereby giving them vital intelligence on the Lannister army and its movements). Tywin criticises the soldiers inability to read (it is inferred that was why the mistake was made), and warns him that if he endangers the Lannister forces again he’ll pay with his life. But that’s it. The soldier is humiliated, disciplined, but otherwise left entact in his position. 

Consider some other ‘bad guys’ in films and TV and how they have traditionally been portrayed. Darth Vader’s a good example in Empire Strikes Back – he routinely kills subordinates that fail him. Many other anatagonists have been similarly portrayed. This kind of approach can work if instilling a sense of obedience through fear is your sole purpose. In practice, for most people that don’t have magical powers of strangling you from a distance, this approach rarely reaps rewards.

Looking at Tywin’s approach above, he is clear in his anger and the reasons for it (Tywin actually goes a little length to explain the mistake by getting a book), despite the level of his anger it is controlled (he doesn’t hit his subordinate or yell right in his face), and he sets out future parameters if the same mistake is made in the future. This sends an important lesson to his other subordinates – you need to think more carefully about what you’re doing, I will apply consequences, but I will give you a second chance to learn from your mistakes.

3. He provides vision. While being described by other characters as a fearsome and ruthless adversary, he is also able to set out a clear vision of what he is trying to achieve. This is neatly summarised in the first season when he speaks to his son Jaime about the importance of family. He highlights the futility of power for ones self, since death is ultimately going to rob you of those accomplishments. He even points out that time will erase memory of those accomplishments. What Tywin does do is talk about family and the family name, and how this is the thing that keeps him motivated because it is the only thing that endure. 

For himself and Jaime (and presumably the other children), this is primary motivation – the strategic plan. Of course, while many of his soldiers would feel duty bound to follow Tywin on account of nobility alone, that is not sufficient to encourage them. It would be more likely he would talk to them about the power of the house, being a house of higher nobility and influence etc. etc. and how they can benefit from this. It’s the same vision, but Tywin can adapt his message as it suits, and he remains consistent to it.

4. He is evidence based. Tywin demonstrates an ability to respond to problems once he is certain they are one. In the first season, he moves quickly to respond to information that the Stark army is heading in his direction. Prior to this it is inferred he has been waiting to see what the Stark army might do. He’s not foolhardy or arrogant enough to simply go full pelt into battle (although, as I will describe below, there is a slight vein of arrogance that undermines him in this scenario).

When his grandson, that lovely young chap Joffrey, is asking about dragons, Tywin reveals his scepticism based on previous dragon skulls, and how they steadily decreased in size over the years. It is clear he is dismissing the concerns at that point. While we know he is wrong, Tywin is simply acting on the evidence presented. Remember, Joffrey’s concerns are based on vague reports, not details. I am sure that if Tywin was to discover the reality of the three dragons he would re-evaluate the information, but faced with the evidence at hand he is prepared to respond to fears by presenting logical evidence in counter it.

This is where there is a slight criticism of Tywin, one that arguably gets him killed. While he uses evidence appropriately, he demonstrates a lack of an enquiring mind, and this often leads to him making misjudgements. In the scenario of the Stark army, Tywin doesn’t question his spies reports or the Stark’s motivations. He simply responds to the evidence on face value. This leads to him falling into the Stark’s trap, and seeing his other army getting routed. Had Tywin followed up on the information, he might have realised the deception.

Similarly with the dragons, Tywin is quick to dismiss the concerns on the basis of the evidence presented, but he doesn’t appear to have an interest in making a greater determination about the threat. For example, he doesn’t ask for greater reports about the size of the dragons or their capabilities. Were he to do so, he might receive more useful, detailed information that helps him re-evaluate his assumptions and beliefs.

We see this arrogance when he is faced with Tyrion holding a crossbow. Tywin routinely dismisses Tyrion’s former lover out of hand, even thought Tyrion warns him not to and is holding a loaded weapon. When Tywin continues, Tyrion opens fire killing him. Had Tywin given greater consideration to the situation he was in, and listened to Tyrion, he might have survived the encounter.

The point I’m making here is about critical analysis, reassessing information and evidence presented. Tywin appropriately responds to fear responses by focusing on the evidence, but he should have made greater inquiries about the detail. 

5. He leads from the front. Tywin is shown leading his forces in battle on more than one occasion. He displays considerable confidence in his own abilities. In many respects this could be interpreted as taking responsibility. Tywin’s reputation is therefore not just built on calculation, but also direct action. He’s prepared to take the same risks his followers do. Seeing Tywin lead from the front most be morale raising and inspiring for his troops.

So there’s Tywin, a powerful, ruthless and calculating leader who ends his days being murdered on the toilet by his own son. Not all influential leaders have great endings if their negative, dark side, influences overcome their more positive qualities.

Back to the frontline: getting a refresher on core skills

Today I’m doing something a little different. I’m spending a day working on caseworker duties.  

I’ve always been conscious that as I move beyond the frontline role I might become entrenched in a narrow skill set, and forget the key skills that support the workers I am meant to lead. Having empathy for their point of view and their specific roles is vital if I am to do my job, so that’s why I am refreshing some of those skills.

My main area of concern is client interaction in the context of assessment and investigation. My current role has a limited scale of involvement, usually based on safety planning meetings and dealing with telephone calls. It’s been some time since I interviewed a child, visited a home with the intention of assessing that environment, or speaking with parents to guage their capacity. In my role, I am reliant on my team telling me what they think, and so I need to trust their instincts and skills. Spending some time in their shoes will help remind me of their pressures and responsibilities. Given they often ask for my perspective based on my experience, I think it’s good to make sure I don’t get rusty.

I’ve opted to do the casework role with the other team. It’ll take pressure off my team, and widen my scope of learning. Since it’s only a day I’ve opted for the intake week, when there are new referrals being managed.

It’s a good opportunity to learn from colleagues, and show that as frontline workers they have a little to teach us. 

No Crisis? What to do about a lull in work

I know I’m tempting fate but it was a quiet weekend – no new referrals. I may find that by the time I get in a whole host of chaotic events may have occurred, but I doubt it beyond the usual casework issues that arise.

So to explain, I lead a team of child protection workers and we are one of two initial assessment teams for a district in Perth. The two teams take turns with new referrals and this week is our week.

The week can range from “holy shit, they’re coming right for us” to Jeff Lebowski-like calm.

Do we do nothing? Nope, there is plenty of work to be done I’m sure, for me and my team. This isn’t an army like situation of asking them to clean coal. 

What I can do is help prioritise some other smaller pieces of work that have been lingering. Maybe some recent allocations that haven’t got off the ground yet. Maybe sight a child or family that have been elusive.

So getting into work my first job is to confirm whether it’s as quiet as it looks. All being good, I can then review existing cases and make a decision about tasks to prioritise.

I communicate this to the response workers for today, with some broad suggestions for tasks to be undertaken. Generally though, I prefer the workers to plan the case, as an exercise in assessment.

I can review the situation over the course of the day, in case urgent issues arise.

The point of all this is simply that a lull in work does mean a lull in prioritising. I want to keep the response workers active in case something does come up. If they are too heavily focused on their own cases then they might become unavailable, even though they are still doing their job. It allows for responsiveness in case crisis does develop, and in child protection that’s critical.

Crisis Management 

Checked my work email this morning to find a number of crises developed overnight, so already I’m the fan of destiny prepped for the bowel discharge of fate.

Time is short on this morning’s bus ride, so this is a short blog entry about prepping for crisis.

1. Keep the routine as much as possible. I exercise in the morning before work. It would be tempting to forego this and head straight to the office, but the short term benefit of an extra hour would be extinguished by the long term break in routine. Better to exercise, be refreshed, and come into work all set.

2. Reprioritise, don’t panic. Crisis does not equal disaster. There may be a number of options available. I had planned on a number of things today, but clearly I’ll need to reorganise. This is different from ignoring what I plannned today – some of it will be quite important. If I need to move things to tomorrow or later it should be controlled and assessed, not simply dumped. That way I maintain control.

3. Communicate with the team. Not everyone will be needed to respond, but everyone should know what the situation is, and depending on the seriousness of the situation be able to reorganise and reprioritise their work. This means holding a quick briefing – I call these Scrums – of about 5 minutes to give everyone the details. This helps the team anticipate need and plan their own workload to help their colleagues.

So there are 3 quick nuggets for managing crisis. Incorporate it into your routine, not the other way round. Have an organised reorganisation of work priorities. Communicate with the team. All this will help develop a cohesive and disciplined response.

Mystery of the crop

It’s a mystery. Like I’m a farmer in a remote location. I harvest my crop, and then some guy comes along at a pre-appointed time and collects my yield. I get my pay, they drive off, and I have no sense what happens after that.

That’s what it felt like today. I completed a job application. As per usual last minute (though not my fault this time – I just got back from holiday and only saw it yesterday, and the due date was today). I’m sure it could be better, but that’s not what’s bugging me the most.

What’s bothering me is that the post I was applying for is a step above mine – senior leadership. I had the job description, policies, notes and brainstorming, but it occurred to me – I don’t really know what my line managers do. I mean, I understand they must do something, because they’re often in meetings. I dearly hope they’re not meeting about having meetings. Occasionally I need them to approve something- my god like powersof decision making only go so far. I read the job description and think ‘yeah, but what does that look like?’

It’s difficult, accepting I have this level of ignorance about senior leader figures, but I genuinely had to think hard about how I would apply my skills to that role. My current role is clear, specific, and comfortable. Theirs is vague, ambiguous, and alien.

I know in my heart that’s not good enough. I should know what they do. In fact I need to – why would I entrust such urgent responsibility in the hands of people whose powers are so enigmatic. I am a trusting person, but not naive.

So, returning to the farmer analogy, and what happens to the crop, I have different choices.

Firstly, I could remain with my crop, ruminate on the possibilities and naturally acquire the knowledge. This would leave me susceptible to assumptions.

Secondly, I could ask the driver. This would open the possibility of interpretation – I would be at the mercy of the driver’s interpretation.

Thirdly, I could walk down the same road as the driver, and hope to find the knowledge myself. This puts more power in my hands, but then the crop would be neglected. 

Fourth, I could ask to go with the driver, to see for myself. This would give me first hand experience, but with a frame of reference to compare (the driver’s). However, it would also risk the crop being neglected.

If the driver refuses to answer (antagonistic or ambivalent), or gives a confusing answer (jargon), I’m a little left on my own. It would be better if the driver were in agreement.

And of course, I am relying on the driver to be knowledgable themselves, trustworthy, and have anything to show me. Wouldn’t that be something, if everyone was part of this system but had no idea of their role?

I’ve noticed that the driver has never offered to show me. Maybe they are ambivalent, or maybe they don’t want to ruin a good crop. I reckon I’m going to have to force the issue, and press the driver, my line managers, to drive me down the road.

You see, I know what strategic thinking is, I know what achieving results means, and building relationships. It’s the context of the the thing I’m missing. I have to explore their world to understand it,and decide if it’s really something I want to do.

Big Block of Cheese Day

Andrew Jackson, 7th President of the United States, famously received a 700kg block of cheese. He allowed members of the public to share in the cheese.

In the fictional series the West Wing, the White House Chief of Staff forces his staff to go through their version of the the Big Block of Cheese day. Organisations that would not normally have the President’s ear are invited to speak to senior staff. These include Cartographers for Social Justice and also campaigners to build a highway for wolves.

The actual White House under Barack Obama has held real life events using social media under the banner of Big Block of Cheese Day. Although in the context of promoting the State of the Union speech, the use of social media to engage the public is very much of the modern times.

All this got me thinking. Firstly, it gave me a craving for cheese and crackers. More importantly though, I have begun to think about how a similar event could benefit my workplace. In this context, I’m not thinking about organisations or people trying to influence government policy. What I am thinking about is creativity, and its impact on the way we think.

I was thinking about different professions and how they operate, and what that could teach us about our own business and way of working.

Architects and designers could teach about increasing complexity of design in the way they work, mirroring the increasing complexity of assessments as we gather more information.

Artists could have powerful influence about interpretation of a subject, analysis and finding new perspectives.

Photographers need to think about the multiple influences on a shot, balancing aperture, shutter speed, film or sensor sensitivity, and the framing of the photo. It’s an holistic approach similar to social work assessment.

By calling on local organisations we don’t normally work with I would hope to encourage some out of the box thinking. It would also be on a micro level. Instead of singular large all staff meetings, it would be small groups of workers, maybe just 3 or 4, meeting with an individual guest. This would allow for more informal discussion and develop personal rapport between presenter and worker. The workers could then disseminate their experience through their own networks in the workplace.

Yes, it does depend on the generosity of professionals giving their spare time to talk to an agency that I doubt crosses their path very much. On the other hand, I see a lot of opportunity for creative application in the workplace, and as experience of learning. So it’s an idea I’m planning on introducing at today’s leadership meeting, to see how far it can get.

Corbyn v Smith – Hobson’s Choice for Labour

Today Labour Party members in the UK begin the process of electing their new leader. I’m going to predict Corbyn – while I think the enthusiasm for his campaign is overstated, I also think Smith has proven to be too lightweight in this scenario. If I were still a member, I’d not vote.

So I write what I think will be the challenge for Corbyn as leader, and for the party as a whole.

1. Corbyn has to make peace with the PLP. While people might argue the Labour MP’s need to give Corbyn greater support for him to improve, remember this not a chicken and egg argument. I believe in the truism that teams reflect the mindset of the leader. Disorganised, argumentative and unruly teams are a sign of a lack of leadership. The MP’s are reflecting their leader.

The general threats made towards MP’s, as well as the (untrue) claims of ‘red Tories’ do little to encourage anyone. I feel genuinely sorry for the PLP. I had no idea of the sheer sense of desperation that had seeped in after Brexit, the final straw to break the camel’s back. Threats of deselection may prove to be meaningless – they think they are going to lose their seats anyway. But these people believe in the party, and they were campaigning for it long before the bulk of Corbyn’s supporters joined.

Corbyn will be hamstrung unless he can find ways to work with the PLP. A man of peace, articulating negotiation over aggression, Corbyn needs to exercise that principle in practice. I’d even suggest a third party mediator if needed (low key of course) to help bring agreement. At the very least, Corbyn needs to find new ways to work with them – his previous approach merely led to him facing another leadership contest.

Remember, it is the leader’s responsibility to bring the team to him, and the team need a reason to follow.

2. Corbyn needs to develop a narrative. Ed Miliband had some good popular policies, but he failed to weave these into an effective narrative for the country. The stories haven’t had one for decades (Big Society was the last one and it was a flop). The problem was they could simplify their campaign message to one thing, the economy. Labour were still trying to bang on about One Nation stuff. 

Corbyn’s produced some good policies. He’s calling for the abolition of the House of Lords and devolution to the rest of England (thus I could get behind), but he has to connect this anti-austerity (which most people don’t know the meaning of), and demonstrate an ability to tie in resolute decision making. 

This is a major hamstring. I notice phrases like ‘call the government to account’ and ‘ask questions of the government’. This is the wrong mindset. It suggests passivity and is the language of a social campaign, not a political force. He did the same when ISIN Duncan Smith resigned – refusing to accuse the stories over economic failure. When the Tories slip up, Labour should state what they would do instead and then ask ‘why aren’t the Tories doing this?’ It forces the narrative to be about Labour’s policies, and puts the stories on the defensive. 

3. Corbyn needs to ignore the media. As a Labour supporter, I have watched for decades now the anti-Labour garbage against Blair, Brown, Miliband and now Corbyn. It’s a long standing issue, but one Corbyn has to manage. This comes down to narrative, having something alternative to show people. At the moment, there’s very little. 

The media in the UK have always been slanted to the right – I’ve always found accusations of the BBC being too liberal laughable – so it’s foolish to expect them to change. They are something to be managed, not constrained.

4. Corbyn needs to be categorical about where he stands, but he also needs to refine his principle approach. I have no idea what he said or didn’t say about Russia, but the impression I got was that he refused to say if he would assist NATO nations in the event of a Russian invasion. All he needs to say is that he would consider military action to repel unwarranted acts of aggression or invasion. It makes me wonder what would have to happen for Corbyn to consider military action.

On Russia I find Corbyn’s position all over the place. Putin has committed a war of aggression on Chechnya (not unlike Iraq?) and is likely responsible for the assassinations of political opponents and critics. Russia has embarked on anti-LGBT legislation and policy, and there’s even one Rusdian MP trying to decriminalise domestic violence. I see little reason to be ambiguous about this man. It does not mean the approach of the West should remain uncritiqued, but Corbyn’s ambivalence to such an obvious dictator will be off putting to millions of Britons.

Also, take nuclear weapons. It’s no use just saying he opposes Trident or nuclear weapons. He needs to weave that into a narrative of foreign policy strategy, about how the UK would function nuclear free. At the moment, he just looks like hippy pacifist that would flinch at nasty language. He looks weak.

5. Corbyn needs to stop giving speeches to large crowds. I really mean it. This is killing him in the polls. His supporters see popularity, but I tell you right now the country will see ‘mob’. Tone. It. Down.

Most people don’t follow crowds. Look at Iraq – 2 million estimated protestors in London against the war. Who won the 2005 general election? Who came second? Pro-war parties took over 60% of the vote.

Crowds help if they are following a wider narrative. When Obama shot into the scene he did it with a message of change that resonated for a war weary world. The message came first, the crowds after. I don’t see any expectation of Corbyn doing anything than saying the same things over and over to people that already like him. It can’t work like that.

The U.K. is much more intimate than, say, the US. British people are by their nature socially conservative. Corbyn needs to encourage most people that if he takes over he’ll spend his time as PM addressing crowds not Parliament or, worse still, that a group of socialist whack jobs aren’t going to run rampage.

Appearances matter. That’s why Corbyn opted for smarter clothes.

I don’t hold much confidence that Corbyn will do this. I merely suggest this approach based on my perceptions. I have the advantage of being on the outside looking in. There’s nothing invested for me in practice – I don’t live in the UK. His past approach has failed, and he needs to change, but his capacity to do this is thus far lacking in demonstration.

Back to work after illness

A day and a half off work after being ill, on my duty week. I doubt this is going to look pretty when I get back. At low intensity of work it is manageable, but it was shaping up as quite busy when I went home.

When I return I expect to find a certain level of chaos, but here’s an important thing – the chaos isn’t real. 

Imagine you go for a swim in reasonably choppy waters. As you wade in you are buffeted by the strong tides, and as you get deeper you are hit with the swell a few times. Do you drown? Assuming you are a competent swimmer, the answer is no. You get used to the swell, you start to swim so the waves don’t affect you so much. Try to just float in place will leave you disorientated by the swell, and it won’t feel you’ve got anywhere. You could leave, but then you’ll get buffeted as you get out of the water, and the swell and tides will still be there.

Coming back to work is the same. The first waves of work will be panicky “OMG” moments. If I try to just tread water and deal with what I’ve missed then it’ll leave me bring disorientated. I need to move on and push forward, not getting overwhelmed by what’s waiting. 

First off, I need to review my calendar. What appointments and meetings do I have? How much available time do I have? Meetings that looked important before, are they still necessary now? What about over the next two weeks? How much spare time is building up? I know off the top of my head that the next two days were pretty much booked up before I went off sick. It’s not likely I’ll have much spare time before end of week. In some ways though that may help. It’ll be easier to prioritise work in that fashion, compared to having a glut of spare time. I don’t want to get too distracted with trying to juggle all the priorities and decisions people will come to me with in the first hour. It sounds counter intuitive, but less spare time makes it easier to prioritise and make decisions. So calendar review is the first task.

My next task is to empty my email inbox. This doesn’t mean totally dealing with every email. It means prioritising follow-up (flagging) and putting them in the right folders. I can only deal with so much so I don’t want to overburden myself (and risk further illness).

All this needs to happen in the first twenty to thirty minutes. I know off the top of my head that my appointments start from 9am, so everything needs to be set to fall back into the normal routine as quickly as possible – start swimming almost as soon as I am in the water.

At this stage most of my team will be in, I’ll have the opportunity to do a round robin and see how staff are going. This isn’t about discussing caseloads at this point. It’s merely tracking how they are doing. I believe that teams reflect the state of their leader. If the leader is ill, then in some respects, I anticipate some signs of disorder or drag. The extent if this depends on length of illness, but also training and state of mind of the team. I’m co fide the in my team, so I’m hoping despite the pressures they’ll be doing pretty well, but there a lot of factors. So I want to be able to assess how the team is feeling, gauge it’s sense of cohesiveness. I need to be disciplined to prevent a flurry of requests for decisions there and then, but I also need to be responsive to any anxieties or worries. Most of all, they’ve got to feel I’m ready to deal with whatever needs attending to.

I’ll also want to catch up with the team leader that’ll have been covering in my absence. I’ll just get the brief lowdown – the profession is rife with story telling (excessively describing case history rather than case situation). My colleague will have made a number of decisions in my absence. I’ll want to know what those are, but under no circumstances will I question them. I have little time for people that second guess my decisions without context, and I give my colleagues the same courtesy. My colleague will have had to take on responsibility for my team at short notice, so it would be unfair and unprofessional to query ‘why’ in this scenario. It’s also a form of procrastination to avoid decisions that need to be made in the future.

There are some bureaucratic issues to resolve, but better to get them done. So personal leave request. I’m also considering an OSH report. I was ill for reasons I couldn’t pin down on an physical illness, but I do know I felt a little better shortly after I left even if some other symptoms developed later that day. I work in a highly pressurised environment and vicarious trauma is common. Yes, I am talking about mental health. An OSH report is the best way to reflect this, and being a social worker I encourage opened about this issue. I am aware of the perceptions (people still call it “stress leave” which to me reflects s form of victim blaming), but the best way to tackle the issue is to call it out.

So that covers it. It sounds like a lot to do in short space of time (less than an hour), but delayed or stretched out process leads to even longer degradation of work. I might as well stay off sick if I’m going to do nothing for the whole morning but focus on the previous two days. In this profession we consistently deal with situations that occur outside of our control; unforeseen crises and dilemmas. The importance in those moments is to absorb the new information, reassess, analyse and make a decision. Personal leave is no different in that scenario as an unexpected event, so there’s no reason to get caught by the swell treading water.

What Corbyn needs to do to be an effective leader

Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign kicked off yesterday, and in some ways it came off more positive than I expected. In other ways though he failed to articulate successfully why he can lead effectively. In some parts he looked almost bilgerent and authoritarian.

There’s already been some interesting analysis of Corbyn’s chances of leading Labour to victory. For the record, it doesn’t look good

So what does he need to do to be an effective leader?

Firstly, he has to be able to build a effective team and manage resources he has. Like most leaders, Corbyn has limited choice over the team he puts together. He can establish a shadow cabinet, and his advisors, but he has no control over who are the MP’s and employees of the Party. 

For this reason he has to be able to show flexibility to engage with the strengths of those around him. Since all team dynamics involve political dimensions, he needs to be sensitive to differing perspectives and opinions. Of course, he’s got to a point where MP’s are no longer disgruntled but are out rightly in opposition to him. This didn’t happen in isolation – Corbyn has been leader for 9 months. If his MP’s are in open revolt he needs to take responsibility and resolve this.

Simply saying ‘I am the leader’ is not enough. There has to be negotiation. Luckily for Corbyn he has some advantage here. Labour is a broad church of left wing, centre and occasionally soft right opinion, but married by common principle. On a lot of issues he needs to negotiate common cause, work out what everyone can agree on and then negotiate on the rest. He needs to apply sensible application of leadership in cases where opinion is intractable (like Trident), or sometimes just make the hard call and say ‘this is what we’re doing’. Note that he can only do this if he has demonstrated a genuine attempt to listen to all sides.

He needs to be responsive. This means being able to make decisions in timely manner. A LOT of MP’s have complained about his inability to do this, with a running theme of non-communicative. I suspect this may be the biggest underlying problem. Ed Milliband had marginally  better but still poor electoral results. A big difference was his engagement with the PLP.

In some regards he has shown adaptability, but in others he seemed woefully dense. It was not sensible to mention selection issues and boundary changes. There was no other way for his critics to see that as anything other than an outright threat.

Another aspect of responsiveness is understanding cause and effect, and a little bit of systems theory. That is, the wider implications of a decision, and knock on effects. It’s important in politics because it’s the difference between a slogan and a policy.

A good example of what not to do lies in Corbyn’s comments about pharmaceuticals. While he was undoubtedly aiming for the leadership race his comments have wider implications. He’s raised the question of whether he wants to nationalise pharmaceuticals in the UK. Maybe he does, but he needs a policy ready to do this effectively – I suspect he hasn’t got one. Also, a large number of employees are union members – the same ones he is relying on for support. I’m not sure he considered all the ins and outs of his comment – it was a cheap hit against his opponent, but in the longer term might have greater drawbacks.

He needs greater innovation. Some ideas, like questions from actual people for PMQ’s, were genuinely intriging. Unfortunately they have limited benefit if applied in a scattergun approach (Corbyn rarely sticks to one or two subjects in PMQ’s so his impact is lost).

He also lacks nuance. When asked about deterrence, Corbyn said he wouldn’t use it. What he could have said is ‘hopefully we’ll never have to find out’. That way he leaves enough doubt about which way he would go, without compromising in his beliefs. Being honest doesn’t mean you have to be openly honest all the time.

This is also an electoral issue. Labour has lost a huge number of voters to UKIP and the Tories. The former probably on immigration, the latter on the economy. It’s not likely that Corbyn is going to sacrifice his principles to appease these voters. Tony Blair would probably have sought some policies to appease theses voters (contributing both to his success and also source of criticism from the left).

So, if Corbyn won’t sacrifice his principles on these issues, he needs to find clever ways to engage on those subjects. He can’t simply ignore the problem (because it won’t go away AND people will think he’s out of touch), and he can’t simply reject the assertion outright (because people generally don’t respond well to being told they are wrong). Unfortunately, this is an area he has struggled with. Without finding a way to deliver effective policy and messaging, he and Labour will go no where.

Corbyn needs to have perseverance on issues. In some respects he’s demonstrated this already – he certainly hasn’t backed out of a bruising fight with his MP’s. In other regards though, he still struggles. For example, he is attempting to bring a different style to the House of Commons arena. That’s fine, but he seems to have gone no where once it became apparent that the Tories weren’t going to go along with this. Now his approach seems weak and ineffectual. He needs to find other ways to put pressure on the Tories about this matter if he wants to make change.

For Corbyn to establish himself as a leader he needs to display qualities well beyond those he has demonstrated. He might have integrity in some regards, but while good leaders need integrity, not everyone with integrity will make a good leader.

I honestly think Corbyn’s biggest problem is his inability to compromise and negotiate with his PLP. Ultimately, party membership doesn’t win elections – only seats in the Commons do. It is the natural focal point of public opinion on political effectiveness, not flash mob rallies of Socialist Worker Party supporters.

He and other MP’s would see eye to eye on many, if not most, issues. The difference is that his approach is leaving something to be desired, and he seems thus far unable to bring the two sides together. Threatening them is not going to resolve his problem – if they think they will be deselected automatically they may take a collective plunge and resign on mass. Extreme behaviour pushes people to extremes. 

Corbyn doesn’t need to compromise on every principle – indeed, if he’s sensible he doesn’t need to compromise on any principle. But he does need to show that he can listen, take on board opinion and respond effectively. Thus far he has failed to do, and his leadership credentials lie in tatters.

Only by making a massive fundamental change to his approach – some kind of epiphany – can he begin to rebuild his party image and establish himself as a genuine alternative to Teresa May, and credible option as PM.