Monthly Archives: February 2016

Can a Leopard Change Its Spots?

If it can, I can’t imagine how that process would take place, so the answer is, probably, no. However, can people change? Well, the answer to that is a very definite yes and I like to think that I’m living proof of that.

For most of my life I’ve relied on my instincts to see me through. Whether that was how I brought my first two children up, how and why I selected books and albums to buy, how I managed to save and develop charities or write my books. I relied on those instincts and they saw me through with, I like to feel, some degree of success. To me, the real proof was that those instincts worked even when I had little or no previous experience in a particular field of endeavour.  Based on my childhood template of the need to make sense of, organise and create structure, they were both my driving forces and guiding lights and very strong ones at that.

However, despite the successes, there were also downsides. I am, I think, quite an imaginative person who has always, to use the jargon, “thought outside the box”. I also know that, when I let my imagination run free, I can paint pictures such that I can persuade others of my rationale and vision. However, I also know that the need for that structure can hinder precisely that imagination.

One of the areas in which this happened has been in my speaking engagements. Whenever I spoke for the charities I managed, I always used slides. These gave me the structure and allowed me to give my talk in a very freewheeling and easy way. When I started speaking in my own right, however, I very much wanted to do this without such aids and found it difficult. My mind tended to go blank. So, I made use of prompt cards. However, fearful that I might forget something, these themselves became quite comprehensive. What I knew I needed was to break the talk down into four or five headings and just trust myself. Unfortunately, I found the former of these very difficult to do; until very recently.

About to give a talk in Leeds, I was reminded that, instead of what I had assumed would be 20 minutes, my talk would only be 15. How was I to get this sorted out within the next few minutes? Well, that instinct took over and the (very obvious) headings came to me in a flash and I did my talk. Not as well as I’d have like, but I did it without prompts. Yesterday I had to give a talk for half an hour in front of 60 people and, guess what? No prompt cards and a talk that was well received.

I have known about that childhood template, and how it determined my actions, for years. However, discarding it left me without a route map and that has been something I have struggled with recently. Yet the urge to be able to let my imagination roam free, especially in my writing, is strong. So, I will persevere, despite the uncertainty. Can a leopard change its spots? Well no, not really. Can we, as individuals, change the way we behave? You bet we can.

No Reason for Secrecy

One of my clients once said of me “If you’re worried about what the answer might be, perhaps it’s best not to ask Mike the question”. I took that as the complement that is was. In another instance, one of my staff once said that my strength as a manager, stemmed from the fact that I wasn’t afraid to admit my mistakes. It made the staff trust me and, in turn, be honest about their situation. From this, you will gather that I’m inclined to say what I think sooner than what the questioner might like to hear. After all, if people are asking for my advice, I like to think that they want me to give them just that. Why should it be otherwise?

I hope that openness permeates my personal life too. So that, when I’ve had bouts of depression, I’ve never seen any reason to keep that secret. After all, they weren’t self inflicted; in fact, quite the opposite. So, when people have asked me. I’ve told them. It’s something that I’ve never felt any shame or embarrassment about. After all, if I’d had a dose of flu, I wouldn’t have, why should depression be any different?

So, it’s good to see that, at the beginning of the 21st century, people are doing just that; talking about their mental health problems. In my view, this can be nothing other than beneficial; the realisation that others have experienced what you’re going through and that you aren’t the only one. Indeed, one of the most heart warming experiences for me was when a therapist told me that, with the benefit of the knowledge that we now have, many years ago I would have been diagnosed as a disturbed child. It made me feel that it wasn’t my fault and that others had had similar experiences. The definition was an important part of repairing the damage.

I now realise that my first bout of depression occurred when I was 19 and my new wife and I were separated when I was posted back to Germany. 16 years later, when my marriage broke up, it happened again. As it did a further 10 years later, when another relationship ended. This turned into a breakdown which lasted a month. The last one, apart from a very small blip last year, was when I got the sack just before Xmas at the turn of the millennium. In each case, I got over it and then got on with the rest of my life. It’s certainly not a pleasant experience, in fact, it’s a horrible one. However, you can get through it as I’ve done. The secret, if my experience is any guide, is to get to the root causes and deal with them. That, above all else, is a great healer.


Do Ends Justify Means?

Those who know me will know both my political leanings and the football team I support. They will also know that I try to support the idea that the ends don’t justify the means and it is the latter of these that can be problematic in our day to day lives. After all, if I lived in a war zone and my children were starving, then that particular mantra wouldn’t stop me doing whatever was necessary to provide for them. Maybe that’s why I see co-operation as a much better way to run our society than competition. Ironic really because, personally, I tend to be somewhat of a one man band.

That, however, doesn’t mean that I don’t prefer sharing and caring over greed and avarice anyway; the Highest Common Denominator over the Lowest Common Factor. “How can I help?” over “Sod you, Jack”. So how do I equate those views to watching what is, possibly, one of the most competitive and wealthiest of sports? Well. I would argue that it’s as much about teamwork as competition. In fact, I would go further and argue that, while individual talent (Berbatov, Gascoigne, Bale, etc.) is what makes me watch, it’s teamwork that is making the current Spurs’ team so much more successful that any that I’ve watched for much of my life.

So, do ends justify means? Well let’s see what happens at the end of the season before I answer that question?

Map Reading for Beginners

Today’s blog is a fairly straightforward one about just carrying on, no matter what. That’s not to say that life doesn’t throw up more than its fair share of problems; on the contrary, it certainly does. It’s also not to say that, at times, these can’t stop you in your tracks, because they can. It’s just that you do need to keep going as, I like to think that, I’ve done all my life. At the same time, of course, as trying to get to the bottom of what causes your problems in the first place. In my case, these two are now, I feel, showing real results and helping me to make important changes in both my work and in my personal life.

Someone recently explained to me that one of Freud’s concerns was in trying to determine why people often prevented themselves from having what they really wanted to. That’s something I very much relate to and a problem that I’ve have been making real inroads into during the past few months. The results have been extremely satisfying and life changing.

The process was demonstrated when I had a Skype conversation with one of my public speaking colleagues, the lovely Rebecca Jones. Apart from being very supportive, she went through in some detail, what I needed to do to make more of an impact in the particular area of speaking that I work in. Whoever it was who said, “Physician, heal thyself” never spoke a truer word; a point I make as that detail is exactly what I describe to the community organisations I work with when they are tackling things that they’ve never done before. That is to draw out from each person what they have achieved in their lives, identify their goals and then to take them forward in small, manageable steps. To rephrase another cliché “Even a marathon starts with that first pace”.

Well, that’s exactly what Rebecca did for me as well as helping me to see things in a different light. She was also very honest in what I needed to do and what I’m currently not doing in ways that I need to.  For which, many thanks. So, just carrying on is fine; however, you also need to make sure that you are reading the map properly. If you don’t you are hardly likely to get to where you want to be. And, by the way, it’s never too late to try.

The Charity World

I normally blog on a Monday and Friday. However, I am driven to this morning by some proposed legislation and recent comments I’ve read. These relate to charitable organisations, an area that, as a former award winning charity Director, I like to think that I’ve some experience of; 36 years’ experience, to be precise. All of this admittedly in small charities, some local and some national. Each of these operated at the sharp end in our society. In one case helping people who were homeless and unemployed to build their own homes. In the case of that particular charity, we provided our services for free as, by definition, those we supported had little money. So we fundraised to pay for the staff, between one and three people, so that we could provide this service. As a result, when I left the charity, there were about 300 homes and 30 community buildings that, with others, we’d helped to create. Watch the episode of “Grand Designs Revisited” that featured Hedgehog Self Build Group, if you’re interested.

At which point, I make a shameless plug for one of my books, “The Real Big Society and My Part in It” which describes much of this work. This features a chapter, “The Charity World” which does what the title suggests. The figures it uses are from the National Council for Voluntary Organisation’s “UK Civil Society Almanac, 2010”. To save you time I include these below. The Almanac categorises voluntary organisations into five sizes, micro, small, medium, large and major. Of these:

Micro organisations have annual incomes of less than £10,000 each

Small ones have incomes of between £10,000 and £100,000 each

Medium ones have incomes of from £100,000 to £1m each

Large ones have incomes of £1m to £10m each

Major ones have incomes of more than £10m

What is noteworthy is that over half of these (53%) are in the first category where they are unlikely to have any paid staff at all. A further 31.5% are small, 12.5% are medium, 2.5% are large and only 0.25% are major charities. So, approximately 85% of them have annual incomes of less than £100,000. By any definition, they are not large and also, as a matter of fact, won’t be paying their staff excessive salaries. Also interesting were figures relating to the sources of income for these organisations which showed that 78% of all voluntary organisations received no income at all from statutory sources, with such funds that are available going mainly to the larger ones. The relevant figures were:

Micro charities receive 5% of their income from statutory sources

Small charities receive 22%

Medium ones 35%

Large ones 38%

Major ones 37% of their annual income from these sources

So that 53% received just over a quarter of its funding from statutory sources and it had to go through hoops even to get this. What I’m trying to say, in my usual roundabout way, is that voluntary organisations work, in the main, with people who have little, the organisations themselves are small, they don’t pay great wages and, if their staff, if they are like me, don’t even like the concept of charity. I wanted to change lives so that those we helped could help themselves. Just as I did when I started out in the sector as an unemployed single parent on a job creation scheme all those years ago.

Finally (and then I will calm down), in relation to lobbying, I would like to quote Dom Helder Camara, who was the Bishop of Recife in Brazil from 1964 until 1985. He is quoted as saying, “When I feed the poor, they call me a saint, but, when I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist”.

Now having a strong cup of coffee.

In Praise of Young People

There has been a phenomenon since I was young to, somewhat, denigrate the younger generation. Whether they spend too much time at the computer, wear their trousers too low, listen to awful music or whatever else it is that they do that is in danger of bringing an end to civilisation as we know it. Well, much as I worry about the direction in which our society is headed, I don’t buy into this denigration. Young people are, in case you should need reminding, the inheritors not the creators of today’s ills. If, however, you don’t share my views, perhaps you would like to consider the following quote. “When are the young to be silent before their elders? How are they to show respect to them by standing and making them sit? What honour is due to parents? What garments or shoes are to be worn, the mode of dressing the hair, deportment and manners in general?” Sound familiar? Well, it is actually a quote attributed to Socrates who died 2,500 years ago!

When I was young, the newspapers were full of articles complaining about the behaviour of young people. First, it was Teddy Boys, then yobbos, mods and rockers, to be followed by punks, skinheads, hoodies, yardies and chavs; and that’s only in modern times. In the 19th century, it was hooligans, hoodlums and scutters, among others. Indeed, anything that could be used to conjure up a picture of young people in groups so that they could be categorised, stereotyped and shown to be a threat. It’s not real but it sells newspapers and allows the popular press and governments to do what they do best. That is to divert attention away from the real causes of whatever is the current problem. Welcome, because, as you will have seen from the quotes above, you are part of a very long history. The antidote is not to do it yourself.

So, it was good yesterday to play a very small part in a team of public speakers who give their time for free to work with students in secondary schools. In this case, Droitwich Spa High School. It wasn’t the speakers, however, who impressed me as I already knew of their commitment, it was to have my views of young people confirmed so resoundingly by the large number of them who took part with so much energy and enthusiasm. It was also good to see the efforts of the teachers and other school staff who put in a great deal to make it all work. Yet again, a profession that is often the subject of adverse comment demonstrates the inaccuracy of any such statements. Now with a wife who is a teacher, I am aware that I could be accused of bias, yesterday demonstrated that I’m not. After all, you are unlikely to enter a profession that isn’t that well paid, has to try to teach large groups of children and young people from a variety of backgrounds and then spend your evenings in marking, reports, preparation and planning, other than if you want to make a difference.

So, thanks to those speakers, teachers and other staff and the students who helped to reaffirm my faith in humanity. The world may not be in a good place these days but, if yesterday was anything to go by, the future is in as safe hands as it ever was.

Michelangelo’s David

I am, I feel, getting to the end of a long and fruitful journey. And, no, that’s not a reflection on the demise of a number of my generation that have featured in the media recently. It is, in fact, a recognition that my personal journey of sorting out my life is nearing its completion.  Not that the changes that have been wrought will cease to be, nor that I won’t continue to discover things about myself for the rest of my life; at least I hope not. No, it’s just that my life is getting to where I would like it to be and not where circumstance has directed it. I have to say that it’s a very good feeling; an ease with myself that was previously absent. I am, as they say, considerably more comfortable in my own skin. The feeling of comfort that that gives me is something I cherish. If you have always had that, then count your lucky stars. In my experience, it isn’t as common as it could be.

So, how do I know that I’m near the terminus? Well, just a feeling, to be honest. That and a sense of perspective provides me with quite a good handle on my life; both the one I led and the one that I now lead. I used to see these as the two separate parts that they were. I now see them as more of a continuum, albeit with some very sudden and drastic changes of direction along the way. I also know, however, that I behave differently. I am less judgemental, more inclined to let people in although still, somewhat, driven and determined. I am glad to say that, although these latter may have been as a result of my upbringing, they remain with me. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so concerned that I would lose my edge, the essential me, in the process. In fact, I rather like the person that has emerged. I once read somewhere that, when Michelangelo was asked how he sculpted David out of a block of solid marble, said that he just chipped away the parts that weren’t David. In my own small way, I know just how he feels.

I say that because the final process for me appears to involve chipping away. At which point, some explanation may be necessary. You see, when I have tried to get to the root of a particularly difficult problem, a number of things have happened. In some cases, I have felt as if I was in a dense fog which I have had to get through. In other cases, I’ve watched my thoughts drift out of reach so that I’ve lost the thread and not been able to recollect them. Right now, it’s as if I have something hard in my chest that I have to chip away at; as I’m doing. Then again, Michelangelo always was a particular hero of mine, so I’m in good company.

The Joys of Collaboration

I am a bit of a stickler for doing things for myself; my way, self help, if you like. So, when I published my first, and subsequent, books, I did most of it myself at minimum cost. The results are commented on and speak for themselves. That’s not to say that I don’t do my research and check things out, I do. However, what I also do is then is to check through my network of friends to see which of them can help. These are, invariably, people I get on well with who share my values who have friends who are similar. It makes for both a supportive and collaborative network.

This includes speakers, authors, publishers, photographers, designers, graphic artists, video and IT experts and architects, among others. Many have expertise in a number of these areas, something that helps to make the whole process seamless. Interestingly these are often people two generations my junior. The good part of this is that they are much more up to date than I am in their thinking.   Interestingly, many of them are female; a gender I find to be more collaborative just for its own sake.  Their youth also means that they aren’t too set in their ways. Something us old white guys are usually more prone to be. They seem to appreciate my experience and enthusiasm while I appreciate their youthful expertise and their enthusiasm. It works well.

This has meant that, whenever, I’ve wanted to publish a book, create a website, design a business card or book cover, find my way through the maze that is social media and market myself, I’ve usually been able to do so, inexpensively. The past few weeks have been no exception and I’ve recently added two more to my network and, via them, others as yet unidentified.

These young people are helping me in a number of ways; the first of which is practical. However, they also help to reaffirm my belief in the inherent goodness of the great majority of people. The last is in demonstrating the joy of collaborative working. It beats competition any day.