Leader Memos

By Ian Cook


These are SHORT pieces that offer practical tips and useful insights to help managers bring out the best in the people they lead.


• Courage-It Comes with the Leader Job

• To Say “No” or not to Say “No”

• “Negativity 2.0”: The Cynical Employee

• Check in on that Employee’s Level of Engagement

• When You Make an Impact Do They Ever Let You Know?

• Cutting Edge Leadership Development

Courage-It Comes with the Leader Job

March 2017

I have been enjoying the first season of the Netflix production, The Crown. It’s about the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, starting around the time of the death of her father, King George VI.

Early on there is a poignant flashback scene where the King gets his young daughters, Elizabeth and younger sister Margaret, to swear that they will always put one another first. They swear.

Flash forward to Elizabeth on the throne and Princess Margaret deeply in love with Group Captain Peter Townsend, a senior attendant to the British royal household and recently divorced. Margaret asks the queen to consent to Peter and she marrying. Elizabeth, impressed by the depth of her sister’s feelings, pledges to support the marriage, on the condition that the couple wait two years, until Margaret has turned 25 and no longer requires the Queen’s formal consent.

The couple patiently remains apart for the two years. But then a glitch appears. It turns out that, as head of the Church of England, Elizabeth must, constitutionally, support and honor the tenets of her church. One of those tenets: Christian marriage is indissoluble. Elizabeth finds herself in an impossible position.

After days of agonizing over her dilemma, Elizabeth has the excruciating task of informing her dear sister that she cannot now honor the promise she had made. She is not able to give her approval and, furthermore, if Margaret proceeds she will be stripped of her royal privileges and income.

The stab of feeling betrayed cuts into Margaret like a knife. And the agony of guilt floods through the Queen as she stoically standsby her duty as monarch. It’s a powerful scene in the TV series that portrays a pivotal leadership moment calling for high courage and steadfastness from Her Majesty..

The lesson? Leadership is not just about vision, strategic intelligence, and inspiring people to follow. It also, on occasion, calls upon the leader to find within themselves a level of courageous authenticity that others rarely have to demonstrate.

Here are a few examples: Hanging tough when others are losing faith in your stretch organizational goals, turning around a toxic workplace culture, confronting poor performers, and…finding yourself thrust into a point-of-choice situation where either decision will violate your core values and perhaps your very integrity.

Long may you reign, leaders.

Ian Cook

Best wishes,

Ian Cook


To Say “No” or not to Say “No”

January 2017

Are you a “go to” person–too often–in the eyes of your boss?

Are there times when you want to decline a task but don’t know how to say it?

When is it smart to say “Yes?”

We all get extra assignments delegated by our boss. Sometimes they are thankless tasks. Sometimes they are “drudge work.” Sometimes we are genuinely too busy. Sometimes we resent always being the one called upon to step up.

Then again, often assignments carry positive outcomes for us…to learn and stretch, to work with new people, to build our reputation, to do a favor for our boss, to honor the trust being placed in us.

As a general rule, I think saying “yes” whenever you can is a smart career move. It solves your boss’s immediate problem and builds your brand as a team player. Never saying “no”, however, can hurt you in at least two ways:

  1. Jeopardize your ability to deliver on your expected job outcomes and standards.
  2. Build for you a different brand: doormat.

Here’s the audio link to a great podcast (#517, March 2016) from Harvard Business Review IdeaCast. It’s called “Saying ’No’ to More Work.” It will give you lots to think about as you determine how best to respond when someone higher up says to you…

…“here’s something else I’d like you to handle” offer.”

Ian Cook

Best wishes,

Ian Cook


What I’m Reading

An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization,

by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey

I love how this provocative book opens:

Most people are doing a second job no one is paying for. [They] are spending time and energy covering up their weaknesses, managing other people’s impressions of them, showing themselves to their best advantage, playing politics, hiding their inadequacies, hiding their uncertainties, hiding their limitations. Hiding.

We regard this as the single biggest loss of resources that organizations suffer every day.

For whom of us does this not ring true? But imagine what it would be like to work in a place where we didn’t have to operate like this.

An Everyone Culture will appeal particularly to senior leaders whose organization faces a marketplace or domain of service that is fraught with rapid change, uncertainty, and complex forces. The authors challenge enterprises to shift their culture toward one of openness where it is safe to admit when you don’t know and when you have pulled back–out of fear–from taking a strong stand or giving your authentic feedback or point of view.

They present three companies that have achieved this. These firms start with the assumption that people want to learn and get better, are wired to grow. Their way of operating presents learning opportunities every day. Within a culture of unparalleled candidness, all employees engage in helping themselves and others overcome their limitations and blind spots and improve their mastery of increasingly challenging work.

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“Negativity 2.0”: The Cynical Employee

December 2016

It’s one thing to have to deal with a negative team member, one who sees the worst in everything, who dwells on “what’s wrong” rather than considering “what’s possible.” You can gently begin to confront them by asking ask what they would like to see instead.

But what if your employee is not just negative? What if he or she is downright cynical?

Cynicism is a deeper and more virulent form of negativity. The cynic distrusts the motives of other people and expects negative outcomes in most situations. Where the negative person says, “it won’t work” or “he’s not up to the job,” the cynic declares “it won’t work because nothing like this ever does” or “he can’t lead the department because he’s just out for his own self-interest.”

Embedded in the cynic’s words is a feeling of contempt, of bitterness. They express the perceptions of someone who has lost faith in the honorable intentions of others or in a life that can and frequently does generate positive outcomes.

It’s wise to keep in mind, of course, that chronic cynicism in a staff member may well reflect deeper psychological issues that require the services of someone who is clinically trained.

Short of that situation, however, you may try a couple of these approaches:

What causes you to say (or believe) that?

Where did you learn this to be the case?

How can you be so sure (of what you are saying)?

Is it possible that you are missing something in your assessment?

Would you be open to looking at things through another lens? What would it take to consider another point of view?

The strategy here is to first get the cynical employee to see how absolute and unyielding their belief is about the individual or the situation in question. It’s hard to believe but most cynics are not consciously aware of how dogmatic they are. Nor do they realize how their rigid negative views hamper their effectiveness as an employee and team member.

Only when you succeed in raising their awareness of their cynicism and its impact can you invite them to explore alternate versions of the “truth.”

Jack Gibb, the author of the book Trust, said that the key life question is whether or not I trust that the universe is a friendly place. The cynic, sadly, doesn’t.

Ian CookBest wishes,

Ian Cook

sapiens What I’m Reading

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind 
by Yuval Noah Harari.This is not a book about leadership but about the people leaders lead (and are): humans. It provides a wide expanse of our development as a species, through three transformations.First, the Cognitive where we not only experience the physical reality of our environment but the imagined realities of stories, gods, nations, institutions, money, etc. Then, the Agricultural when we settled down in one place, farmed the land, and fostered the emergence of institutions, hierarchy, work specialization, laws, writing, trade, and the ability to feed a huge growth in population. Finally, the Scientific revolution, where humans came to accept that, rather than being at the mercy of the gods, they are capable of making progress through discovery and the manipulation of the elemental forces of nature.The author weaves in the pervading, ultimately global influences of universal “orders”: monetary, imperial (nation states and empires), and religious. It can only help us, as leaders, to better understand the deep-rooted forces of cultural evolution that have come to shape us and the social environment in which we work and live.


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Check in on that Employee’s Level of Engagement

November 2016

You have an employee; let’s call him Jeremy. Jeremy has been a solid performer until this past year when he has been gradually losing energy in his work. He still does an OK job but lacks enthusiasm for it. He’s more going through the motions. He no longer brings new ideas to his work.

But when he talks about the industry, the organization’s challenges, or even another function within the enterprise, you see his old sparkle re-emerge.

The Gallup organization has famously found over the years that roughly only 30% of employees are truly engaged in their jobs. So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Jeremy might be less than involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace. (Gallup’s definition of “engaged.”)

As his manager, what can you do?

You can’t single handedly transform the corporate culture or carve out new promotional pipelines in the company. You can’t get the executive leaders to show that they genuinely care about all the staff.

But you can start by reaching for the low hanging fruit. You can talk with Jeremy about his current job. Here are several questions to consider asking:

  1. What part of your job do you like the best? What parts give you the most satisfaction? What is it about these aspects that you like?
  2. When you feel happiest in your work, what part of your job are you doing?
  3. What part do you like the least, tasks perhaps that you tend to avoid or do not look forward to?
  4. What’s missing in your current job that, if present, would make it stimulating/fulfilling/challenging. (pick one or more)
  5. If you could alter your job to make it more attractive to you, how would you change it?

These set you up for a conversation about what’s working (#1 & 2), what’s not working (#3), and what needs to be changed (#4 & 5) if Jeremy is to become re-engaged in his work.

Of course, it may not be possible to redesign his existing job sufficiently. But, then again, it may. Either way, you will have started him thinking about what’s present and what’s missing for him.

And you will have interrupted his doldrums and invited him to take accountability for his lack of engagement. Now both of you are in a position to explore what’s possible to help this essentially good employee get on the productive path once again.

Ian Cook

Best wishes,

Ian Cook


The Seventh Sense: Power, Fortune, and Survival in the Ae of Networks by Joshua Cooper Ramo What I’m Reading

The Seventh Sense: Power, Fortune, and Survival in the Age of Networks
by Joshua Cooper RamoYou hear a lot of talk about the unpredictable environments in which today’s leaders must operate. A popular catch-all term to describe this is VUCA: volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity. Working effectively in such an environment is, in fact, what leader development using The Leadership Circle Profile is designed to address.This book offers a look at what we will have to deal with in the several decades that lie immediately ahead of us. Leaders (and all of us, for that matter) are facing the profound and accelerating impact of the unseen forces of our connectivity across the planet. The author likens the human adjustment this will demand to the shift Europe experienced in the enlightenment and all of humankind went through in the industrial revolution.What he calls the Seventh Sense is the ability to look at any object, institution, established procedure, group, etc. and see how it is being changed by connections.This book will scramble your existing perspective about the future of power and its distribution in all areas of society, including the space in which your organization operates. An important new awareness, especially if you are a senior leader or expect to become one some day.


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When You Make an Impact Do They Ever Let You Know?

August 2016

Recently I delivered a plenary presentation at a conference of managers. The title of my talk was “Developing Leaders…on Both Sides of the Skull.” In it I stressed the importance of developing both the “outer game” of skills and behaviors as well as the “inner game” of assumptions and beliefs that drive the leader’s outer behavior.

I told a story about Sally.

Sally was a manager I had coached who was extremely complying, what we would call a “super pleaser.” Her belief was that, above all else, everybody had to like her and think positively about her all the time.

As a consequence, she would not confront poor performers about their work. She avoided delegating legitimate tasks to her staff for fear that they would become angry with her. But she wasn’t a happy camper herself because she ended up staying late and taking work home…the work of others.

In her coaching we explored these assumptions and the negative impact they were having on her and on her department. She decided to take a courageous step and assertively address the poor performance of an employee. She also handed off some tasks to other staff. To her great surprise they did not push back angrily but received the feedback well and the work handoff without complaint. And here’s the best part: they began to respect her and work harder…for her!

After my presentation a woman approached me and said, “I want to thank you for your speech. I got a lot out of it.” I said, thank you, I’m glad you did.” “No no,” she said, “you don’t understand. You see, I am a Sally and I realize now that I don’t have to be that way.”

My heart jumped into my throat. When she moved on I thought to myself, “Man, this is exactly why I do this work. I wonder how many others in the audience today were touched by my talk but never came forward to tell me. Probably more than I realize”

It’s not just speakers who get to make a difference in people’s lives. Managers do too. And they have many more opportunities than a single keynote.

Ian Cook

Best wishes,

Ian Cook

Neuroscience for Leadership: Harnassing the Brain Gain Advantage by Tara Swart, Kitty Chisholm, and Paul Brown What I’m Reading

Neuroscience for Leadership: Harnassing the Brain Gain Advantage
by Tara Swart, Kitty Chisholm, and Paul BrownOne of the truly cutting edge areas of leadership development has emerged from the field of brain science. I like how the authors position this book as but a snapshot of where neuroscience is today, a step along the journey of an emerging domain of study. Where there is “sufficient clustering of evidence and scientific consensus” they layout what the current agreements lie.They offer a fairly comprehensive coverage of how the brain operates with respect to humans in a leadership role. The brain is concerned first and foremost with safety and survival…to sustain the species, of course. So, we learn a lot about how neurotransmitters respond to perceived threats. Inside our cranium a boss’s expressed displeasure is no different from threat of a physical assault.There are lots of practical tips. For example, to enable our brain to make good decisions, it needs us to be reasonably relaxed, hydrated, engaged in a good balance between intuition and rationality, and able to regulate our emotional states. Each chapter provides an extensive checklist of actions we can take to improve our brain functioning so that we can be happier and wend our way more efficiently through our lives.


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Cutting Edge Leadership Development

April 2016

I want to alert you to a significant book that was recently published on the topic of developing leaders. “Oh wow,” you say, “one more book on leadership…I can hardly wait.”

Whoa, push your pause button. This is definitely not just “one more book.”

Mastering Leadership: An Integrated Framework for Breakthrough Performance and Extraordinary Business Results

This is the culmination of, combined, over sixty years by Bob Anderson and Bill Adams observing and working with leaders, intensely studying leader development, and assembling a truly cutting edge body of knowledge on the subject.

What they have created is a practical roadmap for raising the capacity of managers in any organization to deal effectively with the increasing complexity of the environment in which they must lead. The challenge is that this complexity is growing more rapidly than our leaders are!

In a tour de force the authors have integrated a number of significant theories and research results into a unified framework. Think of thought leaders like Peter Block, Robert Fritz, Karen Horney, Peter Senge, Robert Kegan, Dan Goleman, and Ken Wilbur. A piece of each of their pivotal works is embedded in the authors’ Universal Model of Leadership.

If you fall into any of the following groups, I strongly suggest that you get hold of this book:

  • Senior leaders who are…
    • looking to grow your own effectiveness
    • interested in fostering the level of collective effectiveness of their top team to where it becomes a significant competitive advantage
    • concerned about the ability of their current leadership pipeline to generate high quality future leaders who will sustain and grow the enterprise
  • Functional specialists in talent development or HR
  • Designers and coordinators of high potential leadership programs
  • Consultants, trainers, OD specialists interested in keeping on the cutting edge of this exciting field.

Here’s my suggestion to optimize your reading time:

The first five chapters, up to page 86, provide a good overview of the model and layout the strong link between (1) leadership effectiveness and (2) business/organizational performance.

Chapters 8, 9, & 10 cover the two key stages of leader development, Problem-Reacting and Outcome-Creating.

Chapter 11 lays out six essential leadership practices that will bring out the best in a leader and move him or her to a higher stage of adult development and, hence, effectiveness with those he/she leads.

We are now focusing our work in leader development using the LeadershipCircle model, 360º profile, and their suite of related tools and programs.

Once you have read Mastering Leadership, I invite you to contact me to discuss the ideas and approaches that registered most–and least–with you.

Ian Cook

Best wishes,

Ian Cook

A Mind for Business by Andy Gibson What I’m Reading

A Mind for Business: Get Inside Your Head to Transform How You Work
by Andy GibsonTruth be told, this segment this time should be called “What I’m About to Read.” I only recently started this book but it looks like a good one on an important topic. I stumbled on it from hearing the author Andy Gibson on a podcast from the RSA (British)I like how he takes us “under the hood” of our skull and into how we think, decide and interact. His chapters cover feeding your mind, mastering your moods, getting motivated, handling pressure, knowing yourself, training your mind, making smarter decisions, influencing people, working collaboratively, and thinking creativelyHe combines modern neuroscience and psychology to uncover habits and practices that help us thrive in our organizations and our lives. The content is broken up within the chapters into short pieces of only a page or so, accompanied by numerous visual representations of the key points being made.

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