Welcome to my first blog in a while. I’ve been off-the-map for three years. Call it a sabbatical. But, I'm back at the helm of Galatea Consulting Limited for 2023, doing things differently. It's time for some honesty and I want to explain what's been going on for me.
WARNING: this blog contains appropriately offensive language.
In 2020, when the covid-19 epidemic hit the Uk, my head started spinning with how I could make my business work over Zoom. My company specialises in helping good people become epic leaders, and my methods involve getting whole systems in-the-same-room-at-the-same-time to solve real, shared problems. It requires high levels of engagement, inclusion, and participant to participant conversation. How do you do that in your underpants on a laptop? Lockdown meant business-as-usual was no longer an option for me.
In March 2020, I took the decision to step back from my day-job of 22 years, and do something completely different. Something I'd been wanting to do for many, many years.
I went to a grammar school, which is a fake posh school for poor kids, and I was a poor kid from the East End of London. The school excelled at controlling children, and creating conformity through discipline and punishment. The only subject I enjoyed was art, mainly because my homework wasn't returned covered in red pen. And I was good at it, coming second in the whole year at the age of 14, but that was only because the kid who came first got his Dad to do his project, and he was a signwriter.
The school stopped me doing art at 15, because it didnt fit in with their rigid timetables. It left me wondering what school is actually for?
But it wasn't all bad.
We had a lab technician at the school called Terry Chimes. He was the drummer in a Punk band called The Clash, and he came to school in a beaten-up leather biker jacket. He didn't last long. But I loved his attitude, and went and bought a leather jacket, a bass guitar and got into the Punk and New Wave music scene. And, in the 1970's you couldnt have lived anywhere better on this planet if you liked going to gigs to see angry, extremely loud bands screaming that things need to change.
The other reason my time at that dreadful school was not completely wasted was, later in life, I was motivated to get into Learning and Development, probably because I wanted to show those fuckers it wasnt rocket science how human beings learn.
So I spent lockdown immersed in art and pottery. And, to be honest, was pleased to leave the corporate world behind.
18 months later, when furlough money for staying at home stopped, I thought it was time to get back to work. Not just get back to work, but re-join the human race. On a good day, us humans are the most delightfully social animals. And I really hadn’t been. Lockdown put an end to real, face to face social contact; plus I’d given up social media too, existing in a delightful bubble on my own.
My first tentative, social step into the world outside was Facebook. You can laugh. It is ironic. But it is how many people do socialising thesedays. And, on that particular day, it took my breath away.
I was scrolling through the usual Facebook stuff when I came across a post by one of my longest standing friends, Lloyd. It was a photo of him in a hospital gown, and all the post said was ‘In hospital’. He’s not the most expressive person, not when it's about himself. Which is weird because he's had a profound impact on me learning to express myself.
As teenagers, it was Lloyd who always knew where the best Punk and New Wave gigs were happening. He was the leader of our gang and we would follow him anywhere. In the 1970's I got to see some of the best bands ever, who would scream important things at horrifically loud volumes. Then we'd wander home through London in the wee hours of the morning with ears still ringing, eating a kebab. In return, I'd drag him off youth-hostelling, which he generally hated. But we did start our own band. it was dreadful. And I dyed Lloyd's hair pink.
No one ever tells you when you're having the best days of your life. But they were.
Here's the only picture I have of our gang. Taken in a rare socialising moment during lockdown for Lloyd's 60th. Clockwise: me, Lloyd, Robbie, Jeff
Anyways, back to Facebook, I scrolled through the comments on Lloyd’s Facebook post. Everyone was saying ‘get better soon’ and Lloyd was replying ‘thanks’. It wasn’t until about the twelfth comment when someone actually asked ‘what’s wrong with you?’ and Lloyd replied ‘they’re saying it’s cancer’.
Only if you've got nothing better to do
I called Lloyd and had a chat about what was going on. He was coming to London to go to a specialist hospital the following day, and I asked if he wanted some company? He said only if you’ve got nothing better to do.
We ended up spending most of November 2021 going from one hospital to another, speaking to one specialist after another, and drinking copious amounts of Guinness at the end of each increasingly frustrating hospital visit.
On 6th December 2021, we ended up in front of an oncologist in Harlow. An oncologist takes over cancer treatment when the cancer becomes inoperable. Lloyd had inoperable pancreatic cancer and the oncologist told us he had between 2 and 12 months to live.
That night I looked at my finances and decided I could survive 12 months without working, so I would share this journey with my friend. I imagined myself as a Meryl Streep type character, mopping his fevered brow, and feeding him soup. Turns out life isnt quite like that.
12 months later, just before Xmas 2022, Lloyd still looked a lot fitter than me. We had a bizarre conversation which went something like: Unfortunately, mate, you look great, are still very much alive and I’ve run out of money and need to go back to work. Lloyd said no problemo, and flew off to Austria for a skiing holiday.
A lot of the good guys dont advertise the fact
As a slight aside, I hadnt realised many accountants are ethical. Lloyd is an accountant by profession, and his accountancy firm kept him on full salary the whole time he was off having chemo therapy. They even gave him a promotion and a salary raise during his absence, while allowing Lloyd to work as little or as much as he wanted.
Also, my accountant of many years, had been amazing too. He knew what I was doing during my sabbatical, and didn’t charge me any fees for doing my accounts for 3 years. He also sent me books he thought I'd enjoy, by his other clients, always refusing to use Amazon.
It really surprised me because you wont read anything about this on their websites. And, we live in a world where lots of people seem to advertise their virtuous credentials.
Take a high street stalwart like Pret A Manger, for example. Do you give them your money because you think they are the good guys? Well, that big, fake-wood board you'd see when you went inside one of their coffee shops, the one that says we dont use any obscure chemicals in our food... turns out it was a big fat lie. Does that matter? Well, it fooled quite a few people who trusted them, as Pret A Manger branding is designed to encourage you to do, and many ended up dying because their food packaging was covered in bullshit rather than life-saving allergy information.
We all seem to want to work out who the good guys are, and we do want to give them our money, but we live in a world increasingly defined by spin and bullshit. It's not straightforward working out who you can trust.
I had to think long and hard about sharing this story about me and Lloyd. We havent shared any of it so far - no Facebook posts, etc. and that was important to both of us. And I'm really not doing it because I want you to think I'm a good person. I'm greedy, selfish and opportunistic, and that's why I jumped at the chance to have time with my mate.
There are two reasons why I've decided to share it. One I will share at the end. The other is that I couldnt make this story work without him because it's only when you find yourself at the edge of things, like he has been, and been good enough to take me there with him, that life starts making sense.
Making Sense of Life
Three years outside of business-as-usual has irreversibly changed things for me.
1. Life feels all about NOW.
When I was driving Lloyd home after the meeting with the oncologist, we were both quiet, trying to take in what we had just heard.
The thought that visited me in that moment was that I’ve always held on to a notion of a FUTURE ME. A better version of ME that is not like this one; the ME that would be more bullet-proof, and confident, and would have difficult conversations with people rather than in my own head afterwards. A FUTURE ME who wasn’t scared to say things directly to people for fear of upsetting them, who wasn't so addicted to social approval.
What happens when the idea of FUTURE ME is torn away? A bit like a magician removing a tablecloth from a table, leaving everything on the table in place, but on a naked surface? I suspected Lloyd might be experiencing this shocking revelation too.
Luckily, Lloyd doesn’t think like me. He was focussed on the chemo therapy and what he had to do next in his battle with cancer.
But the thought had changed me. It was like someone had written NOW on a shovel and smacked me in the face with it. I was experiencing an immediacy I had not known before. I decided that, for however long I have left on this planet, I will keep behaving myself into this sense of now. I will have the conversations I need to have, even if it upsets people. Because not having them was upsetting me, and my mood matters in a world of NOW.
2. I became more human.
I’d been working from home for 22 years when lockdown happened. That had been hugely beneficial for me. But I'd spent around 30 years of my life inside corporate environments with my work. It wasnt all bad, but it is intense, especially dealing with changes which people rarely want or trust. I hadn’t realised how compressing and oppressive corporate life can be until I spent 3 years de-compressing doing only what I chose.
By 2022 I started noticing I had actual, real feelings. They were messy, untidy, unpredictable things which would often pop up at weird times and overwhelm me. I found myself crying quite frequently.
Prior to my sabbatical, speaking as a man, I could cry at great sporting moments, and on cue in sentimental films, if no one was watching. And, as a psychologist, I think I’d learned to talk a good emotion, but I can’t say for certain I’d ever really felt one, other than anger.
I didn’t see my newfound emotionality as a strength. Not at all. Not at first. I write a pottery blog and started sharing some of what I was going through. Most people were fully supportive, because potters are a good crowd generally. A couple of people asked if I was having a mental breakdown. I didn’t really know what was going on, but felt like a snotty softy and did not know how this would work back inside corporations pursuing my day-job.
In January 2023 I started researching the leadership challenges facing organisations. Most of the people I was talking to were trying to buy resilience training. Maybe that’s what I needed, to toughen me up again?
I now see this trend of resilience training as a desperate attempt by traditional organisations to get their old workers back, rather than deal with the new people coming back to work, who, like me, had been re-humanised by lockdown and were demanding a break from the past and different, hybrid working relationships with their employer.
3. The World is Going To Pot
Every time I turned on the telly during my sabbatical and my time decompressing outside of corporate life, I could not help noticing the world was going to pot.
Going to pot is an old English term that was used for farm animals that were exhausted and no longer fit for purpose.
‘What happened to Dobbin?’.
‘Oh, poor Dobbin couldn’t pull the cart anymore so he’s gone to pot’, which meant to the big, stewing pot.
Every time I turned on the telly I seemed to become increasingly aware of how unfit for purpose most things were in the world around me.
Division, conflict, climate problems, rising sea levels, mass human displacement, insect extinction, soil degradation, the 40-50 more harvests the world has remaining (if we are lucky), the state of work and how badly so many people are treated, our adherence to Victorian factory models of organisation, the endless noise and dazzling words which no longer seemd to relate to the truth claiming we were fixing it all...
I realised all the things I thought were THE PROBLEMS were in fact only SYMPTOMS of a much bigger problem.
THE PROBLEM IS LEADERSHIP
Do you know, around $400 billion is spent on training and developing leaders globally each year? If you heard that fact and lived on another planet, you’d probably want to visit Earth to see what a well-lead planet was like, right?
How would we explain the disgraceful state we are in to our visitors? How do we explain it to our children? Most parents would do anything for their kids, apart from gift them a world capable of sustaining a happy life. Recycling our potato peelings is not really going to cut it.
In the near future, in maybe 20 years time, when we hold trials for Crimes Against Humanity, most of the people in the dock will have an Harvard MBA. And while we keep worshiping these people, and their status, and their statues, we will remain blinded to what they are doing. We all collude with it. I do. And it feels urgent to pull the chain and stop this runnaway train.
Which brings me back to Lloyd. The only difference between me and Lloyd is he pretty much knows what’s going to kill him. I don’t. Not yet. If you are lucky, neither do you. But none of us know when. Not me, not Lloyd, not you. Lloyd's just started a ground-breaking, new antigen therapy. He could well outlive me.
But what we all know is that the way we are doing life on this planet is killing us all. And we know some of the whens too. We just dont seem to be doing fuck-all about it, not in sufficient numbers.
I'm going to start doing something about it. And I will start in my own back yard with my leadership business. I'm joining forces with some amazing people who are responding brilliantly to my new-found honesty and sense of urgency and we will see where it takes us. I hope you will support this new venture, and I will be saying more about it in the coming weeks.
I'm also keen to hear from people doing something similar, no matter what the scale.
My next blog will be focussed on all the people quietly considering their next move. I'm going to revisit how I made a crazy-arsed decision to throw-in a successful career and start my first company 25 years ago. It was completely the wrong time in my life to do it, and I have never looked back. It might help some people do something life-changing too.
Today is my Birthday
I’m writing this on February 23rd 2023, on my 60th Birthday. I’m old by some standards. But, strangely, I feel quite new. I can't shake the feeling I'm just getting started.
I’m fortunate to have my son with me this week, because turning 60 is quite traumatic, and Jack always calms me. And I keep interupting this blog to receive wonderful gifts from people I'm fortunate to have as friends. The gifts keep turning up at my door, via some of the heroic delivery drivers who kept us all going over the last few years, when many of us, the ones who work in corporate environments, started going to work in our underpants on Zoom, and were too scared to go out.
I will encourage LLoyd to read this. He's already agreed a first draft, under some duress. So I'm going to say a big thank you to him for letting me share this story.
Lloyd still says I can tag along to his hospital visits so long as I've got nothing better to do. This is my way of saying: mate, I really haven't had anything better to do than spend more time with you. And, sometimes, the important things worth saying need to be said really fucking loudly.