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Developing A Challenge Mindset

19 May

Last week I had the pleasure of presenting at the Elevate conference held at the Excel Arena, London, along with my colleague Professor Marc Jones and Dr Hannah Macleod, a Gold Medal winner from the Rio Olympics with GB women’s hockey. The subject of our talk was based on developing a challenge mindset, and I’ll summarize some of the key points below from my perspective.

Success is an interaction of skills and the environment (with some luck thrown in). Success can make us overly focus on our skills whilst paying little attention to the environment. This results in a belief that skills are operating independently of the environment, and\or have control over the environment.

Accepting that success is an interaction of skills with environment, then changes to the environment, no matter how small, can begin to affect the outcome of skills. If the effects are not initially significant, then they can be explained away, reinforcing the over focus on skills and continuing the lack of attention to the environment. This can take group culture from a positive place to a closed and defensive place, resisting change and alternative perspectives.

To avoid this situation, befriend negativity. This means that even when performance is going well and the environment is stable, imagine what could go wrong, no matter how big or small, and practice how to deal with these situations. In other words, befriend your worse fears. Doing so reduces aversion when faced with unexpected events, maintains an open mind, and places a mindful focus on the relationship between skills and the environment.

Hannah provided excellent examples of how GB women’s hockey were constantly generating “what if scenarios” to plan for unexpected and negative events. The results for Hannah and her team speak for themselves.




Leadership Lessons from 1982 and 2012

12 Dec

I write this article in collaboration with my colleague, the psychologist, Matt Slater. Matt’s been conducting insightful research into leadership, particularly around how leaders maximise the potential of teams. In this article we share our views and research to discuss the relationship between leadership and autonomy.

Way back in in 1982 Tom Peters and Robert H Waterman published the best seller In Search of Excellence, which is to date the biggest selling business book of all time. The book focused on explaining the 8 characteristics (identified by Peters and Waterman) which excellent performing businesses (at the time) exhibited. Despite the book’s over simplification of business practices taken from temporary market leaders it inspired a lot of people to action, and got individuals, teams and organisations trying different things. The book is now quite dated; however, there is one part of it that particularly stands the test of time- the relationship between leadership, values and autonomy.

Peters et al (1982) argue that if leaders promoted no more than four values and then communicated these values clearly, then decision making could be diffused widely throughout the organisation. It could be diffused because these values would establish boundary conditions for the framing of decisions, a context in which to make sense of situations and define choices. As long as the values were transparent, then talent, initiative and innovation would flow in the right direction. Moving on from 1982, it’s possible to argue that Peter’s et al style of thinking on values, deliberately or coincidently, made a significant impact 30 years later in London. There is possibly no sharper example of a team made up of talent using values to realize the potential of that talent than Team GB in the 2012 London Olympics, an area Matt has researched significantly.

Bringing the group together to work as a collective entity is at the crux of leadership. Indeed, the effectiveness and longevity of leadership hinges upon leader’s capability to galvanise the group’s energies and abilities to collaboratively achieve an established vision. One prominent approach in which leadership can be optimised in this way concerns the creation of a shared team identity.

In one of our leadership studies we examined prominent leaders (e.g., performance directors, TeamGB Chef de Mission) at the London 2012 Olympic Games. It was clear that successful leaders created a collective vision with their team that is achieved through strong team identity and shared values. Here’s an example from Sir David Brailsford (TeamGB Cycling performance director):

I think we should be proud of the crazy attention to detail that this team will go to in preparation for the Games, for the innovation that we will try and show and when we are really really under pressure and the guys have got their backs against the wall, they’ll come out with that true British spirit and fight.

This shared sense of identity centred on preparation, innovation, and British spirit results in a feeling of oneness, where the team feel that they are part of something bigger; a higher purpose, a collective vision they are contributing to; a legacy. Such teams are more resilient because personal fulfilment and achievement is now attached to team fulfilment and achievement meaning individuals wholeheartedly give themselves to the group cause. Further, leaders who create a shared team identity are empowered with the responsibility of shaping group members’ attitudes and behaviours. Speaking to this point, research in our laboratory has demonstrated that when individuals feel a sense of belonging to the group their thoughts and actions align with group values. At London 2012 leaders discussed values including preparation, innovation, and accountability, and challenged their athletes to epitomise these values to achieve performance excellence on the Olympic stage.

So what lessons are there for organisations from 2012 and 1982? The core remains identical- Leadership expresses values, values direct talent, talent creates a culture and the culture defines the identity of the people who are part of it. The lesson from 2012 is the acknowledgement that talent and autonomy alone are not enough. Yes, giving talented people the space to innovate and develop is essential, but that space can be suffocating without the values and the corresponding sense of identity to give it meaning. Values create an “at hand” contextual framework people in an organisation can apply to make sense of situations. Without this framework, people can put significant energy into projects and ideas but suffer the anxiety of never quite knowing if they are moving in the right direction, or their efforts are appreciated.

One strategy for leaders to communicate values explicitly and work through, rather than over, teams to develop and embed these values. Leading through groups empowers employees and aids clarity in what’s asked of them in a way that reduces unhelpful stress. Further these values as the framework for employees’ behaviour should align with where the group is heading; the collective vision. In other words, day-to-day mobilisation within the shared values framework progresses “us” towards our vision. An additional strategy that has been implicit throughout the discussion so far is the use of use collective language. In our study it was clear that the successful Olympic leaders bestowed the remarkable achievements of TeamGB on the collective, they used language such as “us” and proposed that “we” had created history. This functions to further strengthen the group bond.

The use of language to link action to a higher purpose is demonstrably effective, and can be used to communicate a maximum of four values across the organisation. Leaders must exemplify these values; they must be consistent and not contradicted. Once the values become embedded as norms it will provide people with the confidence to act, particularly when they are given autonomy and the space to use their talent.


Slater, M. J., Coffee, P., Barker, J. B., and Evans, A. L. (2014). Promoting shared meanings in group memberships: A social identity approach to leadership in sport. Reflective Practice: International and Multidisciplinary Perspectives, 15 (5), 672-685.

Slater, M. J., Barker, J. B., Coffee, P., and Jones, M. V. (2014). Leading for Gold: Social identity leadership processes at the London 2012 Olympic Games. Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise, and Health, e-pub ahead of print, doi:10.1080/2159676X.2014.936030

Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman, Jr., In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies (New York: Warner Books, 1982), pp. 223-24, 286

Decision Making Deconstructed- The South African Martial Artist and Coach, Rodney King

31 Jan

Rodney King is a pioneer in combat sports. Acting in response to the ultimately self-destructive “sink or swim” attitudes of most boxing and mixed martial arts gyms, where only the toughest and fittest survive, Rodney King reassessed the role of combat as sport in modern society. Rodney decided to look into our human past to rediscover the role martial arts and trained combat played in ancient societies. Perhaps counter intuitively for most, this took the coach into a mental first approach to fighting which had originally built the fighting arts, but had long since been forgotten.

As a decision making researcher and former boxer I was particularly interested in interviewing Rodney King. He had made the decision to do things differently in a sport which seeks to maximise the trappings of testosterone. This is what I wanted to find out- what were the reasoning strategies the coach employed? What did he notice which others ignore? What information does Rodney pay particular attention to and how does he use it? These questions underpin the structure behind any decision, so they would provide me with insight on Rodney and add another layer to my experience as a researcher. But beyond that, because a different innovative path had been chosen, there would be insight present in both decision making and innovation which anybody, operating in any domain, could benefit from. In this article I’ll be outlining the insights I got from speaking to the man himself and how his thinking has cross domain relevance.

Growing up Rodney lived in a tough part of South Africa where violence and fear of violence were a constant factor. As a fighter, despite a winning record and the all-important reputation, he lamented he still didn’t feel any more confident than he did back surviving a tough neighbourhood growing up. The anxiety of attending a tough gym and maintaining both his status and performance went way beyond what a sport should feel like. Rugby is a tough, tough sport for example but the training environment, despite the occasional flare up, doesn’t generate the same thought processes- faced with another man in a confined space, am I going to make a mistake and get knocked out, with everybody watching, and my reputation lost.

Rodney attacked this problem with a focus on fundamental human behaviours, what do people naturally do as oppose to what do we expect them to do and what lessons can history teach us on the subject. Following this thinking through, he built a new system of boxing by asking questions such as- how do humans naturally behave when they are being attacked? The answer to this was the foetal position, a form of instinctive covering up. If this instinct could be threaded into a structure of defence, then a means of staying safe and calm under fire would come naturally, and if you can find a way of staying safe and calm then it’s far easier to learn and enjoy yourself. This was a foundation of Rodney’s Crazy Monkey Defence style- an easy to pick up, but highly effective form of boxing built on natural responses and defence.

One of the most interesting aspects for me of Crazy Monkey has been Rodney’s re-examination of the martial artist, a counter cultural aspect of his training system which is the reverse of combat sport’s prime focus on winning. When we talked Rodney discussed the samurai culture at length and its impact on his system.

The samurai were not just a fighting force of highly skilled warriors; they used martial arts to hone all aspects of their life. The patience and structure of the tea ceremony were as integral to their identity as the katana. The tea ceremony teaches the practitioner patience, focus and a form of situational awareness essential in combat.

Rodney explained how he now seeks to bring back the notion of the martial artist, the antithesis of the current perception of a fighter. For Rodney the fighting arts should be able to improve every aspect of a person’s life, not leave a person sat at their desk terrified at the thought of the night’s training session- that kind of stress diminishes a person’s life. In the same way that the samurai culture through its associated practices (such as the tea ceremony) prepared a warrior for both life and battle, Rodney’s coaching now focuses on building better people through the concept of the martial artist or embodied warrior.

On this subject Rodney talked of how important a form of mindfulness was in sparring-staying in the present and not getting caught in negative and distracting events from the past or predictions from the future. This lesson, he observed, benefits his students as much in their professions as it does in their training. Focusing techniques, such as calligraphy and the tea ceremony had been the foundation of eastern martial arts centuries ago, a means of maintaining flow and staying in the present. These techniques would seamlessly flow into all aspects of a samurai’s life and this is now a cornerstone of the Crazy Monkey system- a continuum of mental and physical training designed to impact positively and instinctively on a life.

So, what decision making lessons can we pull from Rodney King?

Firstly, analogues are a highly effective problem solver and innovation generator. Rodney paid attention to the fact that despite success martially, there was a mental shortfall in the type of training he was using. To fix the problem Rodney looked around for examples of where this issue had been resolved before. An avid scholar, he had access to many analogues he could draw from to adapt a solution- a return to the roots and practices of martial arts where combat was designed to enhance all areas of life, not just martial skills. The take away here is that when you encounter a problem look for analogues from across other domains or eras and adapt it to your own domain\ time and problem. This is the key to true innovation- identifying cross links between domains.

Secondly, focus on what people do naturally. One of the drivers behind Rodney creating new techniques was to examine what humans naturally do when physically attacked and then aim to support them. Instead of imposing techniques, procedures and processes onto people, support their natural decision making by examining what works well naturally- what good practices are instinctive and tacit and how can these be supported, developed and shared?

Thirdly, situational awareness is crucial. Maintaining a mindful state which leads to flow (an instinctive carryout of a task to high level which is absorbing but requiring almost no thought) lies at the centre of Rodney’s teaching. Situational awareness, the ability to intuitively spot cues and patterns and apply them to actions and consequences is a cornerstone of decision making. Practice your decision making through scenarios derived from real life incidents (this is the equivalent of sparring) to improve your ability to spot the subtle cues and patterns. These are essential to gathering understanding from, and staying focused on, the present.

With thanks to Rodney King, a true pioneer and renaissance man