Sisyphus & the 3 Stooges…

I can’t believe it, I’ve gone and done it, but it’s @SionCharles fault, he made me do it. He asked me to write an article about visible leadership in relation to the current crisis. He was after something suitable for posting via The Bevan Commission and I tried to be polite, but it all went Worzle Gummidge and the grumpy head took over. There is a polite bit at the end, he can have for free, but to be perfectly honest, it works better with the Gummidge.

Just to put the request into perspective, anyone who has followed my blathering over the years, will be left in no doubt that I’m not a disciple of the ideology. You know the one: it says leaderism is the answer to everything; all good things are down to good leaderists; and all bad things down to the wrong flavour of leaderism. Click on the picture to prove it.

Over the past twenty years, the fads in management have been furiously matched by the fashionable updating of the prefix adorning the Leaderism ideology. The flavours go from heroic, to visionary, connected, distributed, authentic and compassionate all the way down to bloody visible – and that’s a pretty low bar. At the moment the fad is for Systems Leaderism whereby, everybody is a leader of some flavour or other, which basically means nobody is. If everyone is busy leading nobody is following and come on, that’s got to be the base unit. Unless you are really lost in the world of leaderism – heading off on a personal mastery retreat to wax your secret bits onto a personality questionnaire – you have to admit to it all being, just about as scientific as astrology.

In my daily mooch around t’interwebs, I’ve also detected an early rise in leaderists slithering around the edges of COVID19 – my bullshit radar is finely tuned to such things. I can already envisage the tsunami of nonsense rumbling in the distance, ready to wash over the post-pandemic landscape. Just at the point when we’re least able to resist its onslaught, they’ll come crashing in, claiming all good things during the crisis were the result of leaderism. The confirmation bias is equally nascent.

So what on earth useful, have I got to say about leaderism. Well in my business, supporting people actually immersed in the work, I mostly speak to practitioners and participants, which importantly includes those in receipt of the work. Overwhelmingly in their opinion, the primary and most common problem that prevents the important things from getting better on their own, is vacuous bloody leaderism. I don’t think it is. Ignorance and incompetence and conspiratorial maintenance of the status quo, play a large part and of course, it doesn’t help the leaderists case when their only answer to shit leaderism, is more bloody leaderism. It’s like trying to cure syphilis with a dose of the clap. In my mind, you need to know your friends, but love your enemy. So I follow it, sidle up alongside it and study it closely, so that I can give everyone the tools necessary, to cut the idea to bits.

Despite poking fun at it, I’m not saying there’s no use for leaderism. Occasionally we all need somebody we trust, to take charge. It’s just that my experience of leaderism in action, has never aligned with the nonsense that the proselytes all spout about it. The actual experience I have of people dealing with the tough stuff when it matters most, is the literal and figurative antithesis of their ideology. I’ve come to deeply respect what I see, as people willingly come together, join in, in whichever way they can, to do the work at hand. Leadership is beaten every time and at every turn, by old school Partnership.

So I hear the word leadership and I‘m left with the enduring vision of some smug sphincter pursed across an overinflated ego, chuffed to bits with its own superiority. Saying that, in my 30 year career, I’ve worked closely with eleven fabulous and enduring leaders. So what have they got, that the others were obviously lacking.

The 3 Jobs

Before I can expand upon that sweeping statement, I need to introduce a little short code that I was taught by a cantankerous old mentor. And by that I do mean old, elderly, aged, bloody prehistoric, but still alive and up to her wrinkly forehead in wisdom. No doubt, I’ll be vigorously corrected if I get any of this wrong, but here goes. There are actually five jobs but two of them can’t really be classed as gainful employment:

Job1 - Hands on the Tools. These people are the work, they are the whole reason that the job or the organisation exists. Job1 faces the punter and builds, creates, grows or delivers the things of value. People in this job usually have a great deal of respect for one and other and treasure longstanding interpersonal relationships - you cannot buy those. More importantly, rank is irrelevant compared to experience, although they sometimes align. Wipe a poorly bottom with dignity, or glue a neuron with a robot, they are considered equally moral, if not socioeconomically so, in the eyes of Job3. Good people in Job1 are not leaders, they are good nurses and doctors, cooks and cleaners.
Job2 - Hands on the Space. Traditionally the best Job2 people started out in Job1 and in healthcare that can be clinical, administrative or ancillary. However these people were drawn to facilitating the master at work, rather than mastering the work. With a deep respect and appreciation for Job1, they learnt how to manage the environment around the work. Keeping the doors open and the lights on, Job2 is as committed to serving Job1, as Job1 is to serving the punter. Now before you start, that is not servant leaderism, it's considerably more pragmatic than that. Job2 people have over the decades, developed a fantastic set of knowledge and skills all of their own, but the best are context specific: they know how to manage a particular thing, in a particular place. Job2 is treated like some kind of dirty secret in the past of some Job3 and bullied by the others, who see their capability to actually get things done, as a threat. Good people in Job2 are not leaders, they are good managers and negotiators, planners and organisers.
Job3 - Hands on the money. I don't really have to explain this one, you all know what I mean. Despite this, the leaderists will insist that leaderism is not about rank, or power or an extravagant salary: it is about a set of universally beautiful behaviours, wrapped up in fashionable words, delicately whitewashed over an unarticulated and enduring fear of diversity. Trouble is, the result of all that crap, is to provide the corporate climbers with everything they need for a successful interview. After 25 years of leaderism and according to the research, 1 in 4 at the top of organisations is a nasty Narcissist, whereas in the population at large, they are about 1 in 250. Then there's the Peter Principle and if you are having trouble spotting who that is, I may have some bad news for you. Then there’s the one who has no idea what’s really going on ever, surrounded in a fog of lickspittle and well polished noses. The only type of person who'll put up with a sycophant, is another one. Once you’ve identified those 3 Stooges who have never been any good at Job1 or Job2, if you’re lucky, you're left with the 1 in 4, who is worth paying attention to. Good people in Job3, are trusted by the good people in the first two.

There are all kinds of people in the three Jobs and so there should be – these are not caricatures. OK the 3 Stooges in Job3 are caricatures, but mostly Jobs 1, 2 & 3 are done by lots of different types of people, coming from lots of different places, to work alongside each other. Each one with an unique cocktail of strengths and weakness, the diversity is the real asset, especially in times of change and uncertainly. I feel like I’m doing the 3 Stooges a disservice, but I’m using the word in its sense of those, at the butt of the joke.

Now I’ve been around long enough to learn that there are some things that fail routinely, by surprise. Every now and again, there’ll be a proper mess, you might not know exactly when or where, but it will happen and fairly regularly. To the 3 Stooges, it all comes as a complete surprise and you can usually find them running around, getting their Calvin’s in a twist. Fortunately, there are others in sensible pants, who don’t panic.

Crisis Response…

In the day to day job, all three generally turn up and crack on with whatever they crack on with. However, in a crisis there are different ways of doing things. The most important Jobs – the key workers – keep going or at least attempt to, typically in the face of extraordinary circumstances that make it all much harder to do. Some Jobs change a bit, other Jobs disappear temporarily, while there are more important things to do, like saving the life and protecting the vulnerable. Other less useful jobs disappear and never come back, which is usually a good thing, as long as the baby doesn’t go with the bath water. In any crisis the first three questions are critical.


Q1 Has anybody died?

It’s the only thing you can’t fix and quickly puts a sense of scale into everyone’s mind.

Q2 Is anybody about to die?

It’s the thing you must fix first and quickly puts a sense of urgency into everyone’s mind.

Q3 Is anything likely to change answers 1&2?

Answering this one means the response has already begun and if preceded by two No’s, the panic is over and the picnic begins. Pour the wine and pop up the flip-chart, everything else we can fix.


Now don’t get me wrong, even when lives haven’t been lost, those involved can still be left facing seriously dangerous incidents, requiring frighteningly complicated responses. Fortunately, we’ve already got some amazing emergency services, who for the most part, know exactly how to work together when the shit, hits a major fan:

The Scene is traditionally led by the Fire Service. It’s their job to make the place safe enough to rescue people and then to prevent any further deterioration. First response teams take point until a specialist in the scenario turns up, albeit that the leading hand, remains in charge of issuing instructions.

The Field is traditionally led by the Police. Their main job is to secure the scene and make sure no bloody idiots add to the mess. Controlling all access and egress they are perfectly placed to facilitate any additional resources required at the scene. The field can be closed, rigid and tight, or open, flexible and loose, depending on the scenario.

The Incident is traditionally led by the Ambulance service. Mainly because historically their communications networks were the biggest and the best. Their main job is to be on their marks, just around the corner to communicate at a larger scale and ensure that the wider system is prepared for what is about come their way. When it’s ‘safe enough’, Fire tell Police to let in Ambulance and if you are still alive, they will all do their very best to keep it that way.

This is old school incident coordination and the words in italics are my own. Depending on the nature of the incident, whether it’s civilian or military and within the context of its occurrence, different words and jobs are used, but the structure is pretty universal. Rather than described in service terms, I’ve also seen the same structure defined in all kinds of ways, some traditional like above and some seemingly very peculiar, to a lay observer. A fairly common version, usually advocated during off-the-shelf major incident training, is to deploy the structure through the segregation of roles, which happens to broadly align with Jobs 1, 2 & 3:

Bronze Command is on scene. It’s Job 1 with all the people who can do the work, doing the work as normal, albeit in abnormal or extraordinary circumstances.

Silver Command is in the field. It’s Job 2 with all the people providing all the support and resources for Job 1 to keep going, when it matters most.

Gold Command is at a distance. It’s Job 3, with all the people influencing at a larger scale to communicate out and secure the resources deployed by Silver and chosen by Bronze.

I learnt most of this stuff operationally as it happened, but also did some work with a well known ex-military type, providing advice to various strategic partnerships. He was steeped in decades of Emergency Response and Crisis Management. He also told some fabulous stories over a beer, about the origins of various safety and risk management practices, many of which were Napoleonic. That’s a whole other blog, but he reckons the idiots get it completely arse backwards with indecision at a distance and those in the thick of it, left with no influence. Did I mention COVID19!

He reckoned that the Commands were originally Iron (axes), Bronze (bows) and Silver (swords). Gold was originally Top Brass, invented to keep the bloody idiots as far away from the dangerous stuff as possible. Typically on a hill overlooking the battle, their positioning was intended to ensure that if all was lost, the enemy could easily spot them. I don’t care if it’s not true, the sentiment is too good to lose. Anyway, never believe the stories of heroic kings, they mostly survived to write the story, by fleeing not fighting.

Again I get this enduring vision of Gold Command in a bunker somewhere with a map table flanked with a brood of SuperChickens all furiously pecking at buttons and scratching at levers, not attached to anything. Like an industrial shed, full of beds, with no staff! The worst one of these I’ve ever met was a sort of novice combination of the 3 Stooges. He emerged from his first ever Gold Command training, telling everybody at every opportunity, how he’d found his true calling. He bought himself a pair of gold baubley cuff-links in celebration and would creepily fondle them as he talked about it. The staff nicknamed him Goldenballs and when the next crisis struck land, he ducked out and left others to carry the can.

3/4 Dropping the GoldenBalls…

Sorry, I got to go there now. I have to expand on the 3 Stooges in Job3. Yes they are horrible caricatures, but you need to be able to spot them in a crisis, as they’ll be heavily camouflaged in their corporate colours. My intentions are honourable, I simply want to help you get good at spotting the 1 in 4 who is worth following, especially when lives are at stake!


The Narcissist will be loving the crisis. Taking charge of all sorts of stuff they don’t care about, shouting orders and blaming people they don’t like for irrelevancies, as though they caused the entire problem in the first place. Homosexuals and atheists cause floods and hurricanes, didn’t you know. Whipping up massive distractions, it’s all about their ego and being shameless, manipulating their position of power to personally profit from the suffering of others. Of course, attempting to inflict command and control type instructions upon a mess, always creates a slightly bigger mess. They get creepily aroused by the mention of war and battles and enemies and in any conversation these despots are perpetually just moments away from Godwin’s Law. Secretly they’d like to think they caused the crisis and will do everything they can to keep it going, Trumphantly (spelt correctly)!


The HappyClappy will be volunteering for everything. Publicly flagellating with the organisation’s expressed values and prone to bursts of frenetic applause, they’ll be unilaterally doing things at lesser people. Feeding the homeless, visiting the impoverished, bagging donations, crying at the drop of a hat, adorning themselves in wristbands while painting their windows in rainbows and being suddenly spiritual about pictures of birds flying over lakes, at sunset! Lost in whatever tickles their fancy, they are just one pointed question away from medieval self-righteousness toward anybody not equally mortified by everything. So wrapped up in their desperate attempt to prove their worth, you dare not mention that their day job has disappeared overnight and it made no difference to anything, at all. Their normal contribution to the team being in double digits, to the negative, they bounce from one catastrophe to the next with no loss of enthusiasm. Despite their expressed best intentions, these extraordinary Pygmalions refuse to face reality and just end up annoying the arse off pretty much everyone in Jobs 1&2, with proper work to get on with.


The Sycophant will have disappeared off into Comms. Not the sort of communications done by the pros – collating data, doing the critical analysis and beautifully articulating it all: in an appreciative dialogue to ensure that everyone is well informed, for the decisions they will need to make. No not that kind. These obsequious little toads will be hiding in the background, taking responsibility for nothing, which by the way, perfectly aligns with what they are actually capable of. Their entourage of junior sycophant-ees will be sneaking around and looking for anything remotely good to type up for their sycophant-or, to hand to the sycophant-ed, ahead of the next press conference. You’ll sometimes find these bandwagonistas on social media, retweeting furiously to ensure that their profile is publicly associated with anything remotely positive. Masters of disinformation, these cry wolf faux victims, will do anything to avoid being exposed, with a particular penchant for a stab in the back. They are the kind of despicable lowlifes who vote Tory and then stand on their doorstep, furiously clapping at the NHS.


I’ve worked in, with, for and read all about, plenty of organisations that have far more than their fair share of the 3 Stooges. The upside to that is on average, you might be lucky enough to be in one of those organisations, or incidents, that conversely has more than it’s fair share of the 1 in 4 worth following.

1/4 Carrying the Can…

Having got that off my chest, we are now left with the 1 in 4 that I learned from and all eleven of mine had the same thing in common. This is an interesting old phrase with a couple of contemporary definitions and two front runners, etymologically:

To Carry the Can is to own up when you bugger up. Dating back to the early 1800’s, labourers were often paid in food and beer. If you had done something stupid, you had to take it on the chin and pay a forfeit to those who covered your back. Literally Carrying the Can of beer to serve everyone else before you. There are also stories of the ‘Can’ being at the other end of the metabolic process!

To Carry the Can is to show up and front up. The ‘cannes’ is an old Gaelic French military term for the cover erected over the gunpowder cart, to keep it dry and safe. In charge of the army’s fire power, carrying this responsibility was regarded as a huge honour for which, you accepted the huge consequences. The cannes also made you a serious target for the enemy!

Sorry for the very laddish options but the phrase is old and the sentiment transcends its invention. I don’t particularly care which origin story you prefer, as the lesson is still the same. It is not the job of leaders to do the work of the organisation, that’s Job1. It’s not the job of leaders to manage the work setting, that’s Job2. If there is a useful role for leaders at all, it’s in thinking ahead and ensuring that Job1 and Job2 are sustainable.

Yes, Job3 includes all the lovely stuff about direction and value, blah blah, but for the rewards of holding this luxurious position, it also includes taking responsibility when shit happens. It doesn’t matter what the shit is, Job3 is there to make sure the place can keep going. Before you think “but nobody can predict an epidemic” boohoo, it’s a highly privileged Job and for the honour, you accept the huge consequences. Or when slightly less dramatic shit happens, you fess up and carry the other can.

Personally, I’m not a fan of shooting your own Generals in the middle of a battle, that will just create a greater quantity of novice Narcissists doing the SuperChicken. Like Hydra, chop off one head and two sprout up in its place! And that’s enough of the battle analogies, I don’t want to fluff any narcissists.

So, how does someone seen to occupy a leadership position, actually prove their worth in a crisis? What is the modern day organisational equivalent of Carrying the Can? Well, if you’ve become used to being the king or queen of your castle, the things you need to do in a crisis, may seem laborious or even futile, in the face of a pandemic level event. My best advice is never to underestimate the power of intimate action, in generating global agency, but like Sisyphus, you’ll need persistence and a Can with your name on.

Titian painted the 3 Stooges at the feet of Sisyphus in 1548

Pay Attention Sisyphus…

5The most important sentiment in times of change is a sense of continuity. That may sound bonkers, but not everything changes. Some things are enduring, already brilliant, proved their worth yet again and need to be protected. We still have a couple of arms and legs, a belly full of stuff we need to keep going and brain full of the things that help us do that, well mostly. Some things will get worse, some better, but during the crisis is no time to be making long term commitments, as by definition, those sorts of decisions should already be there. As we emerge out the other side however, people will want to reflect, to keeping going with good stuff, not bother with the bad stuff and carry on fiddling with everything in between that’s still changing. Although most people do know this, it helps amidst the stresses and strains, to remind them and promise to support them through it.

4In order to do that you got to show up. Don’t lock yourself in Gold Command, be present and be useful: be a participant. You should be displaying a big badge for a good reason and that reason should already be well known to your staff. You do not own, your own reputation, they do and you need to live up to it. Of course, this also applies to the 3 Stooges, albeit that they will just unwittingly reinforce what we already know. So if you want to show some leadership, it pays to distance yourself from them. You know who they are, look around you Sisyphus, they should now be easy to spot. And on that note, do not turn up with your own photographer, or some Sycophant with an iPhone, leave that to the Narcissists. It’s all about the work not about you, so go on your own, really talk to people and bring cake.

3When people are busting their guts to keep going, a little appreciation (and some cake), goes a long way. But be careful not to play with peoples emotions, they may already be too knackered to put up with half arsed cliche and platitude. You are not a counsellor, but you can provide some moral support. Say ‘well done’ and ask ‘how are you’, but when you’re eye to eye with people, only say it if you really mean it, or you’ll start to look suspiciously like one of those HappyClappies. On the other hand, never forget that the evidence is now unequivocal: extrinsic reward kills intrinsic motivation. Despite all the war stories and leaderism fables, it is not your Job to try and motivate the masses, unless you’re Phil Jackson and you’re not! What you can do, is show some genuine appreciation and humility towards the motivation that they’ve already got, amplify what’s good and dampen what’s not.

2Now you know what’s good, you can put the money where your mouth is and do something really important. Switch your focus from tangible assets (money and space and kit) to the intangible kind. Now that may sound arse backwards at first, especially amidst the PPE debacle, but this is probably the most significant decision to make. Tangible stuff: food, water, safety and the tools to do the job should be utterly irrelevant, because they already got, all of it they’ll ever need – these are the Maslovian essentials. So no stupid questionnaires, no dopey processes and elongated forms to sign off, everything Job1 wants, Job1 gets and if they ask for it today, it’s your job to have cleared it yesterday. Leaderism is rarely pragmatic, so feel free to keep this one close to hand and use it liberally. Then you can focus on the health, trust, love, longings and intrinsic motivations of what matters most.

1In situations of crisis, the first thing you must do is look up and recognise it. The last thing you do, is try to make any instant decisions. Only Job1 can decide what to do and only Job2 can make it happen, meanwhile in Job3, you will need to tell everybody else what the good decision is and whack your massive badge, close up behind it. Take some responsibility! But how do you know you’re backing the right horse. Well you don’t, you got to trust your people and really understand your own role in a crisis: which is to be trusted by them. I can’t tell you exactly what to do to prepare yourself for this, as it will be unique to your place and time and the nature of the crisis at hand. So as is my way, I’m going to finish with a little story to help you work it out for yourself. This is an intuition pump, something to get you thinking, it’s not literal. I’m not saying that during a crisis Job3 should flee the boardroom and get back on the tools, god forbid, you’ll just get in the way. But you must come to terms with what matters most, when it matters most and accept your own limitations as a leader, when it’s time to Carry the Can…

There was once an old school Executive Director of Nursing, steeped in many many years at the helm of her profession, she’d originally worked her way up from the basement, to the boardroom. One of her first actions around the big table, was to set up a little peripatetic team, who operated through the nursing bank, to go to pressure points and relieve struggling departments. The joke was, ‘if you were in trouble and you could find them, then maybe you could hire, The A Team’: a couple of wily old goats who were in the room when Aneurin Bevan had the idea; were matched up with a couple of geeky bright sparks full of beans and imaginations; both of which, were backed up by a scrummage of Nursing Auxiliaries who’d already been there and done that. It was rumoured that occasionally, there was an extra Flanker in an auxiliary uniform. A proper grafter, calm and funny and not afraid to get her hands dirty, she was often heard to say “no angels, no heroes, just kindness and hard work”.

@complexwales

4 thoughts on “Sisyphus & the 3 Stooges…

Add yours

  1. Get out of my head, is there no privacy left with all this isolation?
    I stopped watching “The Office” for fear of meeting myself, must I stop reading you now too?

    “Ignorance and incompetence and conspiratorial maintenance of the status quo, play a large part” invokes my favourite Paulo Freire quotes, in spirit if not literally… not till the oppressed see themselves as the host of their oppressor will they be dot dot dot midwifery of their liberating pedagogy … leaders blah blah blah who organise don’t act dialogically they manipulate not liberate.

    So glad you reminded me of the Margaret Heffernan video – which I last saw at a gathering of headless superchickens who, without the necessary eyes were unable to torture themselves with the irony of it all, so went off to build a superhospital instead. What bothers me now is the question of whether I am a manipulator if I insist that my team sees the video together?
    Did I crack that mirror you’re holding or was it broken already?

    Thank you friend, I needed more self doubt, if you could turn your mind to hopelessness that should see me off nicely 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much first for the lovely feedback, secondly for leaving a comment, I wish more people would, it makes the blogging feel worthwhile. But most importantly thanks for Paulo Freire, who’s new to me. Pedagogy of the Oppressed is already playing in the background.

      BTW if you’re recognising any of those caricatures in yourself, by definition you’re not one of the Stooges.
      Blog on hopelessness (and fearlessness) on its way HaHa!

      Like

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