Needs & Wants


The meme above is doing the rounds in schools at the moment, which shows Maslow’s hierarchy of needs with an extra box drawn on the bottom.  The text in the box says “Internet” or “Wi-fi”.   Teenagers identify with a Maslow’s hierarchy of needs that places Internet access at the very base of the triangle.  Kids who have never seen a day without sustenance and shelter actually think that wi-fi access is more important than food.

It neatly introduces the subject of needs and wants.  I grew up in the age before the internet, before the mobile phone.  I grew up in a household with seven kids and three adults.  Don’t get me wrong, I never went hungry for a day.  But when I was a kid a treat was just that, a treat.  There was no magic cupboard constantly refilled with popcorn or sweets or chocolate bars.  A jar of jam was not a staple.  There was NOT a constant supply of fresh fruit.  Even dried fruit was in short supply, purchased for the purpose of making cake, and any spares were quickly nibbled away by deft young fingers.

Shop-bought biscuits were very much a treat.  Deserts were home-made.  There were far more deserts available when free produce came into season.  Rhubarb in spring, cooking apples in the autumn, stewed and served with custard, made into tarts or sponges, baked stuffed apples.  We had a vested interest in picking blackberries, because they translated into tarts and crumbles.

If we were hungry between set meals there was always (within reason) bread and butter, milk and tea.  Nobody starved.  We knew the difference between Need and Want.

When I was teaching marketing in college the earthquake hit Haiti.  When we looked at Maslow I told the students to imagine the following situation.  There is a Haitian doctor, a pillar of the community, living in a fine house with his family.  One day he is mulling over a decision to replace his car.  Does he want something more racy and sporty, or something more conservative to reflect his status in the community?  His wife is tired of the curtains in the living room and is idly flicking through a catalogue for ideas.  His daughter is moaning that her mobile phone is so last year and all her friends have better ones.

The earthquake hits.  They run into the street as their house collapses around them.  The house falls on the car and destroys it.  They are left standing in the street, in the rain, wearing the clothes on their back.

The mobile phone no longer works because the network has been destroyed.  They have no cash in hand (if anyone would take it) and the bank machines will not work because the electricity is gone.

They have dropped from Self-Actualisation all the way down to Physiological needs.  The way Maslow works you need to satisfy base needs before you can move up to the next level.  The four bottom rungs of the triangle are all Needs.  Only Self-Actualisation is actually about Wants.

It has been said that any society is only three meals away from anarchy (I can’t get an original quote on this).  It is a valid contention.  Strip away the foundation of Maslow’s hierarchy and society cannot stand.

Our Haitian family have moved from decisions about curtains, phones and cars to a point where they would be happy with a sheet of plastic to keep the rain off, and a mug of soup to fill their stomach.

The next time you can’t get a wi-fi signal or you lose your mobile phone, remember, though it may seem so, it is really not the end of the world.

Any problem that can be fixed with money is never as bad as it seems at the time.  You may not have the money to fix it, but someone does, and you can find them if you look hard.  As long as nobody was killed or seriously injured our Haitian family can start to ascend the triangle until they get back to self-actualisation.

Desire; by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Where true Love burns Desire is Love’s pure flame;

It is the reflex of our earthly frame,

That takes its meaning from the nobler part,

And but translates the language of the heart.

A Vision of Success


The game of chess is a very useful metaphor for strategic planning.  When you begin to learn chess you start by learning the way each piece can move.  Beginners think that the game of chess is about controlling the movement of pieces.

As an intermediate player you learn some of the strategic openings that are used to develop the game quickly and get as many pieces as possible into offensive positions.  A well-developed opening is often enough to defeat the beginner.  It is at this stage that you begin to realise that chess is not about controlling the movement of pieces.  Chess is about controlling the spaces on the board.

By controlling the space on the board, we reduce the potential for our opponent to catch us off guard.  This principle is common to all strategic planning, be it in a business or a military context.  We use formal planning frames or checklists to ensure that we have examined all potential threats and influences.  We can then eliminate them from our planning, or build the plan around them.

The difference between an expert player and an intermediate player is down to game strategy.  The intermediate player develops his opening well and after the first ten moves is probably on a par with the expert.  But at this stage the intermediate player often finds that they lose control of the play.  They are reacting to strategic moves by the expert and end up playing defensively.

The expert player begins the game of chess with a vision of success.  They can see the game through to the end, before it even begins.  Their opponent may play very well and frustrate the shape of the win, but the expert will revise as the game goes on, and will generally win as a result.

In business planning the same dynamic is true.  Some businesses follow the formal planning frames and develop a workable business plan, but not a winning business plan.  Excellent businesses start out with a vision of success and focus their planning efforts on achieving that vision.

An example of this can be drawn from the differences in approach followed by the Nationalists and the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War.  These lessons were internalised by the Germans and used to polish their Blitzkrieg tactics.  The Russian tanks supplied to the Republican side were superior to the German and Italian tanks, but they were squandered due to lack of vision in battle planning.

Motorised armored columns can strike any defensive line and break through, if they do so in concentration.  The column then drives hard into enemy territory, cutting communications and causing confusion.  The attacking side know where they are going and what they are doing, because they are the ones making the decisions.  Once the motorised column has sown disruption in the lines the main infantry force can advance.  Defenders find themselves isolated as reinforcements are unable to move up due to the communications problems.  At the defending HQ the officers are assailed by a barrage of conflicting reports and struggle to piece together a picture of the battle.  Pockets of resistance hold out as defenders hold onto strategic towns or hills.  The advance moves past them, and a holding force besieges them to limit offensive sorties in the rear, and they are neutralised.  Everything happens fast.  Ultimately the only sane response for the defenders is to retreat to a defined holding point and regroup, losing ground and the troops in surrounded pockets.  This is classic Blitzkrieg.

The Russian generals in civil war Spain did not follow this pattern.  They mounted broad-front assaults.  Instead of concentrating their armor, they spread it along the line.  Whenever they broke through lines they insisted on reducing resistance in every strong point they encountered.  This gave the Nationalists ample time to mount a counter attack.  As a result they failed miserably in their attacks.

What is even more telling is that they failed to learn and adapt their strategy.  The Communist Commissars were more motivated to spread positive propaganda than to learn from mistakes.  As a result they painted defeats as victories.  When defeats could not be presented as victories they assigned blame to anyone but the Russians.  The outcome of this delusional approach was that the Russians continued with these tactics through the Second World War.  Millions of Russian soldiers died because Generals would not admit their strategies were at fault.

In a business context, if you are not the dominant player, there is a danger that you are reacting to the moves of the Gorilla in the market.  If you are dancing to a tune played by the big player you will never overtake them.  You must own your own strategies.  If you are the dominant player you must not fall into the trap of becoming entrenched and defensive in nature.  This will allow smaller players to nibble away at your share.

Before Action ; by William Noel Hodgson

… I, that on my familiar hill
saw with uncomprehending eyes
a hundred of Thy sunsets spill
their fresh and sanguine sacrifice,
ere the sun swings his noonday sword
must say good-bye to all of this;
by all delights that I shall miss,
help me to die, O Lord.

Hodgson’s last poem, written on the eve of the Battle of the Somme in which he died.

Lest we forget



I wanted to write something about the twin towers disaster anniversary.  The way I begin these posts is to find an appropriate poem.  It may not be a poem that narratively expresses the situation but it usually expresses my emotional state when I am writing the piece.  This is the reason I include the poems.  You remember history and events well, but the emotional zeitgeist can slip away over time.  Poetry is emotion embodied in word, and I use it to fix my emotions at a point in time.

So I searched for poems about towers and by chance I came across this poem by Countee Cullen, one of the Harlem Rennaissance writers of the 1920’s.  I never read Cullen before and I was delighted to find this poem in particular.  You will see why.

When you read the poem from the perspective of a Negro in the USA of the 1920’s it is quite clear that this is a poem which dreams of a future equality of man, even a celebration of being black.

But this is the 11th of September, the anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Centre.  Imagine you are standing at ground zero.  Imagine a crowd before you of those bereaved by the disaster.  Now read the poem to them.

How powerful is this?

From the Dark Tower:  by Countee Cullen

We shall not always plant while others reap
The golden increment of bursting fruit,
Not always countenance, abject and mute
That lesser men should hold their brothers cheap;
Not everlastingly while others sleep
Shall we beguile their limbs with mellow flute,
Not always bend to some more subtle brute;
We were not made eternally to weep.

The night whose sable breast relieves the stark
White stars is no less lovely being dark,
And there are buds that cannot bloom at all
In light, but crumple, piteous, and fall;
So in the dark we hide the heart that bleeds,
And wait, and tend our agonizing seeds.

Listen Hear


Do you practice listening?  If you don’t then you probably aren’t listening very well, unless you are one of those strange and wonderful creatures born with the natural propensity to listen actively to what others are saying.  For most of us frail humans active listening is a chore.  It is easier by far to listen to the sage wisdom that spews from our own consciousness.

However, brilliant though you may be, there is only one of you.  The collected wisdom of mankind does not reside in your head, so from time to time make the effort to listen to others.  They may be saying something important.

To help you here are some techniques for turning people on, and for turning people off.

1.  Active listening body language

Just the way you sit or stand can encourage, or discourage the person who is speaking.  To be an active listener you need to monitor your body language to make sure your posture is open and welcoming.  You should make good eye contact.  Lean forward, angle your head slightly.  Avoid folding your arms and crossing your legs as these are physical barriers.  Don’t lean or sit back (seems like you are in judgement), and avoid rubbing your chin or steepling your fingers.

2.  Non-vocalised encouragement

Nodding is good, you are saying “Yes!  Go on!”  Shaking your head in appropriate places is also powerful, as you can be saying “so sad” or “how unbelievable” etc.  More difficult to gauge is making physical contact, as it is highly cultural, contextual and personal.  In the right situation holding a hand, touching a shoulder or giving a hug can engender great empathy, trust and an outpouring of emotion.  In the wrong situation it will rapidly shut down communication and cause offense.  It could even get you arrested.

3.  Vocalised encouragement

A far safer area of encouragement than tactile reinforcement is verbal reinforcement.  This can range from simply making encouraging noises (Ah Ha, Um, Oh), through actual words (Yes, I see, and then?) to full blown sentences (So what did you say to him then?)

4.  Driving the narrative

Part of active listening is allowing the other person to tell their story.  Very often we hear the beginning of a story, which reminds us of something that happened to us, and we launch into telling our story.  The original story is lost along the way.  The active listener is focused on hearing the whole story.  To help it along they may drive the narrative forward.  I find the best way to do this, without changing the story, is to repeat the last sentence you heard.  Try it, it is very powerful.  It reinforces to the narrator that you are paying attention, you are interested and you want to hear more.

5.  Colouring in the narrative

Some people tell a great story, and others need help.  If a story is very dry, it may be because it is devoid of adjective, descriptor, emotional context etc.  You can help the narrator to build the story with some well-placed cues to colour in the landscape.  Examples might be along the lines of:  Who was with you?  How did that make you feel at the time?  What was your first reaction?  Did they seem to be under pressure?  Did you have a meal in the café? Etc.

If you want them to build and build, then preface these cues with the words “Yes, And…”

6.  Killing the narrative

The opposite of “Yes, And…”  is “Yes, but…”.  When you use the word “but” everything positive that you just said is cancelled out.  If you want to stop someone speaking there are many ways to do it.  Disinterested body language, absent eye contact, tell them they are wrong, laugh inappropriately in the wrong place.  Some can be subtle and others are obvious.  But sometimes you need to keep someone quiet.  If you are actively listening and someone else tries to interrupt you generally get the message across with a blocking gesture, hand up, palm out towards the interruption.  A slow, loose handed version acts as a “Shhhhh” whereas a firm, flat handed version, held for a second, with full eye contact, is an emphatic “shut up”.  This can then be reinforced by turning to the original speaker, and saying “Go on, you said”….and repeat their last sentence.

In group situations (focus groups, meetings etc) when one person becomes annoying and will not allow anyone else to speak it is perfectly acceptable to be very straight with them along the lines of  “We know your opinion, now we want to hear the opinions of others, can you be quiet and listen for a while now please?”

Come to think of it, people are always saying that to me.  I wonder why?

Trumpet Player; by Langston Hughes

The Negro
With the trumpet at his lips
Has dark moons of weariness
Beneath his eyes
where the smoldering memory
of slave ships
Blazed to the crack of whips
about thighs

The negro
with the trumpet at his lips
has a head of vibrant hair
tamed down,
patent-leathered now
until it gleams
like jet—
were jet a crown

the music
from the trumpet at his lips
is honey
mixed with liquid fire
the rhythm
from the trumpet at his lips
is ecstasy
distilled from old desire—

that is longing for the moon
where the moonlight’s but a spotlight
in his eyes,
that is longing for the sea
where the sea’s a bar-glass
sucker size

The Negro
with the trumpet at his lips
whose jacket
Has a fine one-button roll,
does not know
upon what riff the music slips

It’s hypodermic needle
to his soul
but softly
as the tune comes from his throat
mellows to a golden note

Leadership material


Leader or manager, general or colonel? What is the difference and why does it matter? In war or in competitive business we face a twin dilemma.

Let’s focus on wars, simply because they have a better documented history. Throughout history the (seemingly) simple act of getting your army to a battlefield, wearing clothes, in a state of health, well fed, well shod, well-armed and well-ordered has often delivered victory. This is the job of the staff officers of the army, the managers. They must recruit, train, equip, feed, transport and manage the soldiers.

In the same way company managers must recruit, remunerate, monitor and direct the staff or the organisation to deliver a workload. They must ensure the correct tools are available to do the job, the right computers, the right lathes, the right cleaning fluids etc.

Where things get interesting is where you have two armies, or two organisations, that are well managed, so that both of them arrive on the ‘battlefield’ in good order.

This is where the need for good leadership cuts in. The good leader is creative, surprising, unexpected, not a plodder, not predictable and pedantic. The Duke of Wellington defeated every French Marshal thrown against him. At last he met Napoleon at the battle of Waterloo, and Wellesley described him as “just another plodder”. What he did not realise is that Napoleon was ill and the battle was mismanaged by Marshal Ney. Napoleon was in fact a brilliant general, and on his day Waterloo would have been a very different battle.

If a “leader” becomes too operational, too involved in the day to day running of the business, then they are probably just interfering in the work of their managers. The leader needs to be assured that the management is happening, but should not be too involved in it. The leader needs to be aware of the capabilities of the organisation, so that when they craft their strategic masterstroke it is within the reach of the staff. So reports from managers to the leader should keep the leader up to date on what is possible.

The failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion is attributed to a reporting failure within the CIA. Local operatives were telling Langley that the Cuban exiles were motivated and committed soldiers, well trained and gunning to win their country back from the Communists. In fact they were a drunken, feckless rabble who were unfit to participate in any military action. Had Kennedy been aware of this he could have avoided a huge embarrassment for the USA, and potentially have avoided the Cuban Missile Crisis altogether.

The leader can challenge the managers to build capabilities in weak areas, tell them “what” he wants, but should refrain from telling them how to do it. Good examples are of Churchill in the Second World War. He challenged the army to develop special forces groups so that he could take the war to the Axis. The army developed commando units, paratroopers, long range desert squadrons, SAS etc. These specialist “tools” were then available to factor in to strategic plans. The Rhine bridges campaign (Operation Market Garden) depended heavily on paratroopers holding the bridge and Arnhem. They did the job for three days longer than they were asked, and the failure of the campaign was down to other factors.

In a business context, what are your special forces? What are the tools in the market that can give you a strategic advantage over your competition? Where is your source of competitive advantage and how are you factoring this into your strategic planning?

Some writers point to a personality difference between a leader and a manger. Many great leaders are very uncomfortable in management positions. They play a poor second fiddle to another leader.

Dr. Brian Leavy in DCU humorously used Star Trek to describe the difference in one of his strategy papers. Captain Kirk is the brilliant leader of the Starship Enterprise. He is a flawed human, at times emotional and petty, jealous of others, physically violent when things don’t go his way, he comes across like a spoilt child. But he constantly thinks outside the box and finds solutions where none seemed to exist. When he was faced with a no-win game scenario at Starfleet academy he refused to be beaten and instead reprogrammed the game so that he could win. He is a motivational leader who inspires great effort and loyalty from his team. His passion and drive are attractive to the opposite sex too, as he always seems to get the girl (or the prettiest alien species).

By contrast Mr Spock is a paragon of self-control and emotional discipline. He is logical, correct and brilliant. He is the perfect foil for the mercurial leader, as he keeps everything on an even keel. But he is cold and passionless and does not inspire those around him. If anything his perfection is demotivating to others who know they can never gain his approval. For Spock perfection is simply adequate, anything less is unacceptable. This makes him a poor leader in the eyes of humans.

The analogy often seems to hold true. Famous leaders do appear to be mercurial characters, Lord Alan Sugar, Lee Iacocca, Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Churchill, Bill Gates, Howard Hughes, Sir Alex Ferguson, Michael O’Leary. But how much of this is the visibility of leaders who are mercurial? There are many great leaders who shy away from public attention. Terry Leahy, Paul Polman, Robert McDonald, Rex Tillerson, Peter Voser, Peter Swinbburn, all very influential people, how many can you place?

IF: by Rudyard Kipling

IF you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!

It was 20 years ago today!

My son is studying music in school for his leaving cert. One of the musical scores on the syllabus is the Beatles Album: Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. How cool is that? Well, cool for me. But for him I guess you have to put it in perspective.

Sergeant Pepper was released in 1967, when I was 4 years old, so it formed part of the musical DNA of my upbringing. But my son is 17. For him this should be just a 46 year old album. It would be like me in 1979 having to study music written in 1933. Would I have rejoiced if my school told me I would be learning the musical score from “Flying down to Rio” starring Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire? Would that have got my hands clappin’ and my feet tappin’? Not exactly. I was listening to Blondie, The Boomtown Rats, Pink Floyd, Ian Dury, the Police, the Undertones and Thin Lizzy.

But here is the incredible thing. Yes! He is excited. He is interested. It is a mark of the enduring influence of the Beatles that those funky kids today dig that groove because those cool sounds are so gear. OK slang language has definitely seen a seismic shift, but the music lives on.

1966/67 was the heyday of the rivalry between the Beach Boys (Pet Sounds), the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. Jimi Hendrix was at the height of his career. “Dazed and Confused” was released by Jake Holmes. Bob Dylan followed on his “Blonde on Blonde” album by releasing a greatest hits LP. Van Morrison went solo and released “Brown Eyed Girl”. The Doors broke onto the scene with their debut and then “Music from the Big Pink” by the Band came out in 1968.

In this context you can appreciate that Sgt Peppers hit the charts at the very pinnacle of the creative explosion of 60’s music experimentation. It was a great time to be alive. Of course, if you remember it, you weren’t there 

Within you and without you: by George Harrison

We were talking-about the space between us all
And the people-who hide themselves behind a wall of illusion
Never glimpse the truth-then it’s far too late-when they pass away.

We were talking-about the love we all could share-when we find it
To try our best to hold it there-with our love
With our love-we could save the world-if they only knew.

Try to realize it’s all within yourself
No-one else can make you change
And to see you’re really only very small,
And life flows ON within you and without you.

We were talking-about the love that’s gone so cold and the people,
Who gain the world and lose their soul-
They don’t know-they can’t see-are you one of them?

When you’ve seen beyond yourself-then you may find, peace of mind,
Is waiting there-
And the time will come when you see
we’re all one, and life flows on within you and without you.Image