Why exactly do we hate it when our friends become successful? Singers read on…

In the words of one Stephen Patrick Morrisey – “We hate it when our friend become successful”

Many a professional singer I have spoken with laughs about the inauthenticity of the facebook “like” they use to signal happiness at another singer landing a role. Others say how they feel obliged to congratulate them, but inside they feel negatively about the situation. Perhaps envy, jealousy, insecurity, doubt or any number of other emotions is triggered by the news of someone else’s success, I don’t know. What I do know is that this isn’t an isolated phenomenon, as practically every artist I’ve spoken with suggests they feel it to some degree.

Let’s try and unpack this a little bit. When we experience a feeling, it’s based on our interpretation of the world, which is itself a consequence of a set of beliefs we hold resulting from our life experience. Our beliefs arise from the stories we tell ourselves about what events in the world mean. Humans are always making meaning. The brain’s job is to make meaning from events, so that’s what it does, but because it largely does this out of our awareness it can be difficult to understand the world that it’s constructing in the process.

Things happen in the world all the time, rainfall, road accidents, flowers growing, winds blowing, we live immersed in a sea of events, both natural and generated by our human interactions. As soon as we observe and describe these events however, we begin to interpret the world using language – which is another way of saying we generate a narrative, or tell ourselves a story. That narrative is the basis of our judgement about what these events mean – it adds our layer of meaning and interpretation to the event we’ve witnessed. You can see then that we subjectively interpret events, and the feelings we experience are based on this interpretation.

The question then is this; are you content with the feelings you experience when you hear of another singer’s success? If you are, you might want to stop reading now (in fact it’s unlikely you’ve got this far!). If you’re not, then there’s a bit more to be said, because you’ve probably noticed that the act of asking the question implies that you can change your feelings. You don’t have to fake your happiness or repress the negativity you feel – those are perfectly valid reactions in the context of your current narrative. Are they working for you though? Is that who you want to be?

It’s possible to change our own internal narratives, and in the process construct a different world view, one that leads to experiencing different emotions. To demonstrate the idea, let’s say another singer lands a great part that’s in your repertoire. You think they’re not as good as you, or they’re too old or too young, too fat or basically just too “not you”, and as a result you feel in some way diminished by their selection for the part. That suggests a world view that contains some of the following ideas:

• There are only so many productions each year, so the supply of roles is finite and any role someone else gets is one I haven’t got. Therefore what’s good for someone else is bad for me.

• Whoever cast this person doesn’t know much about singers because I’m better, thinner, younger, older or any other adjective of your choice.

• The selection of someone else over me is a vote of no-confidence in my abilities.

• My view of the musical truth is the truth of what should count as good music.

In this illustration, a world is being constructed where an artistic production is controlled by a few people who know what counts as good, where the singers are passive recipients of judgements and are pitted against each other. In this world view there are objective truths in music that some singers are better than others, that singers themselves know how a role should be cast, and that essentially everyone in the process is part of some unacknowledged conflict. Such a world-view understandably leads to some difficult emotions. Worse, we feel we can’t express our difficulties for fear of harming our reputation, so those difficult feelings are trapped unresolved within us. To continue with our illustration, let’s now try and re-construct this world view in a different way.

Let’s begin with casting. This is done by a human being, who as far as we know sets out to do the best job they can. They have all the same difficulties, emotions, narratives, prejudices and uncertainties that you do, and they see large numbers of talented singers from whom they somehow have to select. They have a vision in mind for the role and need to fulfil it somehow. The point is, it’s not simple or straight-forward, and because we’re all different it’s not surprising if their views don’t coincide with ours. Some things in life are quite difficult, and reasonable people quite naturally disagree about the best way of handling them. In contrast to our previous narrative though, here we come to realise that casting is a subjective process, in which case if you don’t get a role it can hardly represent a vote of no-confidence in your skills. Rather it simply represents a difference of opinion, and if that’s the case how are you diminished by someone else’s view?

In moving on to singers themselves we need to ask, who is to say who is a better singer than someone else? The word better isn’t an objective judgement, but instead is used to exclude and decry those who happen not to make a sound we ourselves enjoy. Is Bob Dylan a better singer than Pavarotti? I doubt that you would think so, but some people might say he was, because he projects something of value to them based on their world view – and why should there not be room for both views? It’s just an illustration of course. The wider point is that the moment we divide our inner world into good and bad, right and wrong, we begin to exclude the contribution of others from our world, and to minimise the number of possible narratives we have. In so doing we invite our negative emotional responses to stay for supper, as though our view of the world was the only truth, and we deny the opportunity for those we judge harshly to make a contribution to our art. (Yes, our art. You might regard the audience as passive consumers of entertainment, but as an audience member I regard myself as one aspect of the production, after all, what’s art with no audience?).

And what of the limited number of roles at any one time? When someone lands a great role, that means people are coming to watch them sing, and if that were to happen more often rather than less, then there would be a demand for more singers, not less. If there were demand for more singers, you would have a better chance of getting a great role, not a worse one. A rising tide lifts all ships. Rather than seeing the world as a zero-sum game in which your gain is my loss, might we not consider that anyone’s success helps build interest and income for opera – whether or not you like their voice or think they’ve been cast “correctly”?

The central point of all this is simply is that we are the ones who construct our world view, based on our past experience and our internal narrative. If we want to feel differently, we need to change that narrative.

You might realise however that even this idea for positive change frames the discussion as all about me. My career, my feelings, my narrative. The point of embracing positive change within yourself isn’t just that you’ll feel better, it’s that doing so is of service to others as well, because instead of judging and excluding their perspectives we invite them in – we allow room for multiple interpretations, new interpretations even. In an age where the arts often struggle commercially, such new interpretations could offer great potential for positive change.

Suppose for example a casting director’s job wasn’t to choose who gets a role, but instead was to articulate a vision for the part and draw-up a short-list of possible singers. The singers all listen to each other audition, and afterwards they all meet together with the casting director. Everyone then discusses between them who will get the part. That might not be a better way, but it’s a different possibility, and that’s the point. Our worlds are only what we construct them to be, and if we want a better future for everyone in the arts, then we are challenged to choose whether what we are currently constructing is best serving our ends.

You might not agree with any of this. You might decide to try it and it might not work for you – but if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got. I guess we could all just go and get an office job, but changing ourselves and our art is possible – I know because I’ve seen it. And if we really want to feel better about ourselves, and help develop the art form we love, then it’s up to us to choose.

Ending the search for leadership’s secret ingredient

To quote “Po” the star of “Kung Fu Panda” – “there is no secret ingredient, it’s just you”. We are sometimes tempted to search for a secret ingredient that makes a good leader. You may see the qualities of great leaders listed, or summaries of behaviour such as “followers talk about problems, leaders talk about solutions”. The implication of this approach is that if only you can emulate these qualities, you too will be a great leader. The good news is, that’s rubbish. Good news, because if it were true that leadership is some magical list of personal qualities, none of us would be able to develop it – we would be born leaders or we would not be leaders at all. Indeed some might argue that it suits existing leaders to suggest that in fact there is something special about them. After all, that would justify the enormous rewards that some corporate leaders get, but that’s another story.

I’m not decrying great leadership – it’s an incredibly powerful thing and can indeed transform organisations. What I’m questioning is the idea that leading requires a list of personal qualities, combined in a particular way. In fact, leadership arises when people are drawn to follow someone. It is also contextual – a great leader is just another shopper when they’re in the supermarket, whereas in their organisation they are clearly the leader. Leadership then isn’t created by leaders, it’s created by the context, and the interaction between the whole group – both a leader and their followers. If no one chooses to follow you, how much of a leader are you? If it were all about behaviours we could turn Rowan Atkinson’s “Mr Bean” into a great leader simply by asking him to behave in a certain way. The ludicrous nature of that idea makes it clear that we co-create leadership; followers influence leaders as much as leaders influence followers.

So what? So several things. First, if leadership is something we all have the capacity for, why do we sometimes romanticise it so? Second, if we all have leadership potential, why not grasp it with both hands next time you have the chance? The only way you’ll learn is by doing it. Finally, why do we fall for trite simplifications of the complex process of human interaction that creates leadership, in the hope that following them will somehow turn us into Winston Churchill (who by the way, had his share of unpleasant and unhelpful personal qualities, but is still regarded as a great leader).

There is no need for any of us to fear or romanticise leadership, or to suppose that we aren’t capable of it. Neither are we set in stone as leaders once we have achieved that capacity, when the context changes it might be entirely appropriate for someone else to lead (some animals do this, for example horses will follow a herd member who has a particular talent for finding water, then switch leaders when they need to find fresh grass to a horse with that ability). Leadership is there to help a group galvanise the meaning it makes of the world, and coalesce around a goal. It’s not magic. We are all capable of it, and the only people served by those who would have you believe it’s something special are those seeking to make money from it.

How new perspectives can lead to better answers

One unfortunate habit of humans, particularly in Western societies is their tendency to make other people – “other”. Let me explain. People evolved as social creatures. Everything we have ever achieved is in some way the result of social endeavour – collaboration, co-operation and community. Even the most apparently individual achievement relies on the support of family and friends, or the prior work of others. We have however, developed a tendency to narrow our definition of ourselves, see our achievements as individual and in so doing we sort the world into categories – me, like me, and not me. Mentally, we make everything that isn’t “us” into something “other” defining it as different to us, and therefore at best irrelevant and at worst an enemy. From football supporters, to music lovers, politicians to corporate leaders, we sometimes cling so desperately to our narrow sense of identity that we can miss opportunities to revolutionise our lives. By defining ourselves narrowly into specific sub-groups or purposes in life, we miss chances to learn and grow from wider experience, both as individuals and organisations.

The three C’s – collaboration, co-operation and community are what help us to achieve, learn and grow as people and as organisations. Organisations are after all, just groups of people. All human growth relies on overlapping but different perspectives – our thinking must overlap enough for us to be able to communicate with each other – yet it must also be different enough to bring in new ideas. The best collaborators both support and challenge each other, exploring similarity and difference.

For example, what could a business leader possibly learn from work with horses or choirs? Surely they are “other” sharing nothing with the world of business and organisations? Yet every day, leaders are learning that how horses react to them has parallels for how people do. Conducting a choir is a leader-focussed production of an outcome, not so different in principle from making a car. Albert Einstein suggested that problems cannot be solved at the same level of thinking that generated them. The problem with “making other” is that it leads us to define our thinking narrowly, meaning we miss the new perspectives which could have set us, and our organisation, on the path to authentic growth and change.

We all find ourselves in a tight spot from time to time – a situation in which we are challenged to change and adapt. Charles Darwin noticed that those who thrive are not the fastest or strongest, but those most adaptable to change. So next time you find yourself needing to make a change, wanting to improve, or needing to evolve your organisation – don’t stay narrow in your thinking, reach out to different ways of learning – it can revolutionise what’s possible.

What is an organisation anyway?

What is an organisation anyway?

At first sight, what an organisation is, is a fairly simple question to answer. Surely it’s a group of people brought together for the purpose of achieving a goal? On closer inspection though, organisations are not so easy to define.

Most organisations contain a hierarchy, within which some of the power of the organisation is vested. I say some, because members of the organisation all join it for their own reasons. These may align with the organisations stated purpose, but just as likely they are nothing to do with it. For example, people might join simply to get money. Others may be seeking to make a contribution to society, be seeking personal status or any number of other reasons (and often some combination of reasons). Far from being a group with a unified purpose then, an organisation is a group with a whole range of purposes. It just so happens that everyone in the organisation sees it as their current best option for meeting their own personal goals. So an organisation can’t really be defined by the unifying power of its goals – because the reality is that everyone in it has different ones.

Organisations often possess assets, or at least owners of assets. These are a poor definition of the organisation however, as assets don’t do business, run charities, operate governments or deliver any of the other myriad services provided by organisations – people do that. The assets, processes and systems an organisation possesses are simply there to support the services it delivers; they can’t in themselves define what an organisation is.

It seems that our pleasant and certain ideas around what an organisation is then, have begun to dissolve somewhat, but there is another aspect to be considered. If what an organisation is doesn’t reside in any of its components, perhaps it exists in the interactions between those components? When the members of an organisation (with all their different individual goals) come together with the organisation’s assets, things happen. Specifically, the organisation delivers the services for which it has been brought together.

Far from being a simple entity then, organisations contain multiple (often conflicting) goals, and when push comes to shove, are composed of interactions between people. The majority of those interactions of course take the form of conversations, so in one view, an organisation is nothing more than a collection of conversations which are focussed on achieving something. Organisational success therefore depends to a very large on the skills of its members in communicating with one another. No matter how good a person’s technical, accounting or other specialist skills are, success depends on communication – on expressing ourselves in words. It is against this backdrop that future posts will present ideas on how we as people can best help ourselves, and our organisations, to be effective places.

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The idea of this blog is to present ideas and opinions related to developing organisations and people. They’re my contribution to stimulating discussions that help people and organisations be more effective in reaching their goals. I hope you enjoy the read.