Insight, aha, lightbulb moments – and beyond

As a coach, I look for ‘aha’ moments, lightbulb moments – whatever you want to call them. That moment of insight marks a shift in attitude or viewpoint for a client. Some insights keep shining and become pivotal and significant because they happen at just the right time, in the right place. Then, it will mark a turning point.  If it’s not perfectly timed, it shines for a moment, an hour or two or even a week or two, then it dissipates. And there’s the point – an flash of insight needs to be encouraged, built on and reinforced otherwise it may have no effect and runs into the sand. A good coach not only spots the insight but also nurtures it, helping the client to see it’s full significance and how it connects with other areas of life, and then helps to make it concrete by following it up with action.

Redundancy: spare a thought for the survivors…

Redundancy is nasty – even if it gives you the push you needed to start afresh. Redundancies in an organisation are also nasty for the survivors. They will often have to deal with:

  • feeling bad about the people who have been axed – survivor guilt
  • losing friends and team members  
  • bearing the brunt of resentement and bitterness from people who were made redundant
  • taking on extra work and responsibility (that formerly had been done by the people who have left)
  • uncertainty about the job (what if there are more redundancies in the pipeline?) and a feeling of being trapped and having to be grateful.

 OK, so it’s not so bad – they have a job and an income, but it’s no fun for them, either.

Leadership – ambiguity and resilience

As a leader, not only do you have to deal with ambiguity  but you also have to be resilient and, more importantly, demonstrate and exemplify resilience to your team/people. The two go hand in hand.
I define resilience as ‘bounce-back-ability’, and the competencies (they are all a little different) are something like:
1. Ablility to deal effectively with pressure and stress
2. Ability to bounce back from disappointment or setbacks
3. Ability to remain optimistic and positive in uncertain, new or complex situations
4. Ability to show and maintain strong leadership in uncertain situations.
You may feel uncertain, but you must be able to show that you are strong and that you know what you’re doing to others who will also be dealing with uncertainty and, probably, the same ambiguous situation from another angle. You need to be sure-footed and make them feel that they are in safe hands.

‘If you can keep your head when all about are losing theirs and blaming it on you ….’  and so on. Thanks to Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If…’

Dealing with ambiguity

It’s hardly surprising in these changing times that tolerating or even thriving in ambiguous situations is a buzz topic in the management and leadership world. There’s a lot of ambiguity about the subject, too. I’m writing and developing coaching activities for it at the moment so have done lots of research. I thought I’d share some thoughts.

What constitutes ambiguity?

Ambiguous situations can be defined as:
– completely new situations with no familiar cues or precedents
– complex situations in which there are a great number of cues and/or stakeholder interests to be taken into account
– apparently insoluble situations (ones that can’t be solved in usual ways).

What does ‘dealing with ambiguity’ mean?

The competencies – what you need to able to do and demonstrate – are generally considered to involve the ability to:
– tolerate and mange change effectively
– shift gears/change course quickly and easily
– decide and act without having the total picture
– tolerate situations where things are up in the air
– move between tasks and activities without having to finish each one
– tolerate and be comfortable with risk and uncertainty.
All of this is clear enough. The question is …


There are – I think – two separate but connected parts to this ability.
(1) to be sure of yourself and to find certainty in your own judgement as opposed to looking outside yourself  for security, ‘the answer’ or ‘the solution’. You won’t find it – that’s the point.
(2) to be alert to and aware of what is going on around you – being present.

1. Being sure of yourself

This involves:
– knowing who you are and what you’re capable of
– relying on yourself and not on others, on tools and models or on precedents
– confidence in your own judgement
– viewing uncertainty as a challenge/opportunity rather than a threat
–  using your imagination, intuition and initiative
– being present and staying focused on the moment.
You need to be able to access and bring all your capabilities to the moment – knowledge, experience, skill, judgement, intuition.

Being and staying present

I think this needs explanation. I don’t just mean physically, I mean emotionally and mentally as well. You have to be alert and aware – of yourself, your responses, your surroundings, what is going on and the people around you. Think of your sensory awareness (vision, hearing etc) as a wide satellite dish, representing your full attention to what is actually happening – NOW.
To do that, you can’t have a brain-full of thoughts, voices or  anxieties. You’re not fully present if you’re preoccupied with something else. For example if you’re:
– focused on a pre-planned goal/objective
– thinking about what should be happening
– worrying about doing the right thing
– planning the next step
– worrying about something that has already happened
– worrying about other people’s perceptions of you.
It all takes work and practice, even if you’re temperamentally disposed to it.

Two examples of people dealing with ambiguity (or not) have struck me recently. The first is a shining example and the second points up the way that the media avoid it in their coverage of important events and issues.
First: the problems that we had with the Iceland volcano ash and individuals’ responses to it. People were stranded. There were no rules, no precedents and no guidelines. They had to fall back on their own resources. And how ingenious they were! The stories were great – and heartening. I particularly liked the one about the man who bought a second-hand bike so that he could get onto a ferry when there were no more pedestrian tickets available. And there were many more, including stories of people who decided to stay put and settled down to enjoy themselves a bit more. All perfect examples of the ability to deal with ambiguity. Apologies to anyone who had a horrendous time.

Second: this morning I heard an interview with a BP person about the latest go at stopping up the oil leak  in the Mexican Gulf. I’m no apologist for BP’s environmental or human welfare track record nor am I a supporter of the whole oil industry, so I’m not unduly biased in their favour. But I feel frustrated and patronised by the media coverage of this event. Frustrated because I’d like to hear what is actually happening without having to hear the pointless and gratuitous arguments about whose fault it is. Patronising because OF COURSE I – in common with most of the public, I think – understand that this is an unprecedented catastrophe, where unequivocal statements of truth and certainty have no place. To hear this person being slapped around and therefore having to be defensive, guarded and economical with the truth – in my name – is unedifying and annoying. We’re grown-ups. We can comprehend the complexity of the situation. Yes, it’s appalling. Yes, it’s BP’s responsibility.  WE’VE GOT IT! They have put their hands up to it. QED. Now I want to know what’s happening in the struggle to get it under control.

I see this as an example of groping unproductively for certainty when there is none. Key word – unproductive.

What’s the point of talking about things?

In the last month, I’ve been asked this most basic of questions by two of my coaching clients. Strangely, no-one has asked it before. Even more strangely, given that I’m a coach and my practice is predicated on the idea that talking about things is beneficial, I didn’t have a pat response. So I’ve been getting my ducks in a row.

First up: by things, here, I mean feelings, ideas and opinions.

Why talk?

 1. It helps you to get your thoughts straight

When you’re thinking things through in your head, you tend to stick to familiar assumptions and skim over issues. You keep going over the same tracks, cutting corners and avoiding the messy areas.  Which is why it’s possible to have the same problem or dilemma going round and round and round, with no perceivable way out. 

 2. You prepare your thoughts ‘for consumption’

When you are communicating your thoughts, ideas and feelings, you automatically make an effort to organise and present them to make them as clear as possible for the other person. However jumbled your delivery is, you do step back, and in the process you give yourself another perspective.

3. Hearing yourself talk gives you another perspective

As you speak, you hear it all again from another point of view.  Self-consciousness means that you tend to imagine what it sounds like to the other person.

4. Another person’s perspective allows you to see the issue more clearly  

Someone else can point out gaps and inconsistencies in your thought processes. Ideally, he or she will ask the right questions and help you to take your thinking ‘off road’, away from the well-worn tracks and your entrenched positions. You will need to find someone you can trust to listen carefully, have your interests at heart, to be impartial and to be able to separate feelings from thoughts. This is where a coach can help.

Reservations and pitfalls

Talking about things is not always ‘the answer’ and isn’t always beneficial. It depends how you do it. For example:

  • it doesn’t work when you talk about the same thing in the same way, over and over again until it becomes an abstraction and a ‘script’. You have to be genuinely open to another point of view
  • it won’t work when the underlying purpose of the talking is self-justification rather than exploration
  • or when the underlying purpose is to ‘recruit’ people onto your team or to your way of thinking. Nothing wrong with this if you are aware  of what you’re doing. Just no good if your purpose is to examine, explore and make sense of something.

Are you creative?

The difference between being creative and being imaginative is that if you’re creative, you will have created something. It doesn’t have to be Art with a capital A – a painting, a symphony or a novel. It can be a creative report, a flowchart, an action or a way of acting.

Whatever it is, it has to be out there and not in your head. It has to be something you can point to and identify. Can you? Or is it still in your head? In which case, it’s imagination.

Facets of Charisma

Is a perception of you that can only be defined by someone else. It’s the unique effect you have on other people made up of energy (sparkle and forcefulness), self-esteem  (substance), image (presentation) and communication in the widest sense  (speaking, listening, making people feel special). It turns heads when you walk into a room, draws people to you, makes them want to be your friend and leaves them with the imprint and feel of you in their memory.’
This was my winning entry for the charisma definition a while ago now. It’s still OK as a generic definition, but since I wrote it I’ve thought a lot more about charisma, what it is and  how to develop it. I’m still thinking, but here are my thoughts on what it is so far, for what they are worth.
Charisma vs Presence
Charisma, it seems to me, is similar but not the same as presence. Presence can be characterised by the first part of the definition: … the unique effect you have  on other people made up of energy (sparkle and forcefulness), self-esteem  (substance), image (presentation) and communication in the widest sense  (speaking, listening, making people feel special)’, but not necessarily all of the last sentence. Presence turns heads when you walk into a room, but doesn’t necessarily draw people to you or make them want to be your friend. Presence has a dark side and is not always magnetic – which I think Charsima always is – and can be repellent at the other extreme (as in ‘a dark, brooding presence’ – Heathcliffe for example). Presence is sometimes an expression of self-confidence and how the person feels about himself/herself. It can also be purely physical – striking looks, booming voice or just size. So no, they aren’t the same.
Charisma vs Charm
Charm has all sorts of connotations. For example, Chris my partner, thinks of it as greasy and obsequious. I don’t. I use it here to mean some extra, magical quality that some people have. It can be turned on and off and it’s essentially good and always attractive. It’s not the same a presence or charisma as you may not be able to see that someone has it when they are in a crowd of people. With presence
and charisma, you can. I think charm is an intimate thing, to do with connecting with people, that sometimes is only evident when the person talks to you or looks at you. It makes other people feel special, makes them want to be your friend and leaves them with the imprint and feel of you in their memory. So no, charm is not the same as charisma.

Does presence + charm = Charisma?

Well no.  And this is what’s been bugging me. There’s a biography out by the guy who was Nixon’s aide or whatever they call them over in the US (sorry, don’t
remember his name). In it, he writes about the time when he and Nixon went to meet Mau Tse Tung. He describes Mau as having immense charisma – very, very scary. You see how this little story has thrown my thoughts into maelstrom. Because yes, that’s charisma, too isn’t it?  In the Max Weber/leadership* sense rather than in the smaller-scale, domestic, charming  sense. This kind of charisma is
to do with power. Not just power by itself, but being given power by people who believe you have it. It kind of pumps you  up. Weber himself points out that leadership charisma only lasts as long as people’s belief in it does. So it does have something to do with power bestowed on you by other people.

*Charisma as defined by Max Weber, political economist and sociologist, 1864-1920

a certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which one is ‘set apart’
from ordinary people and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities. These as such are not accessible to the ordinary person, but are regarded as divine in origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of them the individual concerned is treated as a leader.

More thoughts on Charisma

OK. Let’s look at it another way. Here am I trying to define charisma – not to find out what it is but to find a way of expressing what I know.  By trying to describe it, what I’m doing  is unpacking and identifying the complicated strands and shades of meaning that make up my own understanding of it. In the process I find out more.

So perhaps another way round would be to identify people who have it and unpack its components from that list.

Here’s a really simple exercise to help tap into intuition and judgement. I’ve used it when I haven’t been sure of how I feel about a certain aspect of something or someone.
You do have to be clear of your terms of reference or it won’t work. It’s good because you’re not distracted by other considerations – whether you like the people, approve of them or anything else. You’re focusing on just one aspect.
1. Start with the aspect you want to know about (charisma)
2. Think of the opposite attribute (‘no charisma’ is good enough)
3. Think about what charisma means to you and get the feel for it
4. Then say the names of people you know or know about (I’m thinking famous or at any rate, in the public eye), focusing on ‘charisma or no charisma’, making a very quick decision about each one. Yes or no will do once you’ve got your focus.

You may want to start off with people you’re sure about before you get to the trickier ones, just to get you in flow with the exercise. It’s the trickier ones that stretch you, make you dig deeper into your intuition and can also surprise you.
I started with politicians: Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Thatcher, Ming/Menzies Campbell, Alistair Darling etc

So I’m thinking: Blair – yes, Brown – no, Cameron – yes, Thatcher- yes,  Campbell – no, Darling – no.

To get the definition, go through your ‘yes or no’ list and look at what they have or don’t have that made you say yes or no.

However, in this case, something is not right. I’m pretty sure that if I met Gordon Brown, Ming/Menzies Campbell or Alistair Darling in person, my view would change. Even the most uncharismatic famous or important person would have some sort of presence or charisma in the flesh by virtue of their authority and the power/importance ascribed to them by other people, including me.

It doesn’t seem quite right on another front, either, because I’m missing information. I know that people can have stage presence and have no personal presence and vice versa. As I’ve never met any of the people on my list face to face, I don’t know whether this is or isn’t true of them. I think, then, that with this list, I’m talking about stage presence.

And before he was Lib-dem leader and savaged by a public baying for youth, I liked Ming/Menzies on the radio – he had radio presence.

So I do the exercise with family members and friends.  As I do this, I realise that I’m concerned with personal presence. I think this is not the same as charisma, it’s more like charm (see above).

So I’m now contemplating 3 kinds of presence:

  • personal presence – a sort of small-scale but compelling charisma/charm that ordinary people might have. People notice them when they come into a room etc.
  • stage/camera presence – you can have that with or without personal presence and all shades in between. I saw Prince at the 02 arena a few years ago and although I was right up on the highest balcony, his tiny faraway figure crackled with a kind of electrical charge. Some actors and singers have more of it offstage than on – fairly unassuming offstage, then they light up on stage. Not that I think Prince is either very large, even close to, or unassuming…
  • charisma – more like the Weber definition (see above). Importance and presence that includes the trappings of power – as much to do with an accretion of other people’s perceptions as with an inherent quality, all of which builds into iconic status.


Today in Leeds I think the weather has turned a corner, from snow and ice to sleet and sludge. I’ve loved the snow, as much for the injection of bright light at the worst time of year as for the glee of the snow itself and of things being different. It’s affected my business of course, as clients have had to cancel appointments for two weeks, but I’m grateful to the ‘Wheee! Holiday! Play now, pay later’ attitude that I have to it. it’s got to be better than worrying, hasn’t it?

Now it’s time to reap the rewards – no money, no light and my last year’s accounts to do by the 31st.

Back to grammar basics – and the Rev Angela Tilby

Yesterday morning I caught the thought for the day on Radio 4’s Today programme. The Rev Angela Tilby started out about the powers of the new Supreme Court, but the rest of the thought was to do with the use of adjectives.  There is a bit in it about the use of  Holy Holy Holy in the Bible, but you can whizz past that if you aren’t religious.

It reminded me to go back to basics if I’m not sure of the purpose of a sentence or if I can’t see the bones for the froth. 

The Rev Angela ends with the injunction to ‘take a pencil and cut them(adjectives) out. Then you will see what’s really being said about places, people deeds and actions’. I like this advice – it’s what I was taught at school, but had lost sight of it.  

 To hear the peice, go to, then click on 1st October 09 or to read it, go to and search Angela Tilby, 1st October .

 The message hit home and sunk in as I have been editing recently.  After a while, a person can get wound up in knots and lose a sense of proportion.

As it has hit home, I’m writing this without using adjectives (apart from Holy Holy Holy, which doesn’t count.).

The Rev actually said  ‘blue pencil’ in the last sentence, but I applied rule no. 2 about adjectives to that and cut it out.

Rule 2 is that you look at every adjective you write and ask whether it has  a purpose and/or adds information. In this case and for the purpose of this blog, ‘blue’ doesn’t, so it’s out. It did in her piece, though, because a blue pencil was used to correct manuscripts by editors in the publishing industry before track changes software. So in the Rev’s piece, it added value by allusion to editing from an age when grammar was important.   

Now I’ve messed up – the last paragraph includes adjectives and rule 2 has had to be employed for ‘publishing’ and ‘track changes’ used adjectivally. ‘Important’ is a predicative adjective, so doesn’t count.

Good work, that  Rev. (Rule 2 applied here – this would be nonsense without ‘good’ )

Is your memory disintegrating? Don’t panic – it makes it worse!

When my memory first started to disintegrate  I panicked. Not because of what it might mean (dementia? alzheimers?) but because I had relied so much on it and didn’t know how to do without it. Since then, Ive been studying  the process in myself and in the people around me. I’ve arrived at some conclusions – some ridiculously obvious –  which I’m passing on to fellow sufferers.

  • stress makes you forgetful
  • getting older makes you forgetful
  • worrying about memory makes you forgetful
  • trying to remember makes you forget
  • remembering something similar makes you forget (example: I forgot Obama’s ‘Yes we can’ catchphrase because it was overlaid by Bob the Builder’s catchphrase – also ‘Yes we can’. )
  • evenings and a glass of wine makes you completely la-la
  • sometimes, being asked a question makes you forget the answer (which you knew beyond doubt before the question was asked)

There are (in my experience to date – I’ll update when I find more) four  stages. You get familiar with the first stage before the more alarming second stage kicks in, then a bit later, the third, transitory stage arrives, followed by the fourth stage which really rattles you – if you remember it:

  1. You just forget things – names, where you put your keys, etc
  2. You forget things even if you’re prompted
  3. You remember things but you’re not sure
  4. You remember things wrongly and swear black’s white that you’re right

So what’s the remedy?

There’s a paradox here – for facts/events memory, relax and don’t focus. For losing things and forgetting appointments, focus.    

Facts and events

Think of memory as a visitor – it comes and goes. Sometimes you can remember the Latin name for snow-in-summer* or who first recorded Mamma Told me not to Come* and sometimes you can’t. It will be back once you stop focusing on it. And, actually, nobody cares but you, so let it go if only in the interests of clear communication.

  • *Cerastium (aka Cerasticum)
  • *Three Dog Night

Losing things and forgetting appointments

Preoccupation is memory’s enemy and focus is it’s friend here. If there’s a lot going on in your head (stress) your memory is going to suffer. If you put your keys down or scribble  cryptic notes to yourself  in your diary while whizzing around on autopilot as you’re chewing on a worry, you’ll lose them.

I lost a cheque recently because I tidied it away in a hurry by popping it between books in one of my bookcases. My best example was loosing a bowl of Chow Mein because the doorbell rang and I shoved it somewhere while I answered. I found it years later, when I moved house, between the attic bannister and an old picture frame. 

Pay attention to what you’re doing as you’re doing it – that’s all.