Interesting books

Who Moved My Cheese? written by Spencer Johnson in 1988. It’s a quick and easy read and a helpful reminder of how we tend to react to change in our lives.

In this metaphorical story, four characters search through a maze for cheese. Two of the characters, Sniff and Scurry, are mice and two, Hem and Haw, are little people. All four find cheese and enjoy it but over time Hem and Haw begin to feel a sense of entitlement, that the cheese is theirs by right. When the cheese runs out the mice instantly adapt and head off to search for new cheese. Hem and Haw, however, are immobilised by their emotional reaction to the loss of the cheese and their attempts to analyse the situation. They literally can’t move on. Eventually Haw laughs at himself and this laughter frees him to think a new thought: what would he do if he wasn’t afraid? Liberated from his old thinking, Haw is able to embrace change and seek out – and find – new cheese. We never quite know what happened to Hem.

However you interpret the story, Who Moved My Cheese? is a helpful reminder about how we might change our reaction to change.

Pause for Breath. Bringing the practices of mindfulness and dialogue to leadership conversations byAmanda Ridings

The theme of this engaging book is leadership mindfulness. Conversations would be enhanced if we slowed the conversations down and paused for breath before and during the dialogue. In the pause for breath, we might be able to give more attention both to our own reactions and to the other person as well as to the quality of the dialogue between us. The book outlines simple exercises to develop self-awareness as well as practices to pause for breath.

The book presents a really easy to understand explanation of key parts of the brain where Ridings refers to Buddhist teachings by Clive Homes: the reptilian, mammalian and frontal lobe parts of the brain. The reptilian brain is our basic brain and is largely hardwired for survival. We can’t overrule it but we can be aware of it and manage its impact. Our mammalian brain is characterized by Clive Homes as our meerkat brain: alert, chattering, nervy and sociable. Then we have our frontal lobe brain which enables perspective, reflection and thinking. Pausing for breath creates the space for the frontal lobe brain to think and to reflect on what the reptilian and mammalian parts of the brain are saying; this creates the potential to change our contribution to the dialogue.

Having paused for breathe and become aware of our internal dialogue, our words can become more skillful. Drawing on research by David Kantor on communication, Ridings suggests it may be helpful to consider our contributions to the conversation in terms of four players: movers, opposers, followers and bystanders. A mover offers a proposal, a follower supports the proposal, an opposer challenges the proposal and a bystander contributes clarification. Each contribution – and the contributions are circular rather than linear – can expand the dialogue and skills can be enhanced for each.

One of the key challenges for leaders today is resolving wicked, or complex, problems. Ridings looks at this and explains how a complex problem has inherent ambiguity and uncertainty. She says “If we move to action too quickly, paradoxical and unintended consequences tend to arise.” So we need to think about complex problems with others. For public sector leaders this will often mean multi disciplinary or multi agency groups, but, says Ridings, this is challenging due to our habit of thinking alone. Ridings summarises William Isaacs work on the four habits of thinking alone as:

  • recycling the past
  • imposing our views on others
  • separating matters that are fundamentally connected
  • being certain of our beliefs and believing them to be unchanging

Skillful leadership group thinking to resolve complex problems therefore requires a great deal of self-awareness and mindfulness. This is enhanced by the breathing exercises outlined in the book.

Finally, one of the most significant points presented in the book is the link between pausing for breath and resilience.

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