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The Wisdom of Baroness Virginia Bottomley

Above all, at this time we need something that we at Thought Architects have called “cognitive resilience”. How do you, as a leader, parent, spouse, friend and individual actually BE adaptive? In business being adaptive is all about shifting away from the “strategy” that assumes the static and being “really good” at something, and moving towards the ability to learn HOW to do new things. An older (2011) posting from Harvard Business Review highlights that there are four capabilities to be adaptive:

- Learning how to read (and act on) signals

- The ability to experiment

- The ability to work beyond your own company (i.e. break down silos)

- The ability to mobilize

These are all great ideas, but ideas are plentiful. How do you make them happen?

So here is my thinking to lead us to HOW:

To be adaptive means you have to be ok with discomfort, tension and not knowing. But that does not just “happen”. Think back to your PSY101 class and attachment theory. Kids need to feel safe with a primary caregiver so that they can venture out and experiment, and learn. I recall my three kids as toddlers hugging me – then going off to play in the park, eat sand, squeal in delight, and then come back with tears when they fell, got scared or were tired. They knew that I would love them. No matter what. I was safe.

Translate that psychological safety to work. What happens to your performance when you are supported, cared for and loved at work? (One of our Architects, Sheena Howard has developed Love-Led Leadership and challenges us all to put the concept of love into the workplace – take a read of her stuff!). It is about being connected to others as people. It is about knowing you can take risks. It is knowing that when you screw up, you learn and grow as you are not worried about getting fired. It does not mean you are not accountable, but it means you are cared for as a human, and the collective goal is to grow and evolve as individuals and as a team. In my career I have had about four teams where I was surrounded by people who I loved and cared for, and where I was loved and cared for by them. It was nothing short of magical. We learned together, we knew what each person brought to the table, and we trusted that each of us would do our best. Advice was easy to give and take, and we all got better because of each other. Those are the periods I look back on fondly, and where I grew the most professionally.

There is a piece of research out of Case Western Reserve University called Coaching with Compassion (Boyatzis, Smith and Beveridge, 2013). This paper has stood out to me for a long time. The gist of it is this: coaching with compassion is distinct. Most coaching we know and understand is about coaching for compliance – or instrumental coaching. This is where coaching is focused changing to comply with the goals of the organization, boss or even the coach. The key distinction of coaching with compassion is that the person who determines success is the coachee. Coaching is based on the coachee’s growth and development, focuses on strengths, and is directed by the underlying assumption of a desire to grow.

This distinction matters. Remember that image of the child heading to the playground as they know they have the safe place to return to? We know that kids develop best in early years when they are psychologically and physically safe. We see it in brain imaging – when a parent kisses a child, oxytocin makes the brain light up in all kinds of ways – in both the parent and the child. That need for safety and connectedness does not change just because we grow up and go to work. When we are coached with compassion we notice the good things about ourselves, we focus on who we are and what we value, and we determine how we will be successful. A recipe for making the right parts of the brain light up.

And so how do you show people they are safe. You show them kindness. Yes, kindness. For years kindness was not considered a leadership quality. In fact, many found it to be a weakness. I dissent. When I think back to those years when I had the “magical” combination people who all cared for each other, I know that kindness was the root of all it. The head of Odgers Berndtson, (and boy do I wish I had that name) has a compelling piece on although kindness is contrary to what we typically think of as a leadership trait, prioritizing kindness requires a new definition of leadership. Managing the rapid pace of change and being adaptive means that you need to link the emotional aspects and the thinking aspects of the brain – all while keeping the reptilian brainstem level quiet. Being adaptive means you have to be kind.

So again – HOW do you do that? Well my friends, that starts with how we listen to others, and that is a subject of my next blog.

Oh – and for the record. The four times I have experienced the magic of a team? I am in that now, and boy is it great!

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