Manley Hopkinson of The Compassionate Leadership Academy

    We Spoke to Manley Hopkinson of The Compassionate Leadership Academy on Being an Effective Leader During Turbulent Times

    As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Manley Hopkinson, founder of renowned leadership consultancy Manley Talks LTD and The Compassionate Leadership Academy, author of Compassionate Leadership and a sought-after keynote speaker.

    Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

    My pleasure Charlie. Life is definitely not a straight road and I certainly did not plan to get where I am today! It was more “going with the flow”, literally. I have always been closely attached to the sea and joined the British Royal Navy, then the Royal Hong Kong Marine Police before volunteering to re-join the Royal Navy to serve in the first Gulf War, with a short stint exploring Papua New Guinea in between. After the Gulf, I left the Navy again and became a professional sailor, skippering all sorts of boats all over the world — some rather nice and some particularly dodgy, with quite a few stories to tell. My sailing career culminated in being selected to skipper in the world’s toughest yacht race, the BT Global Challenge — sailing 32,000 miles around the world, the wrong way (that’s going west about, against all the prevailing winds and ocean currents). That race changed my life in so many ways. I learnt a lot about myself, about team work and about leadership; it was like 20 years of intense leadership experience condensed into 9 short months. It set me up to do what I do today. Twenty years later and I’m still talking about it!

    It has been a fascinating journey since that race, not only working with business and community leaders globally — applying the experience and knowledge of leadership and performance — but also in whetting my appetite for more adventures, with a ski race to the Magnetic North Pole being a bit of a stand out one. I like to test my leadership abilities regularly through various expeditions and it also adds to the stories I can share.

    I continue to learn and develop my thinking on leadership and, through my stories, share the principles of compassionate leadership, commitment, performance and transformation.

    It’s funny to think, when you look back over the various paths taken and decisions made, some in my control but many not, how it has all turned out. I left home with my heart set on becoming an architect and here I am, 40 crazy years later as the founder of the Compassionate Leadership Academy, working with the extraordinary leaders of some of the world’s most impressive companies, sharing my stories and inspiring audiences worldwide through Manley Talks and an author too! Funny old world.

    Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

    Cripes, I’ve made plenty of mistakes in my life — that’s for sure. Even though I was very fortunate that as a young officer in the navy, leadership was on the table every day, I think my first big and very public test was in the BT Global Challenge. The very first time I met my crew was at the London Boat Show. And you need to know about my amazing crew — what incredible people. We are about to take on the mighty oceans in the world’s toughest yacht race, but 8 of my crew of 17 had never sailed before in their lives! It was all about attitude and I firmly believe that even today. So you can imagine the night we first met; the tension, the excitement, the expectation. I was their leader, their captain and about to take them on a life-changing odyssey. They stood in front of me at the boat show and my first words were “Hurrah team, let’s go to the pub”! Big cheers. So far so good. “Follow me team” and I led them out into the streets of London to take them to our allocated pub … and I got lost! I couldn’t find the pub! I’m about to take them around the world and I cannot even find our first beer!! We recovered. Found the pub and had a great evening. But not a great start!

    A couple of lessons there. Do your homework (!!) and be humble — we all make mistakes and it’s what you do about it that really matters, but also make sure you never repeat a mistake!

    None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

    My mother and father of course. They instilled in me the courage and confidence to go out into the world and enjoy. They taught me to have the strength to always be true to myself, to accept responsibility for my actions and to redeem the situation myself, if my choices led me down a troublesome path.

    But my big break and my big thanks must go to Sir Chay Blyth, the organiser of the BT Global Challenge and a truly inspirational person. Firstly, for having faith in my abilities and selecting me to skipper in the race, but, secondly, I must thank him for his penchant for whisky! Let me explain. As we raced around the world we stopped in some beautiful places and in each port there were a number of events and parties but always one big gala dinner. We were in Wellington, New Zealand, and I was on the top table for the dinner, having done pretty well in that last leg of the race, and was sitting between Sir Chay and the Commodore of the local yacht club, the Royal Port Nicholson. Both were to be speakers at the dinner, preceded by the Mayor of Wellington and the Sports Minister for New Zealand. Just before the speeches started, Sir Chay lent over to me and slurred “I’ve had a wee bit too much to drink, Laddie, you do it”!

    Aargh!! What do you do? You can’t give another person’s speech. So I rushed to the rest room and scrawled down the bare bones of a speech and waited my turn. First the Minister, a truly polished and experienced speaker. The Mayor of Wellington went down a storm and the Commodore had them rolling in the aisles. My turn.

    As it happened, my talk went brilliantly. Business leaders came up to me afterwards and asked me to come and speak to their board and senior leaders. And so my speaking career began. Cheers to Sir Chay!

    Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?

    To be very honest with you, my purpose developed over the years. I became a keynote speaker and guru on all things leadership by accident really. I worked in the leadership development space and met so many incredible people. Not just experts in leadership and performance but truly inspiring business and sporting people too. Slowly, my philosophies on compassionate leadership began to take shape, as I questioned and researched what it really takes to both perform and transform — as, in essence, we are always trying to do one or the other, generally both. I realised that it came down to gaining commitment, for once you have commitment you also have engagement, collaboration, innovation, ownership, well-being, happiness and performance. Also that gaining commitment was not an intellectual exercise but an emotional one centred on tapping into a person’s self-worth. The route to self-worth being compassionate leadership. The Dalia Lama describes compassion as “understanding with positive action” — so compassionate leadership is to “secure the best for all”. This was it. This was the secret and so became my whole life’s purpose — to be a force in instilling compassionate leadership throughout the world. To help all our leaders to be compassionate to themselves, to the people they influence and, critically, to the planet too.

    Now we have this beautiful purpose front and centre in all that we do. It informs every decision and every action. I wake up in the morning knowing the day’s work will add value to people’s lives and the ones they touch, and at the end of the day I challenge myself on how much I managed to move the dial on compassion. I love it!

    Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?

    Well the best example I can give — and it has become the centrepiece for my work — is when I was skippering in the BT Global Challenge. You have heard about my amateur crew already, but another unique aspect of this race was that all the yachts were identical. There were twelve, identical, 72’, steel yachts, all with similar centrally secluded crews that would take on this ultimate challenge. Each team had its fair share of non-sailors, young and old, men and women and from all corners of the globe. The Skipper’s challenge was to make them into a strong team to challenge the world and come home safely.

    A few days after leaving Boston in the USA on our way to Buenos Aires in Argentina, a hurricane was forecast in our area; Hurricane Michael. It was a biggie — winds gusting to 90 mph and the forecasters predicted it to be “phenomenal”.

    What do you do? You literally have the lives of your crew in your hands. They have entrusted you with their most precious gift. I did not want my team to be afraid of Hurricane Michael. If you are afraid of something, it consumes you. It is in control and you are at its mercy. If you are afraid you stop relating and stop acting rationally. Your mind shuts down and prepares your body for fight, flight or freeze. To be in a hurricane, the planet’s largest energy system, in that state would be catastrophic. We had to challenge that potential negative mindset and adopt a more positive one, so we “attacked” Hurricane Michael. We chose an aggressive path straight into the side of the hurricane towards the eye and then were able to “tack” out and get spat out by the powerful winds into first place in the race.

    I was able to do this and gain the commitment of all of my team by taking into account their deep intrinsic motivational drivers (I did not know it at the time, but that was a powerful demonstration of compassionate leadership — understanding with positive action).

    As a leader today, with many “hurricanes” out there and with an ever accelerating rate of change and uncertainty, you have a choice; do you try to run away from the hurricane or do you attack it. I do not believe that running away or trying to hide is an option. So, you attack. You set the ambition and the attitude. You have confidence in you and your team’s ability. You are courageous in taking this aggressive stance and, with compassionate leadership, you gain the commitment of your team to join you on this positive path of performance.

    You, the leader, can turn the threat into an opportunity when you have the commitment from your team.

    Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?

    There are many times in my life when I have wondered why I made the choices I did and wouldn’t it have been easier if I had just … said “No”! But life is so much more fun and exciting if we learn to say “Yes” to the new and uncertain.

    I will tell the story of when I took part in the inaugural race to the Magnetic North Pole. Some 365 miles across badly broken sea ice with the still air temperature down to minus 40 degree celsius (which is also the same in Fahrenheit as it happens). I teamed up with two extraordinary chaps, both ex-Royal Marines — the UK’s elite fight force, both brilliant skiers and both 8 years my junior. Three months before the race I had never donned cross-country skis, but I knew I could add value through my sailing experience. However, I did not want to be the weakest link in the chain, so I made a commitment. A commitment to myself and to my two colleagues, Chris and Phil, that they would never have to say “Hurry up Manley”. I would do everything in my power so they would never have to say “Hurry up Manley”.

    That commitment changed everything. In that moment, my team knew they could rely on me and whenever I started to feel low or started wallowing in self-pity, my commitment would jolt me out of my stupor and spur me on to winning that race and setting a new record.

    It is our inner commitment that pushes us through the tough times and, if we share it with our team mates, then it is their challenge and support that doubles the positive impact.

    I guess another factor is, as my Mother would tell me, that I made a free choice to do what I am doing, so don’t go blaming anyone else, man up and press on; the quickest way home is past the finish line!

    What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?

    There is a brilliant model on leadership by John Adair, the great British leadership theorist and prolific author, called “Action Centred Leadership”. Essentially there are 3 interlocking circles of “achieving the task”, “building the team”, and “developing the individual”. A compassionate leader balances their time and effort equally across all 3 circles, recognising that it is a strong team of committed individuals that will be achieving the task.

    I believe most business leaders are already guilty of focusing almost exclusively on the task even when the going is good, and when it gets tough, the tendency is to control tighter, focus on the metrics and diminish the humanity — “all hands to the pump, the work needs to be done”! But at what cost, as you drive your people into the ground, remove accountability and empowerment, tighten your grip on the windpipe of the business and endeavour to be omnipresent and at the centre of every decision. You are compromised, your people are compromised, the business is now even more compromised too. What was a gale is now a storm and about to become a full blown hurricane.

    I distinctly remember scribbling 3 interlocking circles on the side of my navigation chart as we approached Hurricane Michael to make sure that I spread my focus. A crisis is the perfect time to develop individuals and to enable a team to grow. It is precisely the time to empower your people to add value and to ensure that they know they are valued.

    Don’t force compliance. Tap into their self-worth and benefit from their commitment. Don’t try to force the pace to exhaustion. Look after your people.

    There is a powerful Buddhist philosophy that says “true control comes from letting go” — inspire your team to attack the hurricane and grow!

    When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?

    Your own positivity makes a massive difference. Don’t forget the work of Albert Mehrabian, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, on the emotional context of communication. The visual accounts for 55% of information, tone 38% and the word only 7%. Over half of the emotional context of communication is derived through body language. Be acutely aware of how you show up as a leader. How are you walking? Posture? Poise? And your tone; it’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it too. Speak with calm authority and with a warmth and human touch. Smile visually and through your tone too. And the words? That 7% is important also. Use positive realism in a crisis. Be authentic. It’s OK not to know all the answers. Be humble. Engage your people in the way forward. Give them agency in seeking a degree of certainty or forward motion.

    As we mentioned earlier, having a strong sense of organisational purpose pays dividends in times of uncertainty, as it provides crucial clarity in decision making

    I like the use of humour too. It is telling that one of the core values of the British Royal Marines is “humour in the face of adversity”, and having worked with them many times over the years, it is a value that they believe in strongly and helps them when in all kinds of difficulty, as I am sure you can imagine.

    What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?

    I do believe you have to be straight, honest and positive. You have to communicate with a forward focus; what has happened has happened so you need to learn from it and move on constructively. You do need to allow time for the impact of the news to settle in and don’t assume that because you have already grieved and rationalised it that others will just accept what you say. Don’t be light with it and be careful of using humour; it may lighten your mood but it may come across as you lacking care. People react differently so you will need to communicate with compassion (understanding with positive action). Give everyone a voice, allow emotions to surface but don’t let them take over.

    Finding common ground in a solution can enable you and your team and customers to come together more strongly — strength through adversity. Being honest and humble, admitting your own errors and omissions, allows others to do likewise and creates the psychological safety needed for others to open up and to allow all to move forward.

    How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?

    When has it ever been totally predictable? Seriously, life is never predictable. We may have an illusion of predictability but you don’t have to go too far back, if at all, to recognise that so much is actually outside of our control and our ability to anticipate.

    I believe that life is about the journey not the destination. In fact, it really is as the destination of life is death and that doesn’t sound like fun to me. I think we spend too much time worrying about what might happen, what might be, what if.

    One of my favourite kids films is the animation Kung Fu Panda in which the Kung Fu master Shifu shares his concerns about the future with the wise Grand Master Oogway to which the ancient tortoise replies, “You worry too much about what has happened and what might be. The past is history, the future a mystery, but today is a gift, which is why it’s called the present.” Brilliant and true.

    As a leader in your business, in any time, stick to your purpose, live your values and culture, plan for the future but don’t make it your master. Be present in the moment and ensure that every step you and your team take is a step of purpose and meaning.

    Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?

    Stick to purpose.

    You may change course, but be true to your purpose. For example, as we discussed, my purpose and that of my business is to foster the adoption of compassionate leadership throughout the world. I want to be a new billionaire — to positively impact a billion lives. As a keynote speaker, I share my message to many. Then Covid-19 stopped all of that overnight. The word “pivot” has been used much in recent time and for good reason. Not to pivot your purpose, but to pivot your path, your delivery, your service.

    In reality, the limitations on face to face meetings has enabled the dramatic growth my online compassionate leadership academy. Before, I could only realistically speak in any one continent in a given day, last week I was addressing and audience in Europe in the morning and in the USA that same afternoon.

    Purpose preserved. Delivery changed.

    Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?

    I have already alluded to the big 3 traps that I see business leaders fall into — Reigning in control and disengaging their people. They only focus on the task itself and they lose focus of the journey — the get distracted from purpose. It’s like they get fixated by the scoreboard and ignore the team on the pitch that is trying score the goals.

    Perhaps a small example of our approach to hurricane Michael might highlight what I mean. You must not lose sight of the task in hand — for us it was to get through the hurricane. That is always there, you cannot ignore a threat. Our strategy to get through hurricane Michael in one piece and continue racing was clear to all and must be the continued focus of our collective actions; we were driven by our mission and maintained focus on the journey.

    But a hurricane is with you for many days. I as the leader could not always be present. I would have to sleep. I could not get involved in every decision; there are simply too many things going on at any one time for one person to become the single point of control and the single point of failure. I would have to delegate. I had a leadership team that I would have to trust. That must not change whether we are in calms or storms. Decisions need to be made where the information lies. The team on deck were empowered to drive the yacht but to ask for assistance at specific and agreed points (e.g. rise in wind strength or after a set period), and at any time if they so wished.

    I would use my time in connecting and engaging with my team. To check up on them. Make sure they are OK. We set up a buddy-buddy system to make sure everyone felt supported. We changed the shift system from two shifts of 4 hours on and 4 hours off (known as watches onboard ship), to 3 shifts of 3 hours on, 3 hours off and 3 hours on standby. This way I could protect my team and ensure they were rested and safe, yet still have enough people to respond to any incident.

    Empowered, engaged and focused. My team were totally committed to attacking hurricane Michael. We didn’t just survive. We came out of hurricane Michael in first place and much stronger for it too.

    Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?

    I looked at my delivery model and thought how can I share my experiences (my products) in a new way?

    Be imaginative. Challenge the status quo. Challenge yourself. Don’t assume that the way you used to do things was actually the best way. Learn from others in your industry sector, but, more importantly, widen your horizon and learn from something or someone with a completely different perspective. I see the biggest barrier to innovation or transformation is the belief that we already know. The danger in being an expert is that you may not be open to suggestions.

    Zoom, Teams, Webex, Chime, Skype, whatever — there are so many excellent video platforms out there now and everyone is on them, so where is the differentiator? What is going to make sure that we can still forge ahead?

    For me, the Covid breakthrough in terms of client reach and impact was not just in the content of my talks and advice but in how we split it up. Remember, that compassion is “understanding with positive action”, so understanding how the brain actually works and the impact it has on our powers of concentration, we now split our events with regular breaks and sometimes over a few days rather than all in one.

    Long video calls are pointless. You cannot concentrate for more than about 23 minutes at a time, so why fight it. Work smarter and have more actual breaks. We regularly deliver on a 23/7 cycle — 23 minutes on then 7 minutes away from the laptop to recharge and refocus, then back on.

    We share information beforehand so rather than use the meeting to bore the pants off people with Powerpoint, we now focus the meeting time on discussing information already digested — a much better and more effective way to work than the “old way”.

    I call myself a “leader, in learning” — the comma is key!

    Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.

    1 . Don’t panic, do different and attack your hurricanes!! (And don’t freeze). On our race to the North Pole, we made the mistake of surprising a polar bear. The day before we had bumped into a mother and cub. It was beautiful and almost spiritual to know that we were the trespassers; it was their world for sure. On seeing us, the mother ran away, but the young male we were now face-to-face with lives in permanent hunger on a continual hunt; we were potential food. We knew what to do. We unhitched our sleds, Phil got the gun ready, Chris was banging his skis together and I …. I grabbed the video camera!

    Running away was not an option. A polar bear can run much faster than any of us. Killing the bear was beyond consideration; to do that would have been a tragedy and a source of shame for us all. Knowing the hunting instincts of the polar bear gave us a 3rd option — we steadily marched towards the bear. We closed the distance. We were in control. We asserted dominance.

    It worked. Unnerved, the bear turned and with great nonchalance wandered off as it that was always his plan. We both lived to see another day.

    2. Regular dialogue — There is no excuse for poor communications, especially when things are uncertain and people are unsure. We need to know what’s going on. No news is not good news. When people don’t hear they fill the gaps with conjecture and hearsay.

    But I also want to challenge the word “communication”. It’s too long and means too much. As a leader, whenever you are tempted to communicate, change the word to “dialogue”. The shift is dramatic. Dialogue engages. Dialogue leads to learning. Dialogue is the favoured communication style of a compassionate leader, for without dialogue, how can one understand? Dialogue removes tension and leads to growth.

    On our yacht, we had one simple rule on communications — the receiving was as important as the sending. A short story. I overheard an exchange between two of my crew with one asking another to “pull on a rope”. No answer. Now with a raised voice, the request to pull on the rope was made again. Still no response. Visibly frustrated and with anger in the tone, the request turned to a command. The other turned, now also annoyed “Hold on, hold on, can’t you see I am busy”!

    All that had to happen was acknowledgement on receiving. Had the response been “Ok, just a minute. I’ll quickly finish this then I’m on it” there would have been no tension. A dialogue beats a broadcast any day of the week!

    3. Let go. You cannot be omnipresent. You must not be the single point of failure. Let go. Truly empower your team. There was a lot of pressure at the start of each leg of my sailing race around the world, as you can imagine. The start is an imaginary line between two buoys and there’s always a slight bias to the line. With the seconds ticking away to the start gun, all 12 of the 72’ steel yachts are trying to be in exactly the same place at the same time at full speed! The potential for getting it wrong is massive. So who should be on the wheel? There is only one professional sailor onboard and that’s me, the skipper. I must be on the wheel!

    Wrong. If I am on the wheel, who is checking the weather, checking the opposition, taking care of the navigation? If I am on the wheel, then where’s the legacy, who is going to learn? If I am on the wheel, who is doing my job, who is leading?

    My challenge to all leaders is “don’t do the job you can do, do the job you should be doing” and for a leader you already have 3 things to focus on and that’s achieving the task, building the team and developing the individuals within.

    4. Enjoy the journey. Enjoy the moment and be present. Don’t lose your life in what-ifs and maybes. Plan for the future but don’t become its slave.

    On our yacht, mid-ocean, we focused on being, on living our values. Our mission statement was “to continuously grow, develop and support each other to achieve our maximum and enjoy our journey”. For a race around the world you might argue that the word “win” is conspicuous by its absence. But which of the words of our statement would enable winning to happen? Grow perhaps? Or develop maybe? Support? Achieve? Enjoy? All of them. And that’s the point. If we lived by these values in our everyday then this could enable winning to happen. How could you win without them? Anyway, life is far more than just about winning, it is most definitely about enjoying the journey.

    5. Be compassionate Be compassionate to yourself, others and the planet. Treat it all well and all of it will treat you well in return.

    Compassion must start at home. We tend to be most unkind to ourselves but surely we need to be at our best if we are to serve others well? How soundly do you sleep? Do you get enough rest, eat properly or exercise well? Be brilliant and then your efforts to help others will also be brilliant and will create the power of “collective brilliance”.

    Now that you are in a good place, focus your compassion on others. Understand the journey others are going through before you make judgements based on your own experiences.

    We could not have attacked Hurricane Michael without compassion — understanding with positive action. I understood their inner motivations and was able to tap into them through my words to gain their commitment to attack. The compassion gave me the choice and my belief was that in attacking the hurricane we would be safer. As counterintuitive as that may sound, our safety was in our emotional control as much as in our control of the boat and the sails.

    And my final plea for compassion is to be compassionate to our beautiful planet. It is easy to forget her when in times of uncertainty or turbulence, but it makes no sense to put even more tension in a tense system. Just compassionate thoughts of gratitude toward our life system eases our personal tension, releases positive hormones and helps us deal with stress. Even as we abuse our planet with our current suicide mission, so she still heals — now that is compassionate!

    Can you please give us your favourite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

    Just before I left home, my father shared the wise words “Never go to the grave in credit”. I understood it to mean that I must “Enjoy the journey,” for that has been my mantra for all of my life, but perhaps he was just trying to let me know that there would be no legacy coming my way!!

    Anyway, he definitely enjoyed his journey, right to the very end, and I sincerely hope that you “enjoy the journey” too

    How can our readers further follow your work?

    Lots of ways, Charlie.

    There is my book — Compassionate Leadership that is available at all decent book stores, Amazon of course and it’s on Kindle and Audible too

    Then my Compassionate Leadership Academy (CLA), launched early in 2019, has flown off the shelves during Covid as more and more people are turning to technology to continue the journey of growth. The CLA is designed to help us all raise our own emotional awareness and intelligence and then develop the tools of compassionate leadership. Disruptive and democratising and accredited too.

    I do regularly post on various social media platforms, mainly Linked in, and I am still very much alive and kicking on the speaking circuit, so please do invite me along; I would be delighted to share more of my stories and what I have learnt along the way.