Suppose you only have time to attend either one of these two concurrent talks during a seminar on Leadership:

Option 1 – A Harvard Business School professor who has been teaching leadership for more than thirty years and witness more than 20,000 students walk through his lecture theatre. His profile headline reads ‘Always at the pulse of the latest leadership theories.’

Which would you choose? Many would choose Option 2.

Conceptual Tools – Models, Frameworks and Theories

Facilitators use conceptual tools suchas conceptual models, decisionmakingframeworks and behavioraltheories to explain the psychologicaland scientific aspect of behaviors toparticipant in an easy to understandmanner. In the context of Klob’s four-stage experiential learning cycle, conceptual tools areused by facilitators in the third stage, abstract conceptualization, as a way to connect variouslearning points to summarizes the debrief. Facilitators should equipped themselves with soundknowledge in a wide range of conceptual tools, to help participants understand how theirthinking and actions lead to certain outcomes and also, to explain cause-and-effect events. Thebasic idea behind the use of conceptual tools as part of debriefing is that by explaining complexevents in relatively straightforward cause-and-effect relationships, it increases the likelihood ofparticipants making positive changes, because they now know what they have to do, in order toachieve the outcome they seek.

Besides being used as part of the debriefing process, conceptual tools are also used by many to:

  1. Guide decision making
    2. Make predictions
    3. Systematic review and analysis of behaviours
    4. Offer scientific and rational explanations to events
    5. Simplifies a complex situation
    6. Organize multiple variables in a coherent manner

However, in reality, outside of a controlled environment, relying on conceptual tools alone to understand the real world is not enough. Conceptual tools are after all, merely concepts and broad representation of ideas about human dynamics and their main purpose is to offer the simplest explanation to events and occurrences. But as we all know, the real world is more complex than 4 stages of team performances or 4 types of behaviours. When the rubber meets the road, reality will present challenges that no theories, models and frameworks can fully explain.

Facilitators must be aware of the lmitations of conceptual tools. They need to recognize that the linear idea of cause-and-effect seldom applies in reality and that framework offers rational explanation to behaviours, but humans are highly prone to irrational thinking. It is not that conceptual tools are not important, it is that conceptual tools alone are insufficient.

When the Rubber Meets the Road

A whitepaper published by The Center of Creative Leadership suggested the following ratio ono how leadership is developed – 70% of one’s leadership skill is acquired through actual experiences, 20% through feedback and observation, and 10% institutionally.

Educating oneself about leadership is an important part of leadership development. It enables leaders to learn from others and reflect on their own leadership skill. However, a large proportion of leadership learning comes when leaders apply and ‘do’ leadership, not just read or talk about it. When the rubber meets the road, leaders will experience leadership challenges that no formal training and education will ever teach them. Leading real people and real projects exposes leaders to variables that conceptual models and frameworks tend to over-simplify, overlook and/or understate. Models and frameworks are deliberately kept simple so that it can be easily understood by most, and this indivertibly resulted in a gap between theory and application. Variables leaders will find themselves dealing includes time, perofrmance standards, human emotions, personality differences, up and down stream pressure and the list goes on. These are just factors internal to the team; we have not touch on variables that are outside of leaders’ sphere of influence, such as government policies and technology advancement. While frameworks are available to help leaders manage each variables as a standalone entity, there are no conceptual tools available to manage a collective system of variables, because the interlinked relationships between the variables are too complex to rationalize into structures. As such, the best way for leaders to learn how to lead in the real world is by actual experimentation, by ‘doing’ leadership. The more they ‘do’ leadership, the better they are at dealing with complexity.

Leading real projects means leaders have to deal with the complexity of economics (money, time, asset etc), human factors (greed, incompetency, unmotivated etc) and legal/ethical challenges (policies, moral compass, etc). This means dealing with outcomes that have real consequences on the team. Examples of real consequences include losing money, upsetting people and getting sued. Without real consequences, leaders will never be able to assess the actual impact their decision and actions have on others and the team. It is hard-pressed to think of any other type of feedback that is as forthright as real consequences.

Relating this back to coneptual tools, withou actual application of the tools and benefiting (or suffering) from the ensuing consequences, leaders will never be able to fully understand and appreciate the usefulness (or uselessness) of the conceptual tools they learned.

Discerning Participant

Facilitators must be conscious of the fact that participants themselves have lived through their fair share of real time leadership and teamwork. It can even be argued that most participants experienced more leadership and teamwork than facilitators. Participants are ‘doer’ of leadership and teamwork. To them, leadership and teamwork are more about application and practice than concepts and theories. Conceptual models sound just about right on paper but what really matters to participants is when the rubber meets the road, how do we apply them effectively?

Hence, for the facilitation to be relevant and useful to the participants, facilitators must be able to draw out practical features and uses of the conceptual tools. In-order to do so effectively, facilitators themselves must have experiences with the tools in actual situations. Without real time appllication, facilitators would find it difficult to bridge concept and reality in meaningful ways, leaving them to present the conceptual tools at the theoretical level and suggesting application approaches without considering the challenges participants face in reality. This raises questions on the effectiveness of the facilitation because it is no different from participants reading the models directly from textbooks.

Content Neutrality

To be clear, facilitators do not teach participants how to be a more effective leader or team member. This is a job for trainers, educators and consultants. In the purest sense, facilitators are supposed to be process experts but content neutral. Process experts means that facilitators are skilled and proficient in facilitation principles, methods and conceptual tools. In the context of adventure learning, this also means the activities. Using information such as participant profiles, programme objective and deliverables, facilitators would pick the most suitable processes and design the experience around them.

Content neutrality means that facilitators do not take any positions, advocate for any particular causes nor contribute any content to the discussion. It is easier for facilitators to practice content neutrality in the context of process facilitation than adventure learning due to the nature of post activity debrief, where facilitators are often required to make clear the key learning points of each activity or direct the debrief towards a particular learning outcome. Nonetheless, the main idea of not teaching remains the same in any form of facilitation.

Content neutrality does not mean zero content knowledge. The difference is huge. Zero content knowledge means that facilitators are absolutely clueless about what is being said and discussed. While this will surely ensure content neutrality, it also means that facilitators have no idea if the discussion is moving towards the right direction or it is of any real value to the participants. While facilitators do not contribute to the content, content knowledge remains a key asset because it enables facilitators to be more effective. Facilitators uses their content knowledge to guide the participants towards more meaningful conversations, by asking participants the right questions, surface underlying assumptions and connecting different perspectives. And real-time leadership experience is the content, when the learning outcomes revolve around leadership and team dynamics.

Connecting the Dots

Suppose you have a third option – A Harvard Business School Professor who taught Leadership for fifteen years and is also an entrepreneur with fifteen years of experience leading and building an actual organization.

Would you choose him over the first two options? Many would.

Putting all the key points together, it is hard to dispute with the idea that facilitators are more effective when they have actual experiences with conceptual tools, because it gives them a better sense of reality, and thus, enabling them to draw on more practical and sensible application of the models.

To gain in-depth understanding and knowledge of conceptual tools, facilitators have to read, reflect on what they’ve read and analyze their reading by writing articles. There is no short cut to this. Top facilitators read to get to the top, and top facilitators read to stay at the top. Reflecting and writing on conceptual tools contributes massively to the learning process. Writing reviews and articles ensures a thorough understanding of the conceptual tools learned because it requires the facilitators to analyze the content, identify the key learning points, put them together in a coherent fashion and present their perspectives in a manner that is different from the original content, without losing the main essence. In short, writing increases the breadth and depth of understanding.

As repeated many times here, understanding the tools at the conceptual level is not enough, no matter how in-depth one’s knowledge is. Understanding must be accompanied by real-time application, in order for facilitators to apply the tools effectively. Facilitators can claim to understand the practical aspects of conceptual tools very well because they have practiced them with thousand of participants represented by hundreds of organization. However, are the practices limited to team-based activities in an artificial, controlled environment? Where succeed or fail, it does not make any difference at all? By now, you should get the point.

To gain real-time experiences on conceptual tools, facilitators have to put themselves in actual leadership and management positions. Some facilitators are fortunate enough to lead an organization or two, others will be given opportunities to lead departments, while there will always be ad-hoc projects for the rest to lead. Wherever we are, there is surely someone or something waiting to be led. In short, the opportunities to lead are endless. This bias towards real time leadership experience, instead of merely experience as a team-member, is deliberate because the leadership position allows facilitators to relate to the tools at a higher level, which also translates to a more holistic analysis of the conceptual tools. Facilitators need not necessarily apply the conceptual tools consciously during their decision-making process, in other words, design their thought-process around a particular framework. Facilitators can also learn the practical aspects of the tools by reflecting their past experiences on the concepts. There are many ways to learn the practical aspects of conceptual tools, but the one element that must always be present is real-time experiences.

Would it be a conflict of interest, for facilitators to both pursue deep knowledge in conceptual tools and take on real-time leadership responsibilities at the same time? The answer is categorically no. Instead of conflicting, they are as complementary as it can get. Do facilitators have enough time to do both? The answer is categorically yes. In fact, by doing both, it actually steepened the facilitators’ learning curve because they are learning in a more effective manner. Facilitators have to keep themselves abreast of the latest management and behavioral science thinking and so, they read to gain new knowledge. These conceptual tools require a context to ‘test’ their feasibility and this is where the facilitators’ leadership role comes in. As leaders themselves, facilitators should always be on the lookout for ways to develop their leadership and management skills. This is where the readings of conceptual models come in. Together, reading and application feeds each other to create a self-reinforcing loop.

The effectiveness of an adventure learning programme is determined not by the sum of learning points generated on the spot or the amount of talk that takes place, but by the amount of application that happened after or action taken. Effective facilitation therefore is measured by how well facilitators bridge the gap between learning and application or talk and action.

Mousetrap Locus of Control

Mousetrap Locus of Control


Mousetrap, it’s a Locus of Control.

Handling an active mousetrap surfaces two very distinctive reaction from our participants – on one hand, there is the almost nonchalant attitude, and on the other hand, too fearful to even consider how embarrassing one’s reaction is.

The differences in these polarize reactions are more than a matter of being able to bear some pain or having confidence in handling the mousetrap. It has plenty to do with the belief in who has more control over each other. Human or Mousetrap?

Locus of Control was part of psychologists Julian B. Rotter’s theory on Social Learning. Developed in the 50s, its original intent was to study human personalities. Over the years, its application stretched into the domain of industry and organizational psychology.

Locus of Control refers to an individual’s perception on how much influence one has over events in his/her life. Spread on a continuum is a set of dichotomies – Internal and External Locus of Control.

Those who have high internal locus of control believes that they are the responsible of most, if not all, happenings and occurrences in their life. Outcome and future are dictated by their deeds and actions. On the opposite, people who are highly external believe forces outside of their control determine their fate. They are not in-charge of their destiny.

Because they believe success is within their control, those skewed towards internal control are more likely to put in extra effort and by and large, self-motivated and approach activities with more optimism. On the contrary, external believers see their endeavors independent of the outcome, and thus, would likely question the need for additional effort, if there were any at all to start with. They are generally more pessimistic.

Internal locus of control does carry more positives over external, but like everything else, there are potential perils that should not be overlooked. Firstly, not everything is within our powers. By trying to control too much, we could become overly aggressive towards others. Second, we might ignore aspects outside of our grasp that are highly significant. And lastly, we might falsely perceive success or failure as our own doing (some parallels between this point and Attribution Theory).

So back to the mousetrap. Participants react according to how they feel. The feeling of fear and anxiety when handling a mousetrap derives from the anticipation of the worse possible scenario – getting hurt by it. But the matter of fact is, the only way to be hurt by the mousetrap is when it is not properly dealt with. We are the one that handles the functioning mechanisms. So long as the instructions are correctly followed, no harm will occur. In other words, we are in control over the situation and we dictate the outcome – pain or not pain. To succeed in this activity of Mousetrap, it is then essential for one to have high internal locus of control, and believe that they are the difference maker. At the end of the day, the mousetrap is just a … mousetrap. Why should we allow it to control how we feel?

This activity is a great metaphor of the life we face everyday. We all live in the same world and are presented the same challenges. There are of course many aspects of life that are not within our powers to control – like weather phenomena, economic crisis and epidemics. But, we can always control how we react and respond to the situation and influence ourselves and maybe, those close to us.

Look at your hands now; this is where you find success.

Web Reference










We read and hear about successful entrepreneurs all the time in the prints, on the web and Television. The thing is, we hear about them because they are successful. What about does who
are not? How many times do we see unsuccessful entrepreneurs making the headlines? Few and far between I guess, if there ever was any to begin with. So, does this means that to be
considered an entrepreneur, one must first enjoy some form of success? Or is entrepreneurship more a matter of philosophy?

So, what exactly is entrepreneurship? As a concept, entrepreneurship has a wide range of meanings. Run the word through the internet and we will find tens, if not hundreds of related
results, each with its own version of what the word means. However, we can also find similar themes that the different views share. One of them is the need for entrepreneurs to take risk. So what is risk-taking? Oxford Dictionaries.com defines risk as:

‘a situation involving exposure to danger; act in such a way as to bring about the possibility of (an unpleasant or unwelcome event); the possibility of financial loss;’

To consider oneself as ‘taking a risk’, the potential lost must be of some significance to the risktaker. The higher the potential lost, or opportunity for losing, the greater the risk.

The term ‘Risk-taking’ has been used too loosely at times, as a general descriptive to describe situations where it is more about trying one’s luck rather than putting oneself in a genuinely risky position. The reality is, how many of us actually have enough to put on the line for it to be considered a ‘real’ risk to begin with? If ‘real’ risk-taking means the potential lost is significant enough to alter the rest of our lives, how many are game for it?

Risk-taking’ sounds massive and like it’s attached with heavy responsibilities and consequences. It probably is, especially so in the context of entrepreneurship. The successful entrepreneurs we know often speak of their past failures and how important those painful lessons are in helping them find success. At the same time, there are also many who took risks, failed and never recovered. If risk-taking and entrepreneurship are so easy, then there would be plenty of them filling the streets right now. So can risk-taking be easy? Well, it would be a great irony if it is. If the endeavor ever was a stroll in the park, the idea of entrepreneurship would be greatly undermined.

Instead of making it easy, we can, and some would argue should, make ‘risk-taking’ more manageable, by breaking the concept down into ‘bite-sizes’ and overtime, cultivate and embed it
as a personal ways of life. If we were to strip the idea of ‘risk-taking’ to its barest, we are essentially talking about trying new things. Asking someone to try something new sounds a lot
more do-able compared to telling them to take a risk. Each time we try a fresh idea, we are taking a gamble, but by starting small, the consequences of our actions is potentially less costly. If things do not work out, the damage is small, even negligible. If the idea works, then there is a small success to celebrate and more importantly, to build on. Success breeds success (be mindful because success breeds complacency too) and with success comes confidence, confidence for trying bigger and fresher ideas.

Every time we embark on a new exploration, opportunities for learning are created. Whether it is a success or disappointment, there’s always a lesson to be learned. One thing is for certain, the more we expose ourselves to trying new ideas, the better we become. Overtime, the lessons and experiences accumulates and form a springboard that will allow us to bounce new ideas off easily. By starting modestly and at a gradual pace, we can build small wins upon small wins. As we grow, what develop within ourselves is not just the knowledge of working with novel ideas (able), but just as importantly, an attitude and liking for venturing into the unknown (willing). Consciously or subconsciously, these qualities are embedded into our ways of life and when the time comes for us to take ‘real’ risk, we will be better equipped and risk-taking might just seem easier.







Stress is one’s physical, mental and emotional response to any kind of situations and there are two types of stress: Distress and Eustress.

– Distress is ‘bad’ stress. Distress is the negative response when one is unable to cope with the stress. Tension builds when one is distress and it leads to the feelings ofpain and agony.

– Eustress is ‘good’ stress. Eustress can be defined as beneficial stress and it refers to the positive cognitive response to stress, one that gives a sense of fulfilment.The physical reaction to distress and eustress are quite similar. When one heartbeat increases and starts feeling tense, is he feeling anxious and nervous, or is he feeling excited or motivated?

Stress and Adventure Learning

Stress is an essential part of effective Adventure Learning because facilitators tap on participants’ emotional responses in the experience to generate meaningful learning outcomes. This is why risk is such an important component in any AL experiences. Risk is associated with the elements of unknown and uncertainty and these elements usually evoke stressed responses. Facilitators need to be able to manage participant stress. When put in stress situations, participants will choose one of these three responses – flight, fight or freeze.

When participants are distressed, their most natural inclination is to ‘get-out’ of the situation. They will seek to rationalise and support their worries by constantly searching for excuses or signs that things are not working out for them. Distress also leads to poor judgment, which affects the participants’ ability to make sound decision.

On the other hand, participants driven by eustress are motivated by the challenge of uncertainty. They will choose to ‘get-in’. To them, uncertainty offers the opportunity for exploration. Exploration is characterised by discovery and learning.People choose to ‘fight’ when they are motivated by eustress. Eustress also sparks creativity because it encourages individuals to problem solve and look for ways to move forward and this includes collaborating with others.

Cultivating Eustress on the Team Challenge Hourglass (TCH)

The sight of the TCH immediately evokes two responses from the participants – flight or fight. The idea of being suspended 24 meters in the air is a thought some participants are unable to cope with and the ‘flight’ mentality naturally became their first respond.The other group of participants are genuinely excited about the idea of climbing the TCH. The challenge and the sense of fulfilment that comes from the experience drives these participants ‘fight’ mentality.

Distress-ed participants choose flight, eustress-ed participants opt to fight. The question here is, what can facilitators do to cultivate more eustress and encourage more participants to embrace the challenge of the TCH? Here are a few suggestions:

1)      Focus on the outcome.

  1. On a personal level, the sense of fulfilment and accomplishment.
  2. At a team level, the feeling of peak team performance.


2)      Put participants in a state where they feel that they are in control.

  1. Practice ‘Challenge by Choice’ – participants have the option to leave the TCH at any point in time.
  2. Allow participants to set their own target by choosing any of the four rest cages as their desired end point. Upon reaching the targeted rest cage, open the choice for participants to set a higher target or leave the TCH as agreed upon.
  3. When gearing up, let participants put on the harness by themselves, with as little physical assistance as possible. This is to reinforce the thought that the participants are in control of their own situation.


3)      Celebrate ‘small wins’.

  1. a.      Acknowledge the effort and success each time the team reaches one of the rest cages. It can be as simple as exchanging high-fives. The main idea here is to recognize the effort, celebrate the small but to some, a significant accomplishment, and energizes the team.


4)      Build eustress progressively.

  1. Prior to the climb, conduct trust building activities, such as Low Elements, to build confidence.
  2. Have participants talk to each other before the climb. It can be on anything related to the experience, for example, how excited they are or how members can assist each other on the TCH. Verbalizing thoughts will help in building commitment.

The space between the ground and the top of the Hourglass represents the gap between an organization vision and its current state. The TCH is a fitting metaphor that describes the concept of Creative Tension, which was discussed by Peter Senge inhis work, The Fifth Discipline:

“The gap between vision and current reality is also a source of energy. If there were no gap, there would be no need for any action to move towards the vision. We call this gap creative tension.Creative tension is where people honestly and clearly see where they are (present reality), as well as where they would like to be (their vision for the future). Creative tension lies in the space between reality and vision. People can harness these concepts to both push and pull people and organizations toward change.”

The gap between vision and current reality exists in all organizations; however, the type of energy that can be harnessed from the gap varies between individuals. ‘Distress’ or ‘eustress’ is an individual stress response to the gap. People draw positive energy (eustress) from the gap when they are excited by the challenge. People can also draw negative energy (distress) when the gap appears to be unrealistic or it makes them feel nervous and afraid.  How people respond to the gap and the type of energy it harness will affect their level of desired to close it.

The product of distress is negative energy and it often leads to the ‘flight’ mentality. But in reality, especially so in business organizations, people are rarely able to ‘fly’ completely out of the situation; rather, a more common effect of distress is for organization and people to lower their vision.

Creative Tension produces eustress, whichmotivates and drives people to take actions. Organizations can create Creative Tension by managing the gap between vision and current reality.

Vision – By vision, we do not mean organizational vision only. Vision could also mean goals, targets and objectives. Vision here refers to both the state and the outcome of the effort.

Here are some key questions to ask: How is the vision perceived by others? What are the intrinsic and/or extrinsic value people are able to draw from pursing the vision? Is the vision aligned to the personal goals of the individuals?Does the visioninspire people to take action?

To pull people into the vision, leaders should not focus on the outcome of the vision but rather, the process of visioning. Visioning is the act of creating the future together as a team. Visioning as a process refers to the open and free exchange of ideas by all members of the group. It talks about where the team should be heading and how it should get there. In visioning, not all views will beaccepted; however,all views must be heard, respected and taken into consideration. Visioning is a shared experience and the outcome is a shared vision. By involving everyone in the visioning process, people are able to witness, understand and appreciate how the vision is formulated. Sense of ownership towards the vision increased because people feel that they have contributed to the process and have made a difference to the outcome.When people have invested the effort in visioning, they are also more likely to continue the effort to see the vision through. More often than not, people tend to feel more motivated working towards visions they have co-created than visions set by others.

Current Reality – A challenging vision can be a source of motivation and positive energy.However, people must feel that they have the capacity and capability or the potential within themselvesto attain the vision, in order for them to draw eustress from the Creative Tension. If the gap is too wide between the vision and their current abilities, people will struggle to experience any meaningful results despite their best effort. Over time, this continuous pattern of ‘effort but no results’, will lead to self-doubt, drop in self-confidence and eventually, people will give up the pursue of the vision. This is if people try. For some, the wide gap between vision and current reality will lead to an immediate ‘flight’ response.

To cultivate eustress, people need to feel that they have control over the situation (creative tension) and one way to heighten this sense of control is by balancing the degree of difficulty required to fulfil the vision and the existing capacity, capabilities and potential (current reality) of the people. This balancing act is fully illustrated in MihályCsíkszentmihályi‘Flow’ theory:

On the vertical axis is the degree of difficulty of a task and on the horizontal axis is the person’s skills set. When there is a mismatch between the level of task difficulty and skill, people will either be frustrated or bored.

The ideal state is the ‘Flow Zone’ in the middle where level of challenge matches the level of skills. People develop eustress and feel motivated in the ‘Flow Zone’ because they experience meaningful progress.

‘Flow’ theory and Creative Tension shares the common idea of generating positive energy by balancing what needs to be done and what people can do. In the earlier rubber band illustration of Creative Tension, if the hands are too close to each other, the band limps and appears lifeless. If the hands are too wide, the band snaps.

An important step in achieving ‘Flow’ is the assessment of the current reality. Here are some questions to ask:Do the people have the capacity, capabilities and potential to fulfil the vision? If not, how can they be prepared, trained and developed. Are there sufficient resources? Do the people have enough support?

Another way to achieve ‘Flow’ is to divide the vision into stages and adopt a scaffold approach to attain it. In their work, The Leadership Challenge, Jim Kouzes and Barry Posners use the term ‘small wins’ to describe how leader can break down very challenging tasks into stages. The completion of each stage boosts morale and creates more eustress, and it gives people more confidence to move to the next stage.Each stage of the vision represents another mini layer of Creative Tension and the level of challenge at each stage should match the skills level, in order to achieve ‘Flow’ and create eustress. As such, to ensure that the vision is scaffold in a meaningful and purposeful manner, the current reality of the people must be considered.


Every organization faces the challenge of closing the gap between what it aspires to achieve and the current reality. To harness positive energy from this gap to motivate and propel people towards the aspirations, organizations should look at the way the aspirations are derived and the people’s existing capabilities.

Written by Joey NG (Facilitator)





The subject of leadership and management has been discussed and dialogued many times. Most are well verse in their definitions, differences and what each brings to the table.

One of the more famous quote on this subject was from Grace Hopper, a retired Navy admiral, ‘You manage things; you lead people.’

Agree? Most do. It makes sense; people have feelings and leadership skew heavily on human connectivity. Views from some popular works on leadership such as The 8th Habit and The Leadership Challenge support this notion. But doesn’t this quote sounds a bit idealistic?

Leadership alone is not enough; you need to combine leadership with management. Relying on leadership alone is like all sail and no rudder.

Peter Drucker: “..as to separating management from leadership, that is nonsense – as much nonsense as separating management from entrepreneurship. They are part and parcel of the same job .They are different to be sure, but only as different as the right hand from the left or the nose from the mouth. They belong to same body”

The question is: Where to strike the balance? How much of each do we use? More specially, how much of it do we use in business? To answer this question, let us first examine these following differences:

Art or Science

Art stimulate thoughts and emotions. You visit a museum, gaze through the painting and feel connected to some of them. Some painting attracts more, others, the odd 1 or 2. You visit the same work some time later, and some how it feels different. You can’t explain why, it’s just… the feeling, the connection. The same goes for leadership. Because of some unexplainable forces, some members feel more connected to a leader, while some, just don’t get it! Leadership, in this sense, is more akin to art.

Science explains and predicts. Weather forecasting is science. Using patterns and data, geologists are able to predict the next storm. Putting a fire out is science. The fire stops burning because oxygen has been cut. Unlike art, science offers predictability and with it, consistency. Management involves controlling, working in system and seeking for consistency. In this sense, management is more parallel to science.

Possibility or Probability

Is there a distinction between possibility and probability? One school of thought says yes: possibility is either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ while probability covers everything in between the dichotomies (Odds and chances). The other school says no: they are the same, just that possibilities is not a term used in math. To support this article’s argument, we will subscribe to the first belief.

Edward De Bono, one of the leading authors in the field of creative thinking said, ‘‘Possibility’ widens your perception, while ‘Probability’ narrows it’. In the context of creativity, divergence is good – The more ideas there are, the more chances of striking gold. But what about those ideas that didn’t take off? For every 1 idea that lift-off, how many didn’t even make it to the launch pad? How much resources were wasted on them?

Probability narrows the field and draws closures. As it narrows, there is less to focus, people become more ready, more prepared and in turn, better equip to make better decisions (think blackjack). The extra attentions that were given to prepare for any and everything can then be refocus on other matters.

Possibility gives one the sense that things are always open, that the tunnel has no or infinite ends. Probability gives people the feeling that they have control over how things will turn out, which door to open to exit the tunnel. Another way to look at these two terms: Risk Vs Calculated Risk.

Connecting the Dots

Leadership is an art, relying heavily on fate and possibilities. To a leader, everyone is possible, no one is impossible. Management in the other hand will say some are more probable than the others. Management is the science of increasing the probability of turning things out as intended.

Many argued that leadership elevates performance to a level management can never reach. This is true, but, such superior performance might be too inconsistent, too few and far between to rely on. Management on the other hand has often been attributed to the stifling of outstanding output but, it at least produces consistency. Leadership produces the occasional brilliance, management chunks out a predictable 7/10 every time. Most leaders will settle for the latter. I think.

Red Tapes and Management

Often, we hear individuals complaining about how things are run in an organization, too much red tape, systems that stifles etc. Typically, these individuals are taking the bottom up approach, from an individual’s perspective. Example: it is ok for me to be late, its just one person. Or, misusing $5 of the company’s money is ok because it is just, $5!

Turn the table around, take a top-down approach and we will see things completely differently. In an organization of 100, if everyone is 30 minutes late, the company will lose 300 minutes of production, or, $500 in misused fund.

Only with management can such events be prevented or more realistically, reduced. Management is synonymous with the word control (but not only!). In business, leaders need control elements to ensure resources are placed towards the right direction. Not all procedures will be popular but they are necessary. Red tapes and other management tools are designed to increase the probability of performance outcome not going below the acceptable range or, to increase the likelihood of performance turning out the way it was planned. Simply put it, management ensures what needed to be done is done.


As an organization grows bigger, so will its complexity. Humans are more unpredictable that anything else. We are the most varied, most inconsistent of any variables. Only in fantasy can a leader solely on leadership because everyone will give their all, are fully committed and have all the know-how to perform their many tasks. In reality, management is the true quality that will offer predictability and consistency and when combined, heighten the probability of guarantees. With guarantees, life will become a lot easier. Imagine going to work
everyday and there is no guarantee that the train will come.

To manage more or to lead more depends on the members more than the leaders. Factors like level of competency and maturity dictate which of the 2 a leader uses more. As the employment number grows, so does the need to manage. Of course, management alone is never enough, it needs to work in tandem with leadership. Leadership must never be discounted.

In sports, a captain relies on leadership to bring the best out of the team. Sometimes the team responds and sometimes, no matter how hard the captain tries, the team just doesn’t seem to move. In business, a leader can ill afford such kind of irregularities. Leaders need consistency and rely on probability for planning and decision making to run the business. Doing without management, allowing everyone absolute free-play, leaving everything to possibilities is a virtue no organization can afford.

Business is a numbers game. Running a business requires more science than art, more management than leadership. How much more? I say, 60% Management, 40% Leadership.

Further Readings:








                                                                                          Begin with the End in Mind – Vision, Action, Passion
                                                                                                                                 By Joey NG

This article is a further look at one of the Habits (Begin with the End in Mind) in Stephen R. Covey’s work: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

One can be very, very busy, and yet, achieve nothing. Why? Probably is because the ladder has all along been leaning against the wrong wall.

The fundamental of this habit centers on personal effectiveness. The belief is that by clarifying the future, one will make better use of the present.

Here’s how:


1.     Because one knows what he wants to achieve, he will be able to make better decisions. And better decisions will give better use of resources.

2.     Beginning with an End allows one to distinct what is important and what is urgent. What appears urgent might not be important at all. Failure to differentiate could lead to one neglecting the important while attending the urgent.

3.     An End provides the framework for the presents. Using End as the point of reference to lay your route map, providing an organized structure for one’s endeavors. With a structure, one will know where and how to maximized his resources. Example:  If one plans to knock off at 6.30pm, he would manage his work and time effectively to reach his End. Investment – if one End is to retire at 55 years old with $500,000 in the coffers, working backwards, he would know how much to put aside periodically.

4.     Peter Drucker:
 Checking the results of a decision against its expectations shows executives what their strengths are, where they need to improve, and where they lack knowledge or information.

Feedback does not necessarily have to come from others. ‘End’ can be used to surface what one is good and not good at, identifying areas for improvement.

5.     Aligning End with reality – All things are created twice – once in the head, and once in action. Things changes in between. The more vivid the ‘End’, the easier it is to adapt to reality.


So far, the benefits mentioned highlight how having an End, a vivid one, promotes effectiveness and efficiency. The next 2 benefits are slightly different.


7. Compel Experimenting – because one knows what he wants and what he is doing, it gives him a reason to experiment with new methods and techniques in the name of achieving his goal. With no End in mind, any experiment will be directionless, filled with ambiguity.

8. Clarifying what one wants to achieve is the first step to Personal Mastery. Mastery is a process, not an End. Mastery involves extreme level of input, without identifying the End, they will be scattered and not focus on the key areas. Jack of all trades, master of none.


The ‘End’ in mind we have been referring to is the vision or goal one wants to achieve or create. The vision can be a set of targets, or it can be a sense of purpose. Whichever it is, it must be able to answer the question ‘What am I doing this for’.

‘Begin…’ is one way to increase personal effectiveness. However, vision alone will bring you nowhere. Action is the next step to bridge the present and the future, bringing the vision to life. Action also serves as a reminder of how realistic our ‘End’ is. If the effort yields no result over time, perhaps the vision needs recalibration.

Yet, there will be times when the question is neither on the practicality of the vision, nor the quality of the action, but, on the presence of passion. Vision without passion will see compliance. When one is complying, even towards a personal agenda, he will do just enough. The argument is, if the ‘End’ is achieve, isn’t doing ‘enough’ enough? In this sense, ‘enough’ is enough. But, when both vision and action are augment with passion, instead of compliance, one will experience commitment. Commitment brings about a sense of energy and excitement that cannot be generated by compliance. Passion sustains action. When a wall is hit, without passion, one will either stop on his tracks, or give up the journey. With passion and commitment, one will instigate ways around it, or even break it down.

  1. The Fifth Discipline – the Art & Practice of the Learning Organisation (2006)by Peter M. Senge
  2. Eureka – Making Brilliant Ideas Happen (2004)by Philippa Davies
  3. 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (2004) by Stephen R. Covey
  4. The 80/20 Principle (2007) by Richard Koch





Leadership and Management

Sometimes, leadership failure stems from the inability to differentiate the practice of management and leadership and the roles of managers and leaders.

Most managers are functionally very competent, skilful and good at problem-solving. Theywould have attained a certain level of functional experiences, had been very effectively in their functional roles,before gettingpromoted to the management level. However, at the management level, managers do not only deal with functional and task related issues, they also have to deal with people related issue. For most new managers, people issue is a new challenge to them because in their previous appointments, it is often left to their superiors to handle.This explains why we sometimes hear about managers who are technically very able but lack people skills, such as relating and communication. Perhaps, these managers are using task oriented problem-solving approaches to managepeople issues.

Conversely, we can argue that a good leader does not need to be technically very competent. While certain level of technical understanding is necessary to facilitate decision making, a good leader do not need to be a master of the craft. Rather, a good leader uses his/her leadership skills to motivate more technically gifted team members to perform better. A good example is the Head of State of many countries. He/she does not need to be an expert in finance, trade, foreign relationship and all others important government sectors. Rather, the Head of State appoints very competent individuals to run each of the ministries and his/her duty is to lead and support these individuals. However, the Head of State cannot be completely ignorant to the works of all the ministries because he/she is ultimately responsible for all the decisions made.

Problems arise when leaders manage to lead.

Technical and Adaptive Challenges

Dr Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linskyclassified organization challenges into two categories – technical challenge and adaptive challenge. Technical challenges are challenges where there are known answers and solutions. For example, production is halted because the machine is downed, the existing solutions are: 1) called a mechanic, 2) if you are a mechanic, purchase the replacement parts and repair it yourself, 3) buy a new machine or 4) out-source production. Either ways, there is a known solution to continue production. Managers, especially seasoned ones, excel at solving technical challenges.

Adaptive challenges refer to situations where there are no known solutions to the problem or cases where there are too many solutions but no clear choices.Adaptive challenges are by nature, adaptive, which also means they are fluid and change with circumstances.Adaptive challenges are volatile, unpredictable, complex and ambiguous in nature. Solutions to this type of challenge usually require people to learn new ways of doing things, change their attitudes, values and norms and adopt an experimental mind-set. For example, a machine breaks down once every couple of months, despite regular maintenance.Theadaptive challenge here is the lack of ownership and care towards the machine because staff members see the machine as company’s property or rather, the company’s problem.

This machine example also illustrate when most leadership failure occurs – leaders treating adaptive challenges as technical challenges. Each time the machine breaks down, a technical solution is applied to get the machine up and running. However, the underlying issue on lack of ownership remains unresolved.

Adaptive challenges require adaptive leadership. Adaptive leadership is based on the principles of shared responsibility and continuous learning. Adaptive challenges are full on unknowns, as such, the experimental mind set is essential because doing the same job better, longer and with more help will not solve adaptive challenge. To respond to adaptive challenges effectively, leaders need to beable to relate well with others and work in a team. Gone are the days of ‘The Great Man’ leadership notion where a single person, the great leader, is able to solve all problems by himself. ‘The Great Man’ leadership theory does not withstand the test of adaptive challenges for two reasons – firstly, no leader, no matter how brilliant he/she is, knows everything and has all the answers. Secondly, even if the leader has the answer, he/she will need to work with others to overcome the complexities that part of adaptive challenges. Teamwork matters. Furthermore, working in a team ensures knowledge is spread across more people, reducing the likelihood of similar problems arising in future.

Relating skills aside, leaders are also required be in a continuous sense-making mode to understand how the problem, environment, solutions and his/her relationship with the team, are evolving with time. When leaders are solving adaptive challenges, they have to be ready to commit time and energy and be prepared to cope with uncertainty and setbacks.

Some problems are a combination of technical and adaptive challenge. For example, skills development for staff members can be both a technical and adaptive challenge. To develop skills, the technical solution is to send staff members for training courses. However, to instil a continuous development mind-set where staff members attend training courses because they want to and not have to, adaptive solutions are needed to change the staff members attitude towards professional development. Sometimes, leaders and managers would only realise they are facing an adaptive challenge after all technical solutions are exhausted.

Single and Double Loop Learning

Another way to look at the difference between technical and adaptive challenge is through the concept of single and double loop learning by ChrisAgyris. Single loop learning focuses on using corrective action for problem solving. For example, if the room is cold, a single loop learning response is to turn up the air condition temperature. The problem solved through a direct action strategy. Double loop learning on the other hand takes a deeper look at the issue and examines the government variables thatcause the problems to occur in the first place. For example, the room is cold because the air condition default temperature is set at 17 oC and would revert to this level each time the unit is switch off and on. A double loop learning solution will be to calibrate and set the temperature to the desired level. Single loop approaches are used to solve straight line cause-and-effect type of problems because the solution is known and the problem can be remedied very quickly. Double loop approaches are used for dynamic situations where there are no quick fixes. Double loop approaches requires governing variables to be challenged or changedand to do so, people need to first find out what these variables are in order to design and implement effective solutions. Double loop learning is used for adaptive challenges.

The Leadership Challenge

The Leadership Challenge is fundamentally about the team and teamwork, not the leader. Looking closely at the 5 Leadership Practices – Model the Way, Inspire a Shared Vision, Challenge the Process, Enable Others to Act and Encourage the Heart, of this leadership framework,aside from the first practice, Model the Way, the other four are largely team focused.

Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, the creators behind The Leadership Challenge, define leadership as “The art of mobilizing others to want to struggle for shared aspirations”. It is about leaders gettingteam members to follow willingly, especially across unknown territories and mobilizingthe team to move forward together and want to get extraordinary things done.

The 5 Leadership Practices shares similar characteristics with adaptive challenges:

Adaptive challenges are complex, multi-dimensional and difficult to solve, to overcome such challenges effectively. Leaders cannot solve adaptive challenges alone and have to deploy a mixed approach of various leadership and management tools. Each of the 5 Leadership Practices are by themselves a leadership tool and can be separately used to address adaptive challenges. However, using all 5 Practices together would lead to more effective change because it addresses multiple aspects of any leadership/adaptive challenge.

The 5 Leadership Practices is no silver bullet to overcome all adaptive challenges but it does provide leaders a good starting point to pull the team together.


  • – A Survival Guide for Leaders. (2002) Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky. Havard Business Review.
  • – Double Loop Learning in Organizations. (1977) Chris Argyris. Havard Business Review.
  • – The Leadership Challenge. (2007) James Kouzes and Barry Posner.


Written by Joey NG (Facilitator)
on 11th December 2016




It was the class last ever lecture with Mrs Tan. After this lecture, the students will take their final exams and hopefully, graduate with flying colours. Before Mrs Tan dismisses the students for the final time, she took an empty jug from a big black bag and place the jug on a table.

“This jug represents our life”, she said. The students stopped chattering amongst themselves and focused their attention on Mrs Tan, curious to see what Mrs Tan was going to do next. Mrs Tan reached into her black bag, pulled out a box of gold balls and filled the entire jug with golf balls.

“Is the jug full?”, she asked. “Yes!”, the students responded immediately. Mrs Tan reached into her black bag, pulled out a box of pins and poured the pins into the jug. She gave the jug a good shake and the pins sipped through the gap between the golf balls.

“Is the jug full?”, she asked again. “Yes!”, the students responded, but not as loud and assured as the previous time. Mrs Tan then pulled a bucket of sand from underneath her table and poured the sand into jug, filling up all the gaps between the golf balls and pins.

“Now, is the jug full?”, she asked for the third time. “Yes!”, the students responded loudly and confidently. Mrs Tan then walked over to another table, took two cups of coffee and emptied the coffee into the jug.

“Now, is the jug full?”, she asked. The students laugh but none responded, not sure whether Mrs Tan has another trick up her sleeve.

“This jug represents our life. The golf balls represent the most important things in our life, such as health, family and career. We should fill our lives with as many of such important things as possible. The pins represent things that make our lives more comfortable, such as a car, laptop and a nice comfortable pair of shoe. We should always find space for such comfort in lives. The sand represents the finer things in life, such as an expensive holiday or a sports car. It is good to reward ourselves with such luxuries from time to time, but only after we have taken care of our ‘golf balls’ and ‘pins’.”

“What about the coffee?”, a student shouted from the last row of the lecture hall. Mrs Tan, “The coffee? Well, no matter how packed our life is, we should always remember to make room for coffee with our friends.”

Written by Joey NG (Facilitator)
Adapted from a graduation speech. 2nd September 2016