Business Series Podcast Ep.4 – The Hidden Variable to Leadership with Piers Thurston


The Hidden Variable to Leadership

In this episode, Ankush speaks with Piers Thurston about how most leadership training misses out one vital factor which underpins the effectiveness of all leadership training. Some of what they discuss include:

– Does leadership mean getting the best out of others?

– How a leader’s state of mind underpins how they behave or how they think.

– How leadership is not psychologically taking on others problems and how a leader changed his own business when he saw this for himself.

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Full Transcript

[00:00:00.00] Ankush: Welcome to the show. This episode I’m joined by Piers Thurston. Piers Thurston has been a full-time coach since 2001, with over 10,000 coaching hours. He’s got experience working with a range of business and private clients, and Piers is someone I’ve known for a few years now and I’m very pleased to have him on the show. Welcome Piers.


[00:00:21.25] Piers: Hi Ankush, an absolute pleasure to be here, thanks for inviting me.


[00:00:25.01] Ankush: On today’s show we’re going to be talking about leadership and specifically the hidden variable to leadership and I know Piers you run a workshop on that specific topic, but before we get into that, maybe a good place to start is: what do you think leadership is?


[00:00:44.27] Piers: Well, it’s a great question, and there’s lots of ways you could answer this, but I think for me, I sort of put it into two little bits of what I think leadership is, and firstly a leader’s role is to help define, create, the vision and purpose for an organization, and to however permanent or temporary that may be, to help guide what they’re up to. And secondly, and this could apply to people who aren’t just the leader, but have a role in leadership, is to enable the individuals in an organization to unlock their potential and even their unseen potential, and to unlock in a way that they feel empowered, and even liberated to be the very best they can, to serve the purpose of that team or organization or that business, and it’s the second part of that aspect of leadership, that I focus on.


[00:01:45.02] Ankush: So could that be described as getting the best out of others?


[00:01:49.09] Piers: Absolutely and I think it’s, that’s a phrase you’ll hear a lot, and I think there’s an infinite amount that someone can do as a leader to do that. In the old days, it was like, we manage people so that they can perform. And then it was about empowerment. But I think there’s actually beyond empowerment, which is actually liberating someone to go beyond what they even know is possible. So I think we’re moving from empowerment, which has probably been big in the last 20-30 years, a sort of liberation where someone truly can flourish, beyond what might be known, and I think that’s what a true leader will do.


[00:02:27.19] Ankush: So seeing more in the employee than the employee even believes that is possible for them?


[00:02:33.21] Piers: Exactly, that’s a great way of saying it.


[00:02:35.24] Ankush: How do people do that? And I guess now we’re kind of getting into, I’m sure you’re going to be talking about the hidden variable to leadership, what can leaders do, and maybe if a leader is listening to this, thinking “well that sounds great Piers, I think I’m doing that,” what have you got to say about it?


[00:02:51.29] Piers: Well, yeah, so if I generalize, and this is generalization, there’s probably been a couple of particular ways that leadership has been developed and leaders develop themselves, the first way might be around leaders learning and becoming aware of the best ways to behave as a leader, like, well here’s how a leader would do that… And that might be a prescription on the best way to handle something, and that could also include not just how to behave, but the attitude a leader should have. The mindset a leader should have. So, a very well-known thing is the seven habits of an effective leader and that talks about, well actually, if you do this or you think like this, you’ll probably get better outcomes. So those I would call, sort of prescriptions or ideas or suggestions on how to behave or even what thinking and attitude to have. That’s one way, and of course there is some value in that. A second way that often leaders develop is by them understanding more about themselves, so, what is their preferred style, or what is their personality. You’ve got things like MBTI, and Belbin and Disk, and in that you’re helping a leader to understand some of their, maybe their blind spots, so that they can overcome that, maybe some of their limiting beliefs, or their values, and if they become more aware of what is in their learned self, they can sort of work round that.

So those are sort of two, what I would call, conventional ways that leadership development might work, and of course there is value in those, otherwise they probably wouldn’t have existed for so long. However, when we talk about the hidden variable of leadership, we’re actually pointing to something a little different to that. And it’s more what we would call, upstream, it doesn’t focus directly on how to behave or the thinking to have or yourself, it doesn’t focus on who you are. It’s more what you are as a human being, and how the mind works, how the human system works. And we look at that, we explore a description of that, and enabling individuals, people, to have some realizations and insights for themselves, about how the mind functions, anyone’s mind as a human being. And what happens when people have those insights and those realizations about foundational upstream level, is, that enables them to see differently about their own self, about their own behaviours and attitudes, but it comes very much from within, it’s very realized and it’s not directly aimed at, so what comes up is contextually relevant to them, and they start to see the whole, they get a fresh perspective on everything, including their leadership, but actually they’ll get just as much fresh perspective on their home life as well as their leadership. But it’s focusing in a different angle, and it’s not an angle that’s conventionally looked at, to start with when you look at it, you don’t think there’s much there, but then it becomes rich and emergent and from my experience of working in this area, it is much more transformative and pervasive than the other two approaches that I mentioned.


[00:06:13.03] Ankush: Have you got an example of working with a corporate client or a particular executive where, in your words, you’ve pointed them upstream, which has resulted in a significant shift, a transformative shift in their leadership capability for the better?


[00:06:32.06] Piers: Sure. I mean a particular situation that pops to mind, this was someone who was, well they were actually running and owning and managing a business so, it was their own family business, I think they were sort of third generation in it. It was a very well known brand, but it had been neglected a little bit, and, the third generation person came in and really wanted to make a difference and get the legacy back and to build what was truly in the value of the business, and, there were from anyone’s perspective lots of challenges that you faced around manufacturing, in the financing and people and the competitive marketplace, and he also had his own thinking about his own role and what he was doing relative to his generation above him, and what he wanted to provide for the generation below. And he was throwing his absolute heart and soul into it, learning anything he could, trying to cope and manage with lots of challenges, I mean he had problems with people being very very disloyal, he had problems with manufacturing, he had the banks wanting to shut things down, almost like every time he went forward, two steps back it was… one step forward two steps back, and he was trying to cope in the way that any leader would, and he’d had lots of support and help in that, but it was taking its toll, if you like, and he was struggling and it wasn’t moving like he wanted it to, and he was at one point thinking, “well is it all worth it?” Sort of thing, and then we worked together, and we didn’t, to start with, talk about his business at all. We just talked about how the mind worked, and he had some realizations, he saw what was going on for him in his mind, and what meaning he’d been creating and what layers he’d been creating.


[00:08:31.09] Ankush: Could, just to interrupt there, could you talk a little bit about what some of those realizations really were that might help bring it to life?


[00:08:37.13] Piers: Yeah. He realized that what he’d been, inadvertently, innocently doing, was in order to cope with all of these things going on, he would try and take it on psychologically, he would try and manage every situation he could to the best of his ability, he would try and think everything through, he was what I would call “rowing,” he was juggling lots of balls, he wasn’t really understanding how to access his clarity and how to prioritize. He had lots of thinking about how he should be, lots of ways of trying to cope, and, what he realized from the coaching, first of all, was, before it actually trickled into, what he’s going to do differently, which I’ll come to, he realized how the mind worked, he wasn’t using his mind very well, he was using it in a way that a lot of people would describe as good, which is, get busy, get focussed, try and find the best strategies, but he then realized, well that’s not the best way my mind works, not just his mind, anyone’s mind. And actually, he needed to see that for himself, that when he went more with, let’s call it, his “gut,” once he got into that clarity, once he was able to drop a load of how he should be and, you know he had a lot of people let him down actually, very sadly, that didn’t mean anything, apart from just that’s where they were at, and actually he actually had doubts about his own leadership, which is why he got an MD in to try and support him.

When he realized all this, he got the clarity, he didn’t take all his struggles home with him, he was able to just see it for what it was, and what was the most amazing thing was, and the way he described it to me was how he’d had to let his MD disappear, because of what was going on, and, he then sort of stepped up and just spoke to his workforce, and he didn’t know what he was going to say, he just got up there and he just felt connection, he felt them, because he thought they’d have lots of thinking about what had been going on, and actually he just saw warmth and he just saw, there was a real connection, and from that, he was able to re-create that business again, sort of 2.0 or probably 3.0 given the versions he’d been through. And he was coming at it from a totally different space, obviously there’s still the challenges, obviously there’s still all the complexities of running a business, but he went from, if you like, from being overwhelmed, to being overloaded. He went from having far too many choices, to procrastinate on, to feeling like, well I’ve actually got potential here to go different ways.

So it wasn’t like the world outside him particularly changed, but, his ability and expansive mind to deal with that is what changed. His enjoyment got better, because he’d always been quite a creative person, and he felt he couldn’t be creative in this role, because he was leading the business and there was no room for creativity. So, he allowed that to come through, and actually his family life improved as well, because he wasn’t taking it all home with him, and he could sort of say, “well one day I’ll write a book about how complex this is rather than, ‘I don’t want to do it anymore.'” So he saw all that stuff as kind of, I wouldn’t quite say fun, but he saw it just as a beautiful way to engage with life, rather than this is stressful and this is difficult.


[00:12:04.03] Ankush: So it sounds like you’re saying that by pointing him to how his mind worked and how anyone’s mind worked, unlocked the leadership potential that was always within him, which is a different strategy from saying, “okay here are some tools and techniques, or some behaviours to model, that other leaders have done.” It’s about helping him tap into his innate leadership capabilities.


[00:12:30.03] Piers: Yes, because if you think about it, apart from the technical piece, like if you’re in financial services, which bit of financial services you’d be in to, right? Most leadership is based on a watermark of some innate human attributes, ability to connect, to have clarity, to have judgement, to be resilient, to see perspective, those are things, regardless to whatever sector you’re in, whatever sized business, are really really the core aspects of leadership, now you might need a bit of tech expertise fo your sector, who knows, you could probably buy that through consultancy to be honest. But the core of being a leader which is unlocking people to co-create something wonderful, that is synergistic, that is more than just a collection of individuals, they are innate, we all actually have those, and that is not something, I mean you can learn business you can learn profit and loss and balance sheets and you know, those kinds of things, yes that’s a learned skill, even creating strategy one can argus is pretty innate, it’s just clarity and judgement, you might need some incoming information, but that I truly believe is inside everyone, and once you realise and tap into that, 80% of what you need as a leader is there, and even if you’re struggling in the other 20%, if you’re good at that 80%, you don’t really need the other 20%, because you can outsource that to your non-execs almost, if that makes sense?


[00:13:55.07] Ankush: It sounds like you believe that, this is not something that, you know leaders are not born, or maybe a different way to put it is, everybody is born a leader, is that what you’re saying?


[00:14:05.21] Piers: I think everyone has the capacity for leadership, absolutely I believe that, now that doesn’t mean we always access that capacity, but I think every single human being has that capacity.


[00:14:18.12] Ankush: You and I both, in our work as coaches, our role is to help people access that, you’ve done this, you’ve given us a lovely example, but this is something you’ve been doing now for several years and had wonderful results, is that correct?


[00:14:32.26] Piers: Yeah, I think, I’ve been in this space for 18 years, and I guess the last 6 I’ve been doing this particular upstream approach, and before I was getting some nice results and I was helping people of course and there was value in that. But this is a different order, because you’re helping them with something that once they see it, they’ve sort of always got it, I mean they’ve always got it anyway, but they’re much closer to it, and they might forget it in the moment, but when they come back to seeing it, they’ll come back above the valve if you like, so this is something that, in a way is not just particular to leadership, I often work with people in leadership because that’s how business works, leaders often have the inclination or the time or investment to seek into this, but, at one level it’s nothing to do with leadership. This is about how, once you realise those raw attributes as human beings, that comes on the stream, and it’s very different to the psychological way of coming at it from before, which is trying to manufacture better thinking or better attitudes, this in a way is more effort just because I don’t mean there isn’t that activity involved, but it’s more what I’d call “sailing,” than rowing.


[00:15:58.27] Ankush: So if there’s one takeaway for people listening to this that you’d want them to take from this short podcast, what would it be?


[00:16:08.00] Piers: Gosh. What I think it would be that it sometimes looks like our mind has something to do with what’s going on some of the time, once you start to see that everything you’re creating as a human being, is a product of where your mind is at in that moment, and, when things look difficult, they look difficult because that’s how your mind’s seeing them, rather than because they are, once you realise that the mind is always involved, there’s a lot of freedom and liberation and tension in that, because you don’t need to fix the outside world in the way you probably thought you did. And I think when leaders recognize that, it gives them so much more access to their potential, so my one tip would be: to just look at the role of your mind and how evasive that is, and that’s always the variable, so the variable I’m saying, the hidden variable is, that your quality of mind, is always a factor, not just sometimes, it’s always a factor, and once you look at that factor, and understand the principles behind it, you don’t really need to pay attention to the factors because they kind of take care of themselves.


[00:17:21.14] Ankush: Thank you and, we’re going to just wrap it up here, but if people wanted to find out more about you, how might they do that?


[00:17:28.08] Piers: Well there’s several ways, I post quite a lot on LinkedIn, so if you put Piers Thurston into LinkedIn you’ll find me there, I have a business called “making change work”, that’s got a website called:, have a look there at some of the work we do around quality of mind, and I’ve also got a website called:, so, Google me, my name’s slightly unusual so I usually come up, so love to hear from anyone who’s curious or resonates with anything in this little video.


[00:17:55.02] Ankush: Thank you once again Piers, and I’ll be back next time with another coach trainer, and we’ll be talking about another topic relevant to business. Thanks again Piers.


[00:18:06.00] Piers: Thank you.

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