“Kind words can be short and easy to speak but their echoes are truly endless”
I was first introduced to the name of Jim McNeish many years ago by one of my students on a course. “Kirsty Mac, you HAVE to meet him”. We didn’t meet at that time.
I did meet him, at the right time, when I travelled up past Killin, to Cantle, for a client and with a dear friend.
And we laughed.
And we had conversations about leadership and humans that set our pens on fire as we scribbled down the conversation in the light of the fire from the library.
And we laughed.
I was then, personally, fortunate to train alongside him in some courses. I have learnt a great deal from Mr. McNeish (cue: understatement), which have really taken me to the outer edges of myself and transformed how I coach and position myself in the leadership space.
My intention is that more people hear about Jim McNeish – that they get a sense of the person that I am deeply grateful to know. His voice and resonance is about to get even louder and bigger as he is called into ‘bigger’ spaces and this can only be a good thing.
Ladies and gentlemen, Jim McNeish.
LS: So, it’s your story. Tell us a bit of your background.
JM: I studied Psychology at Edinburgh University. I went into the world, did some stuff with it and have come back full circle to a do a PhD in the same building. I don’t know whether I should feel depressed or complete.
I joined BP in HR and was immediately exposed to a lot of organisational and leadership development. At that time there was a real embrace of EST (Erhard Seminars Training) in the upstream part of BP where I was. At the age of 22, 23, and 24 I got involved up to the elbows.
Some of it was pretty heavy esoteric eastern philosophy though the consultants who brought it in to BP had rooted it in real business pragmatism. My traditional Christian background made me deeply suspicious of it all but I was also intrigued. I could really see something in it.
BP paid for my development in counseling skills, NLP, encounter group work, gestalt, TA, anything that had come out of the Human Potential Movement in the 70’s. Wherever there was a group of guys in a circle, crying that their Dad’s didn’t love them enough, I was in the middle of it getting a certificate!
This was the late 80s/early 90s and it was still fresh and new. I found myself right at the front of a wave.
I was headhunted by The Body Shop. I had become provocative in BP, asking questions about its obligations in the world, given its financial scale. It was perfect timing to go and work with Anita Roddick who was at the forefront of the political, social and environmental arguments about the contribution businesses should make to their communities.
I loved the edginess of it. There were no other private companies campaigning in the public arena against other private companies. I got swept up in the Ogoni campaign in Nigeria against the Abacha regime, challenging Shell’s activities there, and coaching one of the leaders from the Ogoni tribe.
LS: Your face lights up when you talk about the time with Anita.
JM: She was impossible and a genius. She was often very difficult to reason with but you know, what was really interesting, is that she was deeply deeply kind. She just found it easier to be kind to causes and nations than individuals.
But she was always supportive of me. That doesn’t mean to say we didn’t have hairdryer moments, which was part of the deal. I was often the one sent in on a stick to pull her back from the edge.
But I did love her and I found her both inspirational and protective.
I got to take risks in the Body Shop. Massive risks. I was Head of Global Learning and Development and that was where I started to sculpt training, bringing in fresh ideas for the leaders at the time: commercial, philosophical, spiritual, science, chaos, whatever they could handle.
The only real risk would to have been boring. She had no tolerance for “me too” activity. Failures were instantly forgiven, as long as The Body Shop remained a place of innovation.
LS: It seems bigger than that?
JM: It was. I was also part of a thunderous Christian movement, called Cutting Ede with the band, Delirious on the South Coast. I was teaching Human Potential Psychology to churches all over the world. My mind and spirit were being stretched and fed in ways it never had before. The four years went by like a whirlwind. I was caught up in the vortex. When I left, I looked like someone stumbling up an embankment after a bus crash. I was dazed and loaded with ideas at the same time. I just needed to earth it.
I joined Kingfisher for 2 years and that was like a meadow. There was space and stability, which allowed me to collect and integrate my thoughts. I learned that there is a need for esoteric thinking, the wild ideas of the Body Shop and the EST of upstream BP that it is vital to keep any business alive. Most businesses want to get out of “hamster wheel thinking” and get their leaders to see other opportunities.
But it was a bit safe. After 2 years, I had done what I was there to do.
One evening when I was 33, I was watching the lottery on television while visiting my parents. My mum and dad had bought a ticket as it was a triple roll-over.
The usual questions and conversation ensued, “What would you do with the money”.
“I would buy Sam and Caroline’s house for them (brother and sister-in-law) and set the boys up for their education. I would give you a couple of million so that you could set up your consultancy because I think that’s what you really want to do.”
I experienced a physical jolt, a moment of huge realisation:
“In that 5 minute interaction, I realised I did want to set up a consultancy and I didn’t need their millions to do it.”
So I went back to Kingfisher and resigned on the Monday.
I informed my parents and moved into their spare room (well it was her fault) and set up Cantle Consulting. I had dial up internet (cue sound in head) and managed my anxiety by giving myself a year’s budget to see if the experiment would work.
In the first 4 months I quickly realised that it was a far easier way to make money and a lovelier lifestyle. I worked with Vivienne cox at BP and Ian Cheshire at Kingfisher. Those are two people I hold up as examples of the best business leaders. Not only have they got brains that could cut diamonds but they have also been wise enough to retain their kindness.
I moved up to Scotland full time. The business grew; I ran my programmes, coached business leaders and developed senior teams. It was easy. My Dad always said that the minute I mastered anything: tennis, skateboard, computer games then that was it, they were discarded and relegated to back of the cupboard. There might be something in that. I was hankering for a new challenge.
For about 10 years, I had dreamed of having a leadership development centre in the Highlands of Scotland; somewhere in the mountains and forests. The topic would come up a dinners with my friends and I really enjoyed safely conceptualising it from the comfort of my increasingly easy life.
I talked and talked about it until one evening in March, Margaret Wheatley (Leadership and the New Science) kicked my arse. She punctured my ego by refusing to listen to my well-rehearsed stories. It hurt. She said she would be interested in listening if I ever got round to taking some action about it, up until then it was all just ego.
Within 2 weeks my house was on the market and in November I moved into an old hotel on the banks of Loch Tay.
When I moved in the water was brown, there was no central heating, the décor was “tired” and the whole house was Baltic. My assistant, Howard and I went to work, recruited a groundsman, Davie and his wife Kyreen to look after the house. We started refurbishment but long before the joists were covered and the dust had settled, big leaders started to come. Sure, we had to put them to bed with countless hot water bottles so they would survive the night but many executives got really swept up with the idea.
What enrolled them was that I had stuck my neck out. I had moved beyond just coaching leadership to role-modeling it.
In that first year, I have never laughed so much. I have never been so ludicrously abandoned to an idea of which I did not know the outcome.
The house was ready. We opened Cantle’s doors just as the recession started. People still came; lots of people. It just grew. It was 9 years of fire pits and gargoyles and home bakes; a wonderful Scottish atmosphere; ceilidhs every quarter; local worship nights, local psychology nights, Grammy winners writing albums, the boards of some of the world’s biggest companies getting back to the natural human state, the local children putting up our Christmas decorations every year; it was so full of life and a little bit magical.
My personal situation changed. Both my parents died relatively young and there was less need for me to be around. Something broke in me and I decided to break the tie with Cantle. Up until then I had lived a fairly nomadic life: moving on every 3 years but this had been a 10 year stint. It was time for the next chapter.
Cantle had made me some money and it was successful. This was very liberating. 2014 was a quiet year with a lot of travel and holidays. I decided to return to Edinburgh. While there I thought I might re-engage with Edinburgh University, maybe do another degree. I had a wonderful meeting with Professor Tim Bates who, having heard my story, though that a PhD would be more appropriate. He invited me to research the psychology I am probably best known for, body based psychology or Reichian Psychology; character types that manifest themselves in our bodies.
Tim’s invitation was to come and see if there was anything scientific in it.
Friends of mine have expressed concern. What if I disprove the theory? What if there are no correlations or clusters.
In truth, I don’t care if there is or isn’t measureable evidence. Many people have been released by insights from the theory and many have led better and made fewer mistakes. The story is powerful.
And, according to the ancient Hebrews, what’s truer than the truth is the story.
So I find myself now in Edinburgh. Cantle is on the market and it looks like I have a buyer. I am down here in Bruntsfield, forging relationships with new clients, travelling a bit more internationally, starting to put the framework together for the PhD and launching my new consultancy, Neish. And you arrive here today on the first day of my first ever consultant, Matt starting as well.
I feel like I am in a world now where there is much more room, a bigger space where I can take big lung-bucketful’s of breath
LS: How’s the laughter?
JM: it’s starting to come back again. There is time to go and see the “The Staves” in concert and have friends up for the weekend where we just mooch about Edinburgh. I am a walk away from the Dominion cinema, which has couches and free pringles. There is a bit more rhythm to life so I can get involved in things.
I am starting to work with the homeless now. Homelessness has always been a disturbance to me. I have been known to walk past a homeless person on the street 7 or 8 times trying to work out what to do.
Now that I am involved with a couple of charities, I can work out who is homeless, what would help them and how to talk to them without being patronising.
LS: What takes up most of you thinking space?
JM: The framing of the PHD is taking up some of it. The research has to be a lot more than, “can I correlate a psychometric against a body shape?” I think it also has to ask, “does society have its established archetypes that it tries to squeeze us into and how does that affect our behaviour and our ability to be authentic.” I’ve started looking for papers on it and most of the empirical stuff is in trauma studies. Once I know who the people are that are leading the thinking, I will jump on a plane and buy them coffee.
It is interesting to me that a lot of our personality has developed around early traumatic events in our lives. As coaches, how much do we need to bear this in mind as we attempt to minimise the political, antisocial, scheming, ruthless behavior amongst our clients? Can we provide a deeper quality of healing conversation that allows executives to transcend their defences? When the elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers. What a service we could do for businesses if we could get their boards to operate out of less fear.
But these skirmishes are not just the odd synaptic mis-fires, this is their way of dealing with the world. This is what they think keeps them safe. There is a deep instinct in them to survive and become more powerful. How can we help them to express their accumulation of power in a way that is more useful to more people?
LS: “That is their way of dealing with the world”; that is the most liberating thought process I have got from it. I initially get hooked. Then I think wow. You feel it in your body rather than in your head.
JM: Yes. We notice the scary psychopathic director speaking about the human beings in his organisation as if they were inconveniences (it is usually the ones he isn’t in control of) and we recoil. If we could only understand that this behaviour was ignited when he was about 2 or 3 years old. He faced a world that rewarded his grandiose behaviour rather than his vulnerability and he got an act together to deal with it. If we could see this in his ruthlessness, we could speak more skillfully into helping him disassemble the apparatus that drives the negative behaviour.
LS: It flips everything. It flips it out of the box. That relief you feel, then you have compassion. So much.
JM: That is the key to excellent coaching. It’s not about your knowledge or having the best experience or having been on the best or recent training program. It is; can you take a position in the conversation that is different to how everyone else in the organisation is listening to them? Can you actually, with integrity and depth, be for the person? Can your knowledge be used to become curious about the amazing heroic functioning of their ego that caused them to put this defensive mechanism in place when in fact, what they could have done as a child is collapse? Instead they put something together that became acceptable to the world, admirable and promotable.
If you can stand in that place and listen to them, your client experiences a different way of thinking being called up in them.
LS: What is the most profound and liberating thing that you hold on to that allows you to take this stand?
JM: When an overwhelming emotional trauma occurs in childhood we try to protect ourselves from it happening again. A part of us splits off in our psyche, which is the called the Protector. The protector never wants us to go through the suffering again and it will use whatever it can to accomplish this. It starts to control us, using shame. It tells us that we are incapable, or not worthy enough; it undermines our confidence to keep us back from risk. It’s a very difficult voice to get a grip of because it fiercely and cleverly defends the ego of the individual while dampening the person’s true life-force, their passion.
Danger to a 3 or 4 year old is different to a 39 year old. As individuals mature, if these voices are not explored, they become increasingly sophisticated, keeping people away from their own best self. I have heard directors petrified of a reporter or an analyst as if it was a parent or headmistress they were talking about.
LS: It’s Gollum. Its beautiful. Gollum is protecting Sméagol. The more Gollum shows up the more Sméagol seems innocent. Gollum is killing the innocent life force.
JM: Exactly. Both parts of the client are trying to do their best. The job of the coach is to disentangle the relationship they have formed with themselves. This is why I love Steven Gilligan’s assertion that inside, we are not a thing, or an object. We are a relationship. It is this internal relationship that the coach has to listen for.
LS: We talk about listening in our conversations and I know you talk about what do you come listening for. Or even, simply – are you listening!
JM: The greatest listeners are always the greatest leaders.
Vivienne cox with her deep care and her abolition of PowerPoint slides.
Ian Cheshire, who is so easily made to giggle, was always listening for the humour and the human. These are leaders who are curious about who you are as a contribution. They don’t get hooked on an opinion or any rough edges of your personality. People who pick up on your small imperfections tend to be ungenerous; listening from a place of knowing rather than trying to understand.
The deepest need of the human soul is to be heard.
LS: Who would you say the person who has taught you the most?
JM: Peter Craig, my first boss in BP who really engaged with me about my development in an impactful way. A lot about how I coach today is direct mirroring of Peter. He cared that I was successful and I trusted that in him. When you know when someone is coming from a commitment to your success there is nothing they can say that isn’t hearable.
When Peter was rough or challenging with me, it was because I needed it. When I went into his office with a mistake it was almost irrelevant, dismissed. He had no real interest in it, very like Anita.
What they were interested in was me becoming intentional and clear about what leadership was and what my contribution was.
LS: You talk about - Kindness, caring, laughter and humour. It doesn’t quite fit into the “way we do business here” .
JM: What you are really trying to do as a leader is to get leadership out of other people. It’s the attachment emotions that do that. It’s joy and surprise. It’s love and trust. These relax the ego so that you get past the personality and the surface structure and get access to the things that people are passionate about.
The word passionate comes from the Greek word, pashko, which means ‘to suffer’. People will be willing to put themselves on the line, to endure, to put up with, to risk, if it is connected to something, which they are passionate about.
The leader has to role model passion. Real leader do not just stand there and organise. That’s an administrator. You have to role model so that people can see how it is done.
When a leader is prepared to put themselves on the line people want to follow. The reason Cantle was successful was that people saw my passion. It hooked passion in them. It called up commitment, drive and endurance.
Leadership is a character issue. It requires courage; to open yourself to others and engage.
It’s the most clichéd quote in the world because it’s the most wonderful, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”
If you are preaching measles and carrying mumps they will catch mumps.
You only get access to the human being when you love them. Only then, will they open up their defences and let you see just exactly what they can do.
LS: How do you create balance with all of this in your head? How do you stay fit for this?
JM: I have a very strong faith. I believe I live in an atmosphere of grace: grace towards me and therefore grace out to others. I feel accepted (and goodness knows that I have pushed the limits!) I do pray for my clients and when I do, I feel like I connect to something that’s bigger and more important than me.
My first 6 months at Cantle really educated me in this. I had a plan and none of it seemed to want to happen. It was like trying to dig into hard earth. When I relaxed and engaged with the world around me, the success just flowed. I learned to work harder at getting with the script rather than trying to write my own. Suddenly, the whole weight of heaven and hell was no longer on my shoulders and I was freed up to play and find the magic.
I create the balance in knowing that my success is not entirely contingent on me. My job is to be as responsible and disciplined and mischievous and childlike as I am meant to be. Whether that is a success or not is up to someone else.
LS: What do you nail in Leadership?
JM: Vision. Moments of magic; usually in dialogue. Pragmatism. Relational instinct.
Can I tell you what I am getting better at? I get cross and I am rubbish at expressing it; completely blowing things out of proportion. I go on revenge fantasies and sulk too.
I am learning to come out of my darker episodes by asking for a reframe or an insight. If I exercise a little patience, it comes. It comes because I turn my will away from the punishment and making others wrong to understanding the story better, the context. Will is a powerful force. I am becoming increasingly willful at not allowing myself to be hooked by the frailties of the human condition.
This learning is going to be incredibly important in the second half of my career. I am being invited into more profound and larger systems. I am learning to no longer feel personal betrayal in the political arenas. Instead, I am engaging with the forces that lie behind the behaviour. I am not there yet but it is liberating to know what the journey is.
LS: So you say you are doing a lot of reading. Your number 1 book on leadership?
JM: Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel It was stunning; Thomas Cromwell’s autonomy in it; his stand. He never once folded. He was able to retain his agenda; what he thought was right, took punches on the chin, shrugged his shoulders, shook it off. He owned it all, and at the same time continued to serve others in his work. He never lost sight of his own identity.
LS: One thing – if you were a lighthouse and there was one message beaming out
JM: Kindness has wisdom in it
LS: What is your most embarrassing leadership moment (that you are happy to have in print!)?
JM: Once when I went offshore to an oil platform, I was given the top bunk of a bunkbed. I am a bit dozy in the morning and I forgot that I was 6 feet of the ground. I threw my legs out of bed, they pivoted underneath me, sending me head first onto the floor, scraping my shins on the bottom bunk in the process. I had to go to the medic for plasters wearing my Dennis the Menace boxer shorts (a detail he did not omit when he called my colleague in the HR department to authorise a medevac.) My nickname was Dennis for a few months after that.
It is always a delight to speak with Jim, you always – without fail – learn something. Some of the most profound, heart centred ‘right to the soul’ dialogue have been delivered over a cup of tea and a homebake with a chuckle.
What have I learnt from Jim McNeish- or, as is the way, what questions do I now have?
(I shall stick with the content of this interview rather than the whole time I have known him! Too much!)
- Kindness has wisdom in it
- Listen for the contribution, the commitment to the other
- My achievements are not purely contingent on me, and so a level of grace and humility in the interaction with others is required for me to be a successful human being
- I want to learn more!
- What am I sticking my neck out for – and could I stick it out further?
- How am I enrolling others?
- Laughter has so much love in it
Keep in touch monthly (or even more frequently with us*).
* We promise not to virtually stalk you, it will be (at max) weekly round ups and elements that it would be rude not to tell you about...