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A pitch full of referees......

I’m an avid reader and I’ve just finished reading Elon Musk’s Biography by Walter Isaacson thanks to a friend’s recommendation (and loan of the book). I find when I read a book there’s often a sentence or paragraph that stands out and really makes me think. In this book it’s something that Elon Mush said: “This is how civilisations decline. They quit taking risks. And when they quit taking risks, their arteries harden. Every year there are more referees and fewer doers.”

I’m going to admit I stopped and reread that. You could replace the word civilisations with organisations and the quote would be just as valid. Reading the book I could feel the almost frenetic way that Elon Musk makes progress in his businesses. I absolutely know that I could not work in that type of culture but I could also recognise his observation about there being more and more referees and fewer doers because I’ve worked in organisations where it’s felt like there are 12 referees and 1 player on the pitch and I’ll be honest they felt like unhappy places to work.

Unfortunately I think this has become inextricably linked with inclusivity and psychologically safe cultures in people’s perceptions. Ironically having a truly inclusive and psychologically safe environment should lead to more risk taking and require fewer referees but the reality is that they are all too often used as a way to make things more constrained in practise rather than releasing the power that they could. Being psychologically safe should not mean everyone feels comfortable all the time, in fact they absolutely shouldn’t. If you are working in a psychologically safe environment you should feel challenged and uncomfortable sometimes. There should be disagreements-but they should be respectful.

While being very clear that I couldn’t work with or for someone like Elon Musk and that I disagree with him on a number of things I won’t deny I finished the book with a new respect for him. He’s obviously someone who drives people hard but also doesn’t ask them to pay a price that he isn’t willing to pay himself. Someone who is willing to risk their own health in order to deliver on missions he sees as essential to the future of humankind. Someone who’s willing to work through the night to make progress but also expects others to do the same. At the same time I think his organisations would probably benefit from having at least one referee on the pitch!

A football match with 12 referees and one player would be a disaster but so would one without any referees so I’m going to ask you the question “have you got the right number of referees and players in your organisation?”

Photo by Austrian National Library on Unsplash

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