Ideas and Insights

Excellent Leadership: above the Dunbar number

Robin Dunbar is an anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist; his fame largely focuses around a single number, 150. The theory of Dunbar’s Number suggests that 150 is the number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable relationships. It has formed the basis of a key element of Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point, and the strategies that follow from that work.

If you are a leader of more than 150 people then who you are as a person and what you do in the immediate here and now is only one level of leadership. My colleague Tim Dalmau in his portrait of Candice paints some of the timeless principles and behaviors that go with effective leadership no matter what the setting. But these principles and behaviors work best in groups of less than 150. Read more…


When institutions go bad

Tim Dalmau has written a thought-provoking paper, based on his reflections on governance and leadership arising from the recent revelations in the Australian banking industry. He explores parallels across a range of settings. Click here to download your copy of this paper.


Hades organizations: joyless and in the throes of dying?

From a 2014 Ideas & Insight article,  the Unconscious Organization I commenced a series of articles about organizational archetypes based on the Greek Gods. I have drawn on much of the material in the book I co-wrote with Bernie Neville – Olympus Inc.  We described 16 unconscious patterns of behavior (archetypes) that describe some of the dynamics of organizations, exemplified by the characteristic behavior of 16 Greek gods and goddesses.  It is through an understanding of these patterns in organizational dynamics that we can better understand and influence organizational culture. Read more…


Lessons from geese

Life is not a solo activity. It is an act of co-creation with all those with whom we interact over the course of a life time. No less in organizations with those with whom we work, as in any other sphere of life.

As we were reflecting on the learnings we have collected over the years, a number stand out and one is the metaphor based on geese flying in formation. An oldie, but a goodie, as they say. We share this again for the messages and learnings are timeless. The source is unknown.  They are simple truths which resonate with our experience and that of many of our clients

“As each bird flaps its’ wings, it creates an uplift for geese following. By flying in a “V” formation, the whole flock adds 71% greater flying range than if each bird flew alone.”

Lesson: People who share a common direction and sense of community can get where they are going quicker and easier because the are traveling on the thrust of one another.

Whenever a goose falls out of formation, it suddenly feels the drag and resistance of trying to fly alone and quickly gets back into formation to take advantage of the lifting power of the bird immediately in front.

Lesson: If we have as much sense as a goose, we will stay with those who are headed in the direction we want to go, and be willing to accept their help as well as to give our help to the others.

When the lead goose gets tired, it rotates back into formation and another goose flies at the point position.

Lesson: It pays to take turns doing the hard tasks and share leadership. People, as well as geese, are dependent upon each other.

The geese in formation honk from behind to encourage those up front to keep up their speed.

Lesson: We need to make sure our honking is encouraging, and not something else.

When a goose gets sick or wounded or shot down it honks for help and two geese drop out of formation and follow it down to help protect it. They stay with the sick goose until it is able to fly again or it dies. Then they launch out on their own, or with another formation, or catch up with the flock.

Lesson: If we have as much sense as geese, we too will stand by each other in difficult times as well as when we are strong …. and honk when we need help!”

Unknown source


Bold Herakles: An heroic organizational archetype

The Greek myths are full of heroes, men and women who lived a long time ago and dealt with the gods directly – often, it appears, on equal terms. The most popular of the hero stories were the stories of Herakles the hero who was not only a man but a god.

There are many tales of Herakles. Picture, if you will, a man of great energy and drive, plenty of good will towards people and a tendency to take the most direct path to any goal. He is good-humoured, generous and courageous. On the other hand, compared to other heroes like Odysseus, Perseus and Jason, he is not very clever, nor particularly charming. His lack of subtlety is symbolised in his choice of the club as his preferred weapon. He has a violent temper and an enormous appetite. He is macho man. Read more…


Athena organizations built on consensus and involvement

Athena eventually emerges in classical times as a goddess of civilization, of household arts and crafts, especially weaving, and of the defence of civilization against those who would destroy it. More than any other god, she represents a point of balance between the male-dominated and autocratic culture of the Greek invaders and the concrete, matri-centric culture of the people they conquered and assimilated. She represents normality, consensus, balance. In political terms she is democracy. Read more…


Strong relationships fundamental to Eros organizations

In the organization dominated by the Eros archetype the ideal emotional climate is positive, supportive, free of risk and the highest value is intimacy. In its purest form the Eros organization has a structure which is entirely horizontal. Notions of hierarchy, or even of authority, have no place in its ideology. Nor have notions of role. It reached its zenith as an organizational form in the Western world in the 1960s. What holds the organization together is the intensity of the relationships between its members. The organization may have a sense of common purpose, may be productive in many ways, may have established ways of going about its work, but these are secondary to the satisfactions of relationship. People think more in terms of their relationships with the people, rather than their responsibility to the organization. Community is an end in itself. Mechanisms of control are absent and freedom is paramount. Read more…


Inclusive leadership: ways to achieve diversity and inclusion

Inclusive Leadership: the definitive guide to developing and executing an impactful diversity and inclusion strategy by Charlotte Sweeney and Fleur Bothwick (Pearson Books, 2016)  is a book all leaders and aspiring leaders need in their personal library.

Cogent arguments and performance data identifying the real benefits to organizations of diverse are provided, with good tips on preparing a business case for such change. In addition, simple and clear distinctions for the concepts of equality, diversity and inclusion are made, and practical ways to think and act strategically to lead change for diversity and inclusion in workplaces are outlined. Read more…


Promethean organizations – where only science and technology can deliver a better world

For the Greeks, Prometheus was the saviour of mankind and a god of science and technology.

Prometheus was the saviour of mankind quite specifically, because he did not much approve of womankind.

The Prometheus myth is a fantasy of setting people free from the power of the gods, of inevitable progress towards a better world, of gaining control over natural forces. It is a fantasy that has had enormous power in the history of Western civilization, especially in the past three hundred years. Indeed, civilization has come to be defined in terms of the gifts that Prometheus can bring: science, the machine and the better world that only they can deliver. This is a peculiarly masculine fantasy, for science and technology have been peculiarly male domains. Read more…


Ares organizations – the positives and negatives


Some time back I introduced archetypal patterns of organizational culture and behavior through the pantheon of the classical Greek gods.

You can find these earlier articles in our Resources. There are still more from the pantheon worthy of introduction and in recent times I have been reminded by one client organization of the Ares organizational type.

Organizational archetypes

By way of reminder and context, in my book with Bernie Neville, Olympus Inc we sought to present some windows through which we can view organizational dynamics, and from these find doorways to enter the life of organizations in order to influence them.

One of the windows we chose was unconscious processes and how they influence human behavior. Understanding the power of the unconscious owes much to the research and thinking of Freud and Jung. We pointed to the ways in which our thoughts and actions are shaped by energies that are totally outside our awareness.

Organizational behavior, like individual behavior, is archetypally patterned. In Jungian psychology, archetypal patterns are understood as manifestations of collective unconscious processes. In our experience we are struck by evidence of recurring patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving that are evident in the behavior of organizations, but often outside the awareness of those inside the organization.

High energy and challenge – hallmarks of the Ares organization

We would be wrong to over-simplify the god Ares with the pathology of warfare. The positive side of Ares must not be overlooked. Ares is the god of energy, of vehemence, of conflict, of activism, of challenge, of fire in the belly and fire in the eyes. He may be emotionally immature and inclined to act without thinking. When he gets too carried away he can be enormously destructive. Yet we cannot live a human life without him. We must honor him as we do the other gods. Without him we have no passion.

Some organizations are completely dominated by Ares. They operate within a macho ideology in which conflict is relished for its own sake, any sign of subtlety or sensitivity is viewed with suspicion or contempt and relationships are entirely competitive. People enjoy kicking each other around the office. The ‘manly’ virtues of toughness and courage are extolled; any sort of softness is despised. The organization’s heroes are those who crash through obstacles rather than negotiate their way around them.

Many people cannot tolerate the Ares culture, but the Ares energy has much to recommend it.

The Ares organization is full of challenge and excitement. Conflict is not suppressed or avoided but is welcomed and even enjoyed. Arguments are valued. Management and staff revel in each other’s energy. The organization acknowledges people’s need to resist, to assert their right not to be pushed around, and if they want something they know that they can fight for it. They know also that they don’t have to concern themselves about offending sensitive personalities, because people who can’t take the heat don’t stay around. Intellectual subtleties may be neglected, and the delight in fighting for fighting’s sake may lead to some unfortunate decisions, but there is real engagement in what is going on. Ares is often mistaken, but never boring. He does not care too much what is done, as long as it is done energetically.

Ares has little interest in the future and little ability to plan for it. Like Aphrodite, he is focused on immediate experience. He may get so engaged in the fight that he forgets what the fight is about. The Ares organization may experience a lot of excitement and expend a lot of energy yet produce very little. At his best Ares is a mover and energizer who makes things happen. At his worst he is a bully and blusterer for whom the obvious solution to any problem is the random application of violence. The Ares organization may manifest the best and worst of him together.

The Ares organization often has the atmosphere of the men’s locker room, and Ares often dominates the culture of sports clubs. Military organizations will have an Ares culture, as will any organization dedicated to activism – political, environmental or social. Sales and marketing are areas where Ares energy may be prominent, for this god reveals himself in the ethos of competition. Women are not necessarily excluded from Ares organizations and many women enjoy working in an Ares culture. Like the Demeter culture Ares culture is affective. There is no shame in expressing emotions, but the emotions expressed are very different from those of Demeter or Eros. It is also diffuse; there is not much concern to distinguish task from task, role from role, work from play, thinking from feeling or public space from private space. All seem to be blended in passionate action. The Ares energy in an organization is oriented towards immediate experience. If the organization does have a long-term orientation, it gets it from one of the other gods, probably Zeus or Prometheus.

Ares in the crisis of growth

It has been said that a crisis is thought of as a situation that has within it both great danger and great potential.

A number of client organizations come to mind as exemplifying the Ares archetype and living through periods of both great potential and great risk. They have some common characteristics …. each company started off as a private venture among a group of individuals. In every case, one of these had many of the characteristics of the god Hermes  – the entrepreneurial spirit, the deal making spirit, and immense flexibility. This person’s vision and flexibility combined with the group’s Ares energy meant the venture was very successful. Each crisis was met with positive, aggressive energy, cunning and ingenuity. Each company flourished and in due course was listed on the relevant stock exchange.

The Hermes vision of growth, wealth and success combined with the energy, challenge, strong aggressive thrust into new markets, processes and products would surely be theirs.

But alas this aspiration is not as easy to achieve as simply listing the company. There are many complex and dangerous waters to navigate before the company reaches smooth sailing.

Along with such listings come obligations, processes, regulations and structures such as boards, governance and compliance – things quite alien to the spirit of Ares.

Let us be clear, the success of these startup ventures was due largely to Ares’ energy and Hermes’ ingenuity. Upon listing, other gods need a seat at the table, e.g. Apollo for order and organization, Prometheus for systems and processes, Zeus to bring direction and strength, Eros to connect people together in collaborative effort, Demeter  to protect employees and make the environment safe. Healthy, viable and complex companies need the positive energies of many gods at the table to grow and prosper.

This is often a difficult transition for the Ares dominated organization to work through. No longer can we be a band of brothers waging the good fight, scaling the heights, snatching life from the jaws of death, and slaying demons at every turn. The deep and strong culture, the vibrant energy of delivery, achievement and action, the almost unconscious embrace of the next crisis … these characteristics were so vital to the success of the four companies I have in mind, but also represent severe limitations to their growth and future success unless complemented by the energies, perspectives and contributions of other gods. How each company navigates these tensions will determine whether they really do achieve success and growth.


Tim Dalmau


Buy Tim & Steve’s Book

''A truly useful and practical book'' Rich Shapiro, EY

Value Added Free Training

Sign up to receive regular training and insights to further your business