Episode 271 – You Lead with Minter Dial

‘What elements of your imperfection are you going to bring to the table?’

Minter DialThat’s the powerful question that strategist and storyteller Minter Dial poses about writing, but it could equally well be applied to leadership. Having all the answers is no longer what we need from our leaders: in a disrupted, uncertain world we need leaders who are willing to admit that they don’t know everything and to show up as their whole selves.

This is a thoughtful, wide-ranging conversation and it is pure audio gold.

Minter’s site: https://www.minterdial.com/

Minter Dialogue podcast: https://www.minterdial.com/resources/podcasts/

The Last Ring Home: http://www.thelastringhome.com/

Minter on Twitter: https://twitter.com/mdial

Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky

The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/

The Extraordinary Business Book Club bookshop: https://uk.bookshop.org/shop/extraordinarybusinessbooks

The Business Book Awards Ceremony – 25 May: https://www.businessbookawards.co.uk/

Alison Jones: I’m here today with Minter Dial who is an award-winning author, strategist and brand expert. An in-demand storyteller, he delivers keynotes and seminars to audiences the world over and has spoken at events that include SXSW, Adobe Summit, CogX, and Netexpo. His advisory work has allowed him to work with brands that include LVMH, Remy Cointreau, Samsung, Credit Agricole, L’Oreal, Google and Publicis.

And he’s the author of several books, including Future Proof, which was of course a winner at the Business Book Awards, and his latest book You Lead was published in January 2021 by Kogan Page. So welcome to the show, Minter.

Minter Dial: Alison, many thanks, you sound like you know, French, you have a great accent.

Alison Jones: I was doing the L’Oreal… Yes, you don’t get much chance to do that kind of stuff, do you? Unfortunately, I don’t actually speak much French, but I do have a reasonable French accent. Which of course is a nightmare, because you go to France and you say, ‘je ne parle pas français’ then ‘Well, clearly you do,’ and blah blah blah and, yeah, so it’s a bit of a curse, but anyway I’d love to pretend that I spoke French, but I don’t.

Anyway, let’s talk about books and you, shall we? Instead of my terrible Franglais.

So tell me, let’s start with You Lead, which is actually a really strong title. I’d like to know how that came about, but it’s really interesting because I was looking at the book and I’m looking at the whole, I mean, in a sense the message is super simple, isn’t it? It’s from Hamlet it’s, you know, ‘to thine own self be true’. It’s know yourself. It’s the kind of ages old wisdom. Why though, is it so important today? And how did you go about making it so relevant for today?

Minter Dial: First of all hats off to Geraldine, my editor for the choice of the title. Fully hers and even the idea of using handwriting for the writing on the front page it very sort of graphic and very individualistic, almost like a signature.

Alison Jones: I like that, nice work Geraldine.

Minter Dial: Yes. So how do they come around it? Well, actually, the origin story for this book is kind of long, but the short version is I started writing this book in 2014, because it was going to be the book of my life.

And when I say that it was going to be The, I was only planning one. And two, of my life, because as much as I had been working 60-, 70-, 80- hour weeks, I always felt that work had to be a part of your life. Not some sort of separated thing where you put on a mask and become somebody else, but is part of you and is part of your legacy and needs to be congruent with who you are.

And then for a number of crazy reasons, Alison, I kept on having to put it on hold. And I went down other rabbit holes, including my documentary film and then Future Proof, and Heartificial Empathy, each of which had their own journey and reasons to be. And then finally, in 2019 with Kogan and Geraldine, we decided that this is it. This is the time.

And we went down it and can you imagine this, lo and behold, I deliver the final manuscript, March 13, 2020.

Alison Jones: So you’ve written the book, it’s all wrapped up and then suddenly the world changes.

Minter Dial: Indeed. And I get a message: furlough, hold on, four months, basically. And at that time I had to scratch my head wondering, huh? What are people going to be experiencing in January when this book is going to come out? What are they going to be thinking? Is this, are we on target? Are we not? How do we contextualize it?

Because otherwise, if my references are pre- pandemic, it just feels like, Oh, that was another era, like the 20th century. Anyway, so I doubled down on the story. I added in a couple of excerpts and more than ever, I feel the need for us to be able to express a much larger part of ourselves in work is true and necessary. That’s where I sit today.

Alison Jones: And I think that is fascinating, isn’t it? Because the barriers between work and life, if they were ever distinct, have completely crumbled and people are having to bring their whole selves to work because their whole selves are right there. You can see their background. You can see their pets. You know, you often see their children.

It is interesting that I think the tolerance of that and the understanding, the insight you get into somebody’s other life, that you never used to see in the office, has changed how we see each other forever, hasn’t it?

Minter Dial: It certainly has, it shouldn’t have happened before, but it certainly was the case and there are two examples of stories you can have. One is you’re walking down the street on a Saturday morning with your family and across the street who do you spot, your boss, the boss is crossing the street towards you?

Oh my God. Oh my God. A quick check. What am I wearing? All right. Kids, you behave right. And, and and you know, my wife, say something smart. Alright. Panic stations and the boss comes over and just walks right by you. Because, you know, this is my private time. What do you think about that? And anyway, so I feel like you need to be the same kind of person that talks to the cashier, that talks to your family, your friends, there has to be a relationship between the person you are in each of these moments, as well as with employees outside of work.

There shouldn’t be a reason why you switch on another mask. Oh, well, yes, sir. Hello, sir. Why are you speaking like that, Dad? Well, my boss, you know. Dad, you’re speaking to me now. Oh, yes, son. And so I feel like that is a real issue.

And then the second one is as a boss. Do you like the personality that you are at work and is it consistent with who you are as an individual when you’re with your family?

And if you don’t have that consistency, I think it’s extremely damaging to you and your health. And importantly, at work, it makes you a different kind of person, not in touch with yourself, not being vulnerable, not being real and therefore not being trustworthy.

Alison Jones: And why do you think people do that, Minter? Why do they feel they need to put on a front, a different personality when they put the suit on, they sort of become a different person, like a sort of reverse Clark Kent? What is behind that? What’s driving it?

Minter Dial: Well at the beginning, let’s say, it’s sort of how old people have been taught to roll, you know, leave your home stuff at home, son. I don’t need to hear about that. And this has been perpetuated despite the fact that the second world war generation has gone.

We continue to think that this is how you need to be. It’s all about performance, lady. You need to do what you need to do. Get the job done. Because that’s what we’re being paid for and that’s how we get remunerated by shareholders. So there’s a whole strain of things that leads us into this need to be just around performance.

 And there’s also this nobility, the nobility of being smart, the nobility of performance, titles on a card and this idea of being messy and emotional and human, we don’t have time for that because actually like listening, it takes time to explore the messiness of our relationships and the foibles of our imperfections.

This is part of who we are and they may not be totally efficient and effective, in which case, the old school thought is we need to get rid of them, but I think it’s how you build relationships, build trust, and actually perform better.

Alison Jones: Yes. And certainly in an uncertain world, I mean, just getting the job done might’ve worked when we all knew what we had to do, and there’s a rule book and nothing changed. These days you need the whole person, don’t you, so you need the creativity, you need the engagement if you’re going to be able to move and respond.

Minter Dial: And I think that there’s also no data to do what we’re doing. This is the first time round for all of us. Actually life is a first time round, right. And right now we’ve woken up to this fact. And I actually think that there’s another component to this. Which has led us to allow for the dog in the background, if you will.

So we’re in this situation, which we’ve never been in before. This is a first time for everybody to have a global pandemic, but I also think it’s actually a perfect illumination of the fact that actually life is only a one-time round.

And so the reality of this existential crisis that we’re faced with in the pandemic, actually it’s sort of part of who we are and has always been, because we all have a one-time round in life. This is not a rehearsal. It is what it is. And that’s why this notion of authenticity is so powerful because just be yourself and in today’s world, on top of that, we have so many new things to deal with.

Whether it’s new technologies, new business models, we can’t possibly know everything, which was the old model, the know it all. So now we’ve got to come to the game with a little bit of humility to say, well, bloody hell, I don’t know everything. There are so many new technologies out there. How am I going to create partnerships and show I need you, Alison, because you really know how to do podcasts? I really need you to help me make me be better. And along the way I’d like to make you better. So crafting collaboration requires a degree of humility and accepting that I don’t know everything, that I have weaknesses and I’m vulnerable.

‘I need you.’ That certainly has not been the past way of leaders.

Alison Jones: Well, absolutely. This is what I was going to say, it’s hard enough in working relationships generally, but leadership has always almost been defined by the people with the answers and making that shift I think to it being okay for you to be the one having the questions and not having the answers takes a huge amount of self-confidence, humility… I mean, it’s an odd mix, isn’t it?

Minter Dial: It is and actually, I would even say courage, the courage to admit that I don’t know everything, the courage to admit that I have weaknesses, because you know, Brené Brown has been leading this charge of needing to bring vulnerability into it, which is life, which is that we’re not perfect. And we have bad days.

And the idea that we need to be the hundred percent on, Energizer all the time, got the answers: it’s building you up for a crash and if it’s not a crash performance-wise, it’s a crash health wise. I see so many people with bravado bluffing their way through, and then all of a sudden they have an issue of imposter syndrome or haven’t been in touch with themselves and have no friends because they’re just pretending to be somebody who they’re not.

And if you don’t dial into this notion of you’re okay with your imperfections, some days you don’t wake up and feel perfect -understand that and therefore, when you’re going into the office or you’re speaking with somebody, you’re going to be realer, the other person’s going to dial into you.

I have a story, Alison, which I occasionally share, which is the first time I cried in public. So you have to imagine 18 years of rugger in my shoulders and my legs, seven concussions and so, stiff upper lip, boarding school, that’s what you do, you don’t bring that stuff in. Plenty of military people that I knew in my circle and you know, so emotions, crying, uh-uh.

And then I was making a speech at a very pressure-filled moment, 70 people in the room, lots of celebrities and important press people. So stressed to the gazingzang. And all of a sudden I got a lump in my throat. I was like, what’s that lump doing? And I was like, ah, It’s not happening. And all of a sudden I start gulping and sobbing and I just couldn’t control myself.

So what was the first thing I did? I’m so sorry. I can’t believe, I’m so embarrassed. Oh, this is horrible. And then someone decided to start clapping and then the rest of the room clapped, I caught myself, I gathered myself and I went back in, of course apologizing immensely.

And then at the end, looking down at my shoes, I was like, I’m really sorry what happened earlier. Gosh, that wasn’t planned. I kind of expected everyone to flood out. And certainly some people did because they had other things to do or maybe they didn’t like that show, whatever. But then some of the most important people in the room came up to me and several of them embraced me. So rather than feeling less of me, what they did is actually they connected more into me.

And it became a really eye-opening experience that showing who you are, being emotional, doesn’t make you a weaker person. It doesn’t lower their esteem of you necessarily. In this case, it completely changed the nature of that event and the relationships that I have pursued since then.

Alison Jones: That’s so powerful and a real reminder that we’re so used to things being slick and polished, and we work so hard to present ourselves beautifully. I think people get tired of it, don’t they? They know that this is all above the surface and those moments when you really, and you can’t manufacture that, but the moments where you do break below and you see something really authentic and you connect in that kind of emotional way, they are incredibly powerful.

I think part of the problem is that certainly the media, they manufacture that emotion quite so much that you almost become suspicious of it.

Minter Dial: Hmm.

Alison Jones: That’s really interesting.

Minter Dial: Being authentic is a tough thing, right? I mean it requires knowing, in fact who you are

Alison Jones: I was going to say it has to be used with generosity as well. Doesn’t it? Because otherwise it can become self-indulgent.

Minter Dial: Absolutely. You need to be at the service… I was talking with someone about how authenticity is a two-way story. You have to present yourself as who you are, as who you think you are, and the other person has to receive it. So as you are with somebody may not be considered, perceived, being authentic by somebody else.

So there’s a two way story within that. And in the end of the day, that notion of generosity is once you have taken care of yourself and you are who you are, then you also need to feel legitimately at the service with the other people. And then when you do things like listen, you’re not just waiting to cut in, you know, and just go with my agenda.

You actually are fully on board and fully listening in present moment to what the other person’s saying.

Alison Jones: Yeah. And that is the ultimate act of generosity in a sense, isn’t it? It’s allowing someone to speak their truth and really hearing it.

Minter Dial: And if you model it in the first place, so if I’m telling you the truth, Alison, you’re going to feel it, and then you’re going to feel permission granted to come back depending on the type of relationship we have. But this notion of as the leader, if you can demonstrate the behaviour, then you’re going to allow for it to happen and caveat, you need to be careful never to judge because you’ve been almost paid to judge, that’s sort of what we’ve been crafted as leaders to do, is to criticize and judge, and, you know, you could do better than that.

So we need to move away from that, to be in a neutral, nonjudgmental listening. And by the way, when you do that, you will learn and that’s fundamental.

Alison Jones: Yes, that’s the wonderful irony of life, isn’t it? That you actually receive by giving. I love that.

I’m going to ask you about writing as well, Minter, shamelessly moving on to my own agenda here, sorry. Because you’ve written several books now and they’ve all been really good. So you’re doing something right.

How do you find that process of writing, of actually taking those thoughts, and that lived experience of yours and putting it onto the page? What do you most enjoy about that? And what do you find hardest?

Minter Dial: Right. So I’m going to break that down into three things.

One is the form, two, the pleasure of writing and three, the publication component, because I went to university in America and studied Tri-lingual Literature as my major. And so therefore I love reading. I love reading in different languages, and by the way, my minor was Women’s Studies.

But looking at texts and critiquing them and actually when you read fiction, it’s fantastic because you’re getting into other people’s lives. And I didn’t know it then, but I was really trying to develop my empathy through understanding how other people are. When you start reading about a woman, it can make me feel in her shoes and get closer to what it is to be a woman, for example.

And then there’s the format. And so I used to write. I’ve written an unpublished novel. I’ve written probably 200 poems, 19 songs, and about a hundred short stories and all of that unpublished, essentially unpublished. Then, I started with this idea, as I said before, I had to write the story of the book of my life and I love to write.

So my safe moment. My moment of peace is once I’ve gotten up, I usually get up around about five, after I’ve done some meditation, some stretching to feel my body, get a cup of coffee, I’m not gonna lie, and then I write.

Alison Jones: Keeping it real with the caffeine.

Minter Dial: Yeah, a good coffee, by the way. And then I eat yogurt with nuts and sort of healthiness kick, and then I’m listening to the birds.

I’m not listening to telephones ringing. I’m not hearing pings and notifications. By the way, turn off all your notifications. Anyway, and I love to write, and there’s a sort of a therapy to it. My third book, which is Heartificial Empathy, I actually wrote that as therapy. And the reason why I wrote that book was I lost my best friend who took his life.

And I thought through, in the last six weeks with him, how I could have been more empathic. So I really needed to dig in and understand better what it is actually empathy at a hardcore level. That’s not at all mentioned in the book, but that’s actually what I did and why I wrote the book.

I love to write and this was a real, a moment of honesty for me because when you write a book about empathy, all of a sudden you get some people say, well, Minter that wasn’t very empathic of you, was it? You end up having to be held to that standard. So in all of my books, I’ve also wanted it to be real. And for me to walk the talk or walk the write, if you will, so that I’m congruent with what I’m writing.

I’m not just saying ‘You gotta…’, ‘You should…’, ‘You could…’, but ‘I do. This is what you can as well.’

Alison Jones: I love that idea of writing your way into the person that you want to be. So you’re almost putting out a sort of public accountability statement, aren’t you? You’re saying this is what I believe, this is the best of me, these are the values that I hold.

And because you put it out in a book, you’re kind of giving the world permission to hold you to it.

Minter Dial: But you need to be accountable to what you write. So that’s where you need to hone in or reel in some excesses may be, Oh, well, wouldn’t it be great if I just said I was perfect. Huh? Well, I’m not. So then the question then becomes, what elements of your imperfection are you going to bring to the table?

And how are you going to demonstrate that? Because if I’m to help people be themselves at work, I need to also tell stories of imperfections and raw material that shows that there’s a real element to me, I’m not some sort of genuine Nutcracker. I’m trying to bring my vision, my version of the story and I have to be held accountable to that.

So I have to have a great editor. I have to have my wife, who inevitably calls me to task and that’s tough and beautiful love. And then also yourself, because, you know, deep down, whether you’re bullshitting or not.

Alison Jones: And what do you find hardest about the process of writing and indeed publishing

Minter Dial: Editing, editing down. I get a little bit verbose, as you can tell by my chattiness.

So this last book, I was 85,000 words, and yet Geraldine had said to me, Minter, 55 to 60,000 words. So I had to cut down and get back to 60. And then by the time we finished, it was maybe 63- 64. Thank you Geraldine but yeah, so editing down the material to get to the nuts and bolts. Like in my first book, The Last Ring Home, that book was originally a 350 page manuscript that really was wrapping up all the things that I had discovered about my grandparents, both of whom died before I was born.

And so there are many stories and things that spoke to me, but when I was going to publish it, I had to make sure that I divulged the stories that were going to be relevant to others and engage them. And so cutting out. So there’s so many stories, I’m like, Oh no. Oh shoot. Okay. I got to take that one out.

It’s good for me, but not for the book. So that type of editing, you need to have a good editor who’s going to give you some hard love and bring that external perspective to make sure it’s relevant to the reader.

Alison Jones: It is so hard, isn’t it? When you’ve really fallen in love with a story and you’ve sweated blood over it, and then you realize it’s got to go. It’s just the worst. Luckily there are things like blogs and articles, and there are ways you can, you know, it doesn’t have to sort of just languish in a cutting bin does it? You can actually use this stuff, just not in the book.

Minter Dial: Well, I have to admit that I am not good at that part, repurposing cut stuff, because I tend to contextualize my stories. And so they’re coming in through an angle and there’s the warmup, the takeoff, and then whoop, we’re into the story. And then I’m really trying to weave it in so this is like extracting an organ from a body, it feels very difficult to then make the organ live alone.

Alison Jones: I feel a Frankenstein metaphor coming here…

Minter Dial: Exactly.

Alison Jones: I do like to think though that nothing’s wasted. So even if you never actually get to use that bit, the fact that you have thought through the connection there, the point of it , you know, that’s then part of your mental furniture, isn’t it? And hopefully it will come through in the book, but even so it’s just moved you on.

I just don’t think any writing is ever wasted, no matter how few people see it, that process is still valuable.

Minter Dial: Well, there’s all the research that you do in, in getting it in and all that’s worthwhile. And then you think about this word or that word and all those thinking elements in the creation process are valuable because they’re helping you to structure your own thoughts.

Alison Jones: It’s like if you’re brainstorming, isn’t it. The first five ridiculous ideas that you have and you never use, they’re not wasted because they get you where you need to be further along the line. So I think just valuing that the process is helpful because otherwise you can feel like you’ve wasted a huge amount of stuff, which is disheartening.

Minter Dial: Now one thing I always say Alison, is that if you don’t like writing, don’t write a book because you’re not doing it for the hero worship. You’re not doing it for the money. So just enjoy the process of writing and appreciate what you’re learning along the way.

Alison Jones: A bit like having children, isn’t it?

Minter Dial: Indeed. Sometimes thankless.

Alison Jones: And I always ask people, Minter, for their best tip for a first time writer. And I feel a bit mean really because you’ve given us so much already, but if I just said to you, what would your one best tip be for somebody who very much wants to write a business book, but isn’t quite sure where to start.

Minter Dial: Well, maybe think who you’re writing it for. And by that, I mean, are you writing it for an audience or you’re writing it for you? And think through that, because at the end of the day, that’s also going to inform whether you need to be published, the publisher or self-published. Why are you doing this?

Because let me tell you that when I was 18, I wrote down a list. I very proudly wrote down the five things that are going to allow me to feel at the end of my life, that I have fulfilled my life. And one of them was, I want to publish a book. I was so interested in writing . I have to scratch my head, you know, many years later, I’m 50 years when I finally decided to write the book of my life, right.

And, actually is that really still true? Why do I need to write this? And the first book I ended up writing is this biography of my grandfather. And I felt such a strong need to say thank you to that generation. I studied history as well, that was my other big passion and my God, what a generation and they were dying.

 They were the end of the second world war generation. And I just felt the need to capture what I heard. I interviewed 130 veterans and all of a sudden I felt really fulfilled because I was at their service, helping their stories to come alive and it became full.

So, know why and who you’re writing it for.

Alison Jones: That’s brilliant. Thank you.

 And I always ask people as well to recommend a book and I’m really looking forward to this, you are possibly one of the best read people in the world ever. So what book would you recommend to someone who’s listening to this podcast, could be a business book, might not be.

Minter Dial: So I think there should be no surprise that my recommendation isn’t a business book. Because I think life is short and it’s really all about life…

Alison Jones: Do you know, I thought you might say that.

Minter Dial: In today’s world in particular, the book that really strikes for me and resonates is by a British journalist called Johann Hari. His book is called Lost Connections.

And let me explain to you why I really think this is an important book. I feel, in this hyper-connected world, we’ve never felt less connected. We have no time for anybody else. We are generally in a ‘Me Me Me’ kind of individualistic environment, the idea of community helping each other out of course it exists, but it’s a hard stretch.

And on top of that, most of us have spent a lot of time isolated, Lost Connections is a beautiful book because Johann Hari talks about his depression, talks about how he’s treated it and very much puts the onus on the individual to think about taking responsibility for themselves, rather than reaching for a blue pill or whatever color pill you want to go for, because in the end of the day, it’s our lives. We need to wrangle with it. It’s messy. It’s never perfect. And he described seven different ways to reconnect. And that includes with strangers, with friends and family that you haven’t spoken with and especially yourself. And so Johann Hari’s book is a real treasure trove of interesting stories, truths about the pharmaceutical industry and the medical industry, and also truths about how we should be or could be leading our own lives.

Alison Jones: I absolutely love the sound of it. I haven’t read it. It sounds very much like a book for our times as well. I mean, I’m sure he didn’t envisage the context in which people will be reading it, but we have absolutely lost connection so much that I think as we emerge from this, that sounds like a really interesting route map. Thank you.

Minter Dial: My pleasure.

Alison Jones: I knew it was going to be a good one. And Minter, if people want to find out more about you, more about your books, more about the work that you do, where should they go?

Minter Dial: So I have this crazy last or first name Minter Dial, which Google apparently likes. So minterdial.com is kind of where I write. I’ve been blogging for well nigh 15 years. I have a podcast which also is benefiting from a weird name, it’s called Minter Dialogue, where I interview people. And so generally those are all things that are reasonably easy to find out where I blog and tweet MDial is my handle on Twitter and Instagram.

And I want to just say, I think that in today’s world alongside this need for connection, I also think we need to double down on our values and remember what are important. What’s important for us in our lives. And in this regard, I’d like to really just plug my film, although I get nothing from it, but it’s just my sort of mission to the world.

Go take a look at my film called The Last Ring Home. It’s a half hour documentary. It’s the Second World War. It’s a love story. It’s a story of courage and honour, and I would love for people to take a look at that. There’s also a book it’s on VOD. But it’s a story that hopefully reminds us what’s important, to connect in with our friends and family and to lead more honorable lives.

Alison Jones: Wonderful. I will put all those links up on the show notes, of course, at Extraordinary Business Books.com

Minter, I genuinely could have been talking to you all day. I’ve had such a good time. And I really enjoyed the thoughtfulness and the wide ranging conversation that we’ve just had. Thank you, particularly for the really helpful thoughts about writing, somebody who’s written in so many different forms and as I say, written so broadly and so well, it’s just gold to get underneath the hood and see how they’re doing it.

And also to find out that there are bits that they find hard. I think that’s really helpful for the rest of us. So thank you.

Minter Dial: My pleasure, Alison.

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