All posts by Dave Stewart

Making teams work. The surprising power of disclosure in fostering trust.

How can you get teams to work together better?  I am going to share a simple but powerful exercise to accelerate trust and ultimately performance.

It’s a truism to say that an organisation’s people are its greatest asset. But it’s the way those individual people work together in teams which really matters.

Dysfunctional teams are one of the most common blockers to progress in business. Whether it’s dealing with change or performing well during business as usual, collaboration between team members is vital.

But collaboration is easier said than done. How do you create the conditions for productive teamwork in your organisation? How do you get people to work well together?

High performing teams trust each other

You are probably aware of   Lencioni’s 5 Dysfunctions of a Team model (Lencioni, 2002). Trust is the key foundation of effective teamwork. Trust enables creative challenge which in turn promotes commitment and mutual accountability which underpin achievement of collective results.

Trust is key

But developing trust within a team isn’t always easy. Trust requires a number of elements to be in place, not least some measure of self-awareness, an awareness of who our colleagues are, and the courage to speak our hearts and minds. And yet not many of us really know one another, or ourselves. The conditions for trust are not really there.

How does this happen? Sometimes it’s because we have forgotten our own back-stories. In an effort to fit into the workplace we have disappeared ourselves and grown increasingly less deeply self-aware. And yet, we are more surface’ly self-conscious! And because no-one has thought to ask us who we are, to ask us what our stories are, we don’t really think about these and how these shape us.

The workplace can be an accidentally uncaring and courage-shrinking place, and trust can’t get a foothold.

What if we could turn this around? What would a safer, more aware, more trusting environment enable? Bigger, richer conversations around more exciting, tougher topics? More commitment and momentum around a common purpose?

These are some of the questions we ask, and help clients uncover the answers to, on our leadership walkshops, retreats, treks, and missions.

The 5-4-3-2-1 Exercise

Here’s a disclosure framework we use to explore self-awareness and build trust. Taken from the Fresh Air Leadership ToolKit, it can quickly shift the dial on levels of trust and awareness.  Make time and space for the whole team to do this together, and you’ll find that powerful conversations unfold, and collaboration becomes easier.

5 Think

Spend 5 minutes thinking about your story and prepare to tell it against the framework below.

4 Things

Describe 4 things that shaped you, at least one per decade. It’s really important that you don’t skip ages 0- 9, and 10 – 19 as these are important formative periods.

3 Passions

Tell the group 3 things you are really passionate about. Think really carefully before you reach for standard phrases like “family”. Exactly what is it about family (or whatever else you choose) that brings you alive?

2 Ways to get your attention

Give 2 ways to get your attention. We all have communication preferences, and you may have been turning one another off by being unaware of this!

1 Secret

Reveal 1 thing that no-one could probably guess about you.

Be ready

Give everyone time to speak and be ready for all sorts of surprises.

There may be tears as well as moments of joy and inspiration, so be prepared for some difficult stories in the mix. Unless specifically asked don’t dive in and “rescue” upset story tellers. Give them space and simply be present for them.

Ultimately team members who can disclose and share at this personal level will be less predisposed to play politics and waste colleagues’ time. There will be a new baseline of trust and respect in play that will make for a more caring, creative, and collaborative workplace.

What now?

If you are interested in finding out more about how we accelerate the performance of teams get in touch with me directly at

How can you get teams to work together better?  I am going to share a simple but powerful …

Leadership banana skins – seven tips to avoid a trip

There’s a story behind this image. I almost rejected it from a photo shoot for the new website as it wasn’t perfect.

Do you see the banana skin hanging out of the rucksack side-pocket? I was worried it made me look unprofessional.

But isn’t that banana skin a slippy little reminder of all of our imperfections as leaders?

Don’t we all carry around something that could trip us up?

Whether it’s a belief, a pattern of behaviour, or some unhelpful blind spot, we’re all capable of falling flat on our faces when we let our weaknesses rather than our strengths take the reins.

What’s your banana skin?

Perhaps it’s dealing with confrontation, managing meetings or public speaking.

It could be a worry that you’re not cut out for leadership, or a concern that key people in your team are not fully committed and failing to pull their weight.

Maybe you have a whole bunch of them!

So what?

Effective leaders know how to manage their banana skins so they can lead with their strengths.

This level of self-awareness and management is the basis of emotional Intelligence.

Emotional intelligence is the ability to recognise your emotions, understand what they’re telling you, and realise how your emotions affect people around you. It also involves your perception of others: when you understand how they feel, you can manage relationships more effectively.

High levels of emotional intelligence make leaders more effective. Decision making, coping with stress, staying calm under pressure, getting the best out of other people, and motivating others are all more manageable when you recognise your own patterns of behaviour, and can understand how others are feeling and reacting too.

Heightening your levels of emotional intelligence starts with yourself. How do you react when things aren’t going your way? How does it feel when you’re faced with someone who doesn’t listen? And on the positive side, how are you behaving when everything’s going swimmingly? How do you act when you’re on top of your game?

Recognising your slippy banana skins is the first step to minimising them. Here’s how to find yours and keep them in check.

Now what?

So how do you keep your banana skins from causing leadership trips and slips?

Here is my list. Let me know any others you use.

#1  Be reflective. What are you noticing in yourself, and in the reactions of others? What is it that makes you interpret these reactions in the way that you do? Could there be other interpretations?

#2  Be open to feedback.Actively seek it. (Without becoming an overly self-indulgent pain in the butt, of course.)

#3  Find your critical friends.Have some trusted buddies who will tell you as it is.

#4  Keep a journal.Jot down your reflections and any feedback you have had from others. Write on the left-hand page. Review over time for any patterns. Jot these down on the right-hand page.

#5  Say it out loud to your face. Make a video diary of your reflections. Use the same principle as a written journal.

#6  Group learning. Experiment with collective feedback sessions. After routine meetings, for example, close with a round of, “What I found really great/valuable/etc about this meeting was ABC. What I noticed got in the way/closed me down a bit was XYZ.”

#7  Remember why you’re a leader! You are in a leadership role because you are exceptional in one or more ways. Don’t lose sight of this. For sure, pay attention to those banana skins that will seriously derail you, but do keep honing the skills that make you great. Pack the other banana skins away in your rucksack.

Start now

Self-reflection is important, so get on and do it! And make it one of your leadership habits.

I have offered 7 tips above. No excuses. Commit now to one or more.

Let me know how you get on and please share any other tips.

Dave Stewart

There’s a story behind this image. I almost rejected it from a photo shoot for the new …

Go get some awe!

I am in Falkirk, Scotland today. Being a tourist, and visiting the “Kelpies“.

“Kelpies” are mythical creatures, shape-shifters, living in water, and often taking the form of horses. And here they are given huge, 30 metre-high, metallic form by Scottish sculpturist Andy Scott.

I find myself staring at them.  A full, timeless hour.

In total awe.

The form, the detail, the metal-work, the underlying structures, their sheer size. The changing colours and reflections. The sense of living personality. Their artistic representation of the industrial revolution, progress, cutting edge technology, and guardianship of Scotland’s equine heritage and inland waterways. The passion of the sculpturist that created them. And lots more.

And just a hundred meters away, a group of happy, squealing children are being led through the woods and wetlands on a “Fairies, Elves, and Woodland Friends” walk.

More awe.

Today helped me realise I am in the business of awe.

And that perhaps we all should be?

We help senior teams and leaders tap into the extraordinary. They are for the most part tired, anxious, and scared. They seek new levels of trust, the courage to engage closely, excitement and inspiration, and the guts to execute bold, elegant moves.

When were you last in awe?

When did you last spend timeliness moments lost in awe? How can you make this part of what makes you and those around you brilliant at what you do?

Go get some awe!

Dave Stewart

Managing Director, The Fresh Air Learning Company

Extraordinary Team Experiences | Inspirational Leadership Journeys

P.S. Our next engagement with awe has 3 places left. Highland Hack, a 4 night/3 day walking journey for senior leaders through the Scottish Highlands gathers evening 12 Sep and disperses breakfast 16 Sep 16. Find out more here.

I am in Falkirk, Scotland today. Being a tourist, and visiting the “Kelpies“. “Kelpies” are mythical creatures, …

Gravity, flat-landers, and flat-lining

Do you recognise this start to your day?

“I put on my work clothes. Pressed. No creases. I slip my smooth flat laptop into its flat case, and into my flat shoulder bag. I head for the station. The flat ticket comes out of the flat fronted machine when I put my flat credit card in and punch the purchase code into the flat keyboard. I sit on a flat seat, or maybe stand on the flat floor of the carriage hurtling along the flat, straight rails. I read the news headlines and emails from the glowing flat screen of my smart phone. I look up and see a two-dimensional countryside whizz past through the flat toughened glass windows. Arriving at work, my flat magnetic pass gets me in. I print off a flat agenda and other flat papers and head along the flat corridor to the meeting room. Its made from flat metal and glass. I sit on another flat seat, and place my flat papers on the smooth flat conference table. Others arrive with their flat papers. The meeting starts. The conversation we then have is ….”

Sure, there are lots of great reasons to live and work like this.

But tell me this…

How do you escape the gravitational pull of the flat-lands?

Where do you go to discover mind-shifting perspectives? To do some seriously great thinking? To have truly awesome conversations with the people you need to connect courageously and creatively with? To find and share real passion and energy? To align behind the bold moves you need to make?

Are you flat-lining as a leader, as a team, as a business?

What is the worst that could happen if you were to blast out of your flat-lining flat-lander’s existence for a few days, and do something vibrant and inspiringly different?

We can help of course. And here is one exceptional journey that has worked brilliantly for gravity-defying former-flatlanders.

Your courage. Our creativity. Your call. Let’ go.

Do you recognise this start to your day? “I put on my work clothes. Pressed. No creases. …

Naturally crazy. Give it a go!

We took a business team up Pen y Fan, Southern UK’s highest top, two nights ago. A perfect full moon followed by a perfect sunrise. An inspiring experience in its own right.

During the ascent, friend and Fresh Air Learning Company associate, Jo Bradshaw recounted her experience of summit night on Mount Everest exactly 2 months previously.

A combination of terrain (one tenth scale of Everest, and topographic features she could link to the South Col, Hilary Step, South Summit, and summit etc.), iPad slides – brilliantly colourful in the dark, and the physical exertion of participants themselves, made the experience an Everest talk with a difference.

For our clients, the walk was primarily about achieving something out of the ordinary together. And they did. A grounding and connecting experience. A meaning-full reference point for future conversations.

The Everest story, and Jo herself, provided an interactive layer of metaphors around goals, resilience and teamwork to the whole experience.

So what?

The team was extraordinary in a number of respects.

Not all were outdoor people, only two described themselves as hillwalkers, there was a wide range of fitness levels, no-one had walked up a mountain in the dark before, and no-one had witnessed the magic of a mountain sunrise in their three or four decades.

And yet there was a willingness to give this crazy idea a go. Remember there was no expectation that the weather would be so incredible when they booked this Fresh Air Business Walk several weeks previously.

There was a sense that their personal and working relationships would be enriched by doing something different together; something connected with the outdoors and naturally inspiring; and through Jo’s Everest story, humanly inspiring.

Now what?

When you consider the needs of your team, where are you all on the spectrum of mundane to way-beyond-ordinary when it comes to creating the sorts of relationships that make great performance possible?

And you know that if you always do what you have always done, you’ll always get what you have always got.

Your courage. Our creativity. Your call. What might be possible?



We took a business team up Pen y Fan, Southern UK’s highest top, two nights ago. A …

A return to Nature

(This is a guest blog by a good friend of ours – Andy Milward of Milward: Consulting & Research in Strategic Leadership

We are in the constant grip of unhealthy imperatives

Our quality of life is under assault. Employers exhort us to ‘drive’, to ‘compete’, to ‘deliver’, to be ‘crisp’. They expect us to act not reflect.

The virtual world has increased social distance and reduced personal intimacy. Face to face contact is the exception not the rule. Relationships have become shallow and transient. Trust is rare and suspicion is rife.

The pursuit of self-interest transcends the pursuit of the common good. We behave with reckless abandon, regardless of the damage we cause to others.

Aspirational advertising induces us to strive for things we can rarely attain, and certainly do not need.

We must always look good and never show weakness. If we fall short of the standards expected of us we have failed, not tried.

Life has become a debilitating competition

Perpetual media envelops us in misery with its selective reproduction of bad news and gloomy prognoses.

Press intrusion is making our private lives public.  Governmental intrusion is eroding our liberties.

We face a crisis in health

There is an epidemic of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Young women unable to attain that perfect airbrushed body are afflicted with life-threatening disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia.

Substance abuse is ubiquitous.

The World Health Organisation forecasts that depressive illness is expected to constitute the second largest cause of disease burden in the world by 2020[1]

We are living in a permanent state of existential angst

But we were not intended to live this way. In our efforts to exploit the opportunities the world offers, we have lost sight of what really matters in life. The human and environmental cost is a devastating indictment of our behaviour. We are the architects of our own demise.

However, there is a simple thing we can all do to improve our own and others’ wellbeing.

It does not require decades of pharmaceutical research. It does not need a massive investment of taxpayers’ money. It does not require a revolution in ideology. The solution is all around us. We encounter it every day, but sadly we do not recognise it.

The solution is a return to nature

A return to nature is a retreat from the bruising turbulence of life. There is a great stillness in nature that restores our sense of presence and place.

As the ancients have taught us, meditation, yoga, and similar practices help us to control our attention, and deflect unwelcome thoughts.

A return to nature has the same effect. It is the most natural therapy.

It helps us learn to live in the present moment, not the guilty past, or in an anxious future.

We can learn to see, smell, feel, and hear again

Who is not moved by an early morning mist shrouding the landscape, rays of sunlight piercing a forest canopy, or the fragrance of flowers wafted on a balmy breeze.

Contemplate the serenity of a sunset, the magnificence of ice-capped mountains, or the eternal swell of the ocean.

Nature heals us with its music. The dawn chorus, the splatter of rain on a muddy path, the crunch of freshly fallen snow underfoot. The rustling of leaves in the trees, the crash of waves on the shore, the anguished howl of a gale.

We should learn from the animal world. Watch your pet dog or cat basking in the sun. They do not ruminate about the past, or worry about the future. They live in the present. Their sheer joy emanates from simply being in the world.

The majesty of nature disposes us to curb our self-conceit. It reminds us we are each but a minute part of a vast, mysterious universe. Although we each have a valuable role to play, no one of us is more important than any other.

Nature has the potential to re-humanise our participation in the social world

Our detachment from nature has impoverished our social conscience. By reconnecting with nature we can recover the cardinal virtues we have long abandoned.

Employers, teachers, politicians, anyone able to influence the thoughts, feelings, and behaviour of others, has a responsibility to reconnect with nature. Nature cleanses the mind, elevates the spirit, but above all, it inspires moral action.

A return to nature should be a compulsory element in everyone’s personal development. Unfortunately, it does not feature largely in our educational curriculum. Policy makers take note.

Andy Milward

Milward: Consulting & Research in Strategic Leadership

[1] WHO. (2008). “What is Depression?”   Retrieved 10 July 2016, from


(This is a guest blog by a good friend of ours – Andy Milward of Milward: Consulting & Research …

The CEO burst into tears

Dear CEO,

A friend of mine once asked a CEO colleague when he, the CEO, had last heard bird song.

The CEO burst into tears.

He had been living a life in offices, taxis, trains and planes. Incessantly.

What are you hearing just now?

Intermittent high pitched screeching? The threatening bass riff from Jaws? Maybe an uplifting orchestral film score? Or something distractingly discordant?

Who is the conductor in all of this? Maybe its a happily creative jam session. Or a disorganised cacophony on a loop?

And what of the whispers?

And the lows and highs on the edge of hearing?

How do you attend to those? And what sense are you making of these? Great ideas in the making? Or the fin of an inbound shark?

Back to the tearful CEO.

There’s something right there about being disconnected from something important. Something we are missing in our flat worlds of screens, spreadsheets, tables, flip-charts,  floors, roads and runways. Something that refreshes, inspires, and energises. And a whole lot more.

Dear CEO,  when did you last hear bird song. And savour it? Deeply?

Dave Stewart

Managing Director

The Fresh Air Learning Company

Dear CEO, A friend of mine once asked a CEO colleague when he, the CEO, had last …

Leave the office? Bad things could happen…

Earlier this week we walked with the owners of Valuable Content in the Mendip Hills, just south of Bristol. We do this sort of thing a lot.

Four of us. A short walk. Something like 6kms in under 2 hours. At a pace that allowed for easy talking and laughter. With lots of stops to take in the views, listen to birdsong, and feel the breeze on our faces.

An early sandwich. And then to the office.

Mood changing. Uplifting. Inspiring. Energising.

Gordon Bennett! When did you last feel like this in a business meeting or workshop?

A creative thinking walk isn’t possible for many business leaders of course. Is it? Here are 3 reasons why this is so “evidently” the case. You will know of other excuses reasons. Let me know.

The tail wags the dog!

“Mondays are just SO busy. All those anxious weekend emails, as well as the old smelly lurkers. I need my Monday morning to get stuck into these as well as chair a couple of really important meetings”.

Come on! You are a leader. A shaper of futures. And here you are dancing to the tune of other people’s emails. How about a simple out-of-office message that tells people you will look at emails in the afternoon (or whenever)? You have cleared the space; they know the score; everyone is cool. Be more dog. Own your tail. Don’t overthink it. Just get out and give it a go. What’s the worst that could happen….

Bad things could happen!

“If I am not there to answer questions, give direction, and provide “tone” it could all fall apart!”

Oh really! Sounds like you are a brilliant doer of stuff with a time horizon measured in hours. Not the architect of your business’ future. So here’s an idea. Put something in your diary which says “this morning/day/week I am going to be a leader, do leader’y stuff, do some powerful thinking, have significant conversations, attend to my personal wellness and resilience” etc.. Use your task management skills to task manage your business’ leadership needs!


“I don’t know these people. What if the weather is bad? What’s the value of this investment in my time? I might give it a go someday.”

Great points. You are a leader operating in a complex and challenging business environment. You are expert at balancing risk and opportunity. You understand the need for external expertise and collaborations. And you are constantly looking to innovate. So, here’s what you do. Do some due diligence (start with the almost weekly media articles around the business value of walking, talking, and thinking in the outdoors), personally model the experimentation mindset that underpins your claims to be agile and innovative, and COMMIT. There are seven days in the week and SOMEday isn’t one of them 🙂

And finally…

When you do commit to be more dog and go outdoors, do so as part of a group or one of your formed teams. Large or small, it doesn’t matter. It’s a bit of a cop out to go on your own. Ok, that’s a bit harsh – the point is that there is huge power to be had in bouncing and building fresh ideas with others. But you know this.

Go on, give it a go. Here are some other great reasons to do so.

Dave Stewart

Managing Director

The Fresh Air Learning Company

Earlier this week we walked with the owners of Valuable Content in the Mendip Hills, just south …

Ben Fogle, Chief Execs and Camping – Why Ben is Wrong

In a recent interview for the Guardian, Ben Fogle expressed the belief that ten days in a tent in the wilderness is enough to change the outlook and management style of any businessman or woman for the better.


Here are 3 reasons why.

# 1: I am not burnt out yet

I have a ton of stuff to get done. And so my attention needs to stay focussed on this. Action, action, action. Going outdoors, walking, camping, whatever. It’s just going to distract me with lots of sensory stimulation. And all those metaphors that will creep up and knock me on the head, tug at my heart, and mess with my spirit. Just too much opportunity for me to start seeing things differently. I have already told you what I need. Focus, focus, focus!

It’s a bit warm in here isn’t it? Or is it just me?

# 2: I don’t want any dodgy things happening to my body’s biochemistry

All this movement through natural landscapes allows spooky stuff to happen, not least a lightening of mood, and openness to fresh ideas. Have you any idea how much havoc this could play with the plans we have in place and need to execute on with an unrelenting focus? Isn’t there already enough change going on!

And another thing. I don’t need a Natural Health Service for body, heart, mind and spirit. I’m very happy with the National Health Service, thank you.

# 3: Great thinking needs comfortable surroundings

What could be better than the comfort and predictability of a hotel conference suite for creative dialogue anchored in unforgettable experiences? And all those brilliant evenings at the bar. Awesome value for money!

When I think back over the last 10 years, I can remember lots of great moments, turning points, business winning insights…… Actually, I am not sure really that I do. Hey ho. It’s about today anyway. I’ve told you before. Focus, focus, focus.


Of course, you may not be swayed by my reasoning. And maybe you’re going to give the outdoors a go regardless? Folly if you ask me!

And maybe you’re going to involve your colleagues.

Here are seven allegedly great reasons that you will probably draw on to persuade them.

I hope they don’t get suckered in.

Keep on doing what you have always done, and you’ll always get what you’ve always got

That’s what you want. Right?


Dave Stewart

Managing Director

The Fresh Air Learning Company

In a recent interview for the Guardian, Ben Fogle expressed the belief that ten days in a …

An assumption of magic!

This is the first in a series of short blogs that add meat to our teaser paper “13 Reasons Why Your Team Probably Isn’t Very Good …

Reason 1: An assumption of magic!

Your organisation spends big money on individuals, infrastructure, IT and change programmes.

But what attention is being paid to teams? And how stellar do they need to be?

We often come across a prevailing assumption that good stuff will somehow happen by good people just turning up.

It’s almost an assumption that magic will happen.

Of course the whole “team” concept is problematic. It is a generic term that masks different types of team, each type optimised for different times and contexts.

It can also be seductive. Teams are cool and aspirational.

And they can be full of egos. Not just the toxic kind of ego, but the straightforward and well-meaning, “I have been leading teams for 20 years. We don’t need any external support. I have it covered. But thanks for asking.”

So, who in your organisation is asking these questions?

  • What is a team?
  • What types are there?
  • What do we need around here?
  • How do we team at our very best? On a consistent basis?
  • How do we stay sharp and relevant?

Back to the magic. You can do nothing and hope that good people working together will deliver good results. Yes, that can work. “Ordinary” is a safe goal to aim for.

But what is possible when you pay real attention to the philosophy and practice of teams? What happens when you move beyond the generic, beyond the cool and aspirational, beyond the masks and egos? What happens when you see teams as hubs of creativity and learning, and engines of consistently successful delivery? What happens when you invest in this belief?

Way beyond ordinary is possible!

Future blogs in this series based on “13 Reasons Why Your Team Probably Isn’t vey Good…..” will provide some tips on how to invest in your teams to help them operate at their very best on a consistent basis.

This is the first in a series of short blogs that add meat to our teaser paper …