Color theory, Leadership

True Colors of your leadership

For many years I have worked in strategy consultancy, working with a huge range of organizations from one man bands to global multinationals, charities to banks, governments and non-government. The common theme in almost every project, regardless of the subject, is the need for leadership. Not just leadership from the head, the old sort where having a plan and a strong commitment to implement it were the most important factors, but leadership from the gut and from the heart too. More and more, employees today want to be inspired by their leaders, care about their work, feel a shared sense of values and intention.

This is new territory for a lot of leaders. I have witnessed very senior managers, people who have thousands of people reporting to them and a history of hitting targets and taking no prisoners, sweating with fear at the idea of making a one minute video clip talking about what matters to them. It can be a lot easier to put on the boss uniform and bark orders at cowering subordinates than it is to expose vulnerability, uncertainty or care.

There are several factors driving this change:

  • Organizations are gradually incorporating feminine values and behaviour into the workplace. Thanks to the increasing presence of women, gay men, millennials and people from other cultures, the centre of gravity is starting to shift. We are not there yet and some places have made better progress than others, but everybody is feeling this move towards a more balanced organizational culture – the best of both worlds as proven by one study after the other
  • The internet, and more specifically social media, is making it difficult for corporates to hide. Where in the past one disgruntled customer or sexually harassed employee might feel they were alone and powerless against the machine, now they can find each other and build enough critical mass between them to force change. The current wave of sexual harassment exposés is one piece of evidence for this – things that always happened, and could continue because of power structures are being called to account. Leaders must become more transparent and earn respect
  • So called wicked problems (see wikipedia for more info) are complex and resist resolution. As Einstein said, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” As a society, as a planet, we need to change the ways we tackle the major challenges – or face potential disaster. There is a pressing need for a higher consciousness, one where we are all the best versions of ourselves and find ways to cooperate rather than compete. It surprised me to find out a couple of years ago that ‘survival of the fittest’ was a misunderstood concept and cover story for ruthless competition. In fact Darwin talked of survival of the best collaborators.

Leadership is not reserved for a few special people. You may already be a leader in your organization. You are probably a leader in other contexts too – in your family, your social circles, your community activities. If you are not then you could be. When you stopped your car to ask a man why he was intimidating his girlfriend and threatening to punch her you showed leadership. When you coached your child on how to deal with a peer group challenge at school. When you had a great idea for a community initiative that nobody had thought of before. Maybe you are a thought leader, a person who gets things done, a wise counsellor, brilliant at a practical skill like painting or brain surgery. There are many ways for each of us to be a leader.

Not that I am saying it’s easy. Many of us have been conditioned to shy away from our leadership. To play second fiddle. To be the brilliant deputy who keeps the whole thing on track while someone else plays frontman (or sometimes frontwoman). The idea of stepping into your leadership may excite you or it may make you quail. You might feel your pulse quickening and a sense of alert awake-ness or you might just feel sick and wobbly.

This is where color can help. Understanding the true colors of your leadership will help you play to your strengths, give you an underlying foundation of confidence and remind you of the power of integrity and staying true to your values.

I am currently writing a book on this fascinating topic and seeking a small number of people to be case studies. You don’t need to be identified if you prefer to remain anonymous. and you will receive my True Colors of Your Leadership package for free (value $3750). If this interests you then contact me on the form below for more information.

Color theory, Leadership

Finding her true colors

This short story might ring some bells for you. Maybe there are experiences here you recognize. Not everybody’s colors are as bright and strong as the woman in this story, but everybody has their colors. The ones that work with them and allow them to be their best selves.


She was born with all the colors of the rainbow. A radiant shimmering spectrum of wonder. She reveled in it, swam in it, shone with it. Everybody who saw her was struck by the glow she emanated, wanted to be near it, felt it.

When she was two years old she started going to the local kindergarten. There was paint and easels and huge sheets of paper. She wanted to create wonderful images, but her stupid small fingers couldn’t hold the brush right and nothing came out the way she wanted it. She tried to mix paint in the jam jars – she knew red and white made pink but when she added white paint to the jar of red it looked almost the same, just a bit thicker. The blue and yellow made a horrible green. Why wasn’t it working? She wept bitter tears of disappointment as she looked at the mess she had created.

On another day they played with modeling clay. The teacher unwrapped the perfectly formed neat lines of color. The strange smell made her wrinkle her nose and the texture felt strange and silky. She pulled off small knobs of turquoise and crimson and buttercup yellow. She loved the colors. And couldn’t believe it when after 30 minutes of the children playing with the clay they had been muddied together into a nasty brown. How had that happened? Why had all the color been lost?

Over the years, she had various experiences. The strict teacher in 3rd grade who had told her off for underlining her titles in purple. “That just looks silly,” she admonished, “That’s not how we do things. You have to do it properly.” The trouble she got into for wearing a red cardigan in secondary school. The appalled reaction of the headwaiter at her Saturday job as a teenager when he discovered that her white shirt had a blue trim that she had hidden inside her waistband (it had slipped out). The raised eyebrows in the corporate office when she strayed out of the usual navy and white garb of her colleagues.

Bit by bit her colors were reduced. She felt her spectrum narrowing but couldn’t see what else to do. This seemed to be what the world required of her. Tasteful home furnishings so people felt relaxed in her house. A boring colored car so it didn’t have a lower resale value. She painted her fridge and everybody was shocked. “You can’t do that!” said one visitor after the other. “Nobody paints their fridge.” She tried to explain that it was the wrong color but they just laughed at her naiveté. At work she was reduced to wearing brightly colored knickers as a small token of her truth under the corporate mask. Even when she had babies she quickly experienced the pink / blue tyranny of baby clothes. She made her own to get around it but felt uncomfortable with all this going against the grain.

Society wanted to mush her into muddy brown, the same as the children had with the modeling clay. It didn’t shut her down directly but years of polite surprise, suppressed distaste and limited shopping options were taking their toll. Muddy brown fading to beige with age. Inoffensive, unnoticeable. Becoming an almost invisible woman.

She woke up. Just like that, one day she woke up. This is not me, she realized with a shock. These tiny rebellions and running back under cover when they are challenged. I want to live in my colors. My true colors. They don’t need to be the same as anybody else’s. They don’t need to be invisible.

From that moment she started changing things. If she wanted to wear colors that people thought were inappropriate, she did it with confidence. Let them think what they will, or maybe reconsider their point of view. She bought a car in her favorite color and painted the sitting room and her fingernails and the fridge exactly the colors she wanted. She stepped into her own color leadership and was slightly surprised when people started asking her opinion about color. Forget the muddy brown modeling clay, here she was, back in her true colors and loving it. Feeling more alive and more herself. Channeling her power and rediscovering her radiance.


So what next?

Maybe you are now interested in discovering your own true colors. The colors that will give you your power. That will allow you to shine and thrive in the way that is true to you.

How though?

Basically you have two options. Ask an expert or work it out for yourself. Which is your best choice will depend on how much time you have vs how much money. It will also depend on your personality type. I am curious and a life long learner, so I chose to study with Angela Wright (the number one color guru) to understand this myself. You might not need that. I don’t need it in other areas of my life – I haven’t studied dentistry or law for example, I let others do those things for me. It’s just that this tickled my interest.

If you go for the first option, all you need to do is find an adviser that you trust and book a consultation with them. If I do this I would spend half a day with the individual, understanding their personality and physical characteristics. Then half a day developing their color palette followed by half a day reviewing their wardrobe and home / workplace with them.

Color theory

Color and culture

As well as color psychology, certain parts of the world also have symbolic associations with particular colors.

If you are going to launch your product outside of your own familiar culture, you might need to know that your lucky green suggests corruption in North Africa or your wholesome brown is a mourning color in India.

See the table below for more cultural cues – and remember that whatever the cultural association, the physiological reaction to the color will still be the same (eg red raises the heart-rate) so both need to be considered.

Children, Spaces

Caring Color

A case study about making conscious color choices in a pre-school daycare facility

The first thing that struck me about Kate and Cher when I talked to them about the pre-school they were planning to open, was how strongly they cared about the ethos of what they were doing. They are passionate about offering a creative environment for babies and pre-school children. One which not only keeps safe for the day but also stimulates them to thrive.

As soon as they talked to me about their plans I wanted to have a say in the colors. Luckily they were open to the idea and we started to talk about what they stood for, what atmosphere they wanted to encourage and the functions of the different spaces. We all agreed that the colors should be warm, progressive and hold the space. We decided to avoid the lighter pastels and bright primaries often associated with children’s facilities and instead take a more thoughtful approach.

With a good sense of what they wanted to achieve I set about building a palette. Although thereBe 1a (2) are several different spaces in the facility requiring differences in look and feel, a key base colour was identified to run throughout and keep the continuity of the space.  I chose a pale green, the color of healing and universal acceptance – making a lot of sense in a nursery that aims to be a good space for children from all sorts of backgrounds and cultures.


For the entrance to the nursery, where there is a reception area that will also serve the Adult Learning Centre, we wanted to create more vibrancy. A warm welcome, especially for children on dark winter mornings.

Be 1 entrance (2)I suggested adding burnt orange – to stimulate appetite (for life, for learning, for lunch) and a rich teal to encourage brain activity (learning, considering). The team were enthusiastic about this bold approach. When you are choosing colors for a space that will be passed through rather than one where a lot of time will be spent, you can afford to increase the intensity.

Baby area

Be 1 baby (2)Next was the baby zone. For the facing wall of the main room I selected a peachy pink to create a feeling of caring while staying true to the Group III color palette we were following. Pink involves a sense of being held, reminding us at a primal level of being in the womb. However once we are out in the world, too much pink can feel cloying rather than cosseting so it is best to restrict its use to a feature wall rather than a whole room. Be 2 babyFor the rest of the main room we used the green base color (calm, healing). One part of the room is a low, cave like space with LED lights. Just the kind of space my own children would have loved to crawl into when they were small. I suggested a forest green for here, and for the adjacent sleeping room, to create a sense of deep peace and cosy darkness.

Children’s Area

Be 1 toddler (2)The other main area is for 2-4 year olds and this will be much more active. Again the base green was used and we introduced a paler blue. Blue stimulates brain activity so is great for any learning or thinking environment. A light blue like this keeps the thinking at a more airy level – more blue sky thinking than accountancy procedures. Part of the space
is like a tree house so I introduced teal again – the same color as in the reception area – at a low level to give more depth and grounding strength. There is a lot of natural wood in the space which balances the palette with more yellow/orange tones, not to mention all the toys and activity materials – and the children themselves – ensuring it doesn’t feel too cool.

Rest of the space

Be 2 loo

For other rooms such as kitchen, staff room, cloakroom, toilets etc we drew from the same palette of colors to ensure harmony between spaces..

For example I added one orange feature wall in the kitchen to stimulate appetite and light blue in the bathrooms. For all the ‘white’ areas – ceilings, window frames, skirting boards, I selected a warm off-white. It was a subtle shift from white but Cher, who will run the facility, immediately understood how it helped. Lastly we identified flooring that would complement the walls and support the color scheme.

It was a bold palette and I wondered how they would react. But I needn’t have worried, they ‘felt’ why it was right as soon as they saw the sample chips and once the walls were painted they were even more enthusiastic.

Be 2 sleep

So many of our public spaces end up being white, or maybe magnolia. Yet we can do so much more to support the activities going on in the space and, in this case, the staff and children who will spend many hours there. Walls have to be painted anyway, so why not paint them a color that helps?

I was so happy to hear them explain to me how it had given them greater distinctiveness and gives a clear message to prospective parents coming to see if they want to register their children that this is a place that cares, that isn’t afraid to innovate, that is clear about what matters and that they will do everything they can to create a great environment for the children and staff who will be there.

Be 2 coats a