Pat Culhane

A Limerick native, Pat Culhane, has over 15 years’ experience of leadership and relationship-building in multidisciplinary, complex organisational settings. He is currently a National Games Development Officer with the GAA, based in Croke Park, Dublin. He manages learning and development projects that build organisational capacity, with the aim of every child in Ireland having a positive introduction to Gaelic games. He holds three degrees – BSc Sport Science; MSc Management; MProf Professional Development and Research Methods. He is currently studying for a Doctor of Management degree in his spare time through Glasgow Caledonian University.

Pat is a recent Founder of the Professional Doctorate Society (PDS) – a support network for Doctoral students, where they have an opportunity to share experiences about this rewarding, yet often isolating  pursuit. He has recently published articles on this topic via international platforms such as the Times Higher Education and Business and Finance Quarterly Review. He, along with PDS Co-Founders, Eileen O’Neil and Lesley Martin, have published related articles and podcasts, using #ProfDockers  as the golden thread.

Website / Blog:

Twitter: @Pat_Culhane 

LinkedIn (CV): 

Under what conditions do you get your best work done?

I get my best work done when I feel that there is meaning to what is trying to be achieved – not just on a superficial level, such as making money or reaching some made-up numerical target. Making money can be important. What I’m referring, though, is meaning at the deepest level. For example, I feel that I am contributing to many Irish children’s biopsychosocial development – mostly, in a minuscule and, often, indirect way through my work with the GAA – by changing many adults’ perceptions of children’s sports from a fixed to a growth mindset. This means that participation should take precedence over performance and winning. This is a constant battle, with many adults subscribing to the virtues of meritocracy; i.e., that those who rise to the top/win, deserve to. The problem with this worldview is they also believe that those who fall to the bottom/lose, also deserve to. In sport, this results in many children feeling rejected, like sitting on the sideline in pursuit of some win. In wider society, this leads to inequality, which is a growing factor influencing issues such as homelessness in Ireland today.

Meaning in any pursuit, for me, is fundamentally about asking why we are pursuing something in the first place; e.g., why do children play sport? Or why do parents volunteer to coach? If the why lacks clarity, then what we are doing and how we are doing it will have minimal impact, if any. An interesting exercise is to ask a child why s/he plays a sport(s)? Then ask her/his coach why s/he thinks the child play the sport(s)? The answers consistently highlight contrasts. The top three reasons for the child are almost always along the lines of: to make/maintain friends, to have fun, and to feel good about themselves. Winning is, usually, about seventh or lower on their list. Winning is usually in the coach’s top three. My work in the GAA must reflect the needs of the child and facilitate the learning and development of adults to do the same.

Through relentless effort and determination, I believe that you can create your own meaning in life; it’s not just something that you suddenly stumble across or is given to you.

“Whoever has a ‘why’ to live for can cope with almost any how” (Dr. Alfried Längle).

What advice would you give your younger self?

Not to worry and stress, nearly as much, about what others think of me!

My perception of success or being successful in life has shifted significantly over the years. When I was an impressionable child and teenager, I thought that success was about finishing first, being top of the class, etc. This was and is the predominant culture in western society. Our systems, such as education, are set up this way. Sport is the same – keep the best and forget the rest in pursuit of winning. The issue with this is that most people don’t win most of the time. So many people, especially young people, see themselves as failing.

The Irish Leaving Certificate is a prime example. This is the final set of subject-based exams for students at the end of post-primary school. Access to appropriate course places in third level (college, university, etc.) educational institutions is based on a grades/points-only process. I appreciate that there should be some objectivity to this. However, human beings aren’t inherently objective, rational creatures. We are incredibly complex and emotional. We live in our imaginations most of the time. Most adults think this is how children see the world. Us adults have a rich tapestry [images, hopes, dreams, fears, etc.] constantly whirling around our minds, as we attempt to be lifted out of the mundane and into the marvellous. Think of the behaviour a crowd in Croke Park on All-Ireland final day, as so many people express themselves in all kinds of emotive ways in response to people chasing a piece of leather around a piece of grass. Where’s the rationality in that?

The systemic and societal expectations on young Irish people to “get a good Leaving Cert.” is worrying. What it boils down, in my experience, is the sustained and needless pressure on them to regurgitate, mostly, facts for a couple of weeks in the heat of Summer. And how do we prepare them for this? Make them sit for the best part of the day, 5 days a week; then make them do homework, grinds, study etc. on top of that. This, so-called, system of education has, largely, been in place since the industrial revolution, over 200 years ago.

On the other hand, I don’t support the view that it’s, simply, “okay to fail”. Of course, it’s okay to fail, as long as you did your best, given the circumstances. Otherwise, people would never excel at anything through learning from their mistakes. Resilience could not be developed from within. It’s good to challenge people, but not all the same time and in the same way. The disappointing thing, for me, about the Leaving Cert. is that it does not embrace individual and, more significantly, collective creativity in the variety of contexts that life demands – maybe in minor ways across elements of the curriculum. But the general ‘one size fits all’ examinations and results/points approach – albeit at various levels – is just damaging young people in so many ways, and not developing them. The amount of points you are awarded is not a reflection of intelligence or capacity to learn! The most effective way I learn is socially, informally. It’s fine for me to say this in the winter of my 30s, but it’s not how I saw it when I was 18 – or 19 when I repeated the Leaving Cert. And, as far as I can see it, many young Irish people are in the same boat.

For many of those who do not “get enough points”, their perceived self-worth can be irrevocably damaged. Many see themselves as failures. My mother uses the word ‘misfortunate’ to describe, as she sees it, somebody who has not been favoured by a hapless turn of events. ‘Misfortunate’ is imbued with soulfulness and emotion. It’s sad to admit that it has now been, largely, replaced with word ‘loser’, as part of the vernacular. This word is imbued with harshness and failure. Is it any wonder that mental health issues, self-harming and suicide are on the rise in Ireland? The educational system, alone, cannot take the wrap for this. There are some wonderful teachers out there. I feel that they are fighting fire most of the time in an outdated and broken system. And the educational system is only as effective as the effectiveness of its interrelated systems (economic, health, transport, etc.). Systems Scientist, Peter Senge, notes that the automobile is often held up as the ultimate symbol of people’s independence. You can drive where and when you like. It’s only when there’s a crash on the motorway and we are brought to a standstill, does it remind us that we are all constantly interdependent on one another.

This is, simply, an attempt, to highlight a glaring and profound problem in Irish and greater western society – that is, the onset of individual snobbery and elitism in pursuit of perceived material and social gain. Or, what Alain de Botton refers to as “Status Anxiety.” Irish society is becoming increasingly competitive. The more we convince ourselves we are competing with others, the more, I feel, that we are needlessly competing with ourselves. This argument may be perceived by some as, mere, problem identification. And it is. I believe that, before we try and address these societal challenges, we must be [individually and collectively] adequately self-aware to admit these challenges exist. Supposedly, Albert Einstein said that if he only had an hour to save the world, he would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and 5 minutes solving it.

It, in my opinion, is not the job of a handful of so-called ‘leaders’ to solve the outstanding problems in Irish society, or anywhere else. Despite many people’s beliefs, for example, that Minster Simon Harris should ‘fix’ all that is wrong with the Irish health system, it just cannot be the case. Think about it! One person/leader to do or influence all of that – impossible! It’s in communities and society at large working together – that’s where real leadership emerges from and is practiced. People in positions of authority have no impact unless they embrace that. In the case of education and other contexts, we should heed the advice of young people more. They are the ones living these experiences and, therefore, most affected by them now and in the future. Dr Niall Muldoon and the team at the Office of Children’s Ombudsman are leading this charge in Ireland.

The traditional pillars of Ireland/Western society (church, state, etc.) are in the melting pot. People can shift from one social position to another in a fluid way. The ‘liquid modern’ person meanders through her/his own life like a tourist, changing jobs, places, spouses, values and more; e.g. political or sexual orientation. Many younger people are not engaging in traditional networks of support, while also freeing themselves from the requirements or restrictions those networks impose. For those interested in this, see Zygmunt Bauman’s work on Liquid Modernity.

So, having witnessed increasing status anxiety during my time living in both Ireland and the UK, I can say, with confidence, that I have responded without compromising my values. I don’t suffer from status anxiety, thankfully. It would be untrue to say that I don’t care what anybody thinks of me. Everybody needs to feel significant in some way and to be part of something positive that is bigger than themselves. Self-awareness and emotional literacy are fundamental life-skills in this regard. To me, self-awareness is the capacity to not just clearly see yourself but to understand how others see you too. Emotional literacy is the capacity to identify, name and understand your own feelings and those of others.

So, what I’d say to my younger self is “well done” for not giving in to the cultural pathology of status anxiety, by preserving and developing my character through a profound commitment to ongoing learning and critical self-reflection. It may have been/is hard at times but it’s always worth it. The sooner one understands and accepts that existing is tough – not just for yourself, but for everyone – the sooner one stops trying to find ways to dodge its inevitable responsibilities. People do this in a plethora of ways, through substance abuse, violence, etc.

Viktor E. Frankl once said, “between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

What does leadership mean to you?

Now there’s a big question. In my experience, leadership is, for the most part, not about individuals in designated positions of authority. I think when most people consider leadership, they see authority figures who evoke some emotion(s) within them, such as known, liked, loathed or feared (so-called) ‘leaders’; e.g. Pep Guardiola, Theresa May or your school principal.

For me, the real leaders in society are the ordinary people who, quietly, live extraordinary lives, such as the person who goes to work every day to provide for the family, while coping with a debilitating condition; the parent/guardian who cares for her/his child with a disability; the young person who has the courage to confront her/his sexuality; the adult who was abused as a child, but has the courage to live a good life; the stranger who smiles and changes a person’s day, or life, possibly.  For me, real leadership – the kind that is positively transformational – is, at its best, a collective social activity. John Kiely, the Limerick Hurling Manager, for instance, didn’t win the All-Ireland last year; the Limerick hurlers did! Leadership comes from people working together for the betterment of each other and the wider community/society. Although, just generating social or cultural capital is not enough these days, as all of us – not just people, but all living things – are in the midst of unprecedented challenges facing the planet; i.e., the effects Climate Change. It’s hard to believe that Ireland hasn’t woken up to this yet. Nobody gets up in the morning to go out and harm the environment, but individually and collectively we are. In the same vein, we can collectively reverse this damage. We must if future generations are going to survive and thrive. Check out the work of Mary Robinson on Climate Justice and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals in this regard. I believe, that this is where the greatest leadership challenge of this century lies.

Being a leader, in whatever walk of life, is having the empathy and humility to treat people with kindness and compassion, no matter how they treat you. This doesn’t, necessarily, mean being soft on people; it’s vital that you are honest with others in a respectful way. At the same time, leadership requires vision, and the motivation and resilience to make that vision a reality; that could be anything from a community coming together to participate in Tidy Towns to a person eating a balanced diet. It’s all relative to the individual.

It’s a pity that leadership is often reduced to typology, styles or a list of characteristics. What works for me, is unlikely to work for the guy next door. We have unique perceptions of the world, based on our individual experiences. Leadership depends on the context – the same person is a leader in one context, but not in another on any given day. The CEO of a large company might not be captain of the football team the same evening; she might be a sub. Lots of people try to make sense of the world in an all-compassing, either-or way; e.g., right or wrong, guilty or innocent, black or white, etc. I think this is a, fundamentally, lazy worldview. We all like a degree of certainty, but life is generally more complex. In terms of leadership, it’s naive to perceive somebody as just being a ‘great leader’. The billionaire entrepreneur may be an excellent leader in a business context, but is he as effective in other contexts of his life, as a neighbour, brother, father, husband, etc.?

Leadership also requires discipline from those involved in and influenced by it. However, it is not about command and control through fear, intimidation, punishment, etc. That’s called bullying. Trying to control another human being, of any age, is a futile pursuit. It’s autonomy people thrive on – not restraint. For those who are privileged to be in a position of influence of others, they have the opportunity to help people feel safe and significant – as individuals and as part of something bigger than themselves. Leadership involves facilitating the development of others, firstly as human beings and then as athletes, pupils, etc. [whatever the context].

I believe that leadership can be developed, relative to the individual’s mindset, motivation and environmental influences. Nobody is born a great leader. Your core values are developed during childhood, and, for the most part, at least in my experience, stay with you for life. A new-born baby can sense when another person is frightened, happy, sad, etc. Over time, all these experiences, influence one’s psycho-social development, like their how they perceive themselves and the world, and, ultimately, their own behaviour.

At the same time, I subscribe to the philosophy that we all exist as individual people and are free and responsible agents determining our own development through acts of the will. I have always worked on the principle that you can’t lead or develop others unless you develop yourself; i.e., invest in your own development through learning, keeping fit, etc. Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” The most effective leaders, in my view, are the quiet people who, consciously or not, facilitate and inspire others around them to be/come better people and leaders. Often, the greatest leaders are those who don’t consider themselves as leaders at all. For me, ultimately, leadership requires courage – the courage to love openly and wholeheartedly.

Have you had a mentor and, if so, how did this person impact you?  

I can’t say that there has been one outstanding mentor in my life. Lifelong involvement in the GAA, as a volunteer and employee, has exposed me to wonderful people from almost every walk of life. Influential mentors, for me, are those in, or who have been in, my immediate social circle. I’m privileged to have always had supportive family and friends – people who have mentored me directly and indirectly through their empathy, positive attitudes and behaviours.

I’m inspired by my mother’s passion for place and its people (Limerick). My father’s work ethic is exceptional. My Uncle, Seán Garvey, and neighbours, Eileen and John O’Connor, for always making me feel important. My uncle, Mike Vaughan, for pure fun and jokes, at nobody else’s expense – a rare gift. Professor Eamonn Murphy, for what he achieved academically/professionally, and being so humble about it all. Professional Doctorate classmate/friend, Eileen O’Neil, and friend, David Gubbins, each for overcoming adversity and living an outstanding life. Friend, Niall Ó Faoláin, for his unquenchable entrepreneurialism. Colleague, Tadhg Cowhig, for how to treat people in a professional/business context. Friend, Colm O’Brien, for his resilience. Friend, Dr Dan Ryan, and, brother-in-law, Daragh Whooley, each for his pursuit in being the best person he can be. Friend. Eoin O’Connell, for his kindness. Friend, Stephen FitzPatrick, for his support. Friends, Pat Collins and Cormac Murray, for their attention. Words will never do justice in describing how my wife and son mentor me.

These people, among others, have inspired me through their exemplary behaviour towards both me and others. They made/make me feel safe and significant. Learning from and with all of them may not be perceived by many as mentoring, but it is to me. It’s mentoring in existing and living well.

What are a few resources (books, blogs, podcasts, people, courses, etc.) you would recommend to someone looking to gain insight into becoming a better leader? 

There are too many to mention. My radar is always to detect anything that would challenge current thinking. In addition to the people and resources listed above, the following are some that stand out for me:

For anybody trying to become a better leader, the ultimate resource and place to look is at yourself.