The Power Thing…

How leaders handle power is perhaps one of the most intriguing studies in human behavior. It turns out that very few can handle it with balance, humility, a learning mindset, objectivity, and most of all, in the service of their organizations.

Many of these individuals when they are working their way up to power are “one of the gang”. They exhibit teamwork, empathy, and understanding. They share their views regarding ways the organization can be improved and are happy to lend a hand in fixing it. However, when they are given a small dose of power, they are seduced into a high that takes over their thinking and behaviors.

Whereas they used to “break bread” with you and have transparent and two-way conversations, they start to converse in the elitist language of the powerful.

Having been privileged to rub shoulders with some of the most powerful people on earth due to my parents standing in pre-revolution Iran (during the Shah’s regime), I am well familiar with the symptoms of this malaise and where it eventually leads. The Shah of Iran, when he first took over from his father, loved his country, was easy to get along with, and enjoyed social occasions and conversations. Over time, and especially after he was overthrown (only to be brought back by the CIA), he allowed those around him and the power of his throne to completely corrupt him and isolate him from his constituency. The same could be said of Jeffrey Skilling the ex-Enron president and COO. According to the accounts in Clay Christensen’s book, How Will You Measure Your Life1, Skilling was a beloved coed at Harvard and a model citizen. Over time he gradually drifted into isolation from his core values and became surrounded in an echo chamber of power, wealth, control, and exclusivity. Of course, the fate of both men are well known and a lessons for us all.

Here are some tell-tell signs to look for:

  1. You start to speak in the language of “we” when referring to your positions and affiliation
  2. You start to agree and endorse with most of what your exclusive group thinks and decides. Any form of creative dissent is experienced as a threat to your power and standing. Your non-verbal signals make your displeasure clear and you start to gang up on employees who show disagreement or non-alignment with you or the “group think”
  3. You tell your team not to be emotional and sensitive and to not “rock the boat”. Put your head down and follow like well-fed sheep.  Translation “you are threatening me (us), fall in line or pay the price” Often this compliance has little to no relation with the veracity or value of the suggestions, shareholder interest, or what is best for the organization.  More typically, it is related to the preferred personal style or top team’s conventions and absence of readiness for creativity, courage, and change.  A death bell in the 21st century for talent acquisition, retention, and leadership
  4. The words, feelings, innocence, and merits of arguments of your employees become secondary and often inconsequential as compared to the potentially ill-informed and half-baked perceptions of senior management. If someone on the senior team decides to poison the well-regarding employee and their performance it will be a one way conversation with the employee occupying the lesser position
  5. Important information regarding the employee is withheld or they find out accidentally because you feel time spent on your own or your team agendas is more important than value-based leadership
  6. You start to reward loyalty, alignment, and gathering of information that is useful to your own personal success over creativity and constructive dissent. A deadly malaise for any leader in this century
  7. Alignment with important stakeholders important to your career progression trumps what you really think, how you feel about them, or their decisions
  8. Add more symptoms as you see fit


Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist at McMaster University in Ontario, used a transcranial-magnetic-stimulation machine.  He concluded that power impairs the brain’s neuro pathways.  In particular the human capability for “mirroring,” which is fundamental to empathy.  Mirroring is our ability to understand and mirror emotions back to others.  The paradox is that unchecked, once we have power, we lose some of the capacities we needed to gain it in the first place.

The bodily signals released with power make these leaders incapable of practicing self-regulation. Absent awareness and active training, they lose their ability to practice the golden rule. “How would I feel and how would I react if I were on the other side of the interaction that I just led or participated in”.

Here are some suggestions for recovering from the auto response thoughts and behaviors that unexamined power can bring:

  1. Research the physical and psychological effects of power on your body. As much as we all think we are unique and different, we are all governed by the same biology and chemistry
  2. Notice the voice of power and its intoxicating influence on you as it takes over your body and soul
  3. Surrender and admit to your vulnerability. That you have been bitten by the power bug and you have been infected with misplaced ego
  4. Seek feedback with an open and non-judgmental mindset
  5. Apologize and ask for forgiveness. Don’t worry, no one is too big for it. You will feel like a boulder is lifted off your back. Even if you don’t get the response that you were looking for, you did the right thing.  You can only control your own actions
  6. Repeat steps 1-4 during the next power-fueled episode. The brain pathways for new behavior are continuously renewed with new action and behavior. Over time the new pathways will naturally become the default behavior and you will move upstream exhibiting new behaviors unprompted and earlier.

Here is what we know. Twenty first century workforces will exhibit much of the raw energy and character of the borough of Manhattan. One of the reasons I love living near Manhattan is that no one “type” really owns it.  The pace is so incredibly fast and the performance standards are so high that no one has the time nor the inclination to think too much about your pedigree, title, or your exclusive tribe.

If you cannot perform, you will be yesterday’s newspaper. Which of course means that in turn the leader has to select and motivate the very best talent to respond to the environment. And to allow them to take a few risks that are fueled by their passions and creativity.

The opposite image is your general practitioner coming into the examination room for your annual check-up smoking a cigarette and offering you one. As a leader, your job is to examine the 21st century and adjust your style to it and not exhibit outdated and demotivating decisions and behaviors.

When those that espouse leadership and leadership development are seduced and become addicted to perceived power they fail their commission. If being in service of the organization and its talent are your espoused positions, it is important to look and feel like the general practitioner physician who exudes wellness and health. You can do it.  Be the person you would like to be led by. 

Selecting people that you feel more emotionally connected with, are more of “your type”, make you feel good and warm, are great politicians, are submissive to your direction, and speak when it is safe and in alignment with your views, will mean you and your organization will be left behind. It is also the reason why, if you do not adjust your mindset, your organization will be left with lower performing talent. Submissive, uncreative, and a drag that will lessen your chances of assuming a leadership place in your space.

Finally, almost every organization in USA is on the band wagon espousing diversity and inclusion. However, few actually understand the difference between a diverse workforce and an inclusive and empowered culture. D&I is not limited to race, gender, sexual orientation etc. It is also about allowing your workforce to be authentic and feel included. That their voice matters and their talents should be leveraged in the best interest of the success of the organization and most importantly your client needs and expectations.

Of course this is more difficult for those who have been shaped in the 20th century or come from geographical cultures that are hierarchical and submissive. However, I have worked with and witnessed remarkable changes in those who have understood the cost of power addiction and have made a concerted effort at regulating their reaction to it.

Today the best prognosticators cannot accurately predict what the world will be like in 5 years. The only choice is to build your muscles of flexibility and agility.  This means the humility to create an environment where the norms are to place the best talent for the job at hand. This implies letting go of your ego, your insecurities, your desire for control and harmony, and feeding your friends and those you like. It means you live by the rules of fairness and meritocracy. If you cannot do that, you will lose your position of leadership in the 21st century. The speed, complexity, and rate of change means that the market place will speak first and last not the kings and queens that have in the past ruled organizations unchallenged.

  1. Christensen, Clayton M. How Will You Measure Your Life? New York, Harper Collins Publishers, 2017.

Questions for Online Conversation

  1. What is your relationship with Power? How does it make your feel and act?
  2. Did you relate to any of the symptoms listed above?
  3. What is left in you if and when you are stripped of your power? How will you feel about you?

The Magic of This Time…

“Look, I am in a certain place in my life, I am reasonably successful and OK, I am not perfect.  But I am comfortable and sailing along. I don’t want to spend a lot of time on personal growth. I have my habits and world view, and people just have to understand that and make it work.” Whether espoused publicly or privately, this is how many leaders assess their standing. Habits are a powerful representation of the way that our neural pathways manifest themselves. When the neurons in our brain are connected in a certain way. These connections are made through our experiences in life. The way we were brought up by our parents, the schools we attended, the religious institutions and their teachings, powerful leaders, teachers, and coaches, the social pressures we experienced, etc. By definition, these pathways are time bound. They served a purpose for us at the time we formed them and we leveraged them when making decisions during those periods. However, many outlive their usefulness with our personal growth, the rapid changes in our environment and societies, and in our efforts to make connections with new people different than those we grew up with or “our types”.

I believe this not only because of the research that supports it, for example Carol Dweck’s work on the growth versus the fixed mindset1, but also because it has been demonstrated numerous time in my own life.

As a young boy coming to the US for the first time I was illiterate in English. Yet at the time, there was no English as a second language or knowledge of how to instruct foreign students in American public middle schools. Therefore, I was put into total immersion with the rest of the students who were attending their regular classes designed for their ages. Needless to say almost all of my academic and social habits were questioned, not only through puzzled and at times cruel students, but also by the adult instructors and school administrators. For example, in my culture, when the teacher walked into the room all of the students stood up to show respect. In the US, my fellow classmates thought I was trying to make goodwill points with the teacher and laughed at me for nearly a year.

I was brought up to respect age. Later, during my first job in the US, I was managed by a man who resembled my father and I simply would not stand up to his tirades and misplaced anger. I endured humiliation and loss of face due to the relentless public chastisement of this leader.

In both of these instances there was a tipping point moment when I decided my relationship with the habits I had formed would have to change. In school, I decided to shift from sadness, isolation, and hurt to focusing on how I could learn English as quickly as possible and to be able to express myself and to have a reasonable chance to assimilate. At work I found out that this leader’s philosophy was to test what one is made of through confrontation and one’s reaction to it. So I decided to stand up to him and correct his allegations. Magically the public humiliations stopped.

In both cases I said “This Time I am going to shift my mindset and behavior to be aligned with who I am and what is important to me.

Many of you are caught in an endless reactivity to the same stimuli with unfavorable consequences. You may not have taken the time to examine how you react and whether there are other more productive ways of looking at the same information. Others of you may have gone through the intellectual exercise but are simply handcuffed from taking action.

One of the leaders I am working with is from a different culture where politeness is a basic value. He found the US business culture in its use of slang and profanity not only offensive but unprofessional. He was ill at ease with the level of personal information that colleagues routinely shared with one another and with strangers. This reached its most sensitive episodes when it was directed at him. His reaction was often to shut down, leave the room, or become flustered and therefore not as crisp and articulate as usual. Through reflection and coaching he came to realize that the predicament that he was in was to a large extent a function of the translation of a given experience through the lens of a distant and ancient culture which bore no resemblance to the open, fast, and trend driven culture of the US. Through experimentation, he finally got to the seminal moment when he declared that This Time I am going to look at the behavior through the lens of an anthropologist ethnographically studying the US culture. He decided that he would suspend judgement and enter these conversations with a sense of wonder and wanting to really understand how the behavior serves the person in a US business setting. He reported that he understood that much of the bravado is a form of bonding (particularly male bonding) and relationship forming. At other times, he saw it as way to position oneself in a social setting, a pecking order, to use an analogy from the animal kingdom. He realized that his American colleagues were taken back at his reactions to what they considered chatter and would shut down in reaction to his unease. This clearly was not serving either side. This insight changed the way he reacted to these conversations. He now simply sees it as a form of relationship building not intended to be rude and disrespectful to him.

Similarly, many of you have triggers that are automatically pulled resulting in instantaneous decisions and reactions without reflection.  How will you gain self-mastery and be the strategist rather than the triggered performer This Time??

  1. Dweck, Carol, PH.D. Mindset, The New Psychology of Success. New York: Ballantine, 2006.


Questions for Online Conversations

  1. Are you in a place to declare “This Time I will…”?
  2. If yes, how did you get there and what will you do this time?
  3. If not, what are you trying and what is in your way?

Present to the Present

In the entertainment world, great directors tell a story in each scene based on a vision.

As Franz Pagot the famous cinematographer said once “If a director explains every movement and expression he has either chosen a bad actor or he is not a director, but a choreographer, even though even that is debatable.”

“If, as a director, you cast someone to follow your instructions to the letter, then you will never become a great director. If you choose someone who will take that role and take it to another level, times better than you can envisage, surprising you with suggestions, building layers upon layers of emotions and creating amazing work on the character, all you’ll have to do is to say ‘action’, and enjoy your fame eventually.

You might say: isn’t the job of a director to ‘direct’ actors? Wrong, a director’s job is to get performances, telling a story, in the most beautiful and powerful way, and choosing the talent that will make that possible, in front and behind the camera”1

Of course business leaders do precisely the same. There is a master script called vision, or mission, or values, or strategy etc. The leader is the director and the actors are the performers that are executing the business strategy and vision. However, what is implicit in directing a movie or play and different from the way many business leaders approach their work is the leader’s ability to access his or her whole self in the moment in order to be completely present to others and experience thoughts and emotions as the character would in a story.  Often leaders are only “in their heads” and are comparing the performance to a predetermined set of cognitive expectations and instructions or the plan for the future.  Additionally, by not being present to the emotional and social field they miss the signals and cues necessary to inspire and motivate their team to reach the highest levels of performance.

In working with teams, one of the typical norms that is suggested by the group is “silence means acceptance.” Recently I was invited to work with a senior team and when this norm was suggested the leader spoke up and said, “I know this is a typical norm, but I feel there are dynamics in this team that will result in valid points being missed or not offered.” Once he explained his rationale there was general agreement that this norm should not be adopted by the team. He explained that the pace on the team is very quick and it is set by the more extroverted members who generally were on the commercial side of the business. This meant that those who needed to take a bit longer to process the thought and also attach it to the culture and human fabric of the organization were slower to step in. In addition, he explained that the team still was not where it needed to be on trust, and his fear was that the norm would cover up the trust issue rather than addressing it in real time. Clearly he was in the moment and able to intervene in a timely and effective manner.


There is another aspect of the ability to detach and pay attention to the present. I was watching my son play soccer last weekend. It was his final game playing with a team that had won only one other game. Naturally, when he scored a goal and his team won he was elated. I asked him to describe to me the joy of landing that perfect kick in the upper right hand corner of the net. In his own 9 year old way he showed his excitement through his big smile, his eyes, and said it was great. Then I asked him how it would feel if he had made the shot and his team had lost. His body language, smile, and posture changed. It would not be the same, he said. It became immediately clear that my question had taken him out of feeling the pure joy of hitting a perfect shot in favor of a predetermined expectation (winning) and a disappointing outcome (losing). I took him back to describing the joy of the kick, how it felt to hit the ball, how he had put a spin on the ball to curve towards the upper right cross bar, the reaction of the goalie and his teammates, and how he could have never hit that shot a year ago or even a few months ago. I asked him my question again but this time he seemed less disappointed about the loss. He now thinks that hitting a great shot has its own meaning and existence. That he can learn from paying attention to what is working and not in his play and to be more aware of the other players on his team and their strengths and weaknesses.

In our culture there is an inordinate amount of attention given to planning and measuring outcomes. There are very few institutionalized processes or practices that encourage reflecting on what is happening now, how we can learn from the present, and ideate in the moment to reinvent and improve on our assumptions.

Many leaders have lost touch with their childlike joy of being with and learning in the present – finally giving that great presentation with comfort and control; being on a team where people care and support one another; developing a business or project one piece at a time and creating an idea that changes the plans and the anticipated outcome in favor of a bigger win. These seminal experiences deserve their own space for reflection, celebration, and learning. Equally, our less than stellar performances are just as important to be with and learn from. We are all imperfect beings and our evolutionary brains and bodies are programmed for learning through experience. It is only through repeated experimentation that great leaders find their voices, destiny, and presence. It means learning and being in the moment and sensing what is working and what is not. Who are we influencing or not. How others are reacting to our presence. What we heard and how accurate it was. Etc.

Here are important innovations that are directly related to the innovator being present to the present. Gaining powerful insights for product, service, and channel by being present to the present

  • The rolling suitcase
  • Uber
  • Virgin Atlantic airline
  • Lending Tree mortgage services
  • Chobani yogurt
  • Viagra for ED versus its original use for heart dysfunction
  • Mothers against drunk driving (MADD)
  • Ebay
  • “Me Too” movement

Millions of people share an experience. Such as a plane being cancelled and being stranded. However, some like Richard Branson, are present to the present. During a trip to Puerto Rico, Branson’s flight was cancelled, so he decided to charter his own plane the rest of the way and offer a ride to the rest of the stranded passengers for a small fee in order to cover the cost. Based on this experience, he sensed a need in the market place and started Virgin airlines.

  1. Accessed from: May 30, 3019.

Questions for Online Conversation

  1. When was the last time you had an “aha” moment by being present to the present?
  2. Have you experienced the joy and the growth that a moment can provide independent of any other conditions or thoughts? For example, “oh my child looks so adorable and gives me so much joy” without “and oh my god she will soon be a teenager and won’t give me hugs like this anymore?”
  3. What are you learning about yourself through the window of being present or not being present?





If Not You, Then Who?

There are two kinds of regrets. The first are opportunities that were present that we did not act on. The second are forays into areas that did not work as well as we had expected. The research shows that the former are the ones that weigh more heavily on us psychologically. Every leader is faced with a myriad of decisions every day and has to weigh carefully the personal, political, career, and financial aspects against his or her intentions, values, and motivation. However, at some point the followers want to know what the leader stands for. Why would they trust their career and welfare to her or him? Is this the organization that they thought they signed up for? Is this the leader that will role model personal commitment to the vision, values, and service that the organization advertises as the core to its culture?

There are personal leadership legacies that are forged during decisive moments (please see my Decisive Moments blog posted on October 9, 2018).  For example:

  • What were you thinking and what did you do when the names of some of the people you work with came up during performance review and quick judgments were made without the full information and context? (Group think). Or worse, someone threw a stink bomb into the conversation by putting their assessment of the person as indisputable fact with no curiosity or two way dialogue.
  • Some on the leadership team routinely spin their own personal agenda and preferences such as pet projects, people, and plans through the lens of organizational strategy or values. Credibility is being affected and you are seen as part of this problem by being on the same team with them.
  • The sales group has heard the message about the pressure to grow and has started some shady practices at the buyer and store levels including shelf displays, promotions etc. You are part of the leadership team, but you are not managing sales.
  • Your organization, recognizing that its core competencies may soon start to be disintermediated through technology, innovation, and pace in the market place, has invested in acquiring products and services in adjacent spaces. However, any time the leaders of the newly acquired organizations share their views of change and creativity, one of the legacy leaders throws cold water onto the conversation by reminding them that they are now part of the legacy organization and every idea needs to be approved by the status quo leaders who are change averse. You are reminded that it is better for your career if you don’t rock the boat and “let the leaders sort all of this out in due time…” In the meantime, every fiber of your body is telling you that your organization is going to be left behind and the interest of a few is overwhelming decisions that should be made now in order to stay competitive.
  • Draft your own example…

What we know about the 21st century is that it will be unforgiving of organizations and leaders who are too slow to adapt and will disseminate the laggards. The rate of change and speed to delivery is such that, at the time of this writing, I do not believe any of the futurists can confidently predict its dynamics or potential accurately.

What we do know, based on current sign posts, is that organizations have to be agile, able to read the adjacencies, and operate quickly and collectively to benefit from the early mover advantage. This assumes that leaders make decisions and serve the interest of the broader organization.  Self-serving ego, internal politics, territoriality, protocols, 19th and 20th century hangovers relating to ego, hierarchy and personality cults will only ensure that they suffer the fate of film technology and typewriters. Simply said, leader-led group think without dissent and capturing the minority view will over time lead to handing the advantage to the competitors. Witness Enron…

Experience shows that that many industries, such as the high tech sector where the distance between the product and customer’s voice is short and direct, are already forming 21st century cultures. I was invited to facilitate a Silicon Valley discussion regarding product development. It was refreshing to see that when the sandal wearing and pony tailed software engineer stood to speak in a reserved voice to recall the launch of a new tablet PC you could hear a pin drop. The room was engulfed with curiosity and respect without anger, ego, and hierarchy. Eventually the organization, after having a respectful dialogue, did follow the advice of the software engineer to its eventual benefit. One may contrast this with those industries protected by long-term or heavily regulated patents or those that are still kept alive through subsidies or protection.

This presents some interesting questions to reflect on.

  1. Where are your lines and boundaries? At what point and around which issues do you draw the line?
  2. Who and what are you serving? What are your values and intentions? How does it align with your choices and actions?
  3. Where and on what are you spending most of your time? Is it in alignment with your role as a leader?
  4. Who will be affected by the decisions you are witnessing or possibly taking part in?
  5. At your farewell retirement event, what do you want your legacy to be? What would do you want the speakers to say about you and how would you like your colleagues to feel about you? What will they say and how would it feel if you stay on your current trajectory?
  6. And last but not least, if not you, then who?

Here is an example of mindful and conscious leadership. Steve Denning describes Whole Foods and summarizes the book Conscious Capitalism by John Mackey (co-CEO of Whole Foods) and Raj Sisodia as follows1

“Imagine a business that is born out of a dream about how the world could be and should be…”

“Picture a business built on love and care rather than stress and fear, whose team members are passionate and committed to their work…”

“Think of a business that cares profoundly about the well-being of its customers, seeing them not as consumers but as flesh-and-blood human beings whom it is privileged to serve…”

“Envision a business that embraces outsiders as insiders, inviting its suppliers into the family circle and treating them with the same love and care it showers on its customers and team members”

“Imagine a business that is a committed and caring citizen of every community it inhabits, elevating its civic life and contributing in multiple ways to its betterment…”

“Imagine a business that exercises great care in whom it hires, where hardly anyone ever leaves once he or she joins…”

“See in your mind’s eye a business that chooses and promotes leaders because of their wisdom and capacity for love and care…”

“Imagine a business that exists in a virtuous cycle of multifaceted value creation… while also delivering superior financial results year after year, decade after decade…”

Let’s note that John has and will continue to be under the same pressures as other leaders. He has to run an organization that shows year over year growth and profitability, and now as part of Amazon, the pressure is even more intense.

Here is one choice that he made in alignment with his values and intent. In late 2014 Whole Foods rolled out to their vendors a new rating system called Responsibly Grown, which measures factors like energy conservation, waste reduction, and farm worker welfare. Please see below:

There followed large scale global protest from farmers and vendors fearing that the new rating system would undermine their brand margins. The New York Times aired a story on the front page of the business section. NPR broadcast a lengthy segment on Morning Edition.

In the end, Whole Foods made some tweaks to the new program but did not back down. Mackey, was undaunted. He was quoted saying that “You need dissonance, and you need someone who is challenging things. Otherwise you get stuck.”2

By the way, Whole Foods is the most profitable food retailer and Amazon paid $13.7 billion to purchase it.

Questions for Online Conversation

  • When was the last time you were in a decisive moment? What choices did you make?
  • Do you feel this is just “soft stuff” and the domain of HR and leadership development people? If not, what are some of the ways that you are exhibiting Conscious Leadership?
  • What would you advise your son or daughter to do when they find themselves in those decisive moments?

1. Denning, S. (2013, January). The New Management Paradigm: John Mackey’s Whole Foods. Forbes. Retrieved from 2. Kowitt, B. (2015, August). John Mackey: The Conscious Capitalist. Fortune. Retrieved from

How Would It Feel?

Many of us have a tendency to develop “seniority amnesia”. When we gain positions of power at work or at home, and we seem to forget how our decisions and actions would feel if we were on the receiving end of them. You hear something or experience events and decide to drop a relationship or judge someone as not capable. You make an assessment of someone’s talent, potential, and performance based on the way you process and add meaning to the data. You deliver the final dagger to someone’s career and motivation by not taking the time to have a direct conversation with them, and instead, go on to share your assessment with other important stakeholders. You are not curious, don’t ask questions, and do not allow the time to find out directly.

Imagine how it feels when others treat you in the same manner. You would probably be frustrated, angry, demotivated, and would in some cases, look for other opportunities.

Is this how you would want your leadership legacy to be remembered? As someone who uses their position power to damage others or cut relations with little curiosity to gather collective intelligence, reflect, weigh, teach, and make a balanced decision?

Anyone who has studied behavioral and social psychology understands the aphrodisiac that power and prestige deposits into our neural pathways. I have been there and tasted it. It is addictive. On an individual level we start to see ourselves as superior, smarter, having better judgment, and ultimately better decision makers than others.  On the group level, we seek others who are closer to our perceived social and power standing. We start to talk differently, behave differently, think that others will not understand our situation and do not have the experience, intelligence, and background. These self-limiting assumptions will cripple organizations that are keen to succeed in the 21st century.

Leadership in the 21st century will require the following:

  • Honesty and Transparency – Failure to address issues with honesty leaves others guessing and creates a risk-averse mentality where the message is “unless and until you drive between the white lines as I define it you will sit in the penalty box indefinitely.” Clearly this is not a recipe for the innovation, agility, adaptability, and growth mindset required for the 21st century
  • Courage and Empathy – Great leaders will be defined by their backbone and heart. Not one or the other. When we lose our ability to feel how our decisions and actions land on the receivers, don’t really care, and don’t have the courage to have a direct conversation, we are not serving our own leadership legacy and not acting in the best interest of the organizations we serve (and yes, your family and friends are organizations too…)
  • Teachable Moments – The speed, complexity, volatility, and uncertainty of the 21st century means that every time there is a teachable moment, we engage and learn. As Carol Dweck so ably describes it, we leave behind our fixed mindset and engage in the growth mindset.1 If we were honest we would admit that all of us have made decisions and taken actions that, if viewed in isolation, have limited our growth and development. However, others have taken the time and care to make these occasions teachable moments. Kolb’s adult learning theory shows unmistakably that direct conversation and feedback, close to the decision/action taken, is one of the most effective ways for adults to learn.2
  • Taking Accountability and Apologizing – Great leaders will not allow the ego-self to dominate. They take accountability and apologize when they notice that their ego has made them hide behind the trappings of their positions and avoid difficult conversations directly and with an open mind. Your colleagues will never be able to convey your message in the same manner and with the same level of specificity as you, and frankly, it is unfair to put them in that position. Your priority is your talent, your relationships, and the human fabric that, if motivated, will take you to the next level of success. This is not an elective it is part of your job more so than the endless meetings you attend.

As an example of the power and status mentality, the following example is prevalent. I have coached leaders at every level in global Fortune 500, entrepreneurial, and non-profit organizations. I have the references, experience, and track record in every facet of coaching. However, I am surprised by those with a fixed mindset that believe only a CEO can coach another CEO or that only those with experience in a given industry can effectively coach their leaders. Surely every professional serving a client needs to study and learn the essential facts and context of the organizations he or she works with. However, coaching is essentially a way to enable leaders to get in touch with their true selves, understand their emotional and habitual triggers/tendencies, the early warning systems that their physical selves are providing, and to create a reflective space for coach and coachee to examine decisions and actions from a more informed and detached stance.

There is now massive data that illustrates the fact that most of our decisions are actually made in our ancestral brain where subconscious emotions reside. This point is poignantly illustrated by Leonard Mlodinow.3 Ask yourselves:

  • Why do I connect with some people and not others?
  • Why do I hire some people and not others given similar experiences and performance?
  • Why do I trust some people and not others with no direct evidence in hand?
  • Why am I attracted to some things and people and not others?
  • Why do I keep pushing for my pet projects and have a hard time changing my stance with new information?
  • Why do I change my point of view and how I feel about people that leave my organization?
  • Why couldn’t Kodak roll out digital technology they already had in a more timely fashion?
  • Why am I having a hard time getting closer to my neighbor with a different political orientation from me?
  • When am I in flow and when do I act from my lower self?

We convince ourselves that our decisions are brilliant and completely logical as do each side of the aisle in Washington D.C.

Therefore, the emphasis in selecting a coach should be on his or her ability to create credibility and safety so that the coachee will share their most intimate thoughts and feelings, that unchecked, will result in decisions and actions that affect large groups of people and the success of the organization. These executives already have an army of strategic advisors who provide them technical advice. They require someone with expertise at the intersection of behavioral science and business.

Take the time today to make a list of some of the decisions where you hid behind your power or when you just were “too busy” to bother with the people who you perceive as lower than you in status or power. Or if you generally shy away from direct conversations. Ask yourself how would you feel if you were on the other side of the interaction? If there is one principle that you have time to focus on in the 21st century it should be the golden rule.

  • One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself (positive or directive form)
  • One should not treat others in ways that one would not like to be treated (negative or prohibitive form)
  • What you wish upon others, you wish upon yourself (empathic or responsive form)

We live in the era of choice. Technology and internet have been the great dis-intermediators and liberators of the more traditional brute force hierarchy. Many more people from more collectivist and feminine cultures are now in the work force. Age is no longer seen as being equivalent to apprenticeship, and knowing only what one needs to know has gone the way of the typewriter. Prior to making a decision ask yourself “How would this decision land on me if I were on the other side of it?“

  1. Dweck, C, PH.D. Mindset, The New Psychology of Success. New York: Ballantine, 2006.
  2. Kolb, DA. Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development (Vol. 1). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1984.
  3. Mlodinow, L. Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior. New York: Pantheon Books, 2012.

Questions for Online Conversations

  • When was the last time you reached back and acknowledged those who helped you get where you are?
  • Would your relationships say that you treat them as you would like to be treated? If not, what is the ego saying? Do you agree with it?
  • On your last day when they are giving the goodbye speeches, how do you want to be remembered? A teacher/coach? Looked up to with awe? Liked, missed with genuine tears? Polite applause?

Pleased align your resources and time behind your strategy.

Who Said Feelings Are Soft?

I was stationed in Amsterdam and leading/building a successful practice for one of the globe’s largest management consulting organizations. Outside observers would have said I was the rising star. As an expatriated employee and a practice lead, I had checked the success boxes. I had a comfortable townhouse in the outskirts of one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. I traveled the world extensively and could match interesting and adventurous stories with anyone. I was surrounded by people who, due to my reputation and brand in the organization, wanted to be with me and be part of the energy that was propelling my success. Like so many of us, I was on a treadmill to the top.  My organization developed internal broadcasts of me and a team member and shared them with every office around the world. Visitors from other offices would routinely stop in to meet me and benchmark their offerings and practices to ours. Etc, etc, etc.

An early spoiler alert, the high was followed by a loud crash.

There is a metaphor that I so love which asks “Is your doorknob from the inside or the outside?”  This means, have you cultivated a sense of purpose and belonging through which you filter information, people, feelings and behaviors and let pass through only those that are aligned? Or, do they come and go like party crashers at their whim and you are more akin to a weather vane spinning with the direction of the changing wind.

I was clearly in the second category. My sense of success in personal and professional life was defined from the outside. When I would get attention and praise, I would take flight and experience a delicious high much like the effects of a powerful drug. Equally, I had a great deal of difficulty processing feedback and criticism. It was as if someone had a knife in their hand and had planned to take my life and all that was important to me.  Needless to say, this resulted in disappointing professional, and most importantly personal, consequences.

When I invited my family to join me in Amsterdam, my ex-wife looked inside herself, and to her credit, decided that there just was not enough in the marriage for her to move the family. And ultimately, that horrific day arrived when we told our 8-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter of our pending divorce. I remember it as if it was yesterday. It was a nice day on a bench in Amsterdamse Bos, a beautiful park in Amstelveen, a suburb of Amsterdam where I lived. My son, in the pure and angelic voice that 8-year-olds have, and with tears in his eyes, looked at us and asked: “Why don’t you just tell each other you are sorry”? Looking back, I am now convinced that it was that seminal moment that started my journey towards becoming wholehearted and my passion for whole brain leadership. Something profound shook my inside when I looked into his eyes as the window to the wisdom that we are born with. It made me feel the depth of his question. What was running my life? Whose life was I living? What was I running away from? What was it that I had to hold onto? How did I make my decisions? How did I want to be remembered? Who and what was important in my life? What were my values and how was I living them? How connected was I with the people around me? Needless to say, the answers that came to me were profoundly disturbing.

Often it starts with a crack in the dam and it takes passion and dedicated work to rewire the brain. As you are reading these paragraphs, there are millions of souls around the world (and yes, many business executives) who have embarked on this journey. They have realized that it is impossible to achieve happiness, connect with and/or lead others unless and until they come whole with themselves and do the work necessary to fill in the holes and the insecurities. (Yes, insecurities, especially those of you who think you don’t have them…)

For me, it has taken years of reflection, therapy, coaching, missteps, and corrections along the way to finally come at life with my whole brain. My goal has been to elevate above my thoughts and emotions so that at the most critical times in my life when I make an important choice and take actions, I am serving my purpose and higher goals. So that I am not unduly influenced by my auto response, thoughts, or feelings. And, as Victor Frankl so profoundly expressed it, I am building a “space between the stimuli and response”.

A technique that I have used for myself and my clients is to see these thoughts and feelings as guests around my dinner table. Each has their own name tag—the voice of ego (yes, we all have it and at times helpful), the voice of cynicism, the voice of anger, the voice of hurt, the voice of insecurity, the voice of love, the voice of hope, etc. Like an accomplished host, I like to become as familiar with each voice as possible. So that I know the meaning, the tone, the texture, its effect on my body. In this way, I am never surprised by what they may say and can respond to it effectively. I like to pay attention to which voices are the loudest and demanding the most attention and why. Which voices are less heard and where are they sitting around the table.  Like a good host, I ask myself am paying equal attention to all of my guests or only the ones that I am most familiar with? How am I introducing my guests to one another and how are those conversations going? For example, when the voice of despair speaks to me am I introducing him to the voice of hope and what are they saying? In this way, rather than running away from my thoughts and emotions, I am inviting them in but from an elevated and unattached stance. Knowing that I am so much more than my thoughts. Knowing that in my lifetime I have the proof that it is possible to fundamentally change oneself. And, most importantly, knowing that leadership at work and home requires that, at the most critical times when decisions are made and actions are taken, I use all of the information available, including my own understanding of my biases and habits. It is a fallacy to think that Nelson Mandela was not resentful of the treatment the Afrikaans had afforded him through 27 years of hard labor and prison. The reason he chose to invite the Afrikaans into his rainbow coalition is that he was able to elevate above his dinner table, name the voices that were speaking into his ears, compare and contract their advice to his purpose (serving and building the new South Africa), and make the right choices.

The U.S. culture is routinely assessed by intercultural experts such as Geert Hofstede1 as one of the most masculine and individualistic cultures in the world. Masculine cultures are characterized by a belief system that values competition and hard work over relationship building and collaboration. These cultures are founded on the belief system that the aggressive and dominant species will outmuscle and outrun the weaker and more collaborative ones. They rely on the leader of the tribe being the smartest, fastest, strongest, and most agile and the victor of the winner take all/zero-sum contest. Conversely, these cultures see feelings, tears, joy, uncertainty, anxiety and other natural human emotions as not belonging in the competitive arena of business and certainly not the type of behavior that a strong leader would engage in.

This repressed and outdated view of global business and leadership is the reason why, once I complete with my obligatory business and credibility dance with many of my clients and they finally let me in and start to talk about the real issues that are facing them, the emotional dam breaks.  When it breaks I find myself on the receiving end of years of repressed and unattended emotions that have been forced into an artificial construct called business behavior. They share their lack of trust of others.  Talk about their loneliness and disconnectedness from their friends and family.  Acknowledge the relentless pace they are pursuing and the wear and tear on their bodies and relationships. They share their insecurities regarding a myriad of topics such as not keeping up with technology, being threatened by younger up and comers, what they will do with themselves and how they would fit in postretirement, etc.

When leaders repress their own emotions they lose their connections to their soul.  And when they cannot connect with their authentic selves they lose the ability to connect at deeper levels with their followers. Connecting with others and to belong are basic human needs and the only sustainable way to influence and motivate others. In so doing, we are soft-wired through our mirror neurons to feel other people’s emotions and to not use them is to atrophy the muscles that million years of evolution have bestowed to our species.

Please see the short clip below regarding mirror neurons:


1. Hofstede G, Hofstede GJ, Minkov M. (2010). Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind. McGraw-Hill.


Questions for Online Conversations

  1. When did you last take time to slow down and think about the above topics?
  2. Can you in any way relate to it? If not why not?
  3. If it speaks to you, what are you prepared to do to address it?

What’s Your Intention?

Great leaders regularly ask, “What are my intentions and how are my choices, behaviors, and the resulting outcomes aligned with my intentions?” Much like how the early voyagers used the North Star to navigate their vessels, so must the leader declare his or her intentions as the destination and examine the choices, behaviors, and resulting outcomes.

Intentions are our outcome-based values. They translate our values into ideas that we can connect to our worlds and lives. For example, if you say your intention is to serve your family, what you are saying is that you would like your choices, behaviors, and the outcomes to further the well-being of your family.  For clarity, you may ask yourselves, “If I were to get into a road rage with the driver of another car does that support my declared intention?” My guess is that if your family witnessed the road rage scene, it is likely that they would not think of your choice, behaviors, and potential outcome as being in their interest.

This is an obvious example, but there are thousands of decisive moments when leaders are not present to and mindful of the misalignments between their stated intentions and their choices, behaviors, and the resulting outcomes.

The following examples come from coaching of senior leaders in various industries and across the globe:

  • The leader who states that his intention is to be a fair and inclusive leader and set the example of the power of diversity and inclusion and then hires and promotes people with like interests and personal beliefs, downplays their mistakes or shoddy work, while amplifying that of others.
  • The leader who declares her intention is to be a global leader, but upon assuming her role in a new location, tries constantly to change the local culture to that which she is more familiar and comfortable without a thorough understanding of the context for the local ways.
  • The leader who declares wellness and balance as an important goal for the organization, but who, himself, cannot turn off work at home and sends emails late in the evening and weekends, therefore role modeling an informal culture that his followers assume to be his real intentions.

The good news is that trained and self-aware leaders can self-check regularly to monitor the alignment between their espoused intentions and their thoughts and actions. This is what coaches call the state of “self-mastery”. The stage at which leaders gain an unattached reflective stance that allows them to examine their actions and decisions from the balcony and understand the habitual thoughts and feelings that drive the execution of their intentions. When the leader is attached to the “ego self” or the “habitual/domesticated self” it is an excellent opportunity to reflect on the question, “How are my choices and actions serving my intentions?” Often the leader is operating on auto pilot and may not be consciously aware of the misalignment.

A foundational premise of leadership is that the leader is in the service of those who they are serving.  This means that when the leader takes on the mantle, he reflects deeply on whether his intentions are aligned with the expectations of the position.  In my work, I like to ask the following questions:

  1. Why did you accept this position?
  2. What motivates and drives you in performing your responsibilities?
  3. How does that compare with your understanding of the role as seen by the most important stakeholders?
  4. What important decisions have you made lately?
  5. Why do you consider them as important?
  6. How does your decision align with your intentions or espoused purpose?
  7. How did you role model and execute your decision?
  8. What do you think the perceptions of others were regarding your performance?
  9. How did the outcome of your decisions and actions align with your intentions? How did they work for you generally?

Those of you who have not spent time on this progression of thinking and decision-making may want to take the time afforded in this New Year to think about what is really driving you and whether you are honoring your leadership role by making the right choices and actions.

Questions for Online Conversation

  1. How are you assessing yourself in the journey from intentions to outcome?
  2. Are your intentions aligned with the organization’s expectations?
  3. If you are not aligned, what can you do?

Decisive Moments

The French Photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, who is widely considered the father of photojournalism, coined the phrase “the decisive moment.” This moment occurs when the visual and psychological elements of people in a real life scene spontaneously and briefly come together in perfect resonance to express the essence of that situation. This is not only true in superb photography but also in exceptional leadership. There are those decisive moments when the beliefs and psychological makeup of leaders are matched against difficult, gut-wrenching, and often consequential situations. It is at these moments that the legacy and impact of leaders come through. It is then that followers really get to know the leader and decide whether they will accept being led by them. Simply put, they are defining moments.

This is why there are many followers and managers but only a few who can truly occupy the leadership space. It is not enough to have beliefs, aspirations, photo ops, speeches, blogs, etc. These beliefs are impacting and dynamic if they are exhibited in decisions and actions. Every politician espouses a belief of serving his or her country. However, there are only a few like the senator from Alaska, Susan Malinowski, and the Senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders, that actually vocalize and vote their beliefs. The decisions made during decisive moments should be deeply personal and closely related to the values and beliefs of the leader. Once made and carried out, they set in motion precedents, legacies, and ripple effects that affect the lives and well beings of many. Here are some powerful examples of those that responded to these moments as leaders should and others who did not.

Decisive moment—Christi Shaw voluntarily stepped away from a high profile job at Novartis as President and US Country Head of Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation. Here is how the Fortune article of May 2016 by Eileen Daspen1 described it: 

“In April, Swiss pharma giant Novartis made an unexpected announcement. Christi Shaw, the company’s U.S. country head and president, was stepping down ‘for personal and family reasons.’

That phrase is often code for internal corporate strife, personnel clashes, or failure to perform. But in Shaw’s case, the explanation was as personal and familial as it gets. Her older sister, Sherry, 51, was suffering from multiple myeloma, or bone marrow cancer. Though Sherry’s condition had deteriorated since her 2013 diagnosis, in early April she had been accepted into a promising clinical study. A key criterion for admission was that she have a full-time caretaker during the three-month trial.

For Shaw, 49, one of the top-ranking women in the pharma industry, the decision to take on that caretaker role was an easy one. She deliberated just two days before submitting her resignation. What surprised her was the disbelief she encountered from friends, co-workers, and colleagues in the industry.”

For many at the time that may have been an unthinkable option. After all they may have thought “I have given my all to get to this position.  I love my sister and will find other ways including financial means to help.  But not this. I simply cannot walk away from my career.”

In the course of my career which now spans over 40 years I have either been employed or consultant for numerous life sciences organizations, including most if not all of the major ones. Almost all of them have values, mission statements, and care and dedication to patients as the North Star and the guiding light for all of their decisions. However, followers and the outside world judge leaders by their actions not their espoused beliefs. Legacies are made during these decisive moments. If a leader espouses care for patients as his or her core belief, does it not follow, under the circumstances that Christi found herself in, that they make a similar decision?  Does care of a patient in need not start with one’s own decisions and behaviors with close family? Hence Christi’s surprise to the reaction of others and how many leaders are still struggling with authentic leadership.  And of course, as karma would have it, Christi not only landed on her feet, but she landed in a big way with her previous employer Eli Lilly as Senior VP & President of Lilly Bio-Medicines. But even more importantly, to this day when I visit Novartis and talk to her former colleagues, the legacy of her decision still lives on and inspires many. She has opened up a window of courage, authenticity, and value-based leadership that inspires and motivates others to translate into their own lives. People are inspired by example.

Please view this video on Christie and ask yourself whether you feel she is authentic regarding her value to serve the patient.

Decisive Moment—My father, who built much of the education infrastructure in Iran during the Shah’s regime, was told to take bribes from foreign contractors so that the flow of future bribes to others in power was not affected. He dedicated his life to service and country. He did not hesitate. He refused, lost his job, was forced to take a job in the embassy in Washington to get him out of the way. He never regretted his decision. To this day his students, who are now top engineers and scientists in organizations such as Google, NASA, and the United Nations, get together to celebrate his life and legacy.

Decisive Moment—Nelson Mandela, after 27 years of prison at the hands of the Afrikaans, invited them in to form a rainbow coalition. He disenfranchised his wife, Winnie, who stood by him all those years but was found guilty of misusing her power.  He did so because at the highest level he served South Africa.

Decisive Moment—The leaders at Volkswagen knowingly decided to support technology to fool the emission standards tests in order to sell more vehicles.

Decisive Moment—The leaders at Wells Fargo encouraged sales and customer service representatives to practice an aggressive culture which resulted in them creating:

  • Deposit accounts and transferring funds without customer authorization, sometimes resulting in insufficient funds fees for customers
  • Credit card accounts in costumers’ names without their knowledge or consent. Customers were hit with annual fees, in addition to finance and interest charges and late fees for some consumers
  • Debit cards and PINs for customers, without their consent
  • Phony email addresses to enroll consumers in online banking services

Decisive Moment—The leaders of various life science organizations, prescribing doctors, and pharmacists aggressively oversupplying opioids to trusting patients in severe pain causing large scale addictions, psychological distress, and in many cases suicides

The central thesis in the bestselling book The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence by Dacher Keltner2 is that power is given and not taken and in the long term it is bestowed by followers to those who do the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

Having worked with numerous leaders I now believe that this journey is defined by decisive moments when constituencies determine whether the decisions and actions of their leaders are value-based, authentic, courageous, and as Keltner so ably illustrates, in the best interest of the people he is or she is serving.

  1. Daspin E. (2016, May 31) The Sad and Inspiring Reason This top Novartis Exec Stepped Down. Retrieved from
  2. Keltner D. (2016) The Power of Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence. New York: Penguin Random House.

Questions for Online Conversation

  • Do you recall your decisive moments?
  • If so, how are your decisions and actions aligned with your values and beliefs?
  • What lessons did you learn? How will you practice them in the future?

Whose Life Are You Living?

When we start our work, I ask my coachees what motivates them. What drives them? Why do they spend the hours on a relentless and exhausting treadmill where new competitors are constantly raising the performance bar? Often they say things like, “I am serving the shareholders or the board that placed me in this position,” “I want to leave a legacy for my family and my employees,” “I am driven by success and accomplishment,” “I want to be a role model for other women,” “I want my family to be financially independent,” “It’s what I fell into,” etc.

The next question I ask is “What are you trading in, and what is the cost to you?” At this point, these articulate and well-rehearsed leaders usually pause and reflect. The first signs of a deeper and more insightful conversation start to reveal themselves. Admittedly, there are some who have done the work, and are in touch with their values and aligned to them. There are, however, many who are on “autopilot”.  They followed the path that was in front of them and through sheer work and perseverance have climbed the corporate ladder without asking fundamental questions about who they are, what their gifts are, and what opportunities they have missed by not being present. Many were domesticated by others into living someone else’s life. The sample answers that are voiced by this group of leaders include “I am not around my family that much, but they know that I am doing this for them,” “I don’t think that much about these types of questions, I am running around too hard and don’t have the time” or “I am not really spending much time on taking care of myself but I will have enough money to retire nicely and then I am going to more than make up for it.”

Of course, many of these statements are justifications for a life unexamined.  When leaders are not in flow with their gifts and deliver results through brute force and perseverance, they not only under-deliver on their potential but also the potential of the talented people that look to them to set the example and motivate them to reach for higher ground.  In my work over the past 40 years with numerous leaders, it has become abundantly clear that those who do not take the time to reflect and examine who they are and what their intuitive intelligence is pointing to, lead lives that are forced. It is possible to be financially successful. However, true happiness and fulfillment require work that will connect the leader to his or her soul and provides room for their authentic selves to lead the way. In addition, as so ably demonstrated in the book Resonant Leadership by Boyatzis and McKee1, leaders who don’t take care of their own physical and emotional wellness will not have the resonance to lead and motivate others. Think of the oxygen mask analogy in air travel.

In my case, I was being trained by a global multinational when the Iranian revolution occurred and my plans to go back to my country and culture were changed overnight. I had to try and adapt to being an employee of a Wall Street global insurance and financial services company. Being insecure about my future and desperately looking for a lifeline, I simply put my head down and for years trudged my way through the career tracks of large global enterprises. It never felt right. I was brought up in a culture where relationships were very important. One where you worked to live and not the other way around.  The idea of taking two weeks annually as vacation seemed absurd to me. I was not used to using four-letter words at work. Many of my colleagues would go out to lunch and drink alcohol and would be slurring their words after they came back. Never the less, I ignored and dismissed my inner voice. I thought by changing jobs and companies I would find something that was a better fit. This continued until my soul could no longer take the unnatural environments that I worked in and I literally sabotaged myself. I could no longer motivate myself at any cost. Through self-examination and deeper inner work, I realized that my values were routinely undermined in these organizations. My father was a Gandhi-like figure in Iran who had devoted himself to building his country and I had inherited two fundamental values – personal freedom and achievement or building something of value that benefited others. Many of my creative ideas and accomplishments were crushed through corporate politics and not invented here mindsets. In addition, others who felt they had a position power would micromanage my creativity and passion for making a difference.

It is when I finally built my own consulting firm, which I sold to Heidrick and Struggles two years ago, that I was able to self-actualize and experience flow. Heidrick has provided me with the space to honor my values.

Like me, most of you have personal stories, unique gifts, heritages, and experiences that point to your authentic destiny. A destination where you feel fulfilled from the inside out, one that feels natural and allows you to exhibit your gifts. When you occupy that space, you will naturally outperform others who are not in flow because your passion will have you fall in love with the work. When you fall in love it fills you with energy that is hard for others to imitate. Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Roger Federer, and Princess Diana allowed the natural energy awaiting them to guide them by being present to it and focusing their efforts on its development. It takes work, discipline, a safe space, skilled professionals, and a belief system that lets go of ego and control and embraces curiosity and the joy and learning.

  1. Boyatzis R, McKee A. Resonant Leadership: Renewing Your Resonant Leadership: Renewing Yourself and Connecting with Others Through Mindfulness, Hope and Compassion. Harvard Business School Publishing, 2005.

Questions for Online Conversations

  1. How much time do you spend reflecting on your purpose and destiny?
  2. What is your greatest fear in doing so and what is hard to let go of?
  3. How will you look back at your life and will there be regrets?

No Pain, No Gain

This phrase is used in many forms. Based on my experience working with numerous leaders, what distinguishes great leaders is their readiness to be present to pain and suffering and to the ensuing learning and growth. Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Hamdi Ulukaya (CEO, Chobani Yogurt), and Victor Frankl and Candy Lightner (founders of MADD – Mothers Against Drunk Driving) all had this in common. They were present to their suffering and challenges as it was occurring, and through it, they learned to look for opportunities for learning and growth and then reinvented themselves in ways that touched the world. We have created a “happy pill” culture. We have come to expect fulfillment and happiness as a controllable outcome and when things don’t go according to plan, we get disappointed, anxious, jealous, angry, revengeful, threatened, insecure, and sometimes clinically depressed. 

As a leader, it is critical to understand that the mindset of entitled fulfillment and happiness is an artificial construct that is prevalent in the western world. Many cultures, such as the one I originate from, believe in the duality of the universe. In these cultures, good and bad, happy and sad, fulfillment and disappointment etc., are the natural rhythm of the cosmos. It is through experiencing these polarities that we, as humans, expand our emotional and intellectual range and are able to connect with others through understanding and empathy. Leaders who have not gone through the range of human emotions or are now insulating themselves from their emotions often exhibit behaviors and decisions that are not well-informed and are out of touch with the human fabric that is at the heart of their organization’s effectiveness. 

Numbing the pain results in each of us not exercising the muscles of resilience and learning that millions of years of evolution has bestowed upon the human race. It is through adversity that children learn important lessons about life. So why is it that we artificially sedate ourselves and our children to natural emotions? Suffering and pain, if properly processed, accelerates the rate of growth and development. They trigger a powerful wake up call, a time for reflection, and the motivation to mindfully change our decisions and actions. After all, there is now scientific evidence that the information sent from the heart to the brain is about 60 times more encompassing than the information that is sent from the brain to the body. So to ignore and downplay the importance of the emotive brain in decision-making and behavioral modification is foolish. Please see the link below for more:

In order to reap the full benefits and growth, it is necessary that we persevere through the emotions that come with disappointment and sadness. It is not to ignore it, deny it, blame, rationalize, defend or force a different thought. Left unattended, the thoughts and feelings will fester and show up in multiple ways. For example, the way in which we get habitually triggered to make impulsive and reflexive decisions. If we learn to name these emotions, push through them by experiencing and observing them, and learn to have a conversation with them, we can turn an unfulfilling event into an important learning opportunity. 

One of the techniques that I use is to imagine that you are having a dinner party. You have invited your cynical and negative inner voices. Assign a name tag for each of your dinner guests. Names such as “impostor” for the voice that says you don’t deserve or are not qualified for this job, or “touchy feely” for when the cynic is instructing you to not honor your intuition or emotional intelligence when making decisions. The idea is to engage in a conversation with each voice, hear what they have to say, and then present the alternative perspectives and learning to the guest that is speaking. In doing so, it is imperative that you stay with the emotion that comes with each conversation and start to get familiar with the intensity, shape, and physical manifestations of it.  So for example, when engaging with the “impostor” it is important to notice the feelings and thoughts that come with being told you are an impostor. Once experienced, a retort may be “We have had this conversation often. Whenever I reach for higher ground you tell me I am an impostor. But when I look around the table I feel I am just as qualified as others since we all have strengths and areas for development. In addition, so far, my performance has shown that I am up to the task. Thank you for the advice. I know I have to learn a few new things but I am not an impostor I am deserving of this job…” Notice not only the words you are using but the feelings that are present when you talk back to the inner voice. Are you feeling positive energy? Are you feeling less trapped? Are you feeling frustrated by having to have the same talk with your inner voice? Are you not believing what you are saying? The answer to these questions are clues for the work ahead.

With repetition you will gain self-mastery. Rather than these voices controlling your emotions, thoughts, and actions, you will see them coming, know what they feel like and how to converse with them to use the voice productively to learn, and no longer be held hostage by them.

In my life I have gone through much adversity. My father was told by the Shah of Iran to take a job in the U.S at the Iranian Embassy because the Shah was threatened by his popularity. As a result, I was put in a middle school in the U.S without speaking a word of English. This was a time when English as a second language programs were rare. It was sink or swim and an age when children can be extremely cruel. My country was taken away from me through a revolution and I had to make a life in a foreign country, in Wall Street, and in organizations that espoused very different values and beliefs than those that I was taught. I have experienced two painful divorces. The last one resulted in the company I built over 16 years having to be sold and dissolved. And I am currently having to get emotionally ready for my ex-wife’s move to Virginia which will mean that my 8 year old son, whom I adore, will live over 300 miles away from me. All of these experiences were/are devastating. However, I would not be the person that I am without them. Each has accelerated my personal growth in its own way. I have experienced a wider range of human emotion and am able to better connect with others, improved my level of listening and presence, and I am more curious and I have slowed down my pace to reflect and take input before making decisions and acting. In addition, with each adversity, new doors and opportunities have surfaced when I have been present to them. Let me be clear, I am not discounting the pain and suffering that I have gone through. However, rather than surrendering to resentment, I have tried to see these events as natural markers and vistas in the lifelong journey towards self-awareness and learning.

I have discovered that regretting the past is futile. When I made the decisions that I made, I was a different person and those decisions served me at that time. I have also learned that comparing myself with others is not very helpful. Each of us occupies a unique body and is wired differently. The journey is intended for us to self-actualize in ways that are natural and accessible to us.

You are all fellow travelers in this journey and I welcome the chance to connect with you and share and explore the many twists and turns.

Questions for Online Conversation

  1. To what extent have you learned from your past challenges?
  2. What has helped and what has been blocking your learning?
  3. What is your way of addressing adversity?