Your 2017 Leadership Story

Many of us pay more attention to our new year’s resolutions than reflecting and writing our leadership story from the previous year. Reflection and storytelling are fundamental to learning and growth.  So in the spirit of my year-end reflection blogs, I thought this year I would share my own 2017 story with the hope that it might facilitate the way for some of you to write yours.

When I founded my company Philosophy IB in 2000, and up until 2016, it never crossed my mind I would transition from owner to employee again. My plan was to retire as founding partner of Philosophy IB.  However as life has it, due to circumstances beyond my immediate control, it became clear that the wise course of action was to tender the company which I loved and put everything I had up for auction. It was a bittersweet experience for me as we had entered one of the most difficult industries (management consulting) and in competition from many of the biggest names, built a model 50 person boutique practice with amazing talent, incredible products and services, and devoted clients.

We finally found a great suitor in Heidrick and Struggles. However, like many of you, I went through the cognitive and emotional change cycle. I had to adapt to a mindset of proving myself all over again in a new environment. I felt enormous responsibility in seeing our talented and loyal staff land safely in the new organization and helping them adjust to the culture in ways that allowed them to be present to opportunities for growth. I had to let go of clients, projects, and methodologies that I had invested enormous time and care in developing and adopt a new ones. I had to adjust to multiple people weighing in on decisions that I could make myself prior to the sale.

From the start, I declared these principles to follow:

  • Be kind to me. Recognize the challenge, do my best, and learn from it. Let the universe take care of the rest
  • Don’t allow workplace challenges to affect my personal relationships and take care of my physical wellbeing
  • Start with love and care. Assume positive intent and allow my new colleagues to respond in kind. Believe this to be right course of action even if some do not.  In so doing, try and follow the golden rule. What would it be like to be on the other side of my interactions and how would that feel?
  • Do not play politics and be transparent with my thoughts and motivations. Admit mistakes and take on feedback with gratitude
  • Believe that the universe has a plan uniquely designed for me and there is no one else that has my exact physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual composition
  • Pick a leader I highly admire. Put their picture in my office and regularly ask what he or she would do in a similar situation. For me by a large margin, that leader has always been Nelson Mandela (those who visit my office will notice a large portrait of him)

I firmly believe that any leader going through change should spend time to compose an aspirational set of principles and values. This does not mean that you will always follow them. There is no doubt that there were occasions in 2017 when I slipped. However, these principles are an effective way to measure your days and weeks, notice the gaps, reflect on barriers, and come up with ways to address these gaps.  For those of you who have executive coaches, this is a gift to them and their work.  Coaches love to work with your principles and values.

As I write this blog, I believe I have navigated the most challenging parts of the transition from being a co-owner of a successful boutique consulting firm to a partner in a global consulting organization. The work will obviously continue in 2018 and based on feedback to date there are a couple of areas that I need to focus on. However, I have found the mindset of non-attachment and surrender to be liberating and enriching.  These are the ingredients

  • What do I want really— if I was having a drink with myself?
  • Are there opportunities in the current environment that can be connected to my wants? Am I present to them?
  • What is it that I can control, and what is it that will only lead to frustration (at least for the foreseeable future)?
  • How much of my time and energy is spent on each?
  • Once I have done my best regarding above, to what extent can I let go and allow the universe to take care of me?
  • Who will I surround myself with to help me through this process?

I want to wish you all my incredible, amazing, generous, and wonderful readers the best that the universe has to offer in 2018.  I encourage you to allow the right side of your brain gain equal footing. Trust your creativity, trust your intuition, and trust those that come your way with a mission from the universe to help you achieve your destiny. These Gurus have unique cameo roles to play in your lives. Recognize it and allow it to happen.

With love and deep appreciation – Kaveh

 

Questions for Online Conversation

  1. What is your leadership story for 2017?
  2. What did you learn from it?
  3. How does it segway into your 2018 story?
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A wonderful clip from Ray Dalio

Below is a wonderful clip from Ray Dalio, the founder of the world’s biggest hedge fund on radical transparency.  It is very consistent with the central message of my previous blog “Who is Your Counter Ego”

https://www.ted.com/talks/ray_dalio_how_to_build_a_company_where_the_best_ideas_win

Best, Kaveh

 

Who Is Your Counter Ego

Who is in your life to act as your counter ego? The person that has the courage, care, and wisdom to stand up to you and tell you the inconvenient truths while risking your ire? He or she must be someone who is grounded and at peace with who they are and what they stand for. They should know you, really know you, and check your B.S. meter with care while not folding their hand.

A partial list of leaders who lost their ways include:

  • Jeff Skilling and Ken Lay, Enron. They represented the key forces that led to the corruption and downfall of Enron.
  • Winnie Mandela, wife of Nelson Mandela. The African National Congress (ANC) had to disenfranchise her after discovering that she had founded a soccer club in 1986 for unemployed young men, really to cater to her own needs. The club evolved over the next three years into a heavy-handed mafia gang who had committed murder, some under her direction.
  • Rajat Gupta, McKinsey and Company. Ex-chairman and convicted of insider trading.
  • Mark Hurd, ex CEO of Hewlett Packard. Resigned from HP after an investigation showed he violated HP Code of Conduct as it related to expense account submission.
  • Ferdinand Piëch, the immensely powerful former chief of Volkswagen’s supervisory board. Known as a prime architect of the culture that resulted in the emission testing scandal for VW.

Many of these leaders had a strong vision and were in pursuit of achieving lofty and beneficial goals for themselves and others.  However, over time they lost their connection with those who they served and advised.  They violated a sacred trust that is bestowed on the leader by their followers or constituencies.  The basis of this trust is the idea that the leaders second their egos to that which benefits the larger organizations they lead.  But were they always that way?  In some cases yes and often the answer is no. More typically, these leaders demonstrated in other parts of their lives an ability to be outstanding individuals who were indeed devoted to amazing causes and who gave of themselves willingly, tirelessly, and unselfishly.

Winnie Mandela stood by the cause for years.  She supported her husband Nelson Mandela over 27 years of incarceration, tolerated years of disrespect and emotional and psychological torture, and carried on the fight that Nelson was waging from inside his prison cell.

Jeff Skilling of Enron fame was profiled in Clayton Christensen’s book “How Will You Measure Your Life?” as an outstanding individual who was in service of others while attending Harvard University.

Bill Gates, who had worked with Mr. Gupta when Mr. Gupta was chair of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, wrote that he wanted to help “round out Rajat’s profile as you consider the appropriate sentence for him. Many millions of people are leading better lives – or are alive at all – thanks to the efforts he so ably supported.  Former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan in his letter, said: “I urge you to recognize Rajat for the good he has done in the world, to give him the credit that he deserves for helping others and to take into account his efforts to improve the lives of millions of people.”

The reasons these leaders lose their guiding lights are varied. However, I have noted one common theme in my work with executives. Those who lose their way usually lack someone who acts as their moral compass and who has established enough goodwill and credibility to literally drag them back to places and times in their lives when they served a greater good. To a time when they personified values of integrity, care, hard work, and service. Someone who reminds them of their roots and the reasons that their family or childhood friends committed their hearts and trust to them. These courageous supporters can see the bigger self in the leader and challenge the leader to play at the higher level.  To not let temporary lust for power, control, physical satisfaction, and self-love destroy their lives and those of so many others they touch. These counter ego figures understand the sacredness of this bond and will not allow their own personal self-interest interfere with the objectivity and care that is required.

In one recent case, a childhood friend of a powerful CEO convinced him to accompany him for a reunion visit with their childhood friends. During the visit, they often talked about what it was that brought them together and the joy and positivity that their friendships and the values of their hometown and families. Hard work, fairness, community, care, resilience, and achievement in the service of others. Upon his return, I noticed a shift in his pace, thoughts, and behaviors. He seemed more reflective. His thrust for business and personal financial success now seemed more tempered with the kind of legacy he wished to leave behind for his organization and family. He made more attempts to connect personally with others at work. Upon further probing, it became obvious that being in the company of his childhood friends and bearing witness to the places and people that reminded him of his core values. This created shifts and insights in him which made him more ready and available to work diligently on his leadership development at work and at home. He is now regularly seeking and acting on feedback he receives from his organization. He has started a “mentor up” process that has colleagues further down the organization mentor him and his leadership team on their leadership effectiveness.

Questions for Online Conversation

  • Who do you have in your life that can play the role of your counter ego?
  • How do you treat them? Do you listen and take account or are you dismissive?
  • With whom can you play the role of their trusted counter ego?

The Unifier Leader

In their seminal work on conducting anti-bullying workshops in high schools across the country, the Challenge Day (www.challengeday.org) founders Rich and Yvonne Dutra-St John introduce a remarkable activity.  The participants are made up of all of the normal cliques one would expect in high schools.  The popular, the wealthy, the athletic, the academic, the artsy, the immigrants, etc. Typically when the workshop starts they feel more comfortable being with their own groups and are uncomfortable mixing with others.  There are clear social strata and pecking orders.  In addition, the nonverbal cues are typically not welcoming of others and even hostile. For example, the academics (bookies) are usually prone to be bullied or made fun of as are the less physically gifted or those with less wealth or social capital.

The exercise is called crossing the line.  The facilitator instructs the student to cross a physical a line that is drawn in the room if they hear a condition that applies to them.  The facilitator asks the students to cross the line if he or she has ever been made to feel inferior through reference to

  • The color of their skin
  • The shape of their bodies or appearance
  • Their accent or place of origin
  • Physical handicaps or disabilities
  • Their religion or beliefs

And so on.  One by one the students start to cross the line and when the camera pans back to the side of the room where the students had originally started the exercise there is no longer anyone standing there.

Through this exercise, the students begin to understand their common bond as human beings rather than the differences and the bullying which are symptoms of separation, isolation, and loneliness.

These workshops usually end with students hugging one another, crying, apologizing for their past behaviors and contracting new behaviors.  Often they begin to contribute voluntarily to their school, community, or one another.   They experience what it is to lead from where they are and how necessary it is to come clean, control their egos/surrender, and connect to others at the most basic human levels.  They experience Insights and breakthroughs in the areas of integrity, courage, honesty, humility, service, connectivity, care, and deep listening and role modeling just to name a few.  Lessons that leaders need to exhibit at any level.

Symptoms of isolation, separation, and loneliness are also present with some of the leaders I work with.  As they rise in status and wealth they seem to lose their connection to the people and places that helped them get there.  They start to surround themselves with people of similar rank who are equally disconnected from their root system.  With no one around to hold up a mirror or push back on their isolated and often inaccurate views of the culture and climate of the organization, they impulsively begin to push the levers of power that are at their disposal.  An us versus them mentality begins to form between the group that surrounds them and the rest of the organization.   For some, employee surveys or culture surveys are seen as checking the box activities that no shareholder really cares about.  Travel on commercial flights is seen as for those other people.  Calling them out in public for their self-absorbed and impulsive behavior will not be forgotten and in many cases punished.  On the other hand, flattery and fanning the ego will result in more favorable treatment.  Like the outcasts in the challenge day workshops, those who don’t fit the definition of the culture imposed by these executives are labeled as outcasts with limited upside potential.  Rather than seeing diversity as a strength, these leaders tend to pay lip service to the concept while their actions are clearly divisive.

Leaders such as Hamdi Ulukaya of Chobani Yogurt understand that connectivity to others is a basic human need and that we were all wired in that way when we were born. As children, we connected with humanity easily with trust and a sense of curiosity and playfulness. Through play, school, and other activities we got to know the real person, not their stereotypes.   As adults, we are conditioned to make quick judgments and typecast and limit the range of our experiences and learning.  The leader that does not get to know his or her followers and listen is limiting the potential of the organization for creativity, innovation, growth, and service.  Hamidi Ulukaya never forgot his humble background in Turkey.  He may not have grown up with privilege but he was raised in a collectivist society where relationships and understanding of others is a norm. His modest background allows him to connect to his employees easily and authentically.   He took a bankrupt factory in New York and with a mix of a local and ethnically diverse workforce, he has created a global powerhouse.  He is a champion in the resettlement of refugees who lost their homeland.  In their ranks, he has found highly loyal, intelligent, and productive employees.  Chobani is a major contributor to the communities and societies in which it conducts business and beyond.

If you are isolated from the organizations that you lead, you have simply drifted away from your core.  The one that was in abundance when you were a child.  It starts with surrendering and pacifying the ego, noticing it, and having a conversation with it.  Ask yourself what you want your legacy to be.  As a leader, you are there to serve others and the organization to achieve high performance.

 

Questions for Online Conversation

  1. How connected are you to the people you are leading?
  2. When others talk about your leadership style do they lean towards “unifier” or “divider”?
  3. If more of a divider, how is that working for you?

It’s Not About You

Self-centered leaders find it difficult to get outside of themselves and see serving others as the primary mission.  They are fulfilled by outward signs of success such as admiration, attention, power, money, and fame. On the other hand, servant leaders like Richard Branson (Virgin Group), Elon Musk (Tesla and SpaceX), Ray Anderson (Interface Carpet), and Hamdi Ulukaya (Chobani Yogurt) clearly understand their purpose as vessels put on earth at this time to make a significant impact in the lives of their followers, organizations, and communities.  They are motivated by honoring their values and fulfilling their destinies.

Self-centered leaders seem to carry an emptiness in their soul that requires external validation and recognition.  To use an Asian metaphor – the “door knob” to their soul is activated from the outside.  Consequently, they resemble a weather vane that spins with the direction of the wind and is at the will of external forces.  When they get good news, they get high.  They are flooded with an adrenaline-like rush and often commence a victory lap with adoring fans lining the course.  On the other hand, when the universe throws challenges and obstacles in their way, they exhibit symptoms like temper, angst, blame, revenge, passive aggression, and at times, depression.  Since their inspiration and motivation is fed externally, they have less control over their lives.  Leaders like Bernie Madoff, Ferdinand Piëch (Volkswagen), John Stumpf (Wells Fargo) and Ken Lay (Enron) attempt to feed their souls with rewards that are temporal, cyclical, unpredictable, and hallucinatory.  Money, fame, beauty, external recognition, power mongering, and self-seeking competition feed the ego and therefore require external nourishment. These leaders are often not in control of the uninvited guests that turn the external door knob to affect their lives, their happiness, and their fulfillment.  Others find it difficult to reach and connect with them.  They seem to be in their own bubble and often connect with humanity at a superficial level.

Servant leaders have a clear sense of values that guide their thoughts, feelings, and actions.  They choose the environments and people to let in.  Their door knob is from the inside, and they have the lock.  Emails, meetings, conversations, and external events are processed through their moral compass.  They don’t gyrate up and down as much.  They carry themselves authentically and consistently, irrespective of the rank and standing of their audience.  They have the ability to connect at a human level with all of their constituencies and accept their mission on earth with humility, curiosity, and authenticity.  Servant leaders often rely as much on their intuition as they do on their intellect.  No logic or contemporary business thinking would have allowed a self-centered leader to invest in electric powered cars, or a privately-owned company with a mission to invest in outer space travel. Elon Musk committed himself to these visions.  However, Musk is driven by his inner compass and not contemporary thinking.  Similarly, an immigrant Turk whose father was a shepherd and yogurt maker relied on his values to put everything he had into buying a bankrupt factory from Kraft foods, and turn it into the flagship for a global enterprise that today dominates the U.S. yogurt market. Hamdi Ulukaya has not only transformed the yogurt market and taste in the U.S., but he is also fulfilling his value of helping disenfranchised Americans and immigrant dreamers seeking better lives for their families.  He has provided hardworking, honest, and honorable people with employment, hope, and achievement, so they can hold up their heads in front of their families and role model good citizenship to their children.  These leaders often make a significant impact not only in their own organizations but also in the broader societies in which they live.  They understand their calling and the privileged position they have been placed in for a defined period of time to achieve their destiny.

I have witnessed self-centered leaders gain insights into the futility of honoring their ego instead of their values and calling.  Some have leveraged these experiences to evolve into servant leaders who are today making an impact on the lives of others and making the world a better place.  These leaders opted to work hard and to realize their unique genius and calling. With support from others, these leaders had the persistence to ultimately forge through setbacks, and become a true light for others beyond themselves.

 

Questions for Online Conversation

  1. How do you see your leadership style? Where are you in the self-centered to servant range?
  2. How has that worked for you?
  3. What would you change? What would you keep?

 

 

 

Are You Purposeful?

If you consider yourself a Leader, you have a purpose.  You may not know what it is yet but you have a purpose.  It is impossible to lead others and not have a purpose. If you don’t quite know what it is, why not spend the time to define that purpose and position yourself for happiness?  What should you be doing? And why? Who will you lead and where to?  How are you going to do it?  Are you aligning resources behind this purpose?

These maybe viewed as obvious questions but surprisingly not all Leaders take the time to adequately reflect on them.  Many are reacting to the day-to-day pressures of their jobs, and are habitually going from one task to another.  By zig-zagging across their domain, they not only fail to achieve their own destinies they are forcing their followers to not achieve and grow.

Imagine you are a young staffer for one of the members of Congress.  The Congressman that you admired, were hoping to learn from and help make a meaningful difference in the lives of his constituencies turns out to not have any real purpose.  His strategy is to oppose the stance of the rival party at any cost.  Even when the other side proposes legislation that is common sense and designed to improve the welfare of society, your Congressman opposes it and holds hands with the members of his party to block it.  His purpose seems to be to stay in power and to prevent the rival party from getting any credit.  Your job turns out to be preparing briefs and sound bites that argue against the position of the other party supported by carefully selected and biased information.  Rather than learning and growing, you feel like an imposter with a broken vision and your actions feel dishonest and destructive. You not only feel like you are not following your passion but sadly, you have become an accomplice to a cause that you don’t believe in.  You also notice that the Leader you so admired is not fulfilled and in-flow.  Rather, he seems distracted, stressed, and aimless.  I once had the opportunity to get to know a Congressional staffer and the above is a summary of our actual conversation.

Let’s consider a purposeful Leader.  I am currently working with a Leader devoted to wiping out a horrible disease affecting millions of people.  He has communicated his purpose to everyone.  He aligns his time, energy, and resources deliberately to support this purpose.  He knows that he is racing against time and that every day this disease kills a great number of people around the world. He works hard, but to him, it never feels like work.  Mondays don’t feel gloomy and Fridays are not celebrated as the getaway days from what he has to do.  He loves his work because it is purposeful and in alignment with his values, passion, and skills.  His enthusiasm when he talks about his work is contagious and his team believes in him.  They told me he is the most authentic Leader they have worked for and they share a powerful vision that pulls them together.  They don’t feel any obstacle is too big for them and they are willing to invest maximum effort to achieve their goals.  Moreover, because they have a common purpose, their leader invests in their development and growth because he appreciates their help and support. He knows that this is not a disease that any one person can wipe out – it takes his village to do it.

I have presented two opposite scenarios above.  Where do you see yourself in this continuum?  If you think that there are opportunities to be more purposeful, know that as a Leader, you must attend to it.  It is akin to a pilot who has gained the technical knowledge to fly the plane but has a hard time deciding on where he will navigate the plane.  Would you book your next trip on his plane?  It is a basic requirement for a Leader to understand her purpose and take active steps to align himself to that purpose.  Once that is done the universe will support you in ways that you cannot imagine.  I have witnessed it not only in building my own company from scratch but numerous times in others. It is a journey that requires patience and perseverance, but a life unexamined and unfulfilled is a terrible waste.

Questions for Online Conversation

  1. How did this posting make you feel? Why?
  2. Can you explain your work purpose to your family?
  3. What questions will they ask you?

The Power of the Indirect Way

Most of us try to understand ourselves directly.  We solicit feedback regarding the issues and areas that we are aware of.  We rely on our memory of events and try to leverage them for future success.  We read lots of self-help books and get attracted to experts in areas of interest.  These are all useful and productive activities.  They raise awareness, place us in a storyline, and we learn from past narratives.  It also reinforces the importance of taking the time to reflect on ourselves and not rely on our reflexive/Pavlovian or our more procedural/habit-driven brain.  Rather exercise the more evolved motivational/evaluative brains.  The part of our brain that slows down to evaluate choices and takes actions based on current information. For those with interest in this topic, these distinctions are ably described in A. David Redish’s great book “The Mind within the Brain”

However, by definition, the direct way has its shortcomings.  For one thing, our memories are selective and serve our current preferences and future longings.  Human beings are expert at editorializing and crafting artistic interpretations of the past.  To test this, think about the last time you were at a college or high school reunion and reflect on how you described your past life.  If you had a fact-checking gremlin on your shoulder listening what would the gremlin say?  Often the motivation is not to deceive but rather to construct a view of the desired future through selective interpretation of the past and it occurs at a subconscious level.  Politicians routinely use this technique to move public opinion in favor of their agenda.

The feedback we receive can also be incomplete.  After all, it is in the eyes of the beholder and it depends on the way their brain is constructed to process data and add meaning to it.  In addition, they may edit their comments in the interest of harmony and maintaining a warm or working relationship with you.  Finally, the very areas that you select to reflect on are also conditioned through your life exposure and self-awareness.  Our brains cannot process all of the information and stimuli that surround us. It is too overwhelming and so it edits.

So what are we to do?  How can we evolve and realize the destinies that await each of us?  One of the most effective ways is the indirect way.  Are there places in the world and people that inhabit them that seem right to you?  I find that when I am visiting and spending time in cultures that believe deeply in Karma and the full cycle of life which includes both good and evil, I feel whole and at peace.  Cultures such as the Hindu and Buddhist believe that the Karma you put out to the world will come back full circle to affect your life and/or your family. They also believe in the duality of good and evil (and potentially happy and sad) as the natural way and not an anomaly to be controlled through “happy pills”.  I feel less in flow with people and cultures that believe in command and control and the supremacy of human intellect over the natural world and other animals.  I am more naturally attracted to belief systems that are founded in how one lives life in harmony with nature and less with those that are based on institutions and doctrines that rely on control, ideology, and hierarchical power figures.   So I have been reflecting what attracts me to this mindset.  What does it mean for who I am and my evolution as a human?

Why do you feel comfortable and in flow with some of your decisions but regret other decisions?  What does that say or imply and is that aligned with how you are spending your time and energy and what kind of leader you are striving to be? Which of your faculties do you rely on when you make decisions? How is your internal voice informing you of the legacy you want to leave behind?  How are you aligning your resources and energy behind it?

These and many like it are what I suggest you discuss with your coach, therapist, or anyone in your life that you reflect with.  Your greatest insights regarding your life, evolution, and destiny will occur when you make space for intelligence that comes from this more indirect source.

In the Movie Baby, Baby, Baby, Sydney (played by Brian Klugman), seems to be caught in an endless and painful cycle of entering relationships and repeating the same behaviors which ultimately results in heartbreak.  He finally decides to abandon fighting for control and satisfying his “should state”. He begins to understand that the should state has blinded him to his destiny.  For example, his assumption that his ex-girlfriend must hurt less for breaking up with him turns out to be false. In fact, he finds out it was a crushing experience for her.  He decides to reflect more on what his inner self is signaling indirectly and rather than obsessing endlessly over individual occurrences, to see life and the actors in it all playing a role in his evolution.  In the end of the movie, we are presented with a glimpse of the destiny that has been awaiting him and a hint of him being ready to climb aboard.

A. David Redish. The Mind Within the Brain: How We Make Decisions and How Those Decisions Go Wrong. Oxford University Press, 2013.

Questions for Online conversation

  1. When was the last time you tried the indirect approach to understanding you and your leadership signature?
  2. If you have ever tried this approach how would you describe it to others?
  3. What have been the outcomes of listening to the indirect voice?