The Unifier Leader

In their seminal work on conducting anti-bullying workshops in high schools across the country, the Challenge Day ( 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?

About Kaveh Naficy
Kaveh is the leader of Heidrick and Struggles executive coaching practice in North America. Kaveh focuses on working with leaders placed to make transformational and creative changes in their organizations. Kaveh has a proven record of success in harnessing the strengths of these leaders to achieve accelerated business solutions. He is able to create significant insights through reflective thinking, presence, and disciplined follow-through. Executives who have worked with Kaveh say that his strengths are his deep insights into the realities of the current and future business world, accelerated scanning of the environment and competition; creative out of the box thinking, and leveraging the collective intelligence of their teams and creating the organizational culture to support and foster the appropriate organizational design and strategies. They also point their deep trust and personal connectivity with Kaveh, his coaching approach, and style.

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