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?

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?




Let It Go – You Are Only Human


The human mind is a socially constructed faculty that is prone to fallacies and gaps in judgment.  This has been proven repeatedly in arenas such as behavioral economics, social and behavioral psychology.  However, these concepts, so elegantly outlined in Michael Lewis latest gem The Undoing Project, are often not embedded in organizational leadership development programs.  Many of these programs assume a fully rational mind with the ability to process information and make optimal decisions so long as the information is correct and the leader making the decisions has taken the time to discover their own fallacies and worked out a developmental plan.  However what many of these theories and experts often ignore is that the human mind under stress cannot self-diagnose mental gaps and narratives that are built into its very foundation.  What is necessary is for others who can take on an observer and consultative role to challenge the assumptions of the leader and point out fallacies and gaps in their thinking.

After a series of fatal mishaps related to pilot error, Delta and United Airlines both changed the culture of the cockpit from a command and control center where the more senior lead pilot would call all of the shots to one where the rest of the crew would have every right to challenge and point out mistakes and gaps in their colleague’s thinking.

The same model has now been adopted in numerous hospitals where experienced nurses are encouraged to speak up when they notice a surgeon about to make a poor decision in the surgery room or a doctor prescribing the wrong medicine or dosage.

In many of the organizations where I work, and across the leadership literature, there is scant attention to the neurological limitations of the mind related to decision making.  On the contrary, they focus on providing better information to the leader, identifying their areas of development and developing a plan to systematically address these areas by having the leader take accountability and simply change their mindset and behaviors.  There is no doubt that these are all credible and useful activities which do address some of the challenges that organizations are facing to optimize leader decision making.  However, the human brain cannot be entrusted to make the correct judgment in all instances and left on its own will make errors.

Many organizations have policies and procedures that assume those at the higher end of the food chain make the best decisions; they are rewarded as such and therefore should not be challenged.  It is the rare culture such as Google that actively incentivizes its rank and file to challenge leaders at all levels to ensure the best possible decisions.

Imagine an equivalent scenario to the airline’s cockpit where at board or management meetings there are colleagues assigned specifically to play the role of the challenger and to look for decisions that are based on socially and emotionally constructed narratives the leader carries.  For example the leader thinking and saying, “everybody is using their sales force to say a few things that have not been completely validated and if we don’t do it we will be left behind…” or “if we spend a lot of time and money fixing the safety and manufacturing issues in the plant we are not going to hit the numbers.” These conversations are happening and they are often not challenged if posited by a senior leader, especially one with an abundance of ego and combativeness.  And of course, the consequences can be disastrous as evidenced by the Volkswagen air pollution emission fiasco.

An important area of leadership development is to enable “challengers” with the skills and cognitive and emotional quotients to perform their work effectively.  The change in the aircraft cockpit culture did not occur by accident.  It took work to change the mindset of the lead pilots to listen and not let their ego overrule observations that mitigate the natural errors their mind makes.  Equally, it took systematic work to equip the co-pilots and navigators to challenge in ways that are effective and timely.  To be able to elevate from the situation to observe it less emotionally, more objectively, and with less stress and anxiety.  The challengers can bring their own biases into the situation and therefore need to be trained to recognize these narratives and interpretation to assume an unbiased role.

Lewis M. The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. New York, 2017.

Questions for Online Conversation

  1. When was the last time you were publically challenged? How did you react to it?
  2. What did you learn from that experience?
  3. How would you advise your children or family in this regard? Would you encourage them to be challenge seekers? Why or why not?

Year-end Reflections

As it is my custom, I thought we should take the time to reflect on our leadership style and effectiveness in 2016 and make commitments in 2017.  To facilitate the process, I list what I believe are 7 fundamental principles of great leadership. (There are several more but the human mind is easily overwhelmed and I believe these to be foundational).

  1. Who do you serve? When you examine your thoughts, decisions, and actions over the past year, to what extent do you believe they were fueled to enhance the welfare of those that entrusted their careers, hopes, and aspirations to you? To what extent were you driven by measuring your performance against organizational outcomes? What percentage of your thoughts are focused on creating greater wealth for you/your family, gaining more power/fame, managing the perceptions of senior management or boards or Wall Street versus thoughts focused on your followers, employees, and customers?  If you are not focused at least 3 to 5 times more on the latter you are not fulfilling your leadership destiny.
  1. How connected are you to your followers? How many of your followers do you really know? Can you anticipate the conversation at their family dinner tables? Can you feel their hopes, anxieties, fears, and excitement? What do they really need from you? How comfortable are they in talking to you and sharing their thoughts?  If you sense that there is a distance between you and your followers, resolve to break the barriers.  Let go of the ego and the false sense of professionalism that tries to distance the leader from his/her followers, and the mistaken assumption that the emotional and human side of leadership is somehow “soft” and not business-like.  Over and over again it has been shown that organizations led by leaders who can connect and motivate their followers outperform others over the longer term.
  2. How present are you? Are you really curious the way you were when you were a child? Can you set aside preconceived, and therefore self-limiting, assumptions to really hear and feel the nuances of the moment? What is really being said and not said in the room? What new information is in play that may not have been present the last time? How are you feeling inside of your own body at this particular moment?  Are you centered? Are you calm? Are you engaged? In what part of your body are you feeling what you are feeling?  Great leaders have the ability to take a seat in the balcony.  They are at once in the arena and in an outer body manner observing the goings on from the balcony.  By being present and curious they can orchestrate their thoughts to focus on the here and now.  Each occurrence has its nuance.  The wise leader does not allow the past or the future to dilute the opportunities and gifts the present bears.
  1. How reflective are you? Are you in constant motion? Going from one meeting to another? Obsessively checking your smart device? Taking pride in the speed in which you move, make decisions, and multi-task?  Or do you take time before and after important decisions and actions to reflect on the process through which you got there? How well it worked or not work? What did you learn from the experience? What would you do next time?  Are you reflective and therefore use judgment in making decisions? Or are you reflexive and therefore, more often than not, in judgment.  The greatest leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, and Richard Branson made/make reflections a regular practice.  They believed/believe that an unexamined life is inconsistent with leading others.  That every experience is an opportunity for learning and growth.
  1. How balanced are you? Do you have a life outside of work? Before you answer this question please take the time to check in with those who experience you. Can you turn it off? How connected are you to your values and how do you practice them?  Are you hiding under work because you feel incompetent or incomplete in your personal life?  What do you really know or feel about your family? Do you know important facts and detail about their lives? Names of your children friends? How they are doing in school? What is really important to your spouse? How many of your old friends are you in touch with? When was the last time you called friends and family or wrote them a note?  How are you fulfilling and recharging yourself so that you can show up at work and lead others?  Akin to the oxygen mask analogy in airplanes that dictates you put the mask on you first, research on leadership shows that leaders that are fulfilled, recharged, and at peace with who they are more resonant and therefore can more effectively lead and motivate others.
  1. How do you interact with vulnerability? Do you run away from it or do you embrace it as an old friend that teaches you and helps you grow?  Are you of the mindset that leaders don’t show weakness, should know all, call the shots, and are in a winner take all contest?  Or have you finally come to the realization that the collective intelligence around you often results in better decisions than decisions you make on your own.  Furthermore, when you engage others, they are more energized to carry them out?  Are you comfortable saying I don’t know?  I will find out?  Or please share your knowledge with me?  Can you stand up in front of your team and share your fears and anxieties and ask for help?  Can you say I am worried about hitting our numbers this quarter and I really need your help?  Warren Buffet is the first to admit his shortcomings and acknowledge that without Bill Gates, their non-profit causes would not be as successful.
  1. How authentic are you? Would you believe, trust, and put your heart and soul into someone like you? What are the values beyond which you will not be pushed around at any price?  Why would your followers believe what you say?  Are your actions consistent with your words?  Do you treat people fairly based on their potential and contributions, or do you reward and glorify your friends and inner circle akin to what is going on in Washington D.C.?  Nelson Mandela asked the Afrikaans who jailed him for 27 years to help form his rainbow coalition and build South Africa.  How far are you from that vision?

Question for Online Conversations

  1. Which of the above guidelines struck a chord with you? Why?
  2. How did the gap develop?
  3. What will you do?

Leadership Lessons from The U.S. Elections

Let me start by saying that what is to follow is in no way intended to be a political statement.  The lessons referred to in the posting apply equally to the Republican and Democratic parties.

What the recent elections demonstrated is that great leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Pope Francis instinctually knew/know:  leaders have to stay connected to their followers.  They have to be able to walk a mile in their shoes, to feel their pain and suffering and to understand how to restore dignity and self-worth to their followers.  This is how leaders can motivate their followers.

The GOP leadership from the onset did not demonstrate the proper level of understanding for the deep anger and resentment that the populace felt towards the establishment politics of Washington D.C.  While a large segment of the population looked to a candidate that would restore higher paying jobs and reverse the trend of a shrinking middle class, the GOP leadership and the presumptive candidates focused on attacking President Obama; they took positions on policies such as free trade or immigration reform that fueled the anger and passion of their base pushing them further towards the populist messages of Donald Trump. To make matters worse they did not take Donald Trump, his message and the passion that it was evoking in the working class seriously until it was much too late.  Then, rather than connecting personally with this important segment of the population the candidates went after Donald Trump which simply bolstered his status as the “outsider” looking out for the “forgotten America”.  On the other side of the political divide the Democrats failed to read and connect with constituencies that had traditionally voted for them:  rust belt workers, disenfranchised by job loss or lower pay, felt humiliated and unable to hold their heads up with dignity as providers for their families.  Party strategists focused the campaign on “toss up” states and erroneously assumed that Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania (to name but a few) would vote along traditional Democratic lines.  In addition, the party did not fully learn from the lessons that the candidacy of Bernie Sanders had crystalized: that white working class and younger voters had overwhelmingly voted for the insurgent Sanders over the establishment Hillary Clinton.  In the end the lower than expected turnout of traditional Democratic leaning voters sealed the day.

In contrast, Nelson Mandela lived, breathed and personified the hopes, frustrations and resolve of segregated and persecuted black South Africans.  He had walked in their shoes and paid the price through 27 long years of prison.  When he was freed he never forgot his roots and lived amongst his constituents.  Remarkably, he also knew that greatness for South Africa travelled through the expertise and gifts of the white Afrikaners. He took it upon himself to study their ways, culture and emotional fiber.  In doing so, he convinced his rainbow coalition that he stood for all South Africans, a feat that would have been impossible absent his ability to connect with his followers.

Pope Francis declared that he stands for the oppressed and poor.  Many others have declared the same.  However Pope Francis has chosen to live amongst ordinary people, shunning the trappings of the Vatican. He lives simply; walking, touching and bowing before the poor.  His priority, when he visits other lands, is to champion the poor and the oppressed. When he visits political leaders of foreign countries his priority is to bring the power of his position to influence them to abandon corruption, brutality and violence in favor of caring for their constituents.

Which brings me to you, my audience.  Many of you hold leadership positions that touch the lives of your followers and their families.  So how connected are you? And before you answer with the text-book answer “Well, look…I am taking care of business, and by doing that, I am maximizing our shareholder value which means we can employ people who can take care of their families…”, let me point out again that is not how great leaders stay connected.  If you have doubts, watch a few episodes of the TV show “Undercover Boss”.  Many of the CEOs who go undercover on the show start out thinking that they are connected to their followers. They point out that they visit and shake hands with their employees.  They say they have really good benefit plans and that their compensation is competitive in their industries.  It is only when they actually show up incognito as an equal or subordinate colleague that they begin to understand the personal stories, challenges, and hardships of their followers.  This is where they learn about the heroism, dedication, hope, and courage of working people.  They are often truly humbled, and begin to understand their own limitations and to develop respect and admiration for those who serve them.  At the end of each episode, when they assume the role of CEO again and come face to face with their employees, they often become emotional and profess their profound gratitude for those who were so invisible to them. Of course by getting connected to their base these CEOs also experience those who are damaging their organization and can quickly remove the toxins.  Now, the cynics reading this will naturally say “This is a TV show and not reality”. To which I reply, these realities are occurring in each of your organizations as you are reading this blog. When was the last time you walked a mile in an employee’s shoes? How much do you know about their families? Their personal hopes and aspirations? When was the last time they told you anything sensitive or real?  What are they not telling you? Can you anticipate the conversation around their dinner tables?

There are many leaders who are connected with their followers.  But some are not, and here is what I have found:

  1. With ascent, many lose their roots and values. Whereas once they championed their team and were proud providers for their families they create environments populated by those who won’t tell them the truth, give them honest feedback or hold a mirror.  In his book “How Will You Measure Your Life?” Clayton Christensen describes the demise of Jeff Skilling, the CEO of Enron.  Christensen describes Skilling as a contemporary of his at the Harvard Business School, as an outstanding young man. A Rhodes Scholar, he was well liked by everyone, with strong values and a natural leader.  However, as Skilling climbed the corporate ladder, he lost his roots, his values and his connection to those he served.  So we learn that with loss of connectivity to family and friends who can provide anchors, leaders begin to confuse the organizations and cultures they work in as their new roots and values.  And of course, for profit organizations were never designed for this purpose.
  2. Some have never developed the ability for empathy and deeper connectivity with others. Rather than working hard to develop these neuro pathways they prefer to hide behind data and technical/business speak. One senior pharmaceutical oncologist told me he wished the people he managed were more like a scientific experiment with control groups, reliability and validity safeguards rather than, as he put it, “a bunch of unpredictable and volatile people who take me away from my work and passion…”.  Luckily he finally realized that connecting with those who followed him was his work and not a distraction.
  3. Some develop a self-centered view which preaches the mindset of competition and survival at any expense. These leaders carry a zero sum mentality where the spoils are scarce and the strongest and most competitive win the hand-to-hand combat.  There is no time in their world view to think of others, with the exception, perhaps, of immediate family.   They believe that spending time and energy on others slows them down and that it is the aggressive and competitive warrior who will conquer and walk off with the prize.

Resolve this week to examine how connected you are to those you are responsible to lead.

Questions for Online Conversation

  1. How connected are you to your followers?
  2. If there is room for improvement? What is in your way?
  3. How will you know if you make progress?