by graham ward

When collective emotions gather steam, knee jerk reactions can make a bad situation worse.In the comedy western Blazing Saddles, one seminal moment has the sheriff point a gun to his own head, threatening to blow his own brains out if everyone doesn’t do as he says.

There have been echoes of this persuasive technique recently in the U.K., whose populace voted to exit the EU. A cabal of leaders fell on their own swords like dominoes in the days after the referendum, the biggest casualty being the Prime Minister, David Cameron. Was such a bloodbath necessary? I would argue that in critical times, the case for reflective rather than reactive leadership, in society and organisations has never been stronger.

Much has been written recently about the notion of empathy. According to psychologist Daniel Goleman, there are three types: cognitive, emotional and compassionate. Most leaders can easily articulate what empathy is. Defining empathy, however, is not the same as deploying it. In fact I’ve found that many executives I have worked with do not even have the basic emotional vocabulary necessary to understand the broad landscape of emotions that exists in organisations and society.

Keeping in touch with changing emotions

Humans are, at an anthropological level, reflexively programmed to recognise threats and act on them. Fight, flight, freeze! Daily, we see instances: the angry soccer player fronts up and butts heads with an antagonist. The small child runs from the playground bully. The brain reacts, the person acts. In these cases the Delphic maxim “know thyself” is redundant, “save thyself” being the wiser option. In organisations, however, strong emotional reactions take longer to emerge and build gradually below the surface. As in Newtonian physics, emotional reaction is subject to the same laws: an initial impulse or changing circumstance is required, a causal link: change causes reaction, which causes emotion.

The challenge is that leaders enacting change (their primary task) are not only slow to recognise what is going on, they are also generally ignorant of how to deal with it. Why? For one, there is a constant pressure to act. We have become “human doings”, not human beings. Reflection is undervalued and frequently impossible in a world where leaders are incessantly battered with new information. As a consequence, the rage, anxiety or sadness often residing in the substrate of organisations, like volcanic magma, is both invisible and untapped. And like volcanoes, it has the potential to explode out destructively. In stressful environments, the pressure to act can lead easily to intellectual arrogance and dominance in decision making, rather than taking the slower (and often more painful) process of deductive dialogue. It requires effort and focus and can signal the death of what Ludo van Der Heyden defines as fair process.

The power of collective emotion

Leaders protest that diagnosing organisational systems is complicated and there is insufficient time. Symptoms of dysfunction however, are often hidden in plain sight. In 2015, Marissa Mayer, struggling at Yahoo! described a rash of departures from her senior bench as “part of the design”. It is plausible to believe that this was simply an expedient public rationalisation of the deep problems that Yahoo! was facing. However, the welter of departing talent should have signified that something was rotten. It was reported at the time in Business Insider that “the world is crashing in on her…she has stopped listening to what people have to say”. A few weeks ago, less than a year later, the company was sold to Verizon. One wonders if Ms Mayer, beset by pressures, ever stood still to consider what was happening.

Worse still is failing to reflect on the emotional landscape of your customers. Seaworld Inc. is a salutary example. If you are unaware that people are concerned with our ecology, then you have been living under a rock. Yet the company took three years to announce the cessation of the breeding programme for orcas, after the damning 2013 documentary Blackfish revealed how these magnificent animals suffer in captivity. In spite of the outcry, it failed to act. It has now missed forecasts in seven of its eleven quarters as a public company. It remains to be seen whether the company can reinvent itself.

Reflective action

Jack Welch said many years ago: “The problem is that leaders fail to ask often enough the question: What is wrong around here?” Upon reflection the answer to that question is more likely to be felt in the leaders’ gut than seen in the company accounts. The feeling is likely to show up way in advance of the earnings miss.

To pre-empt disaster, I would like to suggest that actions should be “reflective” not reflexive.

First, leaders need to make an imaginative leap into the emotional world of their followers, to identify the prevalent feelings. In town halls and in small groups they need to call those feelings out. If they are wrong they will stand corrected, both vulnerable yet courageous.

Secondly, and importantly, leaders need to learn the habit of listening both actively and critically, recognising and acknowledging their own defensive formations as they do so. To that end, they need sparring partners with whom they can parse information, offload their own feelings and problem solve. This can take the form of a coach, chairperson, mentor or trusted advisor. Ironically, the higher the position, the more likely this will be both necessary and useful.

Finally, leaders need to take into account the other constituencies that connect them to the outside world: customers, shareholders and broader society. Reflectively seeking to understand will mitigate misjudged statements such as that of BP CEO, Tony Hayward, who notoriously said after the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe “I want my life back,” in spite of the oil spill having destroyed the livelihoods of thousands along the Louisiana coast. He got his life back: it cost him his job.

The danger of failing to listen

Political leaders who fail to do the hard work of comprehension allow demagoguery in through the backdoor, permitting crafty opportunists to tap in to popular anger, polarising opinion and creating exclusive “others” who are the enemy. Even worse, they can end up on the end of a “Brexit style” backlash, when the silent majority is finally given a voice.

Similarly, organisational leaders who misread smoke signals in their organisations will be subject to sabotage of their plans, passive resistance, whispered treachery and ultimately oblivion. In a globalising world, individual scrutiny is increasing, societal disparities are growing, and the actions of organisations become daily more visible in social media.

Leaders, therefore, should keep close to society, their teams and themselves through “reflective” action, if they are to avoid stigmatisation and remain at the vanguard of value creation.

Graham’s article was first posted at

by renita kalhorn


Remember the story of the Chinese farmer? When his horse ran away, the neighbors came around to commensurate, “So sorry to hear your horse  ran away.” And the farmer said, “Maybe, too soon to tell.”

The next day the horse came back, bringing seven wild horses with it, and the neighbors came around to say, “Oh, isn’t that lucky. What a great turn of events.” And the farmer said, “Maybe, too soon to tell.” The next day, his son was riding one of the horses and was thrown and broke his leg. Once again, the neighbors commiserated saying, “Oh, dear that’s too bad.” And once again, the farmer said, “Maybe, too soon to tell.”

The following day, when the conscription officers came around to recruit men into the army, they rejected his son because he had a broken leg. Of course, the neighbors had to chime in, “Isn’t that wonderful.” And the farmer (who, for some reason, kept answering the door when they came by) said, “Maybe, too soon to tell.”

Our modern lives work the same way — although we’re quick to judge whether an event is good or bad, fortune or misfortune, we never really know.

As a child, Spanx founder Sara Blakely dreamed of being a lawyer. She gave that up when she failed the LSAT twice, and instead went on to found a billion-dollar company. “Every terrible thing that happens to you always has a hidden gift and is leading you to something greater. I actually started writing them in my notebook. I’ve been keeping a notebook since the start of Spanx, and I always have it with me. So I probably have about 20 notebooks on my shelf. I log and keep track of all the terrible things that happened to me, because it’s almost become a game for me now. I like to see the gift and when it unfolds. It doesn’t always come right away.

“It’s almost become a game for me now:” If you want to be more resilient, this is the mindset to develop. I know, physical reality can be hard to ignore but — like the boy who was convinced there must be a pony hidden somewhere under all the manure — you can train yourself to look beyond unpromising circumstances and adopt an attitude of expectation: “I wonder what unexpected opportunity or learning is going to come out of this?”

Start by looking back at the events of your life that were a disappointment at the time. In my case, an opportunity to buy a two-bedroom Manhattan coop fell serendipitously into my lap. Within weeks, I had reached an agreement with the seller for an apartment on the 8th floor; however, the notoriously slow coop board took over 12 months to approve my application and by then, the seller had gotten a promotion at work and decided to stay in the apartment. I was crushed, I thought I wouldn’t be able to find another apartment as perfect as that one.

But, instead of concluding it wasn’t meant to be, I asked around and found someone on the 11th floor in the same building looking to sell. Because the board had rejected her two previous buyers, she was eager to close and I ended up paying the same price for an apartment that was superior in every way — better layout, nicer view, sunnier and quieter.

It’s become a powerful reference for me. Now, when I have any kind of unwanted outcome, I remind myself: “Chinese farmer. This is just the 8th floor apartment and something better is in store.”

Clients, strategic deals, funding, relationships…what’s your “8th floor apartment” story?

…and the things you look at change. ~Wayne W. Dyer

time to slow down


If you have been a loyal North of Neutral reader over these past years you already know that we are committed to slowing down over the summer months. Recharging our batteries lets us be back with loads of energy for our clients, come fall. Slowing down can mean many things; it might mean working mostly with local clients and limited travel, but it will also mean kicking back and sharing laughter and guacamole with family and friends. And of course, reading some good books!

Here is one that is on our summer reading list:


Check it out if you are interested. We look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Happy summer!



by renita kalhorn

Last month, I was in Tokyo, Japan to speak at Pioneers Asia, a tech event for entrepreneurs and investors. Even before I left on the 14-hour flight, my brain was in overdrive: deciding what part of town to AirBnB in, figuring out the best way to get from the airport into the city, and deciphering the fare system for the myriad train and subway lines.

Not to mention preparing for my talk (yep, how to get a mental six-pack), strategizing how to connect with the other participants and finding a gym. Most of the time, I daresay, we’re pretty lax about directing our thinking. But when we’ve got a lot on our plate or the pressure’s on, we don’t have the luxury of wasting mental energy – we need to optimize how we use every ounce of brainpower. Here are three distinctions to keep in mind:

Use your brain for processing, not storing. Dr. Sian Beilock, a psychologist and expert in performing under pressure, explains that working memory is like “a mental scratch pad. It allows you to hold information in mind and work with that information whether you’re trying to figure out the solution to a problem or taking a test or even trying to present what you’re going to say next, and we have a limited amount of it. We can only do and attend to so many things at once.”

So instead of using your brain to remember information – stuff to do, ideas to flesh out, problems to solve — capture it in writing (tapping it out digitally works but writing it down on paper is better). Bullet point the three things you want to say in that client conversation, map out a structure for the partnership. The more you’ve got going on, the more you should be writing down. You’ll free up your brain to synthesize and make connections, not be distracted with worry that things are falling through the cracks.

Use your brain for functional, not emotional, thinking. If you notice that you’re out of milk (and you make a note of it, right?) or you’re calculating the salary for the new CTO hire, that’s functional thinking. If, however, you think “What’s wrong with me, I was just at the store, why didn’t I get it then?” or “This isn’t fair, why is this guy getting paid more than I am?” those opinions and judgments have an emotional charge that can create a redundant and unproductive thought loop.

The first step is to simply start making the distinction between the two. Then, be vigilant: When you catch yourself in a redundant thought loop — like I did in Tokyo, when I found myself ruminating over a missed opportunity to connect with a fellow speaker that I admired — train yourself to interrupt the pattern. Grab a pen and pinpoint what’s really bothering you. Ask yourself: Am I investing mental energy or spending it? Is this going to lead to action?

Use your brain for digesting, not (just) ingesting. The amount of information we’re being inundated with at this point is ridiculous: thousands of emails, nonstop updates in our social media feeds, advertising everywhere. We need to turn off the avalanche and take time to synthesize. This means, says Shane Parrish at Farnam Street, “sifting through information, filtering the bunk and connecting it to a framework that you can use” so we’re not just walking around broadcasting other people’s opinions. Or, it can simply mean taking a moment to sit and let our mind wander.

Something to think about…

by renita kalhorn


“I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.” ~ Albert Einstein.

My dad likes to tell this story from my childhood: I was five or six, we were eating dinner and my mom chastised me for chewing with my mouth open, saying “That’s how pigs eat.” My immediate response: “Do cows do it too?” Apparently, I’ve always been curious about behavior, bovine and otherwise.

Over the years, living in Japan and Europe and working in diverse company cultures, I’ve developed an endless fascination with understanding why humans behave the way they do and it’s a powerful tool in helping my clients when they get mired in a fixed perspective.

One client is a rock star in business development, bringing in high-profile, $20M+ deals for the firm. She was already managing two major projects and when she took on a third, a senior colleague made it clear that he thought she was biting off more than she could chew. “There’s no way you can take on a third project,” he said, “it’s too much, it’s too much.” She took his reaction personally, and assumed he was trying to thwart her success. Me, I had an alternative take: he was threatened by her abilities and rapid promotion in the company, in a panic wondering how he could keep up.

Anyone can be curious when something novel or unexpected happens: you know, if someone walks into the office dressed like a centaur. Genuine curiosity, however, means being able to bring an open, receptive mindset to even the most familiar of situations — buying coffee at Starbucks every morning, seeing the same characters in the weekly team meeting — and engage in finding subtle differences from the previous 100 times.

Curiosity is powerful, like a turbocharger for our mental muscles. It helps us build confidence, perform better under pressure, influence others and be happier. Here are three magic phrases to remind you to take a curious stance:

“Isn’t that interesting?” Not the first thing we might think to ask, but in that moment when we flub up the data in an investor pitch or go blank fielding a question from the CEO, asking ourselves: Isn’t it interesting that I’m screwing this up?” or “Isn’t it interesting that I’m having this reaction?” is an advanced curiosity move. It allows us, says psychologist Pamela Enders, “to create a little distance, a little objectivity so that we’re feeling a little above or outside of it.” Zooming out downplays the fight-or flight reaction of our amygdala or the emotional part of the brain and allows us to access and connect with the thinking part of the brain.

“I wonder if…” Most people don’t respond well to being told pointblank what to do differently, says Alana Winter, founder of MI6 Academy, who’s facilitated personal development and leadership training for hundreds of entrepreneur CEOs around the world. And you don’t really know with absolute certainty what will work for someone else anyway. So coming from a place of curious ’not-knowing,’ and asking “I wonder if you tried…” or “Have you thought about doing [this]…” (instead of a presumptive “you should…”) can be a subtle but powerful way to get someone to be receptive to a different behavior.

“What are three things that are intriguing?” No matter how exciting our long-term goals, the daily routine can be kind of tedious or mundane. Todd Kashdan PhD, author of Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to A Fulfilling Life, suggests instead of trying to stay positive, we stay intrigued. “Look for three things about this moment that are happening. It could be the thought process you’re having, it could be an unusual mole that somebody has. It could be the idea of how fast and fluid I am, I rarely write on a piece of paper, I’m so used to the computer, and my handwriting is so fast and so horrible, like a penmanship paper from kindergarten. Those kinds of little strategies keep you focused and attentive to what’s happening. It might not be positive but you’re intrigued and that’s going to keep you going during mundane tasks.”

The side effect, however, might be greater happiness. In a 2007 study, Kashdan and Colorado State psychologist Michael Steger found that when participants monitored their daily activities and emotions over 21 days, those who frequently felt curious on a given day also experienced the most satisfaction with their life—and engaged in the highest number of happiness-inducing activities, such as expressing gratitude to a colleague or volunteering to help others.

Another bonus of curiosity: it helps us be compassionate. Once my client realized that her colleague’s behavior was likely more about his insecurity than it was about her, she could feel less animosity towards him and come up with multiple options for managing their relationship.