Kohlrieser, George

George KohlrieserGeorge Kohlrieser is an internationally recognized expert on leadership, award-winning bestselling author, consultant, media commentator, and motivational speaker. He is Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at IMD, the International Institute for Management Development, in Lausanne, Switzerland. In this role, he draws on 40 years of experience as a psychologist and veteran hostage negotiator. He is acclaimed for introducing the hostage metaphor to leadership development. As a consultant, he has worked with many global companies, including Accenture, Cisco, Coca-Cola, Hitachi, HP, IBM, Medtronic, Roche, Santander, Swarovski, Toyota and UBS. His work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, the Economist, and other leading newspapers and magazines, and he is author of the internationally bestselling book, Hostage At The Table: How Leaders Can Overcome Conflict, Influence Others, and Raise Performance. At IMD, he directs the High Performance Leadership (HPL) Program, an intense six day IMD program for experienced senior leaders, and the Advanced High Performance Leadership (AHPL) program. His recent book is Care to Dare.

Bio adapted from his website, www.georgekohlrieser.com.

Care to Dare book cover

To get started, you are the author of Hostage at the Table, and you have a new book coming out, Care to Dare. Before we get started talking about the book, I just want to talk a little bit about what you’ve been doing in the past. We know you’re a former hostage negotiator, which is why you wrote Hostage at the Table. But I was a little curious about what you do with IMD [International Institute for Management Development]? Can you talk a little bit about that?

GK: I am Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior, and I run the High Performance Leadership program [HPL], which is one of the all-time successful programs of IMD. We now run it eight times a year (including the advanced program), five here at Lausanne, once in Hong Kong, once in Brazil, and once in California at Santa Cruz. It’s 60 top leaders at a time with coaches, and it’s usually filled about one year in advance.

Your coauthors for Care to Dare, do they work with you at IMD?

GK: No. I used to work with them. I know them, so they were resources that were supportive, and we decided to put them on the book.

What does the title Care to Dare mean?

GK: It means that caring is very, very important for employees to feel. The question is, “How caring should a leader be?” When I ask you, what would you say how caring a leader should be?

I would say that the leader has to be caring, but in a way that doesn’t feel too soft. It feels as if they can still push you.

GK: That’s the whole point. What would Tom say, do you think, if he was asked how caring should a leader be?

We’re just putting together an e-book called You Matter to Me and it goes into how important it is for the leader to acknowledge his workers, to let them know they matter.

GK: Here’s the thing, Shelley. The leader has to be very, very caring, but with boundaries. This sounds soft, but it really isn’t. And when the Gallup studies about engagement come out, the low levels of engagement, 7 percent in France, 12 percent in Germany, the highest at 28 percent in the US, the finding is that people are only engaged when they have a boss that they feel cares about them, and that means interested in them. The boss wants to know about the employee’s career, he wants to know about their needs, he wants to know about who they are. There are boundaries in that caring.

And here’s what happens: Caring shuts down the natural reflex of the brain for survival, which is to be negative. When that reflex is shut down, then the person feels like daring themselves. They want to go out and explore the world, they want to do new things, they want to try challenges, and change becomes just a natural part of what they do. They are daring themselves, and the leader who cares is able to dare other people. The employee doesn’t feel like an object, a thing, nor is he in a state of fear. Research shows about 80 percent of people feel defensive and do not trust their boss. That means they are limited in their creativity, in their innovative ideas, in coming up with wonderful, new ways of exploring and doing things.

When the person feels safe, they trust their boss, their leader. That shuts down that defensive basic drive in the brain, and what comes out is exploration. It’s a little bit like a child. Children do not want to stay with the parent. They want to feel protection, they want to feel a sense of safety, they want to feel some inspiration, and then they want to go out and explore. And then they come back to the parent or the caretaker. And so whether you’re a teacher, a doctor, a business leader, or a police officer, how do you make the right balance of caring with daring? Does that make sense?

It does. You were talking about the child going out and coming back and I think that’s tied into what you call a secure base leader?

GK: Yes. A secure base leader creates this sense of safety, the sense of protection that allows the individual then to go out and explore. They don’t have to be looking for who’s going to stab them in the back. So fear of failure is gone, fear of making mistakes, fear of looking bad. All the fears that people use to hold themselves hostage are able to be distinguished, are put into the background so that they only feel the impulse to go out and explore.

Now, let me clarify how this really came about and how I became aware of this. Because, of course, Bowlby’s work [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attachment_theory] after the second world war on attachment showed that kids who had secure bases, caretakers, could live in a very contaminated, bacteria-filled, dangerous place. While kids in a sterile hospital would die where there wasn’t a caretaker.

And in hostage negotiation, here is what happens: A hostage negotiator must create a relationship, a bond, with some of the most despicable or negative people you might meet. Through that bond, they engage in a dialogue, and convince the hostage taker to give up their weapon, give up their hostages, and come out—knowing they’re probably going to go to prison. What would you guess the success rate is?

I can’t imagine.

GK: It’s 95 percent.

Ninety-five? That is—wow, good training.

GK: Incredible, isn’t it? It’s incredible. Now, these are statistics measured by the FBI and Interpol. It’s very, very difficult to understand that the hostage negotiator has to communicate some concern, some interest, some caring, to that hostage taker in a genuine and authentic way. If not, they cannot establish an authentic bond that allows for the hostage taker to shut down his anger, resentment, bitterness, whatever is causing the hostage taking, and start looking for other options. Leaders don’t come near to that level of effectiveness, because they don’t know how to create the trust, create the confidence, create that spirit of transparency that allows the employee to feel they can make a mistake, they can do something unusual, they can say what they think, and just be filled with the joy of working. Most people feel too much fear, too much defensiveness in their job.

Right. One of the things I really liked about Care to Dare was that you had frequently asked questions at the end of each section. You’ve obviously had some resistance to the soft side of these ideas—the fact that you’re talking about caring. I think we’re not quite used to that.

GK: You’re absolutely right; it’s a foreign concept until people get it. Because when they think of their own best boss, best leader, best teacher, that teacher was tough, that boss was tough. But they knew that that boss cared about them. Just about everybody has had at least one experience with a caring boss, a caring teacher. Sometimes you have to go back to a caring caretaker. Then they get it [the message]: I have to be a caring leader.

So when you’re communicating this care, how then do you at the same time provide risk?

GK: Well, you have to say, “Do you dare yourself? Are you living your full potential? Are you living your dream? Are you doing what you would like to do in your job? And if not, are you taking enough risk?” And it’s a balance between taking risks and feeling enough caring. You have to teach the leader how to bond. We’ve had a lot of people go through our one week program who cannot show the caring, not only to their people at work, but to their children and their spouses at home. It is a foreign concept. But then when they go through the training and understand the roots of leadership, and what happened to them that they became so detached, then they’re able to cry. And we have people go through the grief process to open up their emotions, so they can really feel authentic, genuine caring and concern for other people.

And when they hear this metaphor, that the hostage negotiator must show some caring for the hostage taker in order to get that result, then suddenly it clicks.

It’s just like James Holmes, the guy who [allegedly] killed those people in the theater in Aurora, Colorado. I’ve been on the radio, I think, 25 times, to talk to a Colorado radio station with the prosecutor in the case, the FBI, and three people who were in that room at the time of the murder. We could talk about all the lack of secure bases, being a loner, not having a father, all the losses that were there: loss of his girlfriend, loss of the apartment. But here’s the interesting thing. As he booby-trapped his apartment to kill as many police officers as possible, why did he at the last moment tell them that the place was booby-trapped? Even in this horrendous, evil event, this man felt probably—my theory is, and I want to interview the police chief and the police officers who made the arrest—that they showed some professional respect, and suddenly he looked in their eyes and a little bit of humanity and caring came back. So then he told the police officers, even though he had spent six days trying to booby-trap it to kill as many police officers as possible.

But you have to understand that secure base theory is behind how people become violent with a lack of secure bases or loss of secure bases. And in that absence of caring, many people become unable to show caring. This is why we ask the question—and the research is very clear—who tends to make the best leaders, men or women? The answer is that the research is moving towards women. Why? Because they’re able to create the collaboration, the cooperation, the bonding, appropriate caring, that men cannot often create. That 20 percent of the top leaders in an organization do not know how to create a bond. They have zero emotional intelligence, as much as a mosquito. You want to kill a mosquito, huh?

Women are potentially much better, but they have to learn how to assert themselves, how to deal with conflict, how to push back. And that all comes from a secure base with a father, a grandfather, a male teacher, a male boss, someone who is the model for the female on how to do it. Yes, it’s a support thing. Boys have to learn how to bond. That comes from the father, who teaches them a masculine way of showing appropriate emotion—if it’s anger, whether it’s fear, whether it’s love, caring—how to do this in an appropriate way.

Now, you talk about leadership being a set of behaviors that you learn, and I think that’s what you’re describing here. And you talk about rewiring your brain. How receptive have people been to this? It sounds like bringing this forward to a lot of male leaders, that they need to work on their emotional intelligence, it must not be a popular idea.

GK: Well, the people who come to our training are often sent by their bosses, or they’re in trouble in some way, or they’ve heard other people who’ve come describe it as life changing. So yes, there’s a lot of resistance. But when they hear the theory of the mind’s eye—which is fundamentally, how do you focus—and that the brain is naturally negative to defend themselves, to survive, and that with secure bases—whether it’s a person, an object, a thing, a country, whatever it might be—that the defensive mechanism in the brain shuts down and you start playing to win and act offensively, taking appropriate risk at the right time. And then that makes sense, okay? How to be positive, how to be inspiring as a leader.

You add the theory of bonding, and that loss is more powerful and motivating to most people than benefit. We had, for example, a senior leader who lost a baby ten years ago. He never cried, never showed any grief. His wife did, was devastated, wanted another child and he did not. He was, deeply in his soul, afraid to do it again, that he would lose another child.

When he realized he had to grieve that child that he lost, he then learned the idea of playing to win rather than playing not to lose, rewiring his brain to take the appropriate risk. Within just a short time, his wife became pregnant and we have our first HPL [High Performance Leadership] baby. And to this day he sends pictures and thanks us because he rewired his brain to play to win.

He did it with the support of other leaders. He was a senior leader in an organization who, because he was unable to fully grieve over the loss of a child, was unable to really bond with those around him. Now he can and he experiences the full joy of his life.

Once he had gone through that process, then he was able to create those bonds?

GK: Absolutely. To him, his crying in front of a small group was incomprehensible. But when he did it, and he received the support of other men, and he felt that crying was not a vulnerability or weakness—vulnerability was not a weakness—he felt the strength and the courage to have another child and to risk taking the chance of losing a child.

You know, one thing that stood out for me when I was reading about secure base leadership was to be not proactive, but reactive. It’s important not to impose your own solutions when someone’s working through something. The leader is really just there to react. And it struck me that—both in a workplace situation and at home and in a parenting situation—often it’s difficult to just wait and react as a leader.

GK: Sometimes you can be proactive, but mostly you’re there to shut down the fears so that you can reach out and take your own risks. And so the secure base creates the environment of trust, that’s what a secure base leader does. It allows the full amazing potential inside an individual to come out. That’s the talent development, to allow someone to take a risk, to put somebody in a challenging situation.

You saw the nine characteristics that we came up with in the research?


GK: So among those is to look for talent, to provide opportunities to challenge. And to base that on intrinsic motivation, that feeling of “I want to learn, I like challenge, I like growth, I like to be part of a group,” as opposed to just getting a new promotion, getting a bonus, et cetera, et cetera.

Right. I think it’s an amazing thing to think about looking at a workplace in that way. I think we all thirst for that to a degree. It’s wonderful that you’re bringing in all of these leaders all over the world to study this. So what would you say is next for you?

GK: Well, the next thing is to take this to youth. The most common response we get is that most of the participants describe the training as life-changing. Certainly it changes their focus. One of the things that we hear is “Where can I take my kids to learn this? I want my kids to know. I wish I had known this—the concepts of HPL—years ago.” And so, what we’re going to do is try to develop a youth program where we take kids from Africa, from India, Central America, from undeveloped parts of the world, and mix them with kids from the developed world. We’d find companies who will sponsor those who cannot afford it, and bring the two together. We’ll do a lot of outdoor exercise, a little bit like Outward Bound [http://www.outwardbound.org/], and be able to teach kids these basic concepts of the mind’s eye, the eight pillars, the bonding cycle, conflict resolution, negotiation, secure base, and so forth, and get them on a different trajectory in their own lives.

That’s the dream.

Wow, George, the work that you do is truly amazing.

GK: Thank you. You know, one of the most important quotes I give people is Ralph Waldo Emerson’s, “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” That’s what a high performing leader does. Or as Martin Luther King did, set that path of “I have a dream, I have a dream,” and do the risk taking that comes from your dream.

As you can hear, I’m a little too enthusiastic about it.

No, you’re not. That passion is something that is giving the world a great gift.

GK: It’s the passion in part that was modeled by Tom Peters. When he teaches, my God, the whole group becomes on fire, right?

Yes. His energy is infectious.

GK: He’s that secure base. And people may not even have met him but he’s a secure base for them. Take somebody like Nelson Mandela, whose core model was “I’m the master of my fate, I’m the captain of my soul.” He spends 27 years in prison and comes out speaking reconciliation and forgiveness. He’s a secure base and a model for how many people all over the world? Or Martin Luther King, I mean, the great, great leaders of the world, the iconic leaders, are those secure bases. And too many people do not have a secure base. That’s one of the problems.

And by the way, as we teach this, I say, “Okay, you have to go back and look at Henry Ford.” Henry Ford was one of the most caring leaders that was there as a secure base. He took care of his employees. That was number one for him. They had a good salary, they had lots of things. And it was the culture that was created out of this family business—in the first stage, in the entrepreneurial phase. Then companies lose it, and especially the for-profit organizations get so driven by finances, by greed, by goals, by you name it, that they forget who they’re really serving. So Sir Richard Branson or Howard Schultz from Starbucks, they become models of how to create a secure base company that creates that sense of safety, that sense of well-being for the customer.

Right, and it all comes from the leader. That’s definitely true.

GK: It all comes from the leader. There are a few cases where the leader is really a jerk, so the team sort of works around their leader.

It happens.

GK: And the team becomes the secure base. But that’s very rare, 95 percent of the cases the leader sets the atmosphere or the tone.

I’ve really enjoyed talking to you today, George. Thank you for joining us for the interview.

GK: You are very welcome. I’m very honored.

Website: georgekohlrieser.com