Engaging with Populism - Thoughts about becoming a real boundary crosser


Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey.

The AfD Party in Germany.

Hugo Chaves in Venezuela.

Nigel Farage and the Brexiters.

Donald Trump may be monopolizing the headlines, but the rise of Populism is a worldwide phenomenon. Politicians, both on the left and right, promising easy solutions to some of the most pressing challenges of our times – all while calling into question our democratic institutions.

What is Populism, exactly? Simply put, it is a political approach that foments anger towards established institutions. It can be “paired” with any number of ideologies, from fascism to libertarianism, but the common thread in all cases is an effort to energize a vocal base of supporters by framing all opposition as corrupt, failing, fake, and even downright evil.

Sound familiar?

Populism turns complex, nuanced social and political problems into simplistic, black and white moral ones. The ‘good guys’ have to take down the ‘bad guys.’ In virtually every case, the ‘bad guys’ just so happen to be the very people who have spent their careers and their lives working to solve these complex issues.

Scientific and social experts are pegged as ‘elite.’

Career public servants are ‘corrupt’ or ‘out of touch.’

Seasoned journalists are ‘liars’ and ‘paid shills.’

I’ve experienced this myself, more than once. In 2016, members of the far-right party Alternative für Deutschland won seats in the local council of the Berlin district of Neukölln, where I live. I’m an appointed member of the Council’s education committee, and we were in the midst of an effort to rename a street that’s named after a German colonel known to have committed atrocities during colonial times. Somehow, despite the fact that this is a local council and we were focused on a question of German history, these AfD council members were convinced that The Nation of Islam was behind our measure to rename the street!

And just last summer, I posted on Facebook to announce a course my colleagues were organizing that explored the new wave of authoritarianism, simplistic solutions, and “alternative facts.” A high school classmate I hadn’t spoken to in fifteen years responded by saying that authoritarianism was, in fact, me “punishing people for openly and honestly talking about the savagery that is Islam, Europe’s collapsed birth rates, and the massive waves of people flooding into Europe and colonizing it.”

As Uri Friedman says, in his article in the Atlantic, “The notion of one virtuous people and one vile elite is a fiction, even if it does reflect real divisions and power dynamics in a given society.”

I see shades of those real divisions in my classmate’s accusation, but I also see the way those divisions have been manipulated to produce his anger, resentment, and aggression. There’s little space for dialogue or thoughtful debate. As far as my classmate is concerned, this is combat, and the battle lines have been drawn.

How are we to understand and respond to this phenomenon?

Where is it coming from?

If left unchecked, where will it take us?

This past fall, I was asked to design and teach a course on “Understanding and Responding to Populist Speech” to graduate students at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin. It’s clear that we’re all still at the learning edge when it comes to effectively responding to populist speech. But as I prepared for this course, and as I spent time in deep dialogue with my students, it became clear to me that we cannot counter populism if we don’t seek to understand it.

Often, encounters with people whose political positions are so far from ours leave us either paralyzed or angry. Communication shuts down. But if, for instance, I can’t figure out how to surface the deeper sources of fear and pain driving my classmate’s anger at refugees and immigrants, then we will never find a productive place to move forward. We will always be at odds. Differing perspectives and opinions are essential to a thriving democracy. But those who seek to eradicate all other perspectives are anathema to it.

If we don’t work to understand the roots of populism, then it could undo the very democratic institutions that have allowed populism to flourish.


This approach is unusual because it is rooted in strategic empathy. If the populists want ‘war’ and we give it to them, then we are doomed from the start. We will have fulfilled the very prophecy they’ve been shouting about to anyone who will listen.

We must not go to war with populists.

We must gather together and find a new path forward.


You see, I don’t think populism is the true problem. I believe it is the symptom of deeper, underlying societal challenges. I have some ideas about what those challenges might be, but my voice is just one. We need to work together to understand these challenges and the perspectives on them. In my course at the Hertie School of Governance, my students came from all over the world, and they brought cases of populist speech with them. Brazil. Venezuela. Germany. The UK. Turkey. The United States. So many examples of the problem, that it often felt overwhelming.

But instead of succumbing to that overwhelming feeling and throwing up our hands, we spent time diagnosing these challenges, understanding the perspectives that various factions of the population have on the challenge, the values that underlie them, and what stories they are telling themselves. In the process, my students honed their listening skills, learning to lead with questions, not with assumptions.

We then moved from diagnosis to intervention, with students designing and delivering responses to their chosen pieces of populist speech: How might challenges be re-framed to create a compelling common story that challenges the populist narrative and makes room for a plurality of voices? How might we acknowledge the losses people are feeling on the ‘other side’ in ways that compel us to cross the bridge and work together? How might we foster compassion and common ground? And when is it time to sound a provocative wake up call?

crossing bridges.jpg

In this day and age of online echo chambers and offline social divides, this is all easier said than done. But I’ve seen firsthand how people from all over the world can discuss these complex issues in ways that do not discount the feelings and needs of those who are angry or feeling left out.

As we stand at this precipice, we must ask ourselves:

Are we willing to cross these boundaries?

Not merely, as Dean Williams puts it, as tourists, but as curious explorers, who seek first to understand so that the deeper challenges can truly be understood?

The answer must be yes.

The democratic fabric of our world is at stake.


Elisabeth Heid

Berlin, April 2018


For an in-depth primer on the subject of populism, this article in The Economist, and this article in The Atlantic are both excellent.


The Revolving Door of New Year's Resolutions.

Haven’t we been through this before? - Lessons for managing change and overcoming stubborn obstacles


Did you make a resolution this year?

If so, how are you doing with your goals for 2018, now that we’re a couple months in?

If you’re anything like me, then you’re probably struggling.

Maybe you’ve even been at this for several years now, without success… does that sound familiar?
Or maybe you’ve actually given up on making resolutions, because they never seem to stick… ringing any bells?

Wherever you are on this continuum, it’s clear that New Year’s Resolutions are a special form of stubborn goals that we all encounter. Every year, everywhere, people struggle with the specter of our failed commitments.

My recurring New Year’s resolution is to exercise more. And I’ve tried a lot: gym memberships (I stopped going after a couple of weeks, but continued to pay!), apps (I downloaded and subscribed to them, but stopped using them after a couple of times) and new sports gear, particularly shoes (I now have three pairs in my closet and still don’t use them).

And I’m certainly not alone. Take a look at this: 

"If you look at people after coronary-artery bypass grafting two years later, 90% of them have not changed their lifestyle. And that's been studied over and over again.  Even though they know they have a very bad disease and they know they should change their lifestyle, for whatever reason, they can't."

Dr. Edward Miller
CEO of Johns Hopkins University Medical Center

(Shea/Solomon 2013)


My dad is one of these patients. He had three bypasses six years ago. When I visited him in rehab, the first thing we did to celebrate his recovery was to eat Schnitzel and fries…

Why is it easier for us to let someone crack open our chest to perform coronary surgery than to change our daily eating habits?

Resistance to change is everywhere.

  • In our private lives, we wrestle with so many challenges: maintaining a healthy work/life balance, sticking to a diet, navigating an addiction to social media.
  • In our professional lives, we wrestle with many more: setting priorities, delegating, and procrastination.
  • Organizations resist change, too. They say they want to be more inclusive, diverse, or collaborative, but they often find it hard to implement these goals.

Over and over again, all of us walking through the same revolving door every year, only to exit the same way we went in.


Well, here’s one explanation. 

You (and me, and just about everyone we know) are actually immune to change.

We want to believe that this time will be different, despite all past evidence to the contrary. If only we were more disciplined, driven, focused, and committed, we could achieve our goal.


Where there’s a will, there’s a way, right?

But just Google the word ‘willpower’ and see how many articles come back that debunk that myth!

Willpower alone just isn’t the answer.


It’s a finite resource that runs out every day and needs to be replenished with rest and relaxation. And even at full strength, there are just some mountains that aren’t going to move now matter how much willpower you have.

And yet… each of us probably knows at least one person who has successfully managed to change some aspect of their life; someone who has accomplished something that, to us, has always seemed too difficult, maybe even impossible, to overcome.

Change is possible.

So what’s going on here?

Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey have been studying this question at Harvard for years, and they have come up with name for these stubborn, willpower-resistant problems: Immunity to Change.


An ‘immunity’ to change is present whenever willpower doesn’t suffice to fix a problem or reach a goal. Overcoming that immunity requires reorganizing our interior landscape to generate new options for living. It demands we fundamentally shift how we think about ourselves and the world.

To work through this ‘immunity,’ first we have to understand where it comes from. You see, our resistance to change actually serves a useful, adaptive purpose rooted in evolutionary biology. Imagine life 100,000 years ago. You and your tribe have found a safe space to live, where food is abundant and the climate is temperate. You have everything you need to survive… not necessarily everything you need to be happy, mind you, just survival.

So why would you go marching off to climb that huge, ice-capped mountain on the distant horizon? While, as Sir Edmund Hillary said, “Because it’s there.” As a species, we are often intrigued by challenge. By the unknown. We love to explore.

But those explorations come with a much greater risk. The odds of surviving up on that mountain are much lower than they are down on the savannah, with food, shelter, fire, and companionship.

You have to really want the adventure to make the effort. I mean really want it.

Either that, or you have no choice.

The food is gone. The water is all dried up. Time to move on.

This is where resistance to change comes in. It is a protective mechanism honed over hundreds of thousands of years of evolution. It serves as a counter-balancing force to our innate curiosity, reducing the odds that we wander off into the wilderness and wind up dead.

Most of us will only go if we have to.

Now, fast forward to modern society, and look how many of us find ourselves in the optimal conditions for survival! All the food we could ever eat is at hand. We can create the perfect, temperature-controlled climate with a few clicks on a thermostat. We need only pick up the phone or sign online to talk to friends, family, and even strangers from all over the world. We don’t even have to step outside!

Can you start to imagine how this protective mechanism, this ‘immunity’ is inadvertently stopping us from making the changes we so very much desire? Even the suggestion of change can be enough to set off our unconscious, deep-seated resistance, leaving our change efforts doomed from the outset.

So what can we do?

Instead of asking yourself how you can improve (and triggering your ‘immune’ system), it is often more productive to probe the logic behind NOT making progress. This is difficult, because it can seem counter-intuitive. But for each of us, there are reasons why we are actually sabotaging our own goals.

Here’s what that looks like for me, and my perpetual inability to exercise, even though I know I should:

What am I doing instead of exercising? I usually meet friends, sleep a little longer in the morning or watch shows on Netflix. Particularly when I am exhausted after a long workday, I want to exercise, but instead I often just hang out on the couch. 

Got it? This is what I’m doing instead of exercising. These are the behaviors and choices are sabotaging my desire to be healthier.

The next step is to imagine doing the exact opposite of these sabotaging behaviors. Not meeting friends, not going on dinners, sleeping less, not hanging out after a long day? Doing so can begin to uncover the hidden worries driving these choices; the fear, discomfort, or sense of loss that surfaces.

If I didn’t do these things … I would feel exhausted, stressed out, overworked, sleep-deprived. I would not be able to rest and relax, endangering my capacity to do my job well.


When we do this exercise in our workshops, we uncover a range of very profound insights: Older men who wanted to change their eating habits figure out that they fear the feeling and recognition of being old and sick for doing so. Managers who want to delegate more fear that they would be seen as lazy. Salespeople who want to increase cold calls are afraid to fail, feel embarrassed, or get fired. Directors who want to collaborate more with other divisions fear that people will find out how little they actually know.

So what do we make of these worries?

First of all take them seriously! 

We are committed to protecting ourselves from our worries.

Worries are pretty common and they often come with a feeling of shame. We try to keep our “worry box” closed with the worries securely stored inside. We do everything we can to keep the worries from surfacing.

In other words: We are not only committed to achieving our improvement goal. We are also committed to a second, more hidden agenda that protects us from our worries.


This too, is an aspect of our ancient, evolved protective system. If we spent all day constantly and consciously worrying about the saber-toothed tiger lurking at the edge of our territory, we’d go mad. Our worry sinks down to the unconscious level, protecting us without constantly threatening us, ready to activate whenever we put ourselves in a position that puts us at risk.

But this protective mechanism isn’t refined enough to distinguish the worry and threat of an apex predator versus the worry and threat of being embarrassed. They carry equal weight in our psychological immune system.

Fast-forward again to modern day, and what we end up with is a goal we are actively pursuing (exercising more) that is overcome by a stronger behavior fueled by a hidden competing goal (not overworking or burning out, getting enough sleep, not endangering my professional goals

No matter how much willpower we put into our improvement goal, our hidden commitment will work against it. Everyone who has tried losing weight over a certain amount of time knows the yo-yo effect.


“It’s like having one foot on the gas and one foot on the break”

(Kegan/Lahey 2009, 38-39).


We don’t need to work on our willpower. We need to work on our assumptions.

In order to tackle this immune system that works against our desired behavioral changes, we need to understand the assumptions behind the system.


My biggest assumption is that exercise is exhausting, it will not help me relax, but it is just another tiring task on my to-do list. I would have to sacrifice activities I use to calm down like sleep, hanging out with friends or by myself, movies etc. I might risk overworking, burning out and become less productive.


Making change happen does not mean pushing the gas pedal with more force. Change will only happen when you begin to lift the foot from the break. This is where the actual work begins.

It will take some time to re-wire these assumptions.

The approach we recommend to our clients is to run small and safe experiments.

My first experiment: I reserved some time on Monday at 7 pm to exercise for 30 minutes.

Afterwards, I asked myself: How stressed out and exhausted do I actually feel?


In other words, I used one session of exercise to test my assumptions.

Surprise: It didn’t feel that bad – I actually felt energized! (As trivial this might sound, it was actually a surprise for me!)

I did a couple of these tests – and most of my times my initial assumptions (that I would be stressed and exhausted) were not confirmed. Step by step I raised the bar until I even tried to exercise after an exhausting workday at a client (making sure I still had enough sleep and didn’t cut the dinner with my friends) – and it actually felt nice! I was enjoying myself. The exact opposite of stress and exhaustion.

 My work, then, was to figure out how much exercise energizes me before my immunity kicked in at the appropriate level and protected me from overdoing it.

This mindset of experimentation and data collection helps our clients, because it is a safe and sustainable approach to change. Instead of trying to change your life in one fell swoop, which will only trigger a huge unconscious worry and lead you to totally avoid the goal, you can adapt at a pace your immune system can handle by testing you assumptions carefully with small, incremental steps.

Our New Year’s Resolutions are just the most obvious representation of the stubborn change we all aspire to make in our lives. Lack of motivation or willpower is hardly ever the true problem; merely the tip of the iceberg. To get below the water, down to the worries and the assumptions behind your resistance, you must always remember: we don’t resist change. We resist loss. We protect our subconscious worries in our worry box, ensuring we never “lose out,” even when we have nothing to lose, and everything to gain.

This is where the real work begins.


Are you Curious about Overcoming your own immunity to Change?

Sign up here for our next workshop in Washington, DC.




Kegan/Lahey: Immunity to Change. Harvard Business School Publishing Coorporation: 2009

Shea/Solomon: Leading Successful Change: 8 Keys to Making Change Work.  Wharton Digital Press 2013.

Take Me to Your Leader

What would you do if an alien species dropped down out of the sky, came to you, and uttered this infamous cliché: “Take me to your leader.”

Where would you take them? Who would you take them to?

This old saw has been played a dozen different ways, usually for comedic effect, and when Professor Dean Williams asked this very question during his keynote address at the third annual Adaptive Leadership Conference, there were plenty of appreciative chuckles. Particularly because the conference room overlooked the National Mall of Washington, DC. But as the laughter faded, and he took us further down the rabbit hole, spooling out the threads of the thought experiment, the question became clear.

Who, exactly, are our leaders?

The tempting response, the obvious one, is to point to our public seats of power. To the people who, either by election or by force, sit in positions of authority. But answer me this:

If you’re the charismatic CEO of a wealthy company, your employees and stakeholders are (still) happy - but deep inside you know your company is failing to address the next big adaptive challenge of digitalization, are you a leader?

If you’re the president of a country or a political party, but your decisions favor the political faction that elected you and neglect far-ranging societal need, are you a leader?

If you try to please everybody  instead of orchestrating learning and growth, even when it includes some level of discomfort, are you a leader?´

Authority is a social contract. People need them, and they agree to be led for many different reasons, for things like freedom, protection, income, stability, and quality of life. That contract may be upheld by revenue, or legislation, or military might, but those tools have their limits. If a person in a position of authority gets too sucked into the powers of his station, then sooner or later, they will lose the credibility and influence to maintain that station. Whatever leadership they might have exercised from their position of power is overwhelmed by the fact that people are angry, hurting, and desperate for change.

The problem is that we too often think that putting someone else in that same seat of power is going to change anything. We keep making the same mistake, thinking that leadership is a position. A job. And if only we get the right person in that chair, it’s all going to get better. But positions are just symbols. And people are, well... people. Imperfect. Flawed. How could any one person change the world alone?

As Professor Williams so eloquently helped us understand, leadership isn’t a job title.

It is a practice.

An art.

Your next intervention.

A way of life.

I’m seeing this first hand, right now, in my home country. Despite the current challenges in forming a stable government after the elections in October, Germany has an impressive parliamentary democracy, with a long tradition on debating in tough issues of ethics outside party discipline. In the summer, parliament  passed marriage equality, for example. The first same-sex couples got married less than a month ago. It was truly an incredible and joyous moment in our history. But it didn’t just happen because our legislators passed a law. A law is just another symbol. Words on a page. This marriage equality law is the result of leadership, not an act of one. Over the course of several decades, enough people stepped up and spoke out, some of them risking their very lives, activists and polititians ripened the issue so that our legislators had no choice but to make the change with broad consensus. That’s leadership.

I’m very proud of Germany, proud of my fellow citizens, all those who realized that real change demands real leadership at every level of society, not just within the halls of government.

But I’m also ashamed. Ashamed, because I wasn’t one of those leaders. I didn’t contribute.

I came out as a gay man in my 20s, but I never really was a queer activist.

I was too scared about what people would think about me.

I was too uncomfortable becoming a queer activist.

I was too worried about pushing the boundaries of gender and sexual identities, afraid that people might put me in a box.

I have been complicit in conforming with the status quo, even when it affected me and my closest loved ones.

Thankfully, others stepped forward even when I dared not.

There are so many complex challenges facing the world today. A changing climate. Diminishing natural resources. Human rights abuses. Racial inequity. Unequal wealth distribution. Overpopulation. The list goes on and on.

It leaves so many of us feeling speechless, paralyzed, and overwhelmed. Where do we enter? Where do we begin?

But what happens on that day, when the aliens come down out of the sky, and ask you to take them to your leader? How will you answer? How else can you answer but with the truth?

The answer is and always has been us.

Welcome to The Leadership Life

At KONU, we’re committed to growing and provoking leadership because we recognize that leadership isn’t just a job title or a political appointment. Leadership is an art, and like every art, it is the practice of a lifetime. Our team combines decades of leadership development experience with research-driven experiential learning methods to help individuals and groups successfully tackle complex challenges. And today, we’re adding another arrow to our teaching and learning quiver: the KONU blog.

This blog is a place to explore what it means to be a leader in every aspect of our lives, from the global stage to the local day-to-day. We’ve immersed ourselves in the study of psychology, sociology, and human development, taking inspiration from professors and practitioners like Ronald Heifetz, Robert Kegan, and Lisa Lahey, and we’re ready to share our discoveries and emerging questions with a wider audience.

Welcome to KONU’s new blog, Living the Leadership Life. I’m excited to have you on this journey with us.

-Michael Koehler

Washington, DC, October 30, 2017