Let's talk about Sex

Part Three: Trust and Leadership

When we’re talking about consensual sex between two people who work together, it’s often tempting to just leave it alone and keep quiet about it. But we’ve already seen the risks involved with that in our previous two posts of this series (part 1part 2), haven’t we? As much as we’d love to go ahead and give you permission — ‘Hey, you’re both adults, and if you’re on the same page, knock yourself out!’ — the issue isn’t nearly so simple.

Again, Dachner Keltner from The Power Paradox:

Our influence, the lasting difference that we make in the world, is ultimately only as good as what others think of us. Having enduring power is a privilege that depends on other people continuing to give it to us.
 Source: Ronald Heifetz (1994): Leadership without easy answers. Own image.

Source: Ronald Heifetz (1994): Leadership without easy answers. Own image.

This runs counter to the Machiavellian myth about power that most people believe: that it is seized, either through force, intimidation, or deceit. If you’ve fought your way to the top using those methods, leaving a trail of carnage in your wake, sooner or later you will get taken out by someone else who’s playing the same game. Seizing and holding position of power comes to take precedence over meaningful leadership, and the whole community suffers for it.

In functioning groups, power is not seized. It is granted. Professor Ron Heifetz talks more about this interplay in his book Leadership Without Easy Answers:

Authorities serve as repositories for our worries and aspirations, holding them, if they can, in exchange for the powers we give them… we construct a network of appropriate dependencies based on a realistic appraisal of what we and others can provide… manager and subordinate depend on each other.

If we want to sustain our influence in service of our cause, if we truly want to be a leader and not simply a dictator, we can’t rely on fear and force. We must rely on trust. People trust you when they see things like your authenticity, your commitment, and your willingness to roll up your sleeves and do the hard work. So long as you play your role well, they will continue to allow you to lead.

But if you have sex with someone who works for you, you will inevitably risk breaking the trust you’ve worked so hard to earn.

Sex and Scandal


Even if no one else actually knows about your affair, the private emotional dynamics of your relationship will be amplified and distorted by the public demands of the group. Emotional entanglements will inevitably bubble up into the open, playing out in both subtle and dramatic ways through body language, eye contact, favoritism, and relational tension. Your work will suffer, and by extension, your credibility as a leader will dwindle, because you’re now devoting a significant amount of energy to managing this secret relationship when you should be attending to the needs of your team and the aims of your collective work.

And let’s be honest: sooner or later, people are going to figure it out! It’s exceedingly rare for any secret to stay buried for long in a close-knit group. Actions that you think of as clever or discreet — the quick glance, the quiet smile, the private meeting — will be patently obvious to anyone paying attention.

And when you’re the leader, people are always paying attention. Your every action is under the microscope. People are looking to you for cues about where the organization is headed, and, in some cases, they’re looking for excuses to undermine your credibility if they don’t like where it’s headed. When your private relationship becomes the subject of public gossip, it distracts people from their work, wasting precious time and energy, and, depending on the details, can produce a scandal that forces you out from the leadership role you’ve worked so hard to earn.

Navigating these waters takes patience, compassion, self-awareness, and a deep commitment to a higher purpose.

Join us next week for the final part in our four-part series as we explore how to hold steady when faced with the temptations and risks of workplace intimacy.



Elisabeth Heid and Michael Koehler

Let's talk about Sex

Part Two: Sex and Power

If you’re reading the KONU blog, then you’re no doubt interested in the art and practice of leadership, and chances are that you occupy a role of influence or authority with other people. The first thing you need to understand is that you (yes, you!) are at an even greater risk of falling under the sway of intimacy. When we add the dynamics of power and authority to the intoxicating mix of proximity and attraction, the intensity ratchets up, and we can become blinded by our own hungers.

Faced with a charismatic leader, it’s often hard to know whether we’re attracted to the person themself or to the power they wield. On the flipside, as a leader with people under our sway, we are all too easily seduced by the feelings of affirmation, control, and importance we get from the deference of our followers.

Dachner Keltner, professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of several books, including The Power Paradoxdives into this phenomenon:

Peacock andre-mouton-193050-unsplash.jpg
“The power paradox is this: we rise in power and make a difference in the world due to what is best about human nature, but we fall from power due to what is worst. We gain a capacity to make a difference in the world by enhancing the lives of others, but the very experience of having power and privilege leads us to behave, in our worst moments, like impulsive, out-of-control sociopaths.”


Leadership experts Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky of the Harvard Kennedy School echo this in their book Leadership on the Line:

“We… work ourselves into believing we are somehow different… not subject to the normal human frailties… We begin to act as if we are physically and emotionally indestructible.”

In other words, we come to believe our own hype. The very attributes that helped us rise to power — our charisma, our generosity, our energy, our ability to negotiate and resolve conflict — what Keltner calls our social intelligence — start to evaporate. We become so enamored with ourselves that we behave as superior to the very people who have given us power.

Perhaps you can imagine, then, how someone might confuse the signs of their success as signs that they are desired and adored? Or how they might even abuse their power by influencing a subordinate to have sex with them? After all, is not their special status evidence of their accompanying special privileges?

Oh, how the mighty will fall.

And, if we’re being honest, isn’t it delicious when they do? As long as we’re watching from a ways off, we feel a sense of righteous joy when someone stumbles from grace. They have abused their power, and now they’re getting their deserved retribution. We Germans have a wonderful word for this feeling of joy at someone else’s apparently deserved misfortune:


Try saying it out loud.

It’s really just perfect, isn’t it?

But it’s important to remember that not every leader who has sex with a subordinate is actively seeking to dominate, control, or abuse someone else. In the intense pressure cooker of high-stakes leadership, even people of integrity can stumble. Here are Heifetz and Linsky again:

“You may indeed have become extraordinarily good at providing a holding environment for people, containing the tensions during a process of organizational, political, or social change. You may have developed the great emotional and mental energy required to unite people in the midst of conflicting views and values … But who’s holding you? When you are completely exhausted … who will meet your need for intimacy and release?”

If we find ourselves in this vulnerable moment, and someone nearby offers us emotional and physical intimacy, we may engage with them even when, on some level, we know it might very well be our own undoing.




Speaking Up 

“Shame derives its power from being unspeakable.”

― Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead

Sadly, there are too many instances where that are not consensual. Sometimes the situation is a clear-cut case of sexual harassment, misconduct, or abuse of power from someone in a position of authority. If you find yourself on the receiving end of such behavior, find someone you can share your experience with. If you don’t feel safe reporting the incident to the appropriate party within your organization, know that you are not alone, and there are outside communities of support at both social and legal levels that you can turn to for help. For starters, Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer at Facebook has compiled a wealth of resources at her non-profit, LeanIn.org.

Navigating Complex Waters


In other instances, the behavior is not a clear-cut of sexual harassment or misconduct. In my (Elisabeth’s) experience, the line between appropriate and inappropriate conduct in business settings can be murky. For example, I’ve had potential clients ask to meet me in private, for dinner, in order to get to know me better -- while we were in ongoing negotiations about a potential business collaboration. I’ve learned to set clear boundaries by asking for daytime meetings instead. Yet each time I do so I worry that I am risking an important business opportunity - or that I am overly wary towards someone who’s just being friendly. These are the complex, thorny waters that women and men have to navigate in the workplace.

In the wake of the 2017 presidential election in America, Sheryl Sandberg wrote a thoughtful and moving post on Facebook in which she reflected on situations in which she has experienced sexual harassment. Simply put, she says:

“It's the power, stupid.”

People in positions of power are more likely to abuse it. As individuals and as a society, we must work to find ways to hold power accountable. And if we find ourselves in positions of power, we must do everything we can to create communities in which people feel safe and are treated humanely and respectfully.

But what if we’re not talking about harassment or abuse? What are the ramifications when we’re talking about consensual sex between two people who work together? 

Join us next week for part three in our four-part series as we continue to unpack this dilemma!

Elisabeth Heid and Michael Koehler

Let's Talk About Sex

seduction 1clem-onojeghuo-268147-unsplash.jpg

More specifically, let’s talk about sex, authority, and leadership. This topic is something that nearly everyone has an opinion on, but, unfortunately, discussion on the subject is often unwelcome in the public sphere, limited mainly to moral shaming and flag waving. And, to be sure, there are plenty of truly terrible and tragic examples of bad behavior. Too many to count. But when we (Elisabeth and Michael, Partners of KONU), decided to write this particular four-part series together, we felt it was important to come at it from a place of compassion and a recognition of our shared humanity; to explore challenges that even the most well-intentioned leaders face when it comes to sex and intimacy in our professional lives.



Part One: The Roots of Intimacy


We are not just our jobs. We are human beings, with all of our attendant biological needs, psychological hungers, and intellectual gifts, living together in community. We are parents, children, siblings, friends, enemies, lovers, strangers, and neighbors. Everything we do, whether we’re comfortable with it or not, is embedded in these webs of connections and influence.

One of the most fundamental and meaningful ways that we interact with each other is through physical intimacy. From the moment of birth, the physical contact between parents and their children serves as the bedrock for the family bond. A whole rush of happy chemicals flood their systems when a mother strokes her sleeping baby.  Everytime a father lifts his daughter in his hands and touches his nose to hers. It is a bond that, at its best, carries across generations, from parent, to child, to grandchild, links in a generational chain connected by the physical intimacy of people who love each other.

“[Physical contact] is the first language we learn … our richest means of emotional expression.” 

- Dacher Keltner, Born to Be Good:
The Science of a Meaningful Life



The Love Drug

Physical intimacy is also how we cement connections to the people we’re attracted to. The early days in a new relationship have often been equated to the high of a drug or the thrill of a daring adventure. We use words like ‘chemistry’ and ‘electricity.’ We are ‘intoxicated’ by this other person. This is, as it turns out, not far off the mark. Just google ‘neuroscience of love’ and you’ll find dozens of fascinating pieces exploring the distinct physiological markers of romantic love.

It’s why we’re so susceptible to the risks and dangers of workplace intimacy. We long to be near the people who attract us, and we’re often attracted to the people who are nearest to us. Put two reasonably compatible people together in a shared workspace, 40+ hours a week, and then expect them to keep their relationship purely professional. It almost seems like a joke!

But, like any high, the initial effects often wear off. Do I actually care about this person? Are they someone I can imagine sharing the simple, intimate, distinctly unsexy moments of a partnered couple? Are they worth potentially risking my credibility, my job, maybe even my family for? Is it just a thrill I am seeking and if so, why? 


Here’s a story: Years ago, we worked with an international organization who had contracted a brilliant consultant to help the executives refigure their budget and navigate a stressful and difficult business transition. During this time, the consultant worked closely with many core members of the team. He was single and he became romantically involved first with one colleague, and - after that didn’t work out - a second colleague. People noticed. They started talking. When the second relationship failed, the negative ripples became too large to ignore. Despite this consultant’s brilliance, it became clear that he had to go. And with him went any hope that he could deliver on the work he was otherwise so expertly positioned to do. 

Reading this from afar, we might be tempted to ask ourselves ‘why would he do this to his career?’ and ‘what was he (and what were they!) thinking?’ But it turns out that navigating the sexually charged waters that come with working in close proximity to other human beings is not nearly as simple as we might think. 

Stay tuned next week for part two in our four-part series as we continue to unpack this dilemma.

If you happen to be in DC this month, you can join our open workshop on July, 26th: “Resist the Temptation: Leadership and Seduction” where offer a save space to explore your personal tuning and share how to avoid common traps for leaders when dealing with intimacy at the work place. Learn more here.

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