Leadership & Trust 2021

“CEOs, don’t wait. Take the lead. You have to change learned behavior. Now is the time to step up and speak up.” – Richard Edelman when launching the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer.

This year’s Edelman Trust Barometer, the annual worldwide trust survey polling 33,000 respondents globally, found public trust in government, non-governmental institutions and the media has reached an all-time low. However, there is a bright spot for leaders. Most people are turning to, and putting their trust in, their employers for leadership in providing accurate information. And they are looking for more from their CEOs.

More than 8 in 10 respondents expect CEOs to publicly speak out on  challenges, addressing the impacts of the pandemic, automation and societal issues. Interestingly 65 percent want CEOs to hold themselves as accountable to the public as to shareholders.

The study clearly shows that leaders are being called on to be courageous and openly speak out on key issues. Ultimately, people are looking towards leaders to provide trust and inspiration.

What lessons can we share with leaders as they are trying to build trust inside their organization? Here is what our Managing Partners have to say:

What does it take to trust a leader? People want to trust in their leaders’ competence, their logical and cognitive skills, required to get the job done. And people want to believe in their leaders’ integrity, their willingness to act fairly, to honor commitments and to care more about others than about themselves. This is difficult to measure, but your people will feel the difference. That’s when trust evolves.

A culture of trust is the foundation of building high performing teams. It allows individuals to make mistakes and show vulnerability – while knowing that they are being supported. It allows teams to learn from mistakes, to thrive and, eventually, be at their best. A trust culture creates strong followership of true leaders. A followership that is proactive and entrepreneurial because it is allowed to take risks – in a transparent, feedback-seeking way. It is the opposite of a blame- or cancel-culture. However, a trust culture is not about being naive. On the contrary, it is about giving responsibility in a responsible way. It is about bringing the best out of people by setting ambitious goals – trusting they will grow by trying to achieve them. And at the same time knowing they will need support along the way – therefore being prepared to step in when needed to help them succeed. Trust-based leadership ultimately leads to maximum commitment and maximum performance.

What are your takeaways from the Edelman Trust Barometer? What do you need to be able speak out on issues that are important to your employees? How are you fostering trust in your organization? Talk to us at humans@thehumanimpact.group

Negotiations and powerful soft skills

“One of the best ways to persuade others is by listening to them.” – Dean Rusk

You can’t overestimate soft skills in negotiations

The stories of people who have negotiated in extreme circumstances, like hostage negotiations or international peace treaties, are big sellers. These people do have an incredible wealth of knowledge and experience to share. But most business negotiations are not about life and death. And if you care for a partnership and your reputation after signing, it’s not about conquering or crushing the other side. That’s why these thrilling stories about extreme negotiations typically don’t help a lot in a business context.

There is an abundance of literature about superior negation theories out there. Most probably you know many of them. But the people on the other side of the table do, too. Even though state of the art theory and smart tactics might be necessary for successful negotiations, more often than not, they are not sufficient.

Against the background of tough Hollywood negotiation scenes it might sound counterintuitive, but what really counts for negotiators are some of the softest skills like building trust, good listening, asking the right questions and being open about your own interests. Benjamin Eisenberger, quite a brutal Hungarian communist politician after World War II, found excellent words to describe what good negotiations are really about:

The most constructive solutions are those which take into consideration the views of all persons involved and are acceptable to all. Such outcomes are the result of negotiation strategies where the needs of both sides are considered important, and an attempt is made to meet all needs. These solutions are appropriately called Win-Win because there are no losers. While often difficult to arrive at, the process leading to such solutions builds interpersonal relationships, increases motivation and improves commitment.

Learnings from the “Prisoner’s Dilemma”

When modern game theory evolved in the 1950s, mathematicians framed a thought model they called the “prisoner’s dilemma”. Two gang members, A and B, are imprisoned. Each is in solitary confinement. The prosecutors lack sufficient evidence to convict both on the principal charge, but they have enough to convict both on a lesser charge. Simultaneously, the prosecutors offer them a lower sentence in prison if they testify that the other committed the crime. Of course each of them could cooperate with the other by just remaining silent. The possible outcomes are:

    • A and B betray each other: each of them serves two years in prison
    • A betrays B but B remains silent: A will be set free, and B will serve three years in prison
    • A remains silent but B betrays A: A will serve three years in prison and B will be set free
    • A and B both remain silent: both will serve only one year in prison on the lesser charge.

The result of that dilemma is that if you don’t’ fully trust your henchman, you’d better betray him or her first. But if both do so, they create the worst outcome overall. Dilemmas are problems offering two possibilities, neither of which is unambiguously preferable. And unfortunately negotiations are full of them, creating bad outcomes due to a lack of trust.

Things might change when looking at prisoner’s dilemmas not as one-off decisions but as series of consecutive choices. Would there be a best strategy then? Should you always betray the other or always cooperate, or should you act randomly?

In the 1980s Robert Axelrod, a political scientist, put together a competition for people using computer programs to develop superior strategies for solving the prisoner’s dilemma if played multiple times. The winning program had just four lines of computer code. It was based on the mathematical version of “tit for tat” with just two very simple rules:

    • The first time you meet a new negotiator, you cooperate.
    • After that, you do on each trial what the other negotiator did on the previous trial.

So you start nice and cooperative and keep doing that as long as the other party does, too. If the other one starts being mean, you reflect just that. If the other turns back to being nice, you do just that, too. Niceness is transparently rewarded with niceness, meanness with meanness. This makes it easy for both parties to understand that cooperation is creating mutual gain.

This is not only mathematically smart but also fits perfectly well our evolutionary psychology. We feel gratitude for people who cooperate with us, motivating us to be nice, too. We distrust those who betray us, motivating us to avoid them in the future. And we feel guilt when we betray others who cooperate with us, motivating us to do better in the future.

“Honest disagreement is often a good sign of progress.” – Mahatma Gandhi

The Harvard Negotiation Project

Following these considerations, the “Harvard Negotiation Project” was initiated at Harvard Law School to improve the theory and practice of conflict resolution and negotiation by Fisher and Ury. In their book “Getting to Yes” Fisher and Ury developed a method they called “principled negotiation”. Focusing on the psychology of negotiators they defined five principles to find acceptable solutions along negotiators’ needs:

    1. Separate the person from the issue: Negotiating is interaction among people with different values, cultural backgrounds, and emotions. Perception, emotion, and communication are key success factors making the difference in building trust and understanding or leading to frustration.
    2. Focus on interests, not positions: The parties should openly discuss their interests, trying to understand the flip side of their arguments and the interests behind the counterparty’s position. They should constantly put themself in the other’s shoes, trying to understand why they are acting the way they are.
    3. Invent options for mutual gain: Negotiators should try to find solutions benefiting both sides. To achieve that, they should clearly explain their intentions and actively listen to the other party. Negotiators should not make decisions until both sides feel that they have been heard and understood.
    4. Insist on using objective criteria: The parties should make deals based on objective and practical criteria, making sure the negotiations stay productively on the topic. It’s about finding out what the other party’s true intentions are, keeping an open mind, never giving in to pressure or threats.
    5. Know your BATNA (“Best Alternative to Negotiated Agreement”): Negotiators should not overly compromise for fear of completely losing the negotiations. Before taking final decisions, they should take a step back and consider possible alternatives. If better offers seem to be feasible elsewhere, it might be wise to walk on to negotiate such a better deal.

Soft skills make the difference and can be learned

Those who look particularly strong in negotiations often just cover up their weakness and insecurity. Deliberately applying your soft skills is much more powerful. But learning these skills from reading books or listening to war stories is pretty challenging, especially when acting under pressure. To build mutual trust and real understanding, it takes deep internalization and some mastery of these soft factors.

Listening to understand, not to reply, asking purposeful questions, staying calm and constructive when emotions go up and being open about your own interests without being naïve, can be learnt. These are the same skills good business coaches practice. And there are three ways how negotiators can significantly benefit from their expertise:

    1. Capturing the soft skills that business coaches apply and truly understanding the power of these skills, makes the difference between skilled craftsmanship and mastery in negotiations. Negotiators being trained by experienced coaches will have that advantage.
    2. Being well prepared for important negotiations, knowing what you want to achieve, being clear about critical stakeholders and their needs, and most of all, embracing the challenge and feeling comfortable under pressure, are key in performing at the negotiation table.
    3. Whenever negotiations take some time, it is important to take stock in-between, to re-align and to re-focus. And before taking final decisions it is important to well understand the alternatives. Business coaches are trained to support their clients in doing just that.

The Human Impact Group offers that to ambitious negotiators, sharing their knowledge of powerful soft skills with their clients, supporting them in getting best prepared for their negotiations and accompanying them from the sideline until they make their final decision.

Negotiating can be real fun

It is important to be well prepared, to follow some principles, to embrace the pressure and tension coming along and to go with the flow. Trying to really understand the other’s interests through listening and asking, building trust and jointly exploring possibilities can create wonderful relationships despite differing interests, sometimes even friendships.

Sometimes you need to give something to find compromise, always think about taking something in return, to keep negotiations in a balance. If the other party is not joining your fair and constructive mode, rethink if you really need or want to link up with that party or whether there might be better alternatives out there.

“You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might find, you get what you need.” – Mick Jagger


About the author
Jan Kiel supports leaders and their teams in successfully mastering critical and strategic challenges and increasing their performance. Over more than 20 years as CEO, CFO, turn-around-manager, strategy consultant, and investor, Jan had his own challenges, successes and failures. Today he shares his experiences and capabilities with his clients, trusting in their ability to master their challenges themselves.

Leadership and Tears – Considerations about the power and business impact of tears at work

Two examples of tears at work

Working with the leadership teams of two different companies, I experienced a stunning contrast of tears flowing at work. Both companies, employing several thousand employees each, are growing with impressive pace. Both leadership teams consist of leading experts in their industries, bright and best educated professionals, dealing with tremendous pressure and the pains of fast growth.

When working with the leadership team of company A, I experienced tears of despair, frustration and anger in one on one sessions. Working with them as a team, they kept calling harmony what I believed to be fear of conflict. They claimed to be open and honest with each other while I knew they were not. The leader did not build trust with his team members and was not responsive to their articulated needs. The team members avoided any conflict and didn’t stand up for what they thought was right and necessary. They clearly showed dysfunctions of a team, frustrating all of its members. The bitter tears I have experienced were a mark of suffering and distress.

“There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power.” – Washington Irving

Working with leaders of company B, just one day later, I experienced another type of tears. These were tears of affection, gratitude and empathy. In a session with a board member and one of his direct reports, the board member spoke about his expectations and hopes for future collaboration. His speech was careful but clear, appreciative and authentic. I could sense the trust, respect and benevolence among the two of them. And I could see the tears in the eyes of the direct report. When I asked, what it felt like to hear such words of appreciation, he wiped away his tears and said: “This felt so much better than any promotion or salary increase I have ever received.” These were the warm tears of gratitude and bliss.

The rationale behind these examples

What made the difference in these so contrary situations? It was trust and vulnerability. Vulnerability-based trust emerges when people have the courage to admit the truth about themselves. Patrick Lencioni wonderfully describes this in his book “The five dysfunctions of a team”.

These five dysfunctions start with the fear of being vulnerable which keeps trust from emerging within teams. The absence of trust leads to preserving artificial harmony, impeding constructive conflict. Fear of conflict hinders clarity to arise and keeps team members from making decisions they fully buy-in to. This lack of commitment and the avoidance of interpersonal discomfort keeps team members from holding each other accountable for their actions. Avoiding accountability finally leads to an ongoing pursuit of individual goals and personal status, wearing down attention on collective success and results.

“For a team to establish real trust, team members, beginning with the leader, must be willing to take risks without a guarantee of success. They will have to be vulnerable without knowing whether that vulnerability will be respected and reciprocated.” – Patrick Lencioni

In an article in the Harvard Business Review, Frances Frei and Anne Morriss, describe how they supported Uber to rebuild trust after the company’s series of self-inflicted scandals in 2017. The authors consider trust to be the essential leadership capital when defining leadership as “empowering other people as a result of your presence, and about making sure that the impact of your leadership continues into your absence”. The core drivers of such trust are authenticity, logic, and empathy. People tend to trust you when they experience you as real and authentic, when they believe in your judgement and logical competence and when they feel that you are empathetic and care about them. Each of these components are key in generating such trust. Being able to show strong emotions with tears and dealing appropriately with the tears of others, strongly builds trust along these dimensions of authenticity and empathy.

Some empirical evidence

Empirical findings based on a sample size of two might not be very meaningful. But there are reliable statistics on the business effects of trust. The Edelman Trust Barometer 2019 showed that authentic leaders lead more effectively, creating better and healthier team cultures. Teams that trust their leaders generate higher scores in loyalty (+38%), engagement (+33%) and commitment (+31%). And companies with high trust scores have higher stock prices compared to their peers with lower trust scores (+5% on average).

According to Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace report 2017 just 15% of employees globally (10% in Western Europe) are engaged at work, while 85% are not being engaged or are actively being disengaged in their jobs. But when leaders manage to meet their employee’s basic human needs for psychological engagement, such as positive workplace relationships and frequent recognition, employee engagement evolves and individual and team performances boost. Business units in the top quartile of engagement are 17% more productive and 21% more profitable than those in the bottom quartile. And highly engaged organizations show more than four times stronger growth in earnings per share compared to their competitors.

By coincidence company B shows a much lower churn rate in its leadership team and a much higher evaluation compared to company A.

Back to tears

There are different types of tears. Reflex tears result from irritations of the eye. Basal tears keep our corneas wet. It’s psychic or emotional tears that display strong positive and negative feelings. According to the German Society of Ophthalmology, woman cry emotional tears 30 to 64, men 6 to 17 times a year in average.

These tears move most people around us. But it doesn’t mean the person crying is having a breakdown. It is just the way our bodies react to strong emotions. This is what makes us human. If something is really important to us and we are really emotional about it, we naturally shed tears. How could showing such true feelings, engagement and commitment be wrong?


Most leaders I met don’t feel comfortable with tears though, neither their own nor those of others. If you are a leader and one of your team members is shedding tears, show compassion and understanding, stay calm and in charge, don’t overreact, give the crying one time and space and acknowledge that tears are a natural way of showing strong emotions. If you have been crying at work yourself in the past, modestly share the experience, showing your own vulnerability as a leader, creating safe space and building trust. If you as a leader can’t or don’t want to stop your own tears, own them. The less uncomfortable you feel about your tears the easier it will be for others to deal with them. If you can, speak about your emotions, make others understand what makes you cry. If you feel too uncomfortable, leave the room. When you come back, be open, explain and just be authentic.

As a leader in my past I have shed my tears at work, and I have experienced many others doing so. Looking back I do not regret a single teardrop of mine. I deeply regret every tear I caused by putting an excess of pressure on people. And I still feel the warm gratitude and bliss when tears have been shed for empathy and compassion.

“But a mermaid has no tears, and therefore she suffers so much more.” – Hans Christian Andersen


About the author
Jan Kiel supports leaders and their teams in successfully mastering critical and strategic challenges and increasing their performance. Over more than 20 years as CEO, CFO, turn-around-manager, strategy consultant, and investor, Jan had his own challenges, successes and failures. Today he shares his experiences and capabilities with his clients, trusting in their ability to master their challenges themselves.

Outlook 2021

Welcome to 2021!


Last year revealed a lot about our world, our business and ourselves. One of the many things we learned in 2020 is that the world of work has been forever changed. And so has the importance of authentic, human leadership. Leadership that harnesses the human potential, that embraces vulnerability and differences while promoting resilience.  Next to these important leadership traits, what else do we think needs to be at the forefront of transforming leadership in 2021? Here is what our Managing Partners think:

“No one in charge in business or government today has any experience with global pandemics. Therefore, experience doesn’t help. And if management by control and demand should ever have created great results, it definitely will not in disruptive times like these. In a world of radical change and perfect uncertainty, leading into the unknown is more important and more challenging than ever. What do leaders need to master the challenges of the pandemic in 2021? We say it’s trust, judgement and courage.” (read more)

“Asking 10 CEO‘s for their definition of digital transformation in January 2020, would probably have produced 10 different answers.  One year later, the world has changed dramatically, and digital transformation has developed from being a business fad to a mutual consent across most industries.  Companies have done things in 6 months that they thought would take 6 years. Some industries that have been suffering most during Covid created the most innovative solutions. I have been hugely impressed by observing the invention of digital solutions in sectors such as the hospitality industry to survive the current crisis and get ready for a competitive positioning thereafter. For 2021, it will be vital for leadership to connect digital transformation to their culture to make sure it is prioritized impactfully.”

In 2021, you will not be able to navigate uncharted waters with thinking from the past. We are here to transform the way organizations are led. We believe that great leadership empowers humans to be their best, creating lasting business impact. What are your challenges for 2021?

Talk to us:

2021: Leading into the Unknown

„In a global pandemic we don’t need leaders with experience,
we need leaders with the ability to coach !“
Anne Scoular

No one in charge in business or government today has any experience with global pandemics. Therefore, experience doesn’t help. And if management by control and demand should ever have created great results, it definitely will not in changeful times like these. In a world of radical change and perfect uncertainty leading into the unknown is more important and more challenging than ever. What do leaders need to master the challenges of the pandemic in 2021? We say it’s trust, judgement, and courage.

Trust: The bigger the challenge, the more leaders need to rely on their people. Trusting in the strengths they showed in last year’s crisis. Not telling them how to do things but what to aim for. Truly transferring responsibility, creating greatest possible freedom to make decisions … and mistakes. If leaders cannot control situations, they need to rely on their people’s commitment and accountability. The basis of all this is trust and only trust will bring out the best of yourself and your people.

Judgement: In times of crisis everything changes abruptly, knowledge is incomplete, nothing seems predictable. Thinking in scenarios, going with the dynamics of change, and staying in close touch with key players are critical components of leading into the unknown. The leader’s role is not to know it all but to activate the incorporated knowledge and ability of the team. It’s not about the leader’s individual judgement, it’s about the collective judgement of the team under your leadership.

Courage: Courage is the ability to overcome fear in dangerous situations. In a world of global risk, it is the essential strength of character for leaders since the practice of all other virtues depends on it. Overcoming fear rubs off to the people around. Courage enables courage, provides orientation, and creates confidence. And courage is the key component of trust in the sense of showing vulnerability. All this starts with you as a leader, requiring you to overcome fear in the face of risk.

Trusting your people, relying on your and their judgment, overcoming fear and facilitating an atmosphere of optimism is the best starting position for both, coping with the challenges at hand and preparing for new beginnings.


“By replacing fear of the unknown with curiosity
we open ourselves up to an infinite stream of possibility.”
Alan Watts


About the author:

Jan Kiel supports leaders and their teams in successfully mastering critical and strategic challenges and increasing their performance. Over more than 20 years as CEO, CFO, turn-around-manager, strategy consultant, and investor, Jan had his own challenges, successes, and failures. Today he shares his experiences and capabilities with his clients, trusting in their ability to master their challenges themselves.

Creating the environment for creativity to evolve is a key responsibility of leaders

The greatest enemy of creativity is common sense.”
Pablo Picasso

Creativity as a success factor in competition

Ed McCabe, who shaped the advertising industry in the 60s and 70s of the last century, believed creativity was one of the last legal ways to gain an unfair advantage over competitors. The ability to see and do things in new ways is more important today than ever. This applies to the establishment of new business models as well as the adaptation of established companies to changing environments.

Your boss thinks you should see a doctor when you share that you have a vision? In a world of constantly new challenges, ever shorter innovation cycles and new business models emerging, that belief should change quickly.

We often tend to believe that the act of creating is what defines creativity. We think of painters working on timeless masterpieces in a bright studio covered with paint or a composer who works all night, building the perfect symphony. And while this may be true, it is usually what you do not envision that drives much of the creative process.

Creativity goes well beyond the field of application of art. Creativity is everywhere – also for leaders. Independent thinking that deviates from the norm and the willingness to experience are the most important ingredients for understanding of creativity.

And while creativity might be helpful for leaders, the ability to create an environment in which others can develop their creativity is just as important. Creativity is a learnable skill which is becoming increasingly indispensable.

The creation of a suitable environment as a minimum requirement

In the absence of creativity, conformity or even banality occurs. In a dynamic environment, this can mean a quick end to entrepreneurial business models. But how can leaders create and promote creativity, especially if they are not well equipped with it themselves?

Creativity cannot be managed. But framework conditions can be created in which creativity can develop as freely as possible. The right atmosphere is important.

Positive feelings, such as joy, gratitude, interest, pride, or hope, broaden our perception and our thinking and thus promote our cognitive flexibility and creative thinking. Conversely, stress reduces our ability to think freely, unconventionally, and creatively. The reduction of stress and the creation of space for positive emotions thus directly promotes an atmosphere in which creativity can arise and develop. Creating such an atmosphere is a central leadership task.

In traditional leadership models, executives often see themselves as the most important source of inspiration with the aim of setting trends. Often this is exactly what stifles the creative development of employees and colleagues. A much more effective understanding of leadership in the creative process is the role of an appreciative listener who asks inspiring questions and enjoys the resulting answers.

Innovation is seldom the result of one great inventor. Typically, creativity is the result of good cooperation with important contributions from various partners. Involving these different people, overcoming hierarchical hurdles, curbing the top dogs, and correctly positioning and promoting creative lateral thinkers is essential.

Diversity and equality are important sources of creativity in teams. The more heterogeneous groups are made up in terms of origin, gender, education, professional experience, the more diverse the approaches and the possibilities of the associations that arise from them. Lived diversity, possibly involving suitable external partners, increases the creative potential of groups.

Giving your teams sufficient time next to their daily tasks and a protected space are particularly important in the early phases of creative work. Sophisticated process management, efficiency orientation and bureaucracy easily choke off the creative process. Only in later phases, when innovative ideas are to be turned into concrete products and services, a controlled transfer to commercial responsibilities and processes becomes relevant. When handing over new products and services, the right timing is crucial.

Creativity and innovation thrive on breaking taboos and inevitably cause mistakes. Creating a safe environment in which mistakes are generally allowed is another essential leadership task. Making mistakes early, recognizing them quickly and correcting them consistently, significantly reduces possible follow-up costs.

Taking all this into consideration, leaders should remember that using a 40-hour workweek to measure creativity is like using a thermometer to measure how much someone weighs. Creating just for the sake of productivity will always be a fundamental mismatch. Yes, creativity also requires discipline but it most of all means having the freedom to explore your surroundings, your interests rather than sitting at a desk or in a windowless meeting room.

If the creativity in teams is to be promoted, such framework conditions are critical. Leaders are becoming “facilitators”, whose success lies in helping their employees to develop their talents in order to achieve a common goal.

Creativity can be learned

Leaders can not only learn to create suitable framework conditions for the development of the creativity of others. They can also strengthen their own creativity.

Creatively or thinking differently begins with acting differently. Associating, questioning, observing, experimenting, playing and the targeted use of networks can be learned and trained and promote creativity.

  • Start to associate. Association is the linking of questions and problems from different subject areas that are at first glance unrelated. This linking of different topics can be practiced and used in a targeted manner to create something new. The more regularly we absorb and process new knowledge, the more we practice our brains to call up this knowledge and to combine it anew.
  • Always question the status quo. By consciously questioning the status quo new things can arise. The more inspiring and provocative such questions are, the more they encourage creative thinking. Deliberately introducing fictitious limitations in what-if scenarios or dissolving existing limitations helps to break away from ingrained thought patterns and to look at opportunities and risks differently. Try to formulate new questions every day to question the status quo and consciously accept contradictions.
  • Become inspired. New insights can also be created through the targeted observation of the behavior of your customers, suppliers, competitors but also people and businesses who are totally outside of your normal environment. Observing third parties as they master challenges or consciously adopting the perspective of a third party to check one’s own position without bias often enables new insights.
  • Experiment intellectually or physically. This is a powerful way to try new ideas and get feedback quickly. Forming specific hypotheses and checking their validity helps to derive new product or process ideas. Trying out prototypes or pilot projects allows errors and weaknesses in products and processes to be identified more quickly and in a more controlled manner. The more decentralized such experiments are carried out, the more experiments can be carried out with little effort and potential for damage.
  • Broaden your network. A network of personalities that are as diverse as possible and with different backgrounds broadens our perspectives. The wider and more diverse you can make your networks, the more impartially you use it and the more your perspectives are being questioned, the newer impressions arise. Targeted selection of creative people as sparring partners promotes creative thinking. Regular meetings with selected lateral thinkers also can help you to generate or question ideas.
  • Don’t forget to play. As we get older, we tend to play less and as George Bernard Shaw rightly said: “We don’t stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing.” Playing is a great way to learn, grow, develop, experiment and be creative. One of the biggest side effects of being playful (and creative) is that it helps us move into a “growth mindset”, helping us to perceive obstacles as challenges that we can overcome.

Creating things is just a small part of what creativity is all about. Being creative does not start and end with the time spent on working on new ideas, projects, or products. Creativity lives in the space between our daily routines, it is always in the background, drawing on our experiences, knowledge, interactions and whatever is happening in our lives at various moments. This, together with creating a suitable environment for the best possible development of your team’s creativity, establishing, and promoting a creative process in your company as well as training your own creativity will strengthen the competitive position of your company.


About the author:

Jan Kiel supports leaders and their teams in successfully mastering critical and strategic challenges and increasing their performance. Over more than 20 years as CEO, CFO, turn-around-manager, strategy consultant, and investor, Jan had his own challenges, successes, and failures. Today he shares his experiences and capabilities with his clients, trusting in their ability to master their challenges themselves.

Character strengh provides ethical orientation and helps preventing disasters

“Because power corrupts, society’s demands for moral authority and character increase as the importance of the position increases.”
John Adams

Entrepreneurial disasters due to lack of character

There is no shortage of bad examples: accounting fraud at Wirecard, Volkswagen and the diesel scandal, Wells Fargo and fraud with customer accounts or the creative variety of personal misconduct at Uber and WeWork. Despite ever stricter legislation, surveillance and persecution, entrepreneurial disasters often are the result of unethical behavior by managers and their dependent employees.

There’s no herb against criminal energy if we don’t want a total surveillance culture? That’s partly true, but too simple. Companies cannot successfully fend off all criminal attacks, both internally and externally. However, it becomes particularly critical when companies themselves create incentives for unethical behavior through their culture. When managers and employees reach moral limits, strength of character becomes decisive. The higher the hierarchy, the more important this becomes.

Wrong incentive mechanisms, poorly implemented transformation processes, excessive pressure on results and weaknesses in the corporate culture promote ethical dilemmas and can tempt employees to ignore basic ethical principles and to undermine the culture of the company.

Positive psychology has 24 strengths of character, which it bundles into the virtues of wisdom, humanity, justice, moderation, transcendence, and courage. But what is character, how does it come about and how can we use it sensibly in ethical border areas?

Ethical corporate culture begins with the leadership team’s strength of character

The strongest protection against unethical behavior is the creation of an ethical corporate culture. This starts with the CEO and his or her management team.

In Fred Kiel’s study on “Return on Character”, more than 80 CEOs and their management teams were rated with “Character Scores” along the traits of integrity, responsibility, forgiveness, and compassion. The 10 CEOs at the top end of the character score scale, in whom all four character traits were pronounced, were called ‘virtuoso’. The 10 CEOs at the bottom of the scale were referred to as ‘self-centered’.

The comparison of virtuoso and self-centered CEOs shows a significant influence of character strength on the company’s performance. The companies led by virtuosos and their teams were almost five times more profitable and the workforce was significantly more committed (+ 26%) than the self-directed CEOs.

Virtuoso CEOs consistently showed more character strength than self-centered CEOs. They kept their word, stood by their mistakes, respected their employees, and dealt with them openly and honestly. What they all had in common was the conviction that their employees value challenges, respect, honesty, and open feedback and that they want both, contribute to entrepreneurial success and create a higher level of meaning.

The success of the virtuoso CEOs arose from the orientation towards the “right thing”. This made them approach people differently and tackle challenges differently than self-directed leaders. The working atmosphere of the virtuosos and their teams was highly energetic, positive and supportive, but also demanding and performance oriented. Not only the employees, but also the capital markets appreciated this, which could be seen from the development of their share prices.

Orientation in the moral borderline

But what should be done if your own boss or her boss is anything but “virtuoso”? To give in? Rebellion? Resign? Business life is not black and white. Managers need to be able to deal with a certain amount of gray, in fields of ethical tension, conflicts of interest and pressure.

But when is the ethically justifiable limit reached? Only when law takes effect or before?

At the edges, the decision should be fairly easy. If something is clearly illegal or grossly immoral, you stay away from it, speak to it and report it if necessary. If something is clearly in compliance with the rules and is ethically uncritical, the usual cost-benefit considerations of business life apply. It gets harder though in the gray shades in between. But even if your position is clear, sticking to that position can be a challenge.

Ethical conflicts often build up slowly. Often you become part of it in small steps until you suddenly find yourself on a slide. Your own moral compass is crucial here. To calibrate this compass at an early stage, it helps to write down a list of actions that you will never undertake. Reading this list every now and then and checking the current situation with it raises awareness, provides orientation, and makes it easier to position yourself.

A good understanding of your own organization, its culture, processes, and force fields also facilitates navigation in the gray shades. Important indicators for ethically critical situations can be unusual bonus payments, surprising promotions, unsystematic information channels or a particularly sharp handling of lateral thinkers and critics. Questioning unusual processes and rules and always looking for the ethically correct side in borderline situations helps to get to know your own company better, for better or for worse. And it creates additional protection against being confronted with “immoral offers”.

Get up and stand against the current

When your own moral compass shows ethical misconduct, it’s time to position yourself. Calling things by name, daring to take, and sticking to your own convictions despite possible consequences. This requires strength of character such as judgment, bravery, and perseverance.

Taking a position requires making decisions. What exactly do I do to avoid adverse consequences if possible? Do I start looking for allies or do I speak directly to my manager? Do I involve other supervisory authorities? Do I have to protect myself and how can I do that? Clarify these questions like any other important management decision:

  • Make sure you understand the situation correctly. Does the critical approach deviate from usual market standards or even legal requirements? Are customers or other stakeholders harmed? How exactly are they damaged? How is it violated? How could the given situation be explained differently, perhaps even advantageously for the stakeholders? These questions help to check your own assessment. If the assessment of the situation remains critical, the answers to these questions provide the necessary basis for your own actions and strengthen your own position.
  • Look for advice. Consult a competent person you trust. Describe the situation and your concerns, explain your observations and conclusions. Let your point of view be critically questioned, look for errors in your logic, try to find other explanations, understand possible motives of those involved and anticipate resistance.
  • Evaluate your options for action. A simple decision tree helps to objectify your options and their possible consequences and to better control your own emotions. List your options and their possible consequences. Assess the scope of the possible consequences and their respective probability of occurrence. What is the worst and what is the most likely to happen to you?
  • Think creatively and practically. Try to find alternative solutions. How could the actors in the problematic situation achieve their goals correctly and legally? Should such a solution be found, this could be the most elegant way out of your dilemma.
  • Consider speaking out frankly. Addressing the driving actors directly is always an option. Depending on their hierarchical position and attitude, however, this can have far-reaching consequences. In a direct confrontation, the specific reasoning and choice of words are decisive. Allegations are risky. Sharing concrete observations and risk assessments without making accusations is often more promising: “I see a serious legal risk here that could get on our feet quite hard. How about we do the following … “

Having clarity, distancing yourself clearly from ethically problematic issues and being unmistakably committed to your own values often brings great relief. Irrespective of the possible consequences, this increases self-esteem, self-confidence and strengthens the ability and willingness to act comparably in future situations. Ultimately, this often leads to significantly increased job and life satisfaction.

Those who manage to address potential ethical conflicts at an early stage can often avert negative consequences for everyone involved and raise awareness of their own environment for ethically correct behavior. Ethics arise from correct behavior in individual cases and resulting moral impact on others.

Dealing with negative consequences

However, you may not find a smart way out of your dilemma, despite all analysis and reflection. Or you may experience serious drawbacks after standing up for what is ethically right. What to do if the promised salary increase is suddenly withdrawn, important projects go to more obeisant employees or even open bullying takes place?

At the latest now you must decide: Can and do you want to accept this situation? Is the fight against the system worthwhile? Do you knuckle down or are you looking for a new employer that better fits your values?

Depending on your endowment with a sense of justice, bravery and perseverance, this decision will be different. In such situations, changing employers is sometimes the best choice. This decision to consciously free yourself from an environment that obviously does not meet your own moral and ethical standards is often a great relief.


About the author:

Jan Kiel supports leaders and their teams in successfully mastering critical and strategic challenges and increasing their performance. Over more than 20 years as CEO, CFO, turn-around-manager, strategy consultant, and investor, Jan had his own challenges, successes, and failures. Today he shares his experiences and capabilities with his clients, trusting in their ability to master their challenges themselves.

Award Winning Harvard Business Review article “The Leader as Coach” now also published in the German „Harvard Business Manager“

Authored by Meyler Campbell cofounder and associate scholar at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School, Anne Scoular, and Herminia Ibarra, Professor of Organizational Behavior at London Business School, the article was awarded with the Warren Bennis prize, recognizing the best leadership article each year in Harvard Business Review.

“The Leader as a Coach”, a game-changing article, originally published in November 2019, explores how in today’s new reality, companies need to move away from the traditional command-and-control to a different model. Manager should be able to offer support and guidance, helping employees adapt to the constantly changing work environment to “unleash fresh energy, innovation and commitment”. When leaders know how to coach, they are able to ask better questions create non-judgmental and safe environments of support, facilitating better development opportunities.

The Human Impact Group, founded by Meyler Campbell alumni believe in the power of great coaching. The innovative model of development for leaders and teams, also offers customized programs, for leaders to learn how to coach. „We not only support leaders and their organizations in becoming more self-aware but also equip them with the skills to transform team performance. “says Barbara Kearney, co-founder and Managing Partner of The Human Impact Group.

“The current crisis has shown, that transformational leadership is needed now more than ever.”, said Anne Scoular, co-author of the article and co-founder of Meyler Campbell Ltd., “The Human Impact Group has the right skills to help organizations unleash the leadership needed to move forward and unlock positive change.”

You can read the article in German “Führen Wie ein Coach ” or in Englisch “Leader as Coach” even if you do not have a subscription you can register and still read it for free.

For more info, please contact barbara.kearney@thehumanimpact.group

Leading in crisis: with character, despite fear

“Fear is useful, cowardice is not.”
Mahatma Gandhi“Knowing what is right and not doing it is the greatest cowardice.”
ConfuciusHundreds of thousands have died. The global economy is facing an unprecedented slump. Countries are going into debt at an unkown extent. And we still don’t know what to expect in and after the corona pandemic. This uncertainty creates fear. Leaders in politics, business and society face challenges of a new dimension and must face up to their responsibilities despite fear. This requires strength of character.

Positive psychology has identified 24 strengths of character, which it bundles into the virtues of wisdom, humanity, justice, moderation, transcendence, and courage. Courage is the decisive virtue when dealing with crises. But what is courage, how does it arise and how can we use it sensibly in times of crises?

Courage is taking determined action despite fear 

Courage is the ability to overcome fear in dangerous situations. Courage, like perseverance, honesty, and enthusiasm, is an emotional strength that helps us to achieve goals against external or internal resistance by excercising our own will. Mark Twain defined courage as “resistance to fear, control of fear, not absence of fear.”

But how do we find the right measure to use courage? To this day, the Aristotelian “Doctrine of the Mean” is the ethical guideline. Aristotle sees the correct practice of a virtue between its excess and its lack.

Courage is therefore not about daring or cowardice, but about bravery. Aristotle sees courage as the essential virtue since the practice of other virtues depends on it.  If managers succeed in overcoming their fears, this radiates on the people around them. Courage enables courage, gives orientation, and creates confidence. And this is the essential task of managers in crises.

Navigate the crisis with judgment, determination, and implementation power 

Carl von Clausewitz, military scientist and general of the Prussian army, considered judgment, determination in the “fog of uncertainty” and strategic adaptability to be essential characteristics of the successful general. The crisis-tested German Chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, following the same logic, required executives to have judgment, determination, and implementation.

In a crisis, framework conditions change abruptly, knowledge is incomplete or outdated, emotions cloud analytical clarity. Processing available information quickly, setting clear priorities and making decisive decisions is critical to success. Concentrate on the three to five most important topics. Share this clearly and repeatedly. Correct if necessary but stay on course. Think in scenarios. Establish clear responsibilities. Give your employees the greatest possible freedom to make decisions. Encourage activity and tolerate mistakes. Ensure regular coordination and the possibility of escalation.  Go with the dynamics of change. Use internal and external sources of information. Distinguish between important and urgent. Respond to changed framework conditions with changed measures. Share openly what you know and what you don’t know. Keep in touch with key players. Show presence and collect impressions on site.

You cannot influence essential factors. Take responsibility anyway, take up the challenge. Request this from your employees. Strengthen collaboration within and between your teams. Use three to five simple and effective indicators to measure and actively control your most important priorities. Report them up and down regularly.  Pay attention to the stability of your employees. The better you support them in overcoming their challenges, the more powerful and resilient your organization will be.

Communication is important. Keep your team up to date on changing framework conditions. Make sure that your employees meet regularly, if necessary by telephone or video conference. Listen, take concerns seriously, report on successes and failures, show the context and the importance of crisis management. Do not despair but dare to show your own weaknesses and accept help. “In times of crisis, people reach for meaning. Sense is strength. Our survival may depend on looking for and finding it. ” (Viktor E. Frankl)

Prepare for the time after the crisis – despite uncertainty 

In the short term it is crucial how leaders and companies prove themselves in the crisis. For some it is an opportunity to demonstrate quality, for others it is not. The behavior of a leader in a crisis shows strength of character and potential, but also development needs and limits.

Who needs support after the crisis to fix shortcomings disclosed during the crisis? Who will no longer belong to the inner leadership circle in the future? Which leaders have proven to be particularly reliable, and which additional responsibilities should they take on in the future?

Learn from the crisis yourself. What do you want to do differently when you are tested next and how can you prepare for it?  When the dust has settled, it will be important to find your way around in the new normal, to anticipate developments at an early stage and to find entrepreneurial answers to new social questions. We can already anticipate some of these questions.  How deep will the coming recession be? Does the expected economic V-curve or do we have to expect a flattened L-curve? What impact will this have on political stability? Can tax increases or even property taxes be expected? Will inflation rise sharply despite persistently low interest rates? How will consumers and investors react? What lasting changes in consumer behavior will the experience of the crisis make? How will the value systems of customers, employees, and investors change? What does this mean for future product development and marketing? What do the supply chain managers have to learn from the crisis? What role will remote work, business trips and video conferences have in the future? What effects does this have on everyday cooperation, coordination, and trust in the company? What does this mean for leadership and hierarchy?

The answers to these questions are still open and will be very different for each company and market segment. It is important to ask the right questions at an early stage and to derive relevant scenarios. The right time for strategic decisions is important. The range of possibilities will initially be very wide. This carries the risk of wrong decisions. Keep close to your customers and follow their signals. Make the most of your company’s market and customer knowledge. Anticipate the most realistic scenarios and prepare yourself for the worst. Check how well prepared you are and what preparations are missing. And actively seek opportunities beyond the crisis. What strengths did your company show during the crisis? How can you use them for new business approaches?

Derive optimism from coping with the crisis and use it to make a fresh start 

Taking on new opportunities will take courage again. The courage to make decisions with knowledge of risk and uncertainty, to break new ground and to escape the pressure of conformity. For this, a culture is important that allows one to be different, to think outside the box and to consciously take risks.

Trust in the strengths that your employees have shown in the crisis. Don’t tell them how to do something, but what. Give them the opportunity to face their own challenges. Support your employees in discovering and developing their character strengths. Give them tasks that match these strengths. Question the status quo and encourage your employees to do the same. Ask questions about why and “what if …”. Transfer responsibility. See problems from different angles. Surround yourself with people from different perspectives. Identify brave lateral thinkers and reward their dissenting opinions.

This crisis caught us when we least expected it. But we will survive it. At the same time, it is a great opportunity. A chance to prove ourselves, to use the optimism of the crisis that has been overcome for new beginnings and new activities. Courage is a prerequisite for emergence from crises to be stronger and more confident.

About the author:

Jan Kiel supports leaders and their teams in successfully mastering critical and strategic challenges and increasing their performance. Over more than 20 years as CEO, CFO, turn-around-manager, strategy consultant, and investor, Jan had his own challenges, successes, and failures. Today he shares his experiences and capabilities with his clients, trusting in their ability to master their challenges themselves.