Unlocking the Heart and Soul of Remarkable Leadership, Keith Merron
Remarkable Leadership

Leadership and Synchronicity

April 29th, 2014

Cheryl, a newly hired Executive Director of a medium sized non-profit health care organization fell into a trap that so many leaders fall into. In her deep desire to affect change and prove that the Board hiring of her was a good move, she made a mess of things. She was hailed as the next great leader for a non-profit that had enjoyed steady growth for well over three decades. Due to the wonderful leadership of its founder, the organization had established itself as an industry leader in outpatient health care. Having grown to almost 400 employees, the past few years it had stagnated. Although it still had a strong reputation, it had lost some of its luster. Cheryl, a highly charismatic leader, was brought in from the outside to re-instill the vigor the organization had once had.

Feeling the pressure as well as excitement to affect change, she fired two key leaders rather quickly and rattled off in short order a list of changes she was to institute. But employees were not ready and the list appeared to be simply a list of all things “wrong” with the organization. Put simply, the employees and the leaders felt they were being told they were unproductive and ineffective and recent results were their fault. In her effort to signal a change through a couple of firings, instead she instilled fear. In moving so quickly, she made the typical mistake so many unconscious leaders make. She failed to understand the fragility of the system as well as how the system was constellated. Her changes not only were poorly instituted, but she could not rectify the backlash caused by the way she came across (“all high and mighty” said one dissatisfied leader”).

Two changes in particular, proved fatal. The first was the removal of someone who had been there a long time and who was seen as the heart and soul of the organization. His removal cast a pall on the organization as a whole that reverberated throughout. The second was the change in one of their major processes. While it was designed to make the organization more efficient, patients no longer felt cared for. The people in the community who caught wind of the change, rapidly referred patients elsewhere and 30% of their customer base was eroded within a year. Cheryl persevered nonetheless believing that all changes needed time to take effect. After two years, and an extraordinary number of losses, Cheryl was finally removed. The cause: She was out of synch with your organization and she was unaware of it.

In a rather obscure and yet surprisingly relevant Tedtalk , Steven Strogatz speaks to the issue of synchronicity.


In this extraordinary talk, he points out that fish, birds and other animals in nature naturally swarm—they act in unison. They follow a simple set of rules that appear at once obvious and yet at the same time are quite profound. The rules are:
1. All of the individuals are only aware of their nearest neighbors
2. All of the individuals have a tendency to line up
3. They are all attracted to each other, but they try to keep a small distance apart

It strikes me that understanding natural systems is crucial to leadership, especially as it relates to synchronicity. Among other things, it is the job of leaders to create conditions where all employees are aligned. They need to follow vision, a shared strategy, and a set of operational principles and values, the culmination of which represent an organization truly in alignment. Put simply, great organizations act in unison toward a goal and the job of the leader is to encourage or inspire that to happen.

The human laws of synchronicity are not so different than the laws of nature.

If we were to express them, similar to the ones above, they might be:
1. All individuals are aware of one another, their needs and desires
2. All individuals mutually adjust to one another
3. They care about and are committed to each other and to the system as a whole
4. There is a shared goal or reason for being

The principles of conscious leadership as they relate to these natural laws might look like this:
1.  In our essence, we are collaborative beings. We seek great comfort and satisfaction in community. Knowing this,  conscious leaders create shared goals and a sense of shared purpose.
2.  Leaders need to create conditions where everyone can communicate toward that shared goal in a way that allows for mutual co-creation and mutual adaptation.
3.  Conscious leadership is about harnessing the wisdom of the community.
4.  The key has something to do with understanding the larger underlying social system in any organizational effort.

Leaders that are guided by these principles and lead in a way that encourage the natural synchronicity of human beings and organizations seem more likely to accomplish great things and do it in a way that is ultimately satisfying. Cheryl violated these principles by failing to recognize that change requires a mutual co-creation. Leaders need people to join them more than follow them. She believed that leadership required a strong push and her own undeterred commitment to a vision, but couldn’t see that the heart of change required that others join and not be forced to the change. Freedom of choice and psychological commitment are key, and any form of coercion, fueled by fear, is bound to backlash, sooner or later. When it did, Cheryl saw it as a moment of truth for her to push forward as opposed to an opportunity to be inquisitive, see the larger system of forces at play, and adjust her game plan accordingly.

George Fink: I Tip My Hat To You

March 25th, 2014

I sat next to a well-dressed older gentleman on the plane the other day. He and I exchanged pleasantries and for quite a while, nothing more, except for the typical, do you mind getting up so I can go to the rest room kind of exchanges.  And then, about half way through the trip he strikes up a conversation. It was memorable for it and gave me a glimpse into what I believe is the wave of the future of conscious leadership, and paradoxically, a blast from the past where more leaders were pure in heart and intent. The gentleman was George Fink, the Chairman and CEO of the Bonterra Energy Corporation, a company that primarily produces oil. Its asset base consists of concentrated, stable and underdeveloped properties located across western Canada with large amounts of remaining oil still in place, a long reserve life and low-risk drilling locations. Bonterra is the third largest operator in the Pembina Cardium, the largest reservoir in Canada, and George has been at the helm since it’s inception in 1998. 

George enjoys being the CEO, but not for reasons that most might suspect. In contrast to the typical “I like the power” kinds of reasons CEOs become CEOs, George’s sole focus is on developing people. He sees his role as a privilege, a way of contributing to his employees and returning spectacularly steady and reliable returns to its shareholders, of which, all employees are a member. I found myself marveling at this man, not just for what he’s accomplished, but more importantly his way of being. In asking him why he does not sit in first class among the rest of the more wealthy people, he said it is not his custom. Coach is “just fine for him,” he said in his amiable Canadian accent, even though his old bones might prefer a little more room. In musing further on the subject, he said, “we don’t as executives, expect anything more than what we provide for others.”  In a world where CEOs seem much like celebrities, he shies away from not just the spotlight but also anything that puts his attention on himself. “I’m just a human being doing my best to help out,” seemed to be his attitude.

George spoke confidently, yet without self-aggrandizement.  If anything, he was quite understated. It was a quality I have grown accustomed to appreciating in some great leaders. It seems that the best I know have this rare combination of solidity or certainty, and humility. As we talked further, I found myself reflecting a bit on this combination and have since done so some more. In my way of seeing, the qualities of certainty and humility are often seen as opposites, and yet paradoxically, in the most conscious of leaders I know, they live comfortably together and certainly did so with George. He did not tout his own horn in any way. Instead, he seemed happy to ask questions of me as if like a sponge, seeking to learn from the work I do. He even went so far as to request we talk again, in hopes that he might gain some wisdom from my work.  “I have so much to learn,” he said more than once, and I really don’t know much about a lot.  Here was an extraordinarily accomplished man, who has been CEO of companies for over 40 years talking like a young man just starting out on his journey of leadership and learning. It reminded me of the old Buddhist story of the scholar who sat with a Buddhist master to seek wisdom. The scholar regaled the master with his knowledge of Buddhism.  The master listened and as he poured tea for the scholar, he let the tea overflow and spill from the cup. When the scholar exclaimed, “what are you doing!?,” the master replied, “your brain, like this cup, is too full.” You must empty it and come to this work with your mind open before I can teach you anything.” This is the essence of the Buddhist mind—to come to exploration with a child’s mind of deep curiosity. George embodies this attitude beautifully, and yet without an ounce of self-deprecation.

Humility was all over this man, but at the same time, so too was certainty. He spoke confidently and with quiet self-assured tones about why his company was so successful and his role in it. He believed strongly that success comes from steady progress and not reaching for the stars. In contrast to the typical audacious goal dreams and visions I hear from charismatic CEOs, his was a deliberate path toward success, born out of a solid foundation of understanding, a commitment to share the fruits of the company’s success with all employees, bar none, and a belief that anything is possible with determination, hard work, and collaboration.

Whether or not this man was true to his word, was beyond my ken for it was just a conversation, but he struck me in his tone and in his kind manner as a man of his word, with no need to prove anything to me or anyone else for that matter. George’s self effaced assuredness is in stark contrast to the tendency on the part of so many charismatic leaders to be so self-focused. It appears that the drive to become a CEO, so laden with a need for power and influence, also tends to result in a high tendency to be self-focused. It’s understandable. Often people choose to be leaders because of a deeply felt need to be seen and recognized. From this place, they enjoy and even crave the spotlight. This underbelly of leadership has been explored a great deal of late and the phrase, The Narcissistic Leader, certainly has gotten plenty of attention. I see it all the time. And yet, in my research on remarkable leaders, the best have a strong inner compass while at the same time have an outer focus (focused on the needs of the whole). This is what I saw in George Fink, and I want to honor all the leaders like him. George Fink, I tip my hat to you! You are showing us the way to the kind of leadership that in my estimation, great leaders are meant to be.



We Are All The Same

July 19th, 2013

Last year, an aspiring artist, Jonathan Harris, visited Bhutan to learn about why this country is so imbued with happiness. Bhutan, is noted for measuring its Gross Happiness Product, rather than what we do in western cultures, which is to measure our Gross National Product. This model cares more about social and spiritual well-being than financial well-being. Jonathan’s project, Balloons for Bhutan documents his effort in capturing “a portrait of happiness in the last Himalayan kingdom.”

As part of this project, Jonathan asked 117 people of all different shapes, ages, and occupations five simple questions related to happiness: What makes them happy; what is their happiest memory; what is their favorite joke; what is their happiness level on a scale of 1 to 10 and if they could make one wish, what would it be. He then gave each person a certain quantity of balloons, that related to their level of happiness. On one balloon, he wrote each person’s wish and then strung it up on a sacred mountain pass.

What strikes me about this particular story is the artist’s ingenuity. He combines artistry with humanity in a way that teaches us something meaningful and helps to connect us all. He also shares his lessons freely on Youtube. You can see his Tedtalk here:


Even more striking is his underlying message. This particular project, and countless others like it popping up all over the world, are showing us all how the world has changed in a meaningful way over the last 10 years. Through the ingenuity and courage of people like Jonathan, we can now source stories that demonstrate how we are all connected. The stories that Jonathan heard and shares with us could have been told in any country in the world and when we hear them we are reminded of our shared humanity. They help cultivate a global consciousness – the awareness that we are all one and must contribute positively to our commonly shared planet.

Leaders within business with a global consciousness tend to do a number of things:

  1. Reach out to others with kindness
  2. Search for common ground in conflict
  3. Assume the positive intentions of others and therefore rarely react – instead they respond thoughtfully
  4. Seed win-win solutions
  5. Focus on the needs of the whole system

This is the wave of future leadership and it’s growing as we speak. I teach at Hult International School of Business. In any given year, we have over 2,000 masters level students spread over five different campuses across the globe. Our student body represents 100 different countries. The students come to our particular school, among other things, to learn how to become business leaders in a growing international climate. They are truly excited to work with people from different nationalities and discover during the course of their work that, while on the surface we all appear different, deep down we all share so much in common.

They discover that they all have a desire to make the world a better place, want to do right by their families, hunger for challenges that will help them grow and they want to strive for excellence. These qualities bind them together in a tapestry of brilliant color and texture. They reach out across boundaries and find delight in discovering themselves, others and the world.

The efforts at our school, and similar institutions across the world, give me hope that eventually we will heal the dissonance on our planet. It may not happen in my lifetime, but I’m hopeful it will happen in my grandchildren’s lifetime, or perhaps seven generations down the road.


Leadership and White Space

February 9th, 2013

In his April 16, leading blog, Michael Mckinney, says that leadership needs white space.  He writes:

In the visual arts, white space is that area that is left blank or perhaps more accurately, open. It should not be thought of as unused space because it is actually an important part of the design itself. It is an “active” void. It adds to or enhances what the artist is trying to communicate. It clears away the clutter and allows the message to be heard. As leaders, we need to be secure enough to create white space in our leadership; to create not emptiness, but an active void. A place where those we lead can jump in and participate. It’s about making room for others to express themselves. Too often, leaders feel the need to be omnipresent; directing everything that happens. This stifles those they lead and stunts their growth.

His well crafted thought inspired me to add to his notion; namely, that leaders need time to think as well.

So many leaders, and people in general, believe they are effective to the extent that their calendar is filled with meetings and activity. There is no white space.  Quite the opposite, they are overloaded with stuff to do. As a result, they have not time to think. What might a leader want to think about in that white space?  Here are just a few examples to consider:

  1. Am I being the leader I want to be?
  2. Are we strategically well positioned?
  3. What are we missing?
  4. Is our culture vibrant and alive?
  5. Am I fulfilled?
  6. Are others fulfilled?
  7. What is the next wave of our work, the next new thing?

In the hustle and bustle of life, rarely do leaders allow room for such questions.  So loaded by the moment-by-moment activity, they become problem solvers, caught in the immediacy and urgency of what is in front of them.  They are tactical at best, not because they want to be, but because the inertia of the congested system they have set up requires them to be.

One leader I know is constantly rushing from meeting to meeting, with no room to spare. She misses deliverables and she is double and sometimes triple-booked.

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Given there are inevitable curveballs in life, she responds (or should I say reacts) to the curveballs, causing these words to tumble out of her mouth constantly.  “I’m sorry I’m late. I had to deal with X. It could not be helped. It was crucial.”

Her excuse is legitimate or so she thinks, and she tries to convince others. She did have to respond, in the moment. But she sets herself up to have no

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room for the inevitable surprise. It is like heading to an important meeting in a car during rush hour hoping that the traffic will be the same that it usually is. Well, in rush hour it is rarely consistent. It is predictably unpredictable. And there will be accidents. If you don’t account for those in your plans, you will be predictably unreliable to your meeting. There is no white space in her life, and as a result, she is not trusted because she misses deadlines constantly (promising more than she can deliver and not taking into account the inevitable unpredictable moment) and she has a ready excuse. What she doesn’t see is that she has created a life with no white space—no room to ask the bigger and often more important questions.  She and others like her are not leading. Nor are they following. They are simply surviving.

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