2017: Is Narcissism the New Normal?

Do you remember the exact moment you stopped believing Santa Claus? Was it a shock to you? Or was it more like a slow gentle waking up to a new understanding, and you were ok with it? Like a realization that holding the belief in Santa had been a lovely experience that served you at a point in your life, and then you just moved on. You probably accepted that other kids had the same experience, so you promised the grown ups to keep the secret and protect the younger ones from illumination until they themselves had caught up.

2017 was the year that the publication of fake news became accepted, not illegal. It is indeed illegal to lie in a closed courtroom, but not on international TV or on social media, where millions of watchers are influenced. This was also the year the most highly respected news networks sourced their first-hand information via 140 character quotes. It remains to be seen whether Twitter’s recently extended quota will be a blessing or a curse…

So has it yet dawned on you to which extent you have been exposed to false information to this point? Sensationalization of news is not a recent phenomenon. Publishers and disseminators alike wouldn’t survive in this day and age being entirely truthful in scope or narrative – they are forced to spin stories to suit their needs for ad revenues, win political support, crush opposition or serve other more or less official agendas. This is clearly not new. And it’s clearly not illegal.

Now the Swedish government is reinstating an anti-propaganda department that has been closed since the end of the Cold War, to prevent Russia from digitally influencing the Swedish population, under the premise is that if Putin wanted to invade Sweden he would publish fake news on RT and through a myriad of social media to justify military action. Such lobbying is clearly not new either. It’s happened in Germany, Rwanda, Bosnia, Nigeria and more countries, and quite bluntly in the United States. And it gets more and more complex with the addition of digital channels and source choices, and algorithms that select what we see and not, to the extent that certain countries will devote enormous resources to censor a search engine or shut down a global video distribution site if inconvenienced by its content.

Is this scanning, censoring and filtering sustainable? It seems the only sustainable response to such threats is not to add filters, but to remove filters. And it begins with regular people discerning the information around them. A good start is asking not “What is being said?” but “With which intent?”

Does an expressed desire to exclude entire populations and referring to their origins as shithole countries come from a racist paradigm? Most likely yes. Does H&M’s recent mistake of dressing a dark skinned boy in a hoodie with the text “coolest monkey in the jungle” come from a racist paradigm? Most probably not. There is no excuse for the marketing mishap, which was both tactless and inappropriate, but it was most probably not a deliberate attempt to discriminate. The strong reactions to both aforementioned incidences triggers me to think we are letting ourselves get wrapped up in effect, instead of focusing our attention on cause. And spot a difference; H&M apologized.

We live in a global society where embellished lifetyles, selfies, self-promotion and self-proclaimed fame is considered normal. We are increasingly prompted to place our attention on ourselves and not on others. And powerful agendas – blunt, subtle and invisible – plotted by consumer goods producers, policy makers, terrorist networks – feed and are fed by this self-absorption. And it has reached a point where we are struggling with finding healthy boundaries between self-empowerment and self-obsession, so much I would argue that narcissism seems to be a new norm.

“What is Narcissism?” you might ask, as very few people actually know the term or the behavioral profile it describes. Here are some views that are normal to a narcissist, defined by Joe Navarro, a former FBI Counterintelligence Agent and the author of “Dangerous Personalities:”

  • I love myself, and I know you do, too. In fact, everyone does.
  • I have few equals in the world. I am the best manager, husband, student, businessman, president etc.
  • I expect you to be interested in what I have achieved and what I have to say. I, on the other hand, am not at all interested in you or what you have achieved.
  • Most people don’t measure up. Without me to lead, others would flounder.
  • Rules are for the average person, and I am far above average.
  • I expect you to be loyal to me at all times, no matter what I do. However, don’t expect me to be loyal to you in any way.
  • I will criticize you, and expect you to accept it, but if you criticize me, especially in public, I will come at you with rage.
  • I have no need to apologize. You, however, must understand, accept, and tolerate me no matter what I do or say.
  • I expect gratitude at all times, for even the smallest things I do. As for you, I expect you to do as I ask.
  • If you would just do what I say, things would be better.

A narcissist is mainly concerned with him or herself, and shows only interest in others when they can get something out of them – status, favors, adoration etc. To a narcissist, being nice is a tool for social survival, a means to get what they want, and not a genuine sentiment. Narcissists believe themselves to be better than others, thereby making those around them less valued. A narcissist feels they have the right to exploit others – emotionally, physically, financially or otherwise – to suit their own needs. While a narcissist takes for granted that others will adapt, conform and go out of their way for the narcissist, the narcissist expects gratitude for every little thing he or she does. Since a narcissist insists on being faultless, he or she would not admit a mistake but be quick to blame others. Narcissists have no concept of self-awareness or introspection, but they are quick to see faults in others and gossip or openly critizise. However, when challenged or critiqued, the narcissist will attack back with rage, blame and accusation. A narcissist does not feel the need to apologize, but demand apologies when allegedly offended. And a significant trait of the narcissist is that they lie without concern for the truth, because lies are useful for controlling and manipulating others.

How does a narcissist get away with this? Let’s get into the experience of their victims. Subjection to narcissism makes you feel like there is something wrong with you. It makes you question yourself. It makes you try harder to comply, make greater efforts to fit in. This causes you to feel anxious, worried and out of control. The narcissist’s lack of empathy leaves you deprived, empty, frustrated and weak, and that makes you even more susceptible to manipulation. There are many ways to manipulate a normal person, and narcissists are masters of gaslighting.

Gaslighting is a tactic in which a person or entity, in order to gain more power, makes a victim question their reality by telling blatant lies and wearing down the core identity of the victim. It is done slowly, so the victim doesn’t realize how much they have been brainwashed. A lie here and a lie there, a offensive comment every now and then, and then increasing the frequency. The best analogy is the “boiling frog.” If a frog is put suddenly into boiling water it will jump out. But if the frog is put in cold water that is slowly brought to a boil, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death. The analogy is used as a metaphor for the inability or unwillingness of people to react to or be aware of threats that arise gradually.

The victim of a narcissist is ever more effectively made to feel guilty, thinking “I have done something wrong,” “it’s my fault,” and “it’s my responsibility to fix, take care of, correct the situation” etc. And the victim is ever more effectively made to feel shame, thinking “I am bad,” “I am wrong,” “I must be crazy” etc.

Narcissists pull you into a lot of drama, when what you really need is to stand back and observe what’s going on. The best psychologists will tell you to walk away and stay away from the narcissist to protect yourself from further exposure and psychological harm. But in many cases we can’t. We may experience narcissists in our family, our workplace, or our government. If we can’t get away, what we can do is stay put and call them on their lies, as U.S. Senator Cory Booker did last week with eloquence. We can hold them accountable for their mistakes and not let them place blame outside of themselves. We can stay sane by focusing our attention on their actions and not the words they want us to believe.

What the narcissist does best is pointing finger. So before we start spotting the narcissists in our life, we all should take a long and hard look at the one narcissist we will never get away from, the one inside ourselves – whether as individuals, groups, organizations or systems – and bust ourselves on these behaviors.

  • Do I put my own needs before others’?
  • Do I find it acceptable to meet my needs at the expense of someone else’s needs?
  • Do I hold myself accountable for my own mistakes, or do I blame others?
  • Do I criticize, judge or gossip about others to make myself look or feel good?
  • Do I need to inform people of my own brilliance, kindness, good looks, genius or mental stability, or do I let them make their own judgments?
  • Do I make promises to others to get something out of them? Do I keep my promises?
  • Do I find it acceptable to lie to advance myself?
  • As an individual, are my relationships based on mutual respect and consideration?
  • As an organization, do we foster a mutually beneficial environment in our stakeholder networks?

The greatest problem with narcissism is that due to the powerful manipulation, both the narcissist and the victim think the dynamic is normal. But no, it is not normal. This pattern has to break, and we are slowly waking up to that. The #metoo movement is one of the first blinks of the eye in the process. The falls of Harvey Winstein and Larry Nassar exemplify that justice prevails. Aly Raisman’s words at Nassar’s sentencing last Friday: “You do realize now that we, this group of women you so heartlessly abused over such a long period of time, are now a force, and you are nothing. The tables have turned, Larry. We are here, we have our voices, and we are not going anywhere.” I believe there is more to come. In coming years, individuals, groups, organizations and entire governments will either fall or start self-reflecting, listen with open ears, have courage, take a stance, and confirm allegations of injustice.

If just a few more people found narcissistic behavior unacceptable, the ultimate narcissist would not be holding the oval office. It is not normal to inform people of your greatness, and certainly not by attacking others. It is not normal to propose trade deals that suggest “We will be better off and you will lose out?” It is not normal to proclaim “My nuclear button is bigger than yours.”

There will be elections in a number of countries this year. But really, what is democracy if you can lie and manipulate your constituents, censor your opposition, and shut down media outlets. Election does not equal democracy, self-promotion does not equal competence, and self-righteousness does not equal morals. A democratic system can only exist when its citizens think on their own. How often does that really occur? And in this day and age, can we really blame anyone but ourselves?

As people are more connected, they don’t have to buy lies anymore. They can seek out more sources. They can take in varied perspectives. There is always a way to get information. The bloggers who fuelled the Arab Spring were continually shut down by their governments but continued to find new ways to publish. And their followers continued to find them. We have a choice to be fed or to feed ourselves. We have the choice whether to let someone filter our views or to remove the filters.

What is the opposite to Narcissistic behavior? To be authentic, conscientious, respectful, tactful, considerate, open, curious, humble, sensible… What is the opposite to a victim? To be discerning, courageous, to honor ones dignity and the dignity of others, to confront abuse and injustice, to never be the bystander but to be the buster.

Now look at all you’re exposed to and remember your previous belief in Santa Claus. It’s worth asking yourself: “Does it serve me to believe in this person?” “Does it serve me to buy this story?” What if 2018 became a slow gentle waking up to a new understanding, a new way of seeing things. It may be an understanding that your previous beliefs have not served you, but you are ok with that because it’s time to move on. And if you see that it hasn’t served others either, would you illuminate them? This year, as perhaps more truths unfold, be the big person. And I mean not the bully, but the awakened one.

2016: Enlightened Power

Earlier this year I wrote that 2016 would be the year in which we would all come into our personal power. By that I do not mean power as a title, position, money, or social context – but power as the ability to stand firmly in your truth in the face of obstacles, the ability to influence without force, to adhere to dignity. Meanwhile, so many have felt the opposite – vulnerable, tired, frustrated and depressed. But that is exactly how we come into contact with our own power. In order to find it we are forced to look inwards, and few of us are blessed to not find it hiding under layers of delusions, denied truths and preconceptions. The process of becoming a powerful human being requires reviewing, revising and letting go of beliefs that do not serve our greatest sense of self. It is about examining our relationships on every level; our relationship to our past, to others, to values, to events, to knowledge. It is about asking ourselves; “what is integral to my life, to my being?”

Integral means “whole” or “undamaged.” It is also mother of the word Integrity. And this year has certainly been about integrity. Not only in the sense of honesty and authenticity, but ever more so in its wider meaning of sustainability. 2016 has no doubt shone light on the integrity of every level of business and political interactions – the integrity of political systems, the integrity of the EU, the integrity of nation states, the integrity of agreements, corporate integrity, financial market integrity, ecosystem integrity, data integrity, and to say the least the integrity of presidential candidates. Here too, the question that needs to be asked is “what is sustainable?”

Every empire in history has come to an end. I think we are seeing the beginning of the end of power structures as we have known them through our lifetime. What will unfold to replace them is much up to the responsibility we as people are willing to take in holding our political leaders accountable for making decisions on our behalf.

Julian Assange says ”Our greatest enemy is ignorance.” You can’t place responsibility on someone for something outside of their awareness. However, once enlightened, they can be held accountable for the stance they take.

So, as much as integrity relates to all of the above, it also relates to our own inner system of beliefs and relations. Feeling whole is a way of being where there is no lack nor a need for excess, and therein no way of manipulation, deception, destruction or depression. It is a sustained sense of inner peace.

A true leader leads from this integral sense of self, and it is a true leaders job to facilitate the evolution toward wholeness in others. A true leader does not want to take your power away; a true leader wants you to find your power.

Let me now investigate false leadership along the same lines. Who feeds off of your imbalance? Politicians who need to push a hidden agenda? The producers of the goods you buy to feel better about yourself? Anyone who wants to move on a decision that needs your consent – voiced or silent?

Perhaps you have noticed that slowly but surely we are no longer buying into common rhetoric. And slowly but surely, truths are being revealed that make us question our established beliefs. And this is causing many of us to feel like we are losing ourselves. I say we are finally finding ourselves. That is, those of us who choose to. The world is indeed undergoing radical change. If you are not able to stand firmly in the midst of that change you will eventually crumble.

So if you feel like the world is going under, ask yourself ”What is sustainable?” ”What truth wants to come out of me?” and ”What truth is awaiting me?” If all layers of my world fell apart, what would be at the core?” Because only integrity can prevail.

Apocalypse, in fact, means “uncovering.” It signifies a disclosure of knowledge, a lifting of a veil or revelation. In religious contexts it is usually described as a disclosure of something hidden, “a vision of heavenly secrets that can make sense of earthly realities,” in the words of Bart D. Ehrman. And enlightenment begins with the Dark Night of the Soul.

The more graceful your acceptance of pain, the greater your capacity for joy

How do we get to that state of wholeness? To get to our most integral self, we have to heal any distortions in our relationship to the world, which are deceptions, denial and delusions, anchored deep in our unconscious. These come in many forms, but the most common ones are guilt and shame.

Guilt is the belief that “I have done something wrong,” or “I haven’t done enough.” Shame in essence is the belief that “I am wrong,” or “I am not good enough.” This is a deep feeling of unworthiness.

Guilt can be constructive, as it guides us to act with morals for ourselves and others. But the way it has been institutionalized has made a heavy burden of an otherwise healthy conscience. My clients often joke about the imprints of their cultures, educational institutions or most commonly religious influence on their chronic experiences of guilt – The Catholic Guilt, the Jewish Guilt, or the Lutheran Guilt.

Shame, on the other hand, serves little constructive purpose on an individual level. The way we cope with shame, most often completely unconsciously, does little but spread or amplify it.

In order to feel better about their shame, some people will strike out at others in the hopes that they will be lifted up by bringing others down. Striking out is not always overt behavior; gossiping or spreading rumors is a subtle form of striking out.

Another way of coping with shame is to seek position or social power, which makes us feel more valuable. Further, to avoid future shame we may aim for perfection, seeking to prevent or avoid any detection of flaws in ourselves by others. Or we can resort to diverting blame of our faults onto others. A further coping strategy for shame is to be exceptionally nice and self-sacrificing to please everyone else in order to prove our worth. Another strategy to ease shame is to withdraw from the real world to avoid the upsets our shame may trigger. All of these behaviors may produce short-term relief from shame, but doesn’t heal it, and in the long term only strengthens it.

Shame and it’s many associated behaviors are reinforced on a massive scale on all levels of society; our consumer economy depends on it, the finance industry feeds off of it, political establishments are driven by it.

Why should we come into our personal power? Because we can no longer rely on others to dictate how we should think or feel about ourselves and the world. How much of your life is dictated by someone or something else guiding you how to think, what to do, where to live, and what to wear?

Why would we not come into our power? Because it is quite comfortable to live in a way that you know others will approve. It is comfortable to have limits around your decisions, or not to have to make your own decisions at all. Because that way you keep the shame under control. But what if the shame wasn’t there?

Guilt and shame alone can cause such pain that they can block us completely from feeling love, belonging, and worthiness. Hence, we resort to fleeting pleasures for a temporary high; entertainment, consumption or debauchery, at the expense of inner freedom. Many of us human beings have never known any more sustainable form of happiness.

Pain needs to be acknowledged to be dissolved. In every moment you have a choice: to move toward your own truth and destiny, facing whatever pain of realizing that your reality to date was not exactly what you thought, opening to the possibility that a new reality may in fact be better. Or you can move backward into the comfort of what you have always known, accepting any pain that comes with the package.

Let me tell you now, you’ve never done anything that can’t be undone. I do not mean that you can change an event in the past, but you can at any point take responsibility for your own capacity in creating what could have been the better scenario and act on it. By doing so, you create a space that allows for a new relationship to begin. Even if it only involves your own relationship to the event. This may be a long process, but often it is as easy as the words of acknowledgement; “I’m sorry.” The other greatest cure for guilt is to forgive yourself for taking on responsibility that was not yours.

Befriend the darkness and shine some light

Some of our best-honed skills are coping strategies. If Vincent Van Gogh had been deliriously happy throughout his life, would he have produced the works of art he did? Remember our beloved comedian Robin Williams? The insanely hilarious bundle of jokes that followed the fate of Van Gogh and committed suicide last year. If he instead had let his guard down, and shared his dark side with us, perhaps he would have humbled the world with a glimpse into the source of his immense sense of humor, and perhaps he would have found an even greater life purpose in teaching us how lightness of heart can lift a spirit.

But the greatest pressure on us as human beings is the pressure we put on ourselves to appear with such brightness to the world that we spend enormous amounts of energy hiding our dark side.

And our shadow gets in our way of having healthy relationships. We want our partners to mirror an aspect of ourselves that we are missing. Or we assign to them the parts of ourselves that we do not like. Projection is the most common way we avoid responsibility for our own wholeness. Even on the most extreme level, here is no way a human being would commit or allow gross violence against another human being if they truly accepted and loved themselves.

The world is indeed about to present some universal truths

It is a great irony that we carry so much shame that we do not deserve and that can be easily fixed, when what we really should feel ashamed about is allowing ourselves to be deceived and manipulated on masse at the devastating cost of millions. Humanity let Hitler get away with it. Milosevic too… There are some current leaders worth mentioning. Are we going to keep letting these things happen?

Most of us by now would agree that the oil industry is behind much of the west’s involvement in the middle east, and that very little of the extreme wealth of oil has benefitted the people who live off the land that gets ravaged by crude extraction. At the time of the US invasion, 60 percent of Iraqis were under 18. Eight years on, at the height of the Iraqi oil boom I was in Erbil listening to foreign investors bragging about lucrative oil deals but none of them had a clue about the debilitated educational system or the fact that only roughly 20% of children had access to education. This is much to blame for the growth of militias and most notably the Islamic State.

Lets face it, if the members of IS or Al Qaeda had been given an empowering education and opportunities to thrive, those fundamentalist movements would not exist. And that is more sustainable than perpetuating a war of paradigms.

Two years ago I was driving with a friend through villages near Mosul, right before IS took over the area. These villages stank of gas and burned oil, and smoke blurred the houses and the road ahead of us. According to my friend, these villages had turned into oil exploration sites without the inhabitants’ consent.

I remembered a party 10 years ago in South Hampton, New York, hosted by David Koch of Koch Industries. It was a generous feast flooded by US power and wealth and the guest of honor Prince Albert of Monaco. I had a delightful dinner conversation with Mr. Koch and proceeded to dance with the Prince into the night. In complete ignorance. Had I attended that party today, I would have asked Mr. Koch, “what drives you?” And I would have asked if, in any of his vast political lobbying for the oil industry’s interests, there was an intent to secure the basic human rights of the people affected by the oil trade.

And back to the question, “Is it sustainable?” Aside all the human and environmental damage, making money on oil is shortsighted. Oil is a finite resource. And where there is scarcity there is demand. And where there is demand there is a market. And markets can be manipulated. No wonder alternative energy technologies are being undermined by the wealth of the fossil fuel industry. But in every iteration of the scripture, Goliath eventually falls.

We are living in a time when the influence of movements can be greater than that of established power structures, and aligning yourself with a higher cause can actually make a significant difference. What started out in 2012 as a movement of college students asking their school administrations to withdraw its endowment investments in fossil fuel companies, has grown to include investors controlling over 5 trillion US dollars in assets, spread over 76 countries, committing to divest from the fossile fuel industry.

So I invite you to ask yourselves, “Once I have found my power, what will I do with it?” “When I am free of the shackles of deception, denial and delusion, what greater force will pull me forward?”

Will you let the veils fall as they are meant to, and will you contribute your power in creating something new? I believe you were meant to thrive in this life as a whole unique being. And one thing I know to be true; when you heal yourself you heal the people around you. And we need those willing to take the step in the right direction more than ever. As David Hawkens says, “We change the world not by what we say or do, but by what we have become.”

I wish you sustained joy, power and peace in 2017 and beyond,

Katinka Nicou

The Roles of Our Lives

Most people would agree that no two great leaders are alike. The question is: at what point does someone become a great leader? I believe an extraordinary leader in today’s world is someone whose capacity for change exceeds that of his or her circumstances. Someone who is capable of influencing situations and stakeholders, exhibiting a range of personal characteristics for which any situation may call, and who knows within which boundaries they find their strength and rejuvenation to sustain this capacity. In the unpredictability of today’s environment, more and more leaders are searching for a facilitated path to a personal way of leadership – one that can expand their capacity to balance rational judgment and tact with internal wisdom and objectivity in the midst of the intensity and complexity of their business and political landscapes. So the best preparation for a leadership role is to equip ourselves with a toolbox that will enable us to consistently perform as great leaders throughout a range of groups, different contexts and new situations.

Thus, if we were instead of discussing three qualities of a good leader, to discuss the three circumstantial factors that bring about great leadership, we find that anyone can be a great leader in his or her own right, given the particular circumstances that bring out their highest leadership potential. In other words, the effectiveness of a great leader depends on the people, the context and the situation in which they are challenged to their highest leadership potential.

A leader cannot exist without followers. A leader that emerges out of a group of people does so at the acceptance of the rest of the group members because of their belief in that person’s influential capacity and ability to improve their situation. They will seek someone to whom they can relate, whom they trust to support them in reaching their goals or solve their problems better than themselves, so some leaders will be more effective with certain people than others.

Effective leadership also depends on contextual factors, such as the environment, resources and stakeholders. How a leader interacts with and affects the environment, makes use of resources and manages stakeholders is critical, so some leaders may be more effective in certain contexts than others.

As a range of situations will significantly affect an organisation, such as growth or slowdown, financial crisis, or natural disaster, their leader has to be prepared to exhibit the right qualities to tackle a given situation. Hence, some leaders may be more effective in certain situations than others.

The way we impact others, draw on our resources and behave in situations sets the foundation for our leadership capacity. When you enter into any leadership role, you bring with you a range of experiences and insights from your whole life that make up who you are in this particular moment. And so you will into every future position to which you rise. As there are more than one solution to every problem, you can prepare yourself for the variety of challenges that a leadership role might entail, by having a clear sense of your own unique set of gifts you bring to the role.

Below is an exercise that has been much appreciated by people I have coached throughout the years.

Think about all the roles you have held through life that have been or are significant to you. This extends beyond professional roles such as, so include roles you have had in your personal life.

1. On a sheet of paper, make five columns named role, people, context, situations and qualities. List your roles in the first column. For example, your list could include Supervisor, Subordinate, Team member, Analyst, Client relationship manager, Board or Committee Member, Husband or Wife, Parent, Brother or Sister, Son or Daughter, Coach, Sports Team Member, Athlete, Caretaker, Friend, Teacher, or Student.

2. Once you have listed all the roles that come to mind, begin working with the second column by asking yourself: Who else was/is involved? What was/is important to them? How did I fulfill their values and/or needs through this role?

3. Once you have listed the values and needs you fulfilled in others, work with the third column by going through each role and asking yourself: What was/is the context? What was/is the purpose of the role in that context? If it’s a personal role, think of what that role means to you and define the sense of purpose it has for you.

4. For the fourth column, think of specific situations you faced in this role that required you to take responsibility or leadership action. Ask yourself: What were those situations? How did I tackle them?

5. For the last column, take some time to go through each role and ask yourself: Which qualities did this role bring out of me? Which skills have I developed as a result of this role? What words of wisdom would I share with someone who was new in this role?

What you now have in your hand is your very own unique leadership toolbox, which you bring with you into every new role you take on. Whatever the new role requires of you, and whatever new situations you may face in this capacity, you can now draw from your whole array of qualities and skills and wisdom to continuously enable your highest leadership potential.

2015: Getting Down to Earth

A roller coaster, a bumpy ride, an uphill struggle.. That’s how I hear a lot of people remember 2015. I wouldn’t say I didn’t experience a fair share of twists and turns too, but there was a clear theme to the past year that I hope more people come to appreciate. The way I see it, it was a year of necessary challenges, calibration, transformation. We’ve had to face so much that inevitably we’ve been forced to reflect on and, in many cases, revise aspects of ourselves and our lives to feel closer to our own truth. The world is in a devastating condition. If this is what it takes for us to break out of our own constraints then it’s about time. For many, the frames that we have thus far relied on to define us are falling away.

For me, 2015 was an opportunity to tune into a knowledge essential for our times – knowing when to step back and observe, let a process have its course, and knowing when to step forward and actively nurture the progress towards what we want in life. And being the keeper of that knowledge for ourselves. I felt many times in the past year that nothing was happening, and then my friends say I got so much done in one year. After 15 years abroad, coming back to Sweden was like starting with a blank slate, uncertainty on a range of levels. But I do now look back on a row of exciting client assignments, budding business partnerships, and time building friendships, creating a home, growing a garden.

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One true teacher of patience this year was indeed gardening. My wonderful charity partners gave me precious parcels of organic, non-GMO vegetable seeds from their Mesopotamian homeland, so I got down to earth in a literal sense and planted them with much enthusiasm. And I waited.. And waited.. When I eventually got tired of waiting and stopped looking, in what felt like an overnight miracle, my garden began gushing out huge squash, zucchini, cucumbers, and a bed of gorgeous golden pumpkin flowers that eventually made a Halloween lantern. It’s when we stop expecting something, that what is meant to unfold can truly blossom. But we have to plant the seeds.


GardenBlossomPumpkin budFullSizeRender

And much beyond growth and reward, it was a year of endings and beginnings, of life and death, of love and vulnerability, of letting go and embracing. In 2015, my beloved aunt Isabella closed her eyes for the last time, after a long battle with cancer. Those eyes of hers, as I remember them, had magic powers. I don’t know anyone who could see into a person and pull out their truth with more grace than she could. In a most disarming way, she would see through facades and false pretences, insecurities and fears, and just allow someone to be themselves. She had no judgments or denials. And in just being her whole self, others would find glimpses of their own wholeness in her presence. For eight very special months I got to visit her several times a week. Sometimes I stayed with her. I would say goodnight and watch her sleep, and close my own eyes not knowing if she would awake the next morning. This acute awareness of her fragility made every word precious, every touch heartfelt. Never before in my life have I been more present in the moment.

Meanwhile, what was going on in her world of thoughts and feelings was truly beautiful and moving. There was no ounce of fear in her. She had prepared herself and her loved ones who could not bear the thought of life without her. She was getting ready to leave. And it was as if she was excited. As if she knew something was awaiting her, she just didn’t know what it was. We spoke about what it could be, and her imagination went wild, creating what was next after this life with no known reference points to constrain her. It helped her accept her pain and grow ever more enchanted by the ultimate uncertainty ahead of her.

Mike Horn says, “We all have our own mountain to climb.” That is so true. You might never know that someone you may perceive as flawless in every way may be struggling to overcome a feeling of inadequacy? You might never know that the person next door who is always upbeat and funny is fighting a fatal illness? We make assumptions abut people all the time – about their life, their relationships to themselves and to their surroundings, their happiness, their past, future and current circumstances. And we project their assumptions onto ourselves. What would you answer if I asked “What’s you’re safest space? What if it wasn’t there anymore? What do you need to feel dignified? What if you lost it? All of it.” Your truth is where your deepest sense of self meets an unfiltered worldview.

For many of us, 2015 was a year when two seemingly opposing forces demanded attention – meeting our own needs to feel whole, and extending ourselves to meet the needs of others. If these two are to dance gracefully, we have to shed the layers of identity that separate us from each other.

That is why I so admire my friends who have once left everything and lost everything, fought the array of feelings that prolonged uncertainty provokes, and had the patience to nurture a new life, in a new place, in new circumstances. And with all that competence, remaining humble, never taking anything for granted, and being exceedingly generous. They are to me by far the most dignified human beings I know.

Last year I wrote about one exceptional friend who fled his war-torn country at age 18, and spent two and a half years searching all over Europe for a welcoming and reliable place to call home. Two and a half years filled with as much intense hope as constant humiliation. Now in the last year over a million people have embarked on the same journey.

I wrote about my memorable meeting with the female commanders of the PKK, speaking about their goals of political engagement, women’s empowerment, supporting other oppressed groups, and educating children so they can create a more peaceful future. Those plans seem far-reached now that they are combating the Islamic State with one hand and defending themselves against Turkey’s military assaults with the other.

I wrote about their soldier who entered an IS camp and blew herself up in order to give a group of Yazidi women a chance to flee. And now thousands of Yazidi women are captured and kept by IS in warehouses, abused and traded as sex slaves.

And I wrote about how we must break the processes of radicalization by propagating an ever more enticing worldview in alternative to the messages that IS, Boko Haram and their likes use to recruit masses of youth from all over the world. And counter to all my hopes, xenophobia is spreading like wildfire, refugee camps are being vandalized, and regular practicing muslims in France are about to have no place of worship as their mosques are being shut down.

As recently as yesterday I found out that a young, bright and successful Kurdish reporter I met in Diyarbakir, Turkey, last year, who became a true hero to me in many regards, had faced threats related to his work documenting the elections and been forced to leave the country. Tomorrow I will sit with him again, hear his story, and perhaps, hopefully, be present enough so that he can reconnect with his dignity and begin to imagine what lies beyond the vast uncertainty ahead of him.

So what this time also calls us to do is step out of ourselves and our own needs and connect more deeply with the people around us. There is much that we don’t know about the future. There is even a lot we don’t know about the present moment. For those among us experiencing uncertainty right now, I hope you can find in yourself what you need to feel whole. I hope that you can picture in your wildest imagination the future of your dreams. And I hope that you can feel comfortable in waiting and letting it unfold, and know when to step forward to nurture the progress of your vision.

And I hope that you can sit with someone facing even greater uncertainty than yourself, and with just your presence make them feel a bit more whole. It is from that wholeness that the right answers will come to us. Not from fear, not from judgment, not from denial.

Then 2016 will be a year in which we all come to some degree closer to our own personal power. May it be the year of your wildest imagination.

Warm wishes,


What is a goal, really?

New Years resolutions are subject to as many jokes as there are people dedicating themselves to achieving novel things in the year to come. Why do we get it wrong?

A personal goal is a desired outcome of an activity, what you wish to create in your life in the best of all realities – how you wish to be, think and feel once it is achieved. In other words, it is the result you wish to experience from having achieved the activities you engage in, not the activity itself. And a lot of people think that achieving an outcome is mainly about setting milestones and supporting the actions needed to reach them. What is often overlooked, and what is often the most powerful process in enabling your goals, is identifying and addressing what holds you back from achieving them.

Some of the most common blocks to the realization of our full potential are conflicting values, limiting beliefs, and fear. Our values change over time as we experience life, for example when we leave home to support ourselves, when we have families, and when we begin to care for our elderly. Ask yourself regularly, “What is important to me at this point in my life? How can I let that guide my next life choice or career move?” If you continue on a path guided by values you no longer hold, you will likely feel unfulfilled.

Our beliefs about ourselves also determine success. Most of our beliefs are completely unconscious and thus we just assume them to be true. Check in with yourself whether your belief system supports what you want to achieve. Ask yourself, “Do I believe that I can have this outcome, that I deserve it, that it will be in the highest intention of others around me that I have it?”Sometimes we hold unconscious beliefs that are completely irrational but powerful saboteurs. By investigating and addressing unconscious beliefs, we clear the way to our own achievements.

Fear is another obstacle. We might think that the obvious response to one’s own success is to embrace it and keep it going. But a lot of people are held back by fear of the consequences, responsibilities or perceived expectations of their possible success. Making sure not to let ourselves off the hook, we should ask ourselves “If I am successful in achieving this outcome that I want, what additional responsibilities will I then have? What will be expected of me? What will I expect of myself? What will I have to give up? Who might be opposed to my achieving this goal? So where the coach can be most helpful is in throwing light on what may prevent you from achieving what you want and addressing it.

I try to proactively recognize what needs to happen for me to get to the next level, and remind myself that all obstacles are subject to our interpretations. A lot of personal obstacles can be overcome, and I have countless stories of clients overcoming limiting beliefs or performance anxiety, dramatically improving their relationships with their managers or subordinates, or drastically increasing their compensation. But they put in great effort and courage into their personal development to clear their own way to success.

My favourite goals exercise:

I am driven by a long-term ‘life vision’ and a short-term ‘living vision.’ The long-term vision I wrote almost 10 years ago and it still serves as a set of guideposts for every aspect of my life. Every new year’s eve, I take a couple of hours by myself to review my long-term vision for my life, and ask myself how I am progressing towards it. I may discover that I have progressed in certain areas of my life and not others, or that my values have changed and as a result my priorities have shifted. I can then revise any of the guideposts I have set for the various aspects of my life, or add newly acquired aspirations or values as motivating forces towards the full vision. I then look back and reflect on what I am most grateful for of the events of the year that has passed, what I have learned and how that has shaped me, and how I wish to apply that wisdom to move forward in the year to come.

Finally, I set goals for the year ahead and set deadlines for myself where possible to keep on track. This is a beautiful internal dialogue and motivation boost that I look forward to every Holiday Season. That said, it is not something that should happen only once a year or at that particular time, it is just how I have structured it. Many of my clients do this for the first time with me, and I encourage them to do it on a regular basis, perhaps once per quarter or every six months in the beginning, to remind themselves of how far they have come and how they have expanded their capacity to create their own lives.

On one sheet of paper, write down your ideal personal life vision, imagining your life at least 10 years from now. Describe how your life would look like and feel like, your career path, the people with whom you live and work, your activities, where you live and travel, and anything you wish to add in creating a life that is in perfect harmony with your greatest sense of self. Be sure to include your career, family, romance, health, personal development, and finances.

On another sheet of paper, write down what comes to mind around the following questions:

  • What am I grateful for of the year that has been? Include events and people that have come into your life, positive and negative.
  • How have they shaped me? What positive qualities or skills have I developed? What wisdom have I gained? As a result, how am I different?
  • How do I wish to apply those qualities and skills in the next year towards fulfilling my life vision?
  • What else do I need to learn and what people do I need to meet?
  • How can I actively seek out those experiences?

Every time you do this exercise, remember to look back at your previous notes and recognize your progress. You will be stunned at how much you can achieve in a short time by having priorities and focusing your efforts and aspirations.

A New Dawn: Shine or Shun?

A few days ago, I got up early to watch the sun rise from a beautiful island in the Stockholm archipelago. I was thinking that few things are as reliable as the sun rising these days. Few things are constant, predictable, and at the same time captivatingly momentous. Everything we know depends on the sun rising. Every day. Meanwhile, at increasing intensity, the world is requiring of us respond to unprecedented situations and react to issues we have never faced, on an almost daily basis. And it’s not stopping, nor slowing down. Growing uncertainty in our careers, finances, safety, health and climate is prompting us all in one way or another to reflect on and question decisions affecting our lives’ direction – our own and those of executives and political leaders. We are at a point where we can no longer rely on established institutions and circumstances to define our identities or shape our destinies.

Consequently, more and more clients seek coaching with a revived sense of responsibility for being the most that they can be, to foster their own innate wisdom and capacity to create a life and career most fulfilling for them. I see people wishing to transform, desiring to become less dependent on a specific context or status to define them, and more powerful in their own right as unique individuals directing their own lives and contributing as active participants in creating their circumstances. And they wish to understand the sources from which they derive their strength and rejuvenation to sustain this capacity.

We all need to begin leading our lives from a clear understanding of who we are – what shaped us, what drives us, what we are capable of – letting go of constraining thought patterns and beliefs to fully harness our own innate power. And for every human being this journey must begin as a solo expedition.

There are two worlds to master, the internal and the external. The better you manage the former, the better you will manage the latter. Imagine that you felt completely whole, no compromises, no sacrifices. Who would you be? What would your life look like? Then imagine that you had no fears. How would you be, act, live, love, and face today differently?

We are balanced and fulfilled when we are able to take emotional risks, to open our minds to possibilities and follow our intuition without rational justifications. We are unbalanced when we hold on to old grief, when we insist on rational explanations for our emotional experiences, and when we close our minds to non-rational possibilities. When we deny the contribution of our feelings in making healthy choices, we can close ourselves off to new and liberating insights.

The types of thoughts and actions that lead to loss of personal power result from clinging on to past events or trying to manipulate our experience to sustain our sense of self. When we can stand firmly in the true experience of the present moment, our power is fully focused on the present and we can then make the most of what is possible in the now.

Your life is not defined by events, but by the emotions those events trigger. Your thoughts and your feelings create your life experience. A lot of our educational and professional contexts have imprinted in us a sense of scarcity, that there is only so much to go around for everyone, or that we have to feel guilty if we don’t need to sacrifice anything to achieve what we want. This creates a reality where people live in fear, guilt or greed, or even worse; denial – and this becomes their experience of life.

I have enjoyed 15 remarkable years of transformational experiences and continuous evolution towards an integrated sense of self, with both the pain and joy that journey may entail. I have confronted some of my innermost attachments, fears and insecurities – and the emotional freedom and the space within which to creatively develop my strengths that opened up has evoked a tremendous gratitude and a sustained sense of inner peace and joy. I have also learned that when the things you are supposed to rely on fall away – work, money, health, family, home, relationships – the raw you comes out. You have to become your own source of strength, and develop your own sanctuary within. The things that are truly important to you become blatantly apparent, and therefore command more of your attention and focus. You learn to set healthy boundaries. You grow stronger, more grounded and thus more equipped to actualize your highest potential. And you start nurturing the achievements that will feel most meaningful on reflection later in life. I choose a life of transformation; a life that is about learning and growth, about turning adversity into prosperity at any level of interaction with the world. It is about continuously stretching the capacity to walk further along the line between the physical and intuitive worlds in both directions. And again, it has not been without challenges, neither without pain. Thus I may assert from personal experience that one’s values have to be defined from within. The realization of ones wishes has to be owned by oneself.

If you commit yourself to feeling whole, always – this is not just a process, it’s a way of life. And it may involve grabbing some bulls by the horn. Resisting any thoughts that come up takes us further away from the truth, and we are not being honest with ourselves or serving our own evolution. Our biggest ally in running away from ourselves is our tendency to over-schedule our lives. Being busy keeps us from seeing our bigger picture and addressing any imbalances we may have in our lives. The more we resist, the more those thoughts will keep latching on to your mind and it will never rest. Not until you truly accept what comes up for you, will you truly be able to investigate those thoughts and ultimately find the peace that lies underneath.

To begin your exploration, take a small step and ask yourself: “What are truly the most important things for me in life?” And for each value, ask, “What does it mean to me?” Then rank those values in a way that the ultimately most important value is at the top. Then ask yourself: “Am I living in accordance with these values and their priorities in my life?

Then take another step. Ask yourself: “In which areas of my life do I feel most myself, most authentic? In which areas do I feel most disconnected from myself and my values? Do I spend time with people who see my whole self, and support me in being all of who I am?”

Then prepare to leap. Remember the last time you felt completely fulfilled – joyous, balanced, excited, authentic, strong, on top of your game. I invite you to ask yourself: “What elements or circumstances brought out that feeling in me? How can I allow and create more of that in my life?”

Then look out for a bull. Remember the last time you acted in a way that did not serve you. It may have served you in the short-term, but not in the long term. I invite you to ask yourself: “Why did I do what I did? What drove me to do that? What was at stake for me? Is there a pattern with similar situations? What would need to be different for me to not react like this again?”

Self-esteem is the most significant power of the human experience. You might argue that love is, but love has as many definitions as there are human beings on earth. Some will say it is passion, some might say pleasure, and some might even associate love with pain and suffering. Love experienced with strong self-esteem is significantly different from love experienced with low self-esteem. Unconditional love can only be experienced from a place of strong self-esteem, because it requires you to love without attachments or expectations. Healthy competition also entails healthy self-esteem. Competition is everywhere, and as long as you need to compete make sure you’re doing it with self-esteem, or you are certain to end up acting against your own integrity. I invite you to ask yourself: “What dis-empowers me in life? When I am going through a particular situation in which I am having a hard time standing up for myself, what about that situation is taking my power?”

Self-esteem is also the ability to have enough stamina that your sense of self worth is not dependent on anything or anyone’s approval. The moment you need someone else’s approval you compromise your own power. I invite you to ask yourself: “How much of my energy do I give to other people’s approval of me?”

I have found that when people have the courage to explore who they truly are, they come closer to a sense of purpose that feels so right it fuels them forward into new life experiences they may never have thought possible for themselves. From the point of realizing ones’ sense of purpose, life has more meaning and joy, and the unique individual’s creative power becomes an active force in painting the vision of their future. I feel blessed through my work to be able to facilitate these transformations and calls to action for my clients in the most respectful, expanding and motivating dynamics. I have seen what power can emerge from an individual who chooses to make the most of their resources and sense of purpose – a charisma that can drive masses to accept challenges and accomplish goals!

Being forced to ask yourself some serious questions, you may be getting closer to your true purpose than you have ever been before. If you work against or ignore it, you will experience chaos. But if you work with it, it will take you to new places. And problems will begin to disappear. You will open up pathways that you never even knew existed. It might even be overwhelming. But what if it turns out to be rewarding beyond measure? And the truth is, we cannot afford to go against the virtue of integrity, it is the only reliable compass to keep us on the right path. For too long we have let outside forces spin the needle.

We are living in a time where a shift in paradigm is more paramount than ever, not just for ourselves but for our societies, because the decisions we are faced with collectively will drastically shape our collective destiny. This requires setting different guiding principles from those of the generations before us, and inspiring those that are to follow. It implies taking responsibility for co-creating the world in which we live, and the need to let go of destructive patterns to make way for new constructive ones. We owe it to ourselves and the earth that nurtures us. And in the way everything that keeps us alive depends on that magnificent sun, what if everything depended on you rising, every day. How would you show up?

The War on Radicalization Starts Within Us

In light of last week’s attacks in Paris and Nigeria, the aftermath of historical analyses and political scrutiny, and the ongoing expansion of idealistic networks representing every facet of good and evil in their very own definitions of a perfect world, I’m reminded of my research on radicalization at LSE. What we are seeing are not isolated events. Yes, barbaric violence has been acted out at different scales and in different contexts, but what we fail to see is that there is a war going on everywhere. The definition of war as violent conflict between nation states or populations is paling at the rate of young men and women from all over the world seeking out and voluntarily giving their bodies and souls to fight for philosophies. The phrase ”winning hearts and minds” has reached new levels.

We ask why these things happen, but we should start asking ourselves ”How?” Radicalization doesn’t happen overnight, radicalization is a process that involves personal experiences and contextual factors. Radicalization means a change in beliefs, feelings, and behaviors in directions that increasingly justify intergroup violence and demand sacrifice in defence of the in-group. The way we view the world – our relationships to our environment, to other people and to possibilities – is deeply rooted in the values, beliefs, and memories that we hold to the greatest extent unconsciously. These were formed by experiences in our early childhood, what is called the imprint period. This is the period in which our unconscious mind is created, and this in turn becomes the platform on which our rational capacity develops. Implicit in this notion is that many of our unconscious processes pose limitations on or distort our ability to perceive the world clearly, and to relate to others constructively and inclusively.

Additionally, Robert Kegan, Professor of Adult Learning and Professional Development at Harvard University, has identified five stages of cognitive maturity, or orders of consciousness, that people go through from adolescence throughout adulthood, which define our relationship to the world. The first and second orders are defined as egocentric, in that we are dependent on the environment to verify and reinforce our sense of self. In the third order we recognise that we have a reciprocal relationship with our environment, that our actions and behaviours affect our circumstances, but we are still dependent on our circumstances to dictate how we should act and behave and rely on our environment to define our paradigms. The fourth and fifth orders are described as world-centric, as people at this level have developed a capacity to relate to the world objectively, not as subjects of the values and expectations of their surroundings. In these stages, we are more able to engage in critical reflection and constructive discourse, and to embrace transformation more readily. It is at these latter stages we see transformational leaders rewrite history, from Gandhi, to Mandela, to Aung San Suu Kyi.

According to Kegan, the two greatest yearnings in the human experience are to be included and to have a sense of purpose. Kegan found that the more cognitively mature a person is, the greater their capability adapt, and consequently to feel comfortable and stay successful in an altering environment, and equally stronger their commitment to a purpose greater than themselves. However, only very few people ever reach these latter stages. Most adults in today’s world remain in the third stage, their sense of self defined by a dualistic paradigm, “us vs. them”.

Not surprisingly then, it is this level of consciousness that is the most vulnerable, and it makes up the thickest layer of today’s ever more intricate and diverse societies. Additionally, our worst enemy in the transformational learning journey can be ourselves, as the step back to a comfortable known frame of reference is both shorter and smoother than that towards a yet uncertain, and sometimes uncomfortable, new paradigm. At any perception of scarcity, uncertainty or threat, we are at risk of regressing to a previous stage of cognitive maturity. This is most often evident in intercultural or inter-racial relationships. Since we have all at one point been dualists in the way we have seen the world, we hold the capacity of dualistic thinking within ourselves, and in that we also hold the capacity to resort to pernicious dualism if a situation is difficult for us to handle. Simply put, each and every one of us can become a radical. The most significant terrorist attacks on the western world of recent years have been committed by highly educated young men residing for the majority of their lives in the democratic world, however with a fundamental commitment to a homicidal purpose beyond their own existence. This is where pernicious dualism and the search for a sense of purpose take expression in destructive acts.

We are at a tipping point in our evolving and ever inter-connected world, when education, wherever offered, must cultivate constructive cognitive development beyond the mere pursuit of knowledge. Whether in a societal, organisational or individual context, transformational learning involves breaking away from unconscious beliefs that limit us from seeing our own abilities and the possibilities in front of us, so that we are more equipped to realise our highest potential. Through facilitated transformational learning, we can change both negative unconscious belief systems originating from our early life experiences, as well as expand our capacity to relate to the world and thereby increase our resourcefulness in meeting future challenges.

So if war is now a battle of worldviews, then we need to start thinking about what peace should look like. And as this war is going on inside each and everyone of us, we are all participants. We are all individuals in one way or the other responsible for being and defending the worldview that we represent. Then peace can no longer be defined as the absence of violence. Then peace to every individual must be defined as having overcome mental and emotional trauma, the heavy lid on a fully lived life and expression of talent. It must mean inner calm, security in being oneself in all facets of culture and religion, resourcefulness in finding constructive assertion of strength, and creatively applying it to opportunities in an enabling environment. Imagine then, if transformational learning programs were included in every primary and secondary school curriculum as naturally as Math. Imagine what effect it would have in the name of peace-building and peace-keeping in this new context. Just imagine the atrocity it can prevent.

I believe political and social leadership can only celebrate long-term success if it is able to navigate the unconscious map of the constituency and push through the barriers to inclusiveness. Similar to the sense of purpose experienced by Mandela and so many other transformational leaders, when the clients I coach confide in me their wish to transform, they discover in their own complexity a sense of purpose, which when unveiled unleashes a tremendous power in the individual. From this point, the unique person’s creative capacity becomes an active force in painting the vision of their future. My role of facilitator is merely to question assumptions, address uncertainties, identify common ground, establish understanding and carry light on shared intentions and constructive action. I am calling on more of my fellow world citizens to do the same. We need to fight this war by winning over our own mental barriers. And we can only conquer ground by inspiring others to follow suit. We need to be, and to facilitate, more Mandelas, Gandhis, Aung San Suu Kyis. Such enormous transformational power can emerge from individuals who make a conscious choice to make the most of their resources – a charisma that can drive masses to accept challenges and accomplish goals. In the same way that radicalization can lead to violent acts, reaching peace will also be a process. And it starts inside each and everyone of us.

An update 2/2/15 – this war is real:

Al Jazeera on the radicalization of Australia’s jihadis

Britain’s Army’s new brigade 77, to battle extremism online

2014: Lessons on Male and Female Leadership from Heli-Skiers and a Suicide Bomber

A swirl of snow blocked our vision from the cockpit as we descended onto the tiny summit surface of Rosa Blanche, Verbier. Sacha, the region’s toughest ski guide, the king of Verbier, loaded our skis off the helicopter and signalled to the pilot to take off. There we were – Sacha, two alfa-male Italian Private Equity tycoons, and myself – facing avalanche risk from all sides, but the perfect experience straight ahead. The mountain was all ours and the snow was fresh, untouched, and perfect. But the moment we reached the bottom of the first run the sky roared and another helicopter flew in. Down in a whim came three more guys who caught up with us. We skinned up another hill, and then skied, skinned up another one, and skied again. Sacha was the perfect guide: tough but attentive, always at the forefront assessing the risks. A couple of hours into our groups’ joint venture we stopped for a snack. While Sacha handed me a Mars bar, I asked one of our fellow skiers for his name. “Mike,” he said. “ Mike Horn.”

A silence broke out, so thick you could hear the echo of the goats on next summit. All eyes turned to Mike. In an instant, a new king was crowned. In the aftermath of one comment, Sacha had been demoted. Meanwhile, all else remained the same – glorious weather and perfect powder. In an equal instant, Sacha most respectfully and honourably accepted his fall and adapted to the new order. I observed this subtle but quick and obvious redistribution of power from behind my sunglasses, bemused and amused at the same time. It turned out our fellow skier was THE Mike Horn, a professional explorer who has single-handedly and multiple times sailed all seas, crossed both poles, swum the Amazon river, climbed the highest peaks of earth, and even had a sponsor offer to fly him to the moon (literally) to live there for a while. Not quite sure how to pay him the respect he deserved, or label him crazy, I asked “did you see any pink dolphin in the Amazon?” Sure enough, he pulled out his phone and scrolled down a collection of the most breathtaking National Geographicesque images from across the world to a selfie with a pink dolphin shot while swimming in the Amazon river! Convinced I was. Then off again we threw ourselves down the wild, powdery, untamed glacial steep. Mike at the forefront, and the rest of us in tow.

1533862_788122531204938_499787813_nMike Horn and Sacha Burri

A few months later on the mountain Quandil in Northern Iraq, in a small hut hidden away in a grove of gigantic walnut trees, a secret camp serving soldiers of the PKK, I found myself in conversation with members of the organisation’s highest committee, the ultimate decision makers of the 20 thousand troop guerrilla force. A line of Kalashnikovs resting against the wall, a well-built young man carrying a tray of steamy cups of tea around to serve us, and a 34 year old veteran describing being shot seven times and how she survived. Yes, among the most intellectual, educated, courageous, humble, committed, and fierce leaders I have ever come across, they didn’t just happen to be all women. In fact, only women are allowed in the highest committee, called the Commission of High Women. These women are world-educated doctors, political scientists, and veterans in guerrilla battle. The PKK is structured entirely by committees, both permanent committees for strategic decision-making by consensus, and temporary task forces of mobilised men and women to co-operate to address various situations.

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Founded by Abdullah Öcalan in 1974 to fight for political rights for the Kurds, the PKK has in light of the greater Kurdish autonomy in Iraq and Turkey of recent years shifted its mission to political engagement, empowering women and supporting the revolutions of other oppressed populations. “Our main aim is the freedom of Kurdistan. But we work in the direction of humanity. We include anyone from any religion or background. People of all cultures should be able to live in tolerance and peace alongside each other and with a fair democratic political system.” Given their precious region’s experience, the PKK’s critique of capitalism and the US is justifiable: “Capitalism creates wars and inequalities between people. It turns people away from their own reality.” I probed on the assumption that PKK is still a communist movement. “We accept that people live at various living standards and lifestyles, people can achieve what they aspire to, but we are against the actions of capitalism that are destructive.” Öcalan’s solution is for women to have a role in destroying the old system and creating a new one. On International Women’s Day, he announced: “The freedom of women is more important than land and culture. Women are the leading force of social transformation. They are in the vanguard of social change, and must establish economic communes. A woman must be a freedom fighter. You must liberate yourselves. Make the search for freedom the basis of your work. Don’t complain, be creative. When 3 or 4 women come together they produce a solution. Trust your femininity.” And in a most constructive line of thinking the High Women tell me: “The most important thing in our community is education. Education is the only way to rebuild society. When people are educated, they know how to address inequalities, and they can make informed and high quality decisions.”

Out of 20 thousand combatants, 15 thousand are women. I could not help but ask, “what would happen if a member fell in love?” to which I received a most humbling response: “We cannot yet afford love on an individual level because we are not yet free. We have to see love pursuit from the bigger perspective of freedom and equality, not as the love between a boy and a girl. We do fall in love, but it is with the mountains, the rivers, the nature. We fall in love with our people, our culture, our customs. But we are prepared to die for our cause.” Two weeks later, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (IS) swept across the region and gained control of Mosul. Back in London I watched on Al Jazeera that Kurdish President Barzani had visited Quandil to reach an agreement of collaboration with the PKK for protection against the IS. Once again, these brave women were out in battle. Reportedly, as much to protect their fellow women in IS captivity as to defend their Kurdish territory. Most impressive and heartbreaking at the same time is the recent account of a Kurdish female fighter who entered an IS camp and blew herself up in order to give the Yasidi refugees some leeway in their escape.

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Beyond admiration and awe, what did I take away from these mountain moments? In the wake of my move back to Sweden in August, and the messy national election, the debate about the lack of women in leadership positions has been one of the most heated. As egalitarian as my country is, this surprises me. The Nordic countries rank the highest in the World Economic Forum’s gender-gap index. And in view of my experiences consulting to organisations in 15 cities in 10 countries, I could not help to draw some parallels. Research on Leadership has tended to label men’s style as command-and-control, involving the assertion of authority and the accumulation of power. Women’s leadership is described as interactive, involving collaboration and empowerment of employees. Further, it has been argued that women tend to thrive in managerial positions because they require building and maintaining relationships, gathering input and facilitating action, and that men tend to thrive in senior positions because they are more about making decisions and directing action.

As mythical as this may be, the issue is more complex. Leaders can not exist without followers, and the followers’ expectations can both limit and enable the potential of any given leader. Harvard Business Review affirmed in a recent article that it is the perception by men and women that respective genders should behave in certain ways that get in the way of true authentic leadership. Countless research confirms that most cultures attribute passive, dependent qualities to females and dominant, aggressive qualities to males. If you expect a man to lead by directive, he may appear less credible if he calls for a group discussion. If you expect a woman to lead by consensus, you might find her applying a more directive style a bit abrasive or even offensive. Too often women leaders who have been successful with a male-labeled style of leadership have confided in me the feeling that most people think they are a bitch. I have seen fewer men in top positions with the habit of seeking people’s input, perhaps because they have not been promoted. The Economist makes the silverback gorilla the metaphor profile for what is still majority in the c-suite and boardrooms of global corporations – tall, fit, and male, and writes: “It is remarkable, in this supposed age of diversity, how many bosses still confirm to the stereotype.”

To counter this, Sweden has joined a number of european countries in legislating quotas for the male-female ratio on corporate boards. I try to say this humbly as I have only just entered the debate, but I feel as if my beloved country has tried to equilibrate the gender issue so much that it has thrown the baby out with the bath water. If we are to let all leaders be successful, whether they are male or female, we need to first manage our own expectations of them, examine our judgments and acknowledge the complexity of human beings.

Anyone who has ever done a personality assessment – be it the MBTI, Insights, Social Styles, Conflict Styles, Disc or other – should know that wherever you end up on the personality style graph, it is not what you are but what is your comfort zone. It is within that realm of behavior that you feel most content and contained, basically being you without effort. I can’t emphasise enough that self-aware and capable people are flexible to step out of their comfort zone – an introvert can be a great public speaker and an extrovert can be a great data cruncher – it is just a matter of sliding a bit further out on the continuum. But performing activities outside of our comfort zone does require energy. And if we consistently have to perform outside of our comfort zone it is exhausting. So back to male and female, if we think of these gender-attributed sets of qualities as a continuum with each set on either end, rather than try to blur the line, we can first identify our own preferences on the spectrum, and then perhaps challenge ourselves to stretch the comfort zone.

Effective leaders in today’s world, in my view, should be able to plug themselves into any situation and be comfortable in their own skin, view things with fresh eyes, challenge the status quo if it is not working, inquire, inspire, mobilise, make firm decisions when necessary, facilitate when possible, in different ways and different contexts influence and guide action – and still be humble enough in those qualities to know when it is time to be a follower. It means letting the male and female inside us dance, not get in the way of each other.

We are complex, sophisticated beings with the capability for imagination and understanding. So instead of relying on quotas, let’s equip each other with more ideas and skills for understanding and respect, for celebrating individual differences and leveraging the highest potential of collaboration.

So where do we get in the way of ourselves?

In my own observation, when men socialize, there tends to be a sort of hierarchy, where there’s a leader – the boss, the man, the Godfather.. – basically the guy who has proven most successful in the most relevant context, and the order goes down to the rookie who is still always happy to get to come along. The hierarchy may change between contexts. When women socialize, they tend to play down the power differences, or draw a line below or above a certain level of status, so as to keep things even within the group. When men socialize, they tend to talk about work, while when women socialize they tend to talk about everything but work. Earlier this year I watched a group of extremely competent, intelligent women spend a whole precious hour over lunch encouraging each other to do botox. What kind of social transformation will that produce? If we want to be valued for our intellect, then let’s invest our precious time together accordingly.

Another observation, which continuously gets affirmed by my male friends and clients in the corporate world, is that men hire each other over and over again. When one guy moves jobs, he brings his group with him. If that implies a change in power structure, everyone adapts, and so it goes until another one moves and brings the rest along. So, why do women not support each other in the business world as they do in personal contexts? There are different things at stake for men and women advancing in their careers. When a man gets promoted, most of his friends at work will celebrate him. When a woman gets promoted, the colleagues who once saw her as an equal may now alienate her. Women thus feel they have to give up their sense of belonging for a step up the career ladder.

What happened up there on the Rosa Blanche? There seemed to be an unstated premise that the one who has survived the most extreme circumstances in the most relevant context gets to be in charge. It’s logical. It makes sense. No vote needed. But throwing in at least a minute’s worth of reflection, is it enough to say, “follow that guy, he is more convincing?” There is a downside to perception; it isn’t always accurate. Counting some corporate scandals of late, not to mention political ones, could we conclude that most of them have involved men? In male dominated organisations, be it a business or a society, narcissists and psychopaths have a smoother path to the top. By charm or cohesion they advance the hierarchy, and once in charge they can do a lot of damage until they fall. There are female psychopaths too, but their fellow women tend to question them early enough.

Traditional business organisations are hierarchies, with one individual at top. Their very structure makes it presupposed that the male style of leadership is required for success. When we refer to an executive decision, it’s usually a firm, deliberate and final course of action determined by the person in charge. But when a woman makes an executive decision, she often doubts herself as it goes against the female instinctive nature of gathering input and perspectives before making a choice. Further, women tend to commit to organisations that align with their values. And among members of corporates boards, more women than men value the ability to communicate effectively, and female directors are more likely than their male counterparts to ask tough questions or move boardroom discussions forward in skilled and effective ways. Now, as our world is increasingly made of networks and not pyramids, the context is changing to the favor of female leaders, accelerated by technology. All powerful movements of late, from the Arab springs of North Africa and the Middle East, to Occupy Wall Street, to petitions for greater human and animal rights, are sets of ideas that draw followers and supporters globally. With organisations changing shape, it is just a matter of time until women will thrive naturally at every level. Lean in and follow Sheryl Sandberg.

What did I learn on these mountains, about these brave individuals who have accomplished extreme things in extreme circumstances? There is a fearlessness to them, that evokes a remarkable peace. A peace that is magnetic, fascinating, beautiful. And scary. It is a fearlessness that makes you question all your attachments. Basically, “if I were ready to die today, what would really matter?” Deepak Chopra said in a recent seminar, “When you overcome the fear of death, you free yourself from all fear there is.” Imagine that! All of our fears are filters. Our fears limit us from not just seeing truth in front of us, but also our own potential. In the presence of that fearlessness, I felt utterly safe, seen and respected. I felt connected to myself and to the world at the same time. I felt a clarity of mind, a sharpness, a stronger intuition, as if I could know the truth of everything.

Over the last ten years, based in New York and London, I have sold, designed and delivered Leadership Development programs to an international client base globally. It has been a most exciting and rewarding journey, and I thank everyone who has been a part of it so far. But it is both limiting and lonely to work alone, so in Stockholm I am looking for a platform to scale my capacity in an intelligent, fun and supportive team environment. I’ve been actively networking to this end for three months, and I feel compelled to share that in my countless meetings with highly interesting individuals and organizations, the most common question I get asked is “Are you married?” It always surprises me, not because it’s a strange question but because it is so out of context in a first business meeting. The shocker is what follows when I answer no. “Why not?”

Startled then, I have told myself that’s a good question because I haven’t thought about it. Although believe me when I fall in love I will shout it from the highest rooftop! But any answer here has no upside. If I appear offended, it will kill the business relationship I am in the moment trying to build. If I say “not yet,” it may appear as if I’m going to take the fist opportunity to tie the knot and disregard my professional commitments. And if I point out that we’re sitting in a country where 55% of married couples get divorced, I am 55% likely to offend the person in front of me. And in light of the conversation, does my marital status make me any more or less intelligent, competent, experienced, strategic, innovative, pragmatic? Of course not. Does it make me any more or less feminine, caring, thoughtful, balanced, inclusive, cooperative, loyal? Of course not. Most importantly, does it have any baring on my professional potential? Let me now add to this conundrum, that it is always women who ask.

This makes me think perception has a long way to go in Sweden. Until Swedes let go of their strong ideas of what is normal, and open up to new paradigms, we will keep throwing the baby out, fitting people into boxes and adding quotas. In essence, if we are to truly embrace diversity, from the depths of society to corporate boards, shouldn’t we all, ourselves, begin to examine our very own assumptions, presuppositions and dare I say fears? Why look for the ordinary when you can find the extraordinary?

My hitherto unstated answer is: It is not my intention, wish or my job to fit into someone else’s view of what is accomplishment or happiness. It is my profession however, to expand people’s views – to help people see the bigger picture, and to see their own greater potential beyond the limits of social expectations, fears and doubts. It is my job to ask: “Who would you be, if all your fears were gone?” And it is my own joy to keep expanding those limitations, overcome those fears, and conquer the doubts for my own fulfilment.

I’m not a politician, but I’ve coached a few now. At times my self-doubt kicks in and I wonder, ”how long is it going to take until I make a fool out of myself before this powerful person?” But then, when they tell me: “Thank you, I can see things so much more clearly now. I know what I am meant to do. I no longer have anxiety,” I think, if that can change the needle of the compass for their constituency in the right direction, I will in my own little way be the vanguard for social transformation that Öcalan calls for.

I believe in Öcalan. I believe women and men are different, and we should honour that. And I believe women can contribute to social transformation on a massive scale. We just have to challenge ourselves first. We need to break out of our own fears, embrace the extraordinary, and start by being the transformation. If we don’t, how are we ever going to tackle the bigger issues? We need to be comfortable applying both styles of leadership in all kinds of organisations when they are respectfully most effective. If we’re in a situation we’ve never tackled before, we can be resourceful and apply whichever skills we have to shine in that moment. If we lack role models, we can imagine what a role model would be like and be that way. And fellow women, lets learn from men about projecting ourselves with confidence. Let’s learn from men about taking some risk. Let’s learn from men about accepting power differences, sticking together, sharing resources, protecting each other, celebrating each other’s successes and advancing as a group.

And even if we can only aspire to complete fearlessness, it can be a guiding light in the way we handle ourselves in our various circumstances. If we can’t be as courageous as our female freedom fighters, let’s at least be courageous in conversation. If we can’t be as courageous as a world explorer, let’s at least be courageous in exploring our own minds. Let me assure you, you are not going to die.


  • Mike Horn travels the world and inspires, writes and lectures on Leadership. www.mikehorn.com.
  • Sacha Burri is still the king of Verbier, because he challenged one of my ultimate fears, dangling off a parachute 1800 meters above ground, with a paragliding tour off Mont Fort. You’ll find him at Fer a Cheval, Verbier.
  • And against so many odds, with the same trajectory as Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi, Öcalan is moving his needle of the social compass from prison in Turkey.




What else this year?

The dream come true most literally in 2014 is as real as a pair of coordinates. While living in New York and London for 15 years, I had a recurring dream that I found a new door in my home, which lead into a garden, or a field, a forest, a beach or a lake. So when moving back to Sweden, rather than make a home in the city, I moved to an island, surrounded by beaches and boats, covered with forest and fields, and a gigantic lake in the middle. Every day I find another stunning walk, and like my friends in Quandil, every day I fall a little bit more in love with our beautiful earth.

KottlaskogenKottla i skymningenWinter Sun

I kept a foot in the NGO sector and got to work with some amazing NGO’s under the sponsorship of their donors. The question at the heart of every NGO these days is, or at least should be: ”How do we maintain as an ultimate goal the empowerment of our beneficiaries to the extent that they no longer need us, while at the same time justify our existence to our donors?” On the most part, the outcome of a donation is often not defined. A simple question I often ask donors is: “Do you want to meet a need or solve a problem?” There is a difference in building a school and influencing the curriculum or raising the status of the teacher profession? There is a difference between supporting a youth shelter and impacting a government’s engagement with the next generation? In other words, there is a difference between funding a project and raising awareness, mobilising support and scaling solutions? These are of course not mutually exclusive, but different means to different ends. I have worked with Philanthropists through the whole process of identifying their values and defining donation criteria, developing an appropriate strategy, researching and assessing suitable grantee organisations, supporting grantees by facilitating their strategic planning and execution process, and documenting progress. I encourage philanthropists and established foundations to be more ambitions in their aims and more strategic in their thinking. And I encourage philanthropists to be patient – to think not in quarters, not in years, but in multi-year milestones, and sometimes in generations. Planting seeds of innovation in the hands of capable change agents, and fuelling the minds of children, moves the needle of their social compass and you can help them chart their course. But the journey has to be theirs and the destination has to be defined by them. That is both the premise and the promise of a successful philanthropic venture.


While on assignment in LA, i decided to take my first surfing lesson. Surfing always looked so incredibly difficult to me, and I thought of it more as a fun thing to try without expectations. To my surprise I managed to get up on the board and surf on first try. And the second try, and the third.. The instructor thought I was kidding. “You must have surfed before” he said.””No,” I was just as surprised as he was. A few weeks later in Dubai I took a stab at wake surfing, which is about the same thing but you surf the wake of a boat. Again: “Have you done this before?” I said “No.” ”But… I’ve practiced yoga for 15 years.” And it struck me that, for 15 years, I had trained each and every move and muscle required to surf without knowing it. As far as transferable skills goes, that can serve as an analogy for so many situations. I coached a Private Equity firm Partner who had been dealing with a conflict in his personal life for years. From our conversation he realised that he was an excellent mediator, and that indeed he was using that skill at work frequently but not acknowledging it as a skill. I also coached a female lawyer who was an excellent mentor to her junior Associates, but had not thought of providing carer guidance to her daughter in Law School. How many things do we know in one context of our lives, that can be considered a great asset or skill in another?

genieworldIMG_4075Presentation wideIMG_2257

My charity Integrate Hands has stayed on track with the development of GenieWorld, an online portal to training and educational resources to support school teachers in post-conflict societies. GenieWorld is meant to equip teachers to deliver education at international standards, but also to inspire teachers to see their role as vital in shaping society, and to raise the status of the teacher profession globally. With the generous donations received from my christmas campaign last year, we built our beta site and piloted in Iraq, Ethiopia, Nepal and Southern Turkey with enormously positive feedback. Next steps are to extend our network of content contributing teachers, partner with an established foundation and/or business to build a more robust and scaleable technological platform, and launch in conjunction with the Fall term of 2015. I remain utterly humbled and moved by my partner organisations, among them Komak, which operates independent schools in Northern Iraq. For the last four years that I have visited, they have grown both in capacity and competence, and have recently created spin-off schools to serve the children of Yasidi refugees, accommodating for their cultural wishes and special needs.

And my admiration grew even stronger, when after 4 years of friendship, one of them finally shared with me his personal story. I ask you to imagine this for yourselves: Imagine leaving your family behind and walking out of your country with as much as you can carry on your back, in search for a better reality than violence and atrocity – not knowing how, where or when you will find a safe place to call home, or if you can bring your family there – trying for asylum in five countries, only to be kicked out, jailed for trying again, and kicked out again. There is not a Swede who would not call that a burnout scenario. And imagine being welcomed in Scandinavia, and with your dignity intact, give all your energy to washing cars, so well that you end up running the shop, and you manage to bring your family over. And from there, imagine pulling all the resources you have together to go back to where you came from and build schools, to equip the next generation in creating a stable, democratic society, against the odds of bureaucracy, corruption and security risks. And imagine, on top of that, being always cheerful, supportive, and helpful to the extent that you call a friend and offer to help her paint her new home. To that my friends, I pay the highest respect.

IMG_2400Tigris River - MesopotamiaKatinka (47)IMG_2622IMG_2724Raz en routeDogs on the beach

While in Turkey, riding a bus along the magnificent Tigris River and one breathtaking Mesopotamian heritage site after another, our driver ran over a puppy and broke her leg. I told the driver to either put her out of her misery or drive me to a vet so I could have her cared for. We found a dog shelter and left her there. I returned to London, only to make a u-turn back to Turkey to make sure she was ok, picked her up and drove 20-hours across the country to a vet who could look after her, all the while the pup and I bonded to the point of no return. In September I brought her to Sweden to join my Rottweiler Roo in our new home. I had never before seen so much love between two animals! Their constant cuddling and playing has added such entertainment to my daily moments. But after another drive around to Sweden’s animal hospitals to follow up on her leg, I was consistently told it had not healed and had to be amputated. I thought, will she be able to play, run, live normally on three legs?  There were those risks, or we’d have to put her out of her misery entirely. Small puppy steps and a great leap later, she is now faster, happier, more playful, and every day more adorably affectionate – on three legs. Being relieved from the pain has freed up even greater joy in her. I take it as a reminder that sometimes we think we are dependent on something, even if it causes us pain, but that letting go of it can become a liberation rather than a loss.

On Christmas morning, to buffer the food coma that was to come, I decided to do something healthier than healthy, an organic vegetable juice (!). I opened the fridge and there, on top of my broccoli, was a huge, green caterpillar. That’s gross, I thought and threw the whole thing in the bin. Then I said to myself: “You don’t kill on Christmas!” and picked the whole broccoli out of the garbage and put it in a large glass vase in the laundry room. Then yesterday, I discovered the caterpillar had begun to cocoon. And I’m watching with fascination how it’s twisting and turning and weaving, slowly morphing itself into a butterfly. In a way, prepared to die only to transform into something more spectacular. Humbled again by the power of nature, I’m thinking: “I’m going to do the same.” And I ask myself, “ What can I wrap up and let go of that I no longer need? What can I try that looks really difficult, because maybe instinctively I know how? What can I develop to become a more complex, sophisticated, and beautiful being? Where can I add more courage?”

Writers corner

And from here, my new writer’s corner by the fire, looking out on a waxing moon peering through the trees and lighting up a scatter of falling snowflakes, I share with you a deep sense of peace and a simmering anticipation for the year ahead.

So see you there, in 2015!

2013: A Christmas Treat to Last a Lifetime

Dear Friends,

Another eventful year is coming to a close. For a third year I contributed a chapter to the Ready Aim Leadership book series, and was asked to write what I thought was the most important quality of a leader. I wrote about resourcefulness – by which I mean mental and emotional resourcefulness – the ability to find peace and strength within, to creatively turn adversity into prosperity, to negotiate between multiple worldviews. I believe true leadership skills can be developed when we are most severely challenged, and many leaders today are facing unprecedented circumstances that place them at the height of their capacity. I wrote, “If you can lose the things you depend on the most, without getting lost, you have reached the place from which you can be most influential.” The more we rely on anything outside of ourselves for our sense of dignity – other people’s approval, a title, a lifestyle, money, relationships – the more we put our dignity at risk. A question I often ask my clients is “Who would you be if all your needs were met in this moment?” They respond “ peaceful, fulfilled, happy, respectable, kind, powerful…” I remind them that this is who they are. The secret to being that person all the time is being resourceful.

In February I gave a speech to 500 High School students in South Africa as part of Star for Life’s Coaching programme to help them define and achieve their personal dreams. At least half of them were AIDS orphans, and most of them severely deprived, but all enthused with their newfound resourcefulness. I asked them to believe in their dreams, and to be patient, as dreams do not always happen overnight. I spoke of Nelson Mandela: “Mandela said ‘education is the most powerful tool we can use to change the world.’ Mandela had a big dream; to turn South Africa into a nation where people would live with fairness, respect, dignity and success. But long before he was able to make his dream come true, he was a high-school student just like you, he went to university and he became a lawyer. And for much of his life he faced probably the most severe obstacles to both dignity and achievement.”

IMG-20130221-00523Mandela did leave a great legacy, but an educational system that would enable more of his kind is still lacking in South Africa and so many other places. Resourcefulness is granted a few. And I’m writing this as 5 million children in Syria have lost everything. How will they learn to be resourceful as they lead their lives and future?

This year my young charity Integrate Hands, which supports local NGOs in post-conflict societies that help children meet international standards of education and break patterns of violence, sent teaching fellows on assignments in Iraq, Uganda and Ethiopia. In April, board members Jim O’Neil, Katharine Hirst and I visited our fellows in Northern Iraq. Since my first trip there in 2011, the local teachers have made significant progress in their use of the English language, and as a result are able to access information and resources via the internet for their own and students’ empowerment. And we witnessed the most striking evidence of their connectivity after hours of hiking up the spectacular Kurdish mountains, when a team member opened a laptop and inserted a mobile Internet USB stick to access an online dictionary.

To serve the enormous need for professional development and teaching resources among our partner schools, and to empower more teachers at a faster rate, Integrate Hands will in 2014 build an online portal for educational professionals to share knowledge across geographies, so that teachers in developed educational institutions can share best practices and support teachers in low-resource schools. This will funnel existing educational content on the Internet and allow approved teachers to feature their most successful practices.

GenieWorld-BannerIn November I gave a second invited lecture on Cognitive Development and Conflict Theory at the University of Exeter, and began a collaborative project with key staff to ensure that our efforts and progress are measured against the highest level evidence based standards. More information on our fellowships and research is available in the project section at www.integratehands.org .

Should you wish to support our efforts, please consider giving a Christmas gift towards education that will last a lifetime, through www.integratehands.org/donate.htm . All donations to Integrate Hands go directly towards our efforts. We do not have fixed costs, and all members of Integrate Hands’ Management Committee give their time voluntarily and receive no benefits from the charity.

Professionally, with over a decade’s experience supporting the effectiveness of professional services firms through leadership and organisation development, and coaching business leaders and high-net-worth individuals, this year I also began working with Philanthropists to help them develop their philanthropic strategy and define their legacy. There is increasing complexity in the ways philanthropic funds can be deployed, and greater opportunities for donors to partner with grantees. Dedicated Philanthropists need representation with a deep understanding of their values and priorities, accurate perception of the challenges of grantee organisations, and the ability to bridge communication gaps between stakeholders to transfer knowledge and foster results. I am offering my combined experience to Philanthropists in a package of services that includes:

Identification of values, desired legacy and donation criteria
Development of a philanthropic strategy with defined timeframe and objectives
Research, identification and assessment of suitable grantee organisations
Grant negotiation and engagement in project planning
Supporting grantees’ effectiveness through organisation and leadership development
Reporting and presenting outcomes
Facilitating round table discussions between grantees and philanthropists to identify best practices and opportunities for collaboration

All in all, it has been a year of beautiful experiences and growth. As a coach and facilitator, I remain true to my mission of helping others build resourcefulness to lead within their contexts. The further along this journey I have reached, the wider the reach of my efforts, and the itinerary is still unfolding. Nelson Mandela said, “it only seems impossible until it’s done.” I say, “I don’t know where my capacity ends, but I know where it begins, and that’s all that matters for now.”

Warm wishes for a happy holiday and an exciting year ahead,


Christmas Card

Defining Peace – Northern Iraq

When the US invaded Iraq, 60% of Iraq’s population were under 18. Today, Youth Unemployment is 57%, 65% of youths don’t know how to use a computer, and 70% of Baghdad’s children have been diagnosed with severe trauma. Enrolment in Secondary Education is only 21%. Armed groups and insurgencies are actively recruiting children to fight and carry out suicide attacks. Meanwhile, in the last three years, almost 100 billion dollars of foreign investment have entered Iraq, funding advancements in the oil and gas industry, telecommunications, real estate and hospitality. In the plethora of public and media debate about Iraq, I have continuously asked myself who has yet reflected on the promise of an Iraqi future through the minds of the millions of children who will ultimately own it? How do they view the possibilities of their future when on the whole their country has grown ever more unstable during their formative years? Will they receive the educational foundation for independent thought and critical discourse required of a democratic society, or the individual empowerment necessary for a prosperous free market economy? I believe there is a significant gap between the worldview of the enormous wave of children growing up in Iraq and the opportunity available to their country as articulated by foreign investors and policy makers, and that gap can only be filled by education. I decided to go and find out…

Playing with the kids

And so I went to Iraq, this first trip focusing on the Northern part of the country, the Kurdish region of Iraq. Kurdistan was safer that I had expected. I returned unshaken, but very moved. The Kurds suffered their worst violence in the 1980’s and 90’s with the gross humanitarian abuses by Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime and the guerrilla war of the Separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) with Turkey. Vast areas and villages of the Kurdish countryside were destroyed and thousands of civilians were killed during anti-insurgent campaigns that included ground offensives, aerial bombing, systematic destruction of settlements, mass deportation, firing squads, and chemical warfare. Amnesty International collected the names of more than 17,000 people who had ”disappeared” during 1988 alone. Since the beginning of the new millennium, and with the removal of the dictatorship, the Kurds are finally experiencing stability and many Kurds who fled their homeland have come back to resettle, bringing with them internationally acquired skills and a passion to rebuild their country.


It is a stunningly beautiful region that everywhere reminds you of its impressive history as the cradle of civilization, Mesopotamia. It is now faced with tremendous opportunity to blossom once again, with oil production nearing 3 million barrels per day and direct foreign investment flooding into the country. But confirmed to me in the vast amounts of conversations I enjoyed with a variety of stakeholders is that there is more than meets the eye. The opportunity carries difficult challenges that need to be addressed urgently, taking into account geopolitical, ethnic, social and economic agendas. Perhaps the most critical but not currently obvious, includes making sure that the young, who comprise the majority of the population, are able to grasp and sustain this economic development, as well as efforts to stabilize the sectarian violence that is worsening in parts of the country and undermining development. See select reference articles listed on www.integratehands.org/articles.htm .

On October 10th I landed in Erbil, where I stayed for the first half of the trip. A city bursting with development evident in construction everywhere you look, boasting work in progress steel structures wrapped in signs marketing what is taking shape, from big hotels and office buildings to shopping malls and residential apartments. There is even a mall that has an indoor ice-skating rink. The locals I spoke to proudly refer to their city as “the next Dubai.” Yet, while talking to a local resident, who is a successful young executive in a foreign oil company, he was sharing his difficulties buying an apartment in one of these buildings under construction. The developers had raised the price three times, and still the building is not even completed. I couldn’t help but think, if he is one of the lucky 43% of young Iraqis who has a job and on top of that is well paid, and he can’t afford to buy an apartment, then who will?


I met a remarkable group of Iraqi businessmen and foreign investors with whom I am in continuing dialogue about next steps to raise awareness and pooling resources to advance the capability of Iraq’s youth. I also met the inspiring CEO of a local media production company that has offered to film and edit the documentary I aim to produce to support these efforts. I can’t wait to share these developments in the coming weeks.









I then spent two days visiting schools in the countryside. Although only a fragment of the children are actually in school, the ones that are enrolled are still too many for the few state schools to handle. Some schools not only have to put 50 students in each classroom, but they also accommodate for the masses of children by teaching in shifts, many even dividing the day into four shifts, so each child can only attend 2 hours of school a day. The school buildings are old and dilapidated, and many of them were originally built for other purposes such as medical facilities, so the rooms that are now used as classrooms are very small. Few of them have electricity so the children learn to read and write in a classroom barely lit up by the few rays of sunlight that the tiny windows let through. Only my camera’s flash was strong enough to bring some light for a clear picture. The children loved to be photographed and to see their pictures on the screen of my camera.

Super Poor Teacher with Kids 3

I was exceptionally hosted by a local NGO called Komak, which through its own independent primary schools are doing truly extraordinary work to improve education for the lucky few children who they can accommodate. Komak was founded by Kurds who fled Iraq in the 80’s to Sweden and Norway. They discovered as they put their children in school that the Scandinavian curricula offered a comprehensive education at the highest international standards not dominated by religious or political views. They decided to adapt this system to a Kurdish version and build as many schools as they could to deliver it in their home country, with the vision of creating a better future for its children by encouraging development of their creative and intellectual capacity, and in the long term promote the development of democracy and advocate for the implementation of civil and human rights. For more information about Komak see http://www.komak.nu/Kurdi/Rupel/Diwan.htm (click on “English” at the top left corner).

School Hallway

Karwan Aref, Komak’s leader of projects in Kurdistan and my role model of a modern day hero, took me under his wing and gave me a most comprehensive tour of the region’s school system and the countryside with tireless effort and rare hospitality.


During the hours of travel alongside the country roads I was in awe of the beautiful landscape. Miles of rolling hills illuminated by golden grass and striped agriculture fields, graced by cattle and featuring an occasional tree adding a splash of green to the earthy colours. It didn’t occur to me until Karwan pointed out the evidence of the region’s tragic history along the roads. He told me that these rolling hills used to be so lush with trees that most of them were covered in forest, but under the violent oppression of the Kurds by the Ba’athist regime they were bombed to the extent that part of the nature was permanently destroyed. Tucked between the soft shapes of these beautiful hills were occasional man-made hills that signalled mass graves, surrounded by gravestones in the shadow of the few trees that remained. Karwan spoke with an altered tone of voice indicating a persevering anger about the injustice caused to his people and the remnants of fear and aggression that still take expression in the daily lives of the Kurds, in the form of domestic abuse and aggressive responses to problems. “For a society that has suffered so much threat, violence and destruction, aggression is a default way of handling problems. The deeply rooted feelings of insecurity makes people want to put others down to lift themselves up.”

Ice Cream Break 2

Touring the villages of Koye and Ranya, we were greeted at every school by its Headmaster and its designated government representatives. All of them were eager to make improvements in their educational offer and the children’s environment but seemed to be limited only by not knowing how, but looking to Komak for support as and when it would become available to them.

Sharing Second Step

Slowly but persistently growing at the rate of their access to resources, Komak’s dedicated founders and passionate teachers are not only giving their school children an internationally recognized quality education, but their curriculum also includes a weekly program fostering empathy and tolerance, called “Hengaw Be Hengaw”. This is the Kurdish name of an educational curriculum designed to address children’s development of social and emotional skills in preschool, primary and secondary schools. This program has been translated from the American curriculum Second Step, which was developed in 1992 by the non-profit organization Committee for Children (CFC) in Seattle, USA. The program equips children with skills to tolerate difference and constructively resolve conflict. They learn to be aware of their own feelings and the feelings of others. They learn how to read the signs of another person’s emotions, and articulate them in words to that they can express their empathy verbally. When they are in contact with their emotions, they are less aggressive, and they learn ways to cope with frustration through discussion and collaboration. In the context of Iraq, and the plethora of post-conflict societies across the world, this program has the capacity to transform this generation that is so large it could be the tipping point in breaking patterns of violence in a society tainted by decades of conflict.

Second Step lesson 2

Thanks to Komak’s inclusion of state school teachers in their training of the Second Step program, several of the state schools can now teach Second Step as well. The difference this program made even in the state schools with their limited resources was highly evident and almost moved me to tears. With eagerness and excitement, one after the other as their teachers responded to their raised little hands, these kids got up and shared what they had learned from Second Step: “I have learned to accept and respect other people who may be different from me,” “ I have learned to listen actively and read how another person feels and to make them feel better,” “When I get angry, I take three deep breaths and count down from five to zero and then I tell the other person how I feel,” “I have learned to solve problems between me and other people,” and “When someone is aggressive I put my hands behind my back to show them that I’m not going to fight back.” I was blown away by their wisdom, wishing that I had possessed the insight that they have when I was their age, and ignited with a sense of urgency to give every child in Iraq and beyond access to this simple but so powerful program. I asked them to share examples of how they were applying what they had learned in their daily lives and their stories told of enormous shifts they had made in relationships between them and other children and with and between family members. It is hard to imagine that these kids with what they have learned would ever resort to violence in a conflict situation. Or see any situation as conflict at all.

I asked Karwan what drove him to dedicate his life to Komak. “If we can build more schools, 80% of the problems in society will disappear. If we can build an academy to train teachers to deliver this curriculum, we can meet the needs of education and healing for all the kids in the country. If we can teach professional skills, we can build our economy in a sustainable way. The problem today is that there are no national standards, no established school calendar, unequal distribution of children in the schools and poorly trained teachers.”

Kurdish Dinner

After a long day of school visits, Karwan brought me and his dedicated Komak disciples along to dinner at the house of a wonderful Kurdish family who hosted us with a lavish feast of traditional food and freshly picked vegetables and herbs from their garden.

Barely mindful of being the only foreigner, the one thing that struck me during dinner, was that I was the only woman in the dining room with the father of the house, his five sons, and Karwan with his son and friends. Our hostess and her four daughters were dining in a separate room and came to join us for post-dinner conversation over tea and fresh grapes.

Conversation seemed effortless, thanks to Karwan and his son’s alert translation from Kurdish to Norwegian, to which I responded in Swedish and English. Having grown up on a farm with horses and agriculture and fishing and hunting, I was able to have an exciting dialogue with our host and friends about their farming background, passion for horseback riding, the white fish in the local river that grow to over 100 kilos and the bursting flavor of their homegrown tomatoes. We spoke and laughed intensely for hours, and when we left our lovely host sent me off with a boquet of aromatic herbs to put next to my pillow for a good night’s sleep.

Back at Komak’s school in Ranya where I was to spend the next two nights, the giggles were still fully alive as Karwan and his son Sakan, and Komak crewmembers were preparing various tasks for the following schoolday while serving delicious pomegranate seeds from the fruit orchard of the schoolyard. After a long conversation with Karwan about Komak’s expansion plans, I went to bed on my mattress in the headmaster’s office, which at the point of exhaustion I had reached felt like a bed of feathers.


The next day awaited with even more intensity. Komak’s lovely teachers showed up to start the day over a delicious breakfast, and before I knew it the schoolbus arrived and the yard was filed with enthusiastic schoolkids, bursting with energy and affectionately greeting the teachers who were on shift to watch the schoolyard before classes began. I was welcomed to sit in on several lessons, including English taught to first and second grade students. I also immensely enjoyed a session of the Second Step program with the first graders.

Teddybear allocation

Komak’s criteria for enrolment of a student are clear and simple. They must not suffer any physical punishment or abuse at home, and the parents have to collaborate with the school by attending regular meetings and meet the requirements for their children to progress. Other than that, every child has a chance to an education that undoubtedly redirects their life towards a future where they can actualise their own unique potential. I asked Karwan what he thinks Kurdish life would have been like if these programs had been available to his generation. He said with conviction, “Revenge would not be so important to people.” And upon brief reflection on what he had just said, he continued “When I think about what I’ve grown up with, I get angry. Although we now are able to move forward, it’s easy to build a house or buy a car, but it’s hard to forget what happened to us just a few decades ago. We have to remind ourselves to think constructively, and get out of old patterns of fear and defensiveness. My father taught me to always think about how I could make things better for others. He was very successful but always made sure we would never think of ourselves as better than anyone else. I grew up in this society where people want to make changes but after decades of central power and bureaucracy they don’t know how. When I fled to Norway and saw an alternative in the Norwegian society I saw possibilities for my home country and we began spending all of our holidays going back home to work with schools to improve education.”

On my last evening, by which time I was so full of impressions that it felt as if I had been there for weeks, Sakan and the school’s administrative manager Raz took me for a quick tour of Ranya. And just in time for the sunset Karwan drove us to watch the colourful landscape high up on a hill alongside the valley that once was ruled by the Kingdom of Corduene, which was a state ally to the Roman Republic between 66 BC and AD 384. Today, on the mountain stretch hidden behind the mist of that river valley, The PKK and the Turks are still actively fighting a battle over the border that divides the Kurdish people between Irak and Turkey.


The next morning, Raz came over to the school and cooked us breafast before the Komak team began their day with a volleyball match, and I embarked on my 2.5 hour car ride to the airport. My eyes locked on the beautiful landscapes of which I had grown so fond in just a few days, I was thinking about how deeply touched I had been by the presence of the remarkable souls I was blessed to befriend in this short week. Along with a brief smile at the irony of not being able to think of a more recent example, a quote by Gandhi came to mind. “A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history.” Perhaps not as visible, yet, Komak’s leaders, and most certainly their insightful students, undoubtedly do have all it takes and more.


Next steps:

I plan to raise awareness of the country’s educational needs and highlighting some of the solutions already available that can be scaled and replicated across the country. I aim to engage Iraqi business leaders, diaspora and foreign investors with a vested interest in the region to pool resources that can enable the expansion of programs like Komak throughout the country, with consistency in standards, capacity and delivery. I hope to encourage collaboration between businesses and the government whereby international skills and resources can be leveraged to build the educational system and foster the development of democracy and economic stability in the region.

For the warm hospitality and kind introductions that enabled this trip I wish to express my gratitude to:

Karwan Aref
Asos Shafeek
Shwan Taha and Shakhawan Rasheed
Salwan Zaito
Hugh Warrender
Lee Peterson
Laurent Alpert
The International Rescue Committee
Northern Gulf Partners