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 is debating whether to join 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.
  • 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.

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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?

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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.

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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!