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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

How to Be a Leader

The School of Life

Martin Bjergegaard and Cosmina Popa





1. Bystanders vs leaders

The murder of Kitty Genovese on 13 March 1964 has influenced Western psychology, culture and consciousness more than anyone thought possible. Besides making nationwide headlines at the time, it sparked a whole new field of scientific research for decades to follow, it has been studied in several bestselling books (including two from 2014), and it has served as inspiration for numerous songs, movies and theatre plays. The misdeed also accelerated the implementation of the 911 emergency system, which became a reality across the United States in 1968.

What was so special about this crime? With 636 murders in New York City during the year of 1964, another spilled life was sad, but hardly much of a public affair. Yes, the murder was brutal, and the victim was a pretty young woman, but that alone was far from outstanding. Kitty wasn’t famous and she didn’t have friends in high places. So it was no surprise that for the first ten days the incident didn’t get much attention at all. But then something happened.

A. M. Rosenthal was relatively new on the job as the metropolitan editor of the New York Times. He was very ambitious, and he often had lunch meetings with New York City’s police commissioner, Michael Murphy, to scout for particularly juicy crimes to report on. During one of their lunch meetings Murphy shared how it surprised him that this twenty-eight-year-old bar manager, Kitty Genovese, had been chased, stabbed, sexually assaulted, and eventually killed, in the middle of the street, and yet no one had even bothered to call the police.

It wasn’t that Kitty didn’t scream. She did. A lot. During the investigation the police had to interview thirty-eight eyewitnesses, all of whom had either seen or heard Kitty sometime during the almost thirty minutes it took the twenty-nine-year-old Winston Moseley to commit his random act of cruelty. Moseley was on his own, unknown in the neighbourhood, and the only weapon he brought on the day was a hunting knife. So why did no one come to Kitty’s rescue, or at least make an effort to alert the police?

Rosenthal went away from that lunch feeling that he was on to something big. Three days later the New York Times ran a front-page story with a four-column headline:


Apathy at Stabbing of Queens Woman Shocks Inspector

The article opened with:

For more than half an hour 38 respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens.

Readers were seemingly forgiving of the minor inconsistency on the number of witnesses, and soon the story was on everyone’s lips. As the police report came out, two quotes from the passive bystanders won particular fame. A neighbour and friend of Kitty’s had opened his front door, been face to face with the killer for a moment, only to quickly close the door again. To the police he explained, ‘I didn’t want to get involved.’ In another apartment a woman had said to her husband, ‘Thirty people must have called the police by now.’

Millions of Americans were outraged, as well as moved to tears, and it was widely debated how something like this could have happened. Possible explanations ranged from numbness caused by growing television consumption to the cynicism appearing in big cities, with some simply dismissing the human race as selfish, fearful and lacking any real sense of empathy.

Modern-day reviews of the case have shown that Rosenthal had got a bit carried away and exaggerated some of the facts he learnt during these three days in 1964, reading police reports, studying witness statements and talking to neighbours. There was actually one person who shouted out the window ‘Leave that girl alone’, which prompted Moseley to stop his attack and return to his car. But only to come back. There was also an old woman who came out after the murderer had left, and she was holding the dying Kitty Genovese in her arms when the police finally arrived. One person claims that he did call the police, but was ignored. And the scared neighbour who had slammed the door because he ‘didn’t want to get involved’, in his panic took the back door to a friend in the same building. After long discussions (and when it was too late to save Kitty) he did in fact muster up the courage to give the police a ring. Finally, there had been two attacks on Genovese, not three, and the latter of them had taken place out of sight of the eyewitnesses.

Despite these exaggerations, the murder of Kitty Genovese gave food for thought. It touched on a deep and primal fear: ‘If my life should be in danger, would anyone come to help me?’ Moseley quickly went behind bars (where he still is), but this kind of fear has more to do with our human nature than with any one psychopath. The incident made us question ourselves. Answers were needed.

Social psychologists Bibb Latané, John Darley and Judith Rodin were the first to provide the public with a scientifically solid explanation. Following the 1964 ordeal they promptly went on to conduct a series of experiments. One of their studies, published in 1969, revealed that whilst 70 per cent would help a woman in distress when they were the only witness, only about 40 per cent took action when other people were also present.

In another experiment, participants were brought in supposedly to fill out questionnaires. Some were placed in a room alone, whilst others were seated together with two other people, either fellow participants or researchers posing as participants. As they sat filling out questionnaires, smoke began to fill the room. When participants were alone, 75 per cent reported the smoke to the experimenters. By contrast, just 38 per cent of participants in a room with two other participants reported the smoke. In the final group, when the participants were paired with two researchers in disguise, who noted but ignored the smoke, only 10 per cent of the participants reported it.1

This phenomenon became known as bystander apathy or the bystander effect, and it went a long way to explaining why there had been no help for Kitty Genovese that night in Kew Gardens. Simply put, the more people who can help, the fewer actually will help. This is attributed to two psychological principles. The first is diffusion of responsibility: ‘With this many people around, why should I help?’ Action or inaction becomes a shared responsibility. The group makes a decision, not the individual. Unfortunately, group decision-making is a dreadful mechanism in emergency situations.

The second principle is that of social influence, which means that, when something unexpected happens, bystanders will monitor the reactions of other people as their main input as to whether action is necessary. A bunch of passive bystanders provide social proof to each other that it’s okay not to step up and help.

Now that we’ve seen an example of bystander apathy, let’s look at a case which tells a different story. A story of one leader emerging from the crowd of bystanders.

Due to a fatal combination of a heavy snowstorm and a range of serious pilot errors, Air Florida Flight 90 only managed to climb 107 metres before starting to decline on 13 January 1982. Within thirty seconds of take-off, and just two miles from the White House, the plane struck the 14th Street Bridge, plunged through the ice and sank immediately in the Potomac River. On board were seventy-four terrified passengers and five crew members.

Only six people made it out of the plane wreckage and surfaced amidst twisted metal and broken ice. Injured, shocked and trapped in below-zero-degree water, the survivors needed help to come ashore. Unfortunately, the bad weather had caused traffic jams all over the city, and the emergency vehicles struggled to get to the site. However, the lines of cars stuck in traffic meant that plenty of people had seen the startling accident, and after a few minutes close to a hundred people had arrived, including emergency personnel. But no one had any ideas as to how to get to the survivors, and the situation was becoming desperate. The crowd watched as the six survivors kept fighting for their lives, holding on to floating metal parts and ice flakes, screaming and begging for help.

At 4.20 p.m., nineteen minutes after the crash, a rescue helicopter finally arrived. With the bridge so close, and all the fragments in the water, this was a difficult mission. The helicopter crew lowered a lifebuoy to the first survivor to tow him to shore. It took time to get him through the icy water safely, but the effort was successful.

On the second trip one of the survivors managed to hold on to two of the other survivors who by now were too weak to make it on their own. Unfortunately, during the tow one of them, Priscilla Tirado, fell off. Blinded by jet fuel, panicked, and being pushed beneath the surface by the wind pressure from the helicopter that was trying to save her, things looked very dire for Priscilla.

Now close enough to shore for the bystanders to look into her wide-open, blinded eyes, her plight is a heart-breaking sight to behold. With journalists and cameramen in the bystander crowd, all that happened was documented and is readily available on YouTube. It’s easy to be moved to tears whilst watching Priscilla up close, as she is making her last desperate moves, and it’s obvious that within seconds she will be gone.

Unable to hold on to the lifebuoy, she cannot be saved. Or so it seems. The bystanders are holding their breath, many are crying. The whole thing seems to be happening in slow motion, with Priscilla’s movements stiff and awkward in her severe state of hypothermia.

Then suddenly one of the bystanders moves forward, rips off his boots and coat, and with determination throws himself into the water. With clumsy but efficient strokes Lenny Skutnik swims towards Priscilla. He arrives, pulls her head above water, tows her with his bare hands, and in some miraculous way manages to get her close enough to shore for a firefighter, now also in the water and with a lifeline attached, to grab her and pull her to safety.

Lenny Skutnik was at the time twenty-nine years old. He held a job as a printing and distribution assistant for the Congressional Budget Office.

On 26 January 1982 Lenny was the guest of honour at the State of the Union address, invited by President Ronald Reagan. He sat next to First Lady Nancy Reagan as the leader of the free world praised Lenny for his bravery, and he received a standing ovation from the entire assembled audience. During the following weeks Lenny received more than 1,600 letters thanking him for his good deed.

By showing leadership on that tragic day in January 1982 Lenny had restored our faith that we human beings actually do want to help each other. Bystander apathy is no natural law; it can be overcome. It is possible for a normal person, without special skills, to step up as a leader even in an extreme situation like this. Lenny made us believe in ourselves again.

2. At scale

The lessons we can learn from the tragic murder of Kitty Genovese, the bravery of Lenny Skutnik and the experiments done on the bystander effect, go a long way to explaining leadership both at a very personal level and on a much bigger scale. Fundamentally it’s the same dynamic at play: either we step up or we don’t. Leadership is a choice, not a position.

However, as we’ve seen in these two stories, we tend to gravitate towards apathy. This makes stepping up the counter-intuitive choice. As such, we must continuously work to build up a leader’s mindset, and be ever ready to step up.

Let’s see what happens ‘at scale’, when bystander apathy becomes the standard in organizations, resulting in a greater number of victims.

In March 2003 Zhang Linwei and his wife Liu Li felt truly blessed as they brought their newborn baby girl, Rongrong, with them from the hospital to the family’s little home in Wangzhuang, a small village about midway between Beijing and Hong Kong, China.

As first-time parents the couple was very preoccupied with their baby’s health, and since her crying gradually became quieter Zhang and Liu got concerned. A few days later, as little Rongrong was growing a disproportionally big head and an abnormally small mouth, the couple took their daughter to the hospital. Zhang recalls: ‘The doctors said they couldn’t treat my baby. They had received numerous similar cases.’ Full of fear and uncertainty the parents took their beloved baby home, and did their best to heal her. One fateful day in August 2003, the five-month-old Rongrong took her last breath. Zhang and Liu were heartbroken.

This is not the intro to a Hollywood movie about outbreaks, pandemics and incurable diseases. Instead it’s a true story of a massive failure of leadership on multiple levels, and the devastating death of more than sixty babies in Wangzhuang and the neighbouring villages.

Meet melamine. You probably have it in your home, either as a countertop, as dinnerware, in laminate flooring, or in your whiteboard. For these purposes, a rather innocent material. Not so much when used as an ingredient in baby-milk powder. Rongrong died because the milk her parents so eagerly fed her had no more nutritional value than water. ‘Our baby starved to death,’ Zhang explains. The young couple’s mistake was to trust the government-approved, and supermarket-endorsed, locally produced milk-powder brand.

We are not dealing with one misguided employee going rogue and endangering thousands of babies single-handedly. What shocked the world back in 2004 was to learn that 141 factories from twenty-one different companies were using similar practice s, adding melamine to fake the protein levels, as the techniques used for testing cannot tell the difference between nitrogen in melamine and natural protein. This fraud made it possible for the companies to sell a product labelled as baby milk, but containing only 6 per cent of the vitamins, minerals and protein needed for a growing infant. Intake of melamine is also known to cause severe urinary problems and kidney damage, and is universally banned in food production.

Truth is said to be stranger than fiction, and in this case it is certainly a lot sadder: in 2008 new incidents came to light, and this time on a nationwide scale. China reported 300,000 victims of bogus baby-food products, with 54,000 infants being hospitalized. Dozens of high-ranking government officials were charged with corruption, looking the other way whilst corporate greed was allowed to flourish. This time two leaders from the worst-behaving companies were executed. Which of course didn’t bring any of the babies back.

You might be living a long way from China, and thinking that failures of this magnitude could never happen in the Western world. Rest assured, they do. And, one can only wonder how many fall into the trap of being passive bystanders.

Suffice it to say, we need more of us to become leaders. In our everyday lives, driving in traffic, living in communities, shopping at malls. We need to unlock our leadership potential whatever form of organization we find ourselves in: from our local sports club, to all types of companies, NGOs and government agencies. Just as importantly we must step up as leaders of one, as masters of our own lives, in addition to being trustworthy family members, friends and neighbours.

3. This book

How to Be a Leader is based on the premise that we all have the potential to be wise, compassionate and impactful leaders. This is not a book about how to manage people or how to climb the corporate ladder – although promotion is a natural consequence of good leadership. Rather, we will shed light on some universal principles that underpin different shapes and forms of leadership, with the aim of finally situating leadership in the broader human context.

In this book, we look to the future, being aware of how fast our world and collective consciousness are evolving. As our context changes, so must our leadership practices.

What follows is an invitation to bring a wider range of ideas, thinking and practices into your leadership, rather than just a narrow set of principles hailing from management theory, economics and business studies. Although these are necessary elements as well, they are amply covered in the existing leadership literature.

As you will see, we draw on leading-edge research from our academic partner, Ashridge Executive Education, part of Hult International Business School, which has six research centres, each focussing on specific areas: action research, business and sustainability, coaching, leadership training, strategic management and executive development.

Rather than putting forth a set theoretical framework, this book was conceived as a companion to take with you on your leadership journey. It holds wisdom from the wonderful leaders we interviewed, stories from our own lives and experiences, insights from cultural studies and timeless wisdom from some of the most loved philosophers.

The stories and metaphors are meant to illustrate a hero’s journey – whether leading through crisis, living with uncertainty or turning a painful past into a platform for impactful leadership. These stories are told as precisely as possible, as we intend for them to evoke emotion as well as our uniquely human capacity to imagine. They are meant to move you, inspire you and remind you that every moment is an occasion for leadership. Perhaps you will recognize yourself in some of these accounts of challenges, growth, forgiveness and acceptance. We hope they will serve as lessons and prepare you to respond to challenges and situations you encounter as a leader.

How to Be a Leader is divided into three parts: ‘You’, ‘You + Others’, and ‘Shadow’. The first part is about building a strong foundation for your leadership, and that process starts with you. How can we lead others if we ourselves don’t know who we are, and where we are going?

In the second part we focus on lessons and practices around relating to others. What we can achieve on our own is very limited, whilst it’s often been shown that a strong team, big or small, can change the world in significant ways.

In the final part we look at some shadow elements, which are highly impactful in leadership. In defining moments we often fall short, thereby compromising everything that the best version of our self has put so much effort into creating. Here, we explore crisis, uncertainty, failure and the ego.

Across these three parts we present you with the twelve strongest leadership lessons we have encountered during our work. This list is by no means exhaustive. There is a lot more that could be said about leadership. We carefully selected what we considered to be the most salient and often neglected aspects of what it means to be a leader.

4. The story of us

Who are we to write this book, and why do we care?

Cosmina grew up in Romania, during arguably one of the most oppressive Communist regimes, under Ceauşsescu’s dictatorship. She experienced first-hand what we today consider to be history’s biggest experiment with centralized leadership. At the age of eighteen, thanks to an unexpected act of kindness, Cosmina had the opportunity to study in the United States and left Romania eight years after the revolution that overthrew its dictators.

Arrived in the land of her dreams, Cosmina sat in a twelve-student classroom at the third oldest academic institution in the United States, the prestigious St John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland. Four years of discussing Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Hegel, Kant and just about everyone that has revolutionized Western thought prepared her to look for excellence that is divorced from status, credentials and power-dynamics.

After eleven years in the US she moved to London to get her Masters of Science degree in Environment and International Development. Then in 2013 she joined forces with a small team in Washington DC to create a start-up accelerator with the aim of building more new-era businesses from the ground up, whilst training more aware and conscious leaders.

She brings in new dimensions to leadership, gained from her current role of eco-system builder, start-up coach and catalyst for changing the way business is practised.

*   *   *

The Nordic countries are said to have found their ‘third way’, creating a welfare state without diminishing the right to pursue individual ambitions. This is the context in which Martin grew up, and with a few exceptions he is very fond of the Danish values and culture. Where Martin comes from, happiness is a big deal, and work–life balance is for everyone who wants it. He is proud of the fact that a disproportionally high number of the world’s greatest scientists, thinkers, athletes and innovators continue to hail from Denmark.

Martin started out at the age of eighteen as an entrepreneur, and in hindsight a terrible leader. Luckily, his first attempts failed and as a frustrated young man Martin had to surrender, take a degree, and get a corporate job. He spent fifteen painful months as a McKinsey consultant travelling the world, and then a couple of exciting years helping a successful Danish entrepreneur with his companies. Then he was finally ready to give entrepreneurship another go.

In 2006, Martin co-founded Rainmaking, a start-up factory where there are six owners all with co-CEO leadership responsibility for the hundreds of team members they now have working across thirty countries.

In addition to their own start-ups, they are running three co-working spaces, Rainmaking Lofts, housing a total of nearly 1,000 entrepreneurs, as well as managing investments in more than 300 start-ups all around the world via their accelerator, Startupbootcamp.

In 2013, Martin published his first book, Winning Without Losing, co-authored with Jordan Milne, which was awarded Management Book of the Year in the New Manager category by CMI, Henley Business School and the British Library. The book went on to become an international bestseller, now out in fifteen languages and thirty-five countries. In 2015 Martin published The Great Idea, an entrepreneurial fairy tale for children, because he feels strongly about giving the next generation a better introduction to entrepreneurship than what has so far been the norm.

Today, a big part of Rainmaking’s activities is to help large corporates become better at innovation. Martin feels that he has come full circle, from start-ups to corporates, to start-ups and back to corporates again. Building a bridge between the two worlds is the leadership task he nowadays feels called to take on.

This book project seemed to us to require both of our skill-sets and backgrounds. Cosmina is the philosophical voice, Martin is the practical entrepreneur. We both have leadership experience from multiple angles and care deeply about the topic.

We are convinced that leadership is evolving, and will keep evolving, to reach higher and more sustainable levels than we have witnessed in the past. This is not only natural, it’s also necessary. As such, we appreciate the opportunity to share our voices, and the voices of those we have interviewed, and to play a role in the conversation about what comes next. Speaking of voices, we are growing weary of talking about ourselves in the third person. So in the twelve chapters that follow, we will be taking turns narrating. First Martin, then Cosmina, and so on.

We hope you will enjoy the journey.


Copyright © 2016 by The School of Life