Leaders Are Made

Mar 10, 2014 1 Min Read

Photo Source: Shan Sheehan

Part I

Part II

Being at the forefront of a hostage crisis is a familiar predicament for George Kohlrieser. Having garnered 40 years of experience as hostage negotiator, the organisational and clinical psychologist and consultant to global organisations worldwide, is an authority on negotiation and leadership, and is acclaimed for introducing the hostage metaphor to leadership development.

Now a professor of leadership and organisational behaviour at IMD (International Institute for Management Development) in Lausanne, Switzerland where he directs leadership programmes, Kohlrieser has two international bestselling books to his credit – Hostage at the Table which won Best Business Book of the Year in 2007 and Care to Dare which was published in 2012.

Sharing with The Leaderonomics Show his perspectives on leadership and talent management, Kohlrieser says there is great leadership development going on in Malaysia.

“Malaysia’s strength is the ability of leaders to create relationships and display mutual respect in spite of the diverse culture, which is a big asset,” he says.

On the other hand, Kohlrieser notes that there is over-adaptation to authority. “There is a pressing need for more assertiveness in Malaysia. Social bonding is very strong and it is more pertinent here than in other Asian countries.”

“The ability to deal with conflicts in a more direct manner is essential in order to be a vibrant high performing team,” he stresses.


According to Kohlrieser, talent management is a fundamental success process in all organisations and crosses a broad spectrum. “It doesn’t necessarily mean leadership in a direct way, but is more of a process of developing these fundamental competencies and taking talents to a higher level,” he enthuses.

“Prior to pursuing organisational effectiveness, attention must be paid to talent development,” he continues.

Leadership development focuses on how leaders learn to manage themselves and to influence others, which involves emotional and social intelligence.

“Truly effective leadership is the ability to create that vision and then inspire people to come along with you, endure the pain and even sacrifice to achieve a greater benefit,” says Kohlrieser.

With the many talent management initiatives and methodologies sprouting, such as six sigma, lean and kaizen, Kohlrieser doesn’t think it is a passing fad and is certain that it is absolutely sustainable.

“The good news is, talent is something we primarily learn and develop. Of course, genetic or hereditary factors play a part, but leaders are not born; they are made,” he says.

“Therefore, decide the skills that you want to develop and focus, focus, focus. You cannot be an expert in everything, so leverage on your strength and select the area you want to be an expert in,” he advises.

For smaller companies which lack the ability and funds to attract talent and build processes and succession planning systems, Kohlrieser offers the following advice:

1. Select people who desire closer social bonding

Certain people prefer a smaller social set-up with learning opportunities and prospects to acquire new skills and information.

Smaller companies should ascertain their strengths and leverage on them, instead of being held hostage by their own limitations.

2. Select talented people

It doesn’t necessarily refer to people with developed talent, but people who are eager to learn, play to win, not afraid of failure and willing to take chances.

With the right person chosen, look around for resources to offer learning experiences. The best learning opportunities do not occur in the classroom, but in real life situations when people are forced into uncomfortable situations.

Using himself as an example, Kohlrieser shares that he didn’t necessarily know what to do whenever faced with challenges, but because somebody had more confidence in him than he did in himself, he was taken to a new level of high performance and effectiveness.

3. Collaborate Get smart by exploring cooperation with other organisations to harness each other’s competencies.

Kohlrieser sees a degree of complacency setting in the west based on the cycles of development. “There are lots of people who still want to play the wind and are merely out there to take chances.”

On the contrary, Asia still has a fundamental ambition displayed by the eagerness of Asians to participate in learning initiatives and processes, he comments.

“With the massive intellectual movement east, you see more skills being developed, from engineering, finance, to broader skills. I think the opportunities to learn are greater than ever. People in Asia have a secure base within their own culture.”

He encourages Asians to stop looking west as their model, but to look for models within Asia’s own culture and identity.


In his book, Hostage at the Table, Kohlrieser talks about his first experience of being held hostage in an Ohio hospital in 1969, with scissors held at his throat by a man who had earlier taken a nurse.

Being asked to enter the room by the lieutenant, Kohlrieser engaged in a process with the hostage-taker, who later freed the blood-soaked uniformed nurse, and who took Kohlrieser instead.

Through a dialogue, Kohlrieser understood that the motivation behind the hostage-taking was his family and he helped the man realise the benefit of giving up his hostage and weapon.

“I learnt the power of bonding and looking at the eyes of the man who wanted to kill me and talk him out of it.”

He says: “Analogously, many people are psychological hostages and feel like a hostage even without a gun pointed to their head.”

“The secret of good leadership is the ability to look beyond one’s emotions. Good leaders offer a secure base to gear the team towards a mindset change and move towards high performing behaviour.”

It is easy to identify somebody as an enemy, Kohlrieser adds, but a skilled leader will identify the common goal, create a dialogue, build a relationship and transform the enemy around that goal into becoming partners towards a common area, hence transforming an enemy into an ally.

That, according to Kohlrieser, is the secret of disarming.


With most business organisations in the world being family rooted, Kohlrieser opines that there is a need to learn how to separate family dynamics from business dynamics.

Family businesses have a deeper bonding, but any dysfunction between the father and the children, or the systems privately will have a spillover effect. A big problem is the willingness to give in, instead of fighting something through in a constructive and positive way.

Most second generation members under-perform, as they live under the shadow of the earlier generation. Authoritarianism over-dominates the family system, impeding the capacity of the children to blossom and develop as a leader.

“If parents are constantly making concessions and not training the children to assert themselves, they can’t express, influence and win. Confidence to assert themselves will never be developed,” he claims.

Children are natural negotiators and naturally assertive, but these fundamentals have to be developed and encouraged.

Kohlrieser’s goal is to help family businesses become sustainable enterprises, focusing on developing the leadership skills and talent required, how to resolve conflicts and how not to be a hostage in too much harmony.

He recommends that ideally, the younger generation should work in a business outside the family business for a short time to pick up and develop a different set of skills, acumen and experience, before returning to the family business. “Priority should be on long term goals and not on resolving an immediate need.”


To HR leaders

– Listen to what people want to learn, encourage and don’t let them get passive.

– Don’t take a paternalistic/maternalistic attitude. Get into a partnership with them.

– Give people opportunities and let them fail without punishment.

To business leader of CEOs in Asia – Create opportunities.

– Put people in challenging situations.

– Put the fish on the table and engage in conflict management process.

– Give true, immediate feedback on how to improve in order to be effective and a high performing organisation.

To people starting out a career

– Approach trustworthy people and listen to their lessons learnt.

– Take risks and do not be afraid of failure. When you fail and feel horrible, you build resilience and will bounce back stronger. When you play the wind, look for opportunities and use every opportunity found.

George Kohlrieser is frequently in Malaysia. To engage him, email people@leaderonomics.com. To view his full interview, visit www.leaderonomics.tv and click here to read more articles like this! 

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This article is published by the editors of Leaderonomics.com with the consent of the guest author. 

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