Fred Kofman, born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, is Google’s leadership development adviser, director of the Conscious Leadership Center at the Monterrey Institute of Technology, and founder and president of the Conscious Business Center International. His latest book, The Meaning Revolution: The Power of Transcendent Leadership (La revolución del sentido: El poder del liderazgo transcendente), was published in Spanish in December by HarperCollins Español. PW talked to Kofman to discuss how the corporate leadership principles he writes about can be utilized to benefit one’s personal life.
In your book, you discuss the need for a paradigm shift in the workplace. What is that paradigm shift, and how can others apply it to their own lives?
There is a famous book by Alfie Kohn called Punished by Rewards. I found it to be a very powerful book in helping me deal with my kids. The point of his book is: by rewarding children for good behavior, you are killing their instinctive motivation—so the reward turns out to be a punishment. I’m not doing it justice, but that’s the gist of the book—and that idea stayed with me. People have mostly motivated others through money, rewards in the material realm, or a position of power. The threat is the possibility of severing someone from the organization, and that works up to a point.
If you want to lead, whether it’s in your family or your own business or your church group, you should begin to use nonmaterial rewards or moral rewards. I know this doesn’t sound like anything new, but in the business world, I proved that material rewards are unable to solve a fundamental dilemma between self-interest and collaboration—that, when people are evaluated based on their contributions toward a collective goal, there are too many opportunities for parasitic or predatory behaviors that cannot be stopped with an incentive system that conditions rewards to a collective outcome. Shifting that focus toward individual rewards increases accountability, but it can destroy a corporation, as it creates silos in which everybody is trying to do the best for themselves.
The example I use is soccer: a defensive player’s job is not to defend but to help the team win. If you reward or punish a defensive player based on how many goals they allowed, then they will never risk joining the attack. You want defensive players to cooperate for a collective outcome—to at least try to win the game—but you can’t punish the person for making a decision that’s good vis-à-vis the collective goal, even if it puts at risk the systematic goal of preventing the other team from scoring. That is, in essence, the paradigm shift—realizing that material incentives can’t solve the contradiction between accountability and cooperation. Instead of money or material rewards, you need to shift to meaning, community, integrity, and noble purposes as a source of engagement.
How did you get your children to want to read?
In the book, I discuss how I wanted my kids to read more and spend less time using their electronic devices. I would take away their devices until they finished their reading—this is what most parents do. And it worked, but while they were reading they were cursing me under their breath! I realized that I didn’t simply want them to read, I wanted them to want to read—that is a very different problem.
There were two main strategies to solve that. One was reading with them, so they could see how much I enjoyed reading, and the second was to learn about what would excite them to read. We would all read the same book and then discuss that book at the dinner table. Listening to them and being respectful of their opinions was a big incentive for them to want to read. I have to confess, I still maintain some discipline about their electronic devices, because I consider those things to be like drugs—they are addictive. We all agreed as a family that at a certain time of the day we would turn off our devices.
In the book, you talk about how a leader should be the first follower. Could you elaborate on this?
Most of the time, when there is a group of people, someone in that group has formal or informal authority, but that does not equate to leadership. I use a very strict definition of leadership. For me, a leader is someone who evokes and inspires in others the internal commitment to give their best to achieve a certain mission they are pursuing together. The key phrase here is internal commitment, as opposed to “I can make you do things.” I think it is rare to find a leader; most people lead by using their authority, but that authority is often corrupted. I use the example of the Lord of the Rings. Tolkien is a good friend of Lord Dactus, and he believed that power corrupts, and absolute power does corrupt. I believe formal authority corrupts in a way, because it relaxes you from the responsibility of engaging people’s internal commitment. It gives you the illusion that you can get people to do things, and that if you scare them enough they will do them. Yet those “leaders” get fulfillment of the lowest possible standard—they do not get a commitment for excellence. So the hurdle becomes transforming those authority figures into real leaders who rely on moral authority rather than organizational autonomy—that is the fundamental shift. A manager can impose rewards or punishments on people, but a leader has an inspirational quality. For example, in religion, a prophet is not a leader but a follower of God. Think of a librarian: a librarian is not there to tell people what to read, but is there because of a passion for books, and because he or she loves reading and loves helping people access the world of books—that is the librarian’s commitment. This gives the librarian the moral authority to bring people to the library and guide them in their task. The librarian is not there to exercise power over others, but to lead them.
Leylha Ahuile is the editor of Books in Spanish for PW and the owner of PromoLatino.