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What hostage negotiators can teach us about leadership

By IMD Professor George Kohlrieser - December 2014

Dayton, Ohio. The year is 1971.

Sam is holding a pair of scissors to Sheila's throat, saying that he is going to kill as many people as he can. He cuts her throat. She starts bleeding and screaming.  

Sam steps back and comes around the table toward me. With the scissors pointed directly at me, I have a nanosecond to decide what to do.  

The only option is to keep talking, so I do. But now he puts the scissors to my throat and pushes hard. Looking into his eyes, I see such rage, hatred, and deep grief. I try everything to connect with him—and nothing works. 

In desperation, I say to him, "Sam, how would you like your children to remember you?" He screams, "Don't ever talk about my children! I'll kill them too! Bring them here! I'll kill everybody I can. I have no hope. I have nothing to live for! I'm going to die!" 

As horrific as that sounds, it was the first moment that Sam and I connected. With the words he screamed about his children, he was trying to form a bond. He was saying to me how deeply in pain he was—and that's what I needed to hear.  

After another 20 minutes of dialogue, breaking off and coming back, Sam lets Sheila leave the room, gives me the scissors, and allows himself to be handcuffed and walked out.  

Leaders can't be hostages

That episode in Dayton was one of four times I was held physically hostage during my 40 years as a hostage negotiator. I hope executives reading this never find themselves in that kind of situation. But they could be held psychologically hostage—by fear, anger, grief, revenge, a situation, or even by themselves—and that's a destructive situation to be in. 

Leadership means never being a hostage to anyone, anything, anywhere, at any time, even to yourself. Leaders who are "psychological hostages" will not achieve their highest levels of performance and cannot lead and inspire others effectively in the organization. Leadership starts by leading yourself, then leading others and then leading the organization. 

For many, self-management is the biggest challenge. The human brain is fundamentally looking for the negative, and naturally looks for danger and focuses on survival to avoid pain. So leaders need to rewire their brains and discipline themselves to focus on the positive, look for opportunities, take risks and even sometimes fail. In other words, they must play to win rather than not to lose. 

The most successful leaders do this by having a secure base. This is a person, place, object, thing or symbol that allows leaders to feel protected, inspired and trusted. It allows them to change and seek change, to do things they wouldn't ordinarily do, and to endure pain for the benefit of the eventual outcome.  

And, crucially, leaders who have secure bases themselves can become a secure base for others in the organization to build trust and dare people to do their very best through caring and bonding.  

Bonding, conflict and truth

Bonding doesn't just mean working on tasks together, having coffee or running an off-site teambuilding exercise. It means making a deeper emotional connection by getting to know people, understanding their motivations and their sense of meaning and purpose.  

Leaders do not have to like someone to form a bond with them, but they do need a common goal. This generally happens in hostage negotiation, where you typically get a 95% success rate. 

As I've written before, the most common and damaging leadership mistakes involve interacting with people without connecting and bonding. A leader who does not bond with people is unlikely to be effective. He or she must make time to bond with employees, colleagues, customers, or other stakeholders.  

Through these bonds, leaders can deal effectively with conflicts and differences. They need to "put the fish on the table" and address and resolve a conflict, because if each one of these were a fish under the table it would start to smell. The best leaders tell the truth and deliver pain to people when necessary. High-performing employees want their bosses to "slap them in the face with the truth, rather than kiss them with a lie."  

Leading others in this way can be learned. It all depends on the leader not being a psychological hostage, so that he or she can be a secure base for others and create a bond—like I did with Sam all those years ago. By managing their own emotions, they are much more likely to manage those of others. If you can't lead yourself, why should anyone follow you? 


George Kohlrieser is a Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at IMD, where he directs the High Performance Leadership (HPL), Advanced High Performance Leadership (AHPL) and Learning Leadership (LL) programs. 

Kohlrieser is author of the award-winning bestseller Hostage at the Table: How Leaders Can Overcome Conflict, Influence Others and Raise Performance. His latest book is Care to Dare: Unleashing Astonishing Potential through Secure Base Leadership. 

This article is based on a recent TEDx talk Kohlrieser gave in New York on the theme of "A Hostage Negotiator Teaches Leadership Through Bonding."

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