Justin Cohen On the Potency of Self-Leadership in the Exponential Age

Join me and Justin Cohen in the Presidential Suite as we delve deep into the importance of leadership at a personal level and how poor personal leadership, in unconscious hands, can adversely impact society.


Justin Cohen is an international speaker, trainer and bestselling author with a postgraduate degree in psychology. He is a world-leading expert on pitching for business and has coached entrepreneurs, small businesses and major corporates to win some of the toughest multimillion-dollar deals. Mr. Cohen is the author of four books and eight audiobooks. His latest book, Pitch To Win, expounds on his internationally acclaimed 6-step formula on pitching for business. He has spoken in more than 20 countries to numerous Fortune 500 companies including Barclays, BMW, Duke, EY, HSBC, Mercedes-Benz, Microsoft, Walmart and Virgin.


Justin Cohen is a Southern African Speaker Hall of Fame inductee and has hosted various TV shows, including Gurus With Justin Cohen which airs on CNBC Africa.


See more about Justin at www.justinpresents.com

Leadership, or the dearth of good leadership rather, is on everyone’s mind (it’s not just money honey). Perhaps because of the media saturated lives we lead in this modern age our exposure to colossal leadership failures is, simply put, unprecedented. In this conversation with leadership expert, Justin Cohen, we unpack leadership at its most authentic i.e. self-leadership and how consistent deficiencies in this regard obviously lead to failures in collective leadership. From the political arena to corporate boardrooms, Justin provides incisive, no-holds-barred commentary using, inter alia, his knowledge of neuroscience, to make an important contribution to what is a vast topic.

The luxurious Presidential Suite at the Fairlawns Boutique Hotel and Spa was the venue for this insightful and highly animated conversation.

I’ve come to realize that before one starts aspiring to lead other people and to acquire power, because that’s a very potent thing, one needs to lead self. So, Justin, why you are so passionate about leadership and the quality of leadership?


One of my programs is called Leadership Inside Out, because, really, leadership starts on the inside.  We think about leadership as all about the influence of others, and that’s an important part, that’s the outside part, but, to what extent can we lead ourselves? And you only have to ask yourself: can I lead myself?  When I ask people if they can lead themselves, most will say yes, absolutely, I can lead myself. And then I follow-up by asking if they’ve ever had a New Year’s resolution that they have never achieved. Invariably, everyone says yes. That’s a failure in personal leadership. What that tells you is that most people know what to do, but they don’t always do what they know. If you think about it, success isn’t really rocket science. If you want to lose weight, you need to eat less and move more. If you want to create wealth, you need to cut down your spending, get out of debt, save and invest. If you want to stay married, stop trying to be right all the time, you can’t be right and be married at the same time.  You want to pass your exams, you need to study. You want to get good at anything, you need to put in the hours.


I think most people know this, but they don’t do it. And, what that shows you is this knowing/doing gap, and that knowing/doing gap I would call that a failure of personal leadership, and we’re all there. I have had New Year’s resolutions that I haven’t followed through on. So, it doesn’t matter where you are in your life, we’ve all been there, and what that tells you is that nobody has perfect self-leadership.  And, so, the question is: what can we do to be better leaders of ourselves?  And, when we start to answer that question, put that into practice, I think we’ll be better leaders of others too.

What, in your view, is the cause of this knowing and doing disconnect? Why do we sabotage ourselves? Why do we create these brilliant plans and beautiful blueprints but end up sabotaging ourselves?


I think we must understand a little bit about the human brain to really answer this question. We think of ourselves as being unitary cells, one person with very particular needs, desires, and preferences. In fact, what we understand more and more from neuroscience is we’re much more multiplicitous. We have different needs and sometimes those needs conflict. So, for instance, we might have a need to lose weight, but we also have a need not to experience pain at the gym. We might have a need to eat healthily so that we feel better, but we may also have a need for that sugar and fat that tastes good. So, you’ve got short-term desires and long-term desires, and that’s where the conflict arises. So, when you decide on New Year’s that you’re going to start cutting down your spending because you know that’s the way to get out of debt, save and invest and create real long-term wealth, when you find yourself in the mall the next day, you’re also going to have the temptation to splash out on that new pair of shoes. And, so, it’s how you are able to govern these impulses. And that’s really what personal leadership is about. It’s about how we govern these impulses. And the best way that I know to understand this is through motivation because self-motivation, the ability to motivate yourself to do what you need to do, for me, is the best description of what personal leadership is.


Motivation comes from the word ‘motive’, meaning reason. So, we won’t do anything without a compelling reason. So, on the one hand, you want to eat the chocolate cake because the immediate reason is it gives you this pleasure hit, on the other hand, you want to eat healthily because of a long-term reason to be healthy and more energised. So, how do you then manage those short-term pleasures versus the long-term pleasures? That’s the question here. And this boils down to the ability to delay gratification, the ability to say no to short-term pleasure. It’s not to say you can’t have some short-term pleasure when it’s circumscribed and when it’s healthy and so on, but a lot of what we have to do in life necessitates that we put aside our short-term pleasures. The way to do that is to have a clear vision of a better tomorrow; if you don’t have any vision for tomorrow, your pleasures-loving brain is just going to say go spend the money, go and eat as much as you want, snap at your husband, because what does it matter?  You’ll give in to the moment. So inasmuch as ‘live for the moment’ seems to be in vogue, actually, we also need to be living for the future. And, to live for the future, you need to know what that future looks like. What is your vision of the future? The Bible says where there is no vision, the people shall perish. In our lives we might not perish because we can probably get a handout from someone, but our potential will perish. If we don’t have a vision for ourselves and our potential, that potential is going to perish.

It’s not always the case that people, even from childhood or in school, are systematically taught how to craft a vision and set goals and acquire the tools that help them unearth their potential.  So, what can we do to change this?


It is bizarre that the school system does not equip us to successfully deal with the most important parts of our lives, which is to what? Create personal wealth, to have healthy relationships, to have a healthy relationship with our physical bodies and so on. These are the sorts of things that the school system does not address, and I do not understand why. But this is the reality that we live in. So, what we then need to do is to equip ourselves, that’s what we need to do. We need to teach ourselves. And there’s a lot of great information out there. The good news about all of this is, it may be difficult to put this into action, but the ideas are much easier than studying History or Geography. I recently interviewed Robert Kiyosaki, the author of the best-selling personal finance book of all time. We were talking about the fact that we both studied Economics at university and learnt nothing about personal wealth creation, because Economics, like most university education, is all about meta concepts which are important and valuable, but there’s nowhere in a university degree that teaches you about personal wealth. Personal wealth is actually quite simple. There are some simple ideas there about not spending more than you earn, getting into debt with assets and capital and not consumer debt. It’s basic financial literacy, that’s really all Kiyosaki does. He’s got concepts that are really not rocket science, but we are simply not taught at school. So, we’ve got do this for ourselves and, certainly, that means making that personal investment and being proactive about it. The school system makes us very passive and now, when you’re out of that system, you need to teach yourself and do what’s necessary.


It’s up to each individual to figure this out themselves; it’s about self-awareness, it’s about being able to look at yourself and your strengths and your weaknesses, or the term I prefer, your ‘blocks to greatness’, and be honest about that.  And it’s very important to celebrate your strengths and build on your strengths and figure out what your strengths are, and that’s the difference that you can make in the world through those strengths. It’s also important to be able to look at where you’re not that great and where you’ve got it wrong and how you can be better. But you can’t do it for somebody who doesn’t want it done. If you go up to somebody and tell them about their blocks to greatness and they haven’t asked you or they don’t want to hear about it, it’s not going to have any impact whatsoever. If anything, it’s probably going to destroy the relationship. So, it’s for each of us to acknowledge that we can grow and that we have growth points, and figure out where they are, and invest time in doing that.

Do you think humility plays a role in that?  I’m thinking of someone like Donald Trump, the man, like anybody else, is capable of greatness, but how do we get Donald Trump to sit with humility and say, these are my blocks to greatness, this is the work I need to do and I’m not as self-aware as I think? My concern is that we’ve got CEOs leading organizations into the pit, we’ve got leaders who are making their subordinates sick.


I think humility is a very important characteristic in leadership and, really, in being a human because, without humility, you think that you are invincible, and that’s not healthy for you or for anyone else.  Humility is the willingness to accept that you are imperfect and that there are always ways to be better and that you might not have it right, which means that you will listen more, you will be more open to other people’s views, and you’re obviously going to be a lot less arrogant. The problem with power is that, as it’s been said, power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.


If you look at the neuroscience, as you become more and more powerful through your status and money, you do not need to pay as much attention to people. You do need to, ultimately, to be successful, but you don’t need to for your own personal success. When you don’t have a lot of status in the world, you are much more attuned to the people around you and what you need to do to please them and to add value. You do that as a survival mechanism, doing what’s required to get their favour, to get the benefits of pleasing them. Now, the more powerful you become, you don’t need to do that as much because you’ve already got the power. They must do it for you, they are running around you asking, what do you need?  That’s why you’ll see that very powerful people are surrounded by yes-men and yes-women because they don’t want to criticize you and run the risk of falling out of favour. So, Donald Trump is surrounded by people who tell him how fantastic he is, how wonderful he is, how marvellous he is. His Cabinet are constantly telling him, you’re the greatest president. His Vice-President is calling him probably one of the greatest presidents in history.


So, if everybody’s telling you that you’re fabulous, fantastic, smart, can do no wrong, you start to believe that. Also, you don’t need to really attune yourself to what they really think because you don’t need to get their approval. So, what we see with very powerful people is a reduction in mirror neuron network activity. The mirror neuron network is the basis of empathy. The reason that I can empathise with you is because I mirror your facial expressions internally, and then I can start to see how you’re feeling, and moderate or modulate my behaviour to be in tune with where it is that you’re at. Very powerful people don’t need to do that because, again, they don’t need your approval. There are very real dangers there.


Even take somebody like Jacob Zuma who, early in his career, was a struggle hero who did a huge amount of good for this country, and the more and more power that he got, the more and more corrupt, the more and more arrogant, the more and more disconnected he became. It’s not of necessity that that happens to leaders, but we do see a pattern.  I always say I love Jacob Zuma, absolutely love Jacob Zuma, because he teaches us so much about how not to lead, there are great lessons in there and I mean that quite sincerely. I think that the lessons that we get here over the past few years will hopefully be lessons that we will carry far into our country’s history.


And, in fact, there’s a fascinating study: if you take a person and, firstly, you put them in a very modest car, say a little Toyota, and you test how they are on the road, you will find that person will be more likely to follow the rules of the road, be more polite and will let people pass. Then put that same person in a luxury car, let’s say a big Range Rover, and you’ll find that they are less considerate on the road and less polite. So, what does that tell you? It tells you that, just psychologically, when you sense that you have more status than people, you become less empathic, less caring, and less service-oriented towards them. So, when we create more wealth and we get more power in society, we have got to be more self-analysing, we need to actively cultivate more humility because there’s going to be this natural shift towards arrogance that happens. Take this case of Faith Muthambi, the former Minister who told everyone that they had to call her Honourable. True leaders don’t need a title, they don’t need to be called Honourable, they don’t need to be called Minister or President. I guess that what that really shows you is a bit of insecurity because, if you have true belief in what you have and your value, you wouldn’t need people to run around saying Sir, Madam, Honourable, Doctor and so on. So, clearly, we need to focus more on cultivating humility the more powerful and successful and richer we become.


Abraham Lincoln serves as a great example here, he truly was one of the great leaders of history. Abraham Lincoln had what he called his ‘team of rivals’. So, he brought people into his Cabinet who disagreed with him. He brought in people from the opposition into his Cabinet. And what does that show you? The man was secure enough not to be surrounded by people who say yes, sir, no, sir, but, more important than that, he’s getting divergent views, he’s getting other perspectives. And, so, what we need is a rich perspective, and the more divergent the views, the richer your perspective. You don’t have to agree with everyone, but it is helpful to know what their perspective is in terms of making the decisions that you need to make. And Barrack Obama did it as well. Barrack Obama’s first Secretary of Defence, Robert Gates, was a Republican. Hillary Clinton, who ran against him, became his Secretary of State. Can you imagine Donald Trump appointing a Democrat to his Cabinet? There is no way he would do it. So, I think it really does show tremendous leadership to say that we’re not going to get into an us/them. We’re actually going to bring in talent and ability from wherever we can.

As we wrap up, in what other ways do we see lack of self-leadership and leadership broadly speaking in society, in organizations and what is the real impact?


I’ll use the ANC as an example to begin answering your question. The ANC is an incredible organisation that freed the people. And, as Bishop Tutu said, the ANC freed white people and black people, the oppressor and the oppressed. Let’s be honest, it was a whole lot easier for whites than it was for blacks because the oppressor does not have to deal with the physical, emotional or psychological pain of oppression. So, I don’t want to equate white and black discomfort under apartheid. Let’s be very clear about that. What I’m pointing to is Bishop Tutu’s insight that being in the position of an oppressor, one’s humanity is severely affected. Growing up during apartheid with this bizarre notion that you’re superior because of the colour of your skin, and to have this relationship to a whole group of people because of the colour of their skin, is a very damaging, dangerous notion to grow up with. So, it’s sick, let’s be very clear. Racism is a kind of brain damage, it is completely irrational. What you’re saying is that an entire group of people is either inferior or superior because of the colour of their skin when there’s no evidence of that at all. So, it’s a lie. What you’re telling yourself, and what that means is that you lose out on the opportunity to connect and be enriched by people because you’ve just categorised them in a particular way. And we all do it. And it’s not just black and white. People come in with assumptions about others because they are male or female or Jewish or Greek or because of their sexual orientation and so on.


The reason that we do this is because it’s a way of making sense of our social world. So, if I can say you’re a woman and that means you’re this or that, and you’re Greek, so that means you’re this or that, or you’re German and this means you’re a certain way, it allows me to make assumptions without having to engage with you as a person. So, it’s not about them as an individual, you can just see them as a group; it’s a kind of mental shortcut and it is obviously detrimental to one’s own personal enrichment and the society. I call it sloppy thinking.


We know that organizations that have more women on their Boards are more profitable and yet there are far less women sitting on Boards. So, if you don’t want to appoint women because you don’t like women as a gender, do it because you like profits. And, obviously, how can you effectively sell and market and serve people if you have none of those people represented in your ranks. For the first time in Saudi Arabia, women can now drive cars. That started this year because women couldn’t drive cars, never mind be involved in the economy. So, I guess they’re getting there, and we should applaud them for that, but the loss to the economy due to the exclusion of women is incalculable because studies show globally that as women have become integrated into the economy over the past hundred years, there’ve been tremendous increases in wealth creation. The interesting thing is that, as you’ve had more and more women integrate into the economy, you haven’t seen the same proportional increase in women in CEO positions. So, I think, even in the United States where you’ve now got more women getting degrees than men, only about three/four percent of CEOs are female. Now, the standard explanation is that women are being prevented from getting into these positions, that there is this glass ceiling, and, certainly, I think part of that is true, but I don’t think it’s the only reason. I think we need incredibly nuanced debates on this issue but that’s a topic for another day.

Photography by Makgomo Mushwana – Sali Sali Photography