by anne lueneburger

A member of the senior management team in a thriving boutique hedge fund, Coleman was sitting across from me in one of the yellow beanbags that populate the firm’s meeting rooms. “Our people are very smart and driven. As we are growing in size, this place is becoming more political, and competitive behaviors are starting to edge out our collaborative founder spirit,” he said.

Coleman is a visionary with excellent presentation skills, and his firm had engaged me as his coach to advance his influence with internal stakeholders. Over the past year, he had ruffled feathers by pushing back too hard or had lost ground by instinctively falling back into his über-accommodating negotiation style. Not surprisingly, Coleman had found it to be nearly impossible to change based on willpower alone. Indeed, standing on their own, personal resolutions (just think New Year’s) carry a mere 8 percent chance of success!

Here are seven steps that will set you up to win:

#1: Commit yourself.


As Einstein said, nothing happens until something moves. Any form of public commitment to your change goal increases your chances of success by a factor of 10[1]. One of our clients literally put her flat on the market to shake out of her inertia and to apply for positions in geographical areas she was interested in. If you want to get out of a comfort zone that has long lost its appeal, what is the first domino you need to kick over so that the rest can follow?

#2: Make it inspiring. 

We know from fMRI studies that our brains experience change (even if positive) as being as painful as breaking bones.[2] Words such as “I should…” or “I have to…” are red flags for motivation. Only one out of every seven cardiac patients, even if faced by death, is able to follow doctor’s orders and start a healthy lifestyle. If we cannot connect needed change to who we aspire to be, we are doomed to fail.

It is the idea of realizing a dream that makes change inspiring. We often ask our clients to go through a Blue Sky Visioning exercise to define what kind of a leader they aspire to be. We also use Vision Boards (a collage of photos, pictures and words) to help clients conceptualize their “ideal life”. These exercises inform what specific action items need to follow. In this spirit: what would you like to start doing (rather what do you need to stop doing)?

#3: Focus on one or two behaviors at a time.


We all recognize this feeling of being overwhelmed. Did you know that the average senior executive engages in 139 distinct tasks every week? Each one of these tasks is made up of many smaller choices, and 50 percent of these choices are made in nine minutes or less[3]. To focus energy where it matters, Steve Jobs simplified and decided to wear a black turtleneck and jeans every day. Less is more.

Based on the research of psychologist Herbert Simon, to optimize impact we need to be “satisficers.” Different from maximizers who consider all the alternatives possible, satisficers use criteria and standards to choose and don’t worry about the possibility that there might be something better. What are the one or two behavioral changes that will get you closer to reaching your goal?

#4: Stretch yourself step by step.

In addition to limiting the number of behavioral changes we take on, we need to be mindful about the depth of behavior change. As you begin to practice a new behavior, think smaller than small. Start by taking tiny baby steps that take almost no effort and little time. As you develop confidence that you are moving in the right direction, you can create bolder experiments to further push you out of your comfort zone.

A good way to pace yourself is to ask the following questions:

  • On a scale of 1 to 10, where are you today when it comes to acting in a desired way? (Let’s assume you come in at a 3).
  • Where would you like to be in an ideal world? (Say an 8).
  • Now if you were to move the needle up a notch or two (to get you to a level 4 or a 5), what specifically would that look like?
  • What are some of the things you can take on to get you there?

#5: Be specific.

When we use the abstract form of paying with a credit card, we spend an average of 15-30 percent more than when we use cash. If you can’t measure it, it doesn’t count. It is not enough to state “I want to become a better listener.” Make it explicit: “Over the course of the next three months, I will aim for a 70/30 ratio of listening versus speaking, and I will ask others to hold me to it. During each of my meetings I will ask at least one open-ended question that begins with ‘what’, ‘how,’ or ‘when’. I will keep a daily log to keep track of my successes and to learn from my failures.”  Looking for metrics will keep you honest and allow you to celebrate milestones.

#6: Plan for resistance.

When Michael Phelps had a goggle malfunction during the Beijing Olympics, he still swam to a world record. How? Phelps credits his coach who had been creative in preparing the Olympian for the element of surprise, including training in pitch darkness. An integral part of successful change involves planning for rough patches.  One of my clients is fond of using a “Failure Mode & Effect Analysis”, which catalogs not only what might go wrong, but also develops responses according to both the likelihood of occurrence and the impact each scenario would have.

If you are training to be an Olympic swimmer, a goggle malfunction might not be frequent, but it could be detrimental if you don’t have a strategy for dealing with it. What will most likely cause you to fall off track? What tactics have you used successfully in the past to overcome such obstacles? And what will help you remember to practice new behavior? Layer some conscious reminders into your life via smartphones, computers or sticky notes.


And as you are moving along, don’t forget to celebrate. Our clients journal on what went well; they may give themselves a silent “Way to go!” or share their wins with others. Associating positive feedback with change glues these new habits into our brain[4].

#7: Have others at your side.


In a study of 1,000 people who were asked to gauge the likelihood of a famous person going to heaven, Mother Theresa came in highest at 79 percent (Bill Clinton got a 52 percent chance…). The only group ranked higher were the respondents themselves who rated their chance at 87 percent[5]. And the more senior we are professionally (Hello, CEOs!), the more likely we are to fall prey to an inflated self-image: we speak to our own reasoning and ignore good advice.

Make no mistake: you are the one and only CEO of your life. However, most successful change involves having a solid sounding board to back you up. Gather around you experienced, informed advisers who both support and challenge you. A strong sounding board is interested in your story, they ask courageous questions, listen carefully and share insights you can respect. Who are the people with whom you will share your change goal, and how do you want them to hold you accountable?

And how long until I will see the change take root?

…this is typically what our clients will ask us. Well, it depends. The more straightforward the change and the more motivated you are to invest in the game plan, the shorter the time to reach your goal. Assuming you practice 30 minutes a week, it will take you about three months to create a new habit[6].

You will know that you have arrived the moment you no longer need to invest deliberate energy into a new behavior and when the act of not doing it feels weird!

[1] Journal of Clinical Psychology, (December 13th, 2012).

[2] Smith, E. E., (2011, March 28th). Retrieved from

[3] Sheena I., (2012). How to make choosing easier. Ted Talk.

[4] Duhigg, Ch. (2012). The Power of Habit. New York, NY: Random House.

[5] Gino, F., (2013). Sidetracked: Why our decisions get derailed and how we can stick to the plan. Boston, MA.: Harvard Business School Publishing.

[6] Kegan, R. and Lahey, L.L. (2009). Immunity to change. Boston, MA.: Harvard Business School Publishing.

no pain, no gain

January 18, 2012

by pamela welling

Neuroscientific research tells us that change is painful, as painful as breaking a bone in fact. When researchers at Columbia University (1) used fMRI imaging techniques to map the nerve centers of the brain, they found that the same neural receptors that register physical pain also light up when we go through significant emotional change (like changing jobs). So if change feels hard, that’s because it is.

Organizational psychologists have written at length about the impact of ineffectively navigating change on the bottom line and change management theory is now a well established field of study in all top international business schools. Harvard Business School, like most others, has developed whole curricula for executives on managing all manner of changes: turbulent change; change in the time of growth; change in response to a merger…..the list goes on. We have a ton of organizational development research available to support us as we figure out how to successfully drive change in our teams and organizations, but how about managing our response on a personal level?

Knowing about the pain associations that occur in our brains is a first step towards understanding why it can take so long and feel so hard to make personal and professional changes. Neuroscience also tells us that by focusing our efforts we can abandon old maps and create new neural pathways to learn new behaviors. Jeffrey Schwartz, a leading researcher in the field of self-directed neuroplasticity at UCLA’s School of Medicine, suggests that the brain is a quantum environment and therefore the laws of quantum physics hold true. Viz: the question you ask of your brain influences the outcome you see.

So what does this mean for us in the context of coaching and minimizing some of the negative impacts of personal and professional change? If the brain truly is a quantum environment then how and where we focus our thoughts and attention can allow us to make new connections, and thereby change habits and behaviors. If we decide to reframe negative situations by focusing on the positive (a central exercise in positive psychology) then we can re-wire our response to impactful change and decrease its negative effects. We can train our brains to do what Winston Churchill describes so eloquently: be optimists who see the opportunity in every difficulty as opposed to pessimists who see the difficulty in every opportunity.

Coaching has been shown to be an essential tool in supporting the creation and establishment of new neural pathways. By working with a coach we can learn tricks and techniques that help us actively focus on the habits, activities and actions we want to have more of in order to move away from old patterns, habits and actions we no longer wish to exhibit.  Coaches can point out the learning we experience as we create these new pathways and help us formulate solutions to problems we might encounter as we embark on this energy intensive process. Coaches acknowledge the successes and small victories we achieve as we create these new habits to help us stay on track with our goals- an exceptionally powerful process and one that Jeffery Schwartz discovered when he used his quantum brain theory to re-train the thought patterns of patients with severe OCD (2). It’s unlikely that we will be able to completely mitigate the pain that comes with change, but with the right coach and the right conditions, we might just get to those gains with a little less pain than usual.

(1)   Research conducted Edward E. Smith, Director of Cognitive Neuroscience at Columbia University quoted at, March 28th 2011

(2)   Schwartz, J. M., Stapp, H. P., and Beauregard, M. (2005). Quantum theory in neuroscience and psychology: A neurophysical model of mind-brain interaction. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Series B, 360(1458):1309-27.

by renita kalhorn


“Have you ever been incarcerated?” When I was mentoring at Defy Ventures, an organization that trains formerly incarcerated individuals for employment and entrepreneurship, I learned that that was the question participants dreaded most in a job interview (and understandably so, since it often meant the end of the interview).

Though, for most of us, the question we dread being asked may not be as damning, we all have one that puts a pit in our stomach: What’s your market traction? Who are your competitors? Why should we partner with you? Why did you leave your last job? What happened in your last relationship? How come you never got married?

Nothing will trip us up faster, however, than getting defensive. As Mannish Sethi, creator of the Pavlok wristband for changing habits, told Business Insider after his painful Shark Tank presentation: “I was caught off guard by how quickly and forcefully Mark [Cuban] turned against us, and that really changed the tone of the pitch.” Flustered, he wasn’t able to address the Sharks’ focus on clinical studies to tell them about the thousands of “real-life user” success stories — at one point, grabbing his face in frustration, saying, “You guys are making me so ADD” — and he walked away without a deal.

So, earlier this week, at the Paris Pionnieres incubator coaching a group of start-up founders in preparation for an upcoming pitch competition, I asked them: “What’s one insecurity you have about your business?” As it turns out, two of them are married to their co-founders — a set-up they’ve found investors typically frown upon —which means they need to be prepared to respond to that concern.

How do you respond to tough questions or being put on the spot without getting defensive? First, understand that our defensiveness stems from feeling judged, that we’re in the wrong somehow, which — thanks to primitive fears of being thrown out of the tribe — our brain translates as a survival threat and goes into “fight or flight.” And in survival mode, as you may have noticed, rational thinking (and active listening) go out the window.

Since hoping that people will not ask you about aspects of your experience that you’d rather not talk about is not a reliable strategy, you’re better off learning how to override the instinct to protect yourself or attack back: Answering “I don’t agree,” “how is that relevant?” bumbling through your answer or becoming a deer in the headlights (my personal default) is likely to trigger a “fight or flight” response in the other person and derail the conversation.

 The answer is: practice!

Know your trigger questions and come up with several variations on how to answer. If the question highlights something you know is a weakness — like low user conversion — say, “Yes, you raise a good point and here’s what we’re doing to improve it” (which is what the question is really asking). If the question is about something that was out of your control, like a toxic work environment: focus on what you did accomplish while you were there and that it’s not a good fit with your goals going forward (you get to decide what’s most relevant to answer the question).

Practice your answers over and over — at least 20 times, I tell my clients — including having someone ask the question so you can practice feeling the emotional response when you hear it.

Yes, it will be uncomfortable. But the real question is, would you rather be uncomfortable now or later, when the stakes are higher?


by graham ward

When collective emotions gather steam, knee jerk reactions can make a bad situation worse.In the comedy western Blazing Saddles, one seminal moment has the sheriff point a gun to his own head, threatening to blow his own brains out if everyone doesn’t do as he says.

There have been echoes of this persuasive technique recently in the U.K., whose populace voted to exit the EU. A cabal of leaders fell on their own swords like dominoes in the days after the referendum, the biggest casualty being the Prime Minister, David Cameron. Was such a bloodbath necessary? I would argue that in critical times, the case for reflective rather than reactive leadership, in society and organisations has never been stronger.

Much has been written recently about the notion of empathy. According to psychologist Daniel Goleman, there are three types: cognitive, emotional and compassionate. Most leaders can easily articulate what empathy is. Defining empathy, however, is not the same as deploying it. In fact I’ve found that many executives I have worked with do not even have the basic emotional vocabulary necessary to understand the broad landscape of emotions that exists in organisations and society.

Keeping in touch with changing emotions

Humans are, at an anthropological level, reflexively programmed to recognise threats and act on them. Fight, flight, freeze! Daily, we see instances: the angry soccer player fronts up and butts heads with an antagonist. The small child runs from the playground bully. The brain reacts, the person acts. In these cases the Delphic maxim “know thyself” is redundant, “save thyself” being the wiser option. In organisations, however, strong emotional reactions take longer to emerge and build gradually below the surface. As in Newtonian physics, emotional reaction is subject to the same laws: an initial impulse or changing circumstance is required, a causal link: change causes reaction, which causes emotion.

The challenge is that leaders enacting change (their primary task) are not only slow to recognise what is going on, they are also generally ignorant of how to deal with it. Why? For one, there is a constant pressure to act. We have become “human doings”, not human beings. Reflection is undervalued and frequently impossible in a world where leaders are incessantly battered with new information. As a consequence, the rage, anxiety or sadness often residing in the substrate of organisations, like volcanic magma, is both invisible and untapped. And like volcanoes, it has the potential to explode out destructively. In stressful environments, the pressure to act can lead easily to intellectual arrogance and dominance in decision making, rather than taking the slower (and often more painful) process of deductive dialogue. It requires effort and focus and can signal the death of what Ludo van Der Heyden defines as fair process.

The power of collective emotion

Leaders protest that diagnosing organisational systems is complicated and there is insufficient time. Symptoms of dysfunction however, are often hidden in plain sight. In 2015, Marissa Mayer, struggling at Yahoo! described a rash of departures from her senior bench as “part of the design”. It is plausible to believe that this was simply an expedient public rationalisation of the deep problems that Yahoo! was facing. However, the welter of departing talent should have signified that something was rotten. It was reported at the time in Business Insider that “the world is crashing in on her…she has stopped listening to what people have to say”. A few weeks ago, less than a year later, the company was sold to Verizon. One wonders if Ms Mayer, beset by pressures, ever stood still to consider what was happening.

Worse still is failing to reflect on the emotional landscape of your customers. Seaworld Inc. is a salutary example. If you are unaware that people are concerned with our ecology, then you have been living under a rock. Yet the company took three years to announce the cessation of the breeding programme for orcas, after the damning 2013 documentary Blackfish revealed how these magnificent animals suffer in captivity. In spite of the outcry, it failed to act. It has now missed forecasts in seven of its eleven quarters as a public company. It remains to be seen whether the company can reinvent itself.

Reflective action

Jack Welch said many years ago: “The problem is that leaders fail to ask often enough the question: What is wrong around here?” Upon reflection the answer to that question is more likely to be felt in the leaders’ gut than seen in the company accounts. The feeling is likely to show up way in advance of the earnings miss.

To pre-empt disaster, I would like to suggest that actions should be “reflective” not reflexive.

First, leaders need to make an imaginative leap into the emotional world of their followers, to identify the prevalent feelings. In town halls and in small groups they need to call those feelings out. If they are wrong they will stand corrected, both vulnerable yet courageous.

Secondly, and importantly, leaders need to learn the habit of listening both actively and critically, recognising and acknowledging their own defensive formations as they do so. To that end, they need sparring partners with whom they can parse information, offload their own feelings and problem solve. This can take the form of a coach, chairperson, mentor or trusted advisor. Ironically, the higher the position, the more likely this will be both necessary and useful.

Finally, leaders need to take into account the other constituencies that connect them to the outside world: customers, shareholders and broader society. Reflectively seeking to understand will mitigate misjudged statements such as that of BP CEO, Tony Hayward, who notoriously said after the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe “I want my life back,” in spite of the oil spill having destroyed the livelihoods of thousands along the Louisiana coast. He got his life back: it cost him his job.

The danger of failing to listen

Political leaders who fail to do the hard work of comprehension allow demagoguery in through the backdoor, permitting crafty opportunists to tap in to popular anger, polarising opinion and creating exclusive “others” who are the enemy. Even worse, they can end up on the end of a “Brexit style” backlash, when the silent majority is finally given a voice.

Similarly, organisational leaders who misread smoke signals in their organisations will be subject to sabotage of their plans, passive resistance, whispered treachery and ultimately oblivion. In a globalising world, individual scrutiny is increasing, societal disparities are growing, and the actions of organisations become daily more visible in social media.

Leaders, therefore, should keep close to society, their teams and themselves through “reflective” action, if they are to avoid stigmatisation and remain at the vanguard of value creation.

Graham’s article was first posted at

by anne lueneburger

As this is one of our top blogs that has received over 60,000 hits and the idea of managing our emotions more effectively never gets old, we decided to re-post this entry  for all of you who have not yet had a chance to read it.

We’ve all been there…

  • You received an email that upset or frustrated you. Were you tempted to hit ‘reply all’, and type a very direct response and send it off with lightning speed….?
  • You’re sitting in a feedback meeting and your boss is telling you that your performance is below expectations. Do you stop him mid sentence, raise your voice and tell him that Brad S. – your ‘peer’ – is a lousy team player and that it’s all his fault?

When we have these experiences and are tempted to react in – what we know in retrospect would be an irrational way – we are experiencing what psychologists call an ‘amygdala hijack’: your emotions taking over your actions.

What happens?

(If you’re not interested in the biological bit then move on to ‘Quick interventions’!)

When we experience an amygdala hijack, the emotional part of the brain – the amygdala – overrides the thinking part of the brain – the neocortex – in response to a perceived threat. Depending on the degree of hijack, your ability to reason and think logically is compromised. Your working memory will become less efficient and your blood pressure, adrenaline and hormone levels rise.  It can take 3 to 4 hours for it to clear your system…

While an overactive amygdala serves a useful purpose when faced with a genuine physical threat (when emotions and reactions are crucial), it can cause problems when faced with an emotional threat.

During the hijack, your number of perceived options will decrease dramatically.  Instead of maybe 4 ways of resolving a problem, you will only perceive 3, then 2 (giving you an either/or choice), and then only 1.  When there is only 1 option left: the hijack is complete. You will turn to default, habitual behaviors: you are on auto-pilot and liable to make dangerously biased decisions, and you lose your ability to communicate effectively.

Successful leaders and business people have to know how to bypass the amygdala hijack. Here are some tactics to help you avoid making any rash decisions.

O Quick interventions

Channel your frustration. Use the extra adrenaline to develop an assertive, but not aggressive, response to the problem. Find what is triggering the emotions in your head.  This will help to keep the neocortex active, and prevent the amygdala from taking over. This also enables you to make your opinion known without hurting others (an aggressive response could spark a spiral of negative exchanges: which isn’t good for anybody).

Physically withdraw. If you sense the hijack, consider removing yourself physically from the situation until you can think more clearly. It can be as simple as excusing yourself to use the restroom or taking a break in the meeting (if you’re chairing it).  If you’re on the phone, you can always say that “something’s come up” and could you call back in a few minutes?

Breathe deeply. Taking deep breaths from your diaphragm (not your chest, as shallow breathing produces carbon monoxide!) with intention and purpose. Pay attention to your breath: repeat ‘in and out’. This oxygenates your neocortex, keeping it engaged and your emotions in check.

Create a mantra. If you know you are about to enter a difficult meeting then come up with a ‘mantra’ that keeps you sane, such as ‘success is the best revenge’ or ‘focus on what matters’. Write this mantra on papers that you bring to the meeting and, if you feel your emotions taking over, look at your mantra and repeat it in your head.

Zing yourself. This is an interesting technique borrowed from neuro-linguistic programming (too big an area to cover in this entry!).  What you need to do: before the meeting put a rubber band on your wrist, then ‘zing’ yourself (snap the band against your wrist) and repeat a mantra such as ‘relax’ or ‘calm down’. Once you’re in the meeting and feel tension beginning to rise, zing yourself again. This will remind you of and enforce your mantra: this really does work!

Envision. For some of you, zinging yourself may sound a bit painfulJ.  If so, then try to just visualize a relaxing experience: a calm blue glacier lake, a green pasture with horses grazing…anything that either your memory or imagination offers you and helps you to relax.

Be appreciative. It may be challenging, but strive to look at the positive aspects of a situation: including the person you may feel aggrieved by. Try to see if there is anything true or helpful in what they say or who they are.

Use humor. This may not necessarily involve you injecting humor into the situation (it can, but bear in mind that this could be misunderstood by the other party). You could, for example, when you are upset and ready to use some extreme (maybe offensive!) words, stop and visualize what you are ‘literally’ saying to the other person – or advising them to do… This should help you not to take yourself so seriously!

Role-play. If you know that an encounter could present problems, then think about role playing the situation – either in your head or with a partner. This is a highly effective tactic for preparing yourself for every eventuality and giving your emotional self a ‘heads up’.

O Long term interventions

Create learnings. Take the time to revisit the hijack experience after it’s over to learn more about what happened and why. Identify the trigger and you’ll better manage your emotions and interrupt the hijack if it happens again.

Loving-kindness meditation. Scientist Barbara Fredrickson, expert on well-being and positive emotions recommends meditation in her latest book. Loving-kindness meditation is a powerful tool to help you manage the frustrations and challenges that life can bring.

Yoga. As with meditation, yoga is a powerful tool for managing emotional distress and creating a balance within that help you deal with difficult situations. Busy executives are increasingly practicing yoga as a means of reducing tension and managing stress.

Company programs. There are company programs in place that recognize the importance of sound mind and sound body: such as the Stanford Corporate health program.  This is a joint effort between the school and leading corporations such as AT&T, Bank of America and IBM.

Read up. Robert Sapolsky, eminent American stress researcher, has written a great book: Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. Sapolsky recommends prevention – learning to recognize the signs of the stress response, and identifying and mastering the situations that trigger it…

So… if you think that you’re about to have an amygdala hijack: be aware of it, master some techniques to help you through and – most importantly – DON’T HIT SEND!

by anne lueneburger

“You have to watch this”, my friend and North of Neutral colleague Carolyn Mathews urged me last summer. As she knows I share her passion for the science behind positive psychology, so she had forwarded me a 12-minute Ted Talk of Harvard scholar Shawn Achor in which he, in lightening speed, covers the high points of the latest research on happiness:

Achor’s presentation was hilarious as much as it was thought provoking.  I wanted to know more and so got myself a copy of his book, “The Happiness Advantage”. Money well spent: a bit like the happiness guide for the executive traveler, Achor takes on the business lens when it comes to happiness and examines how it correlates with success. Bold in his claims, he is able to back them up and offers comprehensive sources to support his assertions. Chances are you have never heard of some of the findings he shares (most academic research articles are, on average, read only by seven people!).

So, in case you have no time to read his book, here is what you should know:

Happiness first, then success (not the other way round).

I still remember my history lesson on Copernikus in high school. With his publication some 500 years ago, where he famously pronounced that the earth revolved around the sun (not the other way round), he ran into a lot of resistance but ultimately his theory changed the way we see the world for good.

Much like the scientific revolution of the middle ages, research over the past 50 years shows that there may be a different relationship of variables when it comes to cause and effect than we may have preciously assumed. For example: do you need to be smart first to wear a doctor’s coat or could it be the coat that influences your IQ points? Have a look at this NY Times article that describes how participants in a research study who put on a doctor’s white coat were found to be significantly more acute and critical in their thinking than those without the coat… Do you first feel like you are in a good enough mood to smile or could it be also the other way around? If you are interested, try a little experiment: smile for at least 20 seconds several times over the course of half an hour and observe what happens to your mood… (We know from neuroscience that we can “trick” our brain into thinking that there is good reason to be happy and as a result produce neuro-chemicals that actually make us happy.)

There is no doubt that success can bring about happy moments. As I was writing this blog, my client Ryan (who works for a well-known strategy consulting firm) called me with the good news that he had been promoted to partner that morning. His happiness was palpable over the phone. However, if we are looking for sustainable happiness (and success), it is foremost a general sense of well-being at work, of being in the flow, and engaged at what we do that fuels success. And despite his promotion, I know from my work with Ryan that in our next session we will need to continue to help him build his authentic leadership style, in order for him to feel fulfilled at work and to be successful over the long haul.

The facts support this. So, no surprise that doctors who are in a good mood are three times more creative and resourceful when it comes to diagnosing and helping patients (a criteria to add when it comes to choosing your physician).  And that optimistic sales people outsell their pessimistic peers by 56%. Smart organizations capitalize on these insights. Take Zappos: different from most call centers in the US that have close to 100% turnover, this online retailer sees very little talent drain (they give their employees full autonomy on how to make a sale, there is no script, no monitoring. And as a result, they are ranked ahead of ritzy brands like Apple or BMW when it comes to customer service).

Happiness is the core, success orbits around it.

Try this: Think of your last bonus at work. What did you do with this money? How long did that feeling of happiness last? How did it impact your level of engagement at work? Now think of an activity at work you engage in because you enjoy doing so, and you notice that you are getting better as you are practicing a skill associated with this activity. What is it? What sort of emotions do you notice when you are in the middle of this activity? What do you notice when it comes to your levels of engagement at work if you integrate more of this activity at work? Not quite sure what activity that might be? Use our complimentary online assessment to get clarity around what passions you at work by clicking here.

You have a choice to be happy. 

Happiness is the sum of: our DNA, the curveballs life throws us, and finally our behavior and the lens we choose to look at the world through. Research shows that almost half of how well we fare in life and in our careers is down to us:

Source: Lyubomirksy, S. (2010). The How of Happiness. New York: Penguin Books.

Did you know that fMRI studies show that cab drivers who deliver their clients without GPS have significantly enlarged hippocampi (the region of the brain responsible for spatial memory)? Have you heard that blind people who rely on their fingers to read Braille showed brain activity no different from seeing people when it came to touches to their non-reading hand, however, when their Braille-reading finger was tapped, an enormous region in the prefrontal cortex (our IQ  powerhouse) would light up – very different from their seeing peers?

As a result of neural plasticity, we can literally change the structure of our brains. This may mean being able to learn a foreign language at the age of 50, or it may mean becoming a more empathetic and trustworthy leader of our teams. The key is that once we are aware of what we need to change to be happy and successful, we can.  And there many interventions that research offers that we can engage in to deliberately change the way we feel. It may be using our signature strengths more often and in new ways at work. It can involve being more intentional when it comes to forging strong relationships at work. Did you know that people who have a ‘best buddy’ at work tend to be seven times more engaged and fulfilled in their careers?

Try this: If you want to run your own experiment, for one week write down three positive events every day. And track your mood over time. What do you notice?

You can change significantly more than you think you can.

Now you have read so far and you may agree that starting with a focus on happiness in our career and lives, a focus on what our strengths are, what energizes us and what we are good at is superior to trying to get to the front in the rat race, and hoping for happiness down the road. You may also have bought into research that shows that a good part of our happiness is in our own hands. The final important message on happiness and success is that we can push ourselves significantly more than we think we can when it comes to making positive change happen.

As I often share with my clients, any kind of change, even if it is much desirable, involves pain. In fact, we know that even much desired change can be as painful as breaking bones. This is why as a coach I help clients develop these small incremental steps towards their change.

Even if experts tell us that certain change is not humanly achievable, we have all heard about ‘miracles’ where people have been able to overcome preconceived notions and realized their aspirations and goals. Be it the Bannister effect, where once the four-minute-mile record was broken, a slew of athletes were able to follow suit, or climbing Mount Everest without oxygen, or the first heart transplants. The story of Walt Disney  comes to mind who started an entire empire based on his mantra of “If you can dream it, you can achieve it. “

In my work as a coach I have seen shy introverts become gifted speakers, reluctant risk takers leave their current corporate position to launch their own start-up, and reluctant leaders embrace their authentic self and inspire their teams in the midst of organizational turmoil to stay the course and to deliver results beyond expectations. As Henry Ford once said so wisely: “If you think you can do it or think you can’t, in both cases, you’re right.”

Try this: In coaching as we work with our clients who struggle to make desired change happen, we often ask them to recall times in their own pasts when they were able to successfully overcome similar challenges. We then explore what strategies they used, what skills they employed to overcome hurdles, be they external or internal. A rather simple, but powerful technique that often results in clients to break through and to tap into their very inner strength they previously had simply been unaware of.


north of neutral dialog

February 14, 2011

by anne lueneburger

Carol Kauffman, Founder & Director of the Institute of Coaching, Boston

At North of Neutral we work with successful leaders and their teams to achieve lasting positive change. Part of my due diligence as a coach is to ensure a consistent level of quality service to clients and, as part of this, I consider it to be my responsibility to continually invest in my own personal and professional growth and development. An element of this involves regular coaching sessions with a supervisor coach, in my case with Carol Kauffman.

In addition to being supportive, asking insightful questions, and giving feedback, Carol stands ready to confront me when needed. Occasionally this involves giving me a ‘swift kick’ to move me forward and help me realize my full potential.

I often come out of sessions with her full of energy and laughter (which, as we know from research on motivation, is one of the best indicators of engagement), and ready to take on my next challenging assignment.

The role

Dr. Carol Kauffman is Assistant Clinical Professor at Harvard Medical School and heads up the Institute of Coaching that she founded in 2009. The mission of the Institute is to offer education and research on Leadership, Healthcare and Applied Positive Psychology. Kauffman is also co-director of the annual Harvard Coaching Conference, and initiated the annual International Coaching Research Forum, an organization that promotes progress and community in coaching research.

Kauffman a Diplomate of the American Board of Professional Psychology, and is an Examiner for its Board. She is Chief Supervisor for Meyler Campell Ltd, a business coaching program based in London and, as a Professional Certified Coach, runs her own coaching practice working with seasoned C-suite executives.

A frequent key-note speaker on topics related to coaching, and Founding Editor in Chief of the academic journal ‘Coaching: An International Journal of Theory, Research and Practice’, Kauffman has also published a number of articles, including her 2009 Harvard Business Review publication “What Can Coaches Do for You?” the first of its kind to take a close (and quantitative) look at the realities of executive coaching.

Her work is featured and referenced extensively in the media – including publications such as the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Business week, NPR and her coaching is featured in a documentary film by the CBC.

The journey

“I had a very unusual childhood,” explains Carol Kauffman when I ask her about her upbringing. She recounts how she was born into a lower middle class family in a small town in New Jersey, where her father began manufacturing tools. He grew increasingly successful, and over time the family became well off.

On the family’s journey through social classes – coming from “rats in the basement” through to living next door to Keith Richards and a home next occupied by the Shah of Iran – Kauffman describes her life at times as feeling like being in a movie set: “It was fascinating but odd, often I would be the only person in the room without a title.”

In addition to experiencing a wide range of socio-economic statuses, Kauffman’s parents also enabled a broad and inclusive view of spirituality, and a mature perspective on life’s purpose. Her father was Jewish, and her mother Episcopalian, with a vivid interest in Buddhism and psychic phenomena.

Kauffman credits this array of socio-economic and spiritual elements in her upbringing for her ability to coach a wide range of clients with ease, including the most senior leaders of the most powerful organizations worldwide. ”I am grateful to the chaos of my past,” she says.

In addition to these elements, from an early age Kauffman discovered that she had a profound curiosity about people. She explains that transformative experiences, such as the Jesuit priest who approached her at a retreat where she participated as a 10-year old, and who with rapt attention seemed to listen to her responses to his questions, “made me think: I must have something to say, something to offer.”

Still, as with many teenagers about to graduate from high school and getting ready for college, Kauffman had little idea of how ‘something to offer’ could take shape in the form of a future career. She recalls being 19 years old, out gardening with her mother, with a “beautiful view of the New York skyline, pulling weeds, and whining that I did not know what to do with my life.” Kauffman laughs as she shares her mother’s somewhat exasperated response: “Oh Carol, just figure what it is that you like to do, and then how to get paid for it.”

In ever so pragmatic terms, Kauffman’s mother had pointed out what positive psychologists and research have proven to be at the core of professional engagement and job satisfaction: identifying your strengths, and applying these as much as possible to what you do on a daily basis.

Based on her natural ability to talk to people, listen to their concerns and “sort things out”, Kauffman decided to major in psychology. She received her doctorate in clinical psychology in 1984 from Boston University.

As she practiced though, she was troubled by the common pathological approach of treating people at the time: ”Most clients seemed like people to me, not bundles of pathology. I could see their potential, rather than making my sole focus how ill they were.”

She goes on to share her experience with one rather challenging patient with multiple personality disorder who came, in part the result of therapy, to turn things around and lead a mentally healthy and productive life. Much later when Kauffman asked this patient why she thought the turnaround had been possible, the response intrigued her: “It was clear you trusted me, then I was able to trust you and learned to trust myself.”

While Kauffman was passionate about helping people, she saw herself surrounded by colleagues who did not think the way she did, frequently giving her a sense of being the “perky” psychologist rather than having an approach that was as equally rigorous as her more traditional peers.

The glass is half full…

When, in 1998, the positive psychology movement was called to life by newly appointed American Psychology Association President Martin Seligman, Kauffman “jumped aboard”. The call to scientifically study what is going ‘right’ with people and what we can learn from that (as opposed to the focus of research over the previous 50 years on fixing what was wrong with people), was what she had desired all along.

Kauffman attended Gallup meetings, started speaking at positive psychology summits, and founded her own coaching practice in 2003, where she integrated the principles of positive psychology into her primary areas of interest: peak performance and authentic leadership.

For the past eight years Kauffman has run her psychology and coaching practice on parallel but separate tracks. At present she has a tiny clinical practice, and spends the majority of her time as a leadership coach and supervisor of business coaching.  She has had the privilege of participating in well over 38,000 client sessions. The core coaching and leadership purpose is to “discover things that ignite eternal change with people who matter,”she explains. “‘Matter’ may mean that they are simply good hearted, or that they are key change agents in the world.”

On the importance of being ‘yourself’

It is clear that Kauffman has found her own coaching style and that she is comfortable with who she is as a professional. And her authenticity, resulting from her life story as well as her values and passions as an individual, is part of the reason for her success. It enables her to play in a variety of different leagues and to not be intimidated by challenging situations:

“I like the high challenge. For example, I was called, alongside a group of coaching colleagues from the Authentic Leadership Institute, to coach the top 100 in a Fortune 50 organization. The debriefing was fairly intense: unless the coaching yielded a significant change in their leadership quality and interaction with others in the organization, some of these top players in the firm would not be able to move forward; on some occasions they were about to be fired – despite being huge moneymakers.”

After 5 full days of coaching, intensive 360s, conversations with peers and the CEO, Kauffman and her colleagues – together with their clients – designed powerful change programs.

Two months later many of these leaders were on a good trajectory. A number of the leaders she had been working with one-on-one received promotions, and had clearly made real progress as a result of the process.

When I ask Kauffman about her ‘tricks’ with a particularly difficult leader she laughs:”Essentially, it came down to asking direct and forceful questions. How did this individual think his previous behavior of humiliating his team served him and his leadership? The key was to find his absolute core strength and to leverage his motivation to become a good leader. His destructive behavior then became less tolerable to him and while he still isn’t exactly a walk in the park, he is much more collaborative.”

What makes for a great coach?

This is a question organizations, their leaders, and HR teams ask repeatedly as they seek to find the best coach to facilitate change in their organizations.

As part of knowing what drives her, Kauffman has learned when to say ‘no’ to some potential client engagements:”Being an effective coach also means having the good sense to know when not to get started and to have a good filtering process in place. Recently I had a client who needed a degree of structure that just wasn’t exciting for me. Certain people are not interested in the process of discovery. They primarily wish to fix something and may have a particular performance goal in mind, such as being a better public speaker, where they don’t really require nimble or agile thinking.”

Kauffman knows that she has the right client to work with: “when at the end of a session I am filled with more energy and zest than when it began. In fact, that happens nearly all the time, coaching is fundamentally exciting.”

Here a few key ingredients on Kauffman’s list on what constitutes great coaching:

1/ Be compassionate and confront.

“A deep interest in others is key. You have to really be delighted with people and willing to put yourself on the line to be of service to them.”

On her road to developing her personal coaching style, Kauffman has worked with many mentors and role models along the way (much as I do now with her). One of them is Ruth Ann Harnish, a former journalist and well-known coach and philanthropist. To Kauffman, she “embodies the spirit of coaching: extraordinarily warm, very engaging and highly confrontational.”

Carol Kauffman also remembers some useful advice she received from one of her peers, David Peterson:”When you are coaching an executive and you are not willing to get fired on the spot for saying what you feel is the right thing, you are not doing your job.” Being able to be true to herself and her coaching principles allows her to add real value to a client’s situation.

2/ Offer substance.

Powerful questions, exceptional listening skills, and holding a client accountable to move towards a particular goal are at the core of coaching. However, these skills alone do not suffice, particularly in the world of executive coaching:“Working knowledge of different models and theories of coaching and leadership is essential. You need to be able to really adjust to what you are doing to the particular person you are working with. Mental, emotional and interpersonal agility is key to making sure clients get what they want.“

The conviction that coaching is a powerful force of change was ultimately the motivator for Kauffman to launch the Institute of Coaching as it offers learning tours, master classes and rich resources to the coaching community.

3/ Untap potential.

“You need to be clear about the strengths of a person, and not get stuck in the default option of only looking for ‘gaps or defects’. Coaching is about creating a strong awareness about where someone is and allowing them to hold on to the perspective of where they want to go. ‘Failures’ are there to learn from, and as a coach I ask them to look back and mine their crucible (most painful) experiences but also harvest their most positive experiences. Together, these help us know our story, and what leadership lessons we have learned that bring us to the keys of great leadership: Positivity, Authenticity and Edge.”

On the importance of staying grounded…

Much of Carol Kauffman’s success seems based on realizing an equilibrium in her life, on being grounded and confident about who she is and regardless of which ‘hat’ she is wearing: that of a coach, teacher, leader, mother or friend.

When I ask Kauffman about her biggest challenge in coaching clients effectively, she is quick to say in her own irreverent way: “Listen more and learn to shut up.”

This disarming honesty reminded me of an anecdote she offered during a coaching session when I expressed concern about entering a coaching engagement where I had little previous exposure to the client’s industry. Kauffman shared how she had been in a similar position when she had been asked to coach some of the senior partners at the Boston Consulting Group. When one of the partners asked her whether she had ever done such an assignment in the world of strategy consulting, she described looking at him, and responding with warmth and enthusiasm, straight out “No! That’s why I’m so excited to be here.”

Knowing her disarming habit of being completely candid (in an even-handed and somewhat playful fashion),the BCG partner was intrigued by her answer (contrary to what one might intuitively assume), and probed further, ”So how can you help us?” Kauffman replied:”I have no idea, but my brain is at your service, let’s figure out how to best use it.” Kauffman got the assignment and, of course, worked successfully with the senior leadership team of the firm.

An authentic life

Needless to say, Carol Kauffman’s authentic way of free-thinking candor is coupled with a healthy dose of tact and warmth in addition to convincing substance.

To instill trust and confidence in others is to find and practice one’s own authentic voice. There are no universal traits, attributes or styles linked to success. Much as I admire and enjoy Kauffman’s coaching style, it will never fully be mine.

As Bill George emphasizes in his book ‘True North’, being an authentic leader or professional requires a commitment to developing oneself. It involves “testing [oneself] through real-world experiences and reframing life stories to understand who one is at the core.”

In fact, grasping the purpose of one’s work and realizing that being authentic is at the very core of thriving both professionally and personally – as exemplified by Carol Kauffman.

north of neutral dialog

November 11, 2010

by anne lueneburger

Francesco Clark, President & Founder, Clark Botanicals

This summer, as I was walking past the display window of a local beauty salon, I saw the cover of a book, ‘Walking Papers’. I was intrigued to see a book amongst lingerie and make-up… The author, Francesco Clark had, I learned, been paralyzed as a result of a swimming pool injury at the age of 24. Now, 8 years later, his autobiography tells the story of the tragic accident and its consequences in a genuine and moving voice. More importantly, his story shows how Clark has succeeded in building a meaningful and fulfilling life for himself, and for others.

A few weeks ago I met with Francesco Clark, who lives in his antique-filled family home outside Manhattan. It certainly had an idyllic feel as his 91-year old Nonna greeted me in Italian and served us tea while we were getting settled for our dialog.

What he does

Francesco Clark is Founder and President of Clark Botanicals, a line of paraben-free skincare products distributed in over 90 stores worldwide. Clark is also one of a select group of ambassadors for The Christopher Reeve Foundation where he acts as an advocate for spinal cord injury research, and also dedicates parts of the proceeds from his company Clark Botanicals. As the co-chair of the Champions Committee at the Reeve Foundation, Clark regularly brings together a group of philanthropic and influential New Yorkers who help to support the foundation’s critical work through running events which have raised up to $2million.

Life before the accident

Clark was raised in Bologna, Italy, until at the age of 7 he and his family moved to the US. His father opened his own medical practice that he continues to run together with Clark’s mother, a nutritionist and phlebotomist (in addition to having a PhD in languages). The ‘sandwich child’ of an older brother and a younger sister, Clark was known as “the energy ball” in this tight-knit family. In 2000 he graduated with a major in international relations and romance languages from Johns Hopkins and, after a short stint with a consulting firm in Chicago and Mademoiselle magazine in New York, he joined the prestigious magazine Harper’s Bazaar as a fashion assistant. At the age of 24 he was leading the life of an independent young professional in Manhattan, working long hours and dedicating much of his time to his future career.

The split second that changed everything

In the summer of 2002, Francesco Clark was spending a weekend in a summer share on Long Island when a nocturnal dive into the pool’s shallow end left him paralyzed neck down. “The second I dove in, my chin hit the bottom and my head snapped back.” As he lay with his head underwater, unable to move and slowly drowning, someone noticed what was going on and pulled him out. That very first night, doctors predicted he would not survive, let alone ever breathe on his own again.

A long and painful recovery process began. After the first months of intensive care at the hospital he remembers, “My days were filled with long, dull drives to physical therapy”. Living back home again, he felt like his “life was on pause.” The medical world repeatedly told Clark to manage his expectations, accept his fate and live within the boundaries that they perceived to be realistic.

This was not the message Clark was ready to hear. He spent $35,000 converting his family home’s garage into a gym with state-of-the-art equipment on which he spent (and spends) up to five hours a day to help rebuild his motor functions. With the help of his supportive family, but also very much as the result of his own perseverance and bravery, he explored and researched innovative treatments and approaches to improving his condition. And the first results were encouraging: he was breathing on his own and able to use his hands. Stem-cell surgery in Beijing allowed him to recover more sensation in his body, leaving the skeptical medical community in awe.

Yet, while he was seeing physical progress, emotionally he continued to struggle. He had been very social and active in his past life, and attentive to his appearance, yet now he chose to lead a rather secluded life: “The first few years I was really depressed. Other than my family, I was not looking to see anybody. I wore the same shirt day in and day out, shaved my head and avoided looking into the mirror as I could not stand my own reflection.” Guilt for needing extensive support from the people he loved, and resenting his own dependency on others, made it challenging for Clark to look beyond his own personal tragedy.

Superman dies

After Hollywood legend Christopher Reeve (who had played ‘Superman’) became a ventilator-dependent quadriplegic in 1995, he dedicated the last decade of his life to launching an international movement to support those living with paralysis. As he endured and fought his own trauma, he continued to inspire others, becoming a real ‘Super Man’. Clark had been amongst his followers since 2003, when he came across an article in The New Yorker about the success of Reeve’s determination to regain sensation and movement. It had inspired Clark to “stand his ground”, to keep pushing forward with aggressive physical therapy, and to make improvements on his own.

And then, in 2005, Christopher Reeve died at the age of 52. It came as a shock to Clark:”The whole time I’d been injured, I’d had a feeling that someone had my back. What now?” Something clicked. It was the turning point as he describes, ”I knew it was time to start asking myself how can I make a difference?”

Transformation from within

Superman had died, but it looked like another one was in the making. In small steps, Clark started to reach out to his local community, extending from being an advocate for himself to becoming an advocate for others with disabilities. He gradually lost his fear of people feeling sorry for him and no longer wanted to be “invisible”. Next was his involvement with the Christopher Reeve Foundation, where he took on the responsibility of National Ambassador.

As part of his accident, Clark had not only lost his ability to walk but also to sweat, which led to clogged pores and a poor skin complexion. None of the existing creams and potions were able to solve the problem, so Clark and his father set about trials in their kitchen’s sink with the aim of developing their own skin care, which was derived from nocturnally-blooming flowers that had antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and immuno-stimulating effects. The lip balm alone took 27 tries before the two Clarks got it right. At first only for personal use, soon others tried the creams and word of its benefits spread fast.

In 2005 Clark began selling his products on his website, And today, five years later, Clark has taken significant leaps forward: Clark’s Botanicals received the Cosmetic Executive Women “Indie” Beauty Award, and it was given the Fashion Group International 2008 Rising Star Award. It is now selling at prestigious US retailers such as Saks Fifth Avenue, Henri Bendel in New York and Fred Segal in Los Angelos, and has also started selling in select locations in Europe and Asia. The firm sees a remarkable 98% return rate for its online customers.

Clark’s inspirational story has been covered by The New York Times, was featured on PBS as part of their “This Emotional Life” series, and he is already working on his second book – a collection of short essays. Clark plans to share lessons he has learned from life and, getting to know Francesco Clark, I have no doubt that there will be some light-hearted and humorous anecdotes.

What’s changed?

When I ask Francesco Clark what has changed inside of him, he smiles. Looking at his attitude to life now, he can see that there has been a significant shift. Whereas before the accident his focus had been on the future, after the accident much of his daily energy concentrated on recovering his past. Today, however, Clark continues to look forward, and his dream is to be able to walk again one day. “My goal is to be out of my wheelchair five years from now.” This goal is much less about recapturing what he has lost, however, but rather an integral part of his belief in a future. And while he is disciplined about working-out every day for many hours, he is able to enjoy the here and now. He savors spending time with the most important people in his life: “I value more the authenticity and compassion in friendships than I used to.”

“I have always had the attitude of ‘what can be done?’, and that has sustained me over the years.” The biggest change, he shares, is that “I no longer make excuses for not having the life I want.”

Clark’s not someone who imagines his future as ‘plain vanilla’, and sees himself “living in my own apartment in the city in ten years and running a non profit organization, functioning as a resource center for people with disabilities.” He smiles as he goes on: ”And I would love to treat my family and friends to a nice vacation somewhere to thank them for all that they have done for me.”

Francesco Clark experiences, as we all do, difficult moments and days in his life. However, confirming what much research has shown, the emotional effects of a tragedy such as paralysis have been temporary. As positive psychologist Diener (1994) found: ”After a period of adaptation, people with disabilities usually report a near-normal level of wellbeing.” So, the secret of happiness is less a question of getting what you want, but more a case of wanting what you have…

by anne lueneburger

Jacques Bon, Owner, Estate Mas de Peint, Camargue, France

Summer of 2007, on the back of Marjan, a typical light grey Camargue horse, I faced a group of bulls with upward sweeping horns staring at me, with nothing but a few yards of grass between us. I felt an instant rush of adrenaline… but as I learned later, bulls respect horses as superior in the ranks of animals and do not charge them.

This was second nature to 83-year old Jacques Bon, the charismatic and energetic owner of the estate Mas de Peint with whom I spoke this spring. Sadly, Jacques Bon passed away shortly before I posted this dialog. Nevertheless, his legend continues and this story is testimony to a life fully lived.

The role

Born at the Mas de Peint, a 17th century manor in the heart of the Camargue, about 22 kilometers south of Arles (where Van Gogh painted his famous piece ‘Le Café de Nuit’), Jacques Bon developed the former 1,200 acre farm into a world-renowned estate, which – in addition to significant agriculture and cattle farm operations – offers a pristine four-star resort and restaurant that organizes special events and welcomes guests from around the world.

Bon possessed a unique and potent mix: profound knowledge of farming combined with a deep passion for land and livestock, and the charisma of a man who never shied away from hard work.  His vision was complemented by his wife Lucille’s talent as an architect and interior designer, and their 24 year-old son Frederic’s innate ability to assume leadership of the agricultural operations.

An early turning point

The second youngest of five children, Bon vividly remembers how, at the age of 15, he was told by his local school principal “to leave the school and to focus on what he can do best: grow carrots.” Deeply hurt, returning from school that day, Bon decided to never look back. He joined his father and side-by-side, until his father’s death eight years later, he learned the trade of farmer on the leased lands of the Mas de Peint, which at the time belonged to the Famille Blain, a wealthy family situated in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.

When he shares this story of the insensitive principal, almost 70 years later, Bon also acknowledges that most likely this painful experience allowed him to master the trade early on and prepared him for his next milestone.  At the young age of 25, Bon successfully negotiated and purchased the Mas de Peint. No longer a renting farmer, he was now a proud landowner. Over the next 27 years his estate prospered and was one of the largest proprietors of sheep and cattle in the Provence.

Over the years, Bon stayed in contact with his previous landlord and in 1979 – against the advice of his peers – sold the vast majority of his 14,000 sheep and purchased the Blain’s main residence in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, the beautiful Châteaux des Alpilles. This historic manor house has rich history, dating back to medieval times. On its premises, during the 19th century, the Blain family had entertained France’s top political and literary personalities. With the purchase of the Château des Alpilles and its surrounding lands, Bon became one of the most prominent estate owners in the South of France.

In 1983 he married his second wife, Lucille, the architect that had helped him to develop and sell the land around the Château des Alpilles and they moved in together at the Mas de Peint. Jointly they renovated this farm that much resembled its original layout and décor, and in 1994 opened their doors to host individuals and groups.

Since then, the Mas de Peint has expanded and built a reputation among travelers as a “hidden gem.” It has been widely featured in global publications such as the Wall Street Journal, Elle Decoration, or in the book 1,000 Places To See Before You Die. And ever so present in all the different features was Jacques Bon, also called by his admirers ‘Jacques le Bon’ (Jack the Good One).

Over the past decade, the Camargue has seen the effects of the green movement, and it is no surprise that organic restaurants like La Chassagnette and organic wineries have surfaced in the area. The Mas de Peint is in the heart of this trend towards a sustainable life style. Jacques Bon shared, ”I always have projects; this is what keeps me going. Organic farming is one of our core interests. We are currently conceptualizing an Ecolodge, allowing visitors from outside to come and both make a positive contribution to the environment during their stay, but also to take away the urgent call to preserve our habitats and to make living sustainable.”

Moments of pause

Evolving as an individual and building his legacy also had a more painful aspect to it, including personal sacrifice.  After almost 30 years together and raising two children, Bon and his first wife Françoise had decided to call it quits shortly after purchasing the Château des Alpilles. As a result of this separation, Bon left the newly acquired estate to his first wife and their two grown children and returned to the Mas de Peint.  His voice takes on a more somber tone when he reflects, “I changed as a person over the course of my life and career. Unfortunately my partner and I did not grow in the same direction.”

Building a legacy

“Tout en faisant mon travail, je me régale.” Bon is heard saying on a clip on youtube (roughly translated: “I love what I do”). Ever the clever businessman and visionary, Bon possessed an innate instinct when it came to matching passion with commerce. He was authentic in what he did, and his legendary love for horses serves as the best example.

In his early days, Bon’s dream was to be a ‘Cavalier’ (term for ‘cowboys’ that herded cattle on horseback). He offered his services as an ‘Amateur’, working at other farms without pay. Laughingly, he shares that the love of his life was Plume, a horse he saved from the slaughterhouse and that was his loyal companion for almost 20 years. ”Plume would follow me around like a dog; she was never far. While he was a lively horse, he would not move when he had our two year old son on his back.” Plume was buried in the garden of the Bon family.

To this day, the Mas de Peint welcomes amateurs watching over the 250 heads of cattle that graze between rice patties and fields of wheat. In addition to using his horses for the farming operations, Bon built a riding stable and the Mas de Peint offers hotel guests the opportunity to go on trail rides.

Being true to himself greatly contributed to the charisma at the core of Bon’s legend. Often seen on horse back until his last days, he was also called the “John Wayne of France” and the “Clint Eastwood of the Provence.” Bon is a remarkable example of prospering while living true to one’s passions.

What is more, Bon did not wait until ‘ripe age’ to build his legacy; instead he continuously and relentlessly built and lived it throughout his inspired life.