Successful Leaders Aren't Bullies

It is the uncommon character who can transcend trauma and transform it into strength. Rarer still is the survivor who can endure the unspeakable wrongs of abuse, overcome insurmountable odds to thrive, and then, through an enlightened alchemy, weave the cruel memories of torment into a story of courage, empathy and hope. By transmuting rage into a guidepost to a more conscious way of being, even evil can serve a noble purpose. It is ultimately the very rarest of souls who can achieve this final feat, acting with love, compassion and determination, all in the pursuit of lifting others.

Matt Paknis is one of those rarest of souls.

Larger than life, Matt is a man of great stature on all counts…renowned for his towering height, character and disarming charm. I say this unequivocally, as I have known Matt basically my entire life…since 1966, when we were classmates in Mrs. Simester’s nursery school in Madison, NJ. Towering above peers at any age, Matt could have plowed through any of us to get the largest of the 13 red tricycles, which would have suited him best, but he never did. Ever the gentle giant, bullying or using his size as an advantage anywhere but on a football field has never been Matt’s way.

 Immediately recognizable in the front row, Matt has barely changed. Nor have I, as I tilt my head, trying to see life from a different perspective.

Immediately recognizable in the front row, Matt has barely changed. Nor have I, as I tilt my head, trying to see life from a different perspective.

Everyone in Madison knew Matt as an affable leader, a football star, a generous friend always ready with a sympathetic ear, a focused, fun guy with a deep, bellowing laugh. It pained us to watch Matt lose his saint-like, devoted mom, whose lovely nature and grace he inherited. What we didn’t know was what else was going on in Matt’s life.

As a long-term survivor of childhood abuse, Matt is a rarity. According to the landmark Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study conducted in 1995-97 by Kaiser Permanente and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, victims of childhood abuse do not live as long. Of the 17,337 study participants, those with childhood exposure to six or more different types of adverse childhood events had their life expectancy reduced by 20 years, living to 60.6 years on average.

After a successful high school and college career playing football, with five championship seasons, and six years coaching college football, Matt pivoted to a career as a senior management consultant devoted to helping global clients embrace healthy management practices. Matt raises the consciousness of leaders, helping organizations tackle workplace abuse to cultivate more enlightened, fair and productive working environments.

In his new book, Successful Leaders Aren’t Bullies: How to Stop Abuse at Work and Build Exceptional Organizations, released this week by Post Hill Press, Matt shares his harrowing personal story of abuse and methods for identifying, addressing and preventing workplace abuse, which often shows up as bullying. The culmination of more than a quarter century of professional inquiry, focus and consulting, Successful Leaders Aren’t Bullies is an excellent resource for today's enlightened leader. Sharing his wealth of knowledge in organizational behavior and first-hand experience, Matt explains: “Successful leaders expose the truth. They solve problems, influence people in positive ways and achieve growth-perpetuating healthy outcomes.”

A must-read for managers, Matt has produced a game-changing tool for recognizing abuse and reversing its corrosive effects. His work identifies the often subtle symptoms of abuse, provides strategies and tools for addressing disruptive behaviors, and offers insights that will inspire hope and help cultivate safe, thriving cultures that protect the organization and its #1 asset -- its people.

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We live in a culture where winning is key, where the end too often justifies questionable means, where a hyper-focus on me, mine and ours can cause a dehumanization of anyone outside our inner circle of needs and desires, obscuring our ability to see them as anything beyond the other. With the Class of 1980, Madison High School graduated an inordinate number of Type-A, super competitive, over-achieving leaders…myself included. One of the gentlest among us, Matt helped lead our beloved Dodgers to an unprecedented four-year winning streak and multiple state titles. None of us in that amazing graduating class liked to lose, and many of us rarely have.

Healthy competition propels us to grow, to hone and share our gifts. But an unbalanced emphasis on winning can cause a blurring of purpose, a loss of perspective, a slide into unhealthy behaviors that undermine community. That descent can be swift and subtle. Matt’s primary focus is on the pathology of ill, insecure people who infect individuals and groups with a toxic strain of narcissism as well as the cultures that breed them. I will incorporate some of Matt’s insights and tools into my consulting practice, where we counsel clients on the fine art of communications, encouraging them to delve deep into the souls of their organizations and communicate both externally and internally from a place of truth, compassion and purpose. But reading this has also motivated me to embark on some personal introspection with an examination of where I sometimes lose sight of the big picture and get impatiently caught up in winning, whether in leading my team, arguing a point, negotiating a deal, discussing politics, beating another driver on the road, or imposing my will in any circumstance. It’s certainly worth a look. The world can use a lot more gentleness. And we can all stand to become better leaders.

For years, I have wanted to reclaim the phrase “Selling Your Soul,” which is why I launched this blog. The average soul is a beauty to behold. Selling your soul should be a good thing. What Matt’s work makes clear is that organizations should nurture them. We should all strive to sell our light, reach towards a more conscious, charitable, balanced and sympathetic way of being…a more enlightened version of ourselves. This is equally true for the individual and the collective.

To sell your soul, you first have to bare it, exposing intention, purpose, darkness and light. Matt does so with excruciating candor, anchored in a wellspring of generous intent. Thank you, my old friend Matt, for tilting towards the light and sharing your soul with and for us.

I believe we should all sell our souls to the light and be rewarded handsomely for doing so, by whatever measure of value is meaningful. Matt deserves kudos and support for this important book, so please, everyone, get busy and buy it! Let’s encourage Matt to keep writing.

Ellen Yui