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Growing the Whole Person and Other Tips to Lead Positive

Lead Positive profile: Kevin Cashman, senior partner at Korn Ferry (Part 1)

Rarely, if ever, have I encountered such a self-aware, emotionally intelligent leader as Kevin Cashman. Kevin is a best-selling author of Pause Principle and Leadership from the Inside Out, coach and senior partner at Korn Ferry, and pioneer of the “grow the whole person to grow the whole leader” approach to integrated leadership development. He was also recently named one of the top ten thought leaders by Leadership Excellence magazine.

As you read Kevin’s thought-provoking and inspiring answers to these Lead Positive Profile questions, reflect on your own signature moments, best mentors, and limiting beliefs. Let Kevin’s personal insights be an invitation for you to gain new insights into what shaped you as the leader you are today.

Note: This is part one of Kevin Cashman’s Lead Positive profile. Click here to read part two in which Kevin discusses how a business partnership fueled his emotional development and how he learned to trust in his talents and abilities.

1. What were three signature moments in your life that have shaped and strengthened your leadership assets?

You talk about signature presence; our term is "core purpose." It's this intersection of your unique talents, values, service and contributions. So these are some of the moments that honed my core purpose.

The Red Thing

Growing up, in our basement was something called the Red Thing. The Red Thing was this very high wooden bench that happened to be located directly across from where my mother would iron clothes. All of us kids wanted time on the Red Thing, but it wasn't about the Red Thing.

What we wanted to do was spend time with our mother because she was an amazing coach, consultant, and facilitator. We always wanted her to give us an answer. Occasionally she would, but more often she taught us how to think, how to reflect, how to build awareness, and how to look at different sides of something.

I wasn't even aware of what she was doing—I was only aware of the benefits of it. I didn't realize that she was teaching me a process, and I don't even think she intended to, but she had this incredible ability to use questions to make you look at all sides of something, to help you get really clear about what you're about and what you were going to do.

I didn't connect this until recently. She was my first and maybe best coach, and she helped me grow, but little did I know she taught me how to use questions to impact transformation and to help grow self-awareness, grow purpose, grow meaning, grow different ways to look at yourselves and situations.

It was only last month that I was in the middle of doing a keynote and somebody asked, "Who were some of your influences?" and I mentioned my mother and the Red Thing. I'd never told that story until last month.

Balancing autonomy and intimacy

Now, let me give you a darker one. The image is I'm in bed by myself. It's the middle of the night and my parents are fighting—not physically fighting but verbally fighting. I’ve been up many nights going, "I hope they get through this. I hope we survive. I hope we get through it." This experience instilled two really deep conversations within me that I think have been really important for the work that we do.

One is the conversation about autonomy: “I'm going to create my own life and my own happiness, and I'm not going to be in a situation like that." The experience of my parents fighting gave me a deep sense of wanting to create something different. It also made me think about the upsides and downsides of autonomy. I felt the drive to protect myself and to be autonomous and to be above the pain of relationships, all of which I had to work through. But there are also all sorts of upsides to being an entrepreneur and a thought leader and an author. Autonomy and inner reflection have big upsides.

The other thing that I had to work through, and probably on one level still am, is this deep sense that relationships equal pain, and the deeper the relationship, like marriage, the more pain. That was the experience that I saw. It's not the full experience, but it was my experience; this deep sense of not wanting that kind of intimacy because of the pain that it represented. I had to learn when autonomy serves and when intimacy serves and how to use those muscles not as coping mechanisms to avoid pain but as instruments. I had to learn how to appropriately create through autonomy and autonomous ideas but also how to stay connected in relationships.

Earlier in my career it was more about my autonomy, my achievement. I was an entrepreneur. I built this consulting business and it was successful but that meant I then had to build community and a team and that's not why I got into it. I got into it to make a difference in people's lives and to be free and autonomous. Then suddenly I had this big group of people that I needed to motivate and inspire and develop.

So I had to learn in my business how these two drives, autonomy and intimacy, how they work together because they can be in conflict. You need the autonomy to create and not be too worried about what people think, because if you're too worried you won't create. Then you have to lead and have that autonomous impulse yet stay connected and stay intimate in business and also in life. So that was a key deep thing that I feel like I've worked through— how to balance deep connection and deep autonomy and independence—but it's probably still influencing things.

My work is about helping people understand the pain and pleasure in their life stories and how to extract values and talents and make a bigger difference. It's very difficult to help others do that unless you've done a good measure of your own work there. So I think on another level my work pushed me into figuring things out a bit on my own, which turned out to be a good thing later in life.

Time with a great teacher

This third one I wrote about in Leadership from the Inside Out in the Being Mastery chapter. I had the good fortune to learn lots of ways to meditate and I did lots of different forms before I finally settled on TM, transcendental meditation. That just clicked for me. I ended up studying with the founder of TM, Maharishi, for about a year.

I was a senior in college and I went to Spain and spent four months with Maharishi and a group of people. I meditated for almost two months, twelve hours a day. Deep, deep meditation. I thought, ‘Oh my God, I'm getting so deeply relaxed here. I've never been in this space before.’ My pulse was 42 when I was awake so you can imagine how quiet it was in the depths of meditation. Everything slowed down to an unbelievable pace.

I would spend the nights with Maharishi and he would answer any question you could think about: spirituality, life, anything, any topic. You'd hear people's questions and you'd hear this great teacher deal with them and it was pure magic. It was just pure magic.

That was the most transformative time of my life, the depth of the experience with and the breadth of knowledge from an incredible teacher. I came back and life looked different. College looked different. Everything looked different. That was the grounding of a deep, genuine transformation, a fundamental shift that changed my life.

Kevin Cashman is senior partner at Korn Ferry, specializing in CEO & Executive Development and Keynote Speaking. He is the founder of the Executive to Leader Institute and Chief Executive Institute, referred to as the “Mayo Clinic” of executive development by Fast Company, and now offered at six locations globally. He also founded LeaderSource, recognized as one of the top three leadership development programs globally. Follow Kevin on Twitter @kevin_cashman.

Dr. Kathy Cramer has written seven best-selling books including Change The Way You See Everything, which started the ABT Global Movement. Her latest book, Lead Positive shows leaders how to increase their effectiveness through her revolutionary yet refreshing simple mindset management process, Asset-Based Thinking. Download her Speaker Kit here.

To read more of Kathy’s thought leadership, visit and Follow Kathy on Twitter at @drkathycramer.