I Met The Ninja of Unicornsulting / A Sit-Down With Karl-Magnus Möller
June 4, 2017.A Sunday.
The man. The mystery. And yes, the beard. But behind the layers of thick glass and general mystique lie a progressive thinker and a Seth Godin-type marketer. And a black belt in Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu, a martial art based on nine schools – some of which were used by the actual ninjas of medieval Japan (although this is something the deadly interviewee refuses to make a fuzz out of, claiming that a black belt is no more than a sign that you are “a serious beginner”). Karl-Magnus is also a member of Mensa (the not so secret society for extra smart people), holds several patents in data communication and was at one point headhunted to be a part of a team starting up a start-up incubator in Silicon Valley, which he turned down in order to become a flamingo.
And by “flamingo” I mean “innovation consultant to forward thinking leaders in large organizations.”
You can see why his glasses are so big.
And why our little sit-down quickly turned into to an almost two hour long conversation about human potential, leadership, the world and, I guess, life.
Which of course brings us straight to the flamingo – the pink bird that is impossible to ignore.
“Do you know what a group of flamingos is called?” the man behind the glasses asks me. “No, can’t say that I do…” – “A flamboyance!” Well, that sure explains a lot… Karl-Magnus continues: ”They don’t look like the smartest ones out there, but they dance hilariously, in their own way. And I think we all have an inner flamingo. A thing of your own. Perhaps not a flamingo per se, but something unique that you can either allow to bloom, if you want to, or not”
This is one of my favourite topics as it touches upon what dreams & visions we are actually able to realize, and it turns out that Karl-Magnus (also known as Kalle) is a firm believer in the human potential:
“My core belief is that all human beings have an incredible potential”
– Karl-Magnus Möller
Moreover, Kalle argues that if you choose to believe in a person’s potential rather than only looking at (and judging by) past achievements, you also see that people are able to change, and to grow.
That who you are is not set in stone.
I remember Tim Ferriss talking about genes being malleable, that we are able to change our gene expression, which means that we, in a sense, are literally able to change who we are. “Is this something you have in mind when thinking about people’s potential?”
– “No, not really. There is always this discussion about nature vs. nurture (if we are born the way we are, or if our surroundings have “made” us). But what I find interesting is all the new research on the plasticity of the brain. When I grew up, science said your brain had a peak at 30, and then it was all downhill from there. That’s proven to be wrong. With that said, I think the effect society has is much greater than your DNA. Of course, you’re dealt a certain predisposition, but the rest is up to you. We are built to learn and we are built to be curious.”
I can’t help thinking that this thought – this particular view – is perhaps what defines the age of today. With millennials left, right and center determined to mold their own lives out this clay of existence. And that they really believe that it’s possible, too.
Good times ahead, in other words, with so many living an actualized life rather than the one you’re “supposed” to live according to older generations
But it’s not only about believing in yourself, it’s also about having the tools to match. And this digital era is providing these very tools, forever changing how we view work, and life.
Which also change the roles of leaders as people are more interested bringing their inner flamingo to life than simply being told what to do.
“To dare to believe in potential is to embrace the unknown. And if you are not prepared to see your own potential, you will have a hard time seeing the potential of others”
– Karl-Magnus Möller
“Leadership is changing,” Kalle tells me; leadership is challenged, and is developing, because the new generations coming in has a completely different set of demands on a leader and on the workplace.
At this point in our conversation Kalle shares another thought of his: “You are either driven by love or by fear. You are either running towards something, or running away from something,” which in the context of leadership in this new landscape – where the awareness of individual potential is on the rise – means that to bring the best out of people (or to make them stay), you need to give them something to “run to.” You need to make them want to do things out of the love of doing them, not because they are afraid of what’s going to happen if they don’t.
From a biological point of view, this makes a lot of sense, as the chemistry in the brain of being afraid or forced is a lot different from when we are happy and just lovin’ it. This in turn makes it very hard to reach a creative state of mind when you’re not in the mood, or worse.
In a talk (The Human Response) from TED2017, the historian Rutger Bregman even argues that times of scarcity actually lowers your IQ temporarily.
So it seems like we need to feel safe, and to do what we do out of the love of doing it, if we want to realize our potential.
And it looks like this is something that has led Karl-Magnus to where he is today, driven by curiosity – and perhaps a love of the unknown.
So, how does it feel to be where you are today?
– “Crazy cool, I must say. I reflected upon this just earlier today. There are a lot of things that, just ten years ago, I thought would never happen. This life is really weird, in a very positive way! And I actually have my martial arts to thank for a lot of it.”
– As you just mentioned Kalle, you have your ninja-training to thank for a lot of things. Would you like to elaborate on that?
– “Yes! For instance, a concept that have influenced how I run my business is ‘Banpen Fugyō – ten thousand changes, no surprise,’ which the grand master Hatsumi Sensei describes in the following way:
“[…] The universe is shared by all things and every moment is a state of spontaneous calamity, thus is always in the process of change. Any occurrence can happen at any time. This is truly spontaneous change. Therefore, I never go against nature. I am in favor of the quiet mind that is never surprised, and remains free from conflict. Simply put, there is nothing you desire.”
– Dr. Masaaki Hatsumi
– “I view Unicornsulting (Karl-Magnus’ company) as a prototype. If I think that I know exactly what the business is, I am certain that I am wrong, and I view Banpen Fugyō as a way of running (it) with the flow of nature, as opposed to fighting against it.”
With the basics of marketing in mind (such as the more diversity in the products, the harder it is to make people remember what you do), I ask Kalle if it is difficult to market something that is in constant change?
– “For me it actually makes it easier, as it conveys the message that I am living by the values that are important when it comes to work in innovation and change leadership, such as transparency, curiosity and being prone to change in general. But in the end, what I’m really marketing is myself: my experience, my mindset and how that can be applied to solve a problem with a far less than obvious solution.”
I am impressed by Kalle’s way of turning a marketing nightmare into a real life case of working change to your advantage – which also appears to be the product.
At least for now.
And although the part about “desiring nothing” in Banpen Fugyō feels a bit too depressing for my part, the philosophy of embracing change as a constant rings very true.
And to not spend your energy going against nature is very close to this quote by Tim Ferriss, which I happen to have taken to heart:
“It’s far more lucrative and fun to leverage your strengths instead of attempting to fix all the chinks in your armor ”
– Tim Ferriss
When thinking about it, it seems that business, and life, are much about how you manage the ever changing flow of energy.
Which in turn reminds me of the wonderful movie The Wind Rises by Hayao Miyazaki I saw the other day, where this young boy dreams about becoming an airplane engineer, in a setting where the wind serves as a metaphor for life (at least in my interpretation).
In other words, the boy’s quest to build an airplane is about finding a way of using the wind to make him fly.
Making it a movie about mastering the nature of life to make you feel alive.
Which in some intuitive way feels very close to not trying to change nature, and to “keep a quite mind,” that in expecting nothing is prepared for anything.
– “… And when it comes to strategy, I have learned and implemented so many things. Like changing approach if something doesn’t work. For instance, if you were to meet force with force, you can create an opening by removing yours.”
But to remove your force, in a sense, is to yield to the circumstances. And that takes courage, because yielding also means embracing your own vulnerability:
“… In order to stop operating from a ‘safe’ position and start exploring the unknown, you need to embrace your vulnerability as opposed to fearing it. And you also need to help others do the same” Kalle tells me; “This is true whether I help the kids that I train to start focusing on their own effort instead of what the others are doing, or in management groups where there is a lot of prestige attached to making a ‘wrong move,’ and you are nervous about what others may think. The times when I have made the biggest leaps of progress, as a budo practitioner as well as an innovation leader, have been when I have truly embraced my own vulnerability.”
Speaking from own experience, this really is a tricky subject. Because there are so many aspects of being an entrepreneur that hinges on you not taking a “no” for an answer; not acknowledging shortcomings and just keeping on pressing on.
In fact, it’s the whole believe you can do it-thing that in many cases enables you to do them in the first place.
But perhaps it is more about finding energy efficient ways of making progress, and that progress sometimes mean realizing that the most efficient way may lie in the opposite direction.
And perhaps that’s where the innovation comes in.
Like when you turn your marketing nightmare into your greatest selling point.
“Without vulnerability, there is no courage. Without courage, there is no innovation”
– Karl-Magnus Möller
Being in touch with your vulnerability is also to face your fear of failure, says Kalle; “Fear is a survival mechanism that is crucial in the situations where it is needed. However, it is also triggered in situations where it becomes counter productive. To be able to befriend your fear and not let it control you is tremendously valuable. It doesn’t mean that everything always turnout the way you want, but it’s good to be aware of it.”
But vulnerability is also closely connected to your ability to love, argues Kalle, and continues by telling me that this is what has had by far the biggest impact on his life: “Without Bujinkan, I wouldn’t be together with my partner. And without her I wouldn’t have started Unicornsulting, gone to Burning Man, and grown from being scared of children to training children groups – and being the father of a three months old little baby.”
So, in a sense, one man’s bearded journey to become a ninja has lead to another (beardless) life being born.
The wind rises.
Are you feeling it?
Thank you for reading!/Filip