Dr. Kinga is a social psychologist impact and leadership strategist, adventurer, entrepreneur, avid reader, public speaker, mindset coach, dog lover, Yogi, and mountain biker. In this episode, she shares with us the true meaning of leadership and where her passion for leadership stemmed from.
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True meaning of leadership a conversation with Dr. Kinga Mnich.
Who is Dr. Kinga Mnich?
I find it always very hard when people ask me to send them the bio or ask them just to put it into a few sentences of what it is or who I am and they will ask to speak about the achievements. I am all about pushing boundaries. So when you are asking me who I am, I am a person in becoming every day. No matter what I do, no matter who I work with. It’s all about understanding making the next step when I notice I’m feeling comfortable. Because for me if I’m becoming too comfortable, that means that I’m not learning, I’m not exploring more.
As a child and a teenager, I told my mom, once that, I want to learn everything and my mom told me I’m crazy, that it wasn’t possible. Yet I was convinced that it’s possible. But of course, the older we get, the more we learn that we what we don’t know, and the more you learn, the more you know what you don’t know. But that means also that there is so much more out there. Therefore, sometimes I find myself in that place of having a feeling that time is just not on my side, even though I always tried to teach time is on my side. Reframing and rephrasing also what success means or the ideas that we had at some point. It really comes down to that core question of, who am I or who are you and who are we together.
I am a social psychologist. That is something that I am and I don’t mean that from a perspective of a title, it is more the perspective of an explorer. Social psychology has been my tool to explore the world to learn things that I want to learn and it is very much in alignment with the questions that I’m asking when I’m moving forward and the people that I’m working with. So I am not a psychologist, I’m not a therapist in such a way, especially in the American context. I do offer facilitation and mediation. As a mentor, also, I do offer coaching, but I’m not a coach.
I don’t have to put myself right now into one of those buckets. I think that it comes down from what I’m understanding to the core also of your work. Like taking the buckets and opening them up and widening the perspective for people of how we are living, how we are transforming how the how cultures and places are transforming. So I am a social psychologist, and I am working with people on helping them to grow in their journey as leaders through the use of positive psychology, neuroscience, and meditation. Those are the three tools that I’ve collected over the years as such, and that really helped me to thrive more in life, or design my life based on my rules. Not to sound too tacky, but that is something that I think is a result of growing up as a refugee and immigrant and as a person that has lived across the world. I had to learn to let go of the expectations that people have around me and really listen to the deep core of what makes me happy. Am I living my life for me? Or am I living the life of the people around me? And I had to make the decision very quickly in order to let go of things that were just going on around me while I was growing up in Germany.
How my journey started
I was born in Poland, grew up in Germany. The country and society have given me many opportunities, and I’m not letting go of my German passport, because it’s coming with many freedoms. But it also came with a lot of other aspects. German society is very rigorous, very structured, so when you’re stepping out of that structure, it comes with a lot of downsides and a lot of negative questioning. So that brings me to that second part, me being a social psychologist. But really, the second part is a joyful explorer and that’s where the positive psychology comes in. I don’t believe that life is hard. I do think that there are difficult aspects to life and we always encounter hurdles, but through the use of our own thoughts, we can decide on how we want to live and feel and be in that specific moment. It’s really interesting and I’ve had that conversation with a couple of other people as well.
I was very fortunate and privileged to work with Holocaust survivors when I was 17. Of course, I also come from an area that is close to Auschwitz in Poland, so there’s family history with that on top of it. Working with Holocaust survivors was special in such a way that it brought me closer to the understanding of what forgiveness means and how important it is in our own self-development, self-growth journey, or actually, in the journey of redefining freedom. Freedom and independence are one of my three core values. I need to feel independent and free. If I don’t feel free or independent, it doesn’t matter what kind of money you’re going to give me, whatever is around me, I need to have that feeling of, I can breathe.
So that was the first time in my late teen years, where I was privileged to travel a bit through Germany with Holocaust survivors, and they were going through their own storytelling me their own story. It was part of some specific work that the city of Frankfurt was doing. Not just that, because I was able to receive insight into the lives but also into the thoughts, how these people were coping with it, and seeing the beauty in it. Then that there is beauty in life, beyond our grief, and pain, and trauma. That everything that we are experiencing is part of what we are experiencing. But that does not mean that that’s becoming part of our identity.
So that was that early, fast experience, I don’t think that I was really reflecting on it before, because there wasn’t necessarily much time. My parents were working very hard, they were trying to do their best, they were in a new country and all of that. Then the second aspect of that; and that comes back to the joy aspect. I want to feel free and independent and I want to experience life through the perspective of joy. I’m saying joy, not happy because the joy is I don’t have to laugh 24/7. It’s more about I am in this moment, and I’m able to harness it and remember as it as much as I’m remembering also difficult situations. We will go deeper into that a little bit later. But the other day, someone said to me, and it was so beautiful. It was such a great reminder. When we have pain, we focus on it, we remember it, we speak about it. When we have joy, we don’t. We can call that negativity bias, we can call it culture, whatever it is, but how do we shift that? How do we shift that mindset because there’s as much joy as pain in the world and the mindset shift is what helps us to understand that we can harness that other side of that emotion?
In that entire journey, I went to South Africa, in 2009 for the first time as an exchange student. It wasn’t planned a lot of things in my life in my 20s, I tried to plan them, but that was just something that just happened. It was a South African professor, he came to my university in Germany, and I took a class because it was in English and before, I lived in New York for a year, and I thought, how fun, I really want to have some classes in English, so why not? He was the one who told me there are scholarships for South Africa. Why don’t you apply and come to South Africa? It was so funny because it never crossed my mind, and that’s how the universe works. Things don’t cross your mind.
I was always intrigued and interested in Buddhism. I’ve been doing yoga, since my teenage years. Asia was always on my mind. I had traveled to Asia multiple times, I stayed in Asia for a longer time and then there was South Africa. That’s just odd, you know? but I did it. I thought, whatever, let’s just do it. That was really a significant turning point in my life and the beginning of putting everything back together into place. So really dismantling it and bringing it back.
I started recently using the hashtag, disconnect to reconnect. I think in order to understand what we actually want and who we are, we need to sometimes step back and let go of who we are, and then take the pieces that we are in agreement with. So, I was in South Africa as an exchange student, came back, finished my master’s degree, worked as much as possible. Predominantly actually for merger and acquisition bank, saved up and sold everything that I had and moved back to South Africa.
Why South Africa?
I realized that people with a similar background, do share similar stories. There was always a lack of money in our family and I always believed that joy would come through having money. So through making a career, going corporate, whatever it takes to do it. When I was in South Africa, that was the first time in a really long time that I had nothing else to do besides studying. So while I was studying, I was also always working full time, because I wanted to travel and have specific things. So, I was on a full scholarship, therefore, there was money coming into my account, the apartment and everything were paid.
I was sitting at the beach and it was really interesting because I had classes on Fridays. So it was a very specific course that I signed up for and it was like a 10 hour day on Friday, and then the rest of the week, you were off because you were working on assignments. So I had a lot of time on my hands. I don’t even remember when I had that much time before. I never really partied, I didn’t do things like that, because I was very focused career-wise. I needed to do a career, I needed to make money because that’s going to bring me joy or happiness, that for some reason, I pictured somehow, and then in South Africa, I was just happy. There was no reason whatsoever.
Then I was in Port Elizabeth, which is a smaller city, it’s about a 10-hour drive from Cape Town. We were walking in flip flops, most of the time, no one cared what you were wearing and there were not a lot of shopping opportunities, kind of like the minimum. So that’s not something that you would do. I started surfing, I would go to yoga twice a day. I was the other day trying to implement that back into my life, in the morning and in the evening. Incredible. I just wanted to have that feeling. I didn’t want to have anything else. I just wanted to have that feeling.
I felt incredibly accepted in South Africa because it’s such a colorful culture and that feeling that comes with it. I had a tropical doctor in Frankfurt that I visited after my first stay because I traveled to other African countries and quite a couple of worms that were under my skin. So, I was sitting with him in that practice while he was working with me and I told him how much I miss it and that what I’m planning to do, and how I’d really want to move down there and I had no clue what I was going to do and how it was going to work out but I was just going to do it. He said, once you’ve been in Africa, you can never let go of that feeling because it is the cradle of humankind and it’s like home, it just hits you really deep. I remember it you know my husband actually read a quote and he came with a quote to me and just wanted to see my reaction. So I started taking that quote on me and with me and repeating it and it says, “I wasn’t born in Africa, but Africa was born in me”.
I am right now in the US and my husband is from Mexico and I have all these cultures in me that I’ve collected. But that feeling of belonging, that identity I think that at the end of the day we are all searching for that. So that is the other side of the story that stripped away part of the non titles, the non achievements because the achievements really, don’t matter to me because I’m not there yet. I am still in the process of doing the things that I want to do and accumulate the life that I want to accumulate.
What being free means to me
I started first with sociology, that’s what I have my master’s in sociology, well in sociology and philosophy and actually also art history. I don’t put it all because it just gets confusing, but it just shows you’re a kind of versatile mind, me wanting to learn. When we look at human beings and we look at ourselves and we look at human beings quite often from a psychological perspective and from a therapy perspective, quite often we are trying to fix something within us. But what if you are not the problem? What if you are not what is actually causing the pain, but the surrounding around you? The system that you grew up with that was broken. The system was penalizing people and taking away their freedom. That’s the system that my parents grew up with. I have some small memories of it, but I was small. I was four and a half when we came to Germany. The child’s brain is so amazing in such a way that it really tries to make everything positive. So I cannot even tell you a lot of the specific memories that were rather funny when we were at the border in Eastern Germany, trying to get to Western Germany.
I think that the social psychology part was I wanted to and I still because I understand a lot of things but we are exploring and learning more and more as we go as a society. As me understanding how we as individuals operate within that social surrounding within the culture and how can we ensure that you as an individual are whole in yourself, that you are able to navigate on your terms, but without necessarily causing too much friction with the world around you? So I’m not talking about adaptation, but rather figuring out away, where are the boundaries that you’re going to be setting? The way that you talk to other people, the times that you say, yes and no, and it goes even more so. I think that essentialism is freedom for me in a specific way that I understood that I am enough. I don’t need anything to feel happy. Yes, right now we are in the US and we bought a house and so on, and it’s really beautiful. But in my life, I was stripped naked from things several times. I did it twice on purpose on myself. Before, that wasn’t necessarily my choice. But when I moved to South Africa completely, and I let go of everything, I just had two suitcases. That was it. I had two suitcases because I didn’t want to pay for a container you know how much that is, it’s just nonsense.
So I had two suitcases. and then while I was in South Africa, I was realizing that I still had things that I didn’t need, so I would give them away, and then when I moved to the United States, it was kind of like a similar situation. I did accumulate a couple of other things and then it was the same thing, was I going to be shipping that over? No. So let’s just get rid of it. Like here I have a couple of friends that have old family homes here. They have photos from 1890, they have books that belong to their families from 18 something. I don’t have that and we never had that because the First World War, Second World War, and all of that in the area where come from, stripped everything naked. My family didn’t have anything. So sometimes I get curious about what it would mean to know more about the past, but at the same time, I find it tremendously freeing to know that I can survive without anything and not just survive, because here’s the thing; everyone that has ever gotten rid of everything that they have besides the essentials, that feeling is freedom. You know that feeling when you pack up one bag and you can travel around the world and you have everything that you need, it’s just so freeing. Like if you are somewhere and you don’t have to worry if someone’s going to break intake something from you, that you’re going to forget something, it all just becomes so irrelevant. So that is the one side to freedom. The other freedom for me is then to be able to choose to do things that I want no matter the questions that I’m receiving. So when I decided in 2011 to move to South Africa completely, most of my friends were asking me, why are you doing this? Isn’t this crazy? Your career? Why are you not staying here? Everything is rolling out for you nicely, what are you going to do with your retirement? your security?
But it was funny in such regard because I thought, I had enough money to survive for two years, if I go down to South Africa and it doesn’t work out, the worst-case scenario is I’m going to beg my parents to buy me a ticket back home and then there is social security in Germany that will help me out to get back on my feet. It was so funny because people were painting all the doom and gloom and horrible scenarios. I am privileged in such a way that I am a German citizen, which comes with a privilege. It’s not necessarily the default setting, I never had to use it, but it was there because here’s the other part of the story. I went to South Africa, back then was my ex-husband, who left earlier because he didn’t share the dream decision then. But we were in South Africa, I guess, for like 10 weeks, and I had an offer from the university to teach at the university. So I started teaching at the university. With that, I knew in the back of my mind, I always wanted to do a PhD, I just wanted to continue with research. So I started exploring the possibilities, went back to Germany, got some support from the university, and then went back to South Africa and integrated that. Then on top of that, because I was working before already, as a consultant, I started consulting for German companies in South Africa. So all these fears that people had and we’re trying to implement into me. That crazy life before, I think freedom is the trust in yourself that you can handle whatever comes your way. So that’s technically a definition of confidence, but I think that’s the definition of freedom, to know that you can handle what comes your way.
Then be open with it and just see what’s going to come because the things that won’t work out, you might have to grind your way through because some certain things are just not pleasant. I worked night shifts at the airport, while I was studying, and then going still to university at 8 AM. So yes, we do have to take sometimes things that we don’t want to necessarily do. But the overall feeling, I can handle whatever comes my way, and I can really confidently say that I can handle it and it doesn’t matter if I’m stuck at the border somewhere between countries of people, some want a bribe, if people are trying to close doors for me. The freedom is that you know what? It will work itself out.
What leadership is to me
Leadership is not about the leader. Let’s start with that. I think that quite often, leadership is being misunderstood. It is in a way of someone climbing up the corporate ladder, and that’s all about that person stepping into that position. And so it has been now for years just about you and now you’re stepping into a leadership position. So how do we reframe and re-understand that leadership because leadership is not about you? It’s not about you, having walked up that corporate ladder. Leadership is about being a visionary, being able to create a big picture that connects through emotions with people and gives them hope, and understanding and also motivation, inspiration.
So leadership for me is being able to open up spaces and create trust and security so others can step into their full power so others can understand how they can contribute, they can understand what their role is, and feel safe to explore. So they fully understand what their true skills are. So it’s a lot about the trust in the safety and vision. It’s not about the person that is in that leadership position about them succeeding or performing, delivering, because those are usually the words that come with it. So great leaders see the potential in others. Great leaders are generally generalists, they are not specialists, because as generalists they have the capability of understanding what the specialists need.
So it’s the groundbreakers. It’s the person that is creating the base for others to flourish. That is my understanding of leadership and here’s the thing, it’s not always easy to be that person, because we also all have inspirations and we want to have achievements, you know, and we want to have also people sometimes applaud us, It’s may not be the best word, but it’s kind of nice when you succeed at something. If you’re running a race and you are number one, so and then. But that feeling is momentary. If you are providing the base for others to flourish, I think that is joy. There is a permanent state of maybe not even gratitude, but contentment.
I think we are on the verge of change and transformation and it’s a really odd time in that manner because what true leadership is; authentic leadership or effective leadership versus what leadership looks like in reality, quite often they are two things. It’s partially the genderization of it; giving specific male qualities to leadership, the same way we assign specific emotions to specific genders stripping the other gender of the ability to form that, and in that entire process, instead of compartmentalizing, seeing the whole.
We still see black and white, body and mind, egoism/individualism versus community. It’s really interesting because if you also go into research on depression, research shows that in most cases the depression can be solved when people start focusing on someone else. So you’re depressed but instead of focusing on yourself or your pain, you focus on someone else and focus on how you can help them. That’s what often solves depression. Now we are in a world where we are constantly saying things like self-care, time for yourself, focus on yourself, duality. We are somehow underlining that duality. Consistently and I think that’s what’s really confusing. But I think the moment we can dissolve duality and understand that if I take care of myself; and by taking care of myself I mean, now you sleep and you eat healthily, I don’t mean going shopping for the Louboutin handbag. Not in the manner of I deserve this but in the matter of I need to take care of my basic human needs because then I’m in the emotional state where I can be the best version of myself where then I can serve others. Not seeing serving others as a feminine trade but as; If you’re doing better, I’m doing better. So if you’re a leader and your team is performing your, your artists are performing, I as a leader will also do better. There’s no duality between your achievements and my achievements. Just because I’m giving my time to you, doesn’t mean necessarily that I’m taking away time from myself.
It sounds simple but at the end it is complex and then we’re bringing of course in our tonnes of buzz words right now into the world that doesn’t necessarily help the cause of simplifying it. I think we are on the bridge of change by overcomplicating things that will then hopefully bring down the complexity and dismantle it again. Especially working with artists is such an interesting topic because we cannot live without art and we don’t need them just for entertainment. We need them for joy. We need them for expression. We them for understanding, even the political environment. So many artists explain what’s happening in politics by simplifying it. At the same time, in some areas, we don’t value it correctly or even maybe the leadership isn’t valuing it.
Something I heard the other day from a leader, I was asking this person why their feedback is so harsh and why this person is not being a little more lenient on the team and the response was, “I have to go through all of that hardship as well”. So just because you had to go through that hardship and now the world has changed, why do you want others to have to go through that as well? We’re not going to gain any perspective through that we are also not going to become better and we’re sincerely not going to evolve more. Innovation is part of our growing and growing happens if we reach specific levels. So levels mean we are going up. So I cannot force you artificially to come down because I want you to feel what I felt because you’re hindering the process of innovation and well in social psychological terms it would be civilization. Moving upwards. Bringing in new ideas. Taking one idea and making it better. That is the duality I think that also a lot of the older generation in a lot of the Western countries I think has such a struggle with is to let go of their own ways because they believe that it’s going to make them obsolete or value them less. No, you created a great base now allow us to take it and make it even better.
There’s one thing that we spoke about last time a little bit and I was really thinking about and trying to wrap my head around it and also see what my mind is doing. Sometimes our mind will go into a different area that we don’t necessarily agree with, our values don’t necessarily reflect what our thoughts are doing. I brought out a little bit of the topic of, how do we accept different forms of the body also into arts? Everything that’s happening with different movements; the LGBTQ movement and the voices that have been raised and all of that. I was sitting and thinking, what is the base of this? what is also the commonality of people wanting to raise their voices more? Then it hit me. I had another conversation and we were talking about us being humans, what does it mean? and it brought me back to a meditation session in which I was part of in July 2013. I will never forget it. It was an amazing teacher she’s told me once and she sat us down into the meditation it was a guided meditation in you know and it was really stunning and in the middle of the meditation she said, “You’re so good at being.” We are something all the time. We are being, but where is the human aspect?” So what does it mean to be a human being not just the being part? Not us just doing something, but it’s a human factor. The emotions that come with that. The feelings that come with it. She really made me think; those two things that should really belong together, the reason why we have so many difficult conversations right now is that in society we are not doing that human part. We are doing being specific roles and how freeing would it all be for us if we actually stopped caring so much about how people live their lives in a different way. What it means for them; taking away the trauma that we are causing, the boxing someone in. I will go out, I know nothing is going to bring me down. I’ve built my base, I’ve built my armour, I am outspoken but not everyone is like that, we don’t accept that from everyone. That goes even more so from that fact when we say when to focus on yourself and when to focus on others. Focus on others when you mean well, focus on yourself when you have negative thoughts and understand what it is that you need to improve. Let us be human leaders for humans and thrive together.
Advice I’d give my 16-year-old self
To be less angry. I don’t think that I would have done anything necessarily different but I wish that earlier on I would have been able to navigate my thoughts in a different way. It’s not that I felt like I was a victim, that wasn’t it but I was partially angry that others had specific opportunities that I didn’t have. But now I understand the pathway that I had was very important to bring me to where I am right now and I would have made more friends along the way. I have incredible friends I have an incredible community and you never know who you will meet along the journey. But really, be less angry and focus on how you can get the things that you need by things I mean feelings. What is it that you need to do in order to fill those emotional gaps that help you? Not something that we necessarily learn, we don’t learn, no one teaches us how to express our emotions, no one teaches us how to talk about them. That’s what I do, at the end of the day that’s what I did my Ph.D. on. This person that was completely unemotional went into researching emotions, it was hilarious.
It’s really that, be less angry and verbalize more. Besides that, we all need the journey that we are on. It’s not easy sometimes but it’s rewarding. Climbing Mount Everest wouldn’t be as rewarding as it is if it wasn’t difficult.
Where to find me
On my website and I just started a newsletter. I want to build personal relationships and if you’re signing up for something and I’m supposed to come into your mailbox I feel like I need to know a little bit more about you. So I just started the newsletter but I am on Instagram and I am on LinkedIn. Those are the two most preferred ways because you can connect with me really quickly and you can DM me and I will see that. So the website and the two social media channels that is the simplest way to connect currently with me. There might be in the future a regular group coming up; not on Facebook but something more that is more virtually in person so I’m trying to figure out the details on that but feel free to connect. I love to hear people’s stories and I love to see what they are doing and also connect people with one another so the first thing that I usually do is see what is it that you’re working on and who else can I connect you with, besides the work that I do.
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