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The Black Swan Group Leadership Guide

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My time as a hostage negotiator allowed me to examine the psychology behind human behavior. It gave me a unique understanding of the human nature response, which requires understanding that negative emotions and dynamics impact decision-making and behavior.

Being a leader is all about de-escalating negative emotions—and returning people to their normal functioning level. Leaders engage in difficult conversations rife with negative components all day every day. Those negative components are not unlike what I saw during hostage negotiations.

That’s why I firmly believe that the principles of hostage negotiation are applicable to improving leadership performance through the art of Hostage Negotiator Leadership.

I hope you find value in what I have to say,

Derek Gaunt
Black Swan Group Expert Trainer & Coach

Download a PDF version of the guide by filling out this form, or keep scrolling to read.

The Black Swan Group Leadership Guide Cover
The Black Swan Leadership Framework
Chapter 1

Black Swan Leadership Framework: An Overview

Most leaders are interested in getting better. Unfortunately, for all too many of them, ego and authority often get in the way. When that happens, failure is right around the corner.


Remember the age-old adage: Employees don’t quit their jobs—they quit their bosses.

A recent study from BambooHR—wherein 1,000 employees were asked to identify the worst boss behaviors—reinforces that wisdom.

According to the research, the top three reasons employees leave their jobs are:

  1. Their boss’s management style (e.g., a micromanager)
  2. Their boss’s condescending attitude
  3. Their boss’s mean or bad temper

In large part, bosses end up pushing their employees away because they’re governed by preservation of self-image. For many managers, how they’re perceived by others is paramount. Even if they know deep down that it shouldn’t really matter, their ego clouds their judgment. And authority supports and feeds that ego in a vicious cycle that leads to failure.

Though many managers want to become better leaders, there haven’t been many books written that describe, specifically, what they need to do to actually improve. Most books are filled with generic advice—like “be more empathetic.”

This is the main reason I wrote Ego, Authority, Failure: Using Emotional Intelligence Like a Hostage Negotiator to Succeed as a Leader to explain exactly how.

For many managers, how they’re perceived by others is paramount.

Tactical Empathy

Tactical Empathy: The Secret to Hostage Negotiator Leadership

Using the Black Swan Leadership Framework, negative outcomes and offensive behaviors are largely avoidable. The framework teaches us to use Tactical Empathy—or the ability to consciously and proactively put yourself in your employees’ shoes and see things from their perspective. By practicing Tactical Empathy regularly, you can build a dedicated and happy team that’s ready to go to bat for you every day.

When you use Tactical Empathy in your day-to-day, you need to remember these three things:

  1. How you say something is more important than what you say.
  2. How, where, and when you deliver information plays a huge role in how it’s received.
  3. Your employees need to detect sincerity and genuineness in your communications, otherwise your efforts will fall flat.

Though it’s a big one, Tactical Empathy isn’t the only tool in your arsenal. It’s the umbrella that works in tandem with a slate of other tools that fit inside it, including:

  • Labeling, a communication technique in which you make a verbal observation of an emotion displayed, verbalized, or implied (e.g., It seems like something is bothering you).
  • Mirroring, or repeating the last three to five words the other side just said in order to extract more information from them. For example, an employee might tell you that they are “stressed to the max.” Using a mirror, you might respond: To the max?
  • Summaries, recapping for the other side the dynamics, circumstances, and conversation so completely that they respond with: That’s right.
  • Calibrated questions, what, how, and sometimes why questions that are designed to “shape” the other side’s thinking. For example, an employee might say they’re too busy to do something even though you’ve asked them and their workload is reasonable. You might ask: What makes you say that? 

Beyond the tools themselves, Hostage Negotiator Leadership boils down to understanding what’s important to the other person, what they value, and what their environment looks like. When you understand these things, people become predictable—and much easier to manage.

At its core, the Black Swan Leadership Framework is designed to change the way leaders look at communications. It teaches the skills necessary to become a better listener, cultivate a healthy work environment and, ultimately, achieve better business outcomes. With the right approach, you can decrease the chances that employees walk out—taking their irreplaceable institutional knowledge along with them.

As you transition to HNL, you may notice that older habits will rear their ugly heads. That’s because HNL is largely counterintuitive. But don’t worry. You’ll do just fine as long as you embrace the awkwardness—and do everything you can to embody the characteristics of effective leadership.

Chapter 2

Characteristics of Effective Leadership

If we were to boil HNL down to one core competency, it would be this: the ability to subordinate yourself to the person you’re speaking with in difficult conversations. 


It pays huge dividends.

Beyond that, leaders who practice HNL tend to possess the following five characteristics.

1. Insatiability 

Many leaders are confident in their abilities, and for good reason: They’ve made it to where they are, and they think that they must be doing everything right to have gotten there. 

So they get overconfident and stop learning. They stop trying to improve. They stop being curious.

The leader who stops learning is doomed to fail.

Effective leaders understand that the world is not static and never will be. It is always moving and always changing. They know that if they don’t adapt, they’ll go the way of the dodo bird.

Rather than resting on their laurels, they look at every situation as a learning opportunity. They’re always trying to gain knowledge, skills, and information from other people. It makes them more prepared for their next challenge.

2. Transparency

At one point or another, most people have worked for bosses who keep them in the dark. The company’s finances are hidden from view, there’s no visibility into how decisions are made. New initiatives and expectations seemingly spring up out of thin air. 

We’ve been there, and it sucks.

Effective leaders understand that this approach is counterproductive. 

Effective leadership is all about transparency. It’s about showing you’re authentic by being humble and unafraid to expose your own shortcomings. 

By simply admitting your mistakes, you’re creating an environment that encourages direct reports to take risks. And that’s the recipe for innovation—and a culture in which you retain employees and keep them engaged for the duration of their time with your organization.

Phrased another way, showing that your transparency creates an atmosphere in which motivation is heightened and productivity starts to thrive.

3. Agility

One of the most aggravating things an employee will come across is a leader who thinks their way is the only way. 

This mindset speaks to their own insecurities. Folks like these simply can’t admit that someone else might have figured it out better than they had, and that approach essentially dooms the organization. 

Over the years, a countless number of lower-level employees have come up with game-changing ideas. Who knows how many of those ideas never saw the light of day because of someone’s ego and authority?

One of the most aggravating things an employee will come across is a leader who thinks their way is the only way.

Leadership Characteristics

A recent survey found that—although 80 percent of employees believe that organizations need to be more empathetic—only 57 percent of CEOs believe empathy is critical to success.

Remember, HNL is about subordinating yourself to others. It’s about practicing Tactical Empathy to not only make sure that you’re seeing things from your employees’ perspective, but also that they know you’re seeing things from their perspective.

Effective leadership starts with emotional intelligence. As a leader, every decision you make has an impact on your team. If you’re incapable of seeing things from their point of view and just view them as cogs in a machine, you won’t have their support or admiration. And that just makes your job that much harder.

The best leaders are active listeners who actually pay attention not only to what their employees say, but also what they don’t say. They put people first—treating staff as humans, not numbers.

To illustrate, I’ll share a story from EAF: Recently, a company needed to downsize for budgetary reasons. They ended up laying off several employees, some of whom had worked there for 10 or even 20 years. To “celebrate” their tenure and say goodbye, the company executives considered throwing them a pizza party. They weren’t even going to serve any beer or Champagne either—only soda.

Pizza parties are great, don’t get me wrong. Thirteen-year-olds would have been stoked, even. But for this occasion, the proposed move completely missed the mark. 

If the leaders at this company were versed in Tactical Empathy, this never would have been considered. They would have understood the optics and impact of such a gesture.

5. Inclusiveness

According to TINYpulse’s 2019 Employee Engagement Report, only one-quarter of employees feel valued at work. This is in large part because many leaders are micromanagers, or at least don’t really trust employees to do the jobs they’ve hired them to do. It’s also because they’re not cheerleaders (we’ll see why that’s important in a little bit). 

Effective leadership is about trust, and it’s about making sure your employees know that you get them. Remember, that’s all anyone ever wants: to feel understood.

Now that you have a better understanding of what, specifically, effective leadership looks like, let’s turn our attention to the other side of the coin: signs of leadership failure.

Signs of Leadership Failure
Chapter 3

Signs of Leadership Failure

Anyone would be hard-pressed to find someone who’d say something like this at a cocktail party: I’m a terrible manager and my employees hate me.


Keep in mind, as we discussed earlier, that one of the main reasons people quit their jobs is because they hate their bosses—or, if we’re being nice, at least don’t like them.

If you want to improve as a leader, recognize where you’re falling short. Here are some of the telltale signs of leadership failure. Even if none of these sound like you, they should give you a better idea of what kinds of behaviors to avoid.

1. Putting the Mission First and the People Second

Whereas effective leaders understand that people come first, poor leaders reverse the sequencing and put the mission first. In the best-case scenario, you’re working harder than you need to. Instead of appreciating the mission’s impact on your direct reports—which almost always leads to better outcomes—you start to issue “because I said so” orders, which isn’t exactly inspiring.

2. Ignoring Difficult Conversations

Nobody necessarily likes having tough conversations. But when you’re a leader, they come with the territory. Ignoring difficult conversations never makes problems go away. 

Effective leaders understand this perfectly—to the point that they practically embrace difficult conversations because they know they’re a launching pad for Tactical Empathy and, by extension, improve motivation and morale.

Ignoring difficult conversations never makes problems go away.

Leadership Failure

3. Haste

Different situations call for different decision-making approaches. Sometimes, you can take your time and think through a problem thoroughly before acting. Other times, things have to be done right away and you don’t have much time for discussion. 

When the enemy is inside the wire and you’re passing out the last rounds of ammunition, your communication style is going to be quite different than when time is not of the essence. When something is urgent, leaders need to be decisive. Bad leaders lack the flexibility needed to adapt to the circumstance at hand.

4. Knowing Your Job 

In many cases, leaders get to where they are because of how they performed in their previous role. For example, the best creative on the marketing team might get promoted to chief marketing officer. 

But all too often, leaders end up reverting back to the tasks they performed in their previous position because that’s where they’re comfortable. Instead of coaching and guiding their direct reports, they take matters into their own hands. Effective leaders, on the other hand, understand that they are in new positions and focus on the responsibilities associated with it, letting their teams do the jobs they were hired to do.

At this point, we have talked about what good and bad leaders look like. Next, we’ll explore the other piece of the puzzle: the various roles effective leaders need to play on a regular basis.

Roles of an Effective Leader
Chapter 4

Roles of an Effective Leader

As we discussed above, effective leaders are agile. Part of that agility involves understanding that they themselves don’t know the best way forward in every scenario. Another aspect of improving leadership performance involves assuming different roles depending on what the situation warrants.


Here are five roles successful leaders need to play on a regular basis.

1. Cheerleader

Sing legitimate praises for legitimate performance. Cheerleaders recognize their employees’ great work—especially in front of other people—because they know that, deep down, we all have a desire to be appreciated and valued. When things happen, they give the credit or take the blame.

2. Director

Directors balance the demands of the organization with the needs of their employees. This is the hardest role to play—one that involves blade-running. If you don’t keep your balance, you’re going to get sliced—either by management or by your direct reports. 

Tactical Empathy plays a huge role in being an effective director. For example, when the organization is moving in a different direction, you need to let your team know that you understand how the upcoming changes will impact their lives. 

3. Mentor

If you don’t keep your balance, you’re going to get sliced—either by management or by your direct reports. 

For many managers, how they’re perceived by others is paramount.

Roles of an Effective Leader

4. Communicator

This role is arguably the most important because when you use your tone and delivery to communicate sincerely—and your employees believe it —everything else falls in line. Being a great communicator requires agility, too. Your message may need to change depending on the situation. 

Pro tip: When you need to share bad news, use labels to diffuse them preemptively (e.g., This might seem as though it’s going to be the worst thing that has ever happened here), and then share the bad news. This can be followed by fielding questions to address their concerns.

5. Team Builder

Effective leaders are team builders. They know that it’s not all about them and that they’re only as strong as their direct reports. During my law enforcement career, I learned how important it was to encourage and embrace new ideas and opinions—particularly during difficult events. 

When you focus on people first, you focus on the team first. In turn, you’re cultivating a collaborative environment where everyone has each other’s backs and no one wants to let anyone down.

It’s Time to Become an Effective Leader
Chapter 5

It’s Time to Become an Effective Leader

Because you’re reading these words, you’re interested in learning more about becoming the best leader you can be, and that’s great news. Not only does that mindset help your organization, but it also makes life much easier for the people you depend on every day.


If you’ve liked what you’ve read so far, you may be interested in reading my book, Ego, Authority, Failure: Using Emotional Intelligence Like a Hostage Negotiator to Succeed as a Leader. The book expands upon some of the content contained herein and provides additional insights into the fundamentals of HNL and what you can do to operate at a higher level than most. 

Read it and you’ll learn why you should manage your ego and authority to avoid failure—and how you can accomplish this.

Beyond that, you need to understand that knowledge without implementation is worthless. There are plenty of stories in which leaders go through training, think it’s the best thing, and then never apply the skills.

Repetition is the key to continuous improvement. As you’ll remember, you may feel awkward and uncomfortable as you transition to HNL. But that’s to be expected because HNL and Tactical Empathy are largely counterintuitive.

But practice makes perfect—and you don’t have to practice in the office, either. Use these new skills (e.g., Tactical Empathy, mirrors, and labels) in low-stakes situations. Practice at Starbucks or the grocery store, when nothing’s hanging in the balance.

While you’re at it, consider attending our live events, subscribing to our blog, and checking out our free e-books and other resources

Never forget that being an effective leader is a never-ending work in progress. Learn constantly and try to improve every day, and you’ll be a leader your direct reports never forget.



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