Jan. 28, 2021

Disruption is hard but full of opportunity with Henna Inam | Partnering Leadership Global Thought Leader

Disruption is hard but full of opportunity with Henna Inam | Partnering Leadership Global Thought Leader

In this episode of Partnering Leadership, Henna Inam, CEO of Transformational Leadership,  talks about her journey to discovering her authentic self, her book Wired for Disruption and on how to be agile through times of disruption.

Some highlights:

  • Henna Inam shared her story of rediscovering her purpose in life
  • Henna Inam talks about how to be your most authentic self and how to use that to be a force for good
  • The story behind writing the book Wired for Disruption
  • Henna Inam discusses the five different types of agility
  • Why empathy and self-compassion are critical to lead through disruption
  • Leading through shared ownership and shared action

Connect with Henna Inam:

Transformational Leadership Official Website

Transformational Leadership Podcast

Wired for Disruption Book

Henna Inam on LinkedIn

Connect with Mahan Tavakoli:


More information and resources available at the Partnering Leadership Podcast website: 



Mahan Tavakoli:
Welcome to Partnering Leadership. I'm really excited this week to be welcoming Henna Inam. Henna, who served as a C-level executive in fortune 500 companies, started her own organization, transformational leadership, back in 2010 and serves as CEO of that organization. She's a coach, author and a guide to fortune 500 companies. And she actually has a wonderful podcast by that name too, transformational leadership. 

In 2015, she wrote Wired for Authenticity and more recently, Wired for disruption, which will be the focus of most of our conversation today. I'm really excited to share that with you. Thank you so much for all the kind words that many of you have been sharing. Continue those, Mahan@mahantavakoli.com. 

Feel free to send me a voice message, partneringleadership.com. There's an icon for a microphone, you can leave your message there. And for those of you that listened to the podcast on Apple podcasts, would really appreciate a rating and review that will help more people find this content and help us all have a greater impact.

Now here's my conversation with Henna Inam.

Mahan Tavakoli: 
Henna Inam, welcome to the Partnering Leadership Podcast.

Henna Inam:
Thank you, Mahan. It's a pleasure to be with you today.

Mahan Tavakoli: 
I'm really excited because I had read Wired for Authenticity. We'll talk a little bit about that, spend most of our time today talking about Wired for Disruption, which I think is fabulous. I love your podcast also, which I think is of tremendous value. So this is a conversation that could take hours.

I'll try to capture half an hour of it and send people to your podcast, your books, because I think they're all brilliant insights and I really appreciate them.

Henna Inam: 
Oh, thank you. I really look forward to connecting with your podcast listeners.

Mahan Tavakoli:
So, Henna, I find you have a fascinating story of your own. So can you share with our audience a little bit about your upbringing that impacted the kind of leader you became?

Henna Inam:
Wow. That's like such a big question, right? Well, I am originally from Pakistan, so I always sort of start there, so people get a sense of the fact that I'm a bit of a global citizen. We left my birthplace for my dad's job. And then we lived, between the ages of about 11 to 20, we lived all over the world.

Every two or three years, we lived in East Africa and Tanzania and the Philippines and Thailand. And then we landed in Texas. So I would say that a lot of my leadership journey, as you know, so much of  who we become as leaders and who we become as human beings is shaped by our growing up experiences.

And, I would say a lot of my growing up experiences have been about how do I become agile, and fit into a new school, a new culture, a new language every two or three years. And, it's created a tremendous curiosity in me and a sense of adventure and also a sense of finding what's good and right, here rather than lamenting about what could be.

Mahan Tavakoli:
And that's fabulous. And I think that's part of what has helped you think through the disruptions that we've been facing. Now, before the book on disruption, you obviously wrote about authenticity and authentic leadership. What in you made you focus on authenticity and authentic leadership?

Henna Inam:
Yeah, that's such a, it's such a good question because, so after my schooling, I went to undergrad in Texas and then went to grad school at Wharton and then worked 20 years in corporate America, first with Proctor and gamble and with then with Novartis. And it was sort of replaying, my corporate career was sort of replaying my growing up experiences every two or three years.

A new challenge, a new opportunity. And, I kind of found myself at the age of 40, with a midlife crisis where, up to that point, Mahan,  I had a sense that my  road to happiness is about, one achievement and then the next achievement, and then the next achievement. And I found myself ironically, at that point, when I turned 40, I was one of 10 people out of 90,000 employees that year that our CEO of Novartis recognized for outstanding business results, myself and my team.

And I remember taking that flight from Basel, Switzerland, which is where, you know, they had this big event every year, back to Mexico city, which is where I was based, our business was based at the time and thinking I should really be happy. I'm kind of at the height of my career here and I'm feeling like something is missing.

And so, with that, and maybe it was just about turning 40, I started asking some of the big questions, right around what makes one, not just happy, but really fulfilled in life. And I realized that it wasn't one achievement, but it was a sense of pursuing something deeper in the sense of purpose.

And so, pretty much soon after that assignment, I got promoted, out of a GM job in Mexico to running the Americas in a different division. So I was president of North and South America. And, during all that time, I had kind of this thought in the back of my head, like I know there's something else and I don't know what that is.

And so right around that time, that movie eat, pray, love had just come out. And so I sort of fashioned myself, this Julia Roberts character, and I thought I'm going to go figure out,  what is fulfillment? And so I went off to an ashram in India. I learned how to meditate, 20 days of that experience.

And I think, learned mindfulness. And I think that's coming back to your question Mahan, I think that is what started the sense of what is authenticity? Who are we really? Why are we here? And for me personally, it was a really gratifying experience because what it led me to do is eventually leave my corporate career.

And four years after that trip, I decided that I was ready to leave and really pursue something that felt  more like a legacy for me. And it was all about, for me, it's all about how can we find our deepest and most authentic selves and use that to be a force for good, in today's times?

Mahan Tavakoli:
And that is magnificent to hear Henna. And one of the reasons I asked you about that is because as I said, it's a brilliant book. It's a great book. And I see it almost as a primer also to being able to handle disruption well. You do go into some aspects of it in Wired for Disruption, but knowing ourselves and becoming our authentic selves is really important before then we can deal with those external disruptors.

Henna Inam:
Absolutely. That is so true.  I really feel that the more grounded that we are in our core, in our authentic selves, the more we're actually able to be flexible to the outside world because we know that there is something, that sense of purpose, a sense of values that really grounded, anchored us.

Mahan Tavakoli:
Yes. Now with respect to disruption, a lot of people have been talking about the pandemic and that crisis, but the reality is the pace of disruption has been picking up over the years and it has nothing to do with the pandemic itself. So you have a positive take on it, even with the title you say, we are wired for disruption.

Henna Inam:
Yeah, I really do have an optimistic take on it. And I really believe, and maybe it was from my upbringing, right? The sense of optimism about life, that life throws us into experiences that are intended to grow us, that are intended for our evolution for the better, I believe. And I think that, in particular, this disruption that we're facing with the pandemic is giving all of us the opportunity to pause and discover what's really important. And I think that many of us are doing that work. I know for myself, early on in the pandemic, my work was very quickly around, how can I contribute in this time? What strengths do I have? How do I bring my sense of purpose to this time? And what does the world need from me? 

And I think as disruption happens, the more we can ask those questions. What are my superpowers? What does the world need from me in this time? And who am I most inspired to serve? I think those questions help us be more grounded in times of disruption. 

And truly, I really believe that when we are focused on those questions and living our life from those questions, rather than living our life from the perspective of anxiety or fear or  what's going to happen, I think that we are able to be a force for good. And indeed, actually, it's good for our neurobiology.

Mahan Tavakoli:
And you mentioned that, we do also need to be agile, which is a big part of obviously your book. How do you define agility before we get to the five different types that you say we have to have to be able to take advantage of being wired for disruption?

Henna Inam:
Yeah. So agility is simply our ability to be flexible. It's our ability to shift, whether it's our perspective and how we see things, to shifting our internal state of being, our attitudes, our neurobiology, if you will. It's also our ability to shift our behaviors, but, all of the research suggests that our behaviors come from mindsets.

And in fact, they actually come from our state of being. And so the more that we can see differently and then act differently, the greater the chances that we have a more positive outcome in the world. And honestly, I'll tell you Mahan, one of the things that really inspired the book was my time at the world economic forum in Davos earlier this year.

And I had the experience to be part of a virtual reality experience where I was a tree and you put your headsets on and  you're handed a little seed and I experienced what it's like to be a tree in the Amazon rainforest. And I thought, what a cool experience is this? Cause I am a bit of a  tree hugger myself and, it's this technology, is truly amazing. I remember just kind of standing there and actually feeling like I'm growing a little, from a little sprout to a long tall tree. And then I had this almost like this bird that landed on my arm and I could feel something landing on my arm and it was a beautiful, rainforest parrot. And I thought, how beautiful is this? 

And eventually, and I won't get into a lot of details on this, but I experienced being burned down as a tree. And I literally walked out with tears in my eyes. That's how visceral the experience was for me. 

And I thought to myself later that evening, what am I doing to help this world be more sustainable? And what do I have to offer? And I literally had a knot in my stomach. Like this is something that I need to do something about. 

So that was in January of 2020. March, the pandemic happened. And I thought, okay, here's an opportunity where I can leverage what I have to offer, which is my writing ability and my ability to see leadership and access to wonderful thought leaders and sharing their thinking.

And so, that's what started this book Wired for Disruption.

Mahan Tavakoli:
And what a beautiful example, Henna, of empathy and in this case, empathy for what a tree would go through. Obviously, the experience allowed you to see that, feel that, experience it and relate to it. Now, you have brilliant advice to leaders and you talk about the five different types of agility that we need to have starting out with neuro emotional agility. What is that?

Henna Inam:
Yeah. So neuro emotional agility is the ability to shift ourselves. So when anytime any disruption happens and by the way, even after we found a vaccine and we were able to overcome this issue of the pandemic, disruption, whether that is climate disruption or organizational disruption, disruption will continue to be in our lives.

And anytime disruption happens, it creates  a sense of fear and anxiety. It's actually well-researched as through those Kubler Ross change curve. Our experience, we go through a series of emotions and it's not until we're actually able to integrate this disruption in terms of finding meaning in it, that we're actually, that our performance rises.

And so, as many of us have experienced this year, through these last few months we experienced a lot of mental issues, right? We've experienced a lot of mental challenges. And so how do we, whether it's for ourselves or  for the people that we lead, how are we able to quickly switch ourselves from a state of fear or anxiety to a state of purpose, to a state of creativity, to a state of curiosity, to a state of connectedness and a state of empathy. And so that's neuro emotional agility. It's the ability to take ourselves from this place, which is very normal, it's part of our regular human experience, to a different place. And, as you said, one of the things you pointed to is empathy. Empathy, that using and activating the empathic neural networks in our body and our brain, actually helps us move to these other states that are much more creative and curious, which is what we and our teams need in order to respond to what's happening, the challenges of the day.

Mahan Tavakoli:
And it is very hard for us to do that with ourselves, have that empathy for ourselves and that emotional agility for ourselves. But I find it's becoming harder for leaders to be able to show that to their team members. At the beginning of the crisis, there was a burst of empathy and because of that, a lot of employee engagement numbers went up, but there has been a struggle as the disruption has continued and with more disruptions, to continue doing that.

So what advice would you have for leaders, which is the primary audience of this podcast on how they can embrace neuro emotional agility with their teams, not just for themselves?

Henna Inam:
So we all have mirror neurons in our brains. Mirror neurons are our empathy system where we can feel the emotions of others. And they're actually contagious. So we've all experienced when somebody is, particularly somebody who is in a higher level in the hierarchy who has a lot of power, is in a team, it has certain emotions, whether that's stress, it spreads like wildfire on the team.  

On the other hand, if somebody at the very top is very calm, it also helps to calm the team down. And so that's our mirror neurons. And so, coming back to your question, how do we really sustain empathy?

How do we continue to grow our neuro emotional agility muscle? And by the way, we have it, right? And that's why I said, we're wired for it. We're wired for it because everybody has these mirror neurons. And what we have is these muscles and they just need to be trained. 

So we all have these empathy muscles, one of the greatest pieces of research and in fact, it's one of the podcasts, episodes on my podcast, is on compassion. And the researcher and her name is Kristin Neff, she's out of the university of Texas who talked about 2,600 studies being done on self-compassion. But one of the most important pieces of data that she shared is that, in all the research, that when we actually practice self-compassion for ourselves, it actually helps us extend the compassion for others. So you talked about, we feel kind of burned out early on, everybody is sort of coming together to say, how do we help each other,  we get worn down. And so, the more we can practice self-compassion, the research would suggest, the greater our capacity to sustain compassion for others.

Mahan Tavakoli:
That's brilliant advice. And, that's the first agility. You also mentioned learning agility, which has been important over the decades, whether Drucker was talking about it. Tom Peters talked about it, but it seems like the pace of change is picking up so learning agility needs to pick up too.

Henna Inam:
Yeah, so learning agility is the ability to learn, to unlearn, and then to relearn. And what I would say, probably the most important aspect that we need to pay attention to is the unlearning aspect of it because there's so much that the human brain receives, that over time it's overwhelming.

And so our brain through our evolution created shortcuts so that so much of our calories, I think it's 25 to 30% of our calories go into our brains operating system. And so over time, the brain developed, and this is kind of the old days when we didn't have the McDonald's dollar meals, our brains basically decided that the way to evolve, and we need to conserve calories is to create shortcuts.

And so, those shortcuts, our ability to unlearn is actually quite challenging because we're oftentimes not even aware of our biases and shortcuts. So if the world that we used to live in was much more predictable, that shortcut worked, but in a world that is less predictable, where there are no consultants or, experts necessarily to go to, to find the right answer or a book to read the right answer in, what we need to do is become much more curious, much more mindful of our own biases and much more in a state of doing experiments, which, by the way, if we have a bias for fear of failure, which, you know, all of our corporate lives, many of us who've gone through a corporate lives, you know, there's a fear of failure. 

And so, how do we, from a organizational culture perspective, from a leadership perspective, create cultures where we unlearn those leadership behaviors that used to serve us, but no longer serve us?

Mahan Tavakoli:
And I love, in the book, you say, as the future is unpredictable, we create the future by learning in the present moment.

Henna Inam:
That is so true in the research. I mean, one of the things that, I believe is hugely powerful as a tool for each of us as we go forward. And believe me, Mahan, if I had a magic wand and I could do one thing, I would ask that everybody develop a mindfulness practice because it is about being in the present moment here and observing, not through the filters of our biases, but through clear lenses, what is happening here and how do I need to adapt?

Mahan Tavakoli:
Yes, that's fabulous. And you also move on to the importance of trust and trust agility. There's another brilliant thinker Rishad Tobaccowala says, trust is speed in organizations. So what do you mean when you talk about trust agility?

Henna Inam:
Yeah. I think that quote that you just mentioned is so powerful because there is research that suggests that teams that have trust are nine times more agile. And trust agility is the ability to rapidly establish trust. 

We're now working in virtual environments, we're working on teams that many of the pandemic teams sort of just came together. People who hadn't necessarily worked in the old organization structures before together. And so I think more and more organizations will figure out how to create organizational structures that are much more agile. So teams come together to solve problems and then dissipate, and then they come together to solve other problems.

And so how do you quickly establish trust on those teams? We're often working multi-generationally. We're often working across the globe in different time zones. And so how do you learn how to create that level of trust? And oftentimes, Mahan, one thing that I know is a barrier to trust is stress, right?

And disruption creates a lot of stress. So we almost have to double down our efforts to create trust and to be trustworthy and trust first, in order to be able to have that kind of level of agility and speed.

Mahan Tavakoli:
And that's really important, I want to underline the point that you make here, Henna. I used to make fun of trust falls and those other exercises, that it might make you trust the person to fall back in their arms, that doesn't mean when you go back into a work environment, you trust them in the work environment. So the points that you're making and you made in the book also help people trust in a professional work environment, not just gimmicks meant that trying to advance trust. 

So you also mentioned stakeholder agility that has become a lot more important. I think I've heard the term stakeholder or a version of that more over the past few years than ever before.

What is stakeholder agility and why do you think that's important for leaders?

Henna Inam:
So you've heard of the business round table. It's a group of the largest companies in the United States, CEOs that have come together. I believe it was last year in 2019, in August of 2019 and said, the purpose of business is no longer just to serve shareholders. The purpose of business is to serve all stakeholders. And indeed that's what makes business sustainable over the long term.

For me, stakeholder agility is this ability to notice the entire ecosystem that you are a part of and the fact that no one person does anything alone. And in fact, we know that whether it's climate change or the pandemic, or even some of the issues around racial injustice, that we are trying to solve for in the world, that we are so interconnected, that these business, that issues, can only be solved for through a view of the entire ecosystem and working with different ecosystem partners rather than trying to think in silos. 

And so, how do we create that ability to understand, empathize with and manage the needs of all the stakeholders in our ecosystem? So that together we're partnering to solve larger ecosystem issues.

And that requires a different way of leading, not the hierarchical way of leading where we're kind of at the center of decision-making, but a much more collaborative and partnership and empathetic way of leading.

Mahan Tavakoli:
Absolutely. And even here in the region, in the greater Washington region, we are focusing a lot of effort on that, because it is important to be able to solve those broader system-wide issues. It requires a different kind of thinking. That's why I love your quote, we are increasingly solving problems that require shared ownership and shared action.

Henna Inam:
Yeah, absolutely.  There's so many amazing people doing work, really good work in this area. And I'd say one of the great examples to me of Stakeholder agility, and there's many, is the CEO of  Marriott. There's a really famous clip and I'd encourage your listeners to go watch it, of him talking about how he's having to lay people off  as a result of what's happened.

And the level of empathy that you feel, where he feels a personal sense of responsibility to his people, I think that's a brilliant example of being a stakeholder agility in action.

Mahan Tavakoli:
Yes it is. And we are fortunate to have Marriott as one of our big corporate citizens in this region. And, they are great in other aspects of stakeholder agility also. And then the final agility you mentioned is growth agility.

Henna Inam:
We have 10 years. And as I said, I'm a bit of a tree hugger, right? I see that we have 10 years, to really solve the climate issue. And no one of us is going to do it on their own. It will require shared ownership and shared action. And in order for us to shift our mindsets toward collective problem solving, it will require a shift in us, each one of us, in our ability to discover the purposes that matter most to us. Join forces with others to make an impact in those purposes and do the best that we can. 

And, you know, it could be anything, really, it's just whatever you feel most called to. From that perspective, I think growth agility is really the sense of how do we grow ourselves individually? Within ourselves. 

And then how do we grow each other? Because this planet needs people to grow at a really rapid scale, their level of consciousness around shared ownership of the planet. And so how do we do that collectively? So that it's not just the people at the very top that are being grown, it's everybody on a team, grows everybody else.

Mahan Tavakoli:
That's fabulous. And again, you provide a great framework for individuals, leaders, and organizations to embrace this agility. And you mentioned in the dedication of the book, that disruption is hard, but full of opportunity. So I'm curious to hear your perspectives. What are the opportunities you see ahead for us as leaders,organizations and as a society, as we move forward?

Henna Inam:
I see a very bright future ahead of us. I see leaders stepping up. I think, Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, the largest money manager, when he says climate risk is business risk. He is one of those people that has the ability to have influence and move an ecosystem.

Fortune just came out with their 15 most powerful women's list. This year, for the first time, they added a criteria, not just in terms of what's the size of business and influence that this woman has , but are they a force for good or not? And so I think, this year in 2020 is a year of waking us all up.

Yes, it's really hard. Yes, there has been an incredible amount of suffering, but just think about it, Mahan. We don't really pay attention sometimes until something hurts. And when something hurts, that's when it catches our attention. If we stub our toe, we give it some attention. And so I think, in my view, while the pandemic has been really hard, it's also tremendously fruitful if we choose to wake up as a human species and as individuals to figure out what is it that I'm called to and how can I be a force for good? We only really have 10 years.

Mahan Tavakoli:
Well, you have given us the framework for leading that way, both for ourselves and our organizations. This is just the beginning of the conversation, Henna. I would like to see where do you want the audience to seek out more information about you, your wonderful podcast, your books, resources.

Henna Inam:
Yeah. So, the podcast is great because it's live, right? And every episode, I talked to leaders who are being a force for good and are embodying some of the principles of agility that I talk about in the book. 

So definitely reach out, the podcast is called the transformational leadership podcast with Henna, and I really truly believe, you know, for me, my mission is to help support your development as a transformational leader. So, if this is something that intrigues you, please reach out, listen to the podcast, connect with me on LinkedIn.

Certainly you can buy the book. There's an online free assessment that you can do to figure out where you are in these five types of agility. And so, that is on my website.

And Mahan, and I'll just ask for you to link into the show notes, that, and, I really look forward to connecting with people who want to be a force for good and believe that there are collective problems that they want to help solve for.

Mahan Tavakoli:
Well, we will absolutely link to all those resources in the show notes, Henna. I highly recommend the books, Wired for Authenticity, Wired for Disruption. Love both of those. And your podcast is the first one I listened to when it comes out. I absolutely love those conversations. 

My favorite still is Richard, I think that that was a brilliant conversation, but there is a lot to learn, to grow. And thank you for all you have done to energize leaders to make the difference in our communities, in our society. So we make sure 10 years from now we have a much better future than present.

Henna Inam:
Beautiful. Thank you so much, Mahan, for including me in your podcast. And it's really lovely to connect with other leaders who are doing like work, where we share a mission for the world to be led better in the future.

Mahan Tavakoli:
Absolutely. Thank you very much. Henna Inam.

Henna Inam:
Thank you.

Henna Inam Profile Photo

Henna Inam

CEO of Transformational Leadership

I believe our fast-changing world needs each of us to be inspired leaders who make the world better for all. I help leaders create transformation within themselves and their teams in service of missions that matter. We partner with Fortune 500 organizations to help leaders at pivot points thrive in disruption. My book "Wired for Authenticity"​ was named "Leadership Book of the Year 2016" and shares seven practices to inspire, adapt, and lead.

Some of the core services of Transformational Leadership Inc. include:
- Executive Coaching for C-level leaders
- Team Acceleration
- Keynotes and speaking globally

Client list includes: Coca-Cola, UPS, Microsoft, Johnson & Johnson, Novartis, Glaxo SmithKline, Cox Enterprises, AMC Theatres, Bank of America, Google, among others.

My work with C-level clients is informed by my service on the board of Engro Corporation where I chair the Board Compensation Committee. My 20-year corporate career included roles such as Region President in charge of a $600MM P&L, Global CMO of a $2 Billion business, and Head of Digital Innovation. I bring a global mindset, having lived/worked in 7 countries across 4 continents.

I am passionate about advancing women in leadership and creating inclusive cultures. I am a blogger for Forbes Leadership and an organizer for TEDxWomen. Connect with me on Twitter @hennainam.

I am an avid student of life. My interests include neuroleadership, emotional intelligence, mindfulness, global travel and curiosity about other cultures.

Specialties: Executive Coaching, High Performance Teams, Speaking, Keynotes, Workshops, Authentic Leadership, Leadership agility, Emotional Intelligence, Women's Leadership, Employee Engagement, Neuroleadership