Perhaps the most important value for me personally has been resilience. Sometimes I doubt if I have what it takes to lead. Whenever these doubts come up, I embrace them. Embracing my doubts helps me to become humbler. Of course, I don’t want to live from the doubts, and this is where resilience comes in. I believe that we all need resilience because life has a habit of breaking us down and showing what we’re made of.
We are living in the Renaissance of Work. Just like great artists know that an empty canvas can become anything, great leaders know that an entire organization — and the people inside it — can become anything, too. Master Artists and Mastering the Art of Leadership draw from the same source: creation. In this series, we’ll meet masters who are creating the future of work and painting a portrait of lasting leadership. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Adam Bulbulia.
Adam Bulbulia is an expert in the field of working with autistic and developmentally disabled youth and adults. He has served hundreds of clients and families for the past 25 years, succeeding in extreme cases when other interventions have failed. Adam has pioneered a new science which combines traditional ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) with a more holistic and subtle approach. He has published 3 books and is in the process of revising his 4th book. Adam is the founder and owner of Bridging Worlds Behavioral Services, and the founder and president of the non-profit Heart Centered Revolutions.
Thank you for joining us. Our readers would enjoy discovering something interesting about you. What are you in the middle of right now that you’re excited about personally or professionally?
I’m currently in the process of documenting a new behavior science that I have named Heart-Centered ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis). Heart-Centered ABA is the essence of how I lead my companies, as well as the foundation of all of the change work I do. I’m fascinated by studying what is organic in each person and what naturally arises when each of us are able to access loving acceptance of ourselves as we are. I’m currently immersed in writing a book titled Parenting from the Heart: A Guide to Making A Family Culture That Works for Everyone.
I predominantly work with autistic youth and adults, and I developed Heart-Centered ABA through spending the last 25 years serving this demographic as well as neurotypical families in private and public education. Over time, my own take on traditional ABA therapy has developed a new edge of this behavior science. I am currently in the process of developing measures, scales, and curriculum to create a formalized and replicable model for others to successfully utilize. Traditional ABA therapy observes behaviors and works to modify those behaviors while Heart-Centered ABA looks for the energetic root of those behavior issues and how they manifest at the most subtle level. I am really excited about incorporating the measures and scales we are developing into training materials at my ABA company, Bridging Worlds Behavioral Services. These scales have also proven to be effective in my personal coaching practice, with business leaders, neurotypical adults, and parents.
We all get by with a little help from our friends. Who is the leader that has influenced you the most, and how?
I was in a close mentoring relationship with a teacher who showed me how to lead and work with groups. While I learned a ton from the mentorship, I learned the most from his inability to receive feedback and his unwillingness to embody what he preached. Eventually, I realized that what I thought was a highly evolved system was actually a psychologically abusive cult. Separating myself from him while tearing the cult down was the greatest gift he could have given me for my development. Breaking free from him required me to dig deep to find my truth. Leading myself and others out of the mind control cult showed me that I could lead in a much larger way than I had ever realized. Even though he betrayed my trust and manipulated me, I am still grateful for all the support he provided for me. Without him I would not be leading in the ways that I am today.
Many famous leaders have significantly influenced me: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Terry Tempest Williams, and Nelson Mandela to name a few. My father grew up during apartheid in South Africa, and always admired Nelson Mandela. The way Mandela took a stand for justice and was willing to do whatever it took to overthrow the apartheid regime inspired me deeply. When I read his autobiography, I found out that he didn’t always believe in non-violence as an approach to resistance. Initially, he trained for war while the African National Congress prepared to fight the unjust regime in every way they could. As he matured, his outlook changed. I admire his courage and willingness to die for his freedom. Mandela held true to his values even when the government regime declared him a criminal, imprisoned, and tortured him. Eventually, the moral strength of his character prevailed over the unjust society that was oppressing him as apartheid came to an end.
Sometimes our biggest mistakes lead to our biggest discoveries. What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made as a leader, and what did you discover as a result?
Many of the biggest mistakes I’ve made as a leader have come from blindly trusting in the goodness of others without properly vetting them first. I hired people who I didn’t have a good intuitive feeling about because they checked all of the professional boxes required to get the job done well. I overrode my intuition about the person as a whole and thought that our personal connection would change and grow over time. Working with autistic and developmentally disabled youth and adults requires a large capacity for connecting with others. So, for the health of my company, it is extra important not to skip over my intuitive read on people even when they are a highly qualified professional.
The most salient example of this kind of mistake was with a particular individual who initially didn’t clear the first round of interviews as a result of their inability to connect well with me and the CEO. When they reapplied months later, we wanted to see the potential in them so badly that we ignored the ongoing sense of disconnection. After six months at the job, they began to actively tear down the company from the inside by yelling, bullying, and intimidating the other staff. They were able to obscure their behavior by blaming the staff for these issues. As soon as I realized what was happening, we were able to put a stop to things and found as amicable a settlement as possible to remove this person from the company. I had bent over backwards to make our company work for them, and in the end they ended up physically assaulting me while making spurious allegations and threats. I’ve learned the hard way from hiring toxic people that I can never ignore my intuitive read on someone.
In the early days, I made some similar mistakes with three men who were very intelligent but lacked heart. They did excellent client work and helped our company prosper. However, they secretly started a rival company and systematically poached staff from me, which significantly set the company back financially. Even though it set us back, it ultimately helped our CEO and me to learn this lesson.
If I could tell my past self one thing to do differently, I would say, “only hire people who you feel inspired by.” If my CEO and I don’t feel inspired by the interviewee during the interview process, we don’t want to work with them no matter how many qualifications, degrees, and superb references they may have.
How has your definition of leadership changed or evolved over time? What does it mean to be a leader now?
I used to think that a leader was anyone who took initiative and guided people. Through my experience being a leader of two companies over the past 10 years, I’ve realized that true leaders have touched their own darkness and the darkness of humanity. True leaders are able to keep faith even when there is no visible light at the end of the tunnel. My leadership experience is informed by a long list of failures. Good leaders have a vast resume of challenging experiences, defeat, and survival. I used to think that leadership was easy. Now I know it is the hardest thing I have ever done. Had I known in the beginning how difficult this road would be, I’m not sure I would have chosen it. I’m thankful to have persevered and gotten as far as I have on the journey. All the while, I still have the feeling that I am just at the start of something much larger. My belief that our world needs to shift into a new paradigm of leadership is why I’m moved to write this article. I want to attract those who resonate with what I’m saying to join me during these challenging times.
Success is as often as much about what we stop as what we start. What is one legacy leadership behavior you stopped because you discovered it was no longer valuable or relevant?
When I started leading my company, the practice of financially rewarding good behavior was very popular and talked about. So, I put in place a system that provided financial rewards and bonuses. However, they didn’t seem effective. Through time and experimentation, I found that valuing and appreciating my team members had more of an effect on the quality of work than the promise of a financial reward. The staff seemed to blossom when we changed the system from one that was less fair and more financially rewarding to one that was fairer and less financially rewarding. In this context, “fair” refers to clear guidelines for “this much experience = this much pay.” Now, we have clear public markers for a pay rate based on a pay scale.
What is one lasting leadership behavior you started or are cultivating because you believe it is valuable or relevant?
The one behavior I attempt to embody across the board is empathy. We call our company Bridging Worlds because we put ourselves in the shoes of the clients we work with. We believe that by putting ourselves in their shoes, we bridge the connection and can treat our clients more effectively. We also practice this within our leadership team by imagining what it is like to be someone working at our company. We create a culture of care and compassion, which nurtures everyone who works here. It is my belief that the legacy of empathic leadership is what will transform humanity to make us a more evolved species. If there is one mark I want to leave on the earth through my life’s work, it’s that every single interaction we have can be infused with empathy. Only when empathy becomes as common as breathing can we have a society that truly works for everyone. This is true in a family, this is true in a company, and this is true in society as a whole.
What advice would you offer to other leaders who are stuck in past playbooks and patterns and may be having a hard time letting go of what made them successful in the past?
We all are born with a unique way of being in the world. This too holds true in leadership. When we center in our hearts and open to our feelings, as well as our thinking, we begin using the full capacity of our intelligence to lead. Leadership is not about being like anyone else. It is about being uniquely yourself in the way that serves the whole. We must continue to evolve and grow as leaders; we cannot rest on the laurels of our past. We must continue to adapt to the needs of the moment in the service of the field of all those we serve. Often, we lock onto the past because we’re scared and we’re looking for security. Good leaders continue to feel their fear and accept it. This is what gives us courage. Courageous leaders, as Brene Brown describes in Dare to Lead, can admit their fears and face their fears. This vulnerability in leadership allows us to connect and trust the leaders rather than see them as distant and removed. When we can lead with vulnerability and openness, it helps others have more empathy with us as well.
Many of our readers can relate to the challenge of leading people for the first time. What advice would you offer to new and emerging leaders?
Find what draws you to leadership. Your values and your “why” are going to be very important. Simon Sinek, a well-known leader and author, propels us to find our “why” in Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. You will be tested, and you will have trials. You will have doubts and experiences that shake you to the core of your being. What is it that sustains you, and what will carry you through the tough times? Know your why and know what it is that you are truly wanting through this all. Your why is like a guiding star: when you know why you are doing what you are doing, your actions will be more fully empowered. On a practical note, having someone you trust to show you the ropes and guide you is a huge boon. Starting out in leadership by doing it alone is much more challenging and difficult than when you have trusted mentors and professionals surrounding you. I believe every truly great leader has a community of support around them that they owe their greatness to.
Based on your experience or research, what are the top five traits effective leaders exemplify now? Please share a story or an example for each.
The ability to practice empathy with everyone you lead is invaluable to effective leadership. When we had fires rage through Sonoma County, CA in 2017, many of us lost work, some of us lost our homes, and all of us were traumatized. Our company received financial support from the North Bay Regional Center and helped us recoup some of our lost income. We wanted to make sure each employee was taken care of financially, in the midst of ravaging effects of the fires and the major setback that occurred in our work rhythm. By having empathy with each staff member, we came up with a generous and fair approach to compensate our workers for their lost time. This compensation package greatly enhanced the overall morale. We use this same empathy practice every time we walk into a client’s home to help support them with whatever challenges they are facing.
Good leaders unconditionally love others and nurture their potential. When we see the best in everyone and we don’t withdraw our love no matter what happens, we are truly inspired leaders. This does not mean we allow behavior that compromises our values. When one of our leader’s dogs died, he began acting in a way that wasn’t consistent with his general responsible way of being. For him, his dog was a full-fledged member of his family and both he and his husband were devastated by the loss. He began having challenges and conflicts with some of the other managers. Through using empathy with everyone who was involved in the conflict, I was able to get to the bottom of the dynamics with him and the other manager. We found a win-win solution where everyone could stay at the company. The conflict helped us build deeper trust as we worked through it all together. Using empathy with him helped me set up an environment in which we could work through it together.
3. A Desire to Receive Feedback and Grow
I love personal growth work. As a result, I have a tendency to steer the people around me into their core wounding so they can grow more quickly. Some time ago, my leadership team told me I was forcing personal growth onto people in a way that was hurting the company. By turning situations into an opportunity to give others psychological feedback toward growth, I was missing the best ways of supporting them in their work. My leadership team was right. I needed to create an environment that nurtured growth but didn’t force it. Because I was willing to hear their feedback and open to the truth, we became a better company. Since that time, our staff retention has increased, and we are gaining more traction as a business.
4.Discerning and Living Your Values
A discerning leader is able to determine the best way to navigate a situation by returning to their values. In my company, I have trained the leadership team to consider how an action they are considering taking could impact everyone it might touch. This discernment is what aids us in remaining a heart-centered company. One of the ways we have stayed true to this value is by meeting with a staff member whenever they fall out of alignment with the values of the company. If they are able to return to the values, we don’t hold a grudge or make them “pay” for their mistakes. One of our managers began to judge our executive director and became very toxic. We had a meeting, and our executive director considered firing him. Sometime after the meeting, he began to return to the empathic and heart-centered values of our company. Because he returned to the values, our executive director decided it was right for him to stay. This has been our ethic: we hold true to our values and if people refuse to honor the values, they fire themselves. It’s not up to us to decide, we hold true to the values and let our values speak for themselves to determine whether or not someone will continue with the company.
Perhaps the most important value for me personally has been resilience. Sometimes I doubt if I have what it takes to lead. Whenever these doubts come up, I embrace them. Embracing my doubts helps me to become humbler. Of course, I don’t want to live from the doubts, and this is where resilience comes in. I believe that we all need resilience because life has a habit of breaking us down and showing what we’re made of. Resilience gives us the ability to keep going. Recently, an employee left the company suddenly, after pointing a finger at me with impatience and blame. We had a close working relationship, and when he left without giving me an adequate chance to work through the situation with him, my doubts about being good enough started to creep in. And so, I took a closer look at the situation and applied the lessons to my life. In time, I was able to see the light at the end of the tunnel as I started to feel okay about myself again. Today, I know that I am a better person and leader for it even though it put me to the test. Resilience was the guiding star that led me through my doubts, whispering “Keep going, it will all be okay.”
American Basketball Coach John Wooden said, “Make each day your masterpiece.” How do you embody that quote? We welcome a story or example.
I wake up each day and watch the sunrise. This act of connecting with nature helps inspire me for my day. The Sun gives me the energy to pour into my projects. By drawing on this connection with nature, I feel the presence of the Sun and the Earth in all I do as a leader. I strive to be like the Sun. The Sun shines on everyone without conditions and is an excellent leader in that capacity. The way the Sun shines is the way I believe a good leader should be. In my opinion, truly great leaders unconditionally radiate warmth and light to everyone they come in contact with. By doing this, we honor the masterpiece of life’s potential which is unfolding through us right now.
In my career, I am a leader who is also a musician and poet. Throughout the day, song lyrics and poems will come to me in response to something that is happening. There is so much wisdom within music and art, and so when these songs and poems come to mind, I like to share these creative messages. For example, one of my team members was reaching out to another member to hold them accountable to a deadline. In our group meeting, she said she felt bad for being bossy. Immediately, the song “Boss Ass Bitch” by PTAF came to mind. The word “bitch” is often used to undercut women’s power, but PTAF sings “I’m a boss ass bitch” as a way to take ownership of this phrase as many oppressed groups reclaim the language of their oppression for empowerment. In other cases when I’m supporting a client through a difficult process, the words of the poet Rilke often come to my mind, “Be patient towards all that is unresolved in your heart.” In these moments, I will recite this phrase as a meaningful way to connect with my client and support them to surrender deeper to what they cannot yet resolve or control.
What is the legacy you aspire to leave as a leader?
The legacy I most wish to leave behind as a leader is that we have the opportunity to infuse each and every interaction we have with empathy. By using empathy, we create an environment where the other person feels safe being themselves and sharing their experience. This safety creates the environment where everyone can be themselves. I’ve had innumerable experiences in which people feel afraid that if they are themselves at work, they may risk being fired. We were in the midst of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic as I was training my executive director to lead my company. I was entertaining the idea of making vaccinations mandatory, since we are a scientific agency working in the medical field with people with autism and developmental delays. I encouraged her to get vaccinated. She seemed unsure about what she wanted to do and was full of fear because of the pressure she was feeling. After we had several conversations about the vaccination, she got clear that she did not want to get vaccinated. She also disagreed with me on the grounds that forcing vaccinations would go against our values as a company. She was afraid that disagreeing with me would lead to a big issue between us. As soon as she spoke her truth, I honored her wishes both for herself personally and for the company. She was right, freedom of choice embodies the values of our company more fully than imposing a single option. Through her conflict with me, she was leading the company. Since then, we’ve had several significant conversations about important issues that have shaped our company. Each time we disagree it brings us closer. Because I use empathy with her, as she does with me, our conflicts become productive disagreements to help us find the best solution. If I didn’t use empathy and I forced my perspective on her, she would naturally begin to fear me knowing that disagreement would mean retaliation. Instead, she feels increasingly safe disagreeing with me, knowing we will work together to find the best solution for the company.
By fostering this kind of empathic connection with each other, we create and facilitate connection wherever we go. This is the quality of connection that is so sorely needed in these times and at all times. Connection is what will save us from the great and deep issues of our times. When we are connected with ourselves and each other, we can guard our hearts and minds against these forces that create disconnection and suffering for humanity. When people have taken a stand against the values of the company and become destructive, I still have empathy for them. I do my best to understand them on their terms even if they hate me and project their feelings all over me. I try not to ever close down my heart in judgment or condemnation towards others.
I’ve had people threaten lawsuits, I’ve had people swear to drag my name through the muck, and I’ve even had former staff members start a rival company while stealing intellectual property. With each interaction, I did my best to embody empathy and unconditional love. When we embody these great virtues of love and connection, we become the very best that we can be. This is how we make ourselves into a living masterpiece. These virtues shape us into who we are meant to become. I love learning and seek to hone my skills at empathy and love every day. It is my hope, dream, and vision to help lead humanity into an age of empathy and unconditional love. The greatest masterpiece I can imagine is a world that truly works for everyone. I can see a world in which we end human cruelty and have empathy and unconditional love lead humanity into an age of connection, community, and care. In this age of empathy, our elders would be treasured and have their needs met as well as our children, the homeless, and all the underprivileged and marginalized peoples. From my experience building a company that works for everyone, I believe we can build a world that works for everyone.
How can our readers connect with you to continue the conversation?
I started a non-profit, Heart-Centered Revolutions, to lead humanity into an age of empathy and unconditional love. You can contact me there with any inquiries. You’re invited to participate in the revolution through joining our mailing list for the newsletter and enrolling in events or courses.
The best way to join this revolution, though, is to practice opening your heart with empathy and truly coming from unconditional love for yourself and everyone around you. For more on how to bring heart-centered principles into your everyday life, we have a collection of books to help guide you. You can also continue your exploration of heart-centered principles by reading the articles on our blog. We offer business consulting and personal and parenting coaching, as well as workshops.
If these words and ideas truly resonate with you and make your heart and soul sing, visit us online and join the revolution!
Heart-Centered Revolutions is a 501c3 non-profit organization dedicated to making a world that works for everyone.
Thank you for giving us the opportunity to experience a leadership master at work. We wish you continued success and good health!