Matt Poepsel, PhD, is a person of many titles. He’s a former Marine and current executive, philosopher, and speaker. He’s “The Godfather of Talent Optimization,” as well as PI’s Vice President of Professional Services. He’s a dog lover and a Cape Cod lifer. Above all, though, he’s a leader.
In his new book, Expand the Circle: Enlightened Leadership for Our New World, “Matty P” (as we often call him) has cracked the code for solving ineffective, outdated leadership. I recently sat down with him to discuss the inspiration for Expand the Circle, the trials and tribulations of writing a manuscript, and the biggest things he hopes readers take away from the book.
The following interview was edited lightly for brevity and clarity.
Q: How would you describe Expand the Circle in 30 seconds?
The idea behind Expand the Circle came to me when I recognized that the work that we do and the way we work has changed dramatically in the last five to 10 years.
Our experience of work and what we expect of our work has also changed, but leadership hasn’t. And so it led me to ask the question: “What is the future of leadership?”
Ironically, I had to venture 2,500 years into the past to try to find leadership’s future.
Q: Why write about leadership?
I had seen the limitations of our leadership approaches pretty profoundly. I knew that people around me were not happy and not as productive as they wanted to be. That’s what led me to begin my PhD journey many, many years ago.
I knew people suffered at work, and I wanted to help. So, Expand the Circle is really just a culmination of this.
I had been in the business of trying to help people improve their leadership for a long time, but it became very personal for me during the pandemic. All of a sudden, I experienced—as many people did—this reprioritization of our values and an examination of what work means to us.
PI and our videographer alum Connor Lewis famously created Work on Trial, an entire documentary about how, in the aftermath of the pandemic, people were asking the question: “Why do I work?”
Not “Why do I work here?” but “Why do I work?” period. “What role do I want work to play in my life?” I was moved by that.
(Editor’s note: Matt is being modest. He coined the phrase “Employees are putting work on trial” and had an outsized impact on the documentary’s key themes.)
As I was recognizing this, I also wasn’t feeling 100% myself. I wasn’t showing up for my team with the same level of energy and positivity. Then my father got a call from his oncologist. He was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor on his kidney, which would require a lengthy recovery process. His experiences reminded me of a universal truth: We know how this movie ends.
I don’t know whose bright idea it was to schedule their midlife crisis right in the middle of a global pandemic. But the silver lining was that it led me to re-examine everything I thought I knew about leadership. I came to realize we were all experiencing and wrestling with these existential questions.
And that was my pathway to finding the future of leadership.
Q: When did you decide to write Expand the Circle?
On my podcast, Lead the People, I had a guest who was a published author and told him, “I think I might want to write a book someday.” He recommended a program originally developed at Georgetown University called the Creator Institute, in which each participant works on their own manuscript as a cohort of new authors.
I fell in love with the idea. I signed up for the program in February 2022, and my book ended up coming out in March of the following year.
Q: What was the process like, writing within such a short timeframe?
The program gave a lot of structure to what can, to many writers, feel like a very unstructured process.
I started with a framework and some concepts, but I didn’t really have a book yet. Thankfully, I received a developmental editor very early in the process to ensure the bones of my book were clear. Later on, I got a structural editor, and then a revisions editor. There was a lot of help throughout the program that helped me get across the finish line.
Sometimes our editors would press us. Writers in the cohort would say, “I don’t know if the manuscript is ready,” and they’d say, “You’ve gotta ship this thing.” It felt a little bit like my time working on product teams.
As Steve Jobs famously said, “Real artists ship.” And that’s true for authors, too. You’re never going to write the perfect book, but the pursuit of perfection will keep you from shipping a book. Even now as a published author, my thinking on this subject has not stopped.
I’ve evolved even past the published work, and it’s only been out for a few months. It was never going to be completely perfect. To me, it was more important to get it into people’s hands so they might benefit from it.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from this book?
Liberation. The reality is that many of us find ourselves trapped with self-limiting beliefs, and we may not even realize it due to outdated views of what leadership is supposed to be.
I was leading a session the other day, and I said, “If you believe you’re an extremely capable leader, please stand up.” Nobody stood up.
Why? The word leader.
Who am I to be a leader? Is it based on my title? “Extremely capable?” That sounds like I’m perfect or really accomplished. But let’s pull that apart for a second.
From the time I came out of the service and entered civilian life, I had no direct reports, but damn right I was still a leader. I could lead myself and comport myself. I could influence my peers. I could lead my project. I would never let anybody tell me that I’m not a leader.
And in terms of being “extremely capable,” capable means I have potential. Absolutely! We all have potential.
So, everyone should have stood up. We should all stand up, but we don’t feel comfortable doing so. And that’s because we’re all trapped by these notions of what leadership is supposed to be.
The frameworks that inform leadership decisions in organizations today are easily 50, 75, or even 100 years old. We have not evolved our leadership, and it’s causing our organizations to suffer. It’s hurting business performance, and it’s hurting people’s welfare.
Enough! We have to find a better way.
And that ties back to my entire philosophy with Expand the Circle. I remember sitting on my meditation cushion, and all I could think about was work (because I’m terrible at meditation). I started to borrow these Tibetan Buddhist meditation techniques to think about how I could use them as a lens to look at leadership.
And it really was the breakthrough I needed.
Q: You mentioned Buddhism. Can you speak more about how it helped influence Expand the Circle?
In the Tibetan practice, Buddhists often ask: How can I experience happiness and freedom from suffering, but then also extend that compassion to my partner, my spouse, my kids, and my co-workers? Can I expand the circle even further to a stranger? To an enemy? To all sentient beings in the universe? That’s how the tradition goes.
I began to think: What if we approach our leadership the same way? What if I learn to lead myself before I lead others? Can I lead one other person? Can I lead a team? Can I lead an entire organization, and finally out into the world?
That became the leadership framework that I believe is the future of leadership.
And that’s when the work really began. I asked myself: What does it mean to lead oneself in a mindful and selfless way? So, I went back to Western psychology research to figure that out.
What I found, time and time again, was that we’ve seen empirical support for these enlightened concepts in our world of work. Business performance improves. Productivity and innovation improve when we treat each other in this enlightened way.
All the people stuff improves, too. Less stress, better levels of mental health and awareness, better levels of belonging and social support, organizational citizenship behaviors… everything gets better when we’re willing to shed these outdated beliefs and attitudes we’ve had about leadership for far too long and embrace this enlightened approach.
Q: It sounds like a thoughtful synthesis of Western and Eastern ideals. How did you approach striking the right balance?
I find that when we mix multiple things together, it creates these delightful combinations.
Take my background. I started my career in military service before going to school for business and computers. And then I fell in love with the psychology of organizations.
What has helped me perform effectively in the workforce has been the ability to canvass technology, sales, marketing, customer support, and consulting… and then blend those things all together in an interdisciplinary way.
I really love the beautiful synthesis of a lot of diverse things. Like strands in a braided rope, it makes for a much stronger output and product.
For me, it was a natural question: How do I take my military experiences and analogies, the business world, and the psychology world, and now extend that into the philosophical and existential world and weave this all together to take us to a new place?
Answering that question is one of my favorite things about this book.
Q: What are the major differences between leadership pre- and post-COVID?
When I started to explore the landscape of the world of work, I found—in all of my work at PI and beyond—that the whole world of work boils down to three things:
- What’s the work to be done?
- Who’s doing that work?
- Who’s leading the charge?
If you go all the way back, the only work humans did was just in the name of survival. We were hunter-gatherers. Later on, we settled into agrarian societies. And then there were these industrial and post-industrial movements.
Now, we’re in this knowledge and connected economy. And if you look at the most advanced forms of organization we have today, we’re starting to see things like B Corporations, which are very transparent in terms of their books. We see things like ESG, or “Environmental, Social, and Governance.” We see Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).
And now, we see this form of “conscious capitalism,” where we say we can’t just pursue profits at any cost; we need to serve a triple bottom line of people, profits, and planet. In sustainability, it’s not enough to be carbon neutral; we have to be nature positive. We have to actually benefit the planet by our output. Organizations themselves have to move beyond their own self-interest.
Meanwhile, a worker shows up to work and experiences what I call the “three Bs”:
- Something bigger than myself
That’s what we all want—especially post-COVID. “I want to show up fully as myself, I want strong social ties with the people I do work with, and I want purpose and meaning in what I do. I want to contribute toward something a bit more selfless.”
So, organizations are becoming more selfless, people are becoming more selfless… but where’s the selfless form of leadership?
To complete the puzzle, we need an enlightened form of leadership where we focus on the needs and interests of others and the mission before our own.
As for what that leadership looks like… that became my quest.
Q: What do you say to people who want to lead, but worry they aren’t built to lead?
I say this: I understand it, but I don’t accept it.
The reality is that we’re all built to lead, because we’re human. And that’s what leadership is.
There is no generally accepted definition of leadership; everyone defines it differently. And so for me personally, it is all about: How do I cultivate the energy of individuals toward a collective goal?
I say “cultivate” because I can’t force anybody to do anything—but I can inspire them to contribute their energy. And if there’s a collective goal that we’re all working toward, that’s where leadership is required.
If one person could do it by themselves, that’s not a leadership moment. It’s going to take more than just one of us, and we’re going to have to find that balance between our self-interest and the team’s interest. When that’s our definition, each of us, at every level, has a role to play.
I don’t care if it’s your first day on your very first job—you’re still a leader, because you comport yourself in a certain way. You can have a positive influence on those around you. And that’s a leadership opportunity.
We’ve built this mystique around leadership, believing that only CEOs and senior leaders get to call themselves leaders. But I just fully reject that.
If you have the opportunity to help accomplish a goal or benefit somebody around you, you absolutely are being a leader. All it takes is to be human—and to lead as a human.
Q: What are the roadblocks to achieving enlightened leadership?
The path isn’t a straight line, that’s for sure. There are things that move us forward and things that set us back.
One of the “blessings,” if you will, about the pandemic was that it forced us to accelerate the remote and hybrid work situation. It gave us a lot more flexibility and latitude, and proved that we can be productive at a distance.
On the other hand, with recent economic headwinds, we’ve seen some corporations start to force employees back to the office in a way that doesn’t come from the employee’s interest, but from the corporation’s interest. And that’s a step back in the path toward enlightened leadership.
So, it’s not gonna be a straight line. But one thing I’ll say is this: I love where Generation Z is leading us. Gen Z employees are pouring into the workforce and saying:
- “We have the highest levels of openness and inclusivity.”
- “We’re willing to speak up for what we believe is right.”
- “We absolutely care about sustainability, just as millennials do.”
The challenge that Gen Z has is two-fold: One, they have the highest levels of anxiety we’ve ever seen. Two, they’ve been crushed by high student-loan debts and astronomically high rents, and this is causing them tremendous amounts of strain.
At the same time, when you look at who runs organizations today—Boomers, Gen X—many are doubling down on outdated values around work ethic, and sacrifice, and putting work ahead of everything else. And it’s creating this counter-culture backlash of “Corporate Villains” and “soft living” and all these countercultural things that make Gen Z workers say: “I don’t want to be like you. When I grow up, I want to have success and have a life, thank you.”
What I have come to discover in my research, time and time again, is fear. The enemy of trust is fear. The enemy of empathy is fear. The enemy of psychological safety is fear. Fear destroys everything good in organizations and in relationships.
For us to make progress toward enlightened leadership, we need a way to tame the fear. To take the irrational fear out of questions like: “If I give my people flexibility, how will the work get done?”
Psychologically, it’s really difficult to shake those fears when you’re a senior leader on a team. If we don’t provide leaders and managers with techniques to quell that fear, it’s going to stunt our ability to make progress toward this enlightened destination.
Q: As a creative myself, I’m curious: What’s one idea you had to leave on the cutting room floor?
This one’s entertaining. I ended up pitching my editor an idea: I would tell the story of Expand the Circle as a mystery quest and clue hunt.
I said to him, “Think of a combination of Dan Pink meets Dan Brown. Every chapter, I’ll find these clues like I’m on this treasure hunt in search of leadership.”
It fell apart almost immediately. It felt so forced that we ended up flushing it within the first two weeks. I loved the creativity of the concept, but it was clear it just wasn’t going to work.
So, I had to ask myself: Am I trying to be clever, or am I trying to be mission-driven? And I let go of the “clever,” because the mission was more important.
The mission became more important than my reservation to be vulnerable. Was I willing to tell some stories that weren’t altogether flattering of myself and my experiences? If it meant reaching that leader and making them know it’s OK not to be perfect, the answer had to be “Yes.”
And that was one thing I found at the Creator Institute. My editors told me: If you’re going to write a book, it has to be authentic. So, I went there—I’m so glad I did.
Q: How has the book rollout been? Any plans for the future?
Expand the Circle is out now in eBook, paperback, and hardcover. Later this summer, I’ll be recording the audiobook version!
It’s all about increasing access. People have different preferences, and I’m a big audiobook person myself. When I think about the future of Expand the Circle, I’d love to increase the “on-ramps” to the central theme of the work.
I’ll also be recording a series of meditation tracks—guided meditations that are in line and derived from the elements of the book. For instance: When I talk about psychological safety in the book, I cite research from Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson. That’s great in written form, but for those seeking a different on-ramp, these tracks will show you how to cultivate psychological safety in a unique and accessible way.
I’m going to be creating a lot more ways that people can find their way into the work. I’ve been invited to do book clubs and give talks about the book to various types of audiences.
The work is taking on its own life, and it’s just such a joyful thing when you can help someone make that critical connection.
Q: Is there anything else our audience should know? You have the last word.
The vast majority of Expand the Circle was written for leaders themselves. But in the back, I do include a section for executives who are interested in developing leadership capacity for their teams.
I include a chapter for team leaders, so they can see, on a smaller level, how they and those they have direct influence over can come together and invest in themselves.
Finally, I included a chapter for people leaders as well—HR leaders who have the similar mantle of increasing leadership capacity.
The Buddha once said, “If you light a lamp for another person, you light your own path.” And I felt like that’s very true for people who are not the leader of their team per se, but have an interest in helping other leaders find their way.
The last thing I’ll say is that there are a lot of PI employees, past and present, who are featured in Expand the Circle, including Jim Speredelozzi, Charkie Quarkoo, Emily Mias, Maribel Olvera, Blanka van Raalte, and Drew Fortin.
I owe a debt of gratitude also to PI. I’ve spent 10 formative years here, in various roles. A lot of the ideas from the book stemmed from late-night office conversations with then-President Daniel Muzquis at his whiteboard. We would talk about quantum physics and other exploratory topics that most people don’t get to chat about with their supervisors. I benefited so tremendously from those conversations, because he piqued my curiosity.
Beyond that, I thank PI and its people for being as supportive as they have. They get the biggest debt of gratitude, for sure.
Q: How can PI users and other talent optimizers make the most of Expand the Circle?
Getting the book exposed to leaders at every level—through a book club, for example—is a great way to start. As you read, I encourage you to discuss the concepts I wrote about and see where they map back to real-life scenarios within your team or organization.
As for PI clients, you have an unfair advantage. You have access to a toolset in PI that helps you raise awareness about your own individual capabilities and limitations when it comes to leading yourself, others around you, your team, and your organization. PI helps you accelerate the development of that perspective and empathy, so you can move from awareness to insight to action.
When PI founder Arnold Daniels created the PI Behavioral Assessment in 1955, he in effect was espousing a more enlightened approach to management. In that sense, PI and Expand the Circle are on entangled paths. Together, they hold a promise that’ll lead us into the future of work.
Expand the Circle: Enlightened Leadership for Our New World is available now.