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By Mr G. Muller

It had not been since the Vietnam War that the NZDF had committed combat troops to a conflict when in the early 1990’s the NZ Government agreed to support the efforts of the UN to help stabilise the troubled Balkan States of Bosnia – Herzegovina.


At that time, I was a PTI Sergeant with 1RNZIR and whilst I did not deploy many of my friends, peers and colleagues did. It was a strange era because almost nobody had any operational experience. Like many troops before them they were leaving the shores of our small nation to face new challenges with equal measures of pride, professionalism, trepidation and enthusiasm. Because to a large degree we kiwis are somewhat protected and isolated from the numerous atrocities and acts of violence many other nations contend with on an all too frequent basis. And as such deployment meant putting oneself in the firing line of not just potential physical harm but witnessing many things the like of which most, if any, would have seen before.

And it is here where our story really begins, with Kathy Bolkovac a former US Police Officer from Nebraska. Because it is what she witnessed, subsequently exposed and then got ostracised for during her time in Bosnia – Herzegovina that forms the essence of this leadership lesson.

Kathy’s story starts much like most troops we were sending on this mission. She was relatively naïve to what was happening in this part of the world and had never been exposed to this level of violence and anarchy in her formative years or working life. As it happened she had simply seen an advert calling for qualified investigators to investigate war crimes, more specifically in her case the exploitation of females as victims of sexual crimes, human trafficking and prostitution.

Unbeknownst to her at that time as things would transpire her story would eventually make global news and become an internationally acclaimed film – The Whistleblower. This film tells not just of the tragic story of the crimes she was investigating but perhaps an even sadder truth. It also tells the story of a serious dysfunction in human nature, poor leadership and our global societies inability, at times, to do what is right – when we see wrong.

Social Grouping

Since our earliest beginnings humans began forming groups not only to improve our chances of survival (hunting for food and protection from predators etc.) but also for the social aspects that allowed us to enjoy shared experiences through group connections and bonding.

In military terms our smallest groups start at the level of a gun group of two people or a Special Forces recon patrol of four personnel, right through to company, battalion, brigade level and beyond.

Yet we are also part of many other groups, some of which are structured and self-explanatory such as the sports teams we may be involved in on camp or for our unit. Then there are the unstructured groups which we are often not as consciously aware of and are formed more through our association to a place or people without any formal recognition. These are essentially ad hoc groups like living in the same barrack block with personnel from other services, units or corps.

Regardless of its structure or identity however, every group will to some degree, have associated norms of behaviours (rules) to which they either consciously or unconsciously adhere to. Some of these rules are formalised through SOP’s or standing orders to align processes and expected behaviours. Alternatively, they could be far more informal where mutual understandings are met through shared ideals and beliefs without any actual need for verbal acknowledgement.

And it is because of this human need to place such a big emphasis on social connections that we tend to form ourselves into relatively stable societies of functioning communal groups. Doing so we instinctively allow for more effective and cohesive actions / activities to take place within our groups.

It is here however where we start to learn ‘other rules’ that govern groups. That is, we start to learn about and potentially witness the threat of being evicted from the group – of ostracism, because as we will find out from Nemo once you are out it is tougher to survive. And this is one of the key human weaknesses ostracism preys on – our longing to be part of the group.

Finding Nemo

Well maybe it’s not quite finding Nemo but we can learn a lot about social grouping and ostracism from the Goby fish who live on Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Each day just like good soldiers they perform a ritual of “forming up” much like they were doing the drill for sizing off everyone prior to going on parade.

This daily routine researchers have established is performed to control the size of the fish. So, the act of “forming up” is essentially checking the size of each fish within the school (group). If one is getting too big, within the very tight parameters set by the school of fish themselves and which researchers have measured using specialist equipment, they face the very real risk of expulsion. Initially this occurs through being bullied by the leaders (type of heading butting movement). If they do not adhere to these warnings they are then expelled from the group. This will result in them having to fend for themselves in the dangerous waters outside the sanctuary of the coral reef and rest of the group.

Ostracism, therefore functions as form of threat management on two levels. Firstly, it protects the dominant stronger leaders who effectively control the group while secondly it prolongs the viability of the group. It is a deft combination of both punishment and cooperation.

It is therefore important that all leaders (and followers) are cognitively aware of some of the positive and negative effects of group behaviour and function of groups. Below is a list of some of the factors that affect groups either negatively or positively.

Notwithstanding the importance of the other aspects highlighted above this article is focusing on the aspect of ostracism which can often go unnoticed as it silently poisons groups from functioning to its highest potential and it is here where we pick up our story again with Kathy our Police Officer from Nebraska.

As part of her investigative work she exposed a serious criminal ring involved in human trafficking for sexual exploitation and prostitution. This was big business and many people, especially during these difficult and troubled times, were profiting from it. As things unfolded it became apparent that what she was potentially uncovering was a major criminal undertaking, much larger than perhaps she, or anyone else was either expecting, or ready to admit.

Due to some of difficulties and obstacles she experienced in bringing this to the attention of authorities she drafted an email that simply said, “Do not read this if you have a weak stomach or guilty conscience” and then…. she pressed send.

For what she uncovered many could easily assume she would be highly commended for her actions. As things unfolded however, rather than being commended she was condemned, outcast and ostracised by the very people she was working with and for. Eventually this led to her being removed from her position and placed in a menial role far removed from her original duties and the case she was working on.

As a leader, there are consequences for overlooking the effects of ostracism. Because those that think different, do different, challenge the status quo or confront some inconvenient truths as Kathy did must feel safe to have a voice.


Ostracism works on many levels and one such is humiliation. Humiliation is a commodity that we can trade in with relative ease and anonymity in today’s age. With the world, wide web at our finger tips the perimeters and boundaries are easily exploited and often blurred. As an emotion, it has been claimed by researchers that the intensity of humiliation is felt even more than that of happiness or anger.

Tyler Clementi’s a student at Rutgers University short life is a testament to this whereby his college roommate unknowingly filmed Tyler being intimate with another male and then posted it online. This resulted in a hive of cruel and judgmental feedback that tragically saw Tyler, at just 18 years of age, end his short life by jumping from a bridge to end the pain and suffering he endued through personal attacks and being humiliated.

Such shaming can and is becoming much like a blood sport because in the age of the internet shame is now an industry which is often measured by clicks on a mouse. We have for example modern forms of ostracism and humiliation which can be as simple as unfriending or unfollowing someone on Facebook or Twitter.

And the more we tolerate this the higher the number of clicks we need to see and the harsher the examples need to be before we become aware that people are suffering and ostracism is at the core. Put into tangible evidence, research conducted between 2012 -2017 found that there was an 87% increase in cyber bullying and this form of behaviour. These are online trolls extolling or degrading people for acts or behaviour they consider unacceptable.

Attacking a person’s character because they do not necessarily agree or conform to some flippant belief or rule that you or a group you are part of is not acceptable. Yes, feedback is important but it must be conducted in the right manner and in the appropriate forums – not through the likes of a kangaroo court led by individuals who have a ‘that face doesn’t fit’ mentality.

Because very few people even up until there early 30’s have developed the mental maturity or capacity to equip them to deal with the ramifications caused through the onslaughts of shame, humiliation and ostracism.

Broken Hearts and Broken Bones

In her research of the same name “Broken Hearts and Broken Bones” Naomi Eisenberger from UCLA established that although we can distinguish between the two different types of pain (physical and emotional) it appears that they share neurobiological substrates – that is for all intends and purposes at a physiological level we see them as one and the same thing.

She makes the point that when people speak of social rejection they use phrases like ‘he hurt my feelings’ or ‘she broke my heart’ and these terms (or phrases) apply across all cultures with social pain described in terms of physical pain in almost every language. The only variance is how we cope.

Whether we are conscious of it or not then, pain is therefore used a method of social control. Further work by Kip Williams who has written a book on ostracism refers to research using MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) could see a significant activation in the same areas of the brain that is experienced when we have real pain.

An excellent example of how strongly the need to feel a part of a group can be summed up in an online Cyber Ball Game experiment. In this experiment participants continued to feel the pain of rejection, even when they knew that being passed the ball would cost them financially. Taken a step further they found that people would still play the game with others even if the game involved tossing an imaginary explosive that could obliterate everything at any moment. The need to feel as though you belong is that powerful because it threatens our sense of value, that we are worthy of attention and not invisible.

But this mindset can come at a heavy price if it is not taken into context. And it must be taken into context. Military groups need specific rules and many have earned the privilege to wear certain insignia and be part of certain groups, units and corps through various selection courses or rites of passage by completing specific trade or corps qualification courses etc.

All of this helps to maintain standards and protect the identity of the group. This ensures it is both tough for outsiders to enter or alternatively easier for those within to police each other when they observe inappropriate effort or lack of adherence to group standards. These are earned reputations and in a very real sense is what often makes the group unique or special so they yes, they should be protected because they give meaning to what we do.

This however is not the central argument of ostracism. Outliers, disruptive thinkers and edge workers (those operating on the fringes of the normal practices) exist to teach us lessons and provoke new levels of thought and action, to innovate. So, conforming is necessary for groups to function but shaming, humiliating, mocking or ostracising individuals through blatant mistreatment and harassment to win the favour of other group members or to satisfy the ego’s pretenses is not – ever.

It is important understand this as it has been proven that many people will conform more to a unanimous group, even if the group is clearly wrong in their perceptual judgements. They will just go along with it. They will be more likely to comply, to obey a command. ‘In other words, they become more susceptible to social influence, to avoid what is commonly referred to as the ‘kiss of social (group) death’

Saying No to Ostracism

So, what measures can we put in place to prevent all this?

Challenge. Challenging your individual or the group’s beliefs and values is a very powerful way to educate and invoke discussion around the some of the personal, societal, social, cultural and groups beliefs. This helps create a greater awareness as many individuals will tend to have beliefs which were formed and passed down from no doubt well-meaning guides (parents, teachers, coaches etc.) without really being challenged. Educating group members will encourage them to challenge some of their preconceived ideas and understand things from a broader perspective.

Empathy. Shame cannot survive empathy. Displaying high levels of emotional intelligence and compassion towards others allows you to appreciate and celebrate individual differences. Furthermore, it highlights that we all have unique skills and insights that should be fostered and encouraged, provided of course they are not counter-productive or outside the parameters of accepted behaviours.

Culture. Culture is often described “as the way things are done around here”. Simply stated these form the excepted behaviours and practices of how an organisation, group or team operates. Leaders must therefore be acutely aware of how everything a group does has an impact on its function, including how it can potentially ostracise others.

In the diagram below we see how those that fall into the middle of the bell curve (standard distribution) are what we term the “malleable masses”. As a result, they have the greatest potential to be led or influenced by the early adopters or those designated as “cultural architects” towards higher levels of thoughts, acts and deeds. The choice of cultural architects must be carefully decided as these individuals must have the strength of character, standing within the group and overall maturity to help leaders influence change.

Leadership. John Maxwell one of the world’s foremost leadership experts puts it as simply as this. He notes that “everything, either good or bad, begins or ends with leadership”. The military offer world class leadership training, this however does not mean anyone, regardless of title, position or rank has earned the right to stop learning and growing as a leader. Learning to lead is a lifetime commitment.


Groups often have a “pay-to-stay” condition that is present to ostensibly safeguard the social status of the group and whether this is healthy or not we are lured into paying through our deep need to belong – but as we have seen the cost to stay can be high.

Group connection which we crave is not free it comes at a cost, groups have norms – they have rules. They act as regulators, producers and reproducers of social order. Ostracism as its threat operates as a form of social control, the enforcement of norm conformity – even if that order is not fair or equitable, even if it is pathological and harmful. The power is ostracism derives from its targeting of our vulnerabilities and insecurities; the fear of not belonging – ultimately, of being alone.

Kathy Bolkovac has witnessed firsthand the effects of ostracism as she lived through a decade or more of harsh treatment. In the end, she was totally excluded from the group. She did carry a contagion. It was the truth. A truth many did not wish to become known or made public as it could implicate them. To date nobody has been brought to account for the crimes committed during this period.

Yet by not speaking up other people suffer, we stay inside the safe circle (of the group) and so the circle of suffering continues as it did for the group Kathy tried to protect. While this came at a tremendous personal cost this is why she spoke out.

And while it is inevitable that even the most level headed, sincere and humble amongst will to even to some small degrees falter it’s a leader prerogative to keep developing themselves, to learn, grow and mature so they can be vigilant and aware of the disastrous effects of ostracism and knowing when it is right to address wrong things.

As Kathy says in the end “right is right and wrong is wrong” and fundamentally we all know when which is which.



Greg Muller

Greg Muller (Herb) is a retired Senior Physical Training Instructor who amongst many other qualifications he has attained from his travels throughout the world holds a Master’s Degree in Leadership, Innovation and Change. During his time in the NZ Army Greg worked as a PTI with the NZSAS, 1RNZIR and also held the position of Senior Instructor of the Joint Services Physical Education and Recreational Training School (now DPERTS). Upon leaving the Army he worked for almost a decade in professional rugby in NZ, Japan and Ireland. Greg now resides in Galway, Ireland where he runs his own consultancy company Lead the Pack which offers coaching for business organisations, teams and individuals for elite performance and leadership. For more information go to