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Modupe Akinola
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Learn More About Modupe Akinola

Stress – best defined as when the demands of a situation exceed the resources you have to cope – is a fact of life that can’t be avoided. But, according to Columbia University Professor Modupe Akinola (Muh-DOO-peh Ack-in-OH-la), when stress happens, it can be harnessed to produce positive outcomes.

“One thing that’s critical is having the right mindset about stress,” explains Akinola, a groundbreaking researcher on how organizational environments trigger stress that can negatively impact performance. “Stress can be dangerous and harmful if we don’t harness it in the right way. Our bodies were designed to face stress – we just need to learn how to channel that bodily response to help us.”

Recognize Bad Stress, Then Turn it Into Good Stress

Faculty director of the Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Center for Leadership and Ethics at Columbia Business School who recently appeared in National Geographic’s Limitless series, Akinola takes a multidisciplinary approach to her research: she not only measures the psychological causes and effects of stress, but also the physiological responses triggered in the body. In her research, Akinola shows that stressors like deadlines and pressures to perform have quantifiable impacts on the body, like cardiovascular variations and changes in the levels of testosterone and cortisol in individuals who are in stressful situations.  

The key to ensuring stress is helpful not harmful, Akinola says, is to begin by rethinking it in one’s mind. By acknowledging a stressful situation and thinking about it as enhancing as opposed to debilitating, one can reframe their reaction and turn a negative situation into a competitive advantage.

“Rather than denying that stress exists, acknowledge it,” she explains in Medium. “Think about all the times where you felt stressed in similar situations and the outcome was favorable. That’s just one way to give yourself more resources to overcome what you are worried about.”

Embedding Practical DEI Principles into Company Culture

Akinola’s recognition of stressful environments began early in life. She grew up in New York City as a child of African immigrants and was educated at a Manhattan private school where she was often one of very few Black students. “Stress is in my DNA,” she says, “but that stressful environment served me well.” These experiences sparked her interest in studying sources of stress including, racial and gender bias, power dynamics, and to generally examine the relationship between workforce diversity and stress.

Akinola has gone on to conduct extensive research on stereotypes and bias (along with NYU Professor Dolly Chugh, among others), and points out that the first step in breaking the habit of stereotyping is to have an awareness that it’s happening in the first place. By following her actionable framework for building quality, productive conversations, DEI initiatives become embedded in the company culture, not simply seen as an add-on.

“One of the ways we can reduce the harm of stereotypes is by just being aware,” explains Akinola, who was a consultant and the first Head of Diversity at Bain & Company. “Sometimes you’ll be walking down the street and you’ll make a snap judgment about someone without even realizing it. When we’re more aware that our behavior is being influenced by stereotypes in the first place, we can change that behavior.”

Activating Self-Awareness in the Values-Based Leaders of Tomorrow

Bringing her workplace stress and diversity studies together, Akinola teaches Columbia Business School’s Core Leadership course for M.B.A. students, “Lead: People, Teams, Organizations.” She coaches future leaders to understand the many blindspots they have, and to examine their own values, beliefs, decision-making tendencies, and behaviors in order to effectively manage group dynamics and lead effectively. Akinola demonstrates that stress is relevant to all leaders and front-line workers alike.

“Stress is a relatable topic that everyone understands, and no one can avoid,” she points out. “We can recruit our natural, biological resources in the moment of stress and channel them to give us the outcomes that we want. Once we are able to welcome stress and embrace it, we can thrive and inspire others.”


Modupe Akinola is the Faculty Director of the Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Center for Leadership and Ethics at Columbia University. She teaches the Core Leadership course to Columbia Business School MBAs, lectures in several executive education programs, and has become one of the school’s most highly rated professors, receiving the Dean’s Award for Teaching Excellence in 2015. She has also been recognized as a Rising Star by the Association of Psychological Science, and received Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s esteemed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Fellowship.

Host of the weekly TED Business podcast, Akinola’s research has appeared in numerous academic journals and has been covered in media outlets including The New York Times, NPR, Forbes, and Scientific American, among others. She was the featured expert in the first episode of National Geographic’s “Limitless with Chris Hemsworth,” and her co-authored Sunday New York Times op-ed, “Professors are Prejudiced, Too” was one of the most read and shared articles at the time of its publication.

She has extensive corporate training, coaching, and consulting experience, and has also consulted several public-school districts across the country. In addition, she has advised numerous police departments in their reform efforts, most recently assisting the Cleveland Division of Police in implementing its consent decree with the U. S. Department of Justice.

With extensive nonprofit experience as well, Akinola has worked in Accra, Ghana, where she created several nurseries and literacy centers aimed at providing childcare for underprivileged babies, teaching literacy to homeless mothers and children, and offering them the opportunity to learn a trade or receive formal education.

Named to the Thinkers50 Radar List in 2022, Akinola holds a B.A. and M.A. in Psychology, and a Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior from Harvard University. She also holds an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School.

Modupe Akinola is available to advise your organization via virtual and in-person consulting meetings, interactive workshops and customized keynotes through the exclusive representation of Stern Speakers & Advisors, a division of Stern Strategy Group®.

Modupe Akinola was last modified: December 1st, 2023 by Whitney Jennings

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Embrace Bad Stress to Turn it Into Good Stress

Life is full of stressful situations. But, according to Columbia Business School Professor Modupe Akinola, stress doesn’t have to be bad. In fact, a thoughtful approach to stress can make it a good thing. In this insightful presentation, Akinola uses her years of research on both the psychological and biological implications of stress to present actionable strategies for coping with, and even leveraging, stress as an advantage. Physiologically, she explains the human body was designed to cope with stress and shows how those physical responses can be channeled to be positive. She then offers participants steps to take to psychologically reframe stressful situations as challenges as opposed to threats, while uncovering good stress as a competitive advantage.

Leading a Diverse and Equitable Organization

“Bias deals with individuals needing to change their decision-making processes, and that’s hard,” explains Columbia Business School Professor Modupe Akinola. In this eye-opening presentation, she’ll outline the steps to embed DEI initiatives into a company’s culture so such efforts won’t be seen as simply an add-on that may end up falling off the radar altogether. Providing leaders with an actionable framework for prompting positive and productive conversations about diversity and equity within an organization, Akinola will reveal tools and language that will help leaders notice and understand other people and their perspectives. Ultimately, leaders will be able to engage in quality discussions rather than disengaging from what may feel like a daunting process of building DEI initiatives.

How to be an Inspirational Leader

Columbia Business School Core Leadership Professor Modupe Akinola says that good leaders must ask themselves a basic but vital question – “why am I leading?” In this thought-provoking presentation, she’ll draw from her Columbia M.B.A. course, “Lead: People, Teams, Organizations,” in which she coaches future leaders to start their leadership journey by being self-aware. Akinola will explain that by understanding their own values, beliefs, decision-making tendencies, and behaviors, leaders can effectively manage group dynamics and create synergy. Following this session, leaders of tomorrow will understand that effective leadership is about recognizing their own blind spots first, which will enable them to inspire and motivate teams while creating the conditions for the fluid integration of diversity.

Learn Key Strategies to Increase Talent Pool Diversity

A diverse talent pool allows organizations to build creative teams and maximize competitiveness. In this educational presentation, former Bain & Company Consultant and Head of Diversity and current Columbia Business School Professor Modupe Akinola outlines key strategies leaders can take to increase the diversity of their talent pool. She’ll share frameworks for building efficient and effective recruitment processes that will ensure bias in the hiring process is mitigated, attract women and people of color to the organization and strengthen retention practices to facilitate promotions from within. Executives will also learn specific techniques for rethinking decision-making processes that shape diversity, equity, and inclusion outcomes, and ensuring accountability.

WayMaker Journal Logo 2023

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April 3, 2023

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Pulling Rank

September 8, 2020

Ask us about Modupe Akinola’s hands-on experiences that take learning beyond the boardroom.