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The Leadership Podcast

The Leadership Podcast

Why do we do this?

We interview great leaders, review the books they read, and speak with highly influential authors who study them.

How we do this?

#1 We interview great leaders.
#2 We review the books great leaders read and write.
#3 We have fun!

Apr 19, 2023

Vitaliy Katsenelson is the CEO and Chief Investment Officer of IMA and the author of three books. His most recent book is “Soul in the Game: The Art of a Meaningful Life.” Vitaliy was born in Murmansk, Russia, and immigrated to the United States with his family in 1991. In this interview, Vitaliy contrasts his experience growing up in the Soviet Union with his experience in the United States, and how different his mindset was in each place. He also discusses how Stoic philosophy has been very helpful. He discusses how his essay about Tchaikovsky aims to help others who may be struggling with creativity. Listen in for a vibrant discussion on intention, communication, and vulnerability.


Key Takeaways


[1:53] Vitaliy’s bio. (See at the end of the show notes.)

[2:22] Vitaliy loves investing, writing, classical music, and spending time with his family, Vitaliy’s father is a fantastic artist and Vitaliy has a small gallery of his work.

[3:49] How Vitaliy sees the differences between Murmansk, Russia, and Denver, Colorado. Denver has lots of sunshine. In the winter, Murmansk has a few minutes of sunshine a day. When Vitaliy lived there, it was Soviet Russia. Freedom of speech and the free market did not exist in Russia. All businesses were owned by the government. Here we have an abundance of food and a lack of scarcity.

[6:56] Vitaliy shares thoughts on how Russians and Americans communicate. He read How to Win Friends and Influence People when he was 18 in Russia. He hated the book and felt it was teaching him how to be fake. He read it again 20 years later and was shocked by how brilliant it is. He is re-reading it with his 17-year-old daughter and she loves it. She has an American mindset.

[8:06] When Vitaliy came to the U.S. he found that  Americans are very indirect and smile all the time, contrasted with Russians who are sometimes painfully direct. Vitaly was fired from his first American job. The man firing him was smiling at him, which was a confusing signal. Vitaly fine-tuned himself to a balance between directness and indirectness. He tries not to criticize people so his message is clearly received.

[9:10] If Vitaliy has a criticism, he first tries to make sure to tell the person positive things.  Then he structures the criticism as constructive feedback. He learned that from Dale Carnegie and living in the U.S. for 30 years. Vitaliy says if he had continued to communicate in the Soviet Russian style, he could not have achieved anything in the U.S.

[10:43] Vitaliy’s intentionality comes from the conscious choice to be mindful. To have a work/life balance you just have to be mindful about having the balance. Vitaliy knew he wanted to be a good father to his children. He made a mindful choice to spend more time with his children. He chooses to drive his children to school before going to work on a busy day.

[12:38] Vitaliy has a value to be a good father. To live up to the value he has to be mindful about being with his children. If he just went on autopilot, he would just default to the easiest things to do which for him is working 10-hour and 12-hour days. To be mindful, he stops after eight hours. When he gets home and has dinner with his kids, he’s not looking at his phone. He’s present with them, giving them attention.

[14:26] To live a meaningful life, figure out exactly what you value and spend your time according to your values.

[15:32] Vitaliy sees value in simplicity.

[16:50] As Vitaliy was working on the last chapter of his book, he put it on pause to study and write on Stoicism. He studied Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca. Epictetus taught a framework that some things are up to you and some things aren’t. What is up to you are your values and how you behave. Everything else is external and is not up to you. Don’t try to control what is out of your control.

[19:03] Vitaliy’s 17-year-old daughter just got her first job at a coffee shop. She finds a co-worker annoying. Vitaliy asked her if she expected every co-worker to be perfect. It’s not up to you how other people are. Vitaliy finds this framework to be simple and elegant; if you embrace the Stoic philosophy it will reduce the volatility and negativity in your life.

[20:27] When he learned Stoic philosophy, Vtaliy realized he had made choices in the past unconsciously that were aligned with Stoic philosophy. Adopting Stoic philosophy intentionally has changed his life. He wrote that section of the book as much for himself as for the reader.

[21:51] Every three to four months, Vitaliy sends his clients a 30-page letter in a story-telling format. As an experiment, once he sent the letter in a condensed format of brief bullet points. Eighty percent of his clients preferred the long letter. It was easier for them to read in stories than in bullet points.

[23:33] You want to be very careful on the receiving side of storytelling and people who are terrific speakers. They appeal to your emotions. Stoics break down the message to its bare bones, to the bullet points. There is a conflict between Stoics and Sophists. Vitaliy acknowledges he is a Sophist in storytelling. At the same time, his values are Stoic. Sophists hijack the message and they may not have good values.

[24:56] When Vitaliy encounters terrific communicators, he is very cautious to make sure the way they communicate does not impact his decision-making.

[26:17] Music is an incredibly important part of Vitaliy’s life. He has written essays on the music that was important to him at any year of his life. Vitaly gets up every day at 4:30 or 5:00 and writes for two hours while listening to classical music in his headphones. Those two hours every day are very special to Vitaliy. Listening to classical music while he writes has helped his creativity tremendously.

[28:07] Vitaliy’s kids made him appreciate chess. It’s one of the few games he likes playing with them. His daughter invited him to play after watching The Queen’s Gambit. After a game, they review the moves, trying to find the solution for the best move possible at any point. It makes an intellectually honest discussion. Jan notes it’s like a military after-action review (AAR). Both become better players.

[30:34] Writing music is a very creative activity. When you listen to classical music, think about how difficult it was for the composer to write it. Tchaikovsky left behind many letters to his brother and his friends. His letters describe how he struggled to compose his music. Vitaliy’s book came about because he had been writing an essay about one of Tchaikovsky’s pieces of music.

[31:45] Vitaliy read Tchaikovsky’s letters and realized that the suffering the composer went through was so similar to the suffering Vitaliy goes through as a writer. He wrote an essay comparing the struggles of Tchaikovsky to the struggles a creative writer goes through.

[32:11] When Vitaliy finished the essay, he realized other struggling writers could be helped by reading it. Over the years, he had written many essays that could help others. So he put them together in a book.

[32:45] When you study the lives of composers, you listen to music very differently. You feel the pain they felt as they were writing. You realize that you will have some very difficult times creating, and as long as you love writing, pain is just part of the journey. The lives of the composers made Vitaliy appreciate classical music so much more. There is an incredible amount of hard work, pain, and struggle in creativity.

[34:52] Vitaliy finds that parenting and leadership have parallels. But leadership mistakes don’t haunt you for the rest of your life! Vitality exposes his kids to new things all the time. They watch YouTube videos on various subjects. He introduces them to new books all the time. They discuss different topics and he doesn’t talk down to them. He is interested to know what they think.

[35:56] As a parent and as a leader, it’s important to be vulnerable. You admit that you don’t have all the answers. When you communicate, spend most of the time in the scientist mode. Whatever you’re looking at is a theory. You are trying to discover truth.

[36:59] When you make a mistake you admit it. Then your employees will be more comfortable admitting they made mistakes as well.

[37:45] Vitaliy shares a link where you can hear his podcasts and read his articles. 

[38:23] Closing quote: Remember, “Do not act as if you had 10,000 years to throw away. Death stands at your elbow. Be good for something while you live and it is in your power.” — Marcus Aurelius


Quotable Quotes

  • “If you insult a person first and then you give them a message, that message will never arrive.”

  • “My daughter and I are reading [How to Win Friends and Influence People] together … and she loves the book!”

  • “Being around your kids while you are reading Financial Times on your iPhone is not being around your kids. Attention is a currency of time. So it’s when I give them that attention, when I’m present, that’s very, very important.”

  • “There is so much value in simplicity.” 

  • “If you waste your energy trying to control things that are not up to you, you’re going to have one miserable life. You’re going to have this emotional rollercoaster of being upset.”

  • “I would argue that if you embraced Stoic philosophy, what it does, it would just reduce the volatility; it would reduce negativity in your life. And by reducing negativity, it’s going to make your life calmer; more peaceful.”

  • “Listening to classical music when I write has helped my creativity tremendously. Studies were done on the subject. And they … showed that when you listen to music, … it forces your left brain and right brain to work at the same time. It basically increases your creativity.”

  • “I have found that there are a lot of parallels between being a parent and being a leader … [but] I guess if you screw up as a leader those mistakes don’t haunt you for the rest of your life.”

  • “When you study the lives of composers, … you’re going to start listening to music very differently. You’re going to feel the pain Tchaikovsky felt when he was writing. … You’re going to appreciate as a creator that at times you’re going to have a very difficult time creating.”


Resources Mentioned


Vitaliy Katsenelson
Vitaliy Katsenelson is CEO and Chief Investment Officer of IMA and the author of Soul in the Game: The Art of a Meaningful Life. Vitaliy was born in Murmansk, Russia, and immigrated to the United States with his family in 1991. After joining Denver-based investment firm IMA in 1997, Vitaliy became Chief Investment Officer in 2007 and CEO in 2012. He’s an award-winning writer with two books on investing and countless articles in publications such as The Financial Times and Barron’s. Vitaliy lives in Denver with his wife and three kids where he loves to read, listen to classical music, play chess, and write about life, investing, and music. Soul in the Game is his third book and his first non-investing book.