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Bill George

Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

Why Leaders Lose their Way: Part II Staying Grounded

This is the second portion of an excerpted guide I wrote for my Authentic Leadership class on Why Leaders Lose their way.  On the heels of the recent scandals, I believe we must reexamine what motivates inappropriate behavior from leaders at the top of their game. 

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How can we avoid the pitfalls of falling into the same traps of so many leaders who have lost their way?  It starts with devoting ourselves to a lifetime of personal development that strengthens our inner life and keeps us grounded throughout our lives. 

To get started, let’s return to the question posed earlier, “What is your purpose for becoming a leader in the first place.”  “What are you passionate about?”  “What really excites you and turns you on?”  “Do you find the intrinsic purpose of your work fulfilling, or is it just a job?” 

This may require a reframing of our role from the hero or savior into a servant of the people we lead.  This requires a great deal of thought and introspection to bring our egos in line, as most of us go into leadership roles in response to our ego needs in the first place.  But which ego needs?  The external gratification of people telling us how great we are?  Or the internal satisfaction of making a difference in the world through our leadership?  Through wealth, fame, prestige, and visible power?  Or the deeper knowledge that if you do good work and serve others, that this will be your reward, and the external rewards will be “the frosting on the cake.”

To develop themselves for increasing levels of responsibilities, leaders need to continue their development in seven areas, 1) personal disciplines, 2) managing stress, 3) building relationships, 4) connecting with their communities, 5) focusing inward, and 6) finding balance in our lives.

Personal Disciplines

Being effective in your work and staying sharp to make complex decisions under pressure requires personal practice and discipline.  It may be surprising to young leaders to learn that the habits they establish early in life will continue with them for the rest of their professional lives. 

Taking care of your body through eating healthily, exercising regularly, and getting your required level of sleep is an important part of being an effective leader.  It is difficult, if not impossible, to think deeply and clearly when you’re tired, out of shape, overweight, and stressed out.  Some people turn to chemicals to make them feel better, to give them a lift out of depression.  But it doesn’t work; they’re just digging a bigger hole for themselves.

Managing Stress

Leading is high stress work.  There is no way to avoid the stress of being responsible for people, organizations, outcomes, and the constant uncertainties of the environment.  The higher you go, the greater your freedom to control your destiny, but also the higher the level of stress involved.  The question is not whether you can avoid stress, but how you can control it to maintain your own sense of equilibrium.

Managing stress requires discipline.  Some people practice meditation and/or yoga to center themselves and relieve stress.  Others find solace in prayer.  Some people find they can relieve stress by taking a long run.  Still others find relief through laughing with friends, listening to music, watching television, attending sporting events, reading, going to movies, or watching the performing arts.  It doesn’t really matter what you do, as long as it works for you to manage the stress in your life and enables you to think clearly about your work and personal issues.

Building Relationships: Who Will Be There to Help?

Ask yourself the question, “Who in my life influences me in profound ways?  How do I stay connected to them?”  Few of us can stay centered all by ourselves.  We depend upon the people in our lives to keep us grounded – those who know us best and to whom we will really listen.  For many of us that person is our spouse or our partner in life, because they know us better than anyone else.  They are not impressed by our titles, our prestige, or our growing accumulation of wealth.  In fact, they are worried that these outward symbols may be causing them to lose the authentic person they were attracted to in the first place.  In their presence it is difficult to use our false self or our dominant tendencies to avoid having them hold a mirror up to us that reflects our true behavior. 

But we shouldn’t put the entire burden on our spouses or partners.  All of us need mentors.  A mentor is someone whom we turn to for advice and counsel when we are facing difficult decisions or irresolvable dilemmas.  It is someone with whom we can be completely honest.  A reliable mentor can be counted on to be completely straight with us, and help us define our truth and develop action plans to change if we are dissatisfied with our leadership or our lives.

Having a group of close friends who serve as your personal advisors can be also invaluable.  They too are not overly impressed by your external success, because they know you well enough, and care enough about you, to confront you when you are not being honest with yourself.  A team of professional advisors, be it your board of directors, your colleagues, or others in your line of work, can also be a great source for sharing your problems and seeking honest consultation on how to address them.  In your organization it is more than healthy – it is essential – to have one or more “honest critics” who are prepared to challenge your ideas and action, to help you see the other side or the way others will view your actions.

Connecting with my Community

Another means for staying grounded, and developing compassion for others, is through direct community service.  Examples include tutoring inner city students, working in a homeless shelter, reading to the blind, befriending people in need, and connecting with the lives and needs of people with limited economic means.  Direct contact is infinitely more important and rewarding, but also less comfortable, than chairing the board of the United Way or a social service organization.  The reasons for this are obvious: as we progress in our professional lives, it is easy to lose touch with the lives of ordinary people.  Instead of becoming more compassionate, over time our hearts become hardened.  By engaging with our community, we remain in touch with the real world.

Focusing Inward

Understanding our role in the world is the most personal and profound area of our leadership development.  Many people turn to their spiritual and religious practice to engage these issues, either privately or with like-minded people.  Some seek the answers through a process of introspection.  Others explore them through discussions with the people closest to them in their lives.  Still others choose to ignore these questions altogether until confronted with an overwhelming dilemma, a personal tragedy, or a life-threatening illness.

Finding Balance in our Lives

Finally, we stay grounded by regularly rebalancing our professional lives and our personal lives.  There is no doubt that the time commitments of leading major organizations can absorb all our time and emotional energy, leaving little left for ourselves or for those closest to us.  This poses an enormous danger:  the very act of working ever harder distorts our judgment and our ability to think clearly, and accentuates the risk of losing our way.  We have a continual need to recalibrate what our behavior says about what is most important in our lives.

But keeping ourselves grounded through personal disciplines, developing close relationships, and maintaining a reasonable balance between our professional and personal lives can provide the basis for long-term success in whatever venue we choose for leadership.  It positions us to discern the authentic purpose of our leadership and to draw satisfaction from its intrinsic rewards.

Conclusion

There is no guaranteed path to become a good leader.  It is a process requiring a lifelong commitment to personal development, so that you will be prepared to confront the enormous complexities leaders face and, under tremendous pressure, to fulfill your responsibilities honorably and successfully.  The challenges are great, but the satisfaction of knowing you made a positive difference in the lives of others is even greater.