Published on December 15, 2016
The past year has been a painful one for many Americans. Our political differences have separated us into two camps, with angry and hostile words thrown at each other. Long before Election Day, it was clear that regardless of who won, the new President would face a deeply divided nation. Today, weeks after the election, many people are still focusing on the political scene, feeling angst over the latest Cabinet appointment.
For myself, I have decided to adopt American Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer”:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.”
This prayer challenges us to be serene amid turmoil and chaos, while using courage and wisdom to make a difference in the world. This isn’t easy, but is a goal worth pursuing. Such equipoise is the mark of authentic leaders.
Accepting the things we cannot change is difficult for anyone with the passion and belief that he or she can change the world for the better. When I was young and naive, I thought I could tackle the world’s greatest problems – from war to health to poverty – and have a leadership role in eliminating them.
The reality is that none of us can independently eradicate poverty, eliminate disease, ensure quality education, guarantee rewarding jobs for everyone, or ensure all people have financial security. Even Bill Gates must feel humbled by the vastness of the world’s challenges as he applies his vast resources. But if we focus our energy and our efforts on specific goals that are within our grasp, we actually can change the world – the world in which we live.
Accepting our limits in dealing with intractable problems requires serenity – the quality of being calm and tranquil. When we get caught up in our 24/7 society and upset by the outrage on social media, it is all too easy to become stressed out, discouraged, and angry at the world. When we are too reactive, we lose perspective that our actions are part of the long arch of human progress, and their impact may not be immediately apparent.
When I feel anxious about the world, I have found my meditation practice helps me regain that sense of tranquility and serenity. It also enables me to focus on the most important things in my life and be grateful for my blessings. In this way, I have learned to accept the things I cannot change. Then I can put aside my frustrations with the world and set more modest goals for things that I can change.
Courage is the quality of the spirit enabling people to face difficulty, danger, and pain without fear. Courage cannot be learned in the classroom; it must be experienced in real world situations.
At Medtronic, we focused on restoring health for patients struggling with chronic disease and discovering ways to help more people. Our proudest accomplishment during these years was increasing the number of people restored annually to full health from 300,000 to 6 million per year. Today, some 14 years after I retired, that number stands at 30 million people annually.
In retrospect, growing this number demanded a great deal of courage from my colleagues. They took risks to discover breakthrough therapies, challenge the approval process of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to get them released, and ignore Wall Street’s short-term pressures and invest for the long-term.
When I retired from Medtronic in 2002, I searched for a new purpose in my professional life. After exploring leadership opportunities in government, business, and non-profits, I went on a working sabbatical in Switzerland to learn and teach at two leading Swiss institutions. It was there that I realized I was most passionate about helping develop a new generation of authentic leaders. I recognized this purpose required a high level of humility about the limits of this goal. There was no chance we could eradicate all the poor leaders, nor claim any credit for the success of the authentic ones. But an emerging new generation of authentic leaders gave me great hope for the future.
Since 2004, I have pursued that goal by teaching at Harvard Business School (HBS) and applying those ideas through writing books and articles, as well as mentoring many emerging leaders. This took a surprising amount of courage as all my 30 years of experience had been in running large organizations. In Switzerland and at HBS, I was all alone in creating new courses for which I had no training or experience. While my colleagues at HBS were extremely helpful, in the classroom I was on my own with 90 challenging students with very high expectations. When I proposed a new course called Authentic Leadership Development that included a small group format (a radical change for HBS), I was required to go to the dean for approval.
As a first-time author, I also faced monumental challenges in getting a book published on authentic leaders. My first book draft was rejected by a dozen publishers. Thanks to my mentor, Warren Bennis, I was able to write Authentic Leadership, which was published in 2003 and became a modest best-seller. That gave me the courage to conduct research on 125 authentic leaders and publish True North in 2007, which is widely read today and used by corporations and academic institutions in developing leaders.
My grandfather, a Dutchman who came to the U.S. in 1878 at the age of two, had a plaque in his home that read: We grow too soon old, and too late wise.
Wisdom requires discernment and the insights that come from experiencing life’s challenges. It took me decades to recognize how long it takes to acquire wisdom. In my younger years, I thought I was a lot wiser than I was. This was especially true in accepting the limits of my ability. It was only by processing the pain of disappointments and acknowledging my limitations that I gradually accumulated a modest amount of wisdom.
In college, a wise mentor told me, “Bill, you can’t change human nature,” but I didn’t believe him. It wasn’t until my forties that I accepted just how hard it is to change other people to behave authentically and ethically. You can only have a modest impact on those people you are in direct contact with, and limited impact on others. When I finally accepted this reality, I have found great satisfaction in taking vicarious pleasure – but no credit – in the accomplishments of authentic leaders.
When we have the wisdom to acknowledge our limits and the limitations of our impact, we can focus our energies on making a difference in our immediate world. Only then can we find the serenity to accept the things we cannot change. This in turn gives us the courage to change the things we can – and realize the fulfillment that comes with it.