The Importance of Integrity in Leadership

Leadership involves so many difficult challenges and exceptional behaviors and mindsets. These days, we ask much of our leaders.
 
When I ask workers to quickly name the qualities that arise in their minds when they hear the word “leader,” I am instantly assaulted by a barrage of words: vision, charisma, confidence, clarity, responsibility, results, judgment, emotional intelligence, coach, and much more.
 
What is the most important aspect of leadership? Have you thought about that?
 
In my view, the most important aspect of leadership is integrity, because everything else leaders do flows from it (or its absence), followed by the courage to uphold it.
 
Warren Bennis, the late scholar and author widely regarded as a pioneer of the contemporary field of leadership, once wrote, “Integrity is the most important characteristic of a leader, and one that he or she must be prepared to demonstrate again and again.”
 
Reflecting on his approach to hiring, Warren Buffett, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, noted, “I look for three things in hiring people. The first is personal integrity, the second is intelligence, and the third is high energy level. But if you don’t have the first, the other two will kill you.” Yes, we have seen many leaders with smarts and ambition get into trouble when they lack integrity and make poor choices.
 
For our book, Triple Crown Leadership, we interviewed leaders in 61 organizations in 11 countries, and sought to find out how leaders build organizations that are excellent (exceptional results and positive impacts across stakeholders), ethical (doing the right thing, even when it’s costly or hard), and enduring (standing the test of time and operating sustainably).
 
When we interviewed Girish Vaidya, former Senior Vice President of the Infosys Leadership Institute, we asked him about the relationship between excellent results, operating with integrity, and sustaining these practices over time. He noted, “You might get high performance for a while even if there is no integrity, but for consistent high performance, integrity is absolutely important.” Notably, they view integrity not just as an aspiration or value but as something to bake into their culture and their organizational storytelling during onboarding and meetings.
 
During your career, your integrity will be tested. Have you committed to doing the right thing, even when it’s costly or hard? Do you have people around you with the courage to step up and ask the hard questions and push back when there are concerns? In her book, Fierce ConversationsSusan Scott wrote, “There is something deep within us that responds to those who level with us.”
 
Think of your own leadership at its best, whether at work or in community engagements, sports, or family. Think of the leaders you admire, and the ones who have influenced you in lasting ways and brought out your best. In all cases, you are likely to find people, though not perfect, who are deeply committed to honesty, fairness, and other fundamental moral principles. Integrity is essential in leadership.
 
“The supreme quality for leadership is unquestionable integrity. Without it, no real success is possible, no matter whether it is on a section gang, a football field, in an army, or in an office.”
Dwight D. Eisenhower, former five-star Army general and U.S. president

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author who trains, teaches, and speaks on leadership and personal development. He runs Gregg Vanourek LLC, a training venture focused on helping you lead yourself, lead others, and lead change. Gregg is co-author of three books, including Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards) and LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion). To get Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living and free book chapters from Gregg’s books, check out his Free Guide.

The Most Important Questions for Leaders

Leading others well can be a great challenge. It requires courage, judgment, wisdom, emotional intelligence, integrity, and much more. Leadership excellence comes with experience, but it begins with intentionality and commitment.
 
Here are the most important (four) questions to help ground your leadership in a powerful foundation, whether you are a new leader learning the ropes or a seasoned leader looking to upgrade or renew.
 
1. Why are you leading? Is it for prestige? The title? Money? Power? Perquisites? Is it to prove something, or impress others? In truth, several of these may be drivers for you, but the key issue is whether you have found a deeper why. Being a leader does not require being a saint absent normal human influences and motivations, but leading well requires clarity of purpose and a motivation beyond the self. Great leadership has been described as motivating people to accomplish great things together. In our “triple crown leadership” model, we address the kind of leadership that can build an organization that is excellent, ethical, and enduring—with exceptional, positive, and sustainable impacts.
 
Have you matured and evolved such that you are able to rise beyond your ego and focus on the bigger picture? Followers will recognize selfish motives, especially if they become dominant, and such motives can make your leadership toxic if left unchecked. But followers will respond positively if they see a leader committed to a worthy higher purpose and aspirational vision.
 
2. Who are you serving? As Robert Greenleaf noted, the best leaders serve. With his “servant leadership” framework, he challenged traditional thinking about leadership as a top-down phenomenon. Greenleaf wrote, “The servant-leader is servant first. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions.”
 
People sense that call to serve. They respect and admire it, and willingly follow. Greenleaf even developed a conceptual “test” we can use for determining whether someone is a servant leader: “The best test is: do those served grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”
 
At best, leaders serve their followers, and the organization serves all of its stakeholders: customers, employees, vendors and partners, the community, and its owners. The days of any organization serving only shareholders, often at the expense of other stakeholders, are numbered.
 
3. Are you upholding your values? Your values are the things that are most important to you. Think about what you believe and stand for, and your convictions about what is most important in life. While many organizations have statements of their values, many people don’t take the time to discover their own values. There is great power in making your values explicit and sharing them with others—and in demonstrating them through your choices and behaviors. Values matter because they guide your behavior in congruence with your authentic self and deepest convictions. Many people run into trouble when they behave in ways that conflict with their values.
 
Great leaders know their own values and collaboratively elicit a set of shared values to guide the behavior and decisions of people in the organization. They key is not having values. The key is upholding them and infusing them in the organization so they are actualized.
 
“You cannot deliver value unless you anchor the company’s values. Values make an unsinkable ship.” Indra Nooyi, former Chair and CEO, PepsiCo
 
4. What are you doing to develop yourself and others? Learning to lead well is a lifelong endeavor, and the best leaders are incredibly intentional about developing their own leadership through experience, stretch assignments, challenges, crises, active solicitation of feedback, coaching, mentoring, training, courses, reading, peer groups, self-reflection, and more.
 
The best leaders also focus on developing others. According to Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner in The Leadership Challenge, “Leaders develop in others the competence, as well as the confidence, to act and to excel.” They go on to say, “The most lasting test of your leadership effectiveness is the extent to which you bring forth and develop the leadership abilities in others, not just in yourself.”
 
Unfortunately, most organizations do not invest nearly enough in effective training and development (or on vetting people during hiring). According to a Hewitt Associates study of 700 senior leaders, most organizations hold their executives and managers accountable for achieving business results, but only 10% hold executives accountable for developing their direct reports, and only 5% indicate that their managers consistently demonstrate the ability to develop employees. In their book, The Talent MastersRam Charan and Bill Conaty write, “If businesses managed their money as carelessly as they manage their people, most would be bankrupt. The great majority of companies that control their finances don’t have any comparable processes for developing leaders or even pinpointing which ones to develop.”
 
Organizations that are great at learning and development improve systematically over time in ways that allow them to excel and outperform others, leveraging the power of compounding and the engagement and motivation that come from learning, development, and growth.
 
So, four key questions for leaders:
1. Why are you leading?
2. Who are you serving?
3. Are you upholding your values?
4. What are you doing to develop yourself and others?
 
How do you answer these questions, and which questions need better answers?

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author who trains, teaches, and speaks on leadership and personal development. He runs Gregg Vanourek LLC, a training venture focused on helping you lead yourself, lead others, and lead change. Gregg is co-author of three books, including Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards) and LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion). To get Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living and free book chapters from Gregg’s books, check out his Free Guide.

Leading from Below

In our work with leaders across sectors and industries, we often get asked about how people can “lead from below”: how they can exert influence on the organization and its culture even when they do not have much (or any) formal authority, or when they work in middle management, or when they work for a bad or mediocre manager, or for a company with a toxic culture.

The short answer: you can do much more than you think.

Ronald Heifetz from Harvard has noted that, since we tend to conflate leadership and authority, even the idea of leading without authority can be perplexing. Authority is the right to make decisions, give orders, and enforce obedience. There are many leaders who operate that way, but leadership is fundamentally different.

Much of the important leadership we’ve seen in organizations comes not just from people with authority but also from people throughout the organization, regardless of their title. We have seen brilliant leadership in action from people with little authority, from new people, from interns. One of the advanced leadership practices we advocate in Triple Crown Leadership, based on our interviews with 61 organizations in 11 countries, is unleashing the latent leadership, creativity, and agency of people throughout the organization—viewing them as “stewards” of the organization’s shared purpose, values, and vision and its quest to be excellent, ethical, and enduring. That means developing and expecting leadership not just from above but also from below. That means that everyone has essentially two job descriptions: first, their normal duties, and second, defending the organization’s results imperative, ethics imperative, and sustainability imperative.

In addressing how to lead from below, we first note that there are real dangers associated with it. When handled poorly, it can cause real problems. You can become a lightning rod. You can be attacked. You can be the messenger who gets shot. You can become the scapegoat. You can lose your job. Some managers view leading from below by those they supervise as a challenge or insult. If they are insecure or arrogant, they may attack or punish you. Other times, your colleagues will view it as an attack on the group, and they may feel obligated to isolate you out of loyalty to the group. When leading without authority, you should expect some resistance, and you need to play it smart.

Note also that there are great rewards possible from leading from below, both for you and the organization. Here are some tips based on our own experiences and what we have seen in the leadership literature.

1. Embrace your own potential and abilities. Too often, followers give too much deference to their leaders and relinquish their own power and responsibility. With a more enlightened viewpoint, you may find that you have more potential and influence than you think arising from your knowledge, skills, relationships, work ethic, and access to information or people.

2. Reframe your mindset about your role (and your manager). Too often, followers give too much deference to their leaders or are too quick to throw up their hands and abdicate responsibility for what is happening in the organization, pointing fingers of blame at their colleagues who happen to be in positions of authority. The best followers do all they can to help the organization achieve its purpose, vision, and goals while operating within the bounds of values and ethics. This means shaking things up, taking risks, and helping leaders get better (e.g., by informing them of problems they may not be aware of, raising tough issues, asking provocative questions, letting their manager know what they need to succeed, and developing relationships of trust with all they work with). We should also check our beliefs about our leaders: do we hold them to unrealistic expectations of perfection or judge them too harshly even when we may not be aware of all the challenges they face, with the pressures and demands of leadership? Have we walked a mile in their shoes?

3. Have a bias for action. Too many people wait to be anointed before acting, or for conditions to be “just right” (which almost never happens). In Leadership without Easy Answers, Ron Heifetz writes, “many people wait until they gain authority, formal or informal, to begin leading. They see authority as a prerequisite. Yet those who do lead usually feel that they are taking action beyond whatever authority they have.”

4. Look for ways to increase your leverage by building informal authority. People generally respond positively to leadership regardless of whether it comes from positions of authority or not. Build up your bank account of informal authority by first and foremost establishing credibility through character and competence, as well as demonstrating trustworthiness, respect, courage, clarity, commitment, and effective communication and listening (even to people with whom you disagree).

5. Clearly establish your loyalty to the organization’s purpose, values, and vision so people know this is not a power play or selfish ambition. It must be clear beyond a shadow of a doubt that you have your colleagues’ and the organization’s best interests at heart. Be thoughtful about how you communicate to your colleagues, taking nothing for granted.

6. Identify allies, relevant stakeholders, and potential adversaries. Map out all the people, teams, and divisions involved, and see things from their perspective. Recruit as many allies as you can, especially those with deep credibility, influence, and insight into the organization—thinking also about who is trustworthy. Be open to new ideas, recognizing that you may be missing something that you cannot see clearly from your perch, and that other people come at it from a different perspective.

7. Determine your best approach, specifically whether you will try to get results by changing the mind or behavior of your manager or management team, or whether you will instead mobilize colleagues around you as change agents (or some combination). Too often, followers assume that they have to do the former, but in many cases the latter approach can be more effective over time.

8. Recognize that by lacking authority you have some advantages. The cons of lacking authority are clear and obvious, such as lacking power over people and resources. The pros are less obvious but often important, including more latitude to do things differently, freedom from political limitations, less need to account for an overwhelming array of stakeholders often with conflicting interests, more access to information on the front lines, and an ability to advocate for focused issues as opposed to the full array of considerations.

9. Speak up and raise concerns when needed. This is one of the most important aspects of leading from below, in part because it is so rare. According to the Corporate Executive Board (now part of Gartner), “Nearly half of all executive teams fail to receive negative news that is material to firm performance in a timely manner because employees are afraid of being tainted by the bad news, and “only 19% of executive teams are always promptly informed of bad news that is material to firm performance.” Leadership expert Warren Bennis wrote, “If I had to reduce the responsibilities of a good follower to a single rule, it would be to speak truth to power.”

How to speak up when needed? First, get all the facts and avoid jumping to conclusions. Our brains make extensive use of mental shortcuts and these can often lead to mistaken assumptions or biases. If the issue is in fact real, address it directly with the person in question, but ask and learn first (seeking to understand). No guns blazing with accusations. Be open to their input and try to see things from their perspective. If not satisfied or resolved after dealing directly with the person involved, then go up the chain of command to object or blow the whistle. Meanwhile, consider seeking allies (and legal or human resources help, if needed).

10. Be prepared to walk away, if need be. Before assuming too much risk, think through your professional options (i.e., where would you work if you left this organization) and your personal and family finances. Have you been living lean and diligently building up savings and investments so that you are not living paycheck to paycheck and beholden to an organization that may no longer fit with your values or goals?

The best way to develop one’s own leadership skills is to practice leadership, even if one lacks the formal authority to lead. Leading from below is never easy and not without risk, but it is a powerful way to learn while also providing a great service to your colleagues and organization.

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Post-Script: Research on Leading from Below and Followership
There are many research findings that relate to the question of “leading from below,” and many of them arise from the study of “followership.” For example, Kelley (1992) created a widely known typology of followership:

  • Passive followers: look to the leader for direction and motivation
  • Conformist followers: are always on the leader’s side but still looking to the leader for direction and guidance
  • Alienated followers: think for themselves and exhibit a lot of negative energy
  • Pragmatics: fence-sitters who support the status quote but do not get on board until others do
  • Exemplary followers: are active and positive and offer independent constructive criticism

Kelley notes that effective followers are good at: leading themselves and thinking for themselves, exercising control and independence, and working without supervision; showing strong commitment to organizational goals as well as their personal goals; building their competence and mastering job skills; being credible, ethical, and courageous.

Chaleff (2009) encouraged followers to take a proactive role and work with leaders to achieve common outcomes. He noted that followers need the courage to: assume responsibility for the common purpose, support the leader and the organization, constructively challenge the leader if the common purpose or integrity of the group is being threatened, champion the need for change when necessary, and take a moral stand that is different from the leader’s to prevent ethical abuses. His follower typology:

  • Resource (low support, low challenge): does just enough to get by
  • Implementer (high support, low challenge): supports and gets the work done but fails to challenge the leader’s goals and values
  • Individualist (low support, high challenge): speaks up and lets the leader know where he/she stands (often marginalized by others)
  • Partner (high support, high challenge): takes individual responsibility and supports the leader but always willing to challenge the leader when necessary

In another typology from Kellerman (2008), followers can be: isolates (completely unengaged), bystanders (observers who do not participate), participants (partially engaged and willing to take a stand on some issues), activists (determined to act on their own belief, often as change agents), or diehards (engaged to the extreme, totally dedicated to their cause, whether supporting or opposing the leader).

Too often, the research lionizes the leader (what Meindl called a “romance of leadership”), while neglecting the contributions of followers. Recent research highlights the positive aspects of being a follower, including:

  • Getting the job done
  • Working in the best interest of the mission
  • Learning from leaders
  • Supporting leaders
  • Challenging leaders

In The Allure of Toxic LeadersJean Lipman-Blumen addresses the question of why people follow bad or toxic leaders (who are unethical or use people or their position for their own ends). She points to a number of human needs, desires, feelings, and fears, including: need for reassuring authority figures (especially in times of crisis), need for security and certainty, need to feel chosen or special, need to be part of a community, fear of isolation, and feelings of powerlessness to challenge bad leaders.

In Leadership: Theory and PracticePeter Northouse writes about the cost of followers who fail to stand up to toxic leaders: “when followers are passive or submissive, their inaction can contribute to unfettered leadership and unintentionally support toxic leaders…. Followers can create contexts that are unhealthy and make it possible for leaders who are not interested in the common good to thrive.”

In The Leadership Experience (2005), Richard Daft notes several demands of effective followers, including:

  • The will to assume responsibility for personal behavior and its impact on the organization
  • The will to serve the needs of the organization and the people in it
  • The will to challenge when necessary, including taking courageous stands for principles
  • The will to participate in transformation, including confronting challenges and work toward reshaping the organization
  • The will to leave when the manager or organization are toxic or unethical or when it is time to move on to another phase of life

In Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, Albert Hirschman noted that employees have several options when they are dissatisfied with their manager or organization:

  1. Neglect: allow conditions to worsen
  2. Loyalty: passively wait for conditions to improve
  3. Voice: active and constructive attempts to improve conditions
  4. Exit: leave the organization

Related Books and Articles:

  • Ira Chaleff, The Courageous Follower: Standing Up to and for Our Leaders, third edition (Berrett-Koehler, 2009).
  • Richard Daft, The Leadership Experience (Thomson Southwestern, 2005).
  • Amy E. Gallo, “How to Speak Up about Ethical Issues at Work,” Harvard Business Blogs, June 2015.
  • Ronald Heifetz, Leadership without Easy Answers (Harvard University Press, 1994)
  • Albert Hirschman, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States (Harvard University Press, 1970).
  • Barbara Kellerman, “What Every Leader Needs to Know about Followers,” Harvard Business Review, December 2007.
  • Robert Kelley, The Power of Followership (Consultants to Executives and Organizations, 1992).
  • Jean Lipman-Blumen, The Allure of Toxic Leaders (Oxford University Press, 2006).
  • Peter Northouse, Leadership: Theory and Practice, eighth edition (SAGE Publications, 2019).
  • Ronald Riggio, Ira Chaleff, and Jean Lipman-Blumen, The Art of Followership (Jossey-Bass, 2008).

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author who trains, teaches, and speaks on leadership and personal development. He runs Gregg Vanourek LLC, a training venture focused on helping you lead yourself, lead others, and lead change. Gregg is co-author of three books, including Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards) and LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion). To get Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living and free book chapters from Gregg’s books, check out his Free Guide.

Five Words that Changed Me as a Parent

There I was, a new father, my wife and I blessed with a beautiful young daughter, before our second daughter came along.

I had been awed at her birth, feeling the world move. Growing up, I had always hoped to have a family and be a father. I knew it would be a tremendous responsibility to be in charge of someone’s care.

I knew it conceptually and thought I understood it but really had no idea whatsoever—no clue—until I became a father and experienced how magical, and sometimes how trying, it could be.

I recall one day home alone with her, around age two, and we were both out of sorts. I was trying to get things done and felt so much pressure about all she needed and all I needed to get done. I was trying to juggle, but she was not having it. I was overwhelmed. I felt an unbearable pressure. How is it possible to do all this? How do others do it? What’s wrong with me?

I was at my wit’s end, and it just kept getting worse. She resisted everything with her signature strength. I reached a breaking point. Out of ideas, I sensed that my only option was to give myself over to her. Completely. There would be nothing else: I am here for you, only you, all for you, totally you.

Not long after that, she saw that something in me had shifted, and so she stopped resisting. Just like that. A total reversal. Everything was okay, and perhaps would be, as long as we remembered that silent, secret pact.

Some time later, I was talking to a friend about being a father and raising children and he, further along the parenting journey with older children, shared something that stopped me in my tracks:

They are only young once.

With five words, he engraved something on my heart. I suppose it hit me because it was something deep down that I worried about, as someone deeply committed to being a good and present father and also deeply committed to working hard and going good work in the world and, like so many of us, sometimes feeling caught in between.
Those five words often come back to visit me. I have shared them with many friends who are parents.

“Once” is of course a slippery concept. “Once” is the mystical sequence of days that, for us, God willing, can last a couple decades in raising our daughters as they discover way in the world. And “once” is also the blink of an eye. An eternity, and a millisecond, just the same.

“Young” is also a slippery notion. There is the miracle of youth and all its hope, promise, energy, enthusiasms, heartbreaks, insecurities, and triumphs. And also a state of mind, and of being, that can last long after those early years.

In the end, I know he is right: they are only young once. We will only have what we have now for a time. We will, I trust and pray, stay deeply connected in the years beyond, but it will be different, as it must be. Looking back, I want to stand behind these times we had together, as a family, together, connected and committed to a bond like none other in all the world.

So I try to live up to that charge. Some days are better than others, some a complete disaster. But the words keep calling to me and reminding me of this amazing gift before me. Today, like all days, is a good day to treasure it. They are only young once.

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author who trains, teaches, and speaks on leadership and personal development. He runs Gregg Vanourek LLC, a training venture focused on helping you lead yourself, lead others, and lead change. Gregg is co-author of three books, including Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards) and LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion). To get Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living and free book chapters from Gregg’s books, check out his Free Guide.

The Perils of ‘Climbing Mode’ in Our Career

In our culture today, it is easy to assume that the proper frame for going about our working life is to pursue “climbing mode” as early and aggressively as possible. When I say “climbing mode,” I mean striving to move up the ladder of success, focusing on achievement and advancement. For many, this notion is so ensconced in our culture that it is invisible, unconscious, and wholly taken for granted.

But is it right? Is it helpful or harmful when it comes to living a good life and crafting good work? The assumption of course is that it is right and helpful, that by focusing on “climbing mode” one will build a financial foundation that will lead to success, freedom, and happiness.

No doubt there can be great value in climbing mode. When we focus on climbing this “ladder,” there are many benefits that can accrue: making more money (which can reduce financial stress, then lead to financial independence and freedom, and perhaps even wealth creation, which can lead to enjoyment, generosity, and more); obtaining status; obtaining new opportunities; learning many things along the way as we encounter obstacles and solve problems; growing and developing as professionals, and perhaps as people; feeling a sense of satisfaction for overcoming challenges and achieving goals; and much more.

Yes, I am a fan of climbing mode in part for all the benefits it can bring but also for the remarkable “flow” states one can achieve while applying oneself toward a difficult task.

But for all the benefits of “climbing mode,” there are also down-sides, and the problem is that they can be not only severe but also overlooked, a double danger that can compound over time. I see a few major drawbacks.

First, burnout. This has been called an epidemic in modern times among working professionals in many cultures. Many of us have experienced it, and in my work with emerging leaders and entrepreneurs and young changemakers, I see it over and over again even among young people.

Second, excess self-reliance. If we are busy climbing our ladder, it is safe to assume that most of our peers are also buy climbing their own ladders. Fair enough, but this can pull us away from the meaningful connections that are an essential part of a good life (and enjoyable work).

Third, self-aggrandizement. The whole point of climbing mode, for many, is simple: to get to the top. So that I can be on top. So that I can get what I want. So that I can have wealth, or status, or things. It’s all about me and what I can get. In other words, it can become an ego trip of epic proportions. And, oddly enough, this focus on me and what I want to get so that I can be happy, can make me, well, miserable. There are many reasons for that, including our need for meaningful relationships, the psychological phenomenon of “hedonic adaptation” (our tendency to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes.), and our longing for purpose and contribution in life.

We have a family friend who spent decades of her life in “climbing mode” (to great effect, by the way, with a nice family, a nice home in the mountains, and a stellar career with an impressive resume), only to feel, after all that time, “I lost a lot of time and wasted a lot of energy by running after achievements to validate myself. It was all about how many things I could have on my resume… trying to live up to others’ expectations of me. It was like living on junk food.”

And then the kicker: “It took me sixty years to trust myself.”

Yes, one of the costs of climbing mode is that we can lose ourselves in the process, no longer trusting our inner voice about who we are and what we long for, and instead adopting someone else’s view of the good life.

“Some time when the river is ice ask me mistakes I have made…. Ask me whether what I have done is my life.”
-William Stafford

One of the problems here is that the pressures we feel when we are young can steer us in a direction that does not serve us well when we get older—and that it feels harder and harder to make changes in the meantime due to the systems that we work in and the “switching costs” that keep us in place.

The solution, though, is not to abandon climbing mode altogether. Again, great value can be found there.

The solution, I think, is to embrace something else: “discover mode,” which is learning about who we are and what we can do (e.g., values, strengths, passions, aspirations). It turns out the sages of old were right: one of the most important things we can do is to know ourselves. This ancient wisdom from East and West is something that feels like it is becoming lost in the modern world.

But let’s be clear: discover mode is not a replacement for climbing mode.

No, instead I think it is something that should come first. We should begin by doing the inner work of discovery, giving us direction for our climb.

And then we can throw ourselves into climbing mode.

But it does not end there. Seasons of life will come and go, and we will change, as will the people around us and our circumstances. So we will need to go back into discover mode again, and then climbing mode again. And so on. It becomes an iterative process of action and reflection, of “warrior and sage.”

Yes, there is a time and a place for climbing mode, but which ladder will you climb, and how will you decide? If you begin instead with discover mode, and then remember to flex between these modes, I think it will serve you well.

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author who trains, teaches, and speaks on leadership and personal development. He runs Gregg Vanourek LLC, a training venture focused on helping you lead yourself, lead others, and lead change. Gregg is co-author of three books, including Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards) and LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion). To get Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living and free book chapters from Gregg’s books, check out his Free Guide.

Ten Keys to Self-Leadership

We face a barrage of challenges these days: rapid change, a barrage of demands on our attention, tension between work and home, and more.

There is one meta-skill that shapes how we respond to all these challenges: self-leadership. Without it, we cannot sustain ourselves for long.

Leading self may be obvious, but it is far from easy. We neglect it at our peril.

The task of leading self is the task of a lifetime. Here are ten keys to self-leadership:

1. Healthy Habits. When we are leading self well, we develop an energizing rhythm of self-care. It includes the “fundamentals” that many of us take for granted: good nutrition, vigorous exercise, consistently good sleep, breaks during the day, and regular check-ins to take stock of the big picture. Too often we protest that we don’t have time for such things. That is shortsighted. It is when times are tough that we need these habits the most. Without them, we unravel.

2. Inner Life. Today, we are so consumed with daily obligations and distractions that we can lose ourselves in them. Our inner voice is drowned out by noise and shuffle. John W. Garden once wrote, “By midlife, most of us are accomplished fugitives from ourselves.” We numb ourselves with compulsive smartphone use and binge-watching. In the process, we are rewiring our brains and sabotaging our ability to engage in deep reflection and work. Knowing ourselves means discovering our:

  • Purpose: our reason for being (or what infuses our life with meaning and significance)—including a sense of why we do what we do, and why we want to lead
  • Values: what we value most in life (and the behaviors that manifest those things)
  • Strengths: what we are good at
  • Passions: what we get lost in, or what fills us with energy

Often, it takes time to discover these foundational elements. They become clearer over time if we “listen to our life,” as Parker Palmer encourages. We must build these essentials into our life and work. It helps to share them with loved ones about for input, support, connection, and follow-through.

“All you have to do is to pay attention; lessons always arrive when you are ready, and if you can read the signs, you will learn everything you need to know in order to take the next step.” -Paulo Coelho

3. Authentic Integrity. When we act with integrity, we are not only honest, truthful, and trustworthy; we are also whole. In today’s world, it is easy to live what Parker Palmer calls a “divided life,” with a chasm between how we live and who we really are.

“One man cannot do right in one department of life whilst he is occupied in doing wrong in another department. Life is one indivisible whole.” -Mahatma Gandhi

Instead of dividing ourselves, we must integrate all aspects of our self into one coherent whole. In doing so, we must be who we really are, not a projection of something crafted to please or impress others.  In our book, LIFE Entrepreneurs, Christopher Gergen and I called this “authentic integrity”: integration of all aspects of our lives in a way that coheres with our true nature. When we live this way, we develop what Palmer calls a “hidden wholeness.” “Wholeness does not mean perfection; it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life.” -Parker Palmer

4. Brutal Honesty. Our brains are wondrous creations, with incredible capacity for sensing, thinking, remembering, learning, calculating, pattern-spotting, imagining, creating, associating, dreaming, and regenerating cells, all while subconsciously regulating our internal bodily functions and sleep. But our brains are prone to subconscious shortcuts and biases and we are exceptionally good at rationalizing our behavior, whether good or bad. In short, we are masterful at deceiving ourselves and explaining hard truths away.

Are we needy for recognition or approval? Desperate to impress? Losing ourselves in work? Hiding our brokenness? None of us is perfect, but without brutal honesty, we will not be able to break out of unproductive patterns that cause pain for us and others.

“If you want to be successful, you must respect one rule: never lie to yourself.” -Paulo Coelho

5. Inspiration. There is much to be concerned about in the world today. Just look at the headlines. Sometimes we should switch off the frenzied feeds of doom and gloom and turn our gaze elsewhere: What fills us with life? What makes us crackle with energy? What lifts us up? Inspiration can come from different sources: Love. Dreams. Connection. Adventure. Opportunity. Wonder. The coming of spring. The hope of healing. The sense of having helped.

What inspires you? Have you lost touch with it?

6. Courage. We tend to put courage on a pedestal. We think of people suddenly reinventing their lives or leaping into the line of fire. We think of fearlessness. In truth, courage does not come without fear. We show courage when we act even though we are afraid.

“Feel the fear and do it anyway.” -Susan Jeffers

Courage is a prerequisite for everything that is necessary and valuable in life. What use is a good idea not launched into the world? A conviction not defended? A precious relationship not fiercely guarded? A talent that stays backstage? A manuscript that never ships? It is not enough to have convictions: we must act on them, even when–especially when—they are hard. Courage is not always about acts of heroism. It is much more often the day-to-day hard work of showing up, getting started, putting ourselves out there, doing our best, and persisting. It requires mucking through the swamp of uncertainty.

7. Wholeheartedness. Too often, we live and lead just from our head. We think, reason, assess. Pros and cons. Cost/benefit. We avoid the mysterious territory of the heart. Brené Brown reminds us that we fall into the trap of trying to impress others, with fear and shame driving that fool’s errand.

The alternative, she says, is vulnerability, and embracing what she calls the “gifts of imperfection,” which can lead to connection, joy, and wholeheartedness.

“Connection is why we’re here…. Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen…. True belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world.” -Brené Brown

8. Significance. Jeff Sapadafora of the HalfTime Institute talks about achieving a level of success in his life with a family, prestige, and a big home in the mountains—and yet feeling surprisingly unsettled. Over time—with an increasing disconnect between his life and his values, driven by his focus on ego and accumulation—that feeling grew into what he calls “smoldering discontent.” In his book, HalfTime, Bob Buford wrote about the struggle that can occupy much of our lives for those fortunate enough not to be consumed with survival matters like disease, hunger, and poverty. If we are fortunate, perhaps we can transform that struggle into success. Too many people stop there, as if wealth and status were the point of life. Buford points instead to a longer journey: from struggle, to success, to significance. Significance ensures that our success matters, that we have a legacy beyond self-aggrandizement and accumulation. A legacy of service and impact.

9. Serenity. Many people today exist in a precarious state, from the cumulative effects of stress, poor sleep, and burnout. For starters, we need to build renewal into our days. Despite our willpower and ambitions, there are limits to our energy. Without exception, we need good habits of rest and renewal.

“In life itself, there is a time to seek inner peace, a time to rid oneself of tension and anxiety. The moment comes when the striving must let up, when wisdom says, ‘Be quiet.’ You’ll be surprised how the world keeps on revolving without your pushing it. And you’ll be surprised how much stronger you are the next time you decide to push.” -John W. Gardner

At a deeper level, we need “sanctuary” in our lives: places and practices of peace that restore our hearts. Places of quiet and tranquility. Together, renewal and sanctuary can lead to serenity. Beyond the striving, beyond the chase, beyond the willfulness, there is an acceptance, a yielding, a comfort with the present moment and a willingness to see things for what they are and ride with the flow of life. The serenity beyond the stress and struggle.

10. Soulfulness. Leading self ultimately takes us beyond the self. We must look to the “far horizon,” as Dag Hammarskjöld urged, not just at the place where we are walking. We must tame our egos and find a deep and abiding humility about the vastness of our universe and a shuddering gratitude for our place in it. This is the place of soulfulness.

“You don’t have a soul, Doctor. You are a soul.” -Walter M. Miller Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz

This is the place where we pause and get quiet, and instead of pushing and fighting, we sit and listen. Sometimes, with grace, we open up a space in our lives where we can begin to make out a call—quiet but steady—that had been sounding all along. Wrapped up in our own struggles and dramas, we were too preoccupied to notice, too consumed to hear.

If we stay with it, really listening, we can begin to fathom its depth.

In the vast well of soulfulness, we come to realize that our lives are not about us alone. Our lives are vessels of connection—a precious, sacred, and mysterious gift.

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author who trains, teaches, and speaks on leadership and personal development. He runs Gregg Vanourek LLC, a training venture focused on helping you lead yourself, lead others, and lead change. Gregg is co-author of three books, including Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards) and LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion). To get Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living and free book chapters from Gregg’s books, check out his Free Guide.