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What stops successful leaders from unleashing their full potential?

The success paradox, and how it can stop successful leaders from unleashing their greatness and delivering exceptional results

The CEOs and executives I work with are financially successful, run profitable companies and have professional mastery, i.e. expertise in one or more of functional areas such as finance, marketing, engineering, sales, sciences and operations. They experience the “success paradox” – the skills that made them successful are no longer sufficient. They know that they can be more purposeful and more profitable and are ready, eager, and excited to take the journey to greatness. 

What is the success paradox, and how does it stop successful leaders from unleashing their greatness and delivering exceptional results? 

Most leaders attribute their success to ego or self-centered drive, besides knowledge and intellect. They are passionate, authoritative, and accountable. They motivate people by focusing primarily on one aspect of human nature: self-interest (or self-centered drive). It is no wonder that their one-dimensional financial success comes with a steep price. High stress and poor engagement that has been stuck at 30% for the past 30 years is the norm. The relentless drive for unrealistic short-term financial growth, ironically hinders the sustainable high performance that is possible. Leadership feels like a burden and not an exciting, sacred opportunity. It is lonely and emotionally draining with no sense of meaning and purpose. How do we get out of this conundrum of financial success with high stress and a lack of meaning?  

You see, we are driven by both self-interest: when our ego is in-charge, and selfless service: when our ego is in service of a higher calling. When we focus on self-interest alone, we ignore critical emotional needs such as understanding, trust, and empathy –  and spiritual requirements such as meaning and becoming our best version. Ego has its place – it helps us from danger and from being taken advantage of. But ego also prevents us from pursuing our passion fearlessly and from collaborating unconditionally.  

To give expression to both aspects of human nature requires us to master our Ego. This is exactly what great leaders do. They demonstrate both self-centered drive and selfless humility, passion and compassion, pursuing professional excellence and personal fulfillment, profit and purpose. They are authoritative and empathetic; accountable and empowering as the situation demands. They inspire us to give our very best by appealing not only to the intellect, but also heart and spirit. This is how we achieve financial success with fun, emotional fulfillment, and spiritual purpose. It is an immense possibility and a game changer! 

When we operate in this state of selfless, self-actualized mastery, how we conduct business – meaning how we communicate, decide, evaluate and hold people accountable for results – changes dramatically. Let me illustrate this with an example that I regularly work on: A hard driving, successful CEO is struggling with two of her top executives who are in conflict. The Head of Sales thinks that his Operations counterpart is being overly conservative and hindering growth and the Operations Chief assumes that her Sales counterpart is willing to compromise the safety and soundness of the company. They are narrowly focused on protecting their own turf. 

Their conflict is negatively impacting the morale, cross-functional communication and productivity of their teams. To add to the problem, they are both behind on their business goals. The CEO is upset, frustrated, and says or implies that if the results don’t improve, I can’t guarantee anything. I have to hold you accountable. At times, he adds fuel to the fire with emotional outbursts and impulsive directions. They are all engaged in self-centered behavior and are not being very effective. Let me share with you the 3-step, collaborative process I have them implement that inspires, not demands accountability and delivers exceptional results.  

Step #1 – Master Ego, demonstrate empathy. The first step in the journey from Success to Greatness is personal transformation. Leo Tolstoy said, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” The CEO sets the tone for empathy by saying we are all in this together and asks if they are doing ok. She wants to make sure there are no personal reasons or challenges behind their self-centered behavior and poor performance. The Executives appreciate the gesture. They feel comfortable to constructively confront each other’s behavior while being curious about the intent. They express hurt instead of anger. This vulnerability allows them to connect at a deeper level. I remind them that when we are hurt or angry with someone, it tells us more about ourselves than the other person. We may have an ego that is easily bruised, or we maybe projecting our own behavior onto others.  

It takes a lot of practice to let go of this natural human tendency to blame each other. When we master our ego, self-esteem is high, and we are not easily perturbed by criticism. It is not the external crisis but our internal mindset that determines how we feel and respond. All three of them are grateful for the opportunity to push each other to be the best they can be.  Gratitude > Contentment > Peak Performance. Gratitude results in contentment that drives peak performance. This is the reverse order of how we normally live and conduct business. We strive for performance and results, expect to be happy and contented and hope that leads to gratitude. 

Step #2 – Implement Right Action and Process. The CEO creates a safe environment by seeking input and feedback with humility, to identify the root cause of the challenge. They suspend hierarchy and actively brainstorm as partners. All great leaders and exceptional performers focus on right action and process. Outstanding results will naturally follow! 5,000 years ago, Krishna told Arjuna the greatest warrior of his time in the Bhagavad Gita, “You have control over your actions alone and not on the results. Let not the fruits of action be your motive, nor should you be attached to inaction.” 

More recently, John Wooden asked his players to focus on right action – play hard, play fair and stick to fundamentals. Wins and losses, he said will take care of themselves and they did. He became the winningest coach in college basketball history. Great leaders calmly and confidently focus on right action, the team will respond and deliver exceptional results. The Executives point out that the CEO imposed overly aggressive goals without ensuring their buy-in. They take responsibility for not speaking up earlier. They acknowledged that their priority was to pursue their own goals even if it meant unintentionally hurting the other’s goal.

Step #3 – Instill Accountability with moral authority. All of them take accountability for their actions and set realistic, common goals. The executives will rise above their self-centered aggressive behavior and be more collaborative and assertive. The CEO will start with empathy and focus on process rather than take the easy way out by demanding accountability. They commit to being coached to make this a consistent practice. This is the inclusive approach of an enlightened, servant leader who sets an example and utilizes moral authority to inspire others to give their very best. A wise CEO knows that hierarchical authority will only result in conformance and that an organization cannot rise above the developmental level of its leaders. 

It is not enough to know the theory of human nature and human psychology. We must develop our emotional and spiritual muscles to courageously traverse the awkward, uncomfortable path when our intent to demonstrate empathy and drive performance doesn’t match action. We must accept criticism that is justified and well-intended and ignore close minded cynical attacks. We will be tempted to revert back to old habits of demanding and directing, especially when we are misunderstood. This journey from success to greatness is not for the faint of heart. As Michelangelo said, “If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all.” Most leaders compromise with stress and lack of fulfillment and settle for comfortable success rather than pursue greatness.

Great leaders master their ego, and demonstrate both passion and compassion, courage and humility driving purpose and profit. We don’t have to choose one or the other, these characteristics mutually reinforce each other in a virtuous cycle. Instead of engaging peoples’ ego and defensiveness, great leaders are able to as Mahatma Gandhi said, “be the change we wish to see.” They nurture an aligned and mutually accountable executive team that in turn inspires employees to be fully engaged and deliver exceptional results.

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