This KEY is about the crisis at the top and the danger of climbing up the wrong wall or sacrificing your life for the climb. But it is also a hopeful message because the beauty of life is that you can make a course correction. Reflect on the story of Don. Perhaps you know someone who is going through a similar crisis. Perhaps you can help. I have often found that helping someone else is the best way to help myself.
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At the Top and Empty
Don was a brilliant executive. He was analytical, disciplined and focused, and he rallied his team to achieve great results. Everyone on the executive committee knew that Don could be counted on. He always made the numbers and in most quarters would exceed the forecast. Don always delivered. He hired bright people, accelerated growth and helped the company’s sales double ahead of the roadmap. His people felt a little uncomfortable next to him but they respected his achievements and they knew that being on Don’s team meant you would win. But Don was a little restless. As much as he tried to hide it, there were often little nervous movements he would make as if the pressure inside was too hard to contain. Don knew the senior leadership team appreciated his results. But he was frustrated they did not see in him what he saw in himself – the future leader of the company.
For years Don had desired to be at the top. Landing the top job had become his fixation. He had tenacity and patience and was always focused on the next step. In Don’s mind, his fantastic and steady achievements were supposed to lead directly to the corner office. Everyone knew Don’s dream was to be the CEO. But he was told he was not ready. So he worked harder. And then he opened himself up to new offers which came from a number of directions. On four occasions he believed he had a shot at the CEO role but it kept evading him. Then finally, he landed the opportunity of a lifetime. He was now at the top. Don became the CEO.
Sixteen months into his CEO tenure Don was suffering sleepless nights. It was not the first time he had experienced sleepless nights, but this was different. In the past, a temporary conflict or a struggle with his boss would keep him up; but now he was the boss and he was not sure what or whom he was struggling with in the void. There were nights when he stared at the dark ceiling in a cold sweat, his brain unable to stop thinking. But these were disjointed, not focused thoughts and he could not turn off the internal noise. He would lie in bed waiting anxiously for the morning and then, when the morning came, it felt as though he had no rest and the wind was taken out of his sails. It was strange. There were no obvious reasons. Friends who knew Don thought this was the opportunity he had been waiting for; that he would do what he had always done. He would hire great people, grow the company and in time he would finally lead the IPO. Everyone expected Don’s achievement of becoming the CEO would bring him tremendous energy and satisfaction. Indeed, Don was excited at many moments in his job, but he also began to suffer some periods of mild, non-specific depression. His lifetime of focus and discipline concealed to others what was going on inside his nighttime struggle. He was at the top and he felt empty.
Before, when he was working toward the CEO role, there was something to look forward to. Now that he was at the top of the mountain, he was not sure what to look for next. There were business goals and important milestones ahead and he was going through the motions and executing his title, but it did not energize him as it used to. The satisfaction of getting the quarterly results and achieving the next milestone was fleeting and left him feeling empty inside.
Don had caught himself up. He was at the top but this was not the exhilarating triumph that he had expected to feel. It was the opposite of what he imagined it would be and he was shocked to find himself in this state. “I felt out of place playing with my girls this weekend,” he said to me. “Everything around me looks perfect, my life must look perfect for anyone looking in from the outside, but I feel a void inside. This is not how it was meant to be. What’s wrong here? I am supposed to be celebrating all that I have but I don’t feel it. I am at the top and I feel empty.”
The story of Don may be your story or the story of someone you know. I ask you now to look inside. Are you sacrificing your life for your goals? There are a number of signs that can tell you when you are climbing up the wrong ladder or when you are sacrificing your life for the climb. They include: feeling empty, losing a sense of meaning and purpose and losing authentic relationships and intimacy. Then there are worse signs still.
Full Life Leadership
In the nine months that followed, Don was gradually able to reconstitute his inner sense of purpose. It was not a 180-degree change. In fact, it was a fraction of a degree shift that made the difference for him. Through our coaching conversations Don identified small changes he was ready to make. The results were quickly followed. He regained his enthusiasm and his excitement, and his laughter and energizing charisma came back online. But there was something new about him. His presence was imbued with something else. There was a relaxed confidence in his presence and a sense of anchor and strength. Don had shared with me how much joy he was now finding in the small moments of life with his wife and girls and how rich his daily interactions had become. He was living in the here and now, leading his company through rapid growth and loving every minute of it. “There is something else I have to tell you,” Don said. “I’ve always attracted talent, but it’s as though another door has opened. I find that I immensely enjoy and appreciate the quirky brilliance and creativity of the people around me, and they in turn shine like never before. It’s horrifying to think I was blind to all this, an empty life versus a full life. What a difference this makes. Thank you.”
How about you? What fills your life? Are you living the life of joy and meaning you are meant to? Are you fully present in all that you do and in your personal and professional relationships? Now it’s your turn. Turn the Key. Become the full person and leader you can be.
Eight out of ten people give away their most precious assets and sacrifice their lives. If you choose to be among the two out of ten who live purposefully, 2010 will be a most extraordinary year. I invite you to join me in an unprecedented opportunity that will enable you to be the most energetic and confident person you can be and enjoy the wonders and blessings of living your purpose…
© Aviv Shahar