This is a story about a lost tribe in Papua New Guinea.
They were brought to the city of Singapore and shown skyscrapers, airports, factories, supermarkets, homes and life. When they were on their way back to their mountain village, they were asked: “What is the most incredible thing you have seen during your days in Singapore?”.
I’m on a Sunday hike with Florian and his son Alvaro. We’re on our way toward the restaurant for lunch, when we find the river is overflowing and the foot bridge is under fast flowing water… What do we do?
Are you waiting for permission? For the important things in life, there is nobody who can give you the permission that you need.
There comes a moment when you must commit even though you lack clarity.
“If you knew how to achieve it and could guarantee success: it is a task, not a dream” Alden Mills
My friends live their lives in one of two contrasting ways:
Guided by a Long term Vision for their Lives
Take Opportunities as they come
In the short term, the opportunists made great early progress. I have one friend who changed job every 1-2 years in the investment banking industry. Each job change achieved an increase of 30-50% in salary. Problem: he is now stuck and has no serious chances of moving up to the really senior ranks.
Another friend in investment banking has stuck it out in the same bank for 14 years. He didn’t take each opportunistic head-hunter call looking to get him to switch jobs. His salary languished behind our opportunistic friend. Today he is moving into the senior ranks of the bank and has enormous political support to take job choices that improve his work-life balance.
It was a hard choice when I was young. I worked for Accenture for 9 years. Every year I watched peers leave to join competitors for 30-50% increases in salary. I had offers and I thought about leaving. In the end, I valued flexibility over salary and used my network in Accenture to live in London, Chicago and Sydney.
Kissinger’s Major Criticism of US Foreign Policy: 100% Opportunist
Kissinger’s criticisms of the Kennedy and LBJ presidencies was that they were pragmatic opportunists, but there was no overall vision of what they stood for. The Soviet Union (at the time) stood for fairness, and the US argument was that its economic policies would make citizens wealthier.
It was a lost argument.
People were not inspired to fight in order to improve their economic situation. This was not a psychologically motivating appeal.
Kissinger identified freedom as the value that the US most espoused. He felt that the foreign policy decisions should be taken in the framework of whether the individual decisions improved individual freedom – not on a case by case basis.
Opportunism leads to a Dead End
Those who know why they are fighting will win over those who don’t.
The Vietnam war was militarily un-winnable, and Ho Chi Minh was always a step ahead of what the US were interested in negotiating. He understood that the US would always be short term and opportunistic. He was fighting for a cause, the US had got themselves into Vietnam bit by bit by bit and then found themselves stuck fighting for a cause that didn’t exist.
I’m no history or politics expert, but I would suggest that the US role in the world from the end of the Vietnam war up until 2000 was largely positive. The recent decade has seen the US fall back into an Opportunistic foreign policy – George Bush’s photo opportunity driven foreign policy was the start of a collapse in Visionary and values driven US foreign policy. Trump is here because the political consensus had gradually become what is politically easy, not what is right. The increasing polarization of the US political system makes it hard to establish a long term vision.
Only a life led towards a vision based on your own set of values can lead to work you love in the second half of your career. A life led entirely on the basis of opportunism will inevitably take you towards a dead end (or Trump).
How do you Establish a Framework for your Life?
Kissinger began by identifying the most important value that he believed represented the US culture: Freedom.
What is your single most important value?
Is your life showing this? Is the majority of your time going to your most important value? Are you spending your money on your most important value? Are you building friendships and mentors that support your most important value?
You need a coach or a mentor to help you work out your vision, framework and how to take the tough decisions to orient your life around this vision. I have never seen someone do it alone.
I ran out of battery on my iphone this afternoon while sitting in starbucks. I was waiting for 2 people. I had to stay. It was good that I ran out of battery, because I ended up looking at Tibidabo mountain for 30 minutes and thinking about life.
Where did this fear of living an ordinary life come from?
I read intensely as a child. I would read anything, but by far my favourite type of novel were the fantasy or science fiction novels where a young unknown hero saves the universe.
From age 7, I watched Star Wars repeatedly. I would watch 10 to 15 minutes each morning during breakfast before going to school. The books are terrible, this was a movie world not a book world.
Starting from age 11, I read fantasy books. My favourite fantasy world of all was Dune. I found Dune aged 12. There are 8 books (I still have them here on my bookshelf) in the series. We follow the life of Paul Muad’ib from his life as an unknown son of a small time aristocrat to his becoming the Divine Emperor of the entire known galaxy, including mystical powers of telling the future and reading other people’s minds. I fancied myself as a version of Paul. I tried the mental skills that he was taught in the book. Never did work.
Didn’t stop me imagining. As a teenager, I read the Dune books twice; from start to finish. Each time, it was a 6 month journey. (I have only ever read 3 books twice: Dune, Lord of the Rings and Steinbeck’s East of Eden.)
I remember the first time I finished the Dune books, I searched everywhere to see if there might be a ninth book. There was no google, no amazon – only my local library and local bookshops. When I realised that it was over, that there was no more adventure to be had in the fantasy world of Dune (and that Frank Herbert had passed away… the final book was finished by someone else) I was devastated.
Real life never felt as intense or as alive as the experiences that I was living in these book-based worlds of fantasy.
In the real world, I went to school (boring), did my homework (boring), climbed trees (fun), ate breakfast, lunch and dinner (alway enough and healthy).
I think it is this immersion in these fantasy worlds for much of my childhood that shaped my fear of living a life that is ordinary.
Is this a good thing or a bad thing?
The Fantasy Worlds I Lived In
The Author’s & series that I loved during the ages of 10-15 (in order of preference):
It describes the anxiety arising from the Fear Of Missing Out, made famous as FOMO. I have a hard time sitting at home doing nothing productive. I have a sense that I am wasting my time. Classic FOMO. (I won’t mention the clues of social media addictions… I had to delete facebook from my iphone… it was becoming too consuming).
Summer amplifies this anxiety as I have too much time to think. I don’t teach too many classes and spend a lot of time reading, reflecting and thinking.
As I reflect, I think my fear is less FOMO – fear of missing out, and more FOOL – Fear of an Ordinary Life.
I am a F.O.O.L.
…it does cause anxiety late at night, through the morning, before lunch, after lunch… etc.
Fear of an Ordinary Life
It strikes me as supremely arrogant to believe that I deserve a greater than “ordinary life”, but there is definitely a striving inside myself pushing me to live a meaningful life. I have the feeling that I was given great gifts in this life: where I was born, when I was born, the brain I had, the health I had, the options that a good education has opened for me.
As a meditative exercise I sometimes reflect upon how tiny I am in this universe. It is 11 billion years old, and more enormous than I can imagine. I am miniscule. In 100 years I will be forgotten. In 1 million years… why does any achievement or lack of achievement matter?
This meditation takes away the rational questioning about whether I should care about doing meaningful things or not, but it doesn’t take away the underlying unease with myself.
The Buddhists say that this is an itch I should not try to scratch. I should learn to observe the itch without being driven, moved, affected by it.
I am a poor observer of the itch. FOOL is running like a clogged back-end server process on my brain’s CPU.
Manual repetitive – Assembly line factory worker, farm labourer
Cognitive repetitive – Call center operative, Bank teller
Manual non-repetitive – Jewellery maker, Custom car builder
Cognitive non-repetitive – Project manager, Sales of large complex systems
Generally speaking, repetitive manual work requires the least self-management and is the lowest paying, and cognitive non-repetitive work requires the most self-management and is the highest paying.
Are you good at Self-Management?
“We must manage ourselves, and help others manage themselves” Peter Drucker
Peter Drucker wrote an article called Managing Oneself that is still the best summary of Self-Management. As a summary, you need to be answering these 6 questions:
What are my strengths? Feedback is the only way to find out. Do you have a systematic process for getting feedback on your behaviours?
How do I perform? How do I learn best? Don’t struggle with modes that don’t work for you. (on Mastery)
What are my values? “What kind of person do I want to see in the mirror in the morning?”
Where do I belong? Mathematicians, musicians and cooks are mathematicians, musicians and cooks by the time they are 4 or 5 years old. Successful careers are not planned, they happen when people are prepared and positioned for opportunities that suit them. Knowing where one belongs can transform an ordinary person into an outstanding performer.
What should I contribute? Given my strengths, methods and values: what is the great contribution to what needs to be done? Don’t look too far ahead – 18 months is the range of good planning. Define courses of action: what to do, where and how to start, what goals, objectives and deadlines to set.
Who can I work well with? Adapt to what makes those around you successful. Adapting to what makes your boss most effective is the secret of managing up. Take responsibility for communicating how you are performing; take responsibility for building trust
Student: “When I speak, people don’t listen. Why is that?”
Teacher: “It depends…”
It always depends…
There are many possible reasons that people don’t engage with you, don’t care about what you are going to say, don’t pay attention.
Rarely does anyone come to me and say “I need help. I am boring.”
However, this condition is not uncommon.
Some people find that they never have anything to say to others, they are left alone at parties, no one invites them out more than once; they are shy, bland, awkward or bland. Being boring is a serious social problem. In general, boring people are inhibited, lack spontaneity, never take risks; boring people say things that are always predictable. They say what they believe others want them to say.
Boring people are squashed souls. They have been made boring by their childhood environment. Underneath the surface boring persona, there is a creative, childlike, vital person. You can’t get there by shock tactics, you have to coax the inner child to push past the surface obstacles.
How can you develop executive presence?
14 Characteristics of Executive Presence
You make others feel important and helpful
You have an elegant way of approaching, engaging and getting to know others
You smile and maintain eye-contact
Your presence is felt once you walk into a room
You inspire people; you are likeable and trustworthy
People are curious to know more about you
People want to build a relationship with you
You are perceived as important, valued and respected
You ask relevant and thought-provoking questions that begin a dialogue
You are well read and share fresh perspectives
You always leave a message that people remember
You relate equally well with different types of people (regardless of hierarchy or rank)
You positively impact others and those around you immediately
You share and create opportunities for others
Interested vs Interesting
The key is to be interested in other people, their lives, their challenges, their dreams. If you are interested in others, curious about their stories: you will not be boring.
Presence is about your effect on others, not any quality of you.
On success, there is no one right answer: You cannot learn absolute rules from another person. You cannot take the life recipe of another person. You can learn from their stories, but only you will take what you take from a story.
Seek out Stories
Tribes, civilisations and families have found that life lessons are best communicated through stories. Stories have existed since words came to the homo sapiens. Joseph Campbell has identified common themes through the stories of every human society – clarifying the roles we play as human beings, the struggles we face in our lives and the search for underlying meaning to the bits and pieces that make up a life.
Stories connect to heart and to head, to reason and emotion. There is a truth to a good story that is deeper than the factual truth of the events. When a story resonates with you, it is not because of the objective truth of the story, it is because it connects with a subjective search for truth within you.
I tell many stories in my speeches. It always amazes me how different individual members of the audience take their own particular meanings from my speech. Sometimes one particular off-the-cuff comment has an oversized impact for one individual. Each person takes what they need from a good story.
Every person’s life experiences lead to answers in this moment for that person. We each live in two worlds, the outer world that we share with all others; and the inner world that exists inside us, and that will disappear from this world when we ourselves leave this world. Stories connect between my inner world and your inner world.
The mission of the IESE Business School, where I teach about 1,000 EMBA, MBA and Senior Management participants each year, is to “develop leaders who aspire to have a deep, lasting and positive impact on people, firms and society” and I have spent a lot of the last 13 years attempting to find a way to achieve this mission.
A leadership decision will always look wrong from somebody’s perspective. Leadership decisions are always difficult because they play off between values. We learn from Homer’s great hero Odysseus is that a leadership decision is always a decision between two bad outcomes. If one path led to a good outcome, then the decision is an excel spreadsheet decision… not a leadership decision. Leadership will always be hard because you can never be right from all perspectives.
What stops someone developing as a leader? What is the single greatest obstacle we face in developing Leaders?
We are born aware of how we view others, but unaware of how others view us.
Some learn quickly to see how others see them.
Some never learn.
Some face an insurmountable challenge (psychologists call this a “boundary experience”) and realise that it is they themselves that must change. It is they themselves that act in ways that make their goals unachievable. It is only a major failure in their life that forces them to reflect and see that they are responsible for the behaviours that are causing failure.
How do those institutions that develop leaders open human beings up to the nature of their self-delusion? How do I as a teacher help someone realise that they don’t know everything?
I was reading “Return on Character”, a book by Fred Kiel this week – it is a 10 year study into the financial impact of having a leader who behaves with 4 “leadership character qualities”. He worked with many CEOs. He surveyed the CEOs, and he surveyed the direct reports of CEOs.
Great CEOs think they behave well 80% of the time, and their direct reports say 80%.
Poor CEOs think they behave well 80% of the time, and their direct reports say 50%.
Every one of his CEOs think they show these 4 categories of behaviour over 80% of the time…
Integrity – clear sense of right & wrong; tells the truth; seeks the truth
Responsibility – self control; fixes own mistakes
Forgiveness – cooperation; conflict resolution
Compassion – empathy; builds attachments; shows and receives affection
And, by the way, the answer was yes, leadership character matters to direct reports. In a big way.
The Challenge of Self-Delusion
An individual is delusional about their qualities as a leader.
This is the teaching challenge – students do not believe that they have poor behaviours around integrity, responsibility, forgiveness and compassion.
How do you get people to realise that they are not as good as they think they are? (how to get them to actually listen to direct reports and to team mates feedback?) Now… that is our teaching challenge.
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