Steel Your Purpose

By John BaldoniSpring 2012 | Print

Out of the night that covers me,

Black as the pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul.

The man who penned those lines (in his poem “Invictus,” in 1875) had every right to be feeling melancholic: his tubercular foot had been amputated. But William Ernest Henley did not succumb to his dark thoughts; he kept his mind sharp and in fact survived for another 26 years.

Anyone who is facing tough times might find Henley’s words comforting. One man in particular found them to be of great solace. Nelson Mandela memorized the poem during his 27-year imprisonment on Robben Island off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa. The sentiment expressed in this poem may strike some as old-fashioned, even corny; after all, Henley was a product of Victorian England, a society that embraced the concept of a stiff upper lip in the face of adversity. As much as we might deride the Victorian spirit today, there is great merit to remaining stout when times are tough. More important, this poem, like all words of inspiration, challenges us to look within ourselves for strength.

The operative theme in Henley’s poem is life’s journey. How we progress through it is our own responsibility, and so it might be worthwhile to consider ways we can exert authority over our own destiny.

Sound purpose begins with sound thinking, with taking time to think before we do. The dichotomy between thinking and doing also lies at the heart of how leaders are perceived. Leaders are measured in terms of results, that is, what they and their teams accomplish. This is well and good, but too often the pressure for results pushes decisionmakers to do something—and to do it fast, before they take time to consider the consequences. Leaders need to take a step back and make thinking a priority.

Thinking in advance is something no one is against, of course, but too often the press of business challenges us to act first and think later. One can think of too many products that were rushed to market before they were ready so as to meet deadlines, only to bomb because they were riddled with flaws. Some of those flaws might have been worked out if more up-front time had been spent on thinking through problems rather than patching over them to meet a scheduled deadline.

Purposeful Thinking

Taking time to think is a discipline that every manager needs to implement and practice regularly. For me, thinking involves a combination of assessment, diagnosis, reflection, and prioritization.

Assess the situation. Managers need to know what’s happening as well as what is not. Consider a project and its process. Is it on time and on budget? Why or why not? Consider what you and your team need to do next. You need to know where you stand now before you can act.

Diagnose the issue. Identify the situation, and if there is a problem, decide what to do. It is fine to deliberate, but be deliberate in your process; that is, take care, but make it known that you need to make a decision within a given time frame. Hold yourself and your team to the process.

Reflect on consequence. Consider what the diagnosis means. For example, a major problem may involve going back to square one. More often, you can make an adjustment and correct the problem, then consider the “what’s next?” Reflection also involves taking perspective on where you stand.

Prioritize thinking. All managers, at least those I know, seem to have more on their plates than time to digest it. If you add thinking to the load, there may be even less time. So what smart managers do is delegate more tasks and responsibilities so that they have more time to spend on the thinking process. You can also include your staffers in the thinking process. Invite them to assess, diagnose, and reflect right along with you. Also, make it clear you’d like them to challenge your thought processes. This will make for more robust discussion and, occasionally, better ideas to work with.

Taking a Step Back

Thinking through what you will do extends to the action phase.

Senior leaders seldom have modest goals, but they do have modest amounts of time to spend on any single activity. Entrepreneurs learn this early on as their businesses grow. During the start-up phase, an entrepreneur is both strategist and tactician, is acting on a vision by marshaling resources to achieve the goal as well as focusing on execution and implementation. If the business succeeds, the entrepreneur must learn to delegate, keeping only those tasks that are suitable for the person in charge. For example, an entrepreneur who excels in sales can run the sales force but delegate marketing and all support functions to someone else. At the same time, the person in charge must keep focused on big-picture decisions that decide the fate of the organization.

Doing less to achieve more has a nice ring to it, but it can be a tough proposition to implement. It’s a topic that is common in my work as an executive coach. Letting go of work that you like to do is hard, but there is another reason. Managers are promoted into their jobs on the basis of their accomplishments, that is, being good accountants, marketers, analysts, or negotiators. Operating more as functional chiefs, as heads of those respective departments, they can no longer do the day-today activities. Those tasks are delegated to others, and some managers feel a bit bereft—as if their favorite toys have been taken from them. Other managers may feel a degree of insecurity because they are no longer doing what they do best. Yet every manager who assumes greater levels of responsibility will have to find ways to cope. Here’s how:

Think big. Assuming a senior role within your organization is an affirmation that others believe you have what it takes to do more for the organization. Holding on to tasks you like to do, like some type of comfort food, shows that you are not ready for prime time—or that you do not have the right people in place. Therefore, you must show that you know how to think and act strategically by dropping the small stuff and delegating those tasks to people who should be doing them. And if they do not have the right skill set, train them or find replacements. Thinking big means shepherding the organization, not simply your own team.

Redirect your skills. Moving up the ladder does not mean you can never practice your skill or your craft again. For example, a purchasing agent who is a skilled negotiator may be called upon to broker a deal if the stakes are high. More likely, the head of purchasing will be applying those negotiating skills with peers in other functions to achieve an initiative that benefits the entire company by improving quality, reducing costs, or increasing value for customers.

Stay nimble. Opportunities will open up, especially during a crisis, where the leader may have to jump into the fray. For example, if there is a product recall, the head of marketing might want to be working with the creative team to come up with some advertising that reassures customers as well as demonstrates responsibility. Or if there is fire in a facility, the senior team supports the organization well when it makes a visit to the facility. The team might help with immediate logistics and planning as well as spending time with affected employees. Limiting yourself to specific tasks might sound tempting, but for successful leaders accustomed to doing whatever the organization needs them to do this can be very hard. The challenge for them is to understand that the organization needs them to be strategic with their time so they can focus on setting direction and bringing others in the organization along with them. There’s plenty to do within that equation, and that is why letting go of what got you ahead is so vital to achieving at the next level.

Maintaining Your Equanimity

As much as leaders need to think and plan, sometimes they need to take a deep breath and let the situation play out before they become personally involved. Essential to equanimity is patience, which (as your mother probably reminded you many times) is a virtue, and it’s one that many people in power find difficult to master. The purpose of authority is to act, and so the concept of sitting back and watching is hard, very hard, to grasp. Consider that it is like watching your child play a sport. You don’t experience the high of competition, but you experience the defeats much harder simply because you cannot do anything about them. Leaders need to cultivate patience before they can act. Here’s how to cultivate your own sense of equanimity:

Know the situation. Good leaders are those who know context, that is, how a customer or a competitor will respond to an adverse situation. More important, they also know the capabilities of their own people, what they can handle and what is beyond them. In addition, they know how to push their people the right way to get them to accept greater levels of responsibility as a means of addressing a tough situation.

Let the dice roll. Decisions have consequences. If a new project is not launching on schedule, or a new hire is not getting up to speed as quickly as expected, it may be better to wait and see what transpires. In this regard, leaders can learn from experienced negotiators—who prefer to let the other side commit before they do. This does take skill, but it also takes a belief in one’s own abilities to figure things out.

Take the long view. Experience comes to the fore here. Emerging leaders might be tempted to exert their own influence rather than letting a situation unfold. But when you do it first, you prevent your team from learning. Better to advise your team to take action and let them determine what happens next.

Reflection is a useful tool for gaining perspective on yourself as well as for keeping an eye on your own foibles. “As one gets older, one becomes a caricature of his own self,” postulates surgeon and biographer Gerald Imber in an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air. Veteran leaders would do well to ponder Imber’s assertion, because often the traits that make leaders effective in the beginning can erode their ability to lead over time.

Such dichotomies can plague leaders, too. A leader who is aggressive and bold on the way up may seem overbearing when working as a functional chief. The natural desire to be the prime instigator of initiatives will strike direct reports as micromanaging. Likewise someone proud of leading through consensus will be perceived as a good team player at the hands-on level. However, in a more senior role, that same executive may seem to be overly cautious and unable to make key decisions. You become a caricature, from a leadership perspective, when your quirks become overamplified to the detriment of your good qualities.

You might draw an analogy, then, between entrepreneurship and leadership. The skills it takes to build a business—vision, initiative, and drive—are not the skills required to manage that business—alignment, execution, and discipline. Likewise, leaders on the way up must at first rely on personal skills to make their names, but sooner or later must learn to delegate to others, otherwise they will stall out. While many senior leaders learn that lesson early on in their careers, sometimes if they remain at the top, they lose touch and revert to character, or more cruelly, caricature. Here are some suggestions for keeping yourself focused and engaged:

Rethink what you do. Consider this exercise. Take a clean sheet of paper and write down your roles and responsibilities. When you have itemized your tasks, reduce what you do to one or two key responsibilities. For a CFO, this might be arranging secure financing for the firm. For a marketing chief, it might be positioning products for success. Then look at your tasks and see what you might off-load to others so that you have more time to focus strategically on your key responsibility.

Take a sabbatical. As much as those in the corporate world snicker at professors who take leave with pay for six months or a year to pursue a promising line of research or something new and different, there is good reason for taking a break. It is invigorating. Few executives can afford this kind of time away, but there are ways to create sabbatical-like activities, such as volunteer efforts, teaching programs, or even networking away from your firm that will enable you to adopt a fresh perspective.

Look for new challenges. What else do you want to do? For some senior leaders, a promotion to the top job is a goal. For others, it might be to spend more time as a mentor to up-and-coming managers. For others it might mean looking to do something else outside the company, for example, work for another company or start a new business.

There is a plus side to being a caricature, however: You become known for what you are and what you can do. That is, if you are a hard charger or a deliberative decision maker, your direct reports know how to approach you. Your caricature becomes a form a consistency. You become known for it, and that is not altogether a negative.

Finding Light Along a Dark Path

Let’s be real. Leaders need not abandon the traits that allowed them to succeed. The challenge becomes finding ways to channel that energy in new and direct ways, so that you lead more appropriately and effectively. Look for opportunities to delegate decisionmaking and reward emerging leaders with more responsibilities. At the same time, executives will be called upon to make the tough decisions necessary to run the business. That is leadership. Lead through others when possible, but lead decisively when the future is at stake.

Size up your situation. Know where you stand, but rather than focusing on the negatives, consider how fortunate you are. Think about your accomplishments as well as how much other people value your experience ence. Then focus on the tough things, the challenges that you are facing now.

Fix your gaze on your goal. What do you want to do differently? This may seem like an easy question, but it has profound implications. If you need to find a new career, then you may need to get more schooling, either formally (university) or informally (being mentored). Be clear about your goals. Also be realistic about what you can achieve in a given time frame. Consider what you need to do and by what time.

Take the first step. Having a goal is good; the challenge is to act on it, but sometimes we are intimidated by goals and overwhelmed by the process. Look for a pathway to your goal and tackle it one step at a time. For example, if you are looking for a new job, write your résumé, contact a recruiter, apply, and use your social network for insights into potential employers. If you want to obtain your MBA, work on your application. If you want to build a business, seek venture capital. Start small and build from there.

Be prepared to trip. If your goal is lofty (and frankly, it should be) then don’t worry if you stumble and fall. No shame in stumbling. The challenge arises in what you do next. So take stock of yourself. Consider what went wrong. Perhaps you are not qualified for the position you want, or the company is not hiring now. Think about what you do next. Readjusting your goal is an option, but so is continuing on your chosen path, this time with more knowledge and a better plan of action.

Keep moving. Momentum is essential to fighting adversity. You need to continue to think about as well as act on next steps. Thinking, as it relates to individual action planning, is a positive. Acting, as it relates to doing something—acting, interviewing, being recruited—is also essential to progressing along your journey.

There will be dark moments, times when nothing will seem as if it is going your way. You will be plagued by doubts about yourself and your plan, but take heart. I leave you with William Ernest Henley again:

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll.

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.

John Baldoni is an internationally recognized leadership educator, executive coach, speaker, and author of 10 books, including his newest, “Lead With Purpose, Giving Your Organization a Reason to Believe in Itself.” In 2011, Leadership Gurus International ranked him No. 11 on its list of the top 30 leadership experts. His newest project is “Leading from the Middle, Reaching to the Top,” a program for seasoned executives seeking to make a positive difference. For more information, visit:

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