Overly Reliant on Outside Influences

One of the draws that I have toward stoicism is the idea that both good things and bad things will happen around me, but that I can always decide whether something is good or bad and how I will move forward from the good things and bad things that happen around me. My reactions are something I can control even if I can’t control the weather, the person who cut me off on the freeway, or the economic downturn that sinks my business. In stoicism, I have found a set of tools for objectively viewing the world and developing an inner ability of focus and calmness.

One of the authors who taught me a lot about stoicism is Colin Wright and his book Becoming Who We Need To Be is a somewhat stoic look at the forces in our lives that shape the people we are becoming and how we can respond to those forces to become people who are well equipped to do the important things to help society become a better place. In one chapter of his book, Wright highlights an idea that many companies, industries, and professionals in American society now operate on a business model based on making us feel small. The business model positions the company, coach, or set of coaches as the only thing that can take us from where we are to where we want to go. Wright references certain types of gyms, certain health restaurants, and in some cases our coaches, mentors, or guides from the self-help world. In his book he writes, “I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with self-improvement. … But I am saying that when we become overly reliant on outside influences, encouragement, and incentives in how we feel about ourselves, we open ourselves up to abuse and mistreatment. We open ourselves up to being manipulated.”

Business models that rely on customers becoming reliant on them put us in a position where we cannot walk away. Their goal may seem like it is to provide great kick-boxing workouts or to help motivate people to get in shape and make good decisions, but what is really happening is the development of a cycle of dependency and the development of personal identities that don’t operate without the business at the center providing the affirmation that one is living properly, doing the right things to be healthy, and taking the right steps for a validated life. Stoic philosophy turns this business model on its head by suggesting that we already have all the means within the faculties of our minds to be fulfilled. We don’t need to tie our self-value and self-worth to the praise of another person. It is not up to money, social status, or the number of mornings at the gym which determine whether we are living the right life. We have value by virtue of being a human being and we can use tools around us to improve our health, try to reach out goals, or build a community of like-minded individuals, but we don’t have to tie our entire identity and value as a human to these industries in order to define ourselves and become valuable and meaningful.

Coaching Tactically and Coaching Strategically

I work for a tech start-up in the heath care space and within our company (at least in our office which is lead by a couple of former Microsoft ninjas) two key buzz words are tactical and strategic. I was not sure exactly what these words meant and how they were used in business until I had a very specific meeting with our site director who was at one point my manager for roughly 6 months. I was in a one-on-one meeting explaining some challenges that I was facing in my role. Every day I was reacting to problems that bubbled up and needed my immediate attention, and I was not quite doing anything that would get ahead of those individual problems and solve the long term issues that created these acute problems. My boss at that point described the difference of thinking tactically versus strategically.

 

The daily grind and the individual problems that scream for our attention create the tactical work. The long term planning and insightful problem solving that stops those problems is the strategic work. The tactical is important and takes a certain set of skills, but the strategic is the differentiator — what separates the average companies from the excellent companies, what makes the top employees stand out from those who show up each day and punch a clock. What I was learning in that one-on-one was the difference between the two types of thinking. Now, when I look back at that coaching session, I also  see two different coaching styles at work.

 

In his book The Coaching Habit author Michael Bungay Stanier makes a distinction between two types of coaching: coaching for performance and coaching for development. He describes the two styles and approaches in the following way, “Coaching for performance is about addressing and fixing a specific problem or challenge. It’s putting out the fire, or building up the fire, or banking the fire. It’s everyday stuff, and it’s important and necessary.” In this quick quote he is describing tactical coaching. How can you help an employee, colleague, or friend navigate the individual challenges that are popping up in front of them and how can they get through those obstacles? Bungay Stanier continues, “Coaching for development is about turning the focus from the issue to the person dealing with the issue, the person who’s managing the fire. This conversation is more rare and significantly more powerful.”

 

The second quote is about coaching strategically, helping the individual see not just how to overcome one challenge, but how to adapt and change what they are doing, the process they work with, and how they are approaching obstacles to make them better in the long run. It is a focus on the individual and their growth as opposed to a focus on a problem and how to address that problem. Thinking strategically requires awareness and understanding of common threads between problems and issues, and that is what you are trying to build in the other person. You are working with them to find the areas of growth for them that will connect the dots in their own life and story, and you are working with them to shift their perspective to solve long term problems and not immediate issues. This is what my boss was doing with me when he explained the difference between thinking tactically in my daily work and angling myself and my operations to be more strategic.

Create Great Work

A real challenge across the globe in the coming decades will be helping people find ways to do meaningful work. A lot of our work today really is not that meaningful, and as more jobs can be automated, we will find ourselves with more people looking for meaningful work. Helping people find meaningful work will preserve social order and cohesion and will be crucial for democracies, companies, families, and societies as a whole as we move forward.

 

Michael Bungay Stanier looks at the importance of meaningful work in his book The Coaching Habit suggesting that coaching people is easier and better when you are helping someone with meaningful work. When you give people tasks and ask them to do meaningless jobs, you will never get the most out of them and you will never inspire them to go above and beyond. He writes, “The more we do work that has no real purpose, the less engaged and motivated we are. The less engaged we are, the less likely we are to find and create great work.”

 

The company I work for makes a real difference in the medical world. Our work leads to better health outcomes for patients and families and it is easy to see how our work has real purpose. But even within the work that I do, there can be tasks and responsibilities that seem unnecessary or burdensome. These little things can build up, and even within a good job they can begin to feel tedious and disengaging. To combat this, my company encourages efficiency and automation within the important things that we do. We are encouraged to think about ways to improve systems and processes and to find new ways to do things better. It is the autonomy and trust from our leadership that helps us stay engaged by allowing us to continually craft our jobs to an optimal level.

 

Not everyone is in the same situation that I am in. Many companies hold people to specific processes and inefficiencies, perhaps just to see how conformist and loyal individuals are to the firm. This holds back growth an innovation and demotivates and disengages employees. As this happens to more people and as meaningless tasks are displaced to robots, we will have to find new ways to motivate and engage employees, because our employees are our fellow citizens, and because motivation and engagement can be thought of as a public good. We all rely on an engaged citizenry for our democracy, and work helps us feel valued and engaged. How we face this challenge as individual coaches and as companies will make a big difference in how engaged our society is in the future. One approach is to help ensure everyone on your team and everyone you coach understands how their work contributes to the overall mission and goals of the firm. This does not simply mean that you hand everyone a nice slogan about why their position and duties are important, you must actually show how the company plans to move forward and how the department and the individual will contribute to the new direction. A recent challenge for myself that I have been thinking about is how you direct resources and attention to groups to also signal their importance. Without the leadership demonstrating how specific work contributes to overall goals and without time and attention appropriately directed to an individual or department, even important work can begin to feel meaningless or forgotten, and firms and societies will never benefit from the innovation and dedication of great work.

Owning Our Mistakes

Fred Kiel gives a few examples of what it means to be a great leader for a company in his book, Return on Character, where he focuses on the ties between strong moral values, success, and leadership. One of the examples he gives of what it means to be a leader who focuses on ethical and moral strengths involved owning up to our mistakes and being honest and forgiving with ourselves and others when we make mistakes.

 

In his book he tells a story to focus on a fictional character who does not receive a promotion. The character then begins to examine himself through a process of self-reflection to understand how he can change his behaviors and actions to enhance the skills that he had already developed. One area he identified for growth involved abandoning his habit of creating excuses for mistakes and failures, and working to better accept his errors. Kiel uses the simple example to show how an individual can become a stronger leader by beginning to better understand their mistakes and take responsibility rather than pushing blame onto others. Kiel’s character began to see that accepting his mistakes and forgiving himself for his errors made him a leader with stronger character, helping him connect better with those in the workplace. Kiel wrote of his fictional character’s change, “By owning up to his own mistakes, he would communicate to others in a very powerful way that he cared for them as people. He was telling them that he’s no better than they—that he shares a common humanity with them.”

 

By being honest and leading with character Kiel explains that we become more likable as people. Those around us with whom we work, spend time with, and live with will find us to be more complete when we acknowledge our mistakes. If we do not honestly address our mistakes then we put ourselves above others on a pedestal of perfection, and we fail to recognize an important part of our humanity.

 

Kiel also suggests that owning up to our mistakes helps make us better leaders and  more successful individuals. Failures and errors are things we will all experience and being able to recognize those shortcomings in a safe way will help us move forward. This part of his message reminds me of the advice that Bob Schacochis shared with James Harmon for him to publish in his book, Take My Advice. Schacochis writes of his early days working as a carpenter, “When it comes to making mistakes a bad carpenter and a good carpenter is the same. The only difference is, the good carpenter figures out how to correct his.” What he is saying is that we will all have errors along the way, but to truly be good we must recognize those errors and take the time correct them, allowing us to grow.  We can’t expect to be perfect and we can’t expect others to be perfect, but we can expect everyone to own up to their mistakes and to find ways to correct their errors.

Compiling a Coherent Life Story

One characteristic that high performing and morally focused CEOs have in common is an understanding of their life story and the events that happened in their life, shaping them into the people they are today. This idea is a cornerstone part of Fred Kiel’s book Return on Character. Kiel researched successful companies and CEOs trying to identify the importance of strong moral judgement, personal ethical behavior, and ideas of responsibility among company leaders.  He found that CEOs who displayed strong moral character and built leadership teams that mirrored their approach to relationships and ethics, outperformed those who were self focused and did not apply rigorous moral standards to their work and companies.  The businesses led by these moral CEOs had employees that felt more engaged, and productive, had better relationships with the communities in which they served, and had loyal customer bases. All of  these benefits stemmed from the CEOs high moral standards and made the companies more successful.  A key aspect in the lives of the CEOs who led these high performing companies was self-reflection and self-awareness.

 

Kiel argues that you cannot build a foundation of strong moral habits and characteristics without reflecting on what has impacted your life and led in you in a direction where you become more considerate, looking beyond your own benefit to see the world from multiple perspectives.

 

“Uncovering the sources of your character and moral habits is, in many ways, an essential element of compiling a coherent life story.  By piecing together a clear picture of how you formed your understanding of the world, you can identify the source of the negative ideas, emotions, or responses that may be promoting those aspects of your character that you need to address.”

 

This process of self-reflection is challenging, but what it uncovers are the motivations that push us to action and drive us toward goals which we were not aware of.  To avoid becoming self focused and acting in only your own interest one must truly examine how they define success, and where that definition originated. If we are chasing a certain lifestyle, a certain size of house, or a certain car just to show others that we have become successful, then we are acting out of a misplaced motivation.  Our motivation is based on what others see as successful and we are trying to act in a way to impress and show others that we are valuable, ultimately pushing us to be more interested in our own success than the success of the bigger organization in which we fit.

 

Contrasting this vision of a self-focused individual, a CEO with a strong moral character would have at some point recognized what drives their motivation and their definition of success, and they would have realized that it can be toxic to act out of motivations defined by another individual.  To truly follow ones passion and find a better aligned level of success, it is important to know what pressures society, parents, friends, and others have placed on us.  We may want to reach a certain level in our career to impress those who are in our social group, or we may be trying to reach standards of success presented to us in advertisements. A virtuous leader would understand their own vision of success, and find a goal that aligns with their inner self and is worth driving toward. Their life story would help them understand where they are, where they want to go, and how to move forward in a way that returns the benefit to everyone.

Personal Change

Author Fred Kiel advocates for self-awareness and and the development of strong moral character traits among leaders in business throughout his book Return on Character.  Kiel spends time explaining the ways in which leaders with strong values, who truly care about the people they work with and providing real value for the people they serve, bring more to the companies they lead and help their companies find greater growth. His research showed that workforces become more engaged, customers view the companies from better perspectives, and leadership teams are more effective when they are guided by self awareness and a drive to make the best moral decisions possible for their teams.  In the book Kiel addresses the transformation to become a leader with strong moral character and he explains the challenges with our self-transformations.

 

“In any event, personal change is, by definition, personal. Changing the habits that shape your character is an act that penetrates to the very core of who you are as a person.  Such change isn’t quick or easy, but it’s well worth the time and attention you’ll invest in it.  Developing the character of strong, principled leadership helps you in every aspect of your life: decision making, relationships, goal setting, conflict resolution, life and career satisfaction, and so much more.  Of course, it also involves hard work.”

 

In this quote Kiel is addressing the idea of applying self-awareness to your current situation to help drive the change that you want to see to become a better leader.  It is never easy to begin a process of self-reflection and to truly understand what parts of yourself are working well and what parts are in conflict with the goals you want to achieve, but it is crucial to growth as a leader.  Kiel explains in his book that those leaders who his research identified as the strongest moral leaders had a well developed understanding of their past and the events in their past which shaped them.  Working through the difficult process of understanding what impacted our lives to push us to where we currently are does not have a specific road map.  The journey is individual and personal. It is also a process that develops over time and, as we strengthen our self-reflection muscles, becomes more specific.  The way we see the events in our life will change over time. As we grow and become better at reflecting on our lives, we will begin to reach places where we better understand not just our actions, but the actions of others and why we feel the way we do about them.

 

By driving through this process and constantly focusing on self-awareness and self-reflection it is possible to become a moral leader.  We can reach a place where we are fully understanding of ourselves, our reactions, and emotions, and we can use that to better connect with those around us. Our decision making will be more complete as we can better empathize with those around us and view the world through more perspectives.

Caring for the Workforce

Throughout his book Return on Character Fred Kiel addresses the importance of business leaders maintaining high moral standards and incorporating those standards into their businesses.  Kiel addresses the ways in which leading with strong values can have a positive impact on a companies bottom line.  He explains ways in which many companies fall short in bringing character to the front of their organization, and what benefits they miss out on when they fail to think beyond the numbers.  One of the big points in the book is Kiel’s focus on how the leadership team’s character translates into a happier and more engaged workforce. He writes, “A workforce that feels cared for is more productive than one that feels neglected, and that translates into bottom-line financial results.”

 

Through self-awareness and respect for everyone within a company, meaning everyone from the executive team to the newest employee with the lowest hourly wage, a CEO can begin to understand the human elements of the workplace to see how important it is that everyone feels secure, welcomed, and valued. If someone does not feel this way about their position in the company, Kiel would argue that they would not perform at their best. By thinking about others and trying to show ways that you value everyone as a human being, you can create the sense of caring that Kiel addresses in his quote.  When a leader makes an effort to show their respect and works to treat their employees like human beings then everyone wins. The employees feel as though they contribute in a meaningful way and they are willing to continue to work hard and become more productive.