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Learning to Underachieve

Updated: Jan 20, 2019

There was a time when my wife and I had a standing agreement. If I was not home by 8:00 PM she would call and ask, “Do you know where your children are?” My response was always, “Yes, they are at home with you,” to which she would reply, “and where is my husband?” With that short interaction, I knew it was time to close up the office and go home. My focus on success, though noble in intent, had left me little time to pay attention to my life. This honourable purpose had gotten the better of me. Confronted with the basic question of, “Who am I and what am I doing here?” meant dedicating some time in reflection and personal examination. I had to learn to underachieve.

According to Dr Joseph L. Badaracco Jr. in a Harvard Business Review article, “It is risky and self-destructive to pour all of yourself into work and leave too little for yourself or anything else.” He examines the perceived conflict between selfishness, striving for success, and selfless acts on behalf of others. It is even framed as a moral conflict. Morality is a subject much debated in coffee shops and legislative chambers around the world. For leaders, morality is not as simple as looking up the rules and following them. The choice of principle or pragmatism is the primal challenge of a leader’s character. Of course, we want our leaders to be both principled and pragmatic. As many leaders know, sometimes the worst conflicts are between two strongly held principles. Navigating that can be harder than trying to keep a balance between principles and pragmatism. (Badaracco)

Is it wrong to strive toward success and to sacrifice your own interest? Conventional wisdom would say the more selfish a person is the less he cares about others. Or the more altruistic a person the more he is willing to sacrifice his own interests.

Most people, whether leaders or ordinary folks, do both; that is they work for themselves and care about others. It is an important balance that is essential in the workplace and critical in leadership.

The Arezzo Turn Off II - Jeffrey Smart

The traditional model for leaders, when faced with complexity and uncertainty, is to strategize and plan about "what" to do and "how" to do it. Today’s complexity and uncertainty are exponentially impactful and leaders must go beyond the "what and how". The demand for transparent, insightful, flexible, inclusive, culturally sensitive, and high-performance leaders is a formula for an early grave.

Effective leaders must know who they are and “why” they are. It is actually altruistic to pursue a life of introspection because it allows an understanding of self and an understanding of fitness to lead a mission in life. A gap between understanding the “who” and the “mission”, leads to confusion about validity and authenticity.

Introspection or self-reflection helps focus and calm the senses. It helps the individual to understand the structure of the challenge and identify, through self-recognised value, valid potential solutions. It helps develop a strong rationale of why some things are important. Knowing one’s self and listening to what that knowledge says is called by some their inner voice, others their conscience, and still other the divine.

Regardless of the nomenclature, it is a life path destined for success. Leaders in the Twenty-first Century need passion driven by strong rationale based on self-confidence that they are doing the right thing. Self-confidence comes from knowing who you are and what you are doing here.

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