Legacy Leadership | Why Senior Executives Must Shift Their Focus to Create Thriving Organizations

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It’s been a good year so far. The economy is back and a sense of potential and possibility has returned to the marketplace. While it still feels delicate, the S&P is over 1600 for now, and while the bull versus bear debate continues, there is a clear sense of confidence about the future.

There are also other favorable trends. Denim has fully emerged as standard business wear – even in the boardroom – and perhaps best of all, beards are back in style, which means less shaving. All good news except for one small hitch: my beard is almost entirely gray – a powerful reminder that my career is in its later stages. I am no longer on an endless ascent to the next role or financial threshold and I’ve actually achieved almost all of the things that I set out to do. While this is richly satisfying, it is also deeply disquieting. With most of my goals attained, I now must boldly face the question: what am I working towards?

Until this point, every bit of my professional effort has been focused on getting through the next quarter, succeeding on the next project and serving the next client. Every day has been about achieving, getting or proving. With those activities mostly being managed by my team, it’s time to find a different source of motivation. This is also true for many of my clients. Most are senior executives at large, public companies. In truth, most have gone as far as they are going to go in their careers and there really isn’t much more that they will achieve. They run large organizations or functions and most of the momentum in their business is created by others. Ironically, some of these leaders seem to ignore this fact and continue to see themselves as “central doers” and many remain primarily focused on increasing their own levels of personal wealth, even though many have more than they can spend in a lifetime. In some ways, they are behaving into a reality that was true for them ten years ago but that is no longer relevant. Just barely beneath the surface, many in this group are deeply dissatisfied and live under the false belief that if they can significantly increase the stock price of their corporations, then everything will be OK. It won’t because these leaders are failing to evolve their focus, and both they and their organizations are paying the price.

I am fortunate to have also worked with leaders who have moved away from the paradigm of individual success and achievement. These leaders recognize where they are in their lives and careers and are clearly focused on the health of their teams, their communities and of the planet. These leaders are operating with an orientation that I am calling Legacy Leadership. This doesn’t mean that this group has abandoned the pursuit of revenue and profit; rather, it means that they are equally focused on the question of legacy. In this case I don’t mean legacy as something they are leaving to others when they are gone, I mean legacy as a focus on their own evolution and the evolution of the kind of impact they create.

Carl Jung outlined four life stages in his book Modern Man in Search of a Soul. He asserted that it’s our ability to move through these four levels that is essential to our satisfaction and fulfillment. I have come to see that moving through these stages is not just vital to the self, but also to society and organizations. When leaders in corporations make these evolutions, their organizations thrive. When senior leaders remain focused on their own goals and needs, the organizations they lead fail to evolve and they miss the opportunity to create deeper purpose and meaning through their work – and they also block the evolution of next level leaders. If we look at Jung’s theory through the lens of organizational leadership, we see the four stages as follows:

  • THE ATHLETE STATE: In this stage our ambition is focused almost exclusively on ourselves – making sure that we get our jobs done and making sure that we are recognized as strong performers. We compete against our peers to win and are very “I” centric. The driving belief here is I am my results.
  • THE WARRIOR STAGE: Most of us evolve into Warriors when we move into management. Our focus is on moving up the ladder and increasing our levels of achievement and compensation. It becomes about getting more. We begin to see how our intellect and capabilities will get us things and we are constantly seeking to get more for ourselves. Many leaders stay in Warrior Stage and dedicate their careers to conquests and acquisitions. The driving belief here is the more I have the better I am.
  • THE STATESMAN STAGE: The focus of the Statesman is others. A sense of competition and rising to the top is replaced by generosity, grace and contribution. Money, possessions and previous achievements lose their hold and Statesmen focus on service to their communities, however those communities are defined. The driving belief here is I work for the benefit of others.
  • THE SPIRIT STAGE: At this point, there is nothing left to prove. Focus moves from matters of the world to bigger questions of peace and spirit. In this stage we are more than our bodies, more than our possessions, more than our achievements and contributions, and we find ourselves inquiring about matters of the soul. The driving belief here is what matters most is peace.

In answering the question of what am I working towards?, it is clear to me that my focus is now about moving fully from Warrior to Statesman and beginning to integrate elements of the Spirit in my day-to-day leadership. This means focusing more on mentorship, putting the needs of the community first, holding vision as paramount and digging deeply into spiritual development.

Doing this creates both the imperative and the space for other newer leaders to grow – and ensures that these archetypes work together to create meaning for leaders at every stage. It is the pride and focus of Athlete leaders that enable Warriors to succeed. Without the drive and ambition of Warriors, the community focus of the Statesman is impossible and until the community thrives, focusing on Spirit or Consciousness isn’t realistic. Suddenly, the question of what am I working towards?, has a clear answer – and the gray beard points the way.

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