Over the winter, my wife, Val and I took time to transplant trees and repot houseplants. It’s been good for me to slow down and spend some time working with soil, getting my hands dirty and connecting to the land, reminding me of the value farmers bring to our culture. I’ve been learning from Val, our resident plant expert, that a healthy root system is necessary to ensure a robust plant. Through their natural intelligence, plants know this and develop extensive roots before their energy is transferred into growing foliage. You’ll see this in a houseplant that will get root bound in a pot before they flourish above the ground. The root system is first developed in the dirt, thus enabling the plant to support its growth above the surface.
Leadership is like that. The source of what is manifested in the world is not seen by the world. Like a plant, whose strength and energy come from its roots, the strength and energy of a leader comes from within. A good life – through a person’s roots – precedes good leadership. Below is a short list of what a good life means to me, and the roots that will sustain and support you to do the work that you are called to do.
- Clarity. Clarity is about living your life by design rather than by default. Living without clarity is like embarking on a wilderness journey without a compass. Any way will get you there if you don’t know where you are going. Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is a rare and precious achievement. You’ll be told in a hundred ways what is expected of you and what is needed of you to be a success. The real discipline in life comes in saying no to the wrong opportunities.
- Courage. If you have ever walked through something that frightens you, and you grew through to the other side, you know that courage is inspiring. It inspires you and it inspires those around you. Courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is facing fear and walking through it. There have always been courageous men and women who have been prepared to die for what they believe in. What do you care enough about to give your life for?
- Character. If you want to attract others, you must be attractive. Strong character demands that you shift from being the best in the world to being the best for the world, to strive not for what you can get, but what you can give, to endeavor not for what you can have, but for who you can be. A job title, the letters behind your name, the size of your office, or your income are not measures of human worth. No success by the world’s standards will ever be enough to compensate for a lack of strong character.
- Calling. Calling is a devotion to a cause beyond you. It is inspiring to be around people who have a dedication to a cause they care about. When you feel an internal calling, a deep sense of pursuing what you are meant to be pursuing, you take a step toward completeness in your life. “A musician must make music,” wrote Abraham Maslow, the famed American psychologist, “an artist must paint, a poet must write, if they are to be ultimately at peace with themselves.” Whether you are paid or not to express your calling, a good life requires you listen and respond.
- Contribution. When we come to the end of our days on this earth, we take no material thing with us. It’s not what we have gained for ourselves but the contribution we have made to others that makes life meaningful. It’s not what we get from life that has the greatest most lasting reward. It’s what we give. A good life requires a generous spirit and a giving heart. A life of contribution is a good life.
- Connection. After three decades of observing and learning from thousands of leaders in hundreds of organizations and in every walk of life, I finally understand what my parents tried to teach me more than forty years ago. In an interdependent world, everything is about relationships. It’s not all about models or strategies or programs or the latest technology. Whether you are a CEO building a company, a middle manager leading a division, a supervisor ensuring results on your team, a front-line sales person, a customer-service representative, or a parent attempting to develop capable young people, leadership is all about making contact and building connections. And caring is at the root.
- Centering. “Dwell as near as possible to the channel in which your life flows,” wrote Henry David Thoreau. For me, a good life is built around a spiritual center that I constantly seek and return to. From this foundation I find security amidst uncertainty, serenity in the middle of success and failure, stability among the fleeting emotions of happiness and sadness. It is this center that sustains me and provides connection in loss, humility in achievement, perspective in chaos, strength in weakness, and wholeness in fragmentation.
It’s an exciting time to be living in this wondrous world. What concerns me is the possibility that our efforts to continuously improve and advance everything will create a society that is actually less satisfying to live in. Every day we have an opportunity to invent a new world through the choices we make. Not just in a narrow economic sense, but also in a broader human sense: for ourselves and for our children and for our children’s children.
What does a good life mean to you, and how does living in accord with what matters to you make you a better person and a better leader?