Last night I started reading a book by Irvin Yalom, a psychiatrist who has written several novels that I’ve loved. But right now I’m reading something different—a book of short lessons he’s learned from many years of working with patients.
Early in his career, Yalom was inspired by something he read. The gist of it was that all people have a natural tendency to want to grow and become fulfilled—just an acorn will grow up to become an oak—as long as there are no obstacles in the way. So the job of the psychotherapist was to eliminate the obstacles to growth.
This was a eureka moment for Yalom. At the time, he was treating a young widow. Suffering through grief for a long while, she wanted help because she had a “failed heart”—an inability ever to love again.
Yalom had felt overwhelmed. How could he possibly change someone’s inability to love? But now he looked at it differently. He could dedicate himself to identifying and eliminating the obstacles that kept her from loving.
So they worked on that—her feelings of disloyalty to her late husband, her sense that she was somehow responsible for his death, and the fear of loss that falling in love again would mean. Eventually they eliminated all of the obstacles. Then her natural ability to love—and grow—returned. She remarried.
Reading this story made me think of the responsibility of leaders toward the people they need to develop—and for the growth and learning that leaders themselves require to be the best that they can be.
Many leadership development challenges seem overwhelming—even impossible. The leaders that we coach usually have a list of areas where they want to get better, but how? How do you “build better relationships with your peers and direct reports”? How are you supposed to “get out of the weeds and demonstrate enterprise-wide thinking” or “build executive presence”? All of these goals are as abstract as they are huge.
So the best approach is to not focus on the huge and fuzzy goal. What we try to do is to break these goals down into concrete actions through working on real-time business problems. To put it simply, though, we do just as Yalom does: We identify the obstacles and work toward knocking them off, one at a time.
Leadership development is not usually a quick fix. You’re not going to develop executive presence through a half-day workshop or a one-time meeting. If you’re interested in meaningful, lasting growth—whether for yourself or for those who work for you—it’s a commitment.
But don’t ever forget that we’re all capable of growth throughout life and our careers. The trick is to find the right coach or mentor who will guide you through that obstacle course.