Let’s talk about the sub-title of the book, Corporate Life is Hell: 12 Steps to Personal Freedom and Liberated Leadership.
When I talk about personal freedom in this context, I am not talking about escape. For those who suffer in a corporate job that feels empty, the fantasy of walking away is like a recurring dream. Not that there’s anything wrong with walking away. Hundreds, maybe even thousands of people do it every day. I did it. The fact that so many people are choosing to do it is a testament to how corporate life is failing to capture the hearts of so many people. Just about every executive I coach, at some point, explores their own desire to leave and start their own business.
The mistake is thinking that walking away creates freedom. The very fact that you can walk away means you have freedom to begin with. What you may be trying to escape is all the bull$#@%, the feelings of futility, and the lack of fulfillment you’re experiencing. The truth is that those feelings, like all feelings, originate within you. They do not originate outside of you. Yes, there are external triggers we can point to that cause suffering, but it is our reaction to these triggers, rather than the triggers themselves, that cause the feelings we experience.
I find this is not always easy for people to accept. It’s too easy to look at what my boss is doing, or how I’m getting treated in a certain situation, and place the blame for my feelings out there. Even if you can accept intellectually the idea that you control your own response, it’s another thing entirely to change it. But the point is that you can change your own response. You do control it. The world is full of things you cannot control, but how you respond to the world– particularly with your inner response— is within your control. In that respect, you already possess personal freedom. There are certain freedoms that can never be taken from you as long as you draw breath.
Viktor Frankl survived 3 years in Nazi concentration camps and then within weeks of being released wrote the first version of one of the most important books of the 20th century: Man’s Search for Meaning. It’s hard to imagine more difficult circumstances than being subjected to the atrocities of such a place, and indeed most of the people in the camps who were not killed directly lost their will to survive. Frankl writes about that will to survive and he discovered for himself what it means to choose life. What he came to understand was that no matter how difficult your circumstances, you still have the power to choose your own response.
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
This is NOT about putting a positive spin on all our experiences. What is at the heart of Viktor Frankl’s experience, book, and school of psychological thought that followed is that ultimately you define the meaning of life, moment by moment. And in those most difficult of circumstances, the ability to find your reason to live, what he called “will to meaning,” is the difference between life and death.
Corporate life is more like a country club than a prisoner of war camp, yet there is still a pervasive negative experience associated with it. You’re not going to die from any typical corporate experience, but there is a metaphorical death that occurs when we give up and just start going through the motions at work. The 12 Steps to Personal Freedom are about liberating yourself from that negative internal response pattern.
Once liberated, your range of potential responses to the world around you expands exponentially. No longer are you just a victim of your circumstances. Instead, you have the power to create your experience, in every moment. You create your experience of the world in every choice you make, and the power of choice is at the center of Leadership. I am not talking about leadership as a position you can hold, or as an act of getting other people to do what you want. Leadership is a choice to be responsible for your world, and your world begins inside your skin, between your ears and within your heart. Growing and developing your leadership is about expanding the scope of the world you are choosing to be responsible for, but it begins with your self. When you liberate your inner leader, even corporate hell cannot kill your spirit.
So who is this book for? Is it for those in the trenches, who you might assume most clearly identify with my assertion that corporate life is hell? Or is it for those “in charge,” who many would claim are the cause of corporate hell. If everyone is a leader, which I truly believe and will expand upon in the next section, then am I writing for both. More importantly, making that distinction ignores the fact that the same person can occupy both roles simultaneously. I am amazed at how many corporate leaders complain about their boss’s behavior while unwittingly doing the same things to their own people. My point is this: you have the power to impact your own experience, regardless of the circumstances around you, but you also have the power to create impact on others. Growth as a leader starts from within, and then expands outward. Like the flight attendant’s advice about the oxygen masks, take care of yourself first so you can be of service to those around you.
One last point for now. If you are hearing in my words that bad corporate experiences are all in your head, that is not what I intend. About twenty-five years ago I started studying organizational psychology at the graduate level. I came out of school full of optimism that I could help create great places to work. Since then, I’ve had an amazing career and have made meaningful contributions to wide array of organizations. But make no mistake, I discovered corporate hell for myself and there were many times when I was miserable in corporate life. One of those times was in my last job, which finally prompted me to start my own business. I am utterly convinced that we need a revolution in how large organizations are structured and run, but this book is not about that, at least not directly. One of the best books I’ve read recently on this topic is by Frederic Laloux, titled Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage of Human Consciousness. In the book, Laloux details the parallels between human development and organizational development, and very cogently makes the case that human consciousness is calling for more evolved organizations.
To even begin to create that kind of change we need better leadership. The fundamental source of corporate hell today is lack of leadership, and I don’t just mean the people at the top. We have world class managers that are failing as leaders. At all levels of organizations we need stronger leadership, and because of the power dynamics, we need it most urgently at the top. But rather than point the finger of blame at others who need to improve their leadership capability, we must each of us focus on our own leadership.
I’ve been on a journey of personal leadership development my whole life (and will be for the rest of my life), but the last 5 years have been an accelerated course for me. In the 12 steps that I will share here, I intend to distill the most important things I’ve learned. In the past 25 years I’ve also gained loads of knowledge about management and business. You won’t see much of that here. This is a book about humans leading humans. It’s about personal freedom and Liberated Leadership.