Personal Freedom and Liberated Leadership

Let’s talk about the sub-title of the book, Corporate Life is Hell:  12 Steps to Personal Freedom and Liberated Leadership.

Photo credit:  Wikimedia commons
Photo credit: Wikimedia commons

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.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

“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.”

— Viktor E. Frankl


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.

Liberated Leadership

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.


12 Steps to Personal Freedom and Liberated Leadership

If you’ve heard me quote the title of the book I’m writing, Corporate Life is Hell:  12 Steps to Personal Freedom and Liberated Leadership, you may be wondering, what exactly are the steps?  I think each of the steps has quite a bit of depth, which is why I’m writing a book on the subject, but to give you a feel for it, I’ve created a little SlideShare of the 12 steps.

I would really love to hear your comments.  I may still play with the wording of some of the steps, and I’m curious how clearly they speak to you.  Enjoy!

Why You’re Miserable in Your Corporate Job

I’ve begun writing the book, Corporate Life is Hell:  12 Steps to Personal Freedom and Liberated Leadership.

Despite its main title, it is a book with a positive message about creativity, purpose, responsibility, courage, and yes, even love.  It is a Leadership book which asserts that Everyone is a Leader, and as such, only you can take the steps to create the job (and life) you want.

But first, I need to cover what I mean when I say corporate life is hell.

I’ve worked in corporate America for over 20 years (18 years internally and 4 years as an external coach and consultant).  I’ve spoken with hundreds (maybe even thousands) of corporate leaders during that time and I can say with high confidence, there is plenty of disillusionment, disengagement, and even unhappiness in the corporate world.  Not long after I started my Leadership Coaching practice I started sharing with people that it was my mission to Liberate Corporate America from Hell.  I came up with that clever little saying after working through my own demons that I wrestled with during my corporate career.  I was usually pretty nervous to say it out loud, for fear of being judged, but as you can guess, I got nothing but recognition.

Anyone who has spent enough time in the corporate world, particularly in any kind of management job, understands immediately what I mean.  Regardless of how they personally feel about their current job, the people I talk to can always recall a time when they were unhappy in their job, or they can see friends and colleagues who are miserable in their job.

Why are people in corporate jobs so often miserable?

It’s strange when you think about it because corporate life is actually pretty cushy, with it’s air-conditioned offices and ergonomic chairs. Over the past 50 years laws and policies have steadily chipped away at blatant mistreatment and discrimination.  There may be exceptions, but for the most part, people are paid fairly well.  You might complain, but tell that to the person barely surviving on minimum wage at a fast food restaurant.  All in all, if you’re doing your job, you are probably getting a healthy paycheck direct deposited in your bank every 2 weeks as you sail along.  What do you have to complain about?

The fact is, most of us still find corporate jobs somewhat less than satisfying, if not outright miserable.  The Gallup organization has, for years, demonstrated that around 70% of the corporate workforce is “disengaged,” with a good chunk of those being “actively disengaged,” which means they work counter to the interests of the company.  There are a myriad of reasons for why this is the case, but I’ll summarize them in 3 categories.

The first set of reasons for corporate hell are all about Power.

Everyone’s heard that the number one reason people leave their job or company is their immediate boss.  It’s true, no one has more influence over the quality of your work life than your immediate supervisor.  That person typically holds the power to promote, fire, and add and subtract job responsibilities.  They evaluate you and are responsible for how you get labelled in the performance appraisal process and how you get rewarded come bonus time.  Even if they lack some of that power, they are still the organization’s face of that power to you.  Ask anyone what makes their job great, or what makes it hell, and the chances are very high they will tell you about their boss.

The dynamics of power in affecting the quality of corporate life go far beyond just your boss.  Power is at the heart of corporate politics.  The very definition of the word politics is acquiring and retaining power.  When you and a colleague are competing for the favor of your boss, it’s politics, and it’s miserable.  Even if you say you don’t play that game, you are probably disgusted by those who do, and frustrated by the impact it has on you.  When you are concerned with looking good to your superiors, it’s a form of politics, and because you don’t control how your boss thinks and feels, you can feel powerless in this game.  When conflict and disagreement at work (both of which are normal and healthy) devolve into politics and power struggles (both of which can be destructive and unhealthy), it’s hell.

When you are the boss, you’re still subject to the miseries of power dynamics.  You’re the boss and you expect people to do their job.  But for reasons you can’t quite put a finger on, some people just can’t get it together.  You tell them over and over what you want and how to do it, and still, they don’t get it right.  You then feel powerless to get what you want from people.    You start resorting to the only power you think you have, which is your hierarchical power over the promotions, rewards, and workload of your employees, and we’re back to square one about the boss being at the center of corporate hell.  What is fascinating to me is that very often in my experience, the same exact person can experience the frustration of power dynamics from all three perspectives:  they are frustrated by their own boss, and yet they don’t realize they are doing the same things to their own employees.  And then they may still find themselves embroiled in power struggles with peers and colleagues.  It doesn’t matter where you sit organizationally.  Power dynamics exist, and they can be the source of your dissatisfaction in your job.

The second set of reasons for corporate hell are all about Idiocy

Yes, you read that right, I said Idiocy.  Corporate life can be chock full of decisions that make no sense and work that seems like a waste of time.  I’m not necessarily saying it IS idiocy, but in the eye of the beholder that’s how it feels.

Large organizations, by their very nature, will have conflicting agendas, limited resource pools, and marginal ability to move and create change quickly.  What it feels like to be in an organization beset by these forces is that priorities are always shifting, clarity is always elusive, and aligned effort is always lacking.  The easiest thing in the world is to sit within this feeling and point the finger at all the idiocy (and actual idiots!) you see around you.

After enough times of your project budget getting cut, or your department getting reorganized, or the promotion going to that idiot, or your job getting eliminated, you start to think what’s the point of all of this?  You lose sight of any sense of purpose to what you are doing.  Somewhere, far off, there is a reason your company is in business, but the path between here and there seems pretty overgrown.  This leads to the last category of reasons corporate life is hell.

The third set of reasons for corporate hell are all about Disconnection

When you no longer feel the connection between  your own work and the success (or failure) of the company, you disengage.  Getting a paycheck is not enough to keep people engaged.  By definition, being engaged means caring, and as The Beatles said… “money can’t buy me love.”

Money can satisfy us in the short term, like right after we get a raise, but it very quickly settles into the status quo.  The steady paycheck creates a feeling of safety, but it can never create a lasting sense of purpose and engagement.  There are exceptions to this, and Dan Pink’s excellent book Drivegoes into this in great detail.  True engagement comes from purpose, and purpose can often be found simply enough in the feeling of belonging to something bigger than yourself.  The disengaged 70% aren’t really feeling that.  If you are one of the 70%, you live for the weekend, and feel anxiety every Sunday night.  You are probably a different person at work than you are at home, and whether you are aware of it or not, that takes a toll.  Keeping a lid on the full expression of who you are is stressful, saps your energy, and is ultimately a source of misery because you feel disconnected from your true self when you’re at work.

An extension of this feeling is that you start to feel disconnected from the people you work with. If they don’t know who you are and get to see the real you, then you likely don’t get to see the real them, and the result is disconnection.  (as an interesting side note, Gallup has identified one of the most predictive survey items for whether or not you are engaged in your job as “I have a best friend at work.”)

Now, all the reasons above about Power and Idiocy get worse, because there is no foundation of personal connection.  Now it feels like you just work with a bunch of assholes and idiots, and that is hell.  Finding personal fulfillment in your job feels like a pipe dream.  It’s now become a soulless place, which is why I chose to call it hell.

It does not have to be this way.

As I said at the start, this is a book about Liberation.  You have the power to change your experience, and in the process, become an amazing leader.  You also have tremendous power to change your circumstances, but that comes after.  It all starts with changing yourself and how you experience and respond to your circumstances.  If you do that, then corporate America has the potential to become personally fulfilling and world changing.