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How Focused Leaders Thrive in a Distracted World by Creating Space to Learn & Grow

How often have you learned something and said, “why didn’t I know that earlier in my life?”

Have you ever said, “If I’d known then what I know now!”?

Maybe during a difficult time with a co-worker, when you were leading a team and not being very effective, or when you were responsible for a large project and it was going over budget and off the timeline. As I’ve learned new principles, heard great speakers, read dozens of inspiring books, and had experiences that grew me exponentially, sometimes I’ve had to remind myself that it’s better to learn it now, than never. The big questions of life are worked out in part through our families, our homes, our communities, and our work. Sometimes growth is haphazard but deliberate attention to health & growth will increase the potential for growth that is both sustainable and rewarding.

Let’s look at three individuals who are working through these questions: Zac, Ian and Jane.

Zac’s a life-long learner and has a healthy sense of curiosity about his work. He loves to grow and embodies the theory that we’re born with a desire to know we’re OK as we are, but we also want to grow, to get better. Zac looks around and finds relatively few people like himself: they seem content to stay where they are, or they’re chasing progression in their profession or job without learning new skills or competencies, they aren’t really growing very much, and they’re definitely not healthy – emotionally, professionally or socially! Zac’s situation points out how this journey of learning and growth should be producing health while we’re comfortable and content with who we are, yet at the same time not comfortable with where we are; we want more. We can find ourselves spending a lot of energy, time or money avoiding ourselves, who we’ve become, and sometimes we get comfortable, stuck in a rut of what’s known, what’s easy, what will cause the least friction in our lives, in our lives with others.

Ian planned every step of his career while at the same time leveraging situations that came along. In his 20s and early 30s his career looked and felt like it was just responding to job postings and not thinking much about opportunities to learn. As he moved into his later 30s he started sensing that he had more to offer, that he could take more control over the types of roles he wanted and needed to further his career, advance up the corporate ladder, make more money, have more job satisfaction. He started thinking about retirement in his late 50s and planned it much like he’d planned his career. So why did retirement look so different than what he’d expected? Why were he and his wife so unfulfilled in their retirement?

Jane took a different approach after formal retirement and kept working as a freelance consultant, mostly in her own field of social work. In time she branched out to other non-profits and charities. Sometimes she worried that she kept leading the same kind of projects she had always led, and wasn’t widening her interests enough, but my view is that her retirement looked very fulfilling, rewarding and as though she was continuing to make a significant contribution.

The big questions of life: Why am I here? What difference do I make?

How Zac, Ian and Jane approach their work-lives and retirement reveal the big questions of life: Why am I here? What difference does it make that I’m here? What difference will it make that I’ve been here? We’re all wired to ask these questions as we grow into adulthood and leave our parents’ homes, through our working lives and as we parent or contribute to society in other ways. They should continue to be the questions we keep asking ourselves after we’ve retired, or changed stages in our careers.

The questions, when extended, become deeper: How do I stay true to myself? How do I develop healthy and meaningful relationships? What parts of my work-life and volunteer-life have meaning to me, to the people I love and care for, for the wider community? Jordan Peterson says this search for meaning, and how we are to be a being, is the universal quest. If you have realized you need to take the time to create the space you need for such questions in your life, then you may be ready to consider taking the time and creating the space you need for health and growth. Regardless of your age, vocation, stage of career or life, I hope you are creating the space to stop, think and feel where you’re headed, how you’re getting there.

Step up. become the being you’re wired to become, at least take a step on the journey.

Step up, become the being you’re wired to become, at least take a step on the journey. This is more than self-help, and it is not indulgent: you have been made for something and it’s not necessarily about naming the ‘plan’ so much as stepping into life as fully as possible. Life isn’t just about cramming more in, it’s more than a quantity game: it’s about the fabric and pure joy of a life lived well.

This quest for how to be a being takes thought, action and determination; it is not for the faint of heart. We need to develop our curiosity and willingness to grow. We need to learn how to receive feedback so we learn who we are in relation to others, and what we need to work on to become more of who we are meant to be, or want to be … and sometimes who we need to be. If a young parent resists the need to grow up and become responsible, they’ll be affected as will those around them.

Seek out reliable and authentic feedback to assess your position.

If you’re like most people I know, you likely have an inkling that you could be more focused, more on-mission. Maybe even more aligned with who you really are and what you are really meant to do with your life. We are all born with a sense that we want to matter, even that we’re meant to matter. Matter to someone, to ourselves, in the community. We long for a sense of purpose and yet many of us are effectively sleep-walking through life: we get up in the morning, we deal with what comes, we have dinner, we watch tv or something on a screen, we go to bed. Repeat next day.

We all crave meaning, we need to matter.

But even if we don’t have this nagging sense of ‘what’s it all about, why am I here?’, all of us have the potential to be more, do more, feel more. Through leadership, through relationships, and through the tasks or mission we have set before ourselves. By ourselves, by fate, or by some cosmic force driving things forward. Regardless of how you see yourself, how you see your mission, or how much you think you’re a leader, I hope you’ll seek out opportunities for inner exploration, deeper awareness of the place and space you’re in. To bring wholeness to your sense of being, to those around you who matter to you, to your community whether that’s with the other parents at the hockey rink, in your workplace, visiting your aging parents or grandparents at the long term care facility, at your daughter’s soccer club, at church, or with your yoga class. No matter where you find yourself, where you’re meant to bring purpose and direction, please hear these thoughts and principles as guides to more. Not more only in the quantitative sense, but also and maybe more importantly – in the qualitative sense.

Life is about quality first, quantity follows. Don’t get it backwards!

Some principles to keep in mind while creating this kind of space:

  • Principles drive full life – it’s about the core values, not stuff and having more.
  • Quality leads Quantity – but it’s so easy to let the hunger for more co-opt focus on how we go about life
  • Space and place are as important as time – we need to create space, whether it’s physical or mental, to get away, to stop, to think, to hear; it also takes time, but not just time
  • Focus and Distraction are polar opposites – or are they? Sometimes distractions are what bring life into focus, so distractions sometimes need to be managed to move forward, but sometimes they’re the spark of something new, a new way of looking at things
  • Leadership is not something only the boss does – we all have influence with others, so even if you don’t have direct reports or people below you on the org-chart, think of ways you lead through influence, even if it’s quietly and with little fanfare
  • Learn from the lives (and mistakes) of others – read, read, read, and inwardly digest the lessons, try them on, let the ideas shape you, your thinking, how you influence.

Distraction isn’t always the enemy of creativity and productivity, but it needs to be managed.

People are increasingly and constantly distracted for a myriad of reasons, from cell phones to being available 24-7, parenting while working from home, to a persistent drive for more. Leaders are particularly prone to this heightened level of distraction as they work to fulfil their leadership roles in their organizations, in their homes and in their communities. The leading cause of car accidents is distracted driving; we are a frenzied people. A colleague of mine leads as a father, a friend, as a volunteer coach on his son’s hockey team, and as the chair of a local charity. Another friend finds herself going through the same pattern every time she changes jobs: she gets hired because of her amazing capacity, she drives herself and her teams to the edge, and then wonders why she’s eventually so disappointed when the senior leaders don’t understand her, or where they should be taking the company.

Learn how to make space for health and growth, it takes more than time.

There is little to support a leader in the quest for less distraction, less distractedness. The leadership development literature is much more focused on success and achievement than on having enough, getting off the treadmill regularly, and on good health. There is even less material or training available for leadership development for the leadership team. Most of the leadership development material – and there’s lots – is about becoming a better – stronger, more effective – leader.

Whether you’ve been asking the big questions about the quality of your life, or you are inspired to step up your game a bit – at home or at work – re-visit your objectives and what you want to become at least quarterly. Your first steps may feel awkward, but don’t despair, stick with it. Get the feedback you need for an honest assessment. Hire a Coach if you need to. Then make space for yourself to think and plan your next steps. This may be mental space, it may be physical, or it may be time carved out from the distractions associated with day-to-day living, but make a start.

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