Whose Life Are You Living?

When we start our work, I ask my coachees what motivates them. What drives them? Why do they spend the hours on a relentless and exhausting treadmill where new competitors are constantly raising the performance bar? Often they say things like, “I am serving the shareholders or the board that placed me in this position,” “I want to leave a legacy for my family and my employees,” “I am driven by success and accomplishment,” “I want to be a role model for other women,” “I want my family to be financially independent,” “It’s what I fell into,” etc.

The next question I ask is “What are you trading in, and what is the cost to you?” At this point, these articulate and well-rehearsed leaders usually pause and reflect. The first signs of a deeper and more insightful conversation start to reveal themselves. Admittedly, there are some who have done the work, and are in touch with their values and aligned to them. There are, however, many who are on “autopilot”.  They followed the path that was in front of them and through sheer work and perseverance have climbed the corporate ladder without asking fundamental questions about who they are, what their gifts are, and what opportunities they have missed by not being present. Many were domesticated by others into living someone else’s life. The sample answers that are voiced by this group of leaders include “I am not around my family that much, but they know that I am doing this for them,” “I don’t think that much about these types of questions, I am running around too hard and don’t have the time” or “I am not really spending much time on taking care of myself but I will have enough money to retire nicely and then I am going to more than make up for it.”

Of course, many of these statements are justifications for a life unexamined.  When leaders are not in flow with their gifts and deliver results through brute force and perseverance, they not only under-deliver on their potential but also the potential of the talented people that look to them to set the example and motivate them to reach for higher ground.  In my work over the past 40 years with numerous leaders, it has become abundantly clear that those who do not take the time to reflect and examine who they are and what their intuitive intelligence is pointing to, lead lives that are forced. It is possible to be financially successful. However, true happiness and fulfillment require work that will connect the leader to his or her soul and provides room for their authentic selves to lead the way. In addition, as so ably demonstrated in the book Resonant Leadership by Boyatzis and McKee1, leaders who don’t take care of their own physical and emotional wellness will not have the resonance to lead and motivate others. Think of the oxygen mask analogy in air travel.

In my case, I was being trained by a global multinational when the Iranian revolution occurred and my plans to go back to my country and culture were changed overnight. I had to try and adapt to being an employee of a Wall Street global insurance and financial services company. Being insecure about my future and desperately looking for a lifeline, I simply put my head down and for years trudged my way through the career tracks of large global enterprises. It never felt right. I was brought up in a culture where relationships were very important. One where you worked to live and not the other way around.  The idea of taking two weeks annually as vacation seemed absurd to me. I was not used to using four-letter words at work. Many of my colleagues would go out to lunch and drink alcohol and would be slurring their words after they came back. Never the less, I ignored and dismissed my inner voice. I thought by changing jobs and companies I would find something that was a better fit. This continued until my soul could no longer take the unnatural environments that I worked in and I literally sabotaged myself. I could no longer motivate myself at any cost. Through self-examination and deeper inner work, I realized that my values were routinely undermined in these organizations. My father was a Gandhi-like figure in Iran who had devoted himself to building his country and I had inherited two fundamental values – personal freedom and achievement or building something of value that benefited others. Many of my creative ideas and accomplishments were crushed through corporate politics and not invented here mindsets. In addition, others who felt they had a position power would micromanage my creativity and passion for making a difference.

It is when I finally built my own consulting firm, which I sold to Heidrick and Struggles two years ago, that I was able to self-actualize and experience flow. Heidrick has provided me with the space to honor my values.

Like me, most of you have personal stories, unique gifts, heritages, and experiences that point to your authentic destiny. A destination where you feel fulfilled from the inside out, one that feels natural and allows you to exhibit your gifts. When you occupy that space, you will naturally outperform others who are not in flow because your passion will have you fall in love with the work. When you fall in love it fills you with energy that is hard for others to imitate. Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Roger Federer, and Princess Diana allowed the natural energy awaiting them to guide them by being present to it and focusing their efforts on its development. It takes work, discipline, a safe space, skilled professionals, and a belief system that lets go of ego and control and embraces curiosity and the joy and learning.

  1. Boyatzis R, McKee A. Resonant Leadership: Renewing Your Resonant Leadership: Renewing Yourself and Connecting with Others Through Mindfulness, Hope and Compassion. Harvard Business School Publishing, 2005.

Questions for Online Conversations

  1. How much time do you spend reflecting on your purpose and destiny?
  2. What is your greatest fear in doing so and what is hard to let go of?
  3. How will you look back at your life and will there be regrets?
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About Kaveh Naficy
Kaveh is the leader of Heidrick and Struggles executive coaching practice in North America. Kaveh focuses on working with leaders placed to make transformational and creative changes in their organizations. Kaveh has a proven record of success in harnessing the strengths of these leaders to achieve accelerated business solutions. He is able to create significant insights through reflective thinking, presence, and disciplined follow-through. Executives who have worked with Kaveh say that his strengths are his deep insights into the realities of the current and future business world, accelerated scanning of the environment and competition; creative out of the box thinking, and leveraging the collective intelligence of their teams and creating the organizational culture to support and foster the appropriate organizational design and strategies. They also point their deep trust and personal connectivity with Kaveh, his coaching approach, and style.

3 Responses to Whose Life Are You Living?

  1. Sherry Bakhtian says:

    Thank you Kaveh for your thought provoking post. I find that when people are not living out their own purpose, they have a hard time talking about what they do. That whole elevator speech is a daunting task when you live your life for others, or when trying to fit somewhere you don’t belong, or trying to remember the buzz words that you think others want to hear.

  2. Kaveh – As always, I find that your writing speaks to me and reminds me to relook at something in my own life. Thank you.

  3. Kristina DiPalo says:

    Thank you, Kaveh, for illustrating how common it is for professionals, even successful leaders, to fall into their careers instead of choosing them.

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