We know the lessons of the fabled CEOs, from Bill George at Medtronics, author of "Authentic Leadership," to Procter & Gamble's A.G. Lafley and Starbucks' Howard Schultz. These men have built companies, luminous careers and legacies of success. They have also come to understand that careers and companies hit rough patches, families miss them and reinvention is critical for businesses and lives.
Most of us have crafted careers through twisted paths of preparation, persistence, surprises and rejection. On occasion we are hit in the head by a rare bolt of lightning -- a merger, sale or relocation. The career race is more often a set of short sprints than a marathon.
Today, careers lurch in the same way businesses form and perform or, unfortunately, slowly unravel.
Planning and launching a career involves good training, wise mentors and unfurling your "parachute" to get started. Then you've got to master the daily dance of delivering consistently good work, learning to work with your colleagues and dealing with client assignments that teach and stretch.
But all that dancing can take a toll on the quality of your daily life and what you envisioned for yourself. In the past three months, many CEOs and one U.S. attorney general, including one client, have imploded, abused their role, spilled too many drinks or left an e-mail trail that haunts them. Their success deluded them, and they lost their way. Everyone lost.
Shaping a career and a life that reflects your personal vision begins with some proven practices:
Prepare for what you want. Classes, mentors, visualization, goal setting, coaching and sheer grit can all work for you, but there's no substitute for daily, intentional homework. If you want to become a senior executive, for example, study annual reports, 10-Ks, Sarbanes decisions, all the language and metrics of business. Read one solid business book a month. Interview leaders you admire; ask them what they think their legacies will be.
In an age best described by researcher Linda Stone as "living with continuous partial attention," you need to find and hold a horizon for your persistent attention, a goal that really means something to you. Understand the difference between sustaining your attention and aligning your intentions. Turn down the volume, stake out time for your thinking (I push CEOs to "schedule" thinking time each day) and listen, really listen, to what you know -- or don't. It can take the form of a simple mantra or meditation, a run, any daily private ritual, but it is critical to staying in tune with yourself.
A key element of creating any change, from stopping smoking to making a career move that works, is to understand the principle of surrender. This principle sits at the center of our initial work with leaders who often approach their careers as battle plans. This isn't a new surge; it is a pause button. It can release the pure energy of insight that will fuel your next steps.
Living well takes attention and hard work. I know a CEO who headed a major publishing empire but left his company at 50 to see if he could teach what he learned.
He volunteered to teach the introductory-leadership course at the local graduate business school, and it soon became a must-take class. His belief led him to hit the pause button on his successful career, one that no longer energized him. After he "repotted" himself as a leader and teacher, he remarked to me, "I will not die a fully unlived life."