For the Sake of What?

As we climb the ladder of success, let’s make sure it is leaning against the right building.

ladderMy reflection on the pursuit of success began in a hallway when a colleague grumbled, “I-O psychologists and HR professionals have done nothing to make organizations better!” After much discussion, we agreed, I-O psychologists haven’t changed the direction of leaders or organizations, but they have helped them get wherever they are going a lot faster.

I’m afraid this is often true of our role in leadership and professional development. We debate how to speed up development most efficiently and how to figure out when acceleration rates are too fast, but we fail to help leaders discern the contribution they want to make.

In his book Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity (2001), the poet David Whyte says, “Speed has become our core competency, our core identity. We do not know what powers we would be left with if we stopped doing what we were doing in the busy way we were doing it. Besides, there is a deeper, older human intuition at play that knows any real step forward comes through our pains and vulnerabilities, which is the reason we began to busy ourselves in the first place, so that we could stay well away from them” (p. 128).

Likewise in his classic The Career is Dead—Long Live the Career (1996), Tim Hall noted that the dynamic, ever-changing careers that employees face today require two overarching competencies: adaptability and identity. Organizations love highly adaptive employees because they can be pointed in the desired direction and will figure out how to get there as they go. Yet, the second dimension is equally important. Without a strong sense of identity—an internal compass—employees can get used up, never going anywhere of significance but getting there very quickly and efficiently.

What if instead of accelerating adaptability, I-O and HR professionals found ways to accelerate a person’s purpose? What would that look like? What questions could someone ask to ensure they are heading in the right direction? Here’s a start to prime the pump:

  • What are you doing today that will be the thing you remember 20 years from now?
  • What purposes are trying to find you today?
  • What is so important in your life that it is worth doing, even if done poorly?

What are the questions that you use?

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