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Learning, Once Again, to Practice What I Preach

It certainly has been a topsy-turvy world these past few years.  Everyone I know has a story of profound significance in their life as a result of the crushing chain of events in our world—at work, at home, and everywhere in between.

My story is no different.

Learning, Once Again, to Practice What I Preach

Until recently, I thought I was uniquely positioned to navigate the many challenges that have surfaced in our fractured and turbulent world during the pandemic era. But I was wrong.

This is my story.

Over the past 45 years, I established a reputation as a corporate turnaround executive, who built high-performance, high-character organizations, first as President of the Nabisco Foods Company under KKR ownership, and then as CEO of Campbell Soup Company for a decade. I later served as Chairman of Avon Products and as a board member for many prominent non-profit and for-profit organizations, each with a unique set of challenges.  Throughout my career, I worked hard to be seen as one of the go-to-guys to help dig a company out of a crisis, and to set them up for enduring success.  And I thrived under pressure—it was my sweet spot.

Throughout it all, I was a diligent student of the craft of leadership. I read everything I could get my hands on, sought out the best and brightest leadership minds, constantly tried new things, learned from my mistakes, and always worked to do a little better every day.

When I retired from corporate management a decade ago, I still hungered to contribute to the world and to advance the craft of leadership.  I knew from experience that many leaders felt like they were under water, drowning amidst a sea of stresses, to-dos, competitive incursions, and organization churn; they needed support. So, taking no salary, I founded ConantLeadership to empower all leaders—from aspiring to seasoned—to champion ‘leadership that works’ in the here and now, no matter what tumult swirled around them.

Drawing upon my accumulated expertise as both a student and practitioner of leadership for nearly half a century, we created a suite of branded ConantLeadership content and training, all custom-built to empower leaders to design a strong enough personal leadership foundation to weather whatever storms may come.  And boy, have the storms come over the past three years.

I was so motivated by my years of leadership study and experience that I felt further called to bring my philosophy to life as a New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestselling author, penning both TouchPoints and The Blueprint, two books written for leaders of the modern age. In particular, The Blueprint, co-authored with Amy Federman, was specifically designed to help leaders get unstuck when the going gets tough, and to find greater joy and fulfillment on their leadership journeys in the face of an increasingly challenging world.  Thriving through adversity?  You could say I wrote the book on the subject. And yet, I found myself in a rut as the world turned upside down.

So what was my issue?

On top of everything that unfolded in the pandemic era, I turned 70, a momentous birthday. And I quietly became more reflective about turning the page in life.

Many difficult things intertwined to inspire further reflection: Both my parents had recently passed from old age, one during the pandemic, precluding my ability to be present.  I lost another influential person in my life, again with the pandemic compromising my ability to connect when they passed.  My body, rebuilt from a near-fatal car accident over a decade earlier, was feeling the wear-and-tear of everyday use.  My once sharp memory was not what it had been, and my energy levels weren’t as strong as in years past.

Most importantly, everyone around me, people that I was endeavoring to help, were also struggling with the weight of the same chaotic world that was affecting me.

Wherever I turned, it felt like I was fighting a losing battle.  All of the loss, change, and turmoil had me wondering if my ability to be helpful to others was in the rearview mirror—a depressing thought.

For so long, I had grown accustomed to thriving in the face of adversity.  People were counting on me—family, friends, colleagues, students, mentees, and more.  I was supposed to be the “rock center” of my own little universe, not the “marshmallow.”  It seemed I didn’t have the luxury to obsess over my developing sense of inadequacy; it felt self-indulgent somehow.  But I knew it was unavoidable, as much as I wished it wasn’t.

When I am teaching, I often say that leaders cannot pour from an empty cup.  My cup was quickly becoming empty.

Refilling My Cup

Slowly I realized that the process of reflection I had embarked upon as I turned 70, which first felt burdensome, turned out to be a blessing—a restorative exercise, with the potential to help me get unstuck in a way that could refill my cup.  It became the catalyst for once again reimagining my leadership journey and returning the spring in my step.

How?  By unwittingly following my own advice.  I’ve literally written a book, and teach courses, on helping leaders get unstuck so they can lift their leadership to new heights by following the 6-steps in the Blueprint process: Envision, Reflect, Study, Plan, Practice, and Improve.

Leadership is a very demanding performance art.  It is not for the faint of heart; it demands energy.  In The Blueprint, I assert that leaders need to create that energy (and fill their own cups), in part by clarifying their purpose and attempting to “Envision” a higher calling for their leadership.  Then, they need to bring that sense of purpose to life in the real world.

Without realizing it, I had been going through my own 6-step process all over again.  All of my angst led me to re-envision my next chapter, asking myself, “How can I recapture a more potent version of my early-life hopes and dreams?  How can I get my arms around ‘the good stuff’ again, the aspects of leading that make me feel whole?”

And that gave way to me reflecting on my journey, studying the world around me, incorporating my thinking into a plan for restoring my energy, and recommitting to the practice of living my purpose—all with a continuous improvement mindset.

It dawned on me:  As the world had changed and I’d experienced loss, I hadn’t been surrendering to gratuitous hand-wringing after all; I had simply begun to inadvertently practice what I preach.

The Power of Intention 

In The Blueprint, we advance the idea that today’s leaders, who face a fragile, contentious, and fractured environment, can no longer lead in a reactive mode, by the seat of their pants. They need to lead in a more intentional, proactive way.  The intention needs to be grounded in competence, authenticity, and a spirited sense of growth.

To help, we add structure to the work of explicitly crafting one’s leadership intentions. Through a variety of patented prompts, we facilitate leaders’ trip through the six steps, enabling them to “Envision” their purpose as a leader; ”Reflect” on the experiences that have shaped their leadership journey; “Study” the leadership world around them; build a “Plan” for addressing the world in the form of a personal leadership model that helps them be the best imaginable version of themselves; develop small “Practices” to bring their plan to life in the real world; and then commit to continuously “Improve” their leadership profile by always asking themselves, “How Can I Do Better?”

The Blueprint 6 Steps

I myself had been through that process multiple times and found it enormously helpful.  And here I was doing it again, this time without even realizing it at first.

But I knew I could do better.  So I decided to step back, reassess, and reimagine my plan for moving forward, going through the entire Blueprint process one more time—this time with intention and resolve, not haphazardly as I had been unknowingly doing since my 70th birthday.

As I revisited my purpose, I found that in my earnest, at times maniacal, efforts to be helpful to others, I had lost sight of three key elements that were essential to keeping my cup full—the parts of leadership that made me feel most alive.

I kept coming back to three words: “joy,” “fulfillment,” and “impact.

Somehow, along the way of managing the dips and swells of the past three years, I had lost sight of the “joy” of helping others.  The work had become more of a task, whereas it had once felt like my calling.

Similarly, absent the joy, I was not getting the same sense of “fulfillment” from the work.

Finally, because of the challenging environment, I was not having the kind of “impact” I was hoping to have with, and for, others.

But now, I was equipped with fresh insight to turn things around.

Part of the Blueprint process involves creating an “Entourage of Excellence,” a collection of individuals, living or passed, who manifest the leadership qualities that we most admire and wish to emulate.  My “Entourage of Excellence” has been taking shape for nearly 20 years now.

As I re-examined my Entourage, I found that most of the people I admire had expanded their contribution profile as they got older; their impact didn’t shrink over time, it flourished.  This got me thinking about the “Growth Mindset” work of Carol Dweck, which essentially argues that those who believe they have the capacity to continually grow and contribute, will probably do so. I just needed a little nudge to re-connect with that belief.  Clearly, the people in my Entourage embodied the growth mindset.  They were inspiring.  If they could do it, couldn’t I?

Armed with re-invigorated belief in my capacity, I set about rewriting my leadership purpose to more explicitly call out the missing elements.  The output was revitalizing.

This is my new-and-improved personal leadership purpose:

“I intend to help leaders experience the joy, fulfillment, and impact of building high-trust, high-performance teams that honor people, leverage a growth mindset, defy the critics, and thrive in the face of adversity.”

It may seem like a small thing, but simply by declaring my intention “to help leaders experience joy, fulfillment, and impact,” I enhanced my own ability to experience these crucial saving-graces.  Now, I am better grounded in what matters to me most, and excited about the personal growth that I have yet to experience.

My cup is increasingly full and promises to remain so.

As a result of this work, I have revisited the Blueprint process, strengthened my personal leadership model, and am actively working on uncovering new practices that help me bring my new-and-improved purpose to life every day.

A beautiful, energizing, and synergistic dance is unfolding.  As I more completely focus on serving others in a way that allows me to be the best version of myself, I am deriving greater joy, fulfillment, and impact on my leadership journey.

The spring in my step is back and getting stronger.  And it all came from learning, once again, to practice what I preach.  I wish the same for you and commend the 6-step approach to anyone who feels stuck.  It really does work.

So, that’s my story.

Before the pandemic era, I used to think I was uniquely equipped to deal with volatility.  The truth is, we are equally prone to becoming overwhelmed by life’s challenges—and we are all capable of overcoming them, with a little help and intention.

About the author: Doug Conant is Founder and CEO of ConantLeadership, Chairman of CECP, former CEO of Campbell Soup Company, and co-author of two bestselling leadership books, TouchPoints, and The Blueprint.

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(Cover Photo by Dan Freeman on Unsplash)

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