The Good Life & Leadership

Dr. Relly Nadler:
 This week we are sharing with you our interview with John O’Neil, a master-mind of leadership, he is the bestselling author, not only nationally but globally for several books. One of which is The Paradox of Success, another book, Aikido Leadership.

John has been instrumental in creating innovation in leadership and he has continued to do so throughout his career. We know he is currently the President for the Center of Leadership Renewal, and he serves on many boards, where he is very focused on helping to develop services for many of us around the world, using his coaching and advisory skills with senior leaders.

I have to say, it’s good to know that we have people like John that are continuing to practice all of the good things that they do to help create enduring and creative leaders. In addition to his books for leaders, that are both academic and industrial, he has also done some books that to me are also quite helpful in the spirituality categories, such as Seasons of Grace.

I’ll let John talk a little bit more about that as we go through out story today with John. Let me start off by asking John who influenced you and your work, and where you are now?

John O’Neil: Well, there was so many wonderful characters and now-a-days we would call them mentors who came into my life at exactly at the right moment. Probably the first one was John Gardner, who was, in my opinion, America’s greatest home-grown philosopher and a wonderful human being. Peter Drucker was an early influence. Warren Bennis was a very early influence, we became friends when we were both quite young guys. Over the years, over and over and over again, just about the time that I really needed somebody to help me or guide me, they pop up.

Cathy popped up when she was in her corporate days, and we ran around the world trying to help leaders. Again, Cathy, you became a real, real partner and an inspiration to me and we have done a lot of things together.

But what’s important is that every single person who comes along, if we are careful and we’re observant, we can spot how we can learn from them. I’m quite serious about that, I’m now learning from all kinds of people I would’ve never even thought about 20 years ago.

So, it’s a matter of are being ready and available and then, of course, we have to develop the art of the good question. The art of a good question is something that you can gain in the way of emotional and intellectual capacity by engaging with other people who bring you both interesting ideas and points of view but bring you value sets that you can look at. Which turn out to be very, very important.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: I just love the way you said that, good questions and value sets.

Dr. Relly Nadler: All of us as coaches know the value of the questions and in the corporate world I think they value the idea and they value advocating their idea. So, maybe you can say a little bit more about it because more people think that to be successful they have to be the idea person. One of the things I say, and I want to get your take on it John, well it’s not always the idea, I think sometimes it is better to have the question.

So, maybe you can elaborate on what you found with that.

John O’Neil: Yeah, that’s a perfectly wonderful point. We like people who have a strong point of view and especially if they are intelligent, quick and charming. What we like even better are those people who have the ability to ask the great question and to stay with it, and to listen and really compete for the best idea. Once we get trapped into thinking that we have the good ideas and that we have a little strength in those good ideas, we are liable to forget. To forget that there are lots of good ideas around but there are very few people who are, what I call, learning machines – they just learn and learn and learn.

So, I’m doing a new study, I have been working on it now for many years. Of people who have had remarkable careers over their entire life. In a way, it gets this baby boomer thing out on the table for us if we want to go there, and that is there is absolutely no reason why people who go into their 60’s, 70’s can’t have really exciting next careers. We are beginning to see a lot of that and that’s part of why we did this seminar too, the good life seminar, to take people who are at that cusp, who are either getting tired of the old job, or coming to the end of it and saying, okay I want to do something else. That’s kind of where we take this seminar from that point of questioning.

What is that next thing, what should we learn next?

Does that help?

Dr. Relly Nadler: Yeah, yeah. Let me just ask one more question then we will hear more about it.

So, is the Good Life seminar, and I know then some of your research, for some of the baby boomers retiring? Is it that kind of the general population that you are focused on?

John O’Neil: Well, it is interesting. I am in Silicon Valley, so we have people who have had three or four careers by the time they are forty right? That’s really common. So, we get a mix, we get people who are, one of the last seminars we had a guy who was finishing up his second VC fund and was saying I don’t want to do that anymore, I want to do some other things. We had a person leaving private equity in his forties and then we had people in their fifties and sixties who had risen up into their world of power and all that and were saying, that isn’t very interesting to me anymore.

So, it’s a very interesting thing. The issue that everyone comes with, is what is it I should be thinking about next, what is it that I should be asking about next, and perhaps what should I be doing next.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: And so, John, that is so meaningful because when you a few minutes ago said, it’s the powerful question. I think many of us and I know Relly and I see this all the time in our coaching, are afraid if somebody asks us that powerful question, how are we going to respond? It is a conundrum for some people.

So, tell me a little bit about how you created the idea for the Good Life program and what you think, besides the wonderful research that you are getting out of this and hopefully a book for all of us, individuals who attend really get out of that?

John O’Neil: Well, it actually all starts at Davos, the world economic forum. Year and year out, I would go there and deal with these very high-powered people who I thought asked very superficial questions. I finally figured out after a few years that they kind of tended to leave their personal questions, personal issues at the door as they pranced around, being their title. And so, I set up a series of dinners and lunches and little workshops to help people to go ahead and deal with some of those personal questions.

One of them that was the funniest I ever had was I threw a dinner one night with about 30 CEOs on the subject of anger. Now, these are people, what was I thinking, who are coming in angry, they are late, they are angry, they had a bad day, they got a bad call. Everything in their lives, they are under pressure and these are very powerful CEOs and other high-level people. We had more fun that night laughing about our anger because, by the way, the room was entirely men. No women showed up. Because men, for years, have lived on this emotion called anger! It has been their mainstay, so we had a chance to talk about the profound question of why we need that anger. What is it about us and what is it giving to us? Those are really important questions, which normally in leadership development we kind of don’t get into or you guys get into in a very personal way, one on one, in your coaching.

So, that is where it started. We did some work up at Aspen on the same subject, and it goes all the way back, as you know, Cathy, very well, all the way to the Greek philosophers and to the Asian philosophers and the whole idea is to ask the significant question. It is not about having answers.

Dr. Cathy Greenburg: It is so inspiring to me, to hear you talk. Relly, for those of our audience listeners, I might want to throw in here that I had been fortunate enough on a number of occasions to be invited to the World Economic Forum to form connections in Australia where I participated with John in facilitating some of these discussions and it is dramatic, a very dramatic event, when you see people break through.

John would you talk a little bit about this, I want to call it kind of critical leadership process that people go through. You know, everybody has issues but until they actually get through those issues, they don’t really develop who they are as a leader. Can you talk a little bit about that?

John O’Neil: Yeah, I would say that for those of you who have been through analysis, the people who are on this program. You understand something about Jung called “the shadow,” the darker side, the issues that we don’t want to look at, and of course as Jung explained to us, and as we now know, the issues that we don’t look at are the ones that are going to cause us the most harm. Those issues for leaders often tend to be around things about protecting their reputations, they don’t want to look any deeper than how do I look in that photo in the New York Times.

So, they get very, very much caught up in their image, they get very much caught up in a kind of acquisitiveness. How big is my wallet? And they lose, completely lose a lot of the issues that propel them to success, they lose those values that got them there and begin to close down intellectually, spiritually and emotionally. You see it over and over and over again. Some of them get in real trouble, first the marriage goes and then this goes and that goes and they get in real trouble.

So, I guess what I would say is that most of the leaders that you guys are helping every day have deep-seeded issues that they typically have not examined very carefully and as coaches you are able to go back and forth between helping them function in their role and helping them understand who they are behind that role. Does that help Cathy?

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: That was beautifully articulated.

Dr. Relly Nadler: What I love about that John, I think you were one of the first people, you know, with the Paradox of Success, for at least my readings, to really bring up that part, and I love how Jung talked about the shadow being the disowned part.; it’s locked away its disowned, you don’t want to look at it. Any way that you have found and I think that Jung talks about the shadow, how do you bring that into the light? Using that metaphor that you have found to help people bring that into the light because I imagine it’s you, it’s the relationship but they don’t want to talk about it, how do you get them to talk about it?

John O’Neil: That’s good, it’s good to sometimes catch people while they are in the middle of a crisis, or they are going through a hard time because I find they are much more willing to look at themselves on the down days then they are when they just had a big success.

To go further, what I suspect both of you do, is you wait for the moment to be right to ask the question that goes deeper. The deeper question about motivation, why are you here, what is it all about? A lot of times, leaders have not been able to engage that question very thoroughly.

So, some of the top leaders that I’m currently working with, we spend almost all our time now, not dealing so much with their strategic questions as leaders but dealing with what are the significant learning issues in their life. What should they be learning next? That’s both emotions and in some cases it’s spiritual, and obviously, for most of them, it’s the easiest, is the intellectual. The whole idea of catching people at a propitious moment is very exciting. When you do, and you’re ready and they’re ready it is really fun.

Listen to the rest of the interview, above.


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