It's simple but true: Who you are ultimately drives what you do and how you perform. Great leadership consists of so much more than short-term results and quarterly returns -- and that means we need to measure the qualities of a great leader in a more holistic way than we have in the past.
Years of leadership research with 500 CEOs in 50 countries led me to a startling finding in that regard: Effective leaders not only take a long-term view of their career and their business; they also practice a type of preventive health -- for themselves, their employees and their companies. I like to refer to these leaders as "grounded."
What Does It Mean to be Grounded?
Picture a large oak tree, and notice that it has three parts: lush foliage, a sturdy trunk, and thick roots. While many may be preoccupied with the color of the leaves or the length of the branches, they fail to realize that without supportive roots, the tree fails to stand. This same concept can be applied to leadership.
Traditionally, leaders have been too concerned with the wrong part of their tree - surface level qualities like behaviors or actions, instead of the roots that establish values, beliefs, experiences, emotions and thoughts that ultimately define a leader. Behaviors and actions come from within, and your principles, intentions, thoughts and emotions determine whether these actions are genuine or insincere.
Rather than the traditional preoccupation with outcomes, competencies, short-term metrics and external personas, it's time to shift our focus to the internal drivers of human behavior -- the underlying source of performance successes and struggles.
Sprouting Healthy Roots
Nobody arrives at grounded leadership by accident. Many of the leaders I've met who exemplify this new leadership model take time to cultivate qualities of character, mind and body. These qualities -- I call them healthy roots -- form the foundation of grounded leadership.
Physical health is vital for providing the energy and stamina you need to meet the relentless demands on your attention. When you're grounded in physical health, you understand how mind and body work together, and you develop a long-term energy management system. When Paula Kerger became president and CEO of PBS, a job that involved constant travel and nonstop meetings, she challenged herself to stop skipping the gym and instead compete in a triathlon. Her training not only boosted her mental toughness, but also enabled her to bolster PBS's audiences across genres and tap into new media such as iTunes, YouTube, Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu.
Emotional health prevents negative feelings from getting in the way of productive thinking. It also helps you to stay optimistic in a world of uncertainty, which is healthy, and not get carried away by enthusiasm or cynicism, either of which can spell trouble. Emotional health is inextricably tied up with self-awareness. Being emotionally grounded means you understand your strengths and weaknesses, are comfortable with ambiguity, and keep things in perspective during difficult times. Linda Rabbitt, founder of Rand Construction, was diagnosed with breast cancer at the same time her company was stagnating. She used her increasing self-awareness to value her relationships more deeply and better delegate responsibility to employees, helping the business to break out of a rut and experience explosive growth.
Intellectual health involves mental artistry and a far-reaching curiosity that allows you to sift through complexity and weigh quickly changing, potentially contradictory information. Intellectual health means you don't simply think linearly, but in terms of networks, matrices, and broader systems. The CEO of military shipbuilder Huntington Ingalls Industries, which builds our nation's aircraft carriers and submarines, Mike Petters, tapped his deep curiosity and commitment to lifelong learning when leading his company, a spin-off of Northrop Grumman, to a successful IPO.
Social health lets you build an environment of trust and shared goals in a world of increasing transparency. Having strong personal connections, including a wide array of mutually beneficial relationships and teams, requires you be your authentic self and maintain integrity in everything you do. Ken Samet, president and CEO of Medstar Health, boosted employee trust and commitment to his 2020 strategy in large part by being honest and authentic about his and the company's situation.
Vocational health reflects a sense of meaningful calling in a competitive world. It encompasses both who you've been and what you want to be. Vocational health makes it possible for you to reach your highest potential, while also setting an example for others about the value of excellence and performance. Ted Mathas, CEO of New York Life, helped to transform the firm's traditional decision-making structure -- and to weather the 2008 economic downturn -- through personally challenging himself to keep learning from others and be thoroughly prepared to address difficult issues.
Spiritual health enables you to avoid trivial distractions and foster an environment in which everyone is encouraged to become more grounded themselves. It means serving a higher purpose -- one that's greater than just meeting organizational goals, but helps others to develop their own leadership potential. Klaus Kleinfeld, CEO of Alcoa, applies his German-bred passion for excellence and commitment to social responsibility to every facet of operations, from the work the company's foundation does, to ensuring the business's leaders are generous, responsible and globally minded.
Why are these healthy roots so critical? Only grounded leaders are truly up to the task of meeting today's wide-ranging challenges. They inspire people to do good work, not just work hard. Most importantly, they possess the invaluable ability to unite people around visions both grand and sustainable.
Grounded leaders not only make effective decisions, take the right actions, and lead by example, but our research also shows that they significantly out-perform their peers. The formula is straightforward: Who you are drives what you do and your ability to run healthier and more competitive, profitable companies.