10/18/2007 10:10 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Learning Life Lessons From Gore's Playbook

Pundits have commended Gore's moral vision and effective dissemination of his environmental message. I do too, but I would argue an equally important lesson is the process by which he went from 'loser to laureate' (NY Times, October 12). He moved beyond being a 'people pleasing politician' to 'in a power position', and that is a lesson many of us stand to learn.

Gore could have played the 'victim' or attempted a comeback, to prove he 'should have won'. With these approaches he would have been looking to the American public to reassure him of his capacity and worthiness to serve. Instead, he looked within: He returned to his original core competency. He learned to meditate. He pinpointed the issue that most engaged him, consolidated his expertise so he could trust himself, and started speaking about it (anywhere and everywhere.) At the beginning there weren't that many people in the room, and some called him strident.

Now he fills stadiums and we plead with him to run for the position he was pleading for 8 years ago. He is no longer beholden to others' comments because he has an authentic sense of purpose, and lives from an internal compass. He stopped the approaches people commonly do, which I call "looking and waiting and hoping and trying". These are the ways we divert our attention towards other people to get them to validate us. Success comes from putting efforts directly into achieving our aims and making ourselves feel secure.

Politicians and business leaders take note: His leadership comes from being out in front, knowing who he is and what his vision is, not following polls. Gore doesn't have to deceive, squelch others' perspectives, make promises, or sell himself -- he speaks his truth and people respond. It's not a power grab that compensates for his insecurities, it's a mission for a greater good beyond himself. Of course he enjoys the accolades, but they are the cherry on top not the sundae. This is why he's 'lost his taste' for politics. Few who taste the freedom and effectiveness that come from 'being in one's own power' would revert to prior approaches.

To state the obvious, politicians could learn from his playbook. Being beholden to others' approval and pleasing others, however, is also rampant in the workplace (and in families). There is vast opportunity for people to learn from his example.

Many people in the workplace are seeking approval on a daily basis, though they may not be consciously aware of it. From in-depth conversations with hundreds of businesspeople as a business coach and trainer, many report typically engaging in the following behaviors to seek validation, reassurance, or recognition:

• working obsessively in order to get a "pat on the back" from a boss or client
• saying 'yes' to everyones' requests but not finishing what you need to do
• exhausting yourself being perfect to make sure others think well of you
• asking others' opinions even though you know in your gut what to do
• worrying about 'politics' and what others think about you
• stealing credit from others

Equally frequent are behaviors in which people avoid or procrastinate in order to prevent other people from being able to criticize or reject them:

• have good ideas but don't assert them in meetings
• procrastinate so your work can't be commented on
• stay mired in comfort zone of details instead of thinking strategically
• avoid direct feedback

All of these behaviors put energy and attention into managing other people's perceptions of oneself. This is how people act when they have doubts about their value -- they get other people to think well of them so they can then 'borrow' that perception to boost their own confidence, or they prevent other people from shaking their already shaky confidence by avoiding "putting themselves out there". Emerging leaders who engage in these behaviors won't rise to seniority -- their attention is siphoned into personalized concerns of how they are doing, rather than on bottom line results.

Using strategies that in earlier times may have gotten them ahead, the "people pleasers" are now losing ground. Increasingly, organizations promote people who implement innovations, rather than reward those who play it safe and drain their attention worrying about what other people think. Entrepreneurial home runs go to those who have a highly developed core competency and stay true to their mission. Success in these times is about personal responsibility for developing one's own self -- taking input from, but not relying on outside sources whether bosses, opinion polls, family members, therapists, gurus, or anyone else.

As a psychologist, I believe that human beings are biologically and psychologically set up to seek approval. Cognitively, we come to know ourselves in large measure as we are reflected in the eyes of important other people. We learn at an early age to get our family members and teachers to think well of us, so that we can think well of ourselves. We are biologically programmed to seek from others a feeling of love and safety -- it's our "emotional oxygen". These approaches are normal and adaptive early in life. Yet as we mature, it is up to us as adults to give this validation to ourselves (so that we can focus on being productive and have something to give to our children). The most successful people develop this capacity to be their own person, to be their own compass, and to recharge their own batteries (and those who don't pursue futility as they try to get these inputs from others!) Ironically, Gore is in an unprecedented position of power that didn't come from him 'seeking it'. Take a lesson from his playbook, and maybe a one-year sweep of an Oscar, Emmy, and Nobel will be in your future, too.