As I began to read Mike Myatt’s recent post in Forbes, I was attracted to the image of the cheetah.
Issued at year end, amidst a ream of top ten lists and related assessments, the cheetah stood out for its focused energy, and even more so for its extraordinary speed.
The leadership quality Myatt discussed, symbolized by the cheetah, is pursuit. You don’t ever attain, Myatt states, what you don’t pursue.
“Great leaders are never satisfied with traditional practice, static thinking, conventional wisdom, or common performance. In fact, the best leaders are simply uncomfortable with anything that embraces the status quo. Leadership is pursuit – pursuit of excellence, of elegance, of truth, of what’s next, of what if, of change, of value, of results, of relationships, of service, of knowledge, and of something bigger than themselves.”
I agree with Myatt, yet I waited for him to name pursuit’s other angle: the added dimension that completes the ascent of mere pursuit to the level of real leadership.
Discernment and Leadership.
That dimension is discernment.
Focus, energy and hot pursuit are essential. Yet without discernment, they might just defy the success they seek.
Though he doesn’t state it, Myatt implies discernment’s presence.
You must pursue the right things, for the right reasons, and at the right times.
Yet it could be argued that discernment is more central to leadership than pursuit itself.
I’ve long seen discernment as an antonym to desire. That’s my subjective look, not a dictionary definition. Some would say the two can work together, and I would agree, with the note that the filter of this discernment-desire context may clarify examples in which pursuit does – or does not – create an effective leader.
To use an auto metaphor: speed and focus power the engine, but discernment steers the car. In real life situations, leaders hit decision points. Forks in the road. Discernment is a moment of skill and understanding of one’s vehicle and one’s road, offering a driver nimbleness and accuracy in making the forward turn.
Myatt’s post considers the entrepreneur. I’ll consider the same, and add examples of the politician and the “lover.”
When prescience meets resources, and the ability to dream, code and subsist on coffee and powernaps, the startup formula can work. The essential role of dogged pursuit is beyond doubt. Yet discernment is also present. It’s present in the angel investor’s central question to the entrepreneur: “Why are you doing this?”
A couple of years ago, I interviewed a CEO and inventor, with the intention of financially enabling his newest creation. His verve seemed unstoppable, and his invention showed brilliance. Yet I realized quickly that he was obsessed with winning the reverence of his customers and investors, perhaps to resolve a past unjust wrong done to him.
He proved that point clearly one day as he interrupted a potential customer, saying “but this isn’t about you! It’s about me!”
He had to pursue winning, because he had lost.
In another case, a newly hired CEO, who brought excellent qualifications on paper, began to spend far too much time describing the same qualifications, time and exaggerated time again, for investment promotional materials.
He had been hired to pursue specific milestones: Acquiring customers and markets, brand identity, product innovation. Instead he was managing his own social profile. Pursuing the title and trappings of CEO, not its tasks.
Both were intelligent and well prepared by traditional measures. Both were all about unfettered pursuit. Yet discernment was lacking.
“Why are you running?” asks the reporter. Or the prospective constituent, in a town hall held in a highschool gym filled with rather uncomfortable folding chairs. There are prearranged answers for such questions, delivered conveniently to fill purpose and space.
The real answers are also there, often becoming evident in unintended ways: The Power, The Resume and The Reason.
Power and resume get a lot of attention but tend to be secondary thoughts. The primary pursuit is almost always The Reason.
The lure of “the reason” is the most blissful lure of all. It justifies everything. Even breaking rules, even assumed superiority of an elected over his or her constituents and what is “good” for them.
Certainly many, driven by a cause, do great things. But for some, their Reason makes them actively “overfix” what never was originally broken. The pursuit of their one cause is everything. The public becomes an inconvenience to be convinced by PR experts, not a partner or peer. If discernment intervenes and guides, leadership can be attained. If it doesn’t, then the gulf between elected and constituents can widen immeasurably.
This example may seem different than the other two. Yet if you’ve founded a startup or worked a campaign, it’s not. Your life, in a state of pursuit, assumes just one big combined uber-priority. Your relationships with those closest to you are altered and reconditioned by your project. Your project is fundamentally shaped by them.
What happens to a courtship marked by pursuit, but not discernment?
The courtship cannot cease. That sounds romantic, until you actually consider it in real life.
Courtship is the hot pursuit of a specific ideal. Is the subject of this pursuit, him or herself, ever “ideal” in the same sense? No.
A successful courtship, like successful leadership, involves discernment overcoming mere pursuit.
The pursuit can only cease when the actual beloved becomes that which is pursued, rather than the originally pursued ideal. Discernment illuminates this inspired turning.
If this does not happen? Pursuit is endless, and attainment impossible. Some call this state of unfinished desire “passion,” but it’s not passion in its true sense. It’s just a state of never succeeding. It can be glorified in narcissistic pop songs, but it’s ironically a rejection of who the “beloved” really is. This deprives both of the shared vision of mutual leadership which is gifted by love, yet not ever found in the insatiable, focused pursuit of one.
Discernment is a necessary dimension. Paired with Myatt’s hot pursuit, it’s an excellent basis from which leadership may develop across many aspects of our lives.
Anne-Marie Fowler is an undergraduate lecturer in political communications and writer/policy advisor on Federal Reserve, Treasury, tax reform and budget-related issues. Her first book, titled “Full Faith” will address the evolving interaction between the U.S. Congress and the U.S. Treasury, as viewed through the lens of the 1995 and 2011 debt ceiling debates. A former banker who loves social entrepreneurship and advises political technology-focused startups, Anne-Marie is currently working with an innovative Silicon Valley nonprofit seeking to launch a data-driven model to accelerate both literacy and leadership.