The Secret to Executive Leadership

It is with some trepidation that I am throwing in my two cents about The Secret. For those of you just returning from a two-year sabbatical spent at a silent monastery deep in the Himalayas, The Secret is an enormously popular and mildly controversial book (and video) that asserts that people can attract anything they want by simply thinking positive thoughts. It suggests that the “Law of Attraction,” a guaranteed path to success, has been kept secret by the ruling class (corporate executives?) in dark, shadowy caverns (conference rooms?) for centuries. Luminaries from Oprah to Larry King have weighed in on this idea, so I thought, what the heck, I’ll take a shot as well.

I’ll leave the debate as to the universal veracity of The Secret’s claims to philosophers, metaphysicians and theologians. (Although, to declare my bias upfront, my deeply conservative Scandinavian roots tell me that dedication, hard work and sacrifice play no little part in one’s success in life and career.) I do, however, feel that I can offer some perspective on the topic through the eyes of an executive leadership coach.

I am blessed with the opportunity to work with those special men and women who sit at the top of our organizations. My typical client would be described by most of us as enormously successful.. He or she earns north of $500k per year, is accumulating substantial personal equity, is devoted to his or her family (forget the absent father/mother stereotype), is passionate about commerce, cares deeply for the people in his or her organization (forget the mercenary stereotype), enjoys the arts and fine dining, travels the world, is in relatively good physical shape, and feels very grateful for his or her lot in life. (They also often wake up in a cold sweat knowing the demons to be faced as they guide this messy thing we call an organization through the ever-menacing minefields of the marketplace.)

Now here’s the rub. I have never had an executive tell me that they attracted their success from the cosmos by simply directing positive thoughts and energy to business results. . Quite the contrary. Their stories are replete with the timeless trials and labors of leading organizations. They tell stories of navigating through treacherous waters, galvanizing vastly diverse people together around an idea, constantly changing business process while trying to build a sense of organization stability. Knowing these people and their stories, there is something about the thesis of The Secret which rubs me the wrong way. In a particularly annoying scene of the video, a young boy dreams of a shiny new bicycle, cuts a picture of one from a catalogue, concentrates on the bicycle and, voila, a father-like figure delivers it right to his front door. If only executive leadership was this simple and straightforward. If an executive had only to focus positively on market share to lead a successful product launch; If he or she had only to focus on a completely aligned organization to lead a complex merger! The Secret apparently sees no need for messy words that are the hallmark of these executive’s careers. Words like sacrifice, commitment, service, failure, loneliness and perseverance. The “Law of Attraction,” is about getting, while true leadership, in my opinion, is about giving. It’s about creating not dreaming.

It’s not that I do not value the power of positive thinking (thank you Vincent) and an appreciative attitude. In fact, in my recent book Unleashed!, I speak at length on the importance of both self-esteem and appreciating the best in others. As a student of leadership, I have found that great achievements come when leaders find their passions and express them through work. In my experience, there is a law of attraction at work in leadership, but it works differently than the authors of The Secret propose – those leaders who come to work every day, and bring their full authentic selves to bear on everything they undertake (from managing the budgeting process to engaging in conversation with co-workers) attract others with their passion. The “Secret” to their success is that, by living their own greatness, and creating an organization where greatness is expected, they bring out the greatness in others.