Business Can Be Serious (by choice)
I had a client several years ago in the Denver area who wanted to start a business. I worked with her as her coach as she got the business started. As usual, the challenges of profitable sales, personnel performance, customer service and the rest were all part of her business experience.
As a leader, she was faced with the issue of how to think about those challenges as they occurred. Clearly, the success or failure of the business depended to a great extent upon how she handled those and many other potential threats to the business in other words, her leadership. These were serious issues.
People typically start new businesses just as she did, out of some passion that calls out to them. They are excited about the dream of what could and hopefully will be. Their attitude is initially a kind of playfulness where they can’t wait to get into the action.
And then as the bills pile up and the hours become exhausting, the new venture can turn into a job and in many cases a job that feels like a relentless master rather than a playful experience. The dream, rather than liberating them, begins to feel more like a trap. This is the place based on my experience, where leadership meets an inevitable fork in the road.
In the case of my client as these kinds of issues arose, the question became, would she choose the path where the seriousness of the challenges dominated her thinking and began to dictate her choices or, would she choose the path where seriousness was always approached in the context of playfulness. This fork in the road was not only a huge decision point in the value of her experience but also a huge factor in how the business would unfold.
The relationship between playfulness and seriousness in the way that I think about leadership, can be defined by two different kinds of approaches. When seriousness is the dominant state of mind and playfulness (vacations and relaxing for example.) is a tool for reenergizing in order to get back to seriousness, leadership is fundamentally ruled by a predefined concept of success that guides everything and leaves little room for other possibilities.
When seriousness occurs within a mind that is fundamentally playful, then leadership is guided by resonance (what intuitively feels right) and its naturally creative and transformative process. Leadership is guided not by outcome but by creative energy as an ongoing companion of sorts.
You can think of how for example, a game of golf is approached from the standpoint of mindset. For one person the game might exist in the context of seriousness – winning is the only thing, i.e. the value of playing lies in winning and no where else. For another person the game exists in the context of playfulness. That means that winning and seriousness are things that are part of the game, rather than the guide or place of value. Thus, “I play for the love of the game and the inherent value of the experience to me.”
The first approach to leadership is founded on what I call Conditions Bounded Leadership where goal achievement is everything. The second is what I call Dream Bounded Leadership where engagement in what feels intuitively right is everything.
Thus, leadership in the way that I approach it and in the way my client out in Denver approached it, was grounded in a mindset that said, value lies in engaging in the dream of my business, and my intention is simply to go for it and do the best I can.
As a result of this mindset, when the going got tough she maintained that relationship where the seriousness of the challenges did not replace her fundamental choice of engaging in her dream because it called out to her. In other words, seriousness was never more than a part of an experience founded in playfulness, rather than making her playfulness an interlude in a foundation of seriousness.
She ran the business for seven or eight years and then sold it and moved on to another business venture as so many entrepreneurs do. From an outsider’s point of view (I continued as her coach throughout that period), I really enjoyed watching her ongoing transformation both as an entrepreneur and as a person – transformation made possible by playfulness. She loves what she does and is able to get plenty serious about her work without losing her fundamental playfulness.
It can be useful to be aware of when you are at those forks in the road where you are choosing between Dream Bounded Leadership mindset and Conditions Bounded Leadership. Ask yourself in those moments whether seriousness is just a natural part in the larger experience of playfulness or whether playfulness just a useful break from seriousness. From my point of view, this is the most fundamental choice that all leadership makes.
You can ask yourself which approach tends to have your business as the rich and rewarding experience you originally envisioned – one that responds to your burning desire to experience all of those things that life has to offer, one that calls out to you.