5 Paths to Becoming a Better Executive — and Why they Might Not Be Enough

There’s no shortage of assistance for overworked and underappreciated executives. Seminars, coaches, counselors and churches all have a role to play. But they might not get you across the finish line.

That’s because there’s no finish line in authentic self-development. To become a better leader, you have to look beyond other people’s strategies and start exploring the motivations and behaviors that produce the outcomes in your working life.

It’s never easy because you have so much on your plate already. You’re sitting through meetings, putting out fires and keeping an eye on the big picture. And you could be doing everything except confronting the elemental truths of your personality — the mental blocks and coping mechanisms that stand in the way of progress.

If you’re determined to improve the course of your executive career, keep these venues for self-development in mind — and note their limitations:   

1) Leadership Development

Seminars at trade shows and conferences abound with advice on leading and managing people. Many companies require top executives to attend dedicated training programs. These are excellent opportunities to learn from your peers, share “this worked for me” anecdotes and zero in on your employer’s core leadership philosophy. 

Why it’s not enough: Leadership development isn’t necessarily about you — it’s about your place in the context of your employer, profession and personal goals. Often, leadership development doesn’t get personal enough. It might not challenge you to explore your inner self and figure out where you need to change.  

2) Executive Coaching

An executive coach can provide a sounding board for nasty conflicts, confounding challenges and strategic business initiatives. You can get quick, hands-on guidance that can be applied right away. Moreover, learning from your coach’s experience is a much better use of your time than figuring things out on your own via trial and error. 

Why it’s not enough. There’s always a risk of becoming dependent upon a coach’s voice of clarity and reassurance. If you know you need to change, you have to look deep into your motivations and fears to discover the core of your difficulties — and then you have to act. A coach cannot do that for you.  

3) Psychotherapy

The relentless stress and anxiety of leadership often lands executives in the office of a mental health professional. Counselors devote their careers to discerning the root causes of mental anguish and mood disorders, and they see pretty much everything that people can conjure up. This makes them a good fit for many leaders trying to navigate the hazards of the human mind.  

Why it’s not enough. Finding your ideal therapist can be a lifelong hunt because they all have different ideas about what works. And because so few people rise to the top of the leadership ranks, counselors may not see your challenges often enough to have proven strategies for addressing them. 

4) Relationship Counseling

Executives often think they can keep their personal life out of the workplace. When they fail, they often turn to relationship counselors, who can be of immense assistance in opening lines of communication and finding common ground. Executives often turn to counseling because they’re smart enough to know that relationship  conflicts do not resolve themselves.

Why it’s not enough. Leaders are accustomed to paying for results, so they may give up on counseling too soon if they feel it’s not working. That can encourage people to spend more time at the office, which only aggravates relationship problems and makes it even tougher to resolve them.

5) Religious and Spiritual Practices

Attending to the spiritual side of life is one of humankind’s most consistent paths to clarity of mind and purpose. Indeed, prayer, meditation and yoga all have a place in surviving in the minefields of the executive suite. That’s why so many leaders set time aside for matters of the heart and soul. 

Why they aren’t enough. Spiritual practices set high standards of personal behavior that many leaders fail to meet in the pressure to achieve business results. These failures can generate guilt, remorse and regret that can pile emotional turmoil on top of day-to-day workplace pressures. 

Why Honesty is the Best Path to Executive Success

Leaders can travel all of the above routes and still feel stymied or unsatisfied. 

Why? Often, it’s because conventional personal-improvement programs do not require people to confront the deepest truths of their working lives — that is, how they contribute to their troubles What’s more, personal-improvement strategies often sidestep a crucial reality: Conflicts and obstacles provide some of the best learning opportunities. And the value can last a lifetime. 

If you’ve found these leadership development venues wanting because they haven’t resolved the issues bedeviling your working life, it’s time to start looking within yourself and paring away the layers of resistance standing between you and the truth. Among the questions you should ask:

  • How, specifically, am I enabling these issues?
  • Where do I need to learn more and close gaps in my knowledge and perception? 
  • What have I been doing to avoid opportunities to deal with these challenges?   
  • How can I see interpersonal conflicts as a venue for growth and self-improvement

Most executives are so engaged with their work that they cannot make a space in their lives to even ask these questions, much less answer them. Moreover, they manufacture obstacles to the truth — denial, procrastination, resistance — that provide no way out of their professional rut. 

But there is a way. It requires a combination of truth, humility and engagement with the underlying causes of your leadership challenges — there’s no quick fix. You have to start working on it today and keep at it for the rest of your career.