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Passion and Leadership: A Primer

“Passion” has been one of this decade’s buzzwords. Leaders must be passionate. Employees must be passionate. Entrepreneurs must be passionate. But can one be successful without passion?

A respected colleague, Dave Taylor, argues that passion is overrated, that business people should follow the money, addressing whatever opportunities that fit their skill set. While talking with him, I got the sense that he considers professionals who limit themselves to their passions are self-indulgent dilettantes.

Certainly obsession with passion can turn into counterproductive fetishism. I once worked for a company where the VPs of Marketing and Sales were in a constant, hyperventilating battle over which of them was more passionate about the company and industry;  they ended by destroying the company.

That, of course, was an extreme of egotism. The real question is whether professionals, as some argue, must follow their passion to succeed. Let me assert this answer: no. I’ve known highly effective doctors, for example, who had long since lost their interest in healing. Similarly I’ve known many successful businessmen who couldn’t have cared less about their products or customers. Conversely, just because you are passionate about stamp collecting doesn’t mean you need to launch a stamp business.

But ignore your passions at your own risk. Because here’s the deal: life is short. Why would you want to spend 20, 40 or 80 hours a week at something you don’t care about? Who hasn’t known someone who lingered at the bar every night, soul dead, lamenting how they had wasted their life?

Some points to consider:

  • Allow broad leeway in defining passion. You don’t necessarily have to care about your product if, say, excelling at the function of marketing lights your fire. Or you could be indifferent to the subject of the book you’re writing if the act of putting sentences and paragraphs delights you. I’ve known passionate leaders who did not care about the widgets they manufactured but obsessed (in a good way) about building their organizations.
  • Accept that passions have seasons. Sometimes the tide ebbs. There can be months where you question your path. Even the best marriages have periods more defined by comfort or even struggle than passion. No need to beat yourself up. Back off for a while. Take a vacation. Look for opportunities to re-energize elsewhere. Then, when the season again turns, come back with renewed vigor.
  • Recognize that passion has at least some choice. Stephen Covey wrote, “Love is a verb.” Passion does not necessarily happen in lives. It can be cultivated, stoked, chosen. That doesn’t necessarily make it inauthentic. But beware of forcing it. If something doesn’t do it for you, acknowledge that it doesn’t and move on.
  • Different strokes for different folks. Some leaders are fulfilled by a mastery of making money or gaining power. If that’s you, I respect that. But as Dan Pink points out, mastery is only part of what drives us. Most of us also crave a purpose. Purpose is about devoting your work to serving a higher mission, and that, almost by definition, requires passion.

A couple of years ago, my wife survived a scary bout with cancer. Afterwards, celebrating on a beach in Hawaii, we turned from the waves one afternoon and simultaneously said to each other, “Life’s too short!” We left the town we lived in but didn’t love. I left the job I worked at but didn’t care about. We moved to a place we love and are each building careers serving our purpose.

I wish the same for you.

What do you think? Am I being too touchy-feely? Because I think, and Pink would agree, that I’m being pretty hard nosed pragmatic here.

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One Response to “Passion and Leadership: A Primer”

  1. Sound advice. I am a strong believer in “work with what works”. I have seen people who are doing very well in their business, but driven purely by the money. That is not to say they are not passionate about what they are doing, I just know that they are driven by “what’s in it for me” and fear and a mentality of “if the deal goes wrong, how do I structure it that I lose the leas”. I could certainly not compete with them in that space as I am not wired like that. I don’t agree with it, but the approach certainly agrees with them. I am more on the passion in its romantic sense mind frame, and I look for what I feel up front (I have never tried to learn to be passionate about something I do). Great pots.

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