Stop Chasing the Wrong Priorities

Last Updated Apr 6, 2011 4:32 PM EDT

I've spent a lot of time studying what makes people happy, successful leaders. But some of the best suggestions I can think of came out of a study of a bunch of elderly retirees, who, as far as I know, never had been CEOs. A friend of mine had interviewed this group about what advice they'd give to younger people. What, they were asked, is the key to having a great life?

Their answers were both simple and wise so I'll summarize here. Then I will explain what applicability I think they have to your careers.

1. Be happy now. Not next week, not next month, not next year. Now. The great Western disease we are spreading around the world is "I'll be happy when." When I get that BMW, when I get that new house, when I get that status. Americans are among the luckiest people in the history of the world. Don't get so wrapped up looking at what you don't have that you miss that, what you do have.

2. Appreciate your friends and family. When you're 95 years old and you're on your death bed, do you think you'll be surrounded by your clients? It's your friends and family who matter most.

3. If you have a dream, go for it. Want to write a book? Visit New Zealand? Learn to speak Mandarin? Your dream doesn't have to big--it could be one that people think is silly, or just plain nuts. It's your dream, and you should go for it now because when you're 75, you may not be able to do it.

Now how does this apply to being a better, more fulfilled leader? It turns out the advice hews pretty closely.

1. Having fun at your job is key.

It's important not only because life is short, but if you don't enjoy what you're doing, it will be very hard to make your colleagues enthusiastic. Want the young people who work for you to be happy at work? You go first.
2. You need to take the time to help your colleagues.
It can't be all about you. Coach your subordinates; give feedback to coworkers. The most important reason to do this has nothing to do with money. The most important reason is that 95-year-old retiree would be proud of you if you did and disappointed with you if you don't. And if you don't believe this is true, ask any CEO who has retired: "What are you proud of?" I've interviewed many, and not one told me how big their office was or how fancy their car was; usually what they talk about is relationships that meant the most to them.

3. "Going for it" is the most important thing you can do for yourself.
In a fast-changing world, where industries are being overturned, the only certainty is doing what you believe in. You may not succeed--you could even fail miserably-- but at least you would be able to look at yourself in the mirror and say, "Oh, what the heck, at least I tried."

Do you have any other suggestions for how to be a more successful, satisfied leader?

Related: image courtesy of flickr user, Annie Mole
  • Kelly and

    Kelly Goldsmith is a recent Ph.D. graduate from the Yale School of Management and a member of the faculty at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. Her specialty is research in consumer decision making.
    Marshall Goldsmith is an executive educator, coach and author. His books include What Got You Here Won't Get You There and Mojo. His specialty is helping successful leaders achieve positive, lasting change in behavior.

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