Last week I wrote about defining your Mountain, in terms of establishing larger than life, long-term goals as a way keep focused on your overarching purpose and mission in life, as well as utilizing short-term mini-goals to ensure forward progress. Having a well-defined sense of purpose keeps you passionate about your efforts and can be the glue that keeps a high performing team enthusiastic, engaged and excited. But what if, as a leader, you feel like you’re on a plateau or have even lost sight of the Mountain? This happens to the best of leaders, frequently. We all have a myriad of options and career opportunities and sometimes can get so excited by a new venture that it can take considerable time to realize that it’s not leading up the Mountain we want to climb.
In my opinion as a coach, plateaus can happen for a few reasons. The first is simply attaining a goal. The problem with most goals is that if we haven’t thought about what will happen after we attain them, we immediately go out of action after we’ve hit that goal. For example, when I write novels, I used to make my goal writing a novel in X days, and I always accomplished that goal. And the book sat there. If the Mountain was writing a novel, I was a success, but if the Mountain was becoming a successful published author, then simply finishing the first draft is just one mini-step along the path. It took me five novels and some woe-is-me angst to actually get that and get off the plateau of non-published to published author with an actual contract and release date.
Another reason plateaus can happen is plain and simple burnout. No matter how well you pace yourself, if you are run long enough without a break, YOU will break. Our culture is particularly terrible about lauding overwork and work-life unbalance and buying into it will result in feeling like you’re plateauing but in reality you just need some refreshing time.
Boredom is another culprit behind the plateau. If you do the same thing time and again, you will attenuate – and this holds true in every area of life from exercising to leading. I used to have team meetings every Monday and it was a great way to exchange ideas and keep the team enthused….until it got a bit too routine and the meetings were more of an obligation than a motivation with nobody getting anything out of it. Taking a week break to change up the format and do things a bit differently added the spice back.
The fourth component of plateauing is inertia. If you are not being intentional about taking every opportunity to learn and grow you will hit a plateau. Although we all fantasize about having a leader and company that invests in our growth, and that is a wonderful thing when it occurs, our growth is an inside job that we are all responsible for. If you create any forward motion here, you will pick up speed, but beware of inertia because it’s a lot more difficult to get moving after you stop. If this is you, get started again with just 10 minutes a day invested into reading or talking about something you are passionate about.
But what if you’re not on a plateau, but on the wrong Mountain altogether? How do you know you’ve climbed the wrong Mountain? It’s different for everyone, but a sense of unease, of being trapped, of frustration and even depression is a good clue. This is not to be confused with ordinary fatigue, the goal taking longer than expected, or hitting unanticipated obstacles. If you’ve ever taken a detour from your true calling, you know that this is a very different thing.
It can happen to the best of leaders and seems to be most common in people who have multiple strengths. John Ortberg explains it best as a Shadow Mission. The basic concept is that we all have competencies and callings and sometimes they are not the same. Some of us get distracted by our competencies, or are motivated by fear of failure or economic insecurity to pursue our competencies in lieu of our callings because it feels safer. In Mountain language, you pack your bags and start climbing the wrong Mountain. Because you’re a good mountaineer, you’re likely to get very far. If you find yourself climbing the wrong Mountain you only have three options. Keep going and forget about your original Mountain, stop moving (and die) or backtrack and get back to your original Mountain.
The times I have found myself on the wrong Mountain, my first response is usually to keep going. To do otherwise feels like quitting, which is unacceptable and counter to my self-concept of being able to overcome anything. This has rarely (okay, never) worked out in my favor and usually ends up with me subconsciously or consciously sabotaging myself in order to get off the mountain. The next response is then paralyzed indecision. This is where I question every decision, make excuses for not going back and starting over and trying to convince myself that the view at the top of the Mountain I’m on is likely to be just fine. Staying in the same place will only accomplish getting eaten by a predator, so it’s also not a good idea.
That leaves backtracking and/or starting over. To figure out if this is what I really have to do, I have to get quiet and try to imagine myself twenty years from now – what will I want to be doing, what will I want to have done, and is my current situation getting me closer or farther away? Another good barometer is a values check – does my current situation allow me to be in alignment with my values and beliefs? The answer is usually apparent, if seemingly inconvenient.
It can be scary to find yourself on the wrong Mountain, but rest assured ignoring it won’t do a thing to make it better and rationalizing only goes so far. As someone once told me, if you navigate by the firmaments, when you get off track you will be able to detect it and course correct. And in the end, it’s worth it, because energetically climbing the right Mountain for you is the most fulfilling thing you can do personally and professionally.
Carrie Maldonado is the founder of Today’s Leadership Solutions, a Seattle-based consulting firm focused on helping organizations, leaders and job seekers to identify workplace solutions that work. As a certified executive coach, organizational development expert and resume writer, Carrie consults with small to medium sized businesses on OD, human resources and recruiting solutions in addition to providing career coaching to managers and executives in transition. Carrie can be reached for consultation at firstname.lastname@example.org