The Death Drive and Leaders

Some men fish all their lives without knowing it is not really the fish they are after.  ~Henry David Thoreau

I first published this post in 2012 and I’ve been thinking about this idea lately. How leaders can become so obsessed with achievement that they might actually be causing harm rather than doing something good. Two speakers, back in 2012, influenced my thinking.

One speaker (Peter Rollins) focused on what’s referred to in psychoanalysis as our “death drive.” My own paraphrase of this concept goes something like this. We become fixated on something (many times our personal visualization of success). But there’s a glass wall between us and what we see as success. We are so fixated that we keep banging ourselves against that glass wall trying to reach “success” even to the extent that we inflict harm on ourselves.

The other speaker (Shawn Achor) approached the same concept from the perspective of positive psychology and our desire for happiness. The basic premise is this. If I work harder, I’ll be more successful, and if I’m more successful, then I’ll be happier. However, every time we have a success we move the goalpost as to what success looks like a little farther down the field. So, you got good grades, now you have to get better grades. You got a good job, now you have to get a better job. But, if happiness is on the opposite side of success, we never get there. As a society, we’ve pushed happiness over the cognitive horizon. We think we have to be successful, then we’ll be happier, but our brains work in the opposite order.

If we can learn to become positive in the present, then our brains actually work more successfully. Research supports this idea. It’s been proven that if we can get the order right and become positive in the present and stop banging ourselves against that glass wall, we will experience significantly better productivity, creativity, and energy. In fact, they’ve measured it. We could be 31% more productive and 37% better at sales. Doctors who’ve learned to become positive in the present are 19% faster and more accurate in determining a diagnosis.

Shawn Achor states, “It’s not reality that shapes us, but the lens through which your brain views the world that shapes reality. Ninety percent (90%!) of long-term happiness is predicated by how your brain processes the world.”

Eugene Peterson says that the book of Philippians is Apostle Paul’s “happiest letter.” He also says that Paul doesn’t tell us how to be happy. He simply and unmistakably is happy. None of his circumstances contribute to his joy. It’s the lens through which Paul views the world that has shaped his reality.  Paul says, “I’ve learned to be content in whatever situation I’m in. I know how to live in poverty or prosperity. No matter what the situation, I’ve learned the secret of how to live when I’m full or when I’m hungry, when I have too much or when I have too little.”

As leaders, let’s not spend all our lives fishing without knowing it’s not really fish we’re after. If we let go of our “death drive” and become positive in the present we could transform our organizations into something far beyond what we could even imagine.

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