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Guarding Your Passion: Passion Killers and Possibilities

About a year ago, I heard, for at least the umpteenth time, yet another outburst from a client about the need to build passion and convert that passion into the bottom-line. Heady stuff and I agreed with him enthusiastically, until I realized something in the conversation was missing.

Then, all of a sudden, I saw the problem. I understood what was lacking. I heard myself say, with the sage assurance that accompanies conclusions you’ve only just reached:

We always ask how to motivate or inspire passion. That’s the wrong question. It assumes that the absence of passion is natural and that as leaders we’ve somehow got to arouse it.

I went on, sorting out my thoughts as my conviction gathered steam.

“The presupposition is silly. No one is born with a passion deficit. Mothers don’t wish that their children could be motivated to be more passionate. Passion is natural. Think of the enthusiasm generated by sports and games or the fervor of politics and religion.

It is the absence of passion that is unnatural.”

The real question is not how to build passion in a corporate environment, but rather how and why we kill it?


As management theorist Charles Handy suggests, passion is the secret, the key to everything. That’s why it’s so important. When we have passion, we search for the answers that elude us. We take the extra step. We reach out to people. We tolerate ambiguity and try our best anyway. From our love of what we do, we constantly raise the bar. We’re at our most alive. Passion is the Rosetta stone, the open sesame to possibility, the abracadabra that produces our own personal magic.


Despite recognizing how critical passion is, unimaginative companies have in common their institutionalized frontal assaults on the emotion. Many of my clients concede, ‘Yes, it’s true, when we hire people, most of them are brimming with passion. But give them a year or so with us, and we’ll suck it right out of them. We’re really very good passion extinguishers.

As each company’s list of passion killers differs, we frequently ask our clients to summarize the prevailing ones at Board level, at business unit level, at functional level, and at work team level. These are sessions of remarkable excitement, engagement, vigor and, dare I say it-PASSION! While we can all rattle off a list of generic passion killers, there is nothing quite like the percolating frenzy of a group downloading the ones that frustrate and aggravate them on a regular and recurring basis-those that are the very personal.

When we help leaders converge on, target and diminish or, ideally, destroy even a few of these each quarter, extraordinary passion is liberated.


The discoveries we make are vital, but the real question most people ask is,

“What about MY passion? I can help liberate passion in the teams that I guide, but what should I do if my boss is a passion killer incarnate? What if our corporate culture oozes dullness? What if I find myself an apologist for our culture, constantly trying to work around it, and, at times, literally at a standstill from exasperating frustration?”

I asked a junior executive who went on to become a key leader in his field why he kept sending up ideas to his company when he received so little feedback. He replied,

“Sure I would have liked to get instant feedback. But I learned from my father one thing that I will never forget:

‘Don’t let anyone teach you to be stupid.’

The reason I keep coming up with ideas is because the more I think, the smarter I get. Life is continually fascinating when I’m committed and when I care.”

Why care? Because life is so much more interesting when you do!

Why try to do better? Because by so doing you’ll grow; you’ll find ways to make things happen; your skills will be sharpened. Who you are becomes the best you can be. And that is exciting!

Some people cop out by saying,

“I’ll be motivated if my boss treats me right.”

Forget it! Don’t empower your boss! Why give someone else control over your motivation, your energy, and your spirit? Why give your boss control over who you’ll be? In short, don’t abdicate the quality of your life or the trajectory of your career to someone else.

If you allow a person or an environment to sap your energy and degrade your talents, you will become dysfunctional. If you do, you will be the only person who loses. Successes and failures have exactly one thing in common-the habits, good or bad that you have honed!

We may say that we’re waiting for the right place in which to shine. By following defeatist, stimulus-response philosophy, the danger is that when we get to the idyllic place, we’ll have trained ourselves to be

“the wrong person in the right place.”


I saw Tom Watson’s secret played out recently. A leading company that we work with in Asia selected a woman to be Chairperson. When she was chosen over more senior leaders, a number of people asked me why. I told them that while I couldn’t be certain, I had a theory.

I pointed out how Tom Watson explained taking IBM forward from its inauspicious beginning to its almost iconic heyday. Watson said that he and his team first pictured what IBM would look like as a great company. We asked ourselves,

“If we were that great company, how would we behave?”

And then he concluded,

“We had to behave that way TODAY.”

I believe the leader in question personalized Watson’s advice. She imagined the ideal role she wanted to fulfill in the company and asked herself how she would behave differently if she already occupied the role. Then she challenged herself to behave that way NOW.

At Board Meetings, she functioned not only as a Marketing Director, but also with the vision and preparation of a Chairperson. She demonstrated her willingness to partner with her colleagues across boundaries and offered ideas on how to create value throughout the entire value chain. She thought, felt and behaved as if she owned all of it. Not surprisingly, her superior recognized her vision and ability and thought,

“Boy, we’ve really been wasting her. She is capable of so much more than her current role!”

When we demonstrate the results of passion, most reasonable companies will act to capitalize on the potential it creates. But say a company doesn’t get it. Even if you’re one of its employees, you can’t lose! You can channel your own passion to gain insight, perspectives, and skills, thereby adding to the luster of your resume and demonstrating how much you are able to achieve in spite of operating in a lackluster environment. You will develop a reputation as someone who is the stimulus, rather than someone who awaits stimulation.

Lazy people say, “Give me the job and I’ll show you what I can do.” Ever notice that every airhead aspirant says that? Instead, we should insist:

“Let me show you what I can do and, if you have an ounce of sense, you’ll give me the job.

Alternately, if you can’t give me the job, let’s talk about it and see what else we can do. If you won’t, well I’ll grow anyway and use the resistance training I learned from you to build my execution and achievement muscles to be ready to move forward either here or at another company.”

When you are noticed and do get recognition, then you have a credible opportunity to help your company transform itself. Gorbachev chafed under 40 years of service to the former Soviet Union, bided his time, created the right support networks, and became their leader. He created change by becoming the right person to make that change.

Nelson Mandela used so much of his time in prison training and educating both prisoners and guards that his jail came to be known as “Mandela University.” His stature grew to such proportions that when South Africa was ready to transcend apartheid, the ruling authorities had to take him into account and negotiate with the convict who would one day win the world’s admiration as President Nelson Mandela.

Paradoxically, you and I have to get good at growing ourselves in order to help implode the passion-leeching environments that require an outstanding leader to help them re-invent themselves. Wouldn’t it be great if those situations didn’t exist in the first place?


Love the process. Mother Teresa was once asked how she kept herself from succumbing to despair. She replied,

“God didn’t ask me to be successful, he asked me to serve.”

Find arenas that turn you on, where you can be excited to compete with yourself and discover how world-class you can be. Get high from serving there.

When I climbed Mount Fuji, I learned the difference between “conquering Fuji”, a curiously macho approach that leads to blisters and weariness and “befriending Fuji,” a more Zen-like method for connecting with the mountain, letting the journey dictate the pace, respecting one’s body and breath, and learning to enjoy the process. We don’t have to conquer the challenges of our work; we have to befriend them and, in the spirit of contribution, create the necessary strategic influence with others to empower fresh possibilities.

Another personal reason for expressing passion, regardless of whatever dehumanization campaign may be inadvertently afoot, is because of what strategy coach Dan Sullivan terms “strategic byproducts.” These are the things that we didn’t expect, that happen as a byproduct of that for which we were aiming. These surprising bonuses sometimes surpass our original goals or expectations.

People we term luckier often engage in a far greater variety of efforts and initiatives and produce a far more expansive rainbow of strategic byproducts. When you engage with passion, take charge of your career and brand, partner with others who also want to make a valuable difference, you catalyze all kinds of exciting strategic byproducts in terms of experiences, learning, networks, and new opportunities.

Some people who engage in spiritual practice know the excitement of treating each moment as precious. Religious or otherwise, people with rich imaginations and abundant spirits wire their own perceptual apparatus so that they treat each challenge, each day, each exchange, as a fresh encounter with possibility, with hope, with meaning, and with the ability to co-create the future.

When we decide to show up for the transformational potential of each interaction and opportunity, then they can’t stop us. Many times we can even excite them too and convince them to participate with us in the adventure of collaborative, purposeful growth and fresh design.


Let’s choose to guard our passion. Let’s use the presence of passion as a gauge for the integrity and value of any experience or interaction. Let’s make the wonderful and liberating choice to be present to possibility in all its guises and disguises.

The people we need to encourage and to become are aware, willing to lead, eager to grow and dedicated to contribution. We must see passion as our natural birthright and be willing to stoke and channel it for our own happiness and to offer it as a contribution to others. We should all be constructive activists and passionate leaders for our companies, our country and our world.

Originally published in Leadership Excellence, January 2006, reprinted in September 2006, titled “Prized Passion”

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