August 21, 2015

Good to Great

I’ve often recommended Jim Collins’ “Good to Great” as an excellent mental health book for understanding the importance of translating values into action. When I first read it, I was starting on my own journey of recovery and the parallels between a company that overcomes challenges to succeed and the process of recovery from mental illness were inspiring. Although mental illness and recovery is often shrouded in taboo secrecy, running a business successfully is a problem that many people overcome and openly discuss. So by tapping into the vibrant dialogue around business design and change management, the tools at my disposal to support recovery suddenly increased.

In the first chapter, Collins mentions that he doesn’t see this book as necessarily being about business, but about discovering what helps to build any great organization. I would agree and expand that to include any complex system with multiple stakeholders and desired outcomes. That includes our lives.

It’s been several years since I sat down to read “Good to Great” so I pulled it off my shelf recently and I was surprised by how it seems even more relevant to mental health now that I’ve been in recovery for several years and have met many people struggling and succeeding with their own recovery. One thing in particular stuck out that I had missed in the past:

You’re the CEO of you.
When I previously read the book, I didn’t think the chapter on executive leadership was all that important because people don’t have CEOs. I just have me. With an individual, the company is inseparable from the leadership. But when I was rereading the chapter on leadership recently, I realized that the attitude at the top is incredibly relevant to sustainable health, whether it’s an individual or a company.

Collins refers to the qualities of great leadership as “Level 5 Leadership”. Leaders who embody those characteristics are “modest and willful, humble and fearless”. They’re leaders that focus on goals that are bigger than themselves. They focus fearlessly on building successful, healthy companies, regardless of how that looks to others. They don’t pursue that goal to be seen a particular way by other people, or to amass personal power, or to resolve their personal insecurities.

I often see people stumbling with recovery when their goal is something other than building long-term, sustainable health. They want to gain things: certainty, resolution, relief from fear, labels that show they’re smart, or good enough, proof that they didn’t do terrible things, escape from pain, evidence that they’re liked, that none of their worries will come true, relief from anxiety right now, etc. But those are all still rooted in the fears that led to the problems they’re already struggling to overcome. It’s like a kind of spiritual materialism to get things that will make life whole, to escape their own judgments and the judgments of others. And it only contributes to a life falling apart.

Although Level 5 Leaders are humble and modest, they’re also fanatically resolute in the pursuit of building a sustainable, healthy enterprise. As Collins titles one section of the chapter on leadership, the have an “unwavering resolve… to do what must be done.” This is so important to recovery. It’s what I talked about in my video on being unreasonable (Beat OCD Tip#8: Be unreasonable). You will always be able to think of reasons to fall back on what you’ve done before or to fall into new compulsions that aren’t aligned with your values. The book is full of examples where CEOs went against the Wall Street analysts and had millions knocked off their stock price in the short-term, but over the long-term, demonstrated they made the right decision even though it sounded absurd at the time.

When you’re struggling with mental illness, you essentially have a bunch of tiny Wall Street analysts in your head panicking about terrible things that could happen to your stock price (for Wall Street analysts with mental illnesses, that can be a very strange experience). But that’s why it’s so important to be that leader focused on something other than short-term gain. You can handle the pain because you care about something bigger, you know the long-term pay-off is greater and what will actually make you healthy and happy. Recovery is possible when you are willing to make those tough decisions and not be swayed by every threat in the market or every comment an analyst makes, from outside or inside your head.

Lastly, Level 5 Leaders pursue results. It’s not about what they think or feel is working well, it’s about what actually is delivering the results they want to see. In your life, with recovery, that is so important as well. Understand the actions that produce results and sustain those actions. Too often, people start to take care of their mental health, and then they feel better, and then they stop taking care of their mental health. That’s no different than a company that makes changes to do well, and then stops doing the things that helped them do well. It’s not surprising if that company fails. It’s not surprising if you fail when you stop doing the things that were helping you. That’s only natural.

Focus on the actions that lead to the results you want to see, achieve those results, and keep doing the things that helped you get there. Mental illnesses are not chronic, but mental health is chronic. If you stop taking care of your mental health, it gets worse, just like how a company inevitably fails if you stop doing the things that made its customers happy.

You’re the CEO of your company and the customer. Check out “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…And Others Don’t” to learn how you can make your customer happy.

– Mark

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