In 2008 a multi-billion dollar, family-held global company was experiencing troubling shifts in its primary markets around the world. Under pressure, the core liabilities in the company’s leadership—and the limitations of its ability to innovate—were becoming painfully clear. When we first met the CEO, the son of the company’s founder, he described three primary challenges:
- First, a dramatically changed global economic and environmental landscape was forcing his company to make decisions they had never before confronted.
- Second, his company’s torpid and inflexible culture and disposition was grounded in what the CEO perceived as the authoritarian and outmoded leadership style of his late father, whose willful and powerful personality had built the company from nothing in less than 30 years.
- Third, the company faced a generational transition: the top leadership positions were in need of succession, and there were few younger executives in place in the company to step into the top roles.
Cut costs and batten down the hatches? Innovate beyond their traditional markets, or find a new way to serve them? Shake up the top team? Underlying such questions, the CEO realized, were deeper, more unsettling ones relating to his own purpose and identity. Whowas he as the leader of this company? Was he more than simply his father’s son? In what ways did the company’s struggles reflect his own? And how could he integrate his interests and passions into his leadership style?
With the old ways collapsing around him, the CEO needed to find a way to transition his company and his family through a great threshold, surrounded on all sides by uncertainty.
Exile’s work with the CEO began with standing practice and the generation of a particularly embodied sense of focus and clarity. This shift revealed tension, constriction, and reactivity in the CEO’s body and his mind. As the process expanded to include a “descent” into the emotional qualities underlying his feelings of anxiety and his impulse to tightly control the circumstances around him, there followed an epiphany of sorts: below his level of awareness, without recognizing it, the CEO had taken on, during his 25-year career, many of the leadership characteristics of his father. In the days that followed, further examination revealed to the CEO a close relationship between the constriction and reactivity in his body and mind, his unconscious orientation to his father’s leadership style, and the decreasing level of performance and imagination in the company.
As this clarity accelerated, the CEO was amazed to discover the subtle yet profound ways that his father’s inflexible command-and-control leadership style—which he himself had taken on—had created a company lacking the agility needed to adapt to changing external conditions. And, with absolute certainty, the CEO was able to see that the rage and immobility he often felt was hiding a powerful feeling of grief and isolation.
As we began working with the CEO and his top team, similar characteristics emerged. The top team and indeed the ecosystem of the company as a whole was locked into a reactive pattern—a tendency to do new things in old ways—that was undercutting its ability to transform.
As he progressed in a daily practice, the CEO found himself developing a heightened form of self-awareness. Moment by moment, as he went through the day, he was confronting his own leadership style more clearly—in which ways he used control, or bullied his way, or made thinly veiled threats. This gave him freedom to make different choices, to see when and how to soften the rough edges of his anger, for instance, and to release some of the tremendous tension he’d previously embodied. His professional relationships began to shift, particularly with his top team, which found him less directive around how they went about meeting their objectives, if all the more demanding that they meet them. The CEO also discovered a new-found ability to evaluate the work of his direct reports more dispassionately and objectively. Morale improved, and performance along with it. The CEO began to feel more confident even though little had changed in the volatile and uncertain environment surrounding the company.
The CEO realized that he alone could take full responsibility for the future successes and failures of the company. As his leadership went, so the company would go. He decided to commit himself more deeply, and to commit his top team to a discovery period of their own; they, too, went into the growth process Exile’s tools set in motion. Within months the collective leadership of the top team had begun its up-leveling. Its sense of its own purpose, the quality of its propulsion forward, the improved clarity of the roles and responsibilities of its members, it’s willingness to make and honor commitments—these new characteristics began coming into play once the entire team dropped into the same process of growth, and they continue emerging as their work individually and together continues.
More broadly, in collaboration with and inspired by the family’s next generation, the CEO began to develop a vision and challenge for his company towards a future of sustainability. This was not only about values, but also strategy: the initiative has the potential to be powerfully disruptive in the primary market in which the company competes and consequently catalyze a resurgence in the spirit of innovation that gave the company its advantage decades earlier. From the perspective of legacy, it is through this innovative strategy grounded in sustainability principles that the CEO’s children will find their place in the company, a place that likely will not exist if the company carries on its older industrial-age patterns.