Executive coach Jerry Colonna wants managers to stop focusing on output and achievement. Instead, he wants them to engage in radical self-inquiry, which builds the maturity required for leaders to lift up others, not just themselves. It’s part of what sees as a bigger rebooting — a process he went through himself. The former venture capitalist fought through depression and suicidal feelings to lead a more fulfilling life, both professionally and personally. Colonna joined the Knowledge at Wharton show on a recent segment of the Knowledge at Wharton radio show on SiriusXM. (Listen to the podcast at the top of the page.)
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Knowledge at Wharton: A lot of the concepts in your book relate to a growing focus on corporate culture and the well-being of employees. Can you talk about that?
Colonna: My first reaction to that is, thank goodness. So many people suffer in work, and it’s not necessary. It does not contribute to the organization’s financial success to have a third of the employees dealing with depression or anxiety.
A few years ago I was on a CNN documentary on mental health in the tech startup community. After that episode aired, I got a phone call from the head of talent at a very large software company who spoke about the fact that the health care claims for anxiety-related illnesses for the children of their top executives had gone up 30%, 40%, 50% in the previous two years. What are we doing?
The more we focus on those organizations and how we’re interacting with each other, we can not only create the financial success, but we can create these kinds of work environments where human beings thrive and get to be their best selves. That just feels really important and, dare I say it, even sacred.
Knowledge at Wharton: When somebody is given the task of leadership, what do you think changes within that person?
“Most leaders think they’re the only ones who struggle with what to do. Most leaders think they’re alone in feeling incompetent.”
Jerry Colonna: Usually, the first thing that happens is they panic. And sometimes if they call me, they might even call me with a little nausea. They’re so sick by the overwhelm of it. But then all of the internal challenges that they have start to get amplified by the challenges of actually working in that leadership position. For example, if they tend toward conflict avoidance, then their tendency tends to be exacerbated, and it gets amplified throughout the organization.
Knowledge at Wharton: You use the term “radical self-inquiry.” What does that mean?
Colonna: It goes beyond this notion of self-awareness. I call it radical because we tend not to do it. It starts with basic premises like, “How am I actually doing right now? How am I actually feeling? Am I anxious? Am I scared? Am I filled with joy?” As a leader starts to unpack their issues, they start to ask questions like, “What kind of CEO do I want to be? What kind of leader do I want to be? What kind of company do I want to build,” rather than just automatically going about their business and doing the tasks of every day.
Knowledge at Wharton: How does growing up factor into leadership?
Colonna: I use it somewhat tongue-in-cheek because most of us are chronologically adult. But I associate the notion of growing up with this larger notion of fully actualizing the self and becoming the adult that we were born to be. Somewhere in our 30s, for example, we might get stuck in our process of becoming our person. What occurred to me was that then all of the challenges associated with assuming power become good fodder for us completing our work and becoming the adults we were born be, thus growing up.
Knowledge at Wharton: You say that great achievers aren’t always the greatest leaders. Why?
Colonna: There’s an old truism, and Marshall Goldsmith, who was a brilliant coach, wrote a book to this end: That which got you there doesn’t necessarily get you where you need to be. Sometimes the drivers that create that achievement start to get into the way once we have power and authority, and that’s where the interesting work starts to begin.
Knowledge at Wharton: How does leadership at work affect one’s personal life?
Colonna: You’re in that interesting place where you all of a sudden have this massive amount of power. Massive is probably too strong a word. You have power. You have agency. You have responsibility for people. Then at night, you put your head down on the pillow, and you start to spin. You start to ruminate. You start to worry. And the worries get larger and larger as the responsibilities get larger and larger. By leaning into the work that you can do, by leaning into that growing-up work, you can begin to dial down the anxieties.
A good example of this is the fact that most leaders think they’re the only ones who struggle with what to do. Most leaders think they’re alone in feeling incompetent. I like to make people laugh by talking about the fact that if I stand up in front of an audience, I might say something like, “Who here is brave enough to admit that they have no idea what they’re doing?” That just sort of breaks the tension.
“So many people suffer in work, and it’s not necessary. It does not contribute to the organization’s financial success to have a third of the employees dealing with depression or anxiety.”
Knowledge at Wharton: But when you’re talking about spouses and kids, they are significantly affected by the responsibilities of a professional manager.
Colonna: One of the unintended consequences of our rising up to run an organization is that very often our spouses and our children pay a price. That’s incredibly painful. When I go into an organization, not only are we encountering the individuals who are suffering, but sometimes even the teenagers of those who have power and authority and agency in leadership are suffering as well. And it’s all because our relationship to work is so bound up into these outdated and outmoded notions of leadership.
Knowledge at Wharton: And those personal stressors, in turn, can affect you at work. It can be a vicious cycle.
Colonna: Here’s a misunderstanding that we all grew up with, which is that you’re supposed to leave your personal life at the door. Well, good luck with that. If you had a fight with your spouse last night, or if your teenager came home drunk, tell me the kind of human being who can walk into the office and not carry that and have that impact at work throughout the day?
My advice is to create space within yourself for what’s going on, but also to let the team know there’s some stuff going on at home. Not to turn the work meeting into a therapy session, but to create some space for the human being to show up, so that we can then access all of that talent that exists in that person.
Knowledge at Wharton: What are some of the more important questions that one needs to ask oneself?
Colonna: This is geared towards someone who has positional power, but one of the more startling questions I’ll ask someone is, “How would you feel if one of your children came to work at the organization you are leading?” Because if you have any hesitancy about that, what’s up with the organization? If you hesitate on that question, then what are your employees saying to their children or bringing home to their children? What energy are you bringing home?
Use that question as a kind of framing question to begin the process of saying, “Maybe I should rethink the way I approach leadership.” In doing that, the danger is you may start to rethink the way you’re living your life, and that may require a larger reboot. The fact is, we’re all faced with those step-function changes in our lives. My advice is, I’d rather see someone go through that consciously with an awareness about what’s going on for them — radical self-inquiry — rather than have it happen to them and be blindsided by those forces.
Knowledge at Wharton: Going back to your point about great achievers, somebody who is a great achiever is probably thinking about their own personal success. With a great leader, you have to be thinking more about the team.
Colonna: I’ll work with a group, and when I can feel the high achievers coming forward, I look at them and say, “You got straight As, didn’t you?” And they smile and laugh because behind that isn’t necessarily a narcissism, it’s a fear of disappointing someone. When they carry that into a leadership position, they can infect the rest of the organization with that fear of disappointing.
I would then make a separate distinction, which is that the way that we start to inculcate great leadership is when we change the notion of leadership from high achievement and high output, and high outcome to creating the conditions by which those of us with whom we work can do the best work of their lives. All of a sudden, the leader’s work becomes creating a container for great work, rather than having all the answers, which is an impossibility anyway.
“Here’s a misunderstanding that we all grew up with, which is that you’re supposed to leave your personal life at the door. Well, good luck with that.”
Knowledge at Wharton: Is it important to have your professional successes and developments linked with your personal ones?
Colonna: From where I sit, the two are intricately, intrinsically linked, and we do damage when we pretend that that isn’t so. I have work over here, and I have life over here. I have professional success over here, and I have personal success over here. That leads to a divided condition where our inner life and our outer life are not matching. Not only do we lead with a kind of condition in which we instill a sense of distrust, because people can read that, but we start to feel unhappy.
Knowledge at Wharton: Two of the ideas that you bring up are grit and resiliency, and how these can be misunderstood. Why so?
Colonna: Grit and resiliency, when misunderstood, lead to this notion that I’m supposed to suffer, and that there’s something noble in the suffering. That’s silly and actually creates all sorts of problems. There’s a notion of false grit, which is kind of brittle, where if something truly difficult happens to us, we tend to break. We know that we’re brittle, so we see this notion of an inner critic that says, “Yeah, you think you know what you’re doing. You think you’re resilient. But let me tell you, if something really, really tough happens, then you’ll break.”
True resiliency, true grit has the capacity to be flexible, to understand that even the worst situations are, to use a Buddhist term, workable. That is, I can learn from this experience. I can find some greater sense of connectedness and therefore grow from this. And by the way, it hurts. And to deny that it hurts is to deny my humanity.
Knowledge at Wharton: Have you gone through a reboot?
Colonna: Oh, yes. In my previous incarnation, I was a venture capitalist. I was part of the first wave of internet-related investing. And in my late 30s, which was about 17 years ago, I hit a tremendous wall of depression. I’d had a lifetime relationship with depression, to be clear. But it led me to feel intensely suicidal. I had a choice to either give into the depression and let it win or reach down and figure out a way to reboot my life. Everything that I am today, the man I am today — some folks say I’m a pretty good guy — all stems from having made the right choice. And that right choice came about because I chose to live and not give into those feelings.
Knowledge at Wharton: How did you go about it?
Colonna: The first thing I did was I called my therapist, which was a wise choice. She said, “I want you to just go away and take a retreat.” I began by reading Parker Palmer’s Let Your Life Speak, Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart, and Sharon Salzberg’s Faith. Those three books began a process of rebuilding, rebooting my life. That’s when I really began this process of radical self-inquiry because I was outwardly incredibly successful and inwardly hollow and in pain.
Knowledge at Wharton: What do you suggest for people who don’t have the means to go through therapy or a retreat?
Colonna: There’s a fabulous human invention called community. We are surrounded by people who are going through what we are going through. People often ask me, “What is the one message you want people to really understand?” It’s simply this: You’re not alone, and in that connectedness to other people’s struggling, you can find relief. You can find solace. You can find companionship. It starts by asking yourself, “How am I doing?” How am I really feeling?” If you’re struggling, you pick up the phone, call a friend and say, “I need to go for a walk.” And you open up your heart.