Executives pursuit of Happiness

For years now I have been signing off my emails with “Be Happy”. This morning I was thinking how the pursuit of happiness and fulfillment has been an essential driver through out my working life. Book Author Roderick Gilkey is of opinion that Executives can find happiness by cultivating perspective, balance, resilience and a sense of humour. I concur with Roderick Gilkey views on the subject and was lucky to have with the Covey leadership courses attended, been able to build up on the four characteristics mentioned by him.

Roderick Gilkey in article he wrote in 1986, which I found still very much relevant today, stated:

While many of today’s corporate fast-trackers may be too immersed in the day-to-day grind to reflect on their levels of happiness, such reflection is legitimate and even constructive. Studies from The Center for Creative Leadership describe an ideal corporate performer as one whose strivings are based on a healthy, even passionate, drive to achieve a form of success that includes both measurable results and personal well-being. Such individuals thrive in work environments where people participate on the basis of desire more than duty, and where creativity is more valued than compliance.

The executive who is motivated by corporate incentives is being replaced by the executive whose contribution is based on a personal quest for fulfillment and happiness. For example, at one point in its history, IBM expected executives to relocate when offered a promotion in the corporate hierarchy and an increase in salary of at least six percent. In contrast, IBM now gives its managers a questionnaire to take to their families. It helps them to consider all possible pros and cons associated with making a move to anticipate the impact of relocation on family health and happiness, and to avoid adverse outcomes. (Incidentally, the questionnaire is not returned to IBM; it stays with the family and is used only as a tool to help them make an informed and optimal decision.) This practice suggests that while the search for happiness may not be publicly acknowledged, the best corporations are aware that it is a primary motivator for many executives who are balancing individual, family, and corporate interests in an attempt to achieve a more broadly defined form of success.

Moreover, there is evidence to suggest that the more individualistic search for happiness is not only a legitimate source of motivation, but that it also promotes higher levels of contribution to the corporation. Dr. George Vaillant found strong correlation between high levels of achievement in the workplace and personal happiness in the marital and family life of his Harvard subjects. Happiness, then, strengthens other capacities that ultimately increase an individual’s ability to make significant contributions to the workplace and develop the potential in others to do the same.

Through my clinical work with executives and my consulting activities with a variety of organizations, I have observed a number of executives who have achieved exceptional levels of success and happiness. While there are no easily grasped universal truths that can be learned from their examples, there are four characteristics these exceptional executives share.


1. Perspective. A consistent capacity to keep ultimate goals and objectives in view, especially when the level of stress and demand is high. Such perspective contributes to the ability to evaluate complex, and even turbulent, situations and make optimal decisions. One high-ranking executive in the airline industry is affectionately referred to by his subordinates as “the Zen Master.” When asked to explain, one of his subordinates commented, “I guess we call him that because in spite of all the chaos around here, he never seems to lose his cool. It’s not just imperturbability, though. He keeps his sense of purpose; he knows why he is here and what he wants to accomplish; and he seems to be able to do it no matter what.”

2. Balance. The ability to prioritize the demands of work and family so that the most important tasks get done at the right time. Executives who are “balanced” avoid problems that are not theirs to solve, dilemmas that will not change, and virtually all unnecessary commitments. They also make appropriate trade-offs between present and future demands and between work and recreation, thus gaining both immediate and long-term gratification.

A prime example of balance is seen in the life of a very effective executive, Paul, who successfully developed a new marketing campaign for his corporation while taking several afternoons to go to his daughters’ ballet recitals. Known for his capacity to be self-sacrificing, Paul had attained a balance between narcissism and altruism. He was able to serve his own needs for advancement in the corporation and still have time to devote to family interests and community service.

3. Resilience. The ability to rebound from failure. Many very successful executives have experienced major setbacks in their careers. The Center for Creative Leadership found that what separates the “arrivers” from the “derailed” is, in part, the capacity to rebound from failure without losing confidence and motivation. The fact that there are significant failures among the most successful executives is not surprising, since these individuals have the courage and vision to set extremely high goals for themselves. Having the strength of character to deal with the inevitable disappointments associated with high standards and expectations is a cornerstone of the successful executive’s personality.

4. Humor. A lively sense of humor appears to be both a prerequisite for psychological health and an outcome of it. Good humor is a sign of perspective, balance, and many other qualities associated with the highest levels of personal and professional achievement. And yet amid the seriousness of boardrooms and stockholder meetings, executive humor can be as elusive as happiness itself. Oscar Wilde’s dictum that, “life is much too important to be taken seriously,” may well describe a form of constructive detachment that allows the best executives to maintain purpose and perspective through turbulent times.

Other Common Characteristics

There are many other more specific characteristics shared by executives who have attained personal success. I would include among them:

  • The ability to take genuine pleasure from the accomplishments of others, both superiors and subordinates.
  • The desire to serve, mentor and develop others.
  • The strength to compete effectively and derive appropriate pleasure from winning.
  • The energy to maintain a broad range of interests despite the pressure to narrow one’s focus in response to the demands of the workplace.
  • The capacity to take interesting vacations that provide periodic renewal.
  • The ability to maintain rewarding marital and family relationships.

While it is not in the power of organizations to grant happiness, the best executives recognize the legitimacy of the quest for personal happiness and respect it as a laudable endeavor with several side benefits to the organization.