The Difference That Direction Makes


I was speaking to a group of about 100 middle-school-age 4-H members from throughout Illinois a few years ago when, as I often do, I asked about their dreams. “Not the weird dreams you have at night, but dreams of what you want to do, the things you want to have, the person you want to become,” I explained. I will never forget the young lady who confidently rattled off a hand-full of her dreams, each one quite specific, including “to perform at Carnegie Hall in New York City.”

I remarked at the specificity of her dreams. Her peers at this plenary session responded immediately, informing me that their new friend’s performance was already scheduled in about six months at the time. Her peers clearly respected her, wanted to follow her lead, wanted a piece of what she had. “What she had” was personal Direction.

As an executive coach, the successful outcome of every one of my client relationships could be summed up as a new or renewed “clarified sense of direction”, and a requisite amount of commitment and courageous action. I cannot count the number of times my clients have said, “I wish I had this coaching at an earlier age.”

Think about it, people who lack a keen sense of direction usually end up following someone who does. Picture the score of people who were running across America with Forest Gump in the iconic movie, only to find themselves lost and unsure what to do next when Forest suddenly stopped running in the middle of the Western American desert. Forest Gump did not have a keen sense of direction; he was running from something, not toward a dream. He only appeared to know who he was, what he was doing, where he was going, and that was enough for people to follow him.

Young people like 13-year-old Vanessa Templeton of tiny Sangamon Valley Middle School in Illinois perform at Carnegie Hall each year. Others like her have very specific dreams at an early age. My sons had specific dreams; my oldest is now living out dreams he’s had since middle school: he played college hockey, lives near San Francisco, sits up in bed each morning to a bay marina view filled with boats and sailing yachts, and works as a Network Operations Center engineer for AirBnB. He was named a distinguished alumni by his university alma mater at age 24. Yes, having what some will say are “wild” dreams of a 13-year-old do pay off.

What I find remarkable about these young people is not so much that they have dreams. We all have dreams, although I find too few people are ready and able to articulate their dreams, let alone persevere with action. What sets these young people apart is the clear direction their dreams provide. They have honed their dreams into achievable goals, which provide a True North and keen sense of direction that is all too rare.

Having a direction in life always pays off. Personal direction may be the most distinguishing characteristic of personal satisfaction, happiness and success at any age.

Show me a teenager who knows who he or she is, knows what she or he wants, and knows where she or he is going, and I will show you a young person with better grades, better relations with parents and other family members, better social networks and friendships, and fewer risk behaviors, to name a few benefits. Very likely, the manner in which such young people lead their lives means they already have followers, too.

Want to provide a gift for the young people in your life? Give them plenty of opportunities to explore and try new things, to discover themselves and to test their courage against their dreams. Don’t push them to commit or to master any one interest or activity too quickly. Don’t push them toward “where the jobs are” – the average 13-year-old today will likely work in an occupation that has yet to be invented. Let your children lead their learning now, so that one day they will have mastered the ability to lead their own lives well.

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Is There a Secret to Success?

Success Formula

A friend recently found a 2007 newspaper clipping of a column I wrote called “Ask the Coach”. I thought it was worth sharing again here.

Have you truly defined success?  Is it your own definition, or what the “world” expects of you? Successful people set their own goals considering what others say, but deciding on what they want to do with their lives.

Another common difference between successful people and unsuccessful people is that unsuccessful people prioritize their schedules, and successful people schedule their priorities.  Of course, the secret lies in truly knowing your priorities. Better yet, the secret is being clear about your priorities — where you are now, what you deeply desire to have, do and become.

What is of greatest importance to you right now?  Every moment you spend trying to remember or articulate what is important can cost you time, money and emotional energy. So successful people clarify what success looks like, feels like, and sounds like in their own terms. Their priorities are stabilized by balance among them and purified by strong beliefs that support them.  They make decisions and take action based on their own predetermined goals, which creates focus, direction, and ultimately a unique clarity of purpose, as well as establishes a record of integrity.  Clarity leads to commitment, and commitment leads to satisfaction, peace of mind, creativity and innovation, pleasure, influence in relationships, wealth to the degree you seek…, or however you want to define your own success.

You exist to serve. The secret to success begins with getting clear on whom, what and how you serve.

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Three Approaches to Leader Development

Organizations typically take one of three approaches to management succession and leadership development.

The Promotion Model: The most common process for ascending into formal management roles goes something like this: on Friday, you are commended for being a “super worker”, so on Monday you get to be a supervisor.  That’s it. Any questions?  Somehow, over the weekend or the months and years to come, you must figure out what it means and what it takes to lead effectively.  Maybe you find a mentor, take a class, or read a book or two; maybe not. In this way, we have many leaders who learned about leadership the same way they learned about sex: either from theory, from their peers, by experimenting, or from someone who professes to be slightly more “experienced”.  And how accurate is that?

The Competency Model: The second means of leadership development is becoming more common, especially in large corporations and open-enrollment programs.  In this case, a dozen or so “leadership competencies” have been identified as important; prospective or new leaders participate in a series of training modules, field trips, and projects based on those competencies.  At best, participants are assessed on the degree to which they embody each competency and they may be measured against a baseline.

The idea with this second model comes straight out of the industrial age – that if we take everyone through the same, homogenous “assembly line” we end up with a group of leaders who are similarly effective: you might call this the “car wash” approach to leadership development in that the hope is that participants come out “clean”.  In effect, this type of process produces a static management culture rather than effective leadership leveraging a multitude of unique talents necessary for innovation and sustained success amid market challenges.  In effect, leaders are measured on the equivalent of a grading curve right out of secondary school.

In method one, we place people into leadership roles and hope they produce desired results. In method two, we train people in a particular way, and hope they produce desired results. Can you allow hope to be the only outcome of your leadership development efforts?

Leadership MASTERS uses a third method: we help participants and their organizations determine their desired business results first, then we develop people who will lead others to produce those desired results.  The focus is on the results and how they are produced rather than just the individual leadership attributes, which may vary based on the inherent strengths of the leaders. The organization wins because it now has self-motivated leaders, intent on achieving business goals, while aspiring leaders win because they can measure their impact in the achievement of their own goals and in the performance of their followers.


Leadership MASTERS is a program developed and facilitated by Executive Coach Mark Sturgell, CBC, for the Greater Decatur Chamber of Commerce in Decatur, IL. It provides intensive character and results-based coaching, collaborative learning, and training to develop “bench strength” of future leaders within local businesses, non-profits, and government entities – influencers at all career stages capable of leading others to produce desired organizational results.  For more information click here, including registration, executive summary, white paper, schedule a complimentary coaching session, and other preview opportunities.

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