To Be A Better Leader, Start On the Inside, With Inner Work

This article first appeared on BetterUp’s blog.

On Monday, October 9th, we held our first-ever BetterUp #InnerWork day. We hope that this will become a long tradition at BetterUp as we actively re-imagine work to make it more effective, human, and fulfilling.

The world of work is changing.

This statement has become a perennial mantra of sorts, blazoned across everything from trade show booths to billboards to websites for software companies. Entire ecosystems of consultants, analysts, and vendors have popped up to help organizations brave the changing tides of work and successfully navigate towards a promised future. I don’t disagree with the statement. The world of work is changing. But, the majority of conversation about the way in which the world of work is changing ignores the most important and powerful potential for change.

The majority of conversation about the way in which the world of work is changing ignores the most important and powerful potential for change.

On his last day as the CEO of General Electric Corporation, Jeffrey R. Immelt said, “Leadership is this intense journey into yourself.” Beyond having a nice ring to it, his message was clear: leadership doesn’t necessarily equate with output. It’s much bigger, and much more personal.

Immelt’s sentiment reminds me of one from another successful chief executive: Marcus Aurelius. Aurelius predates Immelt by a few millennia. Arguably, he ran a larger organization (the Roman Empire); but he drives at the same thing as Immelt when he says:

[I]t is in thy power whenever thou shalt choose to retire into thyself. For nowhere either with more quiet or more freedom from trouble does a man retire than into his own soul, particularly when he has within him such thoughts that by looking into them he is immediately in perfect tranquility; and I affirm that tranquility is nothing else than the good ordering of the mind.

What the current conversation about the changing world of work neglects to acknowledge is that the biggest opportunity for change isn’t in migrating to cloud computing, offshoring (or repatriating) jobs, upgrading your internal employee communication tools, or optimizing your supply chain. All of these changes are external, extrinsic, and do not touch upon what both Immelt and Aurelius are speaking to; namely, leadership and work as an inner experience. That’s because today, what we think of “work” is almost exclusively represented by what I call outer work.

The general idea behind this framework is borrowed from E.F. Schumacher’s A Guide for the Perplexed

This work encompasses activities that are external to us, such as sitting in meetings, analyzing, making presentations, interacting with customers, and even collaborating with teammates. Outer work consists of acts and activities you engage in to create value outside yourself. It consists entirely of what you do and what others do. And if you think anything like I used to, you probably think that’s exactly what you’re paid to do. For the vast majority of professionals, outer work is where most people spend 99% of their work day. In fact, we devote so much time to outer work, we hardly even think about it — and that’s part of the problem.

Because when it comes to making tough decisions, coming up with creative solutions to problems, and being an inspiring leader, outer work plays a small role. I’d argue that in a knowledge economy, what we’re really getting paid to do each and every day is fueled by critical inner work. And there’s a profitable side effect of doing it, which is exponentially elevating the value of our decision-making and productivity.

What’s inner work, anyway?

The reality is that when we’re buried deep under a pile of outer work, it’s difficult to get to that 10x place creatively. That’s because good knowledge work is about how you think, not just what what you do. And, how you think isn’t outer work. It’s inner work.

Inner work is centered on the inner experiences of yourself and others. Thinking about inner experiences in the context of work is not something we’re accustomed to doing. It’s a lot harder to visualize than outer work. One reason it’s so much harder to understand is because we don’t have a clear picture of our inner world in the first place. The sphere of outer work is the world outside of us. The sphere of inner work is our world inside of us.

What is our inner world? Our inner world encompasses all of the processes, values, and mental models we utilize to make sense of ourselves and the world around us. These include decision-making, self-awareness, and spiritual beliefs.

Based on this understanding, inner work consists of:

  • Mental acts or activities focused in your inner world to achieve a purpose or result. That purpose could be to “the good ordering of your mind” as recommended by Marcus Aurelius, gaining clarity as to why a particular coworker bothers you so much through self-reflection, or meditating on your values or principles.
  • More advanced inner work can consist of things like quieting your own thinking and feelings so you can deeply listen to what others are feeling.

One thing is for sure: inner work doesn’t feel like work. If your inner experience is anything like mine, you’ll likely initially feel lazy or even guilty engaging in inner work, at work.

In pursuit of guilt-free inner work

I’m not the first person to make the observation about feeling guilty engaging in activities other than Outer Work, at work. It’s an important presupposition in Joseph’s Pieper’s essay “Leisure: The Basis of Culture.” It’s not surprising that his ideas are gaining newfangled praise and attention in the swirl that is the modern world of work:

The inmost significance of the exaggerated value which is set upon hard work appears to be this: man seems to mistrust everything that is effortless; he can only enjoy, with a good conscience, what he has acquired with toil and trouble; he refuses to have anything as a gift.

It’s important to point out that work was not always the exclusive domain of outer work. Prior to the industrial revolution, people actually spent a lot of time doing what I call inner work — contemplating, reading, meditating, and just being present with their thoughts and selves (more on this in later posts). Admittedly, if you work in a textile factory, inner work likely isn’t moving the needle (no pun intended) on the value you create. But if you work in the knowledge economy where creativity and leadership — not routine manual labor — produce value, then inner work is indispensable. If you take Immelt and Aurelius at their word, it’s what’s most valuable to you as a leader. In fact, it’s the essence of leadership.

We’ve learned that expression of your full self (or as we’d say at BetterUp, your Whole Person) as a leader comes from a bold journey into yourself to explore your values, what gives your life meaning, and the person you want to be. Beloved counselor to U.S. presidents, professor to generations of students, and celebrated business thinker, Warren Bennis profoundly drives the point home when he says:

No leader sets out to be a leader. People set out to live their lives, expressing themselves fully. When that expression is of value, they become leaders. So the point is not to become a leader. The point is to become yourself, to use yourself completely — all your skills, gifts and energies — in order to make your vision manifest.

That’s some real inner work.

How we’re prioritizing inner work at BetterUp

Without inner work, we’re vulnerable to depression, stress, and burnout, and consequently, lower quality decisions and decreased creative output.

Consider this, without inner work, we’re vulnerable to depression, stress, and burnout, and consequently, lower quality decisions and decreased creative output. I would argue that one reason there is so much disengagement or toxicity in the workplace is because people come to work with the expectation that their job is only to do outer work and make no time for inner work. In creative work, the quality of my outer work is greatly impacted by the quality of my inner work.

As I reflect on episodes in my career where I wasn’t performing at my best as a manager, one common theme is that I lacked the internal clarity around what was important to me to prioritize, personally and professionally. We’ve all been there: unanchored, flailing, desperately trying to gain a sense of control, knowing all along that every frantic step we were taking was only further diffusing our impact instead of fastening our footing.

Our jobs can be one of the most fulfilling parts of our lives.

As CEO, I aggressively seek out opportunities to sponsor everyone at BetterUp making “journeys into the interior.” The reality is that when fortified with inner work, our jobs can be one of the most fulfilling parts of our lives. Work can be a powerful platform to discover new parts of ourselves: interests, capabilities, and opportunities for growth. But capitalizing on these insights requires meaningful reflection. The day-to-day grind can be unrelenting and all-consuming.

What we’re learning at BetterUp is that part of the solution is to provide helpful nudges to remind us to step back for a second, turn away from the task at hand, and turn inwards to check-in with ourselves. We routinely share “notes from the interior” to create a community of practice around what good inner work looks like. On Monday, October 9th, we also held our first-ever BetterUp #InnerWork day. We hope that this will become a long tradition at BetterUp, and we’re committing to giving every BetterUp employee 1 day, every quarter, to focus on Inner Work.

We don’t expect every organization to give employees a day off to engage in inner work but as our wise guide Marcus Aurelius reminds us: “It is in thy power whenever thou shalt choose to retire into thyself.” In my experience, devoting just 15 minutes a day to doing inner work can make a huge difference — whether it’s meditation, prayer, reading, or coaching.

The biggest opportunity our world affords us is to reinvent the very concept of work.

The biggest opportunity our world affords us is to reinvent the very concept of work: away from busy-ness of our to-dos, and inward toward developing ourselves so that we lead more fulfilling lives outside of work, too. As a culture, we’ve become obsessed with quantity and speed, but we spend less and less time doing the important inner work required to drive quality and well-being. It won’t be easy. In fact, it’ll be hard (inner) work, but it will be well worth it.

This article first appeared on BetterUp’s blog.

Want to join us on our #InnerWork quest? Share your experience using the #InnerWork hashtag on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Original art by Theo Payne.