Obsession: The Misunderstood Leadership Skill

By Smruti Patel

As the Oscars are upon us, I am reminded of a business event I was fortunate enough to attend at the close of 2015 which honored Kenya’s top 40 men under 40, an occasion celebrated by the financial newspaper, Business Daily. In the speeches given by the editors and chief guest, one theme ran constant: these top 40 were exceptional men, whose energies when channeled, could make transformational differences to Kenya and in this digitized age, the world. All of them spoke about the responsibility to wider society that businesses must embrace especially when success comes their way.

As a leadership coach who works with international clients all over the world, here is one difference I notice repeatedly when it comes to the conversation of responsibility and business or private sector among Africans. It is largely not resisted. Africans are not mired in a conversation of too much or too little state intervention. In the pan-African culture the oft quoted, “to whom much is given much is expected” is innately understood. We are brought up to believe that when we are uplifted, especially economically, it is a moral responsibility for us to in turn, uplift others. I am frequently moved by the efforts that even those in the lowest income bracket make towards helping others. It is a deeply rooted African ideal that Nigeria’s Tony Elemelu refers to as Africapitalism. Whether we all rise to the responsibilities to make our communities, nations and continent greater is a different matter.

The question is, what makes us rise to those responsibilities in a way that has the effect of taking us from “exceptional to transformational” as the chief guest, Vimal Shah (CEO of Bidco Africa), one of the most respected and dynamic businessmen in Africa urged the guests in his keynote speech to contemplate. This is a question that stays in the forefront of my observations when working with leaders. Like the deepest of questions puzzling humanity, this one is no different in that the journey lies in the exploration of it rather than finding a single answer. However, at the event two statements drove at the heart of what makes world class leaders rise to their responsibilities in exceptional ways that bring transformation.

The first was a question asked of a judge on the selection panel of the top 40 under 40. She told us that one theme which came up repeatedly was of obsession. These high achieving men have nothing short of an obsession with what they do and that success is merely a by-product. The second was a rhetorical question Vimal Shah asked. “What idea has imprisoned you and won’t let you go?”

I was particularly struck by Vimal’s question because it articulated the quality of the obsession, the brand of it, so to speak, that I witness in my work with leaders. It is present bare faced in high achieving individuals and such is their dedication to this brand of obsession that they have refined it into a leadership skill. It is a skill which is often misunderstood yet delivers astounding results.

To clarify, this skill is markedly distinct from arrogance or pride which we know can also be a by product of success if it is not actively managed. The type of obsession referred to here is a drive of such intensity that no force is able to stop it. Events in life may stem the rush of this drive but it never leaves, perpetually nags and gnaws at the core of their being. These individuals are imprisoned by that drive and there are of course, consequences.

The primary positive consequence is evident. They have the type of focus that is mandatory in achieving the loftiest of goals. The discipline of our principled sports heroes is an example of how the focus of obsession is fed. Our musicians too will practice relentlessly. They work exceptionally hard all the time towards the focus. A high profile client of mine once shared, “I work as hard as I always have. It’s just on different things but it never feels like work. I love it.”

Their obsession and passion forces them to focus but in the process, these individuals also learn to cultivate the skill of focused obsession. This learned skill is then applied repeatedly in different situations and powers them to greater things especially on the steepest paths that take one from exceptional to transformational. The leaders who I work with apply this to their own development too. The opportunity they see in their personal development is a powerful ripple effect that brings transformation at a scalable level to their organizations, communities and nation. They understand that the journey to excellence begins with looking at themselves first.

As a leadership coach, I also challenge my clients to look at the shadow side of their strengths. The shadow side of obsession is alienation. This comes in many forms but by far the most common is that those who understand the drive, passion and obsession of high potential individuals are few. They battle with society’s definition of a “balanced life” because viewed through their lens, their obsession is passion and there is no balance in passion! An examination of great leaders lives shows us that few if any were able to find a “balanced life” as defined by society’s standards at the time. The management of alienation and obsession is one of the greatest challenges that leaders who are on the journey to excellence face. They are imprisoned by their obsession and it won’t let them go.

If we want ourselves to rise up to our responsibilities from “good to great, to exceptional to transformational” like Vimal urged, as a world culture we must create the conditions to allow for it. It begins with a change in mindset and becoming comfortable with this brand of obsession so that it is encouraged and supported. We must become understanding of what it takes for a person to harness their energies to their obsession because it is in all of us. Some are yet to discover the obsession but there are still others who live in fear of the consequences that follow because alienation is a condition few can tolerate.

The journey to excellence is replete with challenges and every leader I have worked with has taken steps to first transform themselves. They imagine a broader group of people, be it their companies, communities or nation, where each individual is engaged in what he or she does best. Great leaders imagine a world where we put our best selves forward all the time, every day.

I obsess of a world where each of us is constantly evolving into the best version of ourselves and empowering others to do the same. This is the idea that has imprisoned me and will not let me go. What is yours and will you consider it in this awards season? Will you courageously obsess over it?

*This article was published in Business Daily (East Africa’s premier financial newspaper) on 27th December 2015. The link can be found at:

About the author: Smruti Patel works with leaders and organizations looking to achieve exceptional business and professional goals. Smruti is a leadership coach and executive educator with an international client list and a career that has spanned law and consulting. She brings a unique combination of intellectual rigor, keen business acumen and practical business experience to each client engagement. Smruti exercises a high degree of discretion, mature judgment and tact in handling the most sensitive issues. Her experience, skills and qualities match perfectly with her passions for: Leadership Coaching, Leadership Workshops, Facilitation and Design, Talent Management and Cross Cultural Training. With an international background and education (Kenya, U.K. and U.S.A.) as well as work experience on five continents, Smruti coaches leaders in an array of industries worldwide. The list includes CEOs, executives, lawyers, entrepreneurs and commanding officers in the U.S. armed forces. She is also repeatedly hired as a coach by organizations such as Deloitte and Georgetown University for their MBA and Executive Leadership programs. For more information, please visit www.nxsvision.com. Smruti can be reached at spatel@nxsvision.com.

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