How to Develop Your Noble Obsession

As I noted this week in my CBS MoneyWatch blog, a key to leadership is having a “noble obsession.” While not influenced by the book of the same title about Charles Goodyear (one of the inventors of rubber), there’s remarkable similarity in the idea that people who usher in new phases of innovation are obsessed in the same way as people who wash their hands dozens of times a day. Unlike purely dysfunctional obsessions, a noble obsession aims at something important, like developing a new material that the industrial revolution required. 

The purpose of this blog post is to give insights into how to develop a noble obsession for yourself. Here’s the formula: (1) find your noble passion, (2) find aspects of your personality that give you energy and tap into those, and (3) form a tension between the two. Give in to the passion and you are possessed by it. Give in to the nobility too much, and you become overly patient, forgiving and inept.   A noble obsession is never balanced or stable and it requires constant monitoring.

Finding a Noble Passion

The first step is to identify a “noble passion.”  As the lead author of Tribal Leadership, I made a number of mistakes. One of the biggest was describing a “noble cause” as being aspirational without the counterbalance of a “now, dammit!” attitude. To see what we should have said in Tribal Leadership, watch the scene from Lincoln when the 16th president tells his cabinet that he will not wait for a more opportune time to pass the 14th amendment. People look away in discomfort as the humble president demands action and results, “now, now, now!” It’s nobility coupled with gravitas and an invented tone of inevitability. The term for this mixture of aspiration and impatience is a “noble passion.” When people say, “wow” and “cool” to what you’ve identified, you have a noble cause. It inspires action, eventually. When people say, “yes, and this must happen now,” you’ve got a noble passion.

For me, a noble cause is “everyone having the opportunity to be a part of stage five tribe.” (Stage five is the last stage in the Tribal Leadership model.)  That strikes me as nice, inspiring, and likely to never happen.

My noble passion is “making companies stop sucking.” That strikes me as so bold it gives me the courage to reach out to other thought leaders, CEOs, and researchers. It gets me out of bed early in the morning. 

Cato said, “When Cicero spoke, people marveled. When Caesar spoke, people marched.” Cicero had a noble cause, while Caesar had a noble passion.

A noble passion is born from a collision of two worlds. The “light side” of leadership is about aspirations, values, and visions. The “dark side” of leadership is about inevitability, frustration, getting even, righting a wrong, and results in an explosion of energy. The light side is patient. The dark side is intolerant of the status quo. Put them together and you have a vision backed by nuclear power. 

Remember this tagline: a noble cause gets you out of bed. A noble passion gets you out of bed early and keeps you up late into the night.

The Energy and Focus that Comes From Being Different
A few years ago, I spoke at a conference of pharmacists specializing in the treatment of psychiatric disorders. While I made it clear that I am not a pharmacist, psychologist, or medical doctor, my background in communication and language might give me some insights. While I was there to talk about tribal cultures within healthcare, I paused to make a point about language. Rhetorician Kenneth Burke said that, as people label a situation, so they respond to it. Labeling part of yourself as a “disorder,” I mentioned in an offhanded way, means you’ll probably seek treatment and elimination of symptoms. Labeling the same set of symptoms as an advantage can give you benefits you wouldn’t otherwise get. 

While making it clear that I believe medial conditions should be treated, there can be enormous benefit in relabeling them. Most readers of this blog post will have, at one time or another, been labeled with “disorders” (even by friends) like adult deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), insomnia, trouble focusing, dyslexia, or the like. Many people with dyslexia are articulate and creative, perhaps as compensations for their difficulty in reading.

The key to the “obsession” part of the equation, is to connect your noble passion to energy or abilities you get by seeing your differences as advantages. People with OCD don’t need to work on becoming obsessive; they are obsessive. People with ADHD are productivity machines, if they stay on a task that really matters. Insomnia and generalized anxiety normally come with too much energy, especially mental energy. 

After that pharmacist conference, I was mobbed by people who wanted to talk—and not about culture (the topic of the keynote). It was about the comments I made about relabeling psychiatric disorders. I was afraid I’d offended them, but it was the opposite. Many wanted to talk about their own children, who had been labeled as having one of the disorders I had mentioned. Several were moved to consider that relabeling them as talented, high energy, curious or ambitious, meant they had unique gifts. Many of them wanted to talk about themselves. 

Several pointed out that I had left depression and its related conditions off the list. One young woman pointed out that depression has an upside, which is remarkable focus about a life condition. To be clear, I believe people should seek treatment. Relabeling a disorder is not an alternative to treatment; it is an additional step that can give you energy, focus, creativity, drive, and determination—in service of your noble passion.

The second step here is to connect your noble passion to something unique to you that provides you with some of these benefits. An example may help.  People who know me well know I have chronic insomnia, a disorder that runs in my family. In addition to seeking medical treatment for it, I do as much as I can with behavioral modification: no caffeine in the afternoon, limited alcohol intake, eating small meals throughout the day, going to bed at the same time every night, exercising like mad, stopping working around 7:00 pm (if not earlier), and getting up early. I would do anything to sleep normally. And insomnia has made me one of the most disciplined people I know. Without the discipline my insomnia brings, I would never have coauthored Tribal Leadership or The Three Laws of Performance. My insomnia gives me an obsessive-like energy.

So the question is: in what way are you different, that also gives you focus, creativity, discipline, insights, or some other advantage? Find this element within yourself and connect it to your noble passion.

Holding the Tension
A noble obsession arises when you link a noble passion to energy, focus, or drive. Said more precisely, obsession becomes a personal asset that you enlist in the service of a noble passion. 

Here’s my noble passion: to end the fact that companies suck. 

Making a dent on that problem requires enormous energy, even “obsessive” energy.  That energy comes from the ways I’m different from most people, in ways I don’t like. I can’t decide to not be an insomniac. My obsessive energy comes from things I mostly don’t like about myself, including insomnia.

For me, the obsession is a choice. But the noble passion is not. It’s what I was born to do. I get the balance wrong as often as I get it right.

Holding the tension between your noble passion and your energy is difficult.  The energy takes over and make you tip toward behavior that is counterproductive—like when I used to go days without sleeping.  Or, you can fixate on the passion and get paralyzed by the moral need for things to change. 

Think of holding the tension of weights in exercise, or if you’ve ever broken a bone, the tension of the cast holding things together.  It’s unpleasant.  But, it’s required for growth and healing.  

Do you have a noble obsession? If so, I hope you’ll write a few words about yours below.


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