Every so often, an event occurs that changes who you are and how you think. Three years ago, I arrived at the Center for Creative Leadership. I had traveled from New Zealand, graduated from Harvard, gotten my dream job, and now was working with some of the most interesting people and companies in the world. But having finally gotten everything I thought I wanted, I felt tired, empty, and exhausted.

As part of my onboarding process, I went to a weeklong coaching skills program. At lunch on the final day, I spoke to one of the senior coaches about my state of mental “stuckness.” I explained I had always been driven to achieve and succeed, but this drive was now exhausting me. The only solution I knew was to take my foot off the accelerator, but doing so was causing me to achieve less and get mediocre results. I couldn’t tolerate either the mediocrity or the exhaustion, so I was trapped whichever way I went. It felt, I told him, like I was in handcuffs. The coach looked across the table at me, raised his eyebrows, and said, “Well, who put the handcuffs on you?”

He had nailed the problem. The metaphorical handcuffs existed only in my head, and it wasn’t his job to take them off; it was mine. But how?

As I thought back, I realized my relentless drive began a decade earlier after I was diagnosed with cancer. I had an operation to take out the tumors, and 12 months later they returned. The surgeons cut them out again, but my doctor told me there was no cure for this rare type of cancer if it returned again.

I was 25 years old. For the first time in my life, it hit me that I was mortal and that I didn’t know how much longer I would live. It could be 30 years, but it could be three. And in that moment of recognition, I made a decision. I committed to maximizing every day of my life, to achieve and experience as much as I could.

At first I tried hedonism. For 12 months I traveled the world, had fun, and partied. And at the end of those 12 months, I realized the whole year had been a complete waste of time. It felt pointless and selfish. There was no purpose to it. So I asked myself, “What really matters?” The answer for me, I finally realized, was living a life that made the maximum contribution to the maximum number of people, and the best vehicle I had for doing this was through my work.

It turned out to be a great decision. I started doing work I was passionate about that contributed to the wellbeing of others. I traveled the world, worked with great clients, and felt like I was continuously contributing, achieving, and growing. But then slowly, quietly, almost imperceptibly, something changed.

The drive inside of me was still obsessive, but I had forgotten the point of all that energy. I was passionate but exhausted, successful but empty.

As I sat in a room explaining all this to my coach, it suddenly came together. That great decision I made 10 years ago about who I needed to be and what success was for me had grown old and no longer fit my circumstances. It wasn’t just a set of beliefs anymore; it was a set of handcuffs.

My coach looked elated at my breakthrough and proposed I create a new story that was a better fit for who I wanted to be in the next stage of my life. But the more I thought about it, the less I could see the point of swapping one “story of Nick” with another. I decided to let go of that old story and rather than replace it with a new one, I was just going to live and work and be.

Over the next six months something strange happened. I noticed a shift. I felt unburdened, unshackled. Somehow my mind felt less constrained and my old energy came back again. As I took my foot off the accelerator, not only did my performance stabilize, it even improved. Old problems started to look different, my exhaustion gradually dissipated, and my progress resumed. Then all at once, I felt unstuck.

It is easy to see this as a personal story, but it is also a universal story of development that we all experience throughout our lives. At different times we make progress, start to plateau, get stuck, and then have a breakthrough. My guess is that right now you are somewhere on this cycle in your own work or personal life; the only question is where?

My experience working with leaders is that many are trapped in the “stuck” phase and spend more time there than is either healthy or necessary. A friend of mine from a large organization once told me, “The problem for most of the people in this building is that they have stopped growing. They aren’t developing, they aren’t changing, they are still stuck in the same mind-set they had 20 years ago.”

The good news is there is a way to move forward and up and that organizations who focus on something called Vertical Development are helping their people do just that.


This paper is part of a new series of white papers focused on the future of leadership development. The aim is to move beyond traditional approaches and look at where the field is going.

1. Future Trends in Leadership Development. Explore four key trends that appear to be shaping the future of leadership development, based on research involving 30 leadership experts.

2. Wake Up! The Surprising Truth About What Drives Stress and How Leaders Build Resilience. Learn about a new, proven approach for dealing with stress in the modern workplace.

3. Vertical Leadership Development—Part I. Determine how to take “Future Trends” and build them into a leadership program—focusing specifically on “Vertical Development” and why it matters in a complex world.

Upcoming papers:

4. Vertical Leadership Development—Part II. Take a more in-depth look at the tools and steps needed to create leadership programs that accelerate vertical growth.

5. Culture Change: How to Move an Organization. Learn how to work from both the top down and the bottom up to change how your organization does business and overcome the conflict between culture and strategy.

When read together, these five papers should help you think about a new approach to developing leaders and give you a set of tools that are better suited to developing the leaders of the 21st century .

Download White Paper

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