Will Marré: Creating Sustainable Relationships
April 1, 2010—As cofounder and a former president of the Covey Leadership Center, Will Marré is a recognized expert on the subject of leadership. He is also an Emmy Award–winning writer, an advisor to the Grameen Foundation, and cofounder of the Seacology Foundation, which focuses primarily on preserving South Pacific island cultures and environments. He currently serves as CEO of the REALeadership Alliance, whose aim is to help leaders “identify, communicate and implement new strategically sustainable business models.”
Marré’s latest leadership book, titled Save the World and Still Be Home for Dinner, addresses the need for some fundamental changes in the way business operates in our world. It focuses largely on the role of the individual in accomplishing those changes. Gina Stepp spoke to him not only about leadership but about related subjects, including integrity, maturity, decision-making, goal-setting and relationships.
GS A couple of decades ago you were cofounding the Covey Leadership Center. In your book you say the center was great for its time, but that we’ve come a long way since then. Why do you feel we need a new approach or worldview?
WM We taught millions “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” and they are still being taught to millions of people. But our institutions are actually hostile to people behaving effectively. Most of our institutions are based on the idea that if individuals and institutions work to maximize their self-interest, then the best priorities, the most talented people and the best ideas will rise to the top. It’s fundamentally a competitive worldview. A competitive worldview, however, ends up being hostile to innovations that benefit the common good but don’t have immediate payoff; and that’s the critical thing—they don’t have immediate payoff.
Let me give you an example of how workplaces foster ineffectiveness. It’s almost impossible to keep a healthy perspective on life and very difficult to have the emotional presence needed for healthy relationships if you’re constantly working 50 or 60 hours a week and, more importantly, constantly tethered to all the electronic devices that keep us connected to one another. New brain research tells us that when we’re on cognitive overload, dopamine and other brain chemicals are released, and they give us a false sense of confidence. So we’re under the illusion that multitasking will make us more productive and more effective.
In all the research on multitasking that I’m aware of, some groups of people are given several tasks and told, “You can multitask; do it any way you want to do it.” Other groups are told to complete the same tasks in consecutive order, one task being completed before the next is begun. In every one of the studies I’ve looked at, they find that the groups that work linearly complete all of the tasks more quickly and with less error than the multitaskers.
But when the multitaskers are interviewed, they’re quite sure they’ve outperformed the linear group. It’s a brain trick to help us deal with overload. The brain says, “If I give you some dopamine, you’re going to feel confident to deal with this amount of stress.” The problem is, dopamine makes us feel smart when we may be doing something stupid. That’s why decisions under stress are always risky.
GS So you’re saying that even though we feel we may be coping with stress, it’s actually taking a toll.
WM Absolutely. Let’s take this into the personal sphere: You’re at the computer at home at night, and your child comes up to you and wants to interact. You say, “Yes, honey, I’m here. Go ahead. Something at school? So tell me about it.” But you’re also going through your e-mail. The illusion is that you’re actually interacting with your children in a way that is meaningful or functional. But you may hear them say years down the road, “Mom, I hate it when I try to talk to you and you’re on the computer.” And you’ll respond, “I thought you liked it because I allowed you to interrupt me.” “But I didn’t really interrupt you; if I did interrupt I might have your full attention.”
I’m suggesting that we have developed a work style that does not accommodate the human pace of life. The fact that technology enables us to do that doesn’t mean we should use the technology haphazardly.
GS It’s immediately evident that Save the World and Still Be Home for Dinner isn’t written in the typical leadership language. Other leadership books may mention integrity, maturity, wisdom and relationships, but these aren’t always given the same priority in the leadership hierarchy that you propose. You use the terms very differently. Why is that?
WM Leadership as a concept has been hijacked by business schools over the last 40 years. The industry has defined leadership as a series of skills like decisiveness, vision and inspiration—traits that might be assigned to Hitler and Stalin as much as to Churchill and Roosevelt. So it becomes apparent that the important thing is the leader’s intent. If we begin with a noble intent, or a purpose beyond self-interest, such as working toward sustainable abundance for all, then we have a foundation of integrity that can be called real leadership.
GS You note that maturity is essential to integrity.
WM Yes, integrity is about doing the right thing for the right reason. But your level of maturity controls your worldview, and your worldview drives your behavior.
In the developmental psychologists’ model of maturity, the lowest level is aggressive self-interest. This is what young children—before they’re socialized—exhibit. Initially a young child gets what he wants by behavior that we would call bullying if it were older behavior. But what an infant wants is a full belly and a clean diaper. And if he doesn’t get it, he starts screaming and yelling, which is the only way he has of getting attention focused on his problem.
As we get a little older, we begin to horse-trade. Developmental psychologists call that manipulation. So “if you want me to be quiet in the store, Mom or Dad, you’d better get me this cookie” or “buy me this toy.” Children very quickly begin to understand where their leverage points are and how they can horse-trade with parents to get what they want.
According to research, about 33 percent of adults still operate on that level of maturity. We know them as bullies and manipulators. Frequently their behavior is either overtly insistent and demanding or passive-aggressive and manipulating—guilt-tripping and that type of thing. Many of those people are in prison, because a very low level of maturity creates impulsiveness that leads to antisocial behavior. But in every family and in every business there are adults who drive their agenda through insistence and manipulation.
The next level of maturity usually doesn’t occur in children until they reach preteen years and become interested in conforming to group norms because they want to fit in. So they start to sacrifice their immediate needs to the goal of being accepted. They learn to go along with the gang: “I’d really rather do something else, but everybody’s going to this movie, so I’m going to go to this movie, because I want to be accepted.” This is actually a very important part of maturing, because it’s one of the first elements of self-discipline. We first experience it in our family when our parents tell us that “to be a member of this family,” we need to clean our plate, or make our bed.
As adults we typically go beyond conformity into something called self-regulation or self-control—or even better, self-discipline. This often comes about in the teen years, when people realize the critical connection between self-discipline and goal achievement. They may become goal junkies, excelling at school and typically also in the workplace because they begin to define their self-concept through what they’ve achieved: “Hi. My name’s Will. I’m an Emmy Award winner.” But when we begin to define our significance through the number of goals we’ve achieved, and we get overloaded, something happens to us psychologically. Busy professionals often work 80 hours a week, traveling incessantly, ignoring their families, neglecting their hobbies, neglecting their spiritual life. Why? Because the feeling of succeeding at a difficult goal is so temporarily fulfilling that it becomes a psychological drug.
I ask those people, “What if you fail to do this on time, or what if you fail to do this at all? What would be the bad consequence of that?” And there’s always some bad consequence. So I ask, “What difference would that make a year from now, or three years from now?” Usually not much.
On the other hand, if you continue to neglect your health, or your relationship with your spouse, what’s the likely consequence of that three years from now? It’s very difficult for somebody who’s addicted to goals to let that thought sink in. You can get the concept, but it’s very difficult emotionally to disconnect from all these goals. That’s why about 55 percent of the population sits at that level of maturity. And we do depend on this 55 percent to make everything work. They’re the responsible people who show up and get their work done.
Roughly 10 percent of the population lives at the level of maturity that I call integrity. They’re consciously choosing—sometimes minute by minute, but certainly day by day and week by week—what to engage their energy in. Their contentment comes from living a life of conscious choosing. Almost all of us at work are driven by someone else’s insisted agenda. If you’re in a public company, then a CEO is working on the agenda of the board or the stock analyst.
As long as we’re driven by somebody else’s goal, then when we achieve those goals the only thing we feel is relief. The only way we can really achieve deep satisfaction is by achieving self-chosen goals. And goals are not self-chosen if they don’t involve reflection.
GS So often we simply fall into whatever we end up doing. And it may or may not be congruent with the things that would be most important to us if reflection were involved.
WM Right. We fall into social norms, doing what everyone else is doing or has done. Now, you can choose into goals that your company or employer or spouse has chosen; it isn’t as though we live in isolation. But the fact that you actually choose into those goals makes your experience in achieving them emotionally different.
You never really get to integrity, however, until you’ve recognized your deepest motivation or desire. Our prime motive is either love or fear, and it can vary from time to time: if we feel safe and secure, we can be driven by loving motives; if we feel threatened and insecure, we’re going to be driven by fear.
GS Is fear really the only other motivation besides love? What about greed and other negative human motivations?
WM Greed is a manifestation of fear, in the way I look at it. Why are you greedy? Because you’re afraid you’re not going to have what you want, or that someone else is going to have more.
GS In your sustainability vision, wisdom is also an important concept. What does wisdom mean to you?
WM Once you understand how the human mind works, you see how we constantly make errors. In the 1940s, Dr. Robert Hartman started mapping how the human mind is designed to make decisions based on what we value. For instance, I can value a good meal, or a sunny day, or a loving relationship, or a good job. Let’s suppose I value my free time more than I value a job. Then I’m either going to choose a job that has a lot of flexibility, or I’m going to get fired a lot.
So what is it that makes one person value independence and spontaneity and another person obedience and dependability? What Dr. Hartman says is that we look through three lenses when we make a decision. The one that takes in the least amount of data is the analytical lens, which is tangible data, black-and-white thinking, plans, spreadsheets—something we can physically point to as data.
Another lens is common sense; how do I choose a path or a tool that will help me get the results I want? We use common sense when we’re going to work, when we decide to put on dress shoes and not flip-flops or sandals. If, on the other hand, we’re going for a run, we choose our running shoes. So it’s very practical: What will work in this case to help me get what I want?
The third lens—the highest level of thinking—is intrinsic, the ability to take nonanalytical data, like all your experience, and to develop high forms of intuition. A lot of people call it relying on your gut, but it’s really based on data.
The mistake people make is that they rely primarily on only one of those sources of decision-making. So you have people who are very black-and-white, who just want to obey the rules no matter what, even if those rules don’t have moral content; for instance, they don’t apply in this special situation, or they’re antiquated for the current use, or following them will have detrimental effects. If rules become the only way to make decisions, much unnecessary suffering can result. Many Nazi soldiers did terrible things because they felt that following the rules was more important than the rules themselves.
On the other hand, people who act only on expediency can end up taking lots of dangerous shortcuts. They’re just going to do whatever it takes to get what they want now. So if cheating works because I really need to get an A in this class, and I think I can get away with it, I’m going to cheat.
If I rely on intuition for everything, particularly in areas where I don’t have a lot of experience, I may mistake emotional feelings for wisdom and will make all kinds of mistakes. You see a lot of this in New Age thinking. If you try to work solely by intuition, you’re going to create a lot of suffering. It’s only when intuition is the result of years of information and experience that it’s very reliable.
Wisdom lies in using all three of these lenses. When all of these things coincide—the facts, your common sense and your intuition all agree that this is probably the best path—that’s when you know you have a low risk of making a mistake. But very few people make decisions that way.
This is how we need to go about making the mature decisions that allow us to live life in integrity and sustainable abundance.
GS How do we do this in our relationships? You wrote that “sustainable abundance is found by looking closely at our triple bottom line.”
WM Yes—work, love and play. One of the main things getting in the way of sustainable abundance in our relationships is distraction. When human beings spend so much time in passive entertainment such as television, or in some form of active but mediated engagement such as texting or cell-phoning, we’re likely to feel lots of superficial intimacy. And we get numb to genuine connection. When we accept anything abnormal long enough, it becomes our new normal. So even though we may spend hours on Facebook, we can lose the basis of friendship.
Friendship exists on two levels. The first is the level of mutual benefit: you’ll scratch my back if I scratch yours. I’m getting something out of the relationship that I value. If I quit valuing that, I’m going to let the relationship deteriorate. Most of our relationships are at that level—and that may be the way it has always been.
But the deepest and most satisfying relationship is based on mutual advocacy. I don’t need to get anything from you. What I’m interested in is you living the best life you can, you achieving a sense of satisfaction and contentment. I’m going to advocate you, because I want your happiness and your well-being. That’s a very high level of love.
Most of us have those relationships with lifelong friends who are nonjudgmental because they see us beyond our behavior and our flaws. They somehow have a glimpse into our soul, or our essential self. That kind of friendship doesn’t say, “I’m not going to call her because she didn’t call me,” or “I’m not going to have them over because they never invite us over.” We never get into keeping score.
When two people are engaged in this type of relationship, there is almost the energy of a third person; the relationship becomes greater than either of the two individuals, and it’s extremely satisfying. There’s an abundance of common ground and a lack of distraction from trivial flaws. In our society we’ve lost what it takes to create that kind of friendship, because we’re living beyond the human speed. We’re obsessed with superficial intimacy. We know a lot of facts about other people’s lives, and maybe even their superficial opinions, but not who they are. Knowing these things about each other doesn’t make us intimate. It’s only when we have this feeling of mutual advocacy—that I want the very best for you, no matter what—that we can have a sense of trust and acceptance that transcends normal life and normal relationships.
All the studies into what brings the greatest satisfaction in life agree that it’s human relationships. Many surveys have looked into where the happiest people live in the world; almost universally they are in societies where intimate relationships are most highly valued—even when people’s economic well-being isn’t very high. Once people get to a level where they’re not worried about dying from lack of food, money or health—even if they’re living only a little above subsistence level—if their relationships are rich, trusting and long-lived, they report happiness as being very high.
GS How do extroversion and introversion figure into relationships?
WM Being an introvert or an extrovert has little to do with whether you can maintain intimate relationships. Introversion and extroversion have a lot to do with people’s opportunities. Extroverts tend to create more opportunities for themselves simply because they meet more people and they’re willing to talk about their interests. Anyone can maintain only a finite number of close relationships, so extroverts don’t have any more of them than introverts do.
The concept of extroversion and introversion is situationally specific. Most people, even extroverts, who walk into a roomful of strangers will have difficulty initially. They usually try to find one person to start a conversation with, and then they begin to network—which is exactly what an introvert might do in the same situation. The difference is that if an extrovert came into a room of people he already knew, then he might become the life of the party within 10 minutes. So extroversion and introversion have a lot to do with the feeling of emotional safety and emotional comfort. Most extroverts have decided the payoff of working through that fear of being misunderstood or rejected is greater than the risk of being isolated or rejected.
Again, it’s not how many friends you have; it’s the quality of your relationship with those friends. If introverts feel comfortable enough in a one-on-one situation with a trusted friend, they’re going to reveal enough of themselves (and elicit the same from the other person) to begin to build this mutual advocacy.
We do need to put some effort into these friendships, though, because our sense of life satisfaction will be very superficial without it. Imagine being in a beautiful mansion all by yourself, looking at a beautiful sunset. When you’re standing next to someone enjoying a beautiful sunset, and you have a very good idea of what she’s experiencing, and she has a very good idea of what you’re experiencing, you don’t need words except to say, “Wow, this is beautiful.” That intimate sharing of an experience is one of the most satisfying human experiences possible. And to have that routinely with friends or a spouse or family is the greatest source of deep life satisfaction.
GS So why don’t people put a higher priority on this?
WM I would say that those who reach the highest levels of maturity do. But if we’re at that second level, where we define ourselves by what we own, or what we’ve achieved, or our roles, then our self-definition is always yelling at us to get to work.