Personal Mastery in Organizations

Millie Rivera, PhD
Kerplunk Personal Mastery

Given the turbulence of the global markets, it is becoming more obvious that a willingness to learn and the ability to embrace change, handle stressful situations and think innovatively are indispensable traits individuals must possess if they wish to succeed. Since organizations can only “learn” through their employees and often employees are reluctant to change—in part due to unacknowledged fears or outmoded mental models—it makes sense that any organizational or personal strategy to achieve success should include developing personal mastery. But the truth is that while for more than two decades some of the top management scholars (e.g. Peter Senge) have touted the value of personal mastery as an important set of skills that learning organizations should embrace, there has been no mad rush to teach this prickly subject at business schools.[1]  There are a couple of reasons why this is the case.

First, in academia, we like our theories and concepts as well developed/defined as possible, so it’s no surprise that personal mastery can be a difficult subject to teach at universities. After all, there are no definite formulas to achieve personal mastery. Rather, personal mastery is a process that begins with a person’s willingness to better understand him or herself and implies an ongoing journey—as Senge says, one never arrives (Senge, 1990). For those seeking “the” right answers, this can be challenging. Second, bringing the exploration of the self—including the root causes of our assumptions and our unacknowledged fears and biases—to the study of business administration is likely to raise some resistance. Despite the fact that organizations are complex systems managed by—and staffed with—people, the benefits of this inner exploration are not always easy to quantify.

Renowned coaches Henry and Karen Kimsey-House and their colleagues argue that “in recent years… organizations have learned that highly motivated and fulfilled employees produce high performing results.” [Co-active Coaching, 2011]. The late Steven Covey (author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, among other books) believed that personal mastery or what he calls “private victory” comes before public victory. In other words, you have to understand and master yourself before you can successfully understand, and effectively relate with, others. These sentiments are echoed by Daniel Goleman, author of the bestselling book Emotional Intelligence (1990). Goleman argues that part of personal mastery is the understanding of how emotional intelligence can be used to catapult us into greatness. In his books he claims that studies of thousands of organizations around the world show that after a person meets the basic cognitive/technical threshold for management or leadership positions, it is emotional intelligence which accounts for more than 90% of the success of a leader [Goleman, 1990, 1998, 2002].

Thus, while the teaching of these “soft” skills in an experiential setting is still not common at universities, that may change in the future. The reason? Organizations and markets are continuously changing. As Goleman says, “massive change is a constant; technical innovations, global competition, and the pressures of institutional investors are ever-escalating forces for flux.” (Working with Emotional Intelligence, 1998). These changes create both uncertainty and opportunities, which in turn impact organizations’ performance and ultimate survival as well as individuals’ careers and emotional well-being. So it should be no surprise that some innovative global organizations (e.g. Google)[2] are willing to invest resources to promote personal mastery and that some scholars at major universities are offering courses in topics such as becoming happier, something that a decade ago would have raised more than a few eyebrows.[3]

The bottom line is that our constantly changing world needs leaders who are comfortable with change, self-aware, mindful, emotionally balanced, authentic, ethical, creative, open to diverse points of view, willing to serve, and capable of inspiring others. And while few people have all of these attributes, scholars like Goleman argue that these are skills that can be developed through reflective learning and the embracing of personal mastery.

Those who are willing to embark on this journey are likely to reap great benefits not just in their careers but also in their personal lives. Those who dismiss emotional intelligence and personal mastery as irrelevant “touchy-feely” stuff will have to work harder to adapt to change.

[1] Some top universities, such as MIT, have been at the forefront of this trend, but even now (early 2013) the curriculum of most business school does not include experiential/reflective courses on personal mastery.

[2] In 2012, The New York Times published an article about Google’s most popular in-house course “Search Inside Yourself,” which promoted mindfulness and emotional well-being.

[3] At Harvard University, a course on how to be happier (taught by Tal Ben-Shahar) became the most popular one in the history of the university.