by Megan McDonough

It’s a challenge to realize your own personal dreams. It’s an even bigger challenge to lead an organization or team into realizing what is possible to achieve. Leaders can lose themselves in the building of a better future. The organization takes front and center and the leader is drained of the inner capacity to give more. When that happens, what was once fun and light becomes heavy and burdensome. If you are going to maintain or even increase well-being when reaching toward the highest goals, you must pay careful attention to the journey itself.

According to Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar in the course Realizing Dreams, “… our success and our happiness is to a great extent contingent on the attitude we hold toward ourselves.” Or, as the well-known psychotherapist and writer Dr. Nathaniel Branden says, “Self concept is destiny.”

That attitude toward self is a continual inquiry. What’s the truth behind what keeps you going? What feeds you? How do you build energy that gives you a “can-do” attitude? This inner reserve of power is the well you pull from to say yes to daring new actions — to lean in, as Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg writes in her book of the same name.

To get to those daring actions, you need to replenish the well. You are, after all, only human. And last I checked, mere mortals need sleep, healthy food, and good relationships at a minimum to move forward. Along with leaning in and saying yes to forward motion, you also need to lean back at times to create balance, to rest and recharge, and to counteract the speed and action. The best corporate athletes, to coin Tony Schwartz’s term, fluctuate between action and rest, focusing attention on what’s at hand. This balance is also the focus of Arianna Huffington’s book Thrive, which considers well-being a third metric above and beyond power and money to define success.

Not only does the leader need to reconcile her own reality, she must also clearly reconcile the organization’s reality. When tight cash flow necessitates tough actions, operational issues hinder production, or poor performance creates team discord, this reality cannot be ignored, brushed under the rug, or superficially addressed. The reality must be seen fully, communicated with heart, and held as the current truth, but not the only possible future.

One of the best ways to lead through trying times, stay focused on the big vision of tomorrow, and address the truth of today is to engage in positive conversation. In a recent Harvard Business Review blog, chairman of The Creating WE Institute Judith Glaser writes, “Positive comments and conversations produce a chemical reaction…They spur the production of oxytocin, a feel-good hormone that elevates our ability to communicate, collaborate, and trust others by activating networks in our prefrontal cortex.”

These positive emotions, even in the face of negative situations, broaden our ability to see solutions and build the skills needed to take action, according to positive psychology researcher Barbara Fredrickson.

Neurobiology shows us that the stress hormone cortisol sticks around longer than oxytocin. Or, as psychologist Rick Hanson states, “The mind is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.” As leaders, then, our positive comments and conversations are that much more important to engage in when moving toward a better future.

As always, leading by example is the most powerful way of realizing dreams. Believing the dream of tomorrow can happen if we approach today with correct attention sends a powerful message of ease and comfort even in discomforting times — both for the leader and those they are leading. Psychologist Richard Wiseman calls this the “what if principle,” citing research that shows smiling makes you happier, crossing your arms doubles the time your preserve on a difficult challenge, or squeezing your hand into a fist increases willpower by 40 percent. What are the actions you can take today to reinforce your own sense of well-being and that of your organization as you move toward realizing a dream?

Whether you’re leading a Fortune 500 company, a mom-and-pop store, or an entrepreneurial start-up, realizing personal and organizational dreams can raise (instead of sacrifice) your whole person well-being.


—This post was originally published in The Huffington Post.

MeganMegan McDonough is CEO of Wholebeing Institute, an educational organization co-founded with Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar. WBI is committed to spreading ideas and practices that can help individuals and groups live life to its fullest.
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