What is success? Is it about control – or letting go?

Are you where you want to be?

It’s a question business leaders often struggle to define: what really is success? The great humanitarian Albert Schweitzer defined it best when he said that success is not the key to happiness, but
“happiness is the key to success.” He added. “If you love what you’re doing, you will be successful.”

But for business leaders, this question takes many different forms. One of the most prominent ones is :

“Am I where I want to be?”

When this is considered, the next question often is: “Am I excited any more? Where’s my passion?”

Sometimes, for those in a peer environment, success is about control–with ambitious people constantly moving up and up from a position with little responsibility to one with more ability to direct others.

Sally Thompson, a VP with the engineering firm Halsall Associates Ltd., says that in the first part of a career, even future leaders must spend time “obtaining other people’s approval.”

“Your success is based on carrying out tasks successfully according to someone else’s guidelines,” Thompson said. “Sometimes they have ill-defined boundaries but they still have to be completed in a way that the senior person sees as successful.”

This picture changes in mid-life, with enhanced responsibility and with what some might describe as success. “A lack of clarity develops as you move forward in your career. All of a sudden there is no one to turn to for confirmation that you’ve done a good job.”

Success is really about “character building,” Thompson says. “First you build your reputation, then your character. After that, success is about how you relate to people with that character.”

For Steve Ewing, VP, TGO Consulting, a peer environment produced remarkable changes in his outlook. “I used to have a one- to six-month view of life and now it’s more strategic, with a two- to 10-year focus.”

“I was a workaholic with no time to myself. Now I am more productive, with much more balance. I’m able to participate in things. I invest in myself weekly, monthly, yearly. I coach my sons’ hockey. That’s what I call success.”

“It made me realize how to help our best people–and myself–reach their potential.  I used to be the busiest man on earth. Others didn’t have the same anxiety and stress. I didn’t know any better. But now in a long-term planning environment, I have realized my potential.”

As we often say, it’s lonely at the top. Peer groups (as Sally and Steve point out) can provide objective feedback — someone in your corner who can give you an unbiased push in the right direction.

Steve and Sally’s comments are a microcosm of the protracted struggle to enhance and sustain professional success. Of course, success is also a moving target, a changing concept. What once were clear indicators of success–title, position, compensation–no longer define the individual. It’s the individual that defines success: possibly with some help.

When you’re leading, figuring out where to go is much more difficult. And no matter how sure-footed you may be, you could probably still do with a guide who’s been there before.