Death as a leadership tool

Facing up to your own mortality helps you to focus on the most meaningful things, which in turn help you to engage and inspire others.

by Fred Kofman
Last Updated: 20 Jun 2018

Nobody likes to think, much less talk, about the prospect of death. Few of the younger executives I work with have given it much thought at all. Yet as a leadership coach, my job is to wake leaders up to what is most essential in them so that they can truly engage others at the deepest level. And the most powerful leadership development process I’ve discovered is the ‘cool’ consideration of one’s death.

With that in mind, I invite my workshop participants to ‘die before they die’.

‘Imagine that you are at the end of a long and rich life. You’ve accomplished everything you wanted, behaving honourably and building meaningful connections with your family, friends, and colleagues. You are proud of yourself for leaving a great legacy. So when you learn that your days are numbered, you take the news in stride.

‘A lot of people want to pay their respects, so they organise a "living funeral" [a celebration for someone while they’re still alive]. In the ceremony, a dear friend will read a eulogy. Write the eulogy that you would like them to give.’

I ask the participants not to be humble; the more ambitious and grandiose they can be, the better. That way, they set the highest standards for the legacy they’d like to leave.

Next, I ask them to do a ‘gap analysis’ of the difference between their current lives and the things they would have to do to justify such a beautiful eulogy. What changes would they have to make? Are they willing to make them?

Finally, I invite them to imagine they have just died and have not had the time to change anything in their lives. I ask them to answer the following questions in the third person, as if they were their own ‘devil’s advocate’.

What dreams did she not pursue? What fears did he not overcome? What loves did she not express?  What resentments did she not resolve?  What apologies did he not make? What gifts did he not give?

Some typical answers are:

‘He didn’t start his business.’

‘She never volunteered for the non-profit.’

‘He died without making the trip.’

‘She couldn’t overcome her fear of speaking in public.’

‘He didn’t tell his wife how much he loved her.’

‘He failed to make peace with his son.’

‘She didn’t forgive herself.’

‘He wishes he had apologized to his partner.’

‘He should have spent more time playing and less time worrying.’

‘Her great idea died with her.’

Ask yourself the questions above and see what comes up. Facing the reality of your own death can be profoundly frightening, so it demands great courage. But it will also open you up in a way that nothing else can, setting you on fire with purpose and enabling you to inspire others.

As Steve Jobs told Stanford students a year after his cancer diagnosis, ‘Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.’

Fred Kofman is VP  of leadership development at LinkedIn. This article was extracted from his book The Meaning Revolution: Leading with the Power of Purpose, which is published by WH Allen.

Image credit: fatamorgana-999/Shutterstock

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