Personal Growth: Mastery, transcendence and the glorious grind

The second part of The Leaders Workout is personal growth.

Built into our understanding of leadership is the idea of growth. We can’t grow our leadership effectiveness unless we grow ourselves.

We can’t grow as leaders, or in any endeavor, without knowing the process.

Luckily for us there is a pattern and some predictability in our growth as leaders and people There is a map of the terrain available to us which reveals to us the process of how personal growth happens.

Why is this important?

As a young army officer I learned you never embark on a new mission without a reconnaissance of the terrain.  The same approach applies to our most important quest – that of personal and professional growth.

Here at TLW we focus on three elements to our personal growth:

  • Self-mastery. Learning new skills through recurring phases of challenge and transformation.
  • Self-transcendence. Growing our minds to take in more perspectives and deal with complexity and change.
  • Glorious Grind. The transformative path of power and struggle to leads to our growth


Do not think that what is hard for you to master is humanly impossible; and if it is humanly possible, consider it to be within your reach. ~ Marcus Aurelius

Mastery is a concept most of us have heard of. We know the importance of improving our skills. And thanks to Malcolm Gladwell’s interpretation of the research of Anders Ericsson, we know it takes at least 10,000 hours of intense immersion to become an expert.

But beyond the recent popularization of social science research there exists universal patterns that outline the process of transformation that all heroes of history have followed.

Joseph Campbell, the famous writer of mythology, was my first inspiration of growth when I read his explanation of the Heroic Journey that is common to heroes of history and mythology.

The mythologist Campbell wrote that heroes from myths and history shared the same journey or path. Whether it was mythological figures, like Greek gods or King Arthur or the narratives of the religious founding fathers like Christ, Moses and Buddha, they all shared the same basic pattern of transformation.

The hero’s journey is really a metaphor for growth – personal, spiritual, psychological and leadership growth.
I found the framework of the Hero’s journey was really powerful as a metaphor for growth. I really began to understand the power of this perspective when I realized that my career change – from the military to the business world – was no mere job search but a transformation.
I was following the Hero’s mythical path when I left my known world, seeking the help of mentors, experiencing challenges, discovering my gifts and bringing them back to my current situation.

I discovered this framework was no simple academic exercise but a universal roadmap for all transitions – in business and in life.
The Heroic Journey is really a recurring pattern in life with phases of “challenge and transformation.”


Let’s return to our definition of leadership.  A gradual realization came over me that each part of the leadership component was actually a separate way of viewing the world, based on a different level of consciousness and culture. Living abroad and traveling the world has taught me one of the most important pieces of wisdom – ‘you see the world not as it is but as you are.’

This concept is known as worldview, from the German weltanschauung.  Writer Carter Phipps explains the following about worldviews in his book Evolutionaries,

‘’…we don’t have them; for the most part they have us. They are deep structures that determine the very way we make meaning in the closeted capacities of our own consciousness.”

To understand this concept well required a world view of great depth and consciousness. Using the three parts of our leadership definition required building upon and integrating the best of three different worldviews:

  • The pre-modern world – The character and virtue to influence others as practiced by the great leaders, warriors and sages of the ancient world and traditional cultures.
  • The modern world – The science, processes, strategies and behaviors of the modern world to design success to accomplish the mission.
  • The post-modern world – The view of 21st century organization and their stakeholders as an integrated body and system with complexity and change as key components.

Rather than excelling at one level of leadership, the 21st business leader will need to “transcend and include,” as philosopher Ken Wilber wrote, all three world views. As leaders reach higher levels of consciousness, of awareness, they experience a new mindset; a truly integrated and balanced approach to leadership.

This is an important implication for how leaders look at their own growth. In addition to self-mastery through acquisition of skills leaders will need to self-transcend through a new world view and new perspectives.

In other words, as leaders we need to learn and grow: learn new skills and grow our perspectives

Don Beck, former psychology professor, has written that there is an “upward ladder of human emergence.” Beck has developed the concept of Spiral Dynamics, from the same titled book, which ‘…posits that the evolution of human consciousness can best be represented in this way: by a dynamic, upward spiraling structure that charts our evolving thinking systems as they are higher and higher through levels of increasing complexity.”

Development psychologists are shedding light for us on the importance of taking as seriously the growth of minds as we do the growth of our skills. “From a developmental perspective, real growth requires some qualitative shift, not just in knowledge, but in perspective or way of thinking,” explains author Jennifer Garvey Burger. Changing on the Job: Developing Leaders for a Complex World.

Growing our minds allows us to better make sense of the world through increased capacities to deal with complexity. For leaders this is crucial as Jennifer Garvey Burger summarizes: “Leaders with different forms of mind will have different capacities to take the perspective of others, to be self-directed, to generate and modify systems, to manage conflicts, and to deal with paradox.”

Glorious Grind

“I know some people say ‘Keep your eyes on the prize,’ but I disagree. When your eyes are stuck on the prize, you’re going to keep stumbling and crashing into things. If you really want to get ahead, you’ve got to keep your eyes focused on the path.”  – Russel Simmons

Looking at the path of growth we see an upward trajectory to new levels of consciousness and mastery. But belying our upward ascent is the fact is that in the journey of growth most of our time is spent at a plateau. George Leonard, author of the book Mastery, explains this sensation well: “Days and weeks pass with no apparent progress. There you are on that damned plateau.”

An important contradiction stands out as we reflect on all the time we spend on the plateau: 1) we should venerate the positive benefits we all obtain on the plateau and 2) and it’s a difficult, constant struggle of overcoming friction and resistance.

We call this the Glorious Grind to celebrate this phase’s inherent tension of transformative power and continual struggle.

Echoing Russel Simmons admonition to keep our eyes on the path, author Daniel Goleman, of Emotional Intelligence fame, highlights the importance of ‘paying full attention.’

“Paying full attention seems to boost the mind’s processing speed, strengthen synaptic connections, and expand or create neural networks for what we are practicing .  At least at first.  But as you master how to execute the new routine, practice transfers control of that skills from the top-down systems for intentional focus to bottom-up circuits that eventually make it’s execution effortless. At that points you don’t need to think about it – you can do the routine well enough on automatic.”

However, Goleman makes an important distinction between amateurs and experts. “Amateurs are content at some point to let their efforts become bottom-up operations. With minimal hours of training – about 50 hours suggest Goleman – people become ‘good enough’ – going through the motions automatically.

But experts embrace the Glorious Grind during the journey of growth. “The experts in contrast,” writes Goleman, “keep paying attention top-down, intentionally counteracting the brain’s urge to automatize routines. They concentrate on the moves they have yet to perfect or correcting what’s not working in their game….Those at the top never stop learning: if at any point they start coasting and stop such smart practice, too much of their game becomes bottom-up and their skills plateau.”

As leaders we have to take this lesson to heart and be on guard for our game becoming ‘bottom-up’ as well. The antidote is to embrace the glory and the grind of our continual striving on the path of growth.

Here are some additional blog posts on personal growth and mastery.

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The Glorious Grind

Sublimeness and struggle on the path to mastery
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