Discovering the Power of a Strongly Held Commitment

As a consultant and executive coach, I deeply care about my clients as people as well as the substantive work they do.  Below I share the story of one client who unleashed the power of commitments to change her performance and results. Like Nelson Mandela in prison or Mother Teresa in the slums she discovered that she functioned differently and got different results when standing in the strength of a commitment.

First though, I want to share what I unexpectedly discovered - why operating from commitments changed my life and influences both success and satisfaction in the lives of my clients.

The reality of my client’s fast-paced lives is that they strive to complete dozens of agreements and promises every day, while handling everything that comes at them.  I see yellow pad to do lists too long to accomplish. Competing priorities pull in different directions. They might end up sidelining important but less urgent projects or even missing deadlines.

As they try to go in too many directions overwhelm sets in. “I can’t do all this! What was I thinking?” Doubt derails their dedication. “This will never work.” Or when they kick into gear, spending long hours to get it all done, handling all the details and managing the people to achieve the big goals they come up against high personal costs from missing out on other important commitments like family, creativity or vital health.

Over the years I discovered the power of organizing endless list of to do’s and agreements around a few overarching commitments that orient the days, months, and years. There are usually two or three at a time. They evolve slowly. Over the years, my own core commitments have included activating wise leaders, building my consulting business, raising children, co-founding a Waldorf-inspired school, caring for my mom, creating a sustainable financial future, vital health, and a close-knit community of friends.

At first, when my clients try to decide on a core commitment it feels complicated. Especially during the painstaking process of crafting, sifting, claiming and letting go to generate the core idea. Once they land on a simple phrase, the resonant language that captures what they really want, their passion ignites. Their commitments feel consequential, elegant without being confusing. Devoted to the meaning and purpose behind the commitment they start to act every day from a single-minded loyalty and stand in a personal integrity that attracts and instigates new possibilities.

Core commitments aren’t obligations, possibilities or even preferences. Straightforward and significant, they are promises. I don’t make them lightly. Breaking a commitment is breaking a covenant with myself, and the world. They help me know when to say yes or no, with less ambivalence and more care. When living from my commitments a new momentum overcomes old obstacles; my heart opens with more compassion and my voice clearly conveys what matters to me.

I’ve been surprised how commitments work. Once I’m committed, I’m willing to put determined steps behind making them happen, every day, even if I have no idea how. (What new parent has any real idea how they will raise a child! What start-up entrepreneur knows exactly how the business will grow? Even though my undergraduate degree is in teaching, we had no idea how to start a school!)

Peter Block’s book, The Answer to How is Yes: Acting on What Matters, reflects what my client’s and I experience. We don’t necessarily know how but seated in our hearts is a mighty desire to bring these core commitments to fruition. When we do, we experience a powerful YES.

One of my clients turned her performance from mediocre to magnificent by crafting a powerful commitment to extraordinary client service. It took time to discover this core commitment and decide what she was ready to leave, let go of or complete (like old agreements with colleagues and an outmoded vision of herself as “not enough”). Once she did, her performance and that of her organization stepped up to a whole new level.

As her commitment to extraordinary client service superseded her fears, worries, and outmoded identities she acted like a different person. How did she get there?

Motivated to change, she designed a plan. Saying her commitment out loud night and morning made it real. Driving in her car she practiced, asserted, shouted, and sang it. She conducted weekly commitment reviews and learned from when she acted in line with her commitments and when she got derailed or distracted.

She turned up the wattage in her leadership presence. In concert with her commitment, she communicated her thoughts in an organized manner, with composure and ease. She began to envision how customer service could be improved and shaped clear and convincing presentations to get buy-in to her innovative ideas.

Including her team in conversations about her commitment and why it mattered to her helped her team align around this goal. Creating a shared vision of the future inspired them to work together in new ways. She discovered that when a commitment is shared, she didn’t need coercion. Getting work done took less effort.

Within a short period of time, she was recognized, given a new project and more support. Standing in her commitment she felt like she stood on stable ground instead of quicksand. This internal coherence organized her priorities, opened up her willingness to stretch, to risk taking on new responsibilities.

As she discovered, core commitments give us valuable direction. Like a compass, they help us navigate, telling us where we are, how to get where we want to go, and where we don’t want to go. A commitment helps us pick the high leverage steps from the massive to do list. They fortify our confidence, as they narrow the focus, providing more energy, resilience, and a structure for increasing effectiveness because now we know our way and it gives us meaning and purpose.

Without core commitments, we might accomplish a lot of tasks but still feel empty. We can appear competent to others but battle confusion inside. We achieve big goals but lose connection with our souls. Standing in our commitments, we become the leaders the world needs us to be.

We might think that making and living from core commitments takes more time and effort than how we live our life now. That it becomes a burden of obligations. My experience and that of my clients is the opposite. It takes lots more effort to live an unfocused life, without specific aim or direction. Like Sisyphus endlessly pushing the heavy rock up the hill with no end in sight, we lose energy and heart.

Commitments on the other hand, attract and strengthen the remarkable forces of our hearts. Confusion drops away. The road seems and is easier. Centering our lives around core commitments, we delight in living from a wholehearted YES.